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It was with some little trepidation that I descended into the Hollow, and walked along beside the brook, for soon I should meet Charmian, and the memory of our parting, and the thought of this meeting, had been in my mind all day long.
She would not be expecting me yet, for I was much before my usual time, wherefore I walked on slowly beside the brook, deliberating on what I should say to her, until I came to that large stone where I had sat dreaming the night when she had stood in the moonlight, and first bidden me in to supper. And now, sinking upon this stone, I set my elbows upon my knees, and my chin in my hands, and, fixing my eyes upon the ever-moving waters of the brook, fell into a profound meditation.
From this I was suddenly aroused by the clink of iron and the snort of a horse.
Wondering, I lifted my eyes, but the bushes were very dense, and I could see nothing. But, in a little, borne upon the gentle wind, came the sound of a voice, low and soft and very sweet --whose rich tones there was no mistaking--followed, almost immediately, by another--deeper, gruffer--the voice of a man.
With a bound, I was upon my feet, and had, somehow, crossed the brook, but, even so, I was too late; there was the crack of a whip, followed by the muffled thud of a horse's hoofs, which died quickly away, and was lost in the stir of leaves.
I ground my teeth, and cursed that fate which seemed determined that I should not meet this man face to face--this man whose back I had seen but once--a broad-shouldered back clad in a blue coat.
I stood where I was, dumb and rigid, staring straight before me, and once again a tremor passed over me, that came and went, growing stronger and stronger, and, once again, in my head was the thud, thud, thud of the hammer.
"'In Scarlet town, where I was born, There was a fair maid dwellin', Made every youth cry Well-a-way! Her name was Barbara Allen.'"
She was approaching by that leafy path that wound its way along beside the brook, and there came upon me a physical nausea, and ever the thud of the hammer grew more maddening.
"'All in the merry month of May, When green buds they were swellin', Young Jemmy Grove on his death-bed lay, For love of Barbara Allen.'"
Now, as she ended the verse, she came out into the open, and saw me, and, seeing me, looked deliberately over my head, and went on singing, while I--stood shivering:
"'So, slowly, slowly rase she up And slowly she came nigh him, And when she drew the curtain by-- "Young man, I think you're dyin'!"'"
And suddenly the trees and bushes swung giddily round--the grass swayed beneath my feet--and Charmian was beside me with her arm about my shoulders; but I pusbed her from me, and leaned against a tree near by, and hearkened to the hammer in my brain.
"Why--Peter!" said she. "Oh--Peter!"
"Please, Charmian," said I, speaking between the hammer-strokes, "do not--touch me again--it is--too soon after--"
"What do you mean--Peter? What do you mean?"
"He has--been with you--again--"
"What do you mean?" she cried.
"I know of--his visits--if he was--the same as--last time--in a --blue coat--no, don't, don't touch me."
But she had sprung upon me, and caught me by the arms, and shook me in a grip so strong that, giddy as I was, I reeled and staggered like a drunken man. And still her voice hissed: "What do you mean?" And her voice and hands and eyes were strangely compelling.
"I mean," I answered, in a low, even voice, like one in a trance, "that you are a Messalina, a Julia, a Joan of Naples, beautiful as they--and as wanton."
Now at the word she cried out, and struck me twice across the face, blows that burnt and stung.
"Beast!" she cried. "Liar! Oh, that I had the strength to grind you into the earth beneath my foot. Oh! you poor, blind, self-deluding fool!" and she laughed, and her laughter stung me most of all. "As I look at you," she went on, the laugh still curling her lip, "you stand there--what you are--a beaten hound. This is my last look, and I shall always remember you as I see you now--scarlet-cheeked, shamefaced--a beaten hound!" And, speaking, she shook her hand at me, and turned upon her heel; but with that word, and in that instant, the old, old demon leapt up within me, and, as he leapt, I clasped my arms about her, and caught her up, and crushed her close and high against my breast.
"Go?" said I. "Go--no--no, not yet!"
