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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter32)

2006-08-28 22:47

  Book One Chapter XXXII. In Which This First Book Begins to Draw to a Close

  "Strike! ding! ding!

  Strike! ding! ding!

  The iron glows,And loveth good blows As fire doth bellows. Strike! ding! ding!"

  Out beyond the smithy door a solitary star twinkles low down in the night sky, like some great jewel; but we have no time for star-gazing, Black George and I, for to-night we are at work on the old church screen, which must be finished to-morrow.

  And so the bellows roar hoarsely, the hammers clang, and the sparks fly, while the sooty face of Black George, now in shadow, now illumed by the fire, seems like the face of some Fire-god or Salamander. In the corner, perched securely out of reach of stray sparks, sits the Ancient, snuff-box in hand as usual.

  To my mind, a forge is at its best by night, for, in the red, fiery glow, the blackened walls, the shining anvil, and the smith himself, bare-armed and bare of chest, are all magically transfigured, while, in the hush of night, the drone of the bellows sounds more impressive, the stroke of the hammers more sonorous and musical, and the flying sparks mark plainly their individual courses, ere they vanish.

  I stand, feet well apart, and swing the great "sledge" to whose diapason George's hand-hammer beats a tinkling melody, coming in after each stroke with a ring and clash exact and true, as is, and has been, the way of masters of the smithing craft all the world over from time immemorial.

  "George," said I, during a momentary lull, leaning my hands upon the long hammer-shaft, "you don't sing."

  "No, No, Peter."

  "And why not?"

  "I think, Peter."

  "But surely you can both think and sing, George?"

  "Not always, Peter."

  "What's your trouble, George?"

  "No trouble, Peter," said he, above the roar of the bellows.

  "Then sing, George."

  "Ay, Jarge, sing," nodded the Ancient; "'tis a poor 'eart as never rejices, an' that's in the Scripters——so, sing, Jarge."

  George did not answer, but, with a turn of his mighty wrist, drew the glowing iron from the fire. And once more the sparks fly, the air is full of the clink of hammers, and the deep-throated Song of the Anvil, in which even the Ancient joins, in a voice somewhat quavery, and generally a note or two behind, but with great gusto and goodwill notwithstanding:

  "Strike! ding! ding!

  Strike! ding! ding!"

  in the middle of which I was aware of one entering to us, and presently, turning round, espied Prudence with a great basket on her arm. Hereupon hammers were thrown aside, and we straightened our backs, for in that basket was our supper.

  Very fair and sweet Prudence looked, lithe and vigorous, and straight as a young poplar, with her shining black hair curling into little tight rings about her ears, and with great, shy eyes, and red, red mouth. Surely a man might seek very far ere he found such another maid as this brown-cheeked, black-eyed village beauty.

  "Good evening, Mr. Peter!" said she, dropping me a curtesy with a grace that could not have been surpassed by any duchess in the land; but, as for poor George, she did not even notice him, neither did he raise his curly head nor glance toward her.

  "You come just when you are most needed, Prudence," said I, relieving her of the heavy basket, "for here be two hungry men."

  "Three!" broke in the Ancient; "so 'ungry as a lion, _I_ be!"

  "Three hungry men, Prudence, who have been hearkening for your step this half-hour and more."

  Quoth Prudence shyly: "For the sake of my basket?"

  "Ay, for sure!" croaked the Ancient; "so ravenous as a tiger I be!"

  "No," said I, shaking my head, "basket or no basket, you are equally welcome, Prudence——how say you, George?" But George only mumbled in his beard. The Ancient and I now set to work putting up an extemporized table, but as for George, he stood staring down moodily into the yet glowing embers of the forge.

  Having put up the table, I crossed to where Prudence was busy unpacking her basket.

  "Prudence," said I, "are you still at odds with George?" Prudence nodded.

  "But," said I, "he is such a splendid fellow! His outburst the other day was quite natural, under the circumstances; surely you can forgive him, Prudence."

  "There be more nor that betwixt us, Mr. Peter," sighed Prue, "'Tis his drinkin'; six months ago he promised me never to touch another drop——an' he broke his word wi' me."

  "But surely good ale, in moderation, will harm no man——nay, on the contrary——"

  "But Jarge bean't like other men, Mr. Peter!"

  "No; he is much bigger, and stronger!" said I, "and I never saw a handsomer fellow."

  "Yes," nodded the girl, "so strong as a giant, an' so weak as a little child!"

  "Indeed, Prudence," said I, leaning nearer to her in my earnestness, "I think you are a little unjust to him. So far as I know him, George is anything but weak-minded, or liable to be led into anything——"

  Hearing the Ancient chuckle gleefully, I glanced up to find him nodding and winking to Black George, who stood with folded arms and bent head, watching us from beneath his brows, and, as his eyes met mine, I thought they gleamed strangely in the firelight.

  "Come, Prue," said the Ancient, bustling forward, "table's ready——let's sit down an' eat——faintin' an' famishin' away, I be!"

