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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter30)

2006-08-28 22:47

  Book One Chapter XXX. In Which I Forswear Myself and Am Accused of Possessing the "Evil Eye"

  Smithing is a sturdy, albeit a very black art; yet its black is a good, honest black, very easily washed off, which is more than can be said for many other trades, arts, and professions.

  Yes, a fine, free, manly art is smithing, and those who labor at the forge would seem, necessarily, to reflect these virtues.

  Since old Tubal Cain first taught man how to work in brass and iron, who ever heard of a sneaking, mean-spirited, cowardly blacksmith? To find such an one were as hard a matter as to discover the Fourth Dimension, methinks, or the carcass of a dead donkey.

  Your true blacksmith is usually a strong man, something bowed of shoulder, perhaps; a man slow of speech, bold of eye, kindly of thought, and, lastly——simple-hearted.

  Riches, Genius, Power——all are fair things; yet Riches is never satisfied, Power is ever upon the wing, and when was Genius ever happy? But, as for this divine gift of Simpleness of Heart, who shall say it is not the best of all?

  Black George himself was no exception to his kind; what wonder was it, then, that, as the days lengthened into weeks, my liking for him ripened into friendship?

  To us, sometimes lonely, voyagers upon this Broad Highway of life, journeying on, perchance through desolate places, yet hoping and dreaming ever of a glorious beyond, how sweet and how blessed a thing it is to meet some fellow wayfarer, and find in him a friend, honest, and loyal, and brave, to walk with us in the sun, whose voice may comfort us in the shadow, whose hand is stretched out to us in the difficult places to aid us, or be aided. Indeed, I say again, it is a blessed thing, for though the way is sometimes very long, such meetings and friendships be very few and far between.

  So, as I say, there came such friendship between Black George and myself, and I found him a man, strong, simple and lovable, and as such I honor him to this day.

  The Ancient, on the contrary, seemed to have set me in his "black books;" he would no longer sit with me over a tankard outside "The Bull" of an evening, nor look in at the forge, with a cheery nod and word, as had been his wont; he seemed rather to shun my society, and, if I did meet him by chance, would treat me with the frigid dignity of a Grand Seigneur. Indeed, the haughtiest duke that ever rolled in his chariot is far less proud than your plain English rustic, and far less difficult to propitiate. Thus, though I had once had the temerity to question him as to his altered treatment of me, the once had sufficed. He was sitting, I remember, on the bench before "The Bull," his hands crossed upon his stick and his chin resting upon his hands.

  "Peter," he had answered, regarding me with a terrible eye, "Peter, I be disapp'inted in ye!" Hereupon rising, he had rapped loudly upon his snuff-box and hobbled stiffly away. And that ended the matter, so far as I was concerned, though, to be sure, Simon had interceded in my behalf with no better success; and thus I was still left wondering.

  One day, however, as George and I were hard at work, I became aware of some one standing in the doorway behind me, but at first paid no heed (for it was become the custom for folk to come to look at the man who lived all alone in the haunted cottage), so, as I say, I worked on heedlessly.

  "Peter?" said a voice at last and, turning, I beheld the old man leaning upon his stick and regarding me beneath his lowered brows.

  "Why, Ancient!" I exclaimed, and held out my hand. But he checked me with a gesture, and fumblingly took out his snuff-box.

  "Peter," said he, fixing me with his eye, "were it a Scotchman or were it not?"

  "Why, to be sure it was," I answered, "a Scotch piper, as I told you, and——"

  "Peter," said the Ancient, tapping his snuff-box, "it weren't no ghost, then——ay or no."

  "No," said I, "nothing but a——"

  "Peter!" said the Ancient, nodding solemnly, "Peter, I 'ates ye!" and, turning sharp about, he tottered away upon his stick.

  "So——that's it!" said I, staring after the old man's retreating figure.

  "Why, ye see," said George, somewhat diffidently, "ye see, Peter, Gaffer be so old!——and all 'is friends be dead, and he've come to look on this 'ere ghost as belongin' to 'im a'most. Loves to sit an' tell about it, 'e do; it be all 'e've got left to live for, as ve might say, and now you've been and gone and said as theer bean't no ghost arter all, d'ye see?"

  "Ah, yes, I see," I nodded, "I see. But you don't still, believe in this ghost, do you, George?"

  "N-o-o-o——not 'xactly," answered George, hesitating upon the word, "can't say as I believe 'xactly, and yet, Lord! 'ow should I know?"

  "Then you do still believe in the ghost?"

  "Why, y' see, Peter, we do know as a man 'ung 'isself theer, 'cause Gaffer found un——likewise I've heerd it scream——but as for believin' in it, since you say contrarywise——why, 'ow should I know?"

  "But why should I deny it, George; why should I tell you all of a Scotsman?"

  "Why, y' see, Peter," said George, in his heavy way, "you be such a strange sort o' chap!"

  "George," said I, "let us get back to work."

  Yet, in a little while, I set aside the hammer, and turned to the door.

  "Peter, wheer be goin'?"

  "To try and make my peace with the Ancient," I answered, and forthwith crossed the road to "The Bull." But with my foot on the step I paused, arrested by the sound of voices and laughter within the tap, and, loudest of all, was the voice of the pseudo blacksmith, Job.

