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"Bill Penberthy's come back, I hear."
The tin-smith was sharpening his pocket-knife on the parapet of the bridge, and, without troubling to lift his eyes, threw just enough interrogation into the remark to show that he meant it to lead to conversation. Every one of the dozen men around him held a knife, so that a stranger, crossing the bridge, might have suspected a popular rising in the village. But, as a matter of fact, they were merely waiting for their turn. There is in the parapet one stone upon which knives may be sharpened to an incomparable edge; and, for longer than I can remember, this has supplied the men of Gantick with the necessary excuse for putting their heads together on fine evenings and discussing the news.
"Ay, he's back."
"Losh, Uncle, I'd no idea you was there," said the tin-smith, wheeling round. "And how's your lad looking?"
"Tolerable--tolerable. 'A's got a black suit, my sonnies, and a white tie, and a soft hat that looks large on the head, but can be folded and stowed in your tail pocket." Complacency shone over the speaker's shrivelled cheeks, and beamed from his horn-spectacles. "You can tell 'en at a glance for a Circuit-man and no common Rounder."
"'A's fully knowledgeable by all accounts; learnt out, they tell me."
"You shall hear 'en for yourselves at meeting to-morrow. He conducts both services. Now don't tempt me any more, that's good souls: for when he'd no sooner set foot in th' house and kissed his mother than he had us all down on our knees giving hearty thanks in the most beautiful language, I said to myself, 'many's the time I've had two minds about the money spent in making ye a better man than your father;' but fare thee well, doubt! I don't begrudge it, an' there's an end."
A small girl came running down the street to the bridge-end.
"Uncle Penberthy," she panted, "your tall son--Mr. William--said I was to run down and fetch 'ee home at once."
"Nothin' wrong with 'en, I hope?"
"I think he's going to hold a prayer."
The little man looked at the blade of his knife for a moment, half regretfully: then briskly clasped it, slipped it into his pocket, and hobbled away after the messenger.
The whitewashed front of the Meeting House was bathed, next evening, with soft sunset yellow when Mr. Penberthy the elder stole down the stairs between the exhortations, as his custom was, and stood bareheaded in the doorway respiring the cool air. As a deacon he temperately used the privileges of his office, and one of these was a seat next the door. The Meeting House was really no more than a room--a long upper chamber over a store; and its stairway descended into the street so sharply that it was possible, even for a short-armed man, to sit on the lowest step and shake hands with a friend in the street.
The roadway was deserted for a while. Across the atmosphere there reigned that hush which people wonder at on Sundays, forgetting that nature is always still and that nine-tenths of the week's hubbub is made by man. Down the pale sky came a swallow, with another in chase: their wings were motionless as they swept past the doorway, but the air whizzed with the speed of their flight, and in a moment was silent again. Then from the upper room a man's voice began to roar out upon the stillness. It roared, it broke out in thick sobs that shook the closed windows in their fastenings, it wrestled with emotion for utterance, and, overcoming it, rose into a bellow again; but, whether soaring or depressed, the strain upon it was never relaxed. Uncle Penberthy, listening to his son, felt an oppression of his own chest and drew his breath uneasily.
The tin-smith came round the corner and halted by the door.
"That son o' yours is a boundless man," he observed with an upward nod.
"How did he strike ye this morning?"
"I don't remember to have been so powerfully moved in my life. Perhaps you and me being cronies for thirty year, and he your very son, may have helped to the more effectual working; but be that as it may, I couldn't master my dinner afterwards, and that's the trewth. Ah, he's a man, Uncle; and there's no denying we wanted one of that sort to awaken us to a fit sense. What a dido he do kick up, to be sure!"
The tin-smith shifted his footing uneasily as if he had something to add.
"I hope you won't think it onneighbourly or disrespectful that I didn' come agen this evenin'," he begun, after a pause.
"Not at all, Jem, not at all."
"Because, you see--"
"Yes, yes, I quite see."
"I wouldn' have ye think--but there, I'm powerful glad you see." His face cleared. "Good evenin' to ye, Uncle!"
He went on with a brisker step, while Uncle Penberthy drew a few more lingering breaths and climbed the stairs again to the close air of the meeting-room.
"I'm afraid, father, that something in my second exhortation displeased you," said the Rev. William Penberthy as he walked home from service between his parents. He was a tall fellow with a hatchet-shaped face and eyes set rather closely together.
"Not at all, my son. What makes ye deem it?" The little man tilted back his bronzed top-hat and looked up nervously.
"Because you went out in the middle of service."
"'Tis but father's habit, William," old Mrs. Penberthy made haste to explain, laying a hand on his arm. She was somewhat stouter of build and louder of voice than her husband, but stood in just the same awe of her son. "He's done it regular since he was appointed deacon."
"Why?" asked William, stonily.
Uncle Penberthy pulled off his hat to extract a red handkerchief from its crown, removed his spectacles, and wiped them hurriedly.
"Them varmints of boys," he stammered, "be so troublesome round the door--occasion'lly, that is."
"Was that so to-night?"
"But you were absent at least twenty minutes--all through the silent prayer and half way through the third exhortation." He gazed sternly at the amiable old man. "You didn't hear me treat that difficulty in Colossians, two, twenty to twenty-three? If you have time, we'll discuss it after private worship to-night. If I can make you see it in what I am sure is the right light, it will lead you to think more seriously of that glass of beer you have fallen into the habit of taking with your supper."
It is but a fortnight since the Rev. William Penberthy came home; but in that fortnight his father and mother have aged ten years. The old man, when I took him my watch to regulate the other day--for on week-days he is a watch-maker--began to ask questions, as eagerly as a child, about the village news. It turned out that, for a whole week, he had not been down to sharpen his knife upon the bridge. He has given up his glass of beer, too, and altogether the zeal of his house is eating him up.
This morning the new minister climbed into the van with his carpet-bag. He is off to some Conference or other, and will be back again the day after to-morrow. Ten minutes after he had gone his father and mother shut up the shop and went out together. They mean to take a whole holiday and hear all the news. It was pitiful to see their fumbling haste as they helped one another to put up the shutters; and almost more pitiful to mark, as they hurried down the street arm in arm, their conscientious but feeble endeavour to look something more staid than a couple of children just out of school.
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