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THE SHOEING OF MISS BROWN.
Two days after, on a lovely autumn evening, Barbara rode Miss Brown across the fields, avoiding the hard road even more carefully than usual. For Miss Brown, as I have said, was in want of shoes, and Barbara herself was to have a hand in putting them on.
The red-faced, white-whiskered, jolly old Simon stood at the smithy door to receive her: he had been watching for her, and had heard the gentle trot over the few yards of road that brought her in sight. With a merry greeting he helped her down from the great mare. It was but the sense that his blackness was not ingrain, that kept him from taking her in his arms like a child, and lifting her down--so small was she, and so friendly and childlike. She would have shaken hands with him, but he would not with her; it would make her glove, he said, as black as his apron. Barbara pulled off her glove, and gave him her dainty little hand, which the blacksmith took at once, being too much of a gentleman not to know where respect becomes rudeness. He clasped the lovely loan with the sturdy reverence of his true old heart, saying her hand should pay her footing in the trade.
"Lord, miss, ain't I proud to make a smith of you!" he said. "Only you must do nothing but shoe! I can't let you spoil your hands! You can keep Miss Brown shod without doing that!--Here comes Dick for his part! He might have left it to who taught him! Did he think the old man would be rough with missie?--I dare say, now, he's been teaching you that woman's work of his this long time!"
"Stop, stop, Mr. Armour!" cried Barbara. "When you see me shoe Miss Brown, perhaps you won't care to talk about woman's work again!"
Richard came up, took Miss Brown in, and put her in her place. The smith knew exactly what sort and size of shoes she wanted, and had them already so far finished that but a touch or so was necessary to make them an absolute fit. Barbara tucked up her skirt, and secured it with her belt. But this would not satisfy Simon. He had a little leather apron ready for her, and nothing would serve but she must put it on to protect her habit. Till this was done he would not allow her touch hammer or nail.
"Come, come, missie," he said, "I'm king in my own shop, and you must do as I tell you!"
Thereupon Barbara, who had stood out only for the fun of the thing, put on the leather apron with its large bib, and set about her work.
Richard did not offer to put on the first shoe: he believed she had so often watched the operation, that she must know perfectly what to do. Nor was he disappointed. She proceeded like an adept. Happily Miss Brown was very good. She was neither hungry nor thirsty; she had had just enough exercise to make her willing to breathe a little; nothing had gone wrong on the way to upset her delicate nerves--for, gentle and loving as she always was, she was apt to be both apprehensive and touchy; her digestion was all right, for she had had neither too much corn nor too much grass; therefore she stood quite still, and if not exactly full of faith, was yet troubled by no doubt as to the ability of her mistress to put on her shoes for her--iron though they were, and to be fastened with long sharp nails.
Richard was nowise astonished at Barbara's coolness, or her courage, or the business-like way in which she tucked the great hoof under her arm, or even at the accurate aim which brought the right sort of blow down on the head of nail after nail in true line with its length; but he was astonished at the strength of her little hand, the hardness of her muscles, covered with just fat enough to make form and movement alike beautiful, and the knowing skill with which she twisted off the ends of the nails: the quick turn necessary, she seemed to have by nature. In her keen watching, she had so identified herself with the operator, that perfect insight had supplied the place of active experience, and seemed almost to have waked some ancient instinct that operated independent of consciousness. The mare was shod, and well shod, without any accident; and Richard felt no anxiety as he lifted the little lady to her back, and saw her canter away as if she had been presented with fresh feathery wings instead of only fresh iron shoes.
He experienced, however, not a little disappointment: he had hoped to walk a part of her way alongside of Miss Brown. Barbara had in truth expected he would, but a sudden shyness came upon her, and made her start at speed the moment she was in the saddle. Simon and Richard stood looking after her.
With a sharp scramble she turned. Richard darted forward. But nothing was wrong with the mare. She came at a quick trot, and they were side by side in a moment. Barbara had bethought herself that it was a pity to get no more pleasure or profit out of the afternoon than just a horse-shoeing!
