While the worst passions of the worst men were thus working in the dark, an_he mantle of religion, assumed to cover the ugliest deformities, threatene_o become the shroud of all that was good and peaceful in society, _ircumstance occurred which once more altered the position of two persons fro_hom this history has long been separated, and to whom it must now return.
In a small English country town, the inhabitants of which supported themselve_y the labour of their hands in plaiting and preparing straw for those wh_ade bonnets and other articles of dress and ornament from tha_aterial,—concealed under an assumed name, and living in a quiet poverty whic_new no change, no pleasures, and few cares but that of struggling on from da_o day in one great toil for bread,—dwelt Barnaby and his mother. Their poo_ottage had known no stranger’s foot since they sought the shelter of its roo_ive years before; nor had they in all that time held any commerce o_ommunication with the old world from which they had fled. To labour in peace, and devote her labour and her life to her poor son, was all the widow sought.
If happiness can be said at any time to be the lot of one on whom a secre_orrow preys, she was happy now. Tranquillity, resignation, and her stron_ove of him who needed it so much, formed the small circle of her quiet joys; and while that remained unbroken, she was contented.
For Barnaby himself, the time which had flown by, had passed him like th_ind. The daily suns of years had shed no brighter gleam of reason on hi_ind; no dawn had broken on his long, dark night. He would sit sometimes—ofte_or days together on a low seat by the fire or by the cottage door, busy a_ork (for he had learnt the art his mother plied), and listening, God hel_im, to the tales she would repeat, as a lure to keep him in her sight. He ha_o recollection of these little narratives; the tale of yesterday was new t_im upon the morrow; but he liked them at the moment; and when the humour hel_im, would remain patiently within doors, hearing her stories like a littl_hild, and working cheerfully from sunrise until it was too dark to see.
At other times,—and then their scanty earnings were barely sufficient t_urnish them with food, though of the coarsest sort,— he would wander abroa_rom dawn of day until the twilight deepened into night. Few in that place, even of the children, could be idle, and he had no companions of his own kind.
Indeed there were not many who could have kept up with him in his rambles, ha_here been a legion. But there were a score of vagabond dogs belonging to th_eighbours, who served his purpose quite as well. With two or three of these, or sometimes with a full half-dozen barking at his heels, he would sally fort_n some long expedition that consumed the day; and though, on their return a_ightfall, the dogs would come home limping and sore-footed, and almost spen_ith their fatigue, Barnaby was up and off again at sunrise with some ne_ttendants of the same class, with whom he would return in like manner. On al_hese travels, Grip, in his little basket at his master’s back, was a constan_ember of the party, and when they set off in fine weather and in hig_pirits, no dog barked louder than the raven.
Their pleasures on these excursions were simple enough. A crust of bread an_crap of meat, with water from the brook or spring, sufficed for their repast.
Barnaby’s enjoyments were, to walk, and run, and leap, till he was tired; the_o lie down in the long grass, or by the growing corn, or in the shade of som_all tree, looking upward at the light clouds as they floated over the blu_urface of the sky, and listening to the lark as she poured out her brillian_ong. There were wild-flowers to pluck—the bright red poppy, the gentl_arebell, the cowslip, and the rose. There were birds to watch; fish; ants; worms; hares or rabbits, as they darted across the distant pathway in the woo_nd so were gone: millions of living things to have an interest in, and lie i_ait for, and clap hands and shout in memory of, when they had disappeared. I_efault of these, or when they wearied, there was the merry sunlight to hun_ut, as it crept in aslant through leaves and boughs of trees, and hid fa_own—deep, deep, in hollow places— like a silver pool, where nodding branche_eemed to bathe and sport; sweet scents of summer air breathing over fields o_eans or clover; the perfume of wet leaves or moss; the life of waving trees, and shadows always changing. When these or any of them tired, or in excess o_leasing tempted him to shut his eyes, there was slumber in the midst of al_hese soft delights, with the gentle wind murmuring like music in his ears, and everything around melting into one delicious dream.
Their hut—for it was little more—stood on the outskirts of the town, at _hort distance from the high road, but in a secluded place, where few chanc_assengers strayed at any season of the year. It had a plot of garden-groun_ttached, which Barnaby, in fits and starts of working, trimmed, and kept i_rder. Within doors and without, his mother laboured for their common good; and hail, rain, snow, or sunshine, found no difference in her.
Though so far removed from the scenes of her past life, and with so littl_hought or hope of ever visiting them again, she seemed to have a strang_esire to know what happened in the busy world. Any old newspaper, or scrap o_ntelligence from London, she caught at with avidity. The excitement i_roduced was not of a pleasurable kind, for her manner at such times expresse_he keenest anxiety and dread; but it never faded in the least degree. Then, and in stormy winter nights, when the wind blew loud and strong, the ol_xpression came into her face, and she would be seized with a fit o_rembling, like one who had an ague. But Barnaby noted little of this; an_utting a great constraint upon herself, she usually recovered her accustome_anner before the change had caught his observation.
Grip was by no means an idle or unprofitable member of the humble household.
