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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter29)

2006-08-28 22:46

  Book One Chapter XXIX. How Black George and I Shook Hands

  The world was full of sunshine, the blithe song of birds, and the sweet, pure breath of waking flowers as I rose next morning, and, coming to the stream, threw myself down beside it and plunged my hands and arms and head into the limpid water whose contact seemed to fill me with a wondrous gladness in keeping with the world about me.

  In a little while I rose, with the water dripping from me, and having made shift to dry myself upon my neckcloth, nothing else being available, returned to the cottage.

  Above my head I could hear a gentle sound rising and falling with a rhythmic measure, that told me Donald still slept; so, clapping on my hat and coat, I started out to my first day's work at the forge, breakfastless, for the good and sufficient reason that there was none to be had, but full of the glad pure beauty of the morning. And I bethought me of the old Psalmist's deathless words:

  "Though sorrow endure for a night, yet joy cometh in the morning" (brave, true words which shall go ringing down the ages to bear hope and consolation to many a wearied, troubled soul); for now, as I climbed the steep path where bats had hovered last night, and turned to look back at the pit which had seemed a place of horror——behold! it was become a very paradise of quivering green, spangled with myriad jewels where the dew yet clung.

  Indeed, if any man would experience the full ecstasy of being alive——the joi de vivre as the French have it——let him go out into the early morning, when the sun is young, and look about him with a seeing eye.

  So, in a little while, with the golden song of a blackbird in my ears, I turned village-wards, very hungry, yet, nevertheless, content.

  Long before I reached the smithy I could hear the ring of Black George's hammer, though the village was not yet astir, and it was with some trepidation as to my reception that I approached the open doorway.

  There he stood, busy at his anvil, goodly to look upon in his bare-armed might, and with the sun shining in his yellow hair, a veritable son of Anak. He might have been some hero, or demigod come back from that dim age when angels wooed the daughters of men, rather than a village blacksmith, and a very sulky one at that; for though he must have been aware of my presence, he never glanced up or gave the slightest sign of welcome, or the reverse.

  Now, as I watched, I noticed a certain slowness——a heaviness in all his movements——together with a listless, slipshod air which, I judged, was very foreign to him; moreover, as he worked, I thought he hung his head lower than was quite necessary.

  "George!" George went on hammering. "George!" said I again. He raised the hammer for another stroke, hesitated, then lifted his head with a jerk, and immediately I knew why he had avoided my eye.

  "What do 'ee want wi' me?"

  "I have come for two reasons," said I; "one is to begin work——"

  "Then ye'd best go away again," he broke in; "ye'll get no work here."

  "And the second," I went on, "is to offer you my hand. Will you take it, George, and let bygones be bygones?"

  "No," he burst out vehemently. "No, I tell 'ee. Ye think to come 'ere an' crow o'er me, because ye beat me, by a trick, and because ye heerd——her——" His voice broke, and, dropping his hammer, he turned his back upon me. "Called me 'coward'! she did," he went on after a little while. "You heerd her——they all heerd her! I've been a danged fule!" he said, more as if speaking his thoughts aloud than addressing me, "but a man can't help lovin' a lass——like Prue, and when 'e loves 'e can't 'elp hopin'. I've hoped these three years an' more, and last night ——she called me——coward." Something bright and glistening splashed down upon the anvil, and there ensued a silence broken only by the piping of the birds and the stirring of the leaves outside.

  "A fule I be!" said Black George at last, shaking his head, "no kind o' man for the likes o' her; too big I be——and rough. And yet——if she'd only given me the chance!"

  Again there fell a silence wherein, mingled with the bird-chorus, came the tap, tapping of a stick upon the hard road, and the sound of approaching footsteps; whereupon George seized the handle of the bellows and fell to blowing the fire vigorously; yet once I saw him draw the back of his hand across his eyes with a quick, furtive gesture. A moment after, the Ancient appeared, a quaint, befrocked figure, framed in the yawning doorway and backed by the glory of the morning. He stood awhile to lean upon his stick and peer about, his old eyes still dazzled by the sunlight he had just left, owing to which he failed to see me where I sat in the shadow of the forge.

  "Marnin', Jarge!" said he, with his quick, bright nod. The smith's scowl was blacker and his deep voice gruffer than usual as he returned the greeting; but the old man seemed to heed it not at all, but, taking his snuff-box from the lining of his tall, broad-brimmed hat (its usual abiding place), he opened it, with his most important air.

  "Jarge," said he, "I'm thinkin' ye'd better tak' Job back to strike for ye again if you'm goin' to mend t' owd screen."

