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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter47)

2006-08-28 23:01

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XLVII. In Which this History is Ended

  A bright room, luxuriously appointed; a great wide bed with carved posts and embroidered canopy; between the curtained windows, a tall oak press with grotesque heads carved thereon, heads that leered and gaped and scowled at me. But the bed and the room and the oak press were all familiar, and the grotesque heads had leered and gaped and frowned at me before, and haunted my boyish dreams many and many a night.

  And now I lay between sleeping and waking, staring dreamily at all these things, till roused by a voice near by, and starting up, broad awake, beheld Sir Richard.

  "Deuce take you, Peter!" he exclaimed; "I say——the devil fly away with you, my boy!——curse me!——a nice pickle you've made of yourself, with your infernal Revolutionary notions——your digging and blacksmithing, your walking-tours——"

  "Where is she, Sir Richard?" I broke in; "pray, where is she?"

  "She?" he returned, scratching his chin with the corner of a letter he held; "she?"

  "She whom I saw last night——"

  "You were asleep last night, and the night before."

  "Asleep?——then how long have I been here?"

  "Three days, Peter."

  "And where is she——surely I have not dreamed it all——where is Charmian?"

  "She went away——this morning."

  "Gone!——where to?"

  "Gad, Peter!——how should I know?" But, seeing the distress in my face, he smiled, and tendered me the letter. "She left this 'For Peter, when he awoke'——and I've been waiting for Peter to wake all the morning."

  Hastily I broke the seal, and, unfolding the paper with tremulous hands read:

  "DEAREST, NOBLEST, AND MOST DISBELIEVING OF PETERS, ——Oh, did you think you could hide your hateful suspicion from me——from me who know you so well? I felt it in your kiss, in the touch of your strong hand, I saw it in your eyes. Even when I told you the truth, and begged you to believe me, even then, deep down in your heart you thought it was my hand that had killed Sir Maurice, and God only knows the despair that filled me as I turned and left you.

  "And so, Peter——perhaps to punish you a little, perhaps because I cannot bear the noisy world just yet, perhaps because I fear you a little——I have run away. But I remember also how, believing me guilty, you loved me still, and gave yourself up, to shield me, and, dying of hunger and fatigue——came to find me. And so, Peter, I have not run so very far, nor hidden myself so very close, and if you understand me as you should your search need not be so very long. And dear, dear Peter, there is just one other thing, which I hoped that you would guess, which any other would have guessed, but which, being a philosopher, you never did guess. Oh, Peter——I was once, very long ago it seems, Sophia Charmian Sefton, but I am now, and always was, Your Humble Person,

  "CHARMIAN."

  The letter fell from my fingers, and I remained staring before me so long that Sir Richard came and laid his hand on my shoulder.

  "Oh, boy!" said he, very tenderly; "she has told me all the story, and I think, Peter, I think it is given to very few men to win the love of such a woman as this."

  "God knows it!" said I.

  "And to have married one so very noble and high in all things ——you should be very proud, Peter."

  "I am," said I; "oh, I am, sir."

  "Even, Peter——even though she be a——virago, this Lady Sophia——or a termagant——"

  "I was a great fool in those days," said I, hanging my head, "and very young!"

  "It was only six months ago, Peter."

  "But I am years older today, sir."

  "And the husband of the most glorious woman——the most——oh, curse me, Peter, if you deserve such a goddess!"

  "And——she worked for me!" said I; "cooked and served and mended my clothes——where are they?" I cried, and sprang out of bed.

  "What the deuce——"began Sir Richard.

  "My clothes," said I, looking vainly about; "my clothes——pray, Sir Richard, where are they?"

  "Burnt, Peter."

  "Burnt?"

  "Every blood-stained rag!" he nodded; "her orders."

  "But——what am I to do?"

  Sir Richard laughed, and, crossing to the press, opened the door.

  "Here are all the things you left behind you when you set out to——dig, and——egad!——make your fortune. I couldn't let 'em go with all the rest——so I——er——had 'em brought here, to——er——to keep them for you——ready for the time when you should grow tired of digging, and come back to me, and——er——oh, dammit!——you understand——and Grainger's waiting to see you in the library ——been there hours——so dress yourself. In Heaven's name, dress yourself!" he cried, and hurried from the room.

  It was with a certain satisfaction that I once more donned buckskin and spurred boots, and noticed moreover how tight my coat was become across the shoulders; yet I dressed hastily, for my mind was already on the road, galloping to Charmian.

  In the library I found Sir Richard, and Mr. Grainger, who greeted me with his precise little bow.

