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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter37)

2006-08-28 22:59

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XXXVII. The Preacher

  It is a wise and (to some extent) a true saying, that hard work is an antidote to sorrow, a panacea for all trouble; but when the labor is over and done, when the tools are set by, and the weary worker goes forth into the quiet evening——how then? For we cannot always work, and, sooner or later, comes the still hour when Memory rushes in upon us again, and Sorrow and Remorse sit, dark and gloomy, on either hand.

  A week dragged by, a season of alternate hope and black despair, a restless fever of nights and days, for with each dawn came hope, that lived awhile beside me, only to fly away with the sun, and leave me to despair.

  I hungered for the sound of Charmian's voice, for the quick, light fall of her foot, for the least touch of her hand. I became more and more possessed of a morbid fancy that she might be existing near by——could I but find her; that she had passed along the road only a little while before me, or, at this very moment, might be approaching, might be within sight, were I but quick enough.

  Often at such times I would fling down my hammer or tongs, to George's surprise, and, hurrying to the door, stare up and down the road; or pause in my hammerstrokes, fiercely bidding George do the same, fancying I heard her voice calling to me from a distance. And George would watch me with a troubled brow but, with a rare delicacy, say no word.

  Indeed, the thought of Charmian was with me everywhere, the ringing hammers mocked me with her praises, the bellows sang of her beauty, the trees whispered "Charmian! Charmian!" and Charmian was in the very air.

  But when I had reluctantly bidden George "good night," and set out along lanes full of the fragrant dusk of evening; when, reaching the Hollow, I followed that leafy path beside the brook, which she and I had so often trodden together; when I sat in my gloomy, disordered cottage, with the deep silence unbroken save for the plaintive murmur of the brook——then, indeed, my loneliness was well-nigh more than I could bear.

  There were dark hours when the cottage rang with strange sounds, when I would lie face down upon the floor, clutching my throbbing temples between my palms——fearful of myself, and dreading the oncoming horror of madness.

  It was at this time, too, that I began to be haunted by the thing above the door——the rusty staple upon which a man had choked out his wretched life sixty and six years ago; a wanderer, a lonely man, perhaps acquainted, with misery or haunted by remorse, one who had suffered much and long——even as I——but who had eventually escaped it all——even as I might do. Thus I would sit, chin in hand, staring up at this staple until the light failed, and sometimes, in the dead of night, I would steal softly there to touch it with my finger.

  Looking back on all this, it seems that I came very near losing my reason, for I had then by no means recovered from Black George's fist, and indeed even now I am at times not wholly free from its effect.

  My sleep, too, was often broken and troubled with wild dreams, so that bed became a place of horror, and, rising, I would sit before the empty hearth, a candle guttering at my elbow, and think of Charmian until I would fancy I heard the rustle of her garments behind me, and start up, trembling and breathless; at such times the tap of a blown leaf against the lattice would fill me with a fever of hope and expectation. Often and often her soft laugh stole to me in the gurgle of the brook, and she would call to me in the deep night silences in a voice very sweet, and faint, and far away. Then I would plunge out into the dark, and lift my hands to the stars that winked upon my agony, and journey on through a desolate world, to return with the dawn, weary and despondent.

  It was after one of these wild night expeditions that I sat beneath a tree, watching the sunrise. And yet I think I must have dozed, for I was startled by a voice close above me, and, glancing up, I recognized the little Preacher. As our eyes met he immediately took the pipe from his lips, and made as though to cram it into his pocket.

  "Though, indeed, it is empty!" he explained, as though I had spoken. "Old habits cling to one, young sir, and my pipe, here, has been the friend of my solitude these many years, and I cannot bear to turn my back upon it yet, so I carry it with me still, and sometimes, when at all thoughtful, I find it between my lips. But though the flesh, as you see, is very weak, I hope, in time, to forego even this," and he sighed, shaking his head in gentle deprecation of himself. "But you look pale——haggard," he went on; "you are ill, young sir!"

  "No, no," said I, springing to my feet; "look at this arm, is it the arm of a sick man? No, no——I am well enough, but what of him we found in the ditch, you and I——the miserable creature who lay bubbling in the grass?"

  "He has been very near death, sir——indeed his days are numbered, I think, yet he is better, for the time being, and last night declared his intention of leaving the shelter of my humble roof and setting forth upon his mission."

  "His mission, sir?"

  "He speaks of himself as one chosen by God to work His will, and asks but to live until this mission, whatever it is, be accomplished. A strange being!" said the little Preacher, puffing at his empty pipe again as we walked on side by side, "a dark, incomprehensible man, and a very, very wretched one——poor soul!"

  "Wretched?" said I, "is not that our human lot? 'Man is born to sorrow as the sparks fly upward,' and Job was accounted wise in his generation."

  "That was a cry from the depths of despond; but Job stood, at last, upon the heights, and felt once more God's blessed sun, and rejoiced——even as we should. But, as regards this stranger, he is one who would seem to have suffered some great wrong, the continued thought of which has unhinged his mind; his heart seems broken——dead. I have, sitting beside his delirious couch, heard him babble a terrible indictment against some man; I have also heard him pray, and his prayers have been all for vengeance."

  "Poor fellow!" said I, "it were better we had left him to die in his ditch, for if death does not bring oblivion, it may bring a change of scene."

  "Sir," said the Preacher, laying his hand upon my arm, "such bitterness in one so young is unnatural; you are in some trouble, I would that I might aid you, be your friend——know you better——"

  "Oh, sir! that is easily done. I am a blacksmith, hardworking, sober, and useful to my fellows; they call me Peter Smith. A certain time since I was a useless dreamer; spending more money in a week than I now earn in a year, and getting very little for it. I was studious, egotistical, and pedantic, wasting my time upon impossible translations that nobody wanted——and they knew me as——Peter Vibart."

  "Vibart!" exclaimed the Preacher, starting and looking up at me.

  "Vibart!" I nodded.

  "Related in any way to——Sir Maurice Vibart?"

  "His cousin, sir." My companion appeared lost in thought, for he was puffing at his empty pipe again.

  "Do you happen to know Sir Maurice?" I inquired.

  "No," returned the Preacher; "no, sir, but I have heard mention of him, and lately, though just when, or where, I cannot for the life of me recall."

  "Why, the name is familiar to a great many people," said I; "you see, he is rather a famous character, in his way."

  Talking thus, we presently reached a stile beyond which the footpath led away through swaying corn and by shady hopgarden, to Sissinghurst village. Here the Preacher stopped and gave me his hand, but I noticed he still puffed at his pipe.

  "And you are now a blacksmith?"

  "And mightily content so to be."

  "You are a most strange young man!" said the Preacher, shaking his head.

  "Many people have told me the same, sir," said I, and vaulted over the stile. Yet, turning back when I had gone some way, I saw him leaning where I had left him, and with his pipe still in his mouth.

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