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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter27)

2006-08-28 22:56

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XXVII. The Epileptic

  Now, when the prayer was ended, I turned my back upon the lightening east and set off along the lane.

  But, as I went, I heard one hailing me, and glancing round, saw that in the hedge was a wicket-gate, and over this gate a man was leaning. A little, thin man with the face of an ascetic, or mediaeval saint, a face of a high and noble beauty, upon whose scholarly brow sat a calm serenity, yet beneath which glowed the full, bright eye of the man of action.

  "Good morning, friend!" said be; "welcome to my solitude. I wish you joy of this new day of ours; it is cloudy yet, but there is a rift down on the horizon——it will be a fair day, I think."

  "On the contrary, sir," said I, "to me there are all the evidences of the bad weather continuing. I think it will be a bad day, with rain and probably thunder and lightning! Good morning, sir!"

  "Stay!" cried he as I turned away, and, with the word, set his hand upon the gate, and, vaulting nimbly over, came towards me, with a broad-brimmed straw hat in one hand and a long-stemmed wooden pipe in the other.

  "Sir," said he, "my cottage is close by; you look warn and jaded. Will you not step in and rest awhile?"

  "Thank you, sir; but I must be upon my way."

  "And whither lies your way?"

  "To Sissinghurst, sir."

  "You have a long walk before you, and, with your permission, I will accompany you a little way."

  "With pleasure, sir!" I answered, "though I fear you will find me a moody companion, and a somewhat silent one; but then, I shall be the better listener, so light your pipe, sir, and, while you smoke, talk."

  "My pipe!" said he, glancing down at it; "ah! yes——I was about to compose my Sunday evening's sermon."

  "You are a clergyman, sir?"

  "No, no——a preacher——or say rather——a teacher, and a very humble one, who, striving himself after Truth, seeks to lend such aid to others as he may."

  "Truth!" said I; "what is Truth?"

  "Truth, sir, is that which can never pass away; the Truth of Life is Good Works, which abide everlastingly."

  "Sir," said I, "you smoke a pipe, I perceive, and should, therefore, be a good preacher; for smoking begets thought——"

  "And yet, sir, is not to act greater than to think?"

  "Why, Thought far outstrips puny Action!" said I——" it reaches deeper, soars higher; in our actions we are pigmies, but in our thoughts we may be gods, and embrace a universe."

  "But," sighed the Preacher, "while we think, our fellows perish in ignorance and want!"

  "Hum!" said I.

  "Thought," pursued the Preacher, "may become a vice, as it did with the old-time monks and hermits, who, shutting themselves away from their kind, wasted their lives upon their knees, thinking noble thoughts and dreaming of holy things, but——leaving the world very carefully to the devil. And, as to smoking, I am seriously considering giving it up." Here he took the pipe from his lips and thrust it behind his back.

  "Why?"

  "It has become, unfortunately, too human! It is a strange thing, sir," he went on, smiling and shaking his head, "that this, my one indulgence, should breed me more discredit than all the cardinal sins, and become a stumbling-block to others. Only last Sunday I happened to overhear two white-headed old fellows talking. 'A fine sermon, Giles?' said the one. 'Ah! good enough,' replied the other, 'but it might ha' been better——ye see——'e smokes!' So I am seriously thinking of giving it up, for it would appear that if a preacher prove himself as human as his flock, they immediately lose faith in him, and become deaf to his teaching."

  "Very true, sir!" I nodded. "It has always been human to admire and respect that only which is in any way different to ourselves; in archaic times those whose teachings were above men's comprehension, or who were remarkable for any singularity of action were immediately deified. Pythagoras recognized this truth when he shrouded himself in mystery and delivered his lectures from behind a curtain, though to be sure he has come to be regarded as something of a charlatan in consequence."

  "Pray, sir," said the Preacher, absent-mindedly puffing at his pipe again, "may I ask what you are?"

  "A blacksmith, sir."

  "And where did you read of Pythagoras and the like?"

  "At Oxford, sir."

  "How comes it then that I find you in the dawn, wet with rain, buffeted by wind, and——most of all——a shoer of horses?"

  But, instead of answering, I pointed to a twisted figure that lay beneath the opposite hedge.

  "A man!" exclaimed the Preacher, "and asleep, I think."

  "No," said I, "not in that contorted attitude."

  "Indeed, you are right," said the Preacher; "the man is ill——poor fellow!" And, hurrying forward, he fell on his knees beside the prostrate figure.

  He was a tall man, roughly clad, and he lay upon his back, rigid and motionless, while upon his blue lips were flecks and bubbles of foam.

  "Epilepsy!" said I. The Preacher nodded and busied himself with loosening the sodden neckcloth, the while I unclasped the icy fingers to relieve the tension of the muscles,

  The man's hair was long and matted, as was also his beard, and his face all drawn and pale, and very deeply lined. Now, as I looked at him, I had a vague idea that I had somewhere, at some time, seen him before.

  "Sir," said the Preacher, looking up, "will you help me to carry him to my cottage? It is not very far."

  So we presently took the man's wasted form between us and bore it, easily enough, to where stood a small cottage bowered in roses and honeysuckle. And, having deposited our unconscious burden upon the Preacher's humble bed, I turned to depart.

  "Sir," said the Preacher, holding out his hand, "it is seldom one meets with a blacksmith who has read the Pythagorean Philosophy ——at Oxford, and I should like to see you again. I am a lonely man save for my books; come and sup with me some evening, and let us talk——"

  "And smoke?" said I. The little Preacher sighed. "I will come," said I; "thank you! and good-by!" Now, even as I spoke, chancing to cast my eyes upon the pale, still face on the bed, I felt more certain than ever that I had somewhere seen it before.

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