  "I have to congratulate you, Sir Peter," he began, "not only on your distinguished marriage, and accession to fortune, but upon the fact that the——ah——unpleasantness connecting a certain Peter Smith with your unfortunate cousin's late decease has been entirely removed by means of the murderer's written confession, placed in my hands some days ago by the Lady Sophia."

  "A written confession——and she brought it to you?"

  "Galloped all the way from Tonbridge, by Gad!" nodded Sir Richard.

  "It seems," pursued Mr. Grainger, "that the——ah man, John Strickland, by name, lodged with a certain preacher, to whom, in Lady Vibart's presence, he confessed his crime, and willingly wrote out a deposition to that effect. It also appears that the man, sick though he was, wandered from the Preacher's cottage, and was eventually found upon the road, and now lies in Maidstone gaol, in a dying condition."

  Chancing, presently, to look from the window, I beheld a groom who led a horse up and down before the door; and the groom was Adam, and the horse——

  I opened the window, and, leaning out, called a name. At the sound of my voice the man smiled and touched his hat, and the mare ceased her pawing and chafing, and turned upon me a pair of great, soft eyes, and snuffed the air, and whinnied. So I leapt out of the window, and down the steps, and thus it was that I met "Wings."

  "She be in the pink o' condition, sir," said Adam proudly; "Sir Richard bought 'er——"

  "For a song!" added the baronet, who, with Mr. Grainger, had followed to bid me good-by. "I really got her remarkably cheap," he explained, thrusting his fists deep into his pockets, and frowning down my thanks. But, when I had swung myself into the saddle, he came and laid his hand upon my knee.

  "You are going to——find her, Peter?"

  "Yes, sir."

  "And you know——where to look?"

  "I think so——"

  "Because, if you don't——I might——"

  "I shall go to a certain cottage," said I tentatively.

  "Then you'd better go, boy——the mare's all excitement——good-by, Peter——and cutting up my gravel most damnably——good-by!" So saying, he reached up and gripped my hand very hard, and stared at me also very hard, though the tears stood in his eyes. "I always felt very fatherly towards you, Peter——and——you won't forget the lonely old man——come and see me now and then both of you, for it does get damnably lonely here sometimes, and oh, curse it! Goodby! dear lad." So he turned, and walked up the steps into his great, lonely house.

  "O Wings! with thy slender grace, and tireless strength, if ever thou didst gallop before, do thy best to-day! Spurn, spurn the dust 'neath thy fleet hoofs, stretch thy graceful Arab neck, bear me gallantly to-day, O Wings, for never shalt thou and I see its like again."

  Swift we flew, with the wind before, and the dust behind, past wayside inns where besmocked figures paused in their grave discussions to turn and watch us by; past smiling field and darkling copse; past lonely cottage and village green; through Sevenoaks and Tonbridge, with never a stop; up Pembry hill, and down, galloping so lightly, so easily, over that hard, familiar road, which I had lately tramped with so much toil and pain; and so, as evening fell, to Sissinghurst.

  A dreamy, sleepy place is Sissinghurst at all times, for its few cottages, like its inn, are very old, and great age begets dreams. But, when the sun is low, and the shadows creep out, when the old inn blinks drowsy eyes at the cottages, and they blink back drowsily at the inn, like the old friends they are; when distant cows low at gates and fences; when sheep-bells tinkle faintly; when the weary toiler, seated sideways on his weary horse, fares, homewards, nodding sleepily with every plodding hoof-fall, but rousing to give one a drowsy "good night," then who can resist the somnolent charm of the place, save only the "Bull" himself, snorting down in lofty contempt——as rolling of eye, as curly of horn, as stiff as to tail as any indignant bull ever was, or shall be.

  But as I rode, watching the evening deepen about me, soft and clear rose the merry chime of hammer and anvil, and, turning aside to the smithy, I paused there, and, stooping my head, looked in at the door.

  "George!" said I. He started erect, and, dropping hammer and tongs, came out, running, then stopped suddenly, as one abashed.

  "Oh, friend!" said I, "don't you know me?"

  "Why——Peter——" he stammered, and broke off.

  "Have you no greeting for me, George?"

  "Ay, ay——I heerd you was free, Peter, and I was glad——glad, because you was the man as I loved, an' I waited——ay, I've been waitin' for 'ee to come back. But now you be so changed——so fine an' grand——an' I be all black wi' soot from the fire——oh, man! ye bean't my Peter no more——"

  "Never say that, George——never say that," I cried, and, leaping from the saddle, I would have caught his hand in mine, but he drew back.

  "You be so fine an' grand, Peter, an' I be all sooty from the fire!" he repeated. "I'd like to just wash my 'ands first."

  "Oh, Black George!" said I, "dear George."