"She's all right!" she cried.
Richard imagined she had but started to put her handiwork to the test. They walked back to the old man, and once more she thanked him--in such pretty fashion as made him feel a lord of the world. Then Richard and she moved away together in the direction of Mortgrange, and left Simon praying God to give them to each other before he died.
They had not gone far when it became Richard's turn to stop.
"Oh, miss," he said, "I must go back! Neither of us has been to see Alice, and I haven't for more than a week! Think of her lying there, expecting and expecting, and no one coming! It's just the history of the world! I must go back!"
He would not have said so much but that Barbara sat regarding him without response of word or look, appearing not to heed him. He began to wonder.
"Alice can't be dead!" he thought with himself, "She was pretty well when I saw her last!"
"She is gone," said Barbara quietly, and the thought just discarded returned on Richard with a sickening clearness.
He stood and stared. Barbara saw him turn white, and understood his mistake--so terrible to one who had no hope of ever again seeing a departed friend.
"She went home to her mother yesterday," she said.
Richard gave a great sigh of relief.
"I thought she was dead!" he answered, "--and I had not been so good to her as I might have been!"
"Richard," said Barbara--it was the first time she called him by his name--"did anybody in the world ever do all he might to make his best friends happy?"
"No, miss, I don't think it. There must always be something more he might have done."
"Then the better people become, the more lamentations, mourning, and woe"--the words had taken hold of her at church the Sunday before--"there must always be, because of those they shall never look upon again, those to whom they shall never say, I am sorry! How comes it that men are born into a world where there is nothing of what they most need--consolation for the one inevitable thing, sorrow and self-reproach?"
"There is consolation--that it will soon be over, that we go to them!"
"Go to them!" cried Barbara. "--We do not even go to look for them! We shall not even know that we would find them if we could! We shall not have even the consolation of suffering, of loving on in vain! The whole thing is the most wrongful scorn, the most insulting mockery!--the laughter of a devil at all that is noble and tender!--only there is not even a devil to be angry with and defy!"
Barbara spoke with an indignation that made her eloquent. Richard gave her no answer: there was no logic in what Barbara said--nothing to reply to! Why should life not be misery? Why should there be any one who cared? There was no ground for thinking there might be one! The proof was all the other way! The idea was too good to be true! Richard had said so to himself a thousand times. But was the world indeed on such a grand scale that to believe in anything better or other than it seemed, was to believe too much--was to believe more than, without proof which was not to be had, Richard would care to believe? The nature of the case grew clearer to him. As a man does not fear death while yet it seems far away, so a man may not shrink from annihilation while yet he does not realize what it means. To cease may well seem nothing to a man who neither loves much, nor feels the bitterness of regret for wrong done, the gnawing of that remorse whose mother is tenderness! He was beginning to understand this.
The silence grew oppressive. It was as if each was dreaming of the other dead. To break the pain of presence without communion, Richard spoke.
"Can you tell me, miss," he said, "why Alice went away without letting me know? She might have done that!"
"She had a good reason," answered Barbara.
"I can't think what it could be!" he returned. "I never was so long without seeing her before, but surely she could not be so much offended at that! You see, miss, I knew you went every day! and I knew I should like that better than having any one else to come and see me! so I gave myself no trouble. I never thought of her going for a long time yet! Did her mother send her money?"
"Not that I know of."
"Perhaps my grandfather lent her some! She couldn't have any herself! I wonder why she dislikes me so much!"
He was doubting whether she would have taken money from him, if he had been in time to offer it. He did not like to ask Barbara if she had helped her.--And then what was she to do when she got home?
Barbara had let him talk, delighted to look in at the windows his words went on opening. In particular it pleased and attracted her, that he was so unconscious of the goodness he had shown Alice. Barbara and he made a rare conjunction of likeness. So many will do a kindness who are not yet capable of forgetting it!