  "What d'ye mean?" growled Black George.

  "Because," continued the old man, gathering a pinch of snuff with great deliberation, "because, Jarge, the young feller as beat ye at the throwin'——'im as was to 'ave worked for ye at 'is own price——be dead."

  "What!" cried Black George, starting.

  "Dead!" nodded the old man, "a corp' 'e be——eh! such a fine, promisin' young chap, an' now——a corp'." Here the Ancient nodded solemnly again, three times, and inhaled his pinch of snuff with great apparent zest and enjoyment.

  "Why——" began the amazed George, "what——" and broke off to stare, open-mouthed.

  "Last night, as ever was," continued the old man, "'e went down to th' 'aunted cottage——'t weren't no manner o' use tryin' to turn 'im, no, not if I'd gone down to 'im on my marrer-bones——'e were that set on it; so off he goes, 'bout sundown, to sleep in th' 'aunted cottage——I knows, Jarge, 'cause I follered un, an' seen for myself; so now I'm a-goin' down to find 'is corp'——"

  He had reached thus far, when his eye, accustomed to the shadows, chancing to meet mine, he uttered a gasp, and stood staring at me with dropped jaw.

  "Peter!" he stammered at last. "Peter——be that you, Peter?"

  "To be sure it is," said I.

  "Bean't ye——dead, then?"

  "I never felt more full of life."

  "But ye slep' in th' 'aunted cottage last night."

  "Yes."

  "But——but——the ghost, Peter?"

  "Is a wandering Scotsman."

  "Why then I can't go down and find ye corp' arter all?"

  "I fear not, Ancient."

  The old man slowly closed his snuff-box, shaking his head as he did so.

  "Ah, well! I won't blame ye, Peter," said he magnanunously, "it bean't your fault, lad, no——but what's come to the ghost!"

  "The ghost," I answered, "is nothing more dreadful than a wandering Scotsman!"

  "Scotsman!" exclaimed the Ancient sharply. "Scotsman!"

  "Yes, Ancient."

  "You'm mazed, Peter——ah! mazed ye be! What, aren't I heerd un moanin' an' groanin' to 'isself——ah! an' twitterin' to?"

  "As to that," said I, "those shrieks and howls he made with his bagpipe, very easy for a skilled player such as he."

  Some one was drawing water from a well across the road, for I heard the rattle of the bucket, and the creak of the winch, in the pause which now ensued, during which the Ancient, propped upon his stick, surveyed me with an expression that was not exactly anger, nor contempt, nor sorrow, and yet something of all three. At length he sighed, and shook his head at me mournfully.

  "Peter," said he, "Peter, I didn't think as you'd try to tak' 'vantage of a old man wi' a tale the like o' that such a very, very old man, Peter——such a old, old man!"

  "But I assure you, it's the truth," said I earnestly.

  "Peter, I seen Scotchmen afore now," said he, with a reproachful look, "ah! that I 'ave, many's the time, an' Scotchmen don't go about wi' tails, nor yet wi' 'orns on their 'eads——leastways I've never seen one as did. An', Peter, I know what a bagpipe is; I've heerd 'em often an' often——squeak they do, yes, but a squeak bean't a scream, Peter, nor yet a groan——no." Having delivered himself of which, the Ancient shook his head at me again, and, turning his back, hobbled away.

  When I turned to look at George, it was to find him regarding me with a very strange expression.

  "Sir," said he ponderously, "did you sleep in th' 'aunted cottage last night?"

  "Yes, though, as I have tried to explain, and unsuccessfully it seems, it is haunted by nothing more alarming than a Scots Piper."

  "Sir," said George, in the same slow, heavy way, "I——couldn't go a-nigh the place myself——'specially arter dark——I'd be——ah! I'd be afeard to! I did go once, and then not alone, and I ran away. Sir, you'm a better man nor me; you done what I durstn't do. Sir, if so be as you 'm in the same mind about it——I should like to——to shake your hand."

  So there, across the anvil which was to link our lives together thenceforth, Black George and I clasped hands, looking into each other's eyes.

  "George," said I at last, "I've had no breakfast."

  "Nor I!" said George.

  "And I'm mightily hungry!"

  "So am I," said George.

  "Then come, and let us eat," and I turned to the door.

  "Why, so we will——but not at——'The Bull'——she be theer. Come to my cottage——it be close by——that is, if you care to, sir?"

  "With all my heart!" said I, "and my name is Peter."

  "What do you say to 'am and eggs——Peter?"

  "Ham and eggs will be most excellent!" said I.

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