  "Be you rich now, Peter?"

  "Yes, I suppose so."

  "A gentleman wi' 'orses an' 'ouses an' servants?"

  "Well——what of it?"

  "I'd——like to——wash my 'ands first, if so be you don't mind, Peter."

  "George," said I, "don't be a fool!" Now, as we stood thus, fronting each other in the doorway, I heard a light step upon the road behind me, and, turning, beheld Prudence.

  "Oh, Prue, George is afraid of my clothes, and won't shake hands with me!" For a moment she hesitated, looking from one to the other of us——then, all at once, laughing a little and blushing a little, she leaned forward and kissed me.

  "Why, George!" said she, still blushing, "how fulish you be. Mr. Peter were as much a gentleman in his leather apron as ever he is in his fine coat——how fulish you be, George!" So proud George gave me his hand, all grimy as it was, rejoicing over me because of my good fortune and mourning over me because my smithing days were over.

  "Ye see, Peter, when men 'as worked together——and sorrowed together——an' fou't together——an' knocked each other down——like you an' me——it bean't so easy to say 'good-by'——so, if you must leave us——why——don't let's say it."

  "No, George, there shall be no 'good-bys' for either one of us, and I shall come back——soon. Until then, take my mare——have her made comfortable for me, and now——good night——good night!"

  And so, clasping their loving hands, I turned away, somewhat hurriedly, and left them.

  There was no moon, but the night was luminous with stars, and, as I strode along, my eyes were often lifted to the "wonder of the heavens," and I wondered which particular star was Charmian's and which mine.

  Reaching the Hollow, I paused to glance about me, as I ever did, before descending that leafy path; and the shadows were very black and a chill wind stirred among the leaves, so that I shivered, and wondered, for the first time, if I had come right ——if the cottage had been in Charmian's mind when she wrote.

  Then I descended the path, hurrying past a certain dark spot. And, coming at last within sight of the cottage, I paused again, and shivered again, for the windows were dark and the door shut. But the latch yielded readily beneath my hand, so I went in, and closed and barred the door behind me.

  For upon the hearth a fire burned with a dim, red glow that filled the place with shadows, and the shadows were very deep.

  "Charmian!" said I, "oh, Charmian, are you there have I guessed right?" I heard a rustle close beside me, and, in the gloom, came a hand to meet and clasp my own; wherefore I stooped and kissed those slender fingers, drawing her into the fireglow; and her eyes were hidden by their lashes, and the glow of the fire seemed reflected in her cheeks.

  "The candles were so——bright, Peter," she whispered.

  "Yes."

  "And so——when I heard you coming——"

  "You heard me?"

  "I was sitting on the bench outside, Peter."

  "And, when you heard me——you put the candles out?"

  "They seemed so——very bright, Peter."

  "And shut the door?"

  "I only——just——closed it, Peter." She was still wrapped in her cloak, as she had been when I first saw her, wherefore I put back the hood from her face. And behold! as I did so, her hair fell down, rippling over my arm, and covering us both in its splendor, as it had done once before.

  "Indeed——you have glorious hair!" said I. "It seems wonderful to think that you are my wife. I can scarcely believe it——even yet!"

  "Why, I had meant you should marry me from the first, Peter."

  "Had you?"

  "Do you think I should ever have come back to this dear solitude otherwise?"

  Now, when I would have kissed her, she turned her head aside.

  "Peter."

  "Yes, Charmian?"

  "The Lady Sophia Sefton never did gallop her horse up the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral."

  "Didn't she, Charmian?"

  "And she couldn't help her name being bandied from mouth to mouth, or 'hiccoughed out over slopping wineglasses,' could she?"

  "No," said I, frowning; "what a young fool I was!"

  "And, Peter——"

  "Well, Charmian?"

  "She never was——and never will be——buxom, or strapping——will she? 'buxom' is such a——hateful word, Peter! And you——love her? ——wait, Peter——as much as ever you loved Charmian Brown?"

  "Yes," said I; "yes——"

  "And——nearly as much as——your dream woman?"

  "More——much more, because you are the embodiment of all my dreams——you always will be Charmian. Because I honor you for your intellect; and worship you for your gentleness, and spotless purity; and love you with all my strength for your warm, sweet womanhood; and because you are so strong, and beautiful, and proud——"

  "And because, Peter, because I am——just——your loving——Humble Person."

  And thus it was I went forth a fool, and toiled and suffered and loved, and, in the end, got me some little wisdom.

  And thus did I, all unworthy as I am, win the heart of a noble woman whose love I pray will endure, even as mine will, when we shall have journeyed to the end of this Broad Highway, which is Life, and into the mystery of the Beyond.

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