Partly by dint of Barnaby’s tuition, and partly by pursuing a species of self- instruction common to his tribe, and exerting his powers of observation to th_tmost, he had acquired a degree of sagacity which rendered him famous fo_iles round. His conversational powers and surprising performances were th_niversal theme: and as many persons came to see the wonderful raven, and non_eft his exertions unrewarded—when he condescended to exhibit, which was no_lways, for genius is capricious—his earnings formed an important item in th_ommon stock. Indeed, the bird himself appeared to know his value well; fo_hough he was perfectly free and unrestrained in the presence of Barnaby an_is mother, he maintained in public an amazing gravity, and never stooped t_ny other gratuitous performances than biting the ankles of vagabond boys (a_xercise in which he much delighted), killing a fowl or two occasionally, an_wallowing the dinners of various neighbouring dogs, of whom the boldest hel_im in great awe and dread.
Time had glided on in this way, and nothing had happened to disturb or chang_heir mode of life, when, one summer’s night in June, they were in thei_ittle garden, resting from the labours of the day. The widow’s work was ye_pon her knee, and strewn upon the ground about her; and Barnaby stood leanin_n his spade, gazing at the brightness in the west, and singing softly t_imself.
‘A brave evening, mother! If we had, chinking in our pockets, but a few speck_f that gold which is piled up yonder in the sky, we should be rich for life.’
‘We are better as we are,’ returned the widow with a quiet smile. ‘Let us b_ontented, and we do not want and need not care to have it, though it la_hining at our feet.’
‘Ay!’ said Barnaby, resting with crossed arms on his spade, and lookin_istfully at the sunset, that’s well enough, mother; but gold’s a good thin_o have. I wish that I knew where to find it. Grip and I could do much wit_old, be sure of that.’
‘What would you do?’ she asked.
‘What! A world of things. We’d dress finely—you and I, I mean; not Grip—kee_orses, dogs, wear bright colours and feathers, do no more work, liv_elicately and at our ease. Oh, we’d find uses for it, mother, and uses tha_ould do us good. I would I knew where gold was buried. How hard I’d work t_ig it up!’
‘You do not know,’ said his mother, rising from her seat and laying her han_pon his shoulder, ‘what men have done to win it, and how they have found, to_ate, that it glitters brightest at a distance, and turns quite dim and dul_hen handled.’
‘Ay, ay; so you say; so you think,’ he answered, still looking eagerly in th_ame direction. ‘For all that, mother, I should like to try.’
‘Do you not see,’ she said, ‘how red it is? Nothing bears so many stains o_lood, as gold. Avoid it. None have such cause to hate its name as we have. D_ot so much as think of it, dear love. It has brought such misery an_uffering on your head and mine as few have known, and God grant few may hav_o undergo. I would rather we were dead and laid down in our graves, than yo_hould ever come to love it.’
For a moment Barnaby withdrew his eyes and looked at her with wonder. Then, glancing from the redness in the sky to the mark upon his wrist as if he woul_ompare the two, he seemed about to question her with earnestness, when a ne_bject caught his wandering attention, and made him quite forgetful of hi_urpose.
This was a man with dusty feet and garments, who stood, bare- headed, behin_he hedge that divided their patch of garden from the pathway, and lean_eekly forward as if he sought to mingle with their conversation, and waite_or his time to speak. His face was turned towards the brightness, too, bu_he light that fell upon it showed that he was blind, and saw it not.
‘A blessing on those voices!’ said the wayfarer. ‘I feel the beauty of th_ight more keenly, when I hear them. They are like eyes to me. Will they spea_gain, and cheer the heart of a poor traveller?’
‘Have you no guide?’ asked the widow, after a moment’s pause.
‘None but that,’ he answered, pointing with his staff towards the sun; ‘an_ometimes a milder one at night, but she is idle now.’
‘Have you travelled far?’
‘A weary way and long,’ rejoined the traveller as he shook his head. ‘A weary, weary, way. I struck my stick just now upon the bucket of your well—be please_o let me have a draught of water, lady.’
‘Why do you call me lady?’ she returned. ‘I am as poor as you.’
‘Your speech is soft and gentle, and I judge by that,’ replied the man. ‘Th_oarsest stuffs and finest silks, are—apart from the sense of touch—alike t_e. I cannot judge you by your dress.’
‘Come round this way,’ said Barnaby, who had passed out at the garden-gate an_ow stood close beside him. ‘Put your hand in mine. You’re blind and always i_he dark, eh? Are you frightened in the dark? Do you see great crowds o_aces, now? Do they grin and chatter?’
‘Alas!’ returned the other, ‘I see nothing. Waking or sleeping, nothing.’
Barnaby looked curiously at his eyes, and touching them with his fingers, a_n inquisitive child might, led him towards the house.
‘You have come a long distance, ‘said the widow, meeting him at the door. ‘Ho_ave you found your way so far?’
‘Use and necessity are good teachers, as I have heard—the best of any,’ sai_he blind man, sitting down upon the chair to which Barnaby had led him, an_utting his hat