  So we presently sat down, all three of us, while Prudence carved and supplied our wants, as only Prudence could.

  And after a while, our hunger being appeased, I took out my pipe, as did the Ancient and George theirs likewise, and together we filled them, slowly and carefully, as pipes should be filled, while Prudence folded a long, paper spill wherewith to light them, the which she proceeded to do, beginning at her grandfather's churchwarden. Now, while she was lighting mine, Black George suddenly rose, and, crossing to the forge, took thence a glowing coal with the tongs, thus doing the office for himself. All at once I saw Prue's hand was trembling, and the spill was dropped or ever my tobacco was well alight; then she turned swiftly away, and began replacing the plates and knives and forks in her basket.

  "Be you'm a-goin', Prue?" inquired the Ancient mumblingly, for his pipe was in full blast.

  "Yes, gran'fer."

  "Then tell Simon as I'll be along in 'arf an hour or so, will 'ee, lass?"

  "Yes, gran'fer!" Always with her back to us.

  "Then kiss ye old grandfeyther as loves 'ee, an' means for to see 'ee well bestowed, an' wed, one o' these fine days!" Prudence stooped and pressed her fresh, red lips to his wrinkled old cheek and, catching up her basket, turned to the door, yet not so quickly but that I had caught the gleam of tears beneath her lashes. Black George half rose from his seat, and stretched out his hand towards her burden, then sat down again as, with a hasty "Good night," she vanished through the yawning doorway. And, sitting there, we listened to her quick, light footstep cross the road to "The Bull."

  "She'll make some man a fine wife, some day!" exclaimed the Ancient, blowing out a cloud of smoke, "ay, she'll mak' some man as fine a wife as ever was, some day."

  "You speak my very thought, Ancient," said I, "she will indeed; what do you think, George?" But George's answer was to choke suddenly, and, thereafter, to fall a-coughing.

  "Smoke go t' wrong way, Jarge?" inquired the Ancient, fixing him with his bright eye.

  "Ay," nodded George.

  "Ha!" said the old man, and we smoked for a time in silence.

  "So 'andsome as a picter she be!" said the Ancient suddenly.

  "She is fairer than any picture," said I impulsively, "and what is better still, her nature is as sweet and beautiful as her face!"

  "'Ow do 'ee know that?" said George, turning sharply upon me.

  "My eyes and ears tell me so, as yours surely must have done long ago," I answered.

  "Ye do think as she be a purty lass, then, Peter?" inquired the Ancient.

  "I think," said I, "that she is the prettiest lass I ever saw; don't you think so, George?" But again George's only answer was to choke.

  "Smoke again, Jarge?" inquired the Ancient.

  "Ay," said George, as before.

  "'Tis a fine thing to be young," said the Ancient, after a somewhat lengthy pause, and with a wave of his long pipe-stem, "a very fine thing!"

  "It is," said I, "though we generally realize it all too late."

  As for George, he went on smoking.

  "When you are young," pursued the Ancient, "you eats well, an' enjys it, you sleeps well an' enjys it; your legs is strong, your arms is strong, an' you bean't afeard o' nothin' nor nobody. Oh! life's a very fine thing when you're young; but youth's tur'ble quick agoin'——the years roll slow at first, but gets quicker 'n quicker, till, one day, you wakes to find you 'm an old man; an' when you'm old, the way gets very 'ard, an' toilsome, an' lonely."

  "But there is always memory," said I.

  "You 'm right theer, Peter, so theer be——so theer be why, I be a old, old man, wi' more years than 'airs on my 'ead, an' yet it seems but yesterday as I were a-holdin' on to my mother's skirt, an' wonderin' 'ow the moon got lighted. Life be very short, Peter, an' while we 'ave it 'tis well to get all the 'appiness out of it we can."

  "The wisest men of all ages preached the same," said I, "only they all disagreed as to how happiness was to be gained."

  "More fules they!" said the Ancient.

  "Eh?" I exclaimed, sitting up.

  "More fules they!" repeated the old man with a solemn nod.

  "Why, then, do you know how true happiness may be found?'

  "To be sure I du, Peter."

  "How?"

  "By marriage, Peter, an' 'ard work!——an' they allus goes together."

  "Marriage!" said I.

  "Marriage as ever was, Peter."

  "There I don't agree with you," said I.

  "That," retorted the Ancient, stabbing at me with his pipe-stem, "that's because you never was married, Peter."

  "Marriage!" said I; "marriage brings care, and great responsibility, and trouble for one's self means trouble for others."