Barbara could not tell him that Alice was afraid to bid him good-bye lest in her weakness she should render an explanation necessary. She did not in the least doubt Richard was her brother, and her heart was full of him. How often, as she lay alone, building her innocent and not very wonderful castles, had she not imagined herself throwing her arms about him, and kissing him at her will!--what if she should actually do so when he came to bid her good-bye! Then she would have to tell him he was her brother, and so perhaps might ruin everything! She must go without a word!
"She is far from disliking you," said Barbara.
"Why then did she not tell me, that I might have given her money for her journey?"
"There was no need of that," returned Barbara. "She is my sister now, and a sovereign or two is nothing between us."
"Oh, thank you! thank you, miss! Then she will have a little over when she gets home! But I am afraid it will be long before she is able to work again! It would be of no use to tell my mother, for somehow she seems to have taken a great dislike to poor Alice. I am positive she does not deserve it. My mother is the best woman I know, but she is very stiff when she takes a dislike. Have you got her address, miss? Arthur would take money from me, I think, but I don't know where he is. I was always meaning to ask her, and always forgot."
"I will see she has everything she wants," answered Barbara.
"Bless your lovely heart, miss!" exclaimed Richard. "But I fear nothing much will reach them so long as their mother is alive. She eats and drinks the flesh and blood of her children. Nobody could help seeing it. There's Arthur, cold, and thin, and miserable, without a greatcoat in the bitterest weather! and Alice with hardly flesh enough for setting to her great eyes! and Mrs. Manson well dressed, and eating the best butter, and drinking the best bottled stout that money can buy! If only their mother was like mine! If one of her family had to starve, she would claim it as her right. Such women as Mrs. Manson have no business to be mothers! Why were they made--if people are made?"
"Perhaps they will be made something of yet!" suggested Barbara.
"If you're right, miss, and there be a God, either he's not so good as you would be if you were God, or else somebody interferes, and won't let him do his best."
"Shall I tell you what our clergyman said to me the other day?" returned Barbara.
"Yes, if you please, miss. I don't mind what you say, because the God you would have me believe in, is like yourself; and if he be, and be like you, he will set everything tight as soon as ever he can."
"What Mr. Wingfold said was this--that it was not fair, when a man had made something for a purpose, to say it was not good before we knew what his purpose with it was. 'I don't like,' he said, 'even my wife to look at my verses before they're finished! God can't hide away his work till it is finished, as I do my verses, and we ought to take care what we say about it. God wants to do something better with people than people think.'"
"Is he a poet?" said Richard. "But when I think how he looked at the sunrise--of course he is! That man don't talk a bit like a clergyman, miss; he talks just like any other man--only better than I ever heard man talk before. I couldn't help liking him from the first, and wishing I might meet him again! But I think I could put him a question or two yet that would puzzle him!"
"I don't know," answered Barbara; "but one thing I am sure of, that, if you did puzzle him, he would say he was puzzled, and must have time to think it over!"
"That is to behave like a man!--and after all, clergymen are men, and there must be good men among them!--But do you think, miss, you could get Arthur's address from Alice? The office is not where it used to be."
"I dare say I could."
"You see, miss, I shall have to go back to London."
There was a tone and tremble in his words, to which, not to the words themselves, Barbara made reply.
"Will anyone dare to say," she rejoined, "that we shall not meet again?"
"The sort of God you believe in, miss, would not say it," he answered; "but the sort of God my mother believes in would."
"I know nothing about other people's Gods," rejoined Barbara. "Indeed," she added, "I know very little about my own; but I mean to know more: Mr. Wingfold will teach me!"
"Take care he don't overpersuade you, miss. You have been very good to me, and I couldn't bear you to be made a fool of. Only he can't be just like the rest!"
"He will persuade me of nothing that doesn't seem to me true--be certain of that, Richard. And if it please God to part us, I will pray and keep on praying to him to let us meet again. If I have been good to you, you have been much better to me!"
Richard was not elated. He only thought, "How kind of her!"
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