  "If I were only a bit younger!" the Ancient was saying. Now, peeping in through the casement, a glance at his dejected attitude, and the blatant bearing of the others, explained to me the situation then and there.

  "Ah! but you ain't," retorted old Amos, "you 'm a old, old man an' gettin' older wi' every tick o' the clock, you be, an' gettin' mazed-like wi' years."

  "Haw! haw!" laughed Job and the five or six others.

  "Oh, you——Job! if my b'y Simon was 'ere 'e'd pitch 'ee out into the road, so 'e would——same as Black Jarge done," quavered the Ancient.

  "P'r'aps, Gaffer, p'r'aps!" returned Job, "but I sez again, I believe what Peter sez, an' I don't believe there never was no ghost at all."

  "Ay, lad, but I tell 'ee theer was——I seed un!" cried the old man eagerly, "seed un wi' these two eyes, many's the time. You, Joel Amos——you've 'eerd un a-moanin' an' a-groanin'——you believe as I seed un, don't 'ee now come?"

  "He! he!" chuckled Old Amos, "I don't know if I du, Gaffer——ye see you 'm gettin' that old——"

  "But I did——I did——oh, you chaps, I tell 'ee I did!"

  "You 'm gettin' old, Gaffer," repeated Amos, dwelling upon the theme with great unction, "very, very old——"

  "But so strong as a bull, I be!" added the Ancient, trying manfully to steady the quaver in his voice.

  "Haw! haw!" laughed Job and the others, while Old Amos chuckled shrilly again.

  "But I tell 'ee I did see un, I——I see'd un plain as plain," quavered the Ancient, in sudden distress. "Old Nick it were, wi' 'orns, an' a tail."

  "Why, Peter told us 'twere only a Scottish man wi' a bagpipe," returned Job.

  "Ay, for sure," nodded Old Amos, "so 'e did."

  "A lie, it be——a lie, a lie!" cried the Ancient, "'twere Old Nick, I see un——plain as I see you."

  "Why, ye see, you 'm gettin' dre'fful old an' 'elpless, Gaffer," chuckled Old Amos again, "an' your eyes plays tricks wi' you."

  "Ah, to be sure they do!" added Job; whereupon Old Amos chuckled so much that he was taken by a violent fit of coughing.

  "Oh! you chaps, you as I've seen grow up from babbies——aren't theer one o' ye to tak' the old man's word an' believe as I seen un?" The cracked old voice sounded more broken than usual, and I saw a tear crawling slowly down the Ancient's furrowed cheek. Nobody answered, and there fell a silence broken only by the shuffle and scrape of heavy boots and the setting down of tankards.

  "Why, ye see, Gaffer," said Job at last, "theer's been a lot o' talk o' this 'ere ghost, an' some 'as even said as they 'eerd it, but, come to think on it, nobody's never laid eyes on it but you, so——"

  "There you are wrong, my fellow," said I, stepping into the room. "I also have seen it."

  "You?" exclaimed Job, while half-a-dozen pairs of eyes stared at me in slow wonderment.

  "Certainly I have."

  "But you said as it were a Scotchman, wi' a bagpipe, I heerd ye——we all did."

  "And believed it——like fools!"

  "Peter!" cried the Ancient, rising up out of his chair, "Peter, do 'ee mean it?"

  "To be sure I do."

  "Do 'ee mean it were a ghost, Peter, do 'ee?"

  "Why, of course it was," I nodded, "a ghost, or the devil himself, hoof, horns, tail, and all——to say nothing of the fire and brimstone."

  "Peter," said the Ancient, straightening his bent old back proudly, "oh, Peter!——tell 'em I'm a man o' truth, an' no liar——tell 'em, Peter."

  "They know that," said I; "they know it without my telling them, Ancient."

  "But," said Job, staring at me aghast, "do 'ee mean to say as you live in a place as is 'aunted by the——devil 'isself?"

  "Oh, Lord bless 'ee!" cried the old man, laying his hand upon my arm, "Peter don't mind Old Nick no more 'n I do——Peter aren't afeard of 'im. 'Cause why? 'Cause 'e 'ave a clean 'eart, 'ave Peter. You don't mind Old Nick, do 'ee, lad?

  "Not in the least," said I, whereupon those nearest instinctively shrank farther from me, while Old Amos rose and shuffled towards the door.

  "I've heerd o' folk sellin' theirselves to the devil afore now." said he.

  "You be a danged fule, Joel Amos!" exclaimed the Ancient angrily.

  "Fule or no——I never see a chap wi' such a tur'ble dark-lookin' face afore, an' wi' such eyes——so black, an' sharp, an' piercin' as needles, they be——ah! goes through a man like two gimblets, they do!" Now, as he spoke, Old Amos stretched out one arm towards me with his first and second fingers crossed: which fingers he now opened wide apart, making what I believe is called "the horns," and an infallible safeguard against this particular form of evil.

  "It's the 'Evil Eye,'" said he in a half whisper, "the 'Evil Eye'!" and, turning about, betook himself away.

  One by one the others followed, and, as they passed me, each man averted his eyes and I saw that each had his fingers crossed.

  So it came to pass that I was, thenceforward, regarded askance, if not openly avoided, by the whole village, with——the exception of Simon and the Ancient, as one in league with the devil, and possessed of the "Evil Eye."

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