  "What o' that?" exclaimed the Ancient. "'Tis care and 'sponsibility as mak' the man, an' if you marry a good wife she'll share the burden wi' ye, an' ye'll find what seemed your troubles is a blessin' arter all. When sorrer comes, 'tis a sweet thing——oh! a very sweet thing——to 'ave a woman to comfort ye an' 'old your 'and in the dark hour——an' theer's no sympathy so tender as a woman's, Peter. Then, when ye be old, like me, an' full o' years 'tis a fine thing to 'ave a son o' your own——like Simon an' a granddarter——like my Prue——'tis worth 'aving lived for, Peter, ay, well worth it. It's a man's dooty to marry, Peter, 'is dooty to 'isself an' the world. Don't the Bible say summat about it not bein' good for a man to live alone? Every man as is a man should marry the sooner the better."

  "But," said I, "to every happy marriage there are scores of miserable ones."

  "'Cause why, Peter? 'Cause people is in too much o' a hurry to marry, as a rule. If a man marries a lass arter knowin' 'er a week——'ow is 'e goin' to know if she'll suit 'im all 'is days? Nohow, Peter, it aren't natral——woman tak's a lot o' knowin'. 'Marry in 'aste, an' repent in leisure!' That aren't in the Bible, but it ought to be."

  "And your own marriage was a truly happy one, Ancient?"

  "Ah! that it were, Peter, 'appy as ever was——but then, ye see, there was a Providence in it. I were a fine young chap in them days, summat o' your figure only bigger——ah! a sight bigger——an' I were sweet on several lassies, an' won't say as they wer'n't sweet on me——three on 'em most especially so. One was a tall, bouncin' wench wi' blue eyes, an' golden 'air——like sunshine it were, but it wer'n't meant as I should buckle up wi' 'er."

  "Why not?"

  "'Cause, it so 'appened as she married summun else."

  "And the second?"

  "The second were a fine, pretty maid tu, but I couldn't marry she."

  "Why?"

  "'Cause, Peter, she went an' took an' died afore I could ax 'er."

  "And the third, you married."

  "No, Peter, though it come to the same thing in the end——she married I. Ye see, though I were allus at 'er beck an' call, I could never pluck the courage to up an' ax 'er right out. So things went on for a year or so, maybe, till one day——she were makin' apple dumplings, Peter——'Martin,' says she, lookin' at me sideways out of 'er black eyes——just like Prue's they were ——'Martin,' says she, 'you 'm uncommon fond o' apple-dumplings?' 'For sure,' says I, which I were, Peter. 'Martin,' says she, 'shouldn't 'ee like to eat of 'em whenever you wanted to, at your very own table, in a cottage o' your own?' 'Ah! if you'd mak' 'em!' says I, sharp like. 'I would if you'd ax me, Martin,' says she. An' so we was married, Peter, an' as you see, theer was a Providence in it, for, if the first one 'adn't married some 'un else, an' the second 'adn't died, I might ha' married one o' they, an' repented it all my days, for I were young then, an' fulish, Peter, fulish." So saying, the Ancient rose, sighing, and knocked the ashes from his pipe.

  "Talkin' 'bout Prue," said he, taking up his hat and removing his snuff-box therefrom ere he set it upon his head, "talkin' 'bout Prue," he repeated, with a pinch of snuff at his nostrils.

  "Well?" The word seemed shot out of George involuntarily.

  "Talkin' 'bout Prue," said the Ancient again, glancing at each of us in turn, "theer was some folks as used to think she were sweet on Jarge theer, but I, bein' 'er lawful gran'feyther knowed different——didn't I, Jarge?"

  "Ay," nodded the smith.

  "Many's the time I've said to you a-sittin' in this very corner, 'Jarge,' I've said, 'mark my words, Jarge——if ever my Prue does marry some'un——which she will——that there some 'un won't be you.' Them be my very words, bean't they, Jarge?"

  "Your very words, Gaffer," nodded George.

  "Well then," continued the old man, "'ere's what I was a-comin' to——Prue 's been an' fell in love wi' some 'un at last."

  Black George's pipe shivered to fragments on the floor, and as he leaned forward I saw that his great hands were tightly clenched.

  "Gaffer," said he, in a strangled voice, "what do 'ee mean?"

  "I means what I says, Jarge."

  "How do 'ee know?"

  "Bean't I the lass's gran'feyther?"

  "Be ye sure, Gaffer——quite sure?"

  "Ay——sartin sure——twice this week, an' once the week afore she forgot to put any salt in the soup——an' that speaks wollums, Jarge, wollums!" Here, having replaced his snuff-box, the Ancient put on his hat, nodded, and bobbled away. As for Black George, he sat there, staring blindly before him long after the tapping of the Ancient's stick had died away, nor did he heed me when I spoke, wherefore I laid my hand upon his shoulder.

  "Come, George," said I, "another hour, and the screen will be finished." He started, and, drawing from my hand, looked up at me very strangely.

  "No, Peter," he mumbled, "I aren't a-goin' to work no more tonight," and as he spoke he rose to his feet.

  "What——are you going?" said I, as be crossed to the door.

  "Ay, I'm a-goin'." Now, as he went towards his cottage, I saw him reel, and stagger, like a drunken man.

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