And now, as her eyes met mine, I felt her tremble, yet she strove to hide her fear, and heaped me with bitter scorn; but I only shook my head and smiled. And now she struggled to break my clasp, fiercely, desperately; her long hair burst its fastenings, and enveloped us both in its rippling splendor; she beat my face, she wound her fingers in my hair, but my lips smiled on, for the hammer in my brain had deadened all else.
And presently she lay still. I felt her body relax and grow suddenly pliable and soft, her head fell back across my arm, and, as she lay, I saw the tears of her helplessness ooze out beneath her drooping lashes; but still I smiled.
So, with her long hair trailing over me, I bore her to the cottage. Closing the door behind me with my foot, I crossed the room, and set her down upon the bed.
She lay very still, but her bosom heaved tumultuously, and the tears still crept from beneath her lashes; but in a while she opened her eyes and looked at me, and shivered, and crouched farther from me, among the pillows.
"Why did you lie to me, Charmian; why did you lie to me?" She did not answer, only she watched me as one might watch some relentless, oncoming peril.
"I asked you once if you ever saw men hereabouts--when I was away, do you remember? You told me, 'no,' and, while you spoke, I knew you lied, for I had seen him standing among the leaves, waiting and watching for you. I once asked you if you were ever lonely when I was away, and you answered 'no',--you were too busy--'seldom went beyond the Hollow'--do you remember? And yet --you had brought him here--here, into the cottage he had looked at my Virgil--over your shoulder--do you remember?"
"You played the spy!" she whispered with trembling lips, yet with eyes still fierce and scornful.
"You know I did not; had I seen him I should have killed him, because--I loved you. I had set up an altar to you in my heart, where my soul might worship--poor fool that I was! I loved you with every breath I drew. I think I must have shown you something of this, from time to time, for you are very clever, and you may have laughed over it together--you and he. And lately I have seen my altar foully desecrated, shattered, and utterly destroyed, and, with it, your sweet womanhood dragged in the mire, and yet--I loved you still. Can you imagine, I wonder, the agony of it, the haunting horrors of imagination, the bitter days, the sleepless nights? To see you so beautiful, so glorious, and know you so base! Indeed, I think it came near driving me mad. It has sent me out into the night; I have held out my arms for the lightning to blast me; I have wished myself a thousand deaths. If Black George had but struck a little harder --or a little lighter; I am not the man I was before he thrashed me; my head grows confused and clouded at times--would to God I were dead! But now--you would go! Having killed my heart, broken my life, driven away all peace of mind--you would leave me! No, Charmian, I swear by God you shall not go--yet awhile. I have bought you very dear--bought you with my bitter agony, and by all the blasting torments I have suffered."
Now, as I ended, she sprang from the bed and faced me, but, meeting my look, she shrank a little, and drew her long hair about her like a mantle, then sought with trembling hands to hold me off.
"Peter--be sane. Oh, Peter! be merciful and let me go--give me time--let me explain."
"My books," said I, "have taught me that the more beautiful a woman's face the more guileful is her heart; and your face is wonderfully beautiful, and, as for your heart--you lied to me before."
"I--oh, Peter!--I am not the poor creature you think me."
"Were you the proudest lady in the land--you have deceived me and mocked me and lied to me!" So saying, I reached out, and seized her by each rounded arm, and slowly drew her closer. And now she strove no more against me, only in her face was bitter scorn, and an anger that cast out fear.
"I hate you--despise you!" she whispered. "I hate you more than any man was ever hated!"
Inch by inch I drew her to me, until she stood close, within the circle of my arms.
"And I think I love you more than any woman was ever loved!" said I; "for the glorious beauty of your strong, sweet body, for the temptation of your eyes, for the red lure of your lips!" And so I stooped and kissed her full upon the mouth. She lay soft and warm in my embrace, all unresisting, only she shivered beneath my kiss, and a great sob rent her bosom.
"And I also think," said I, "that, because of the perfidy of your heart, I hate you as much as you do me--as much as ever woman, dead or living, was hated by man and shall--forever!"
And, while I spoke, I loosed her and turned, and strode swiftly out and away from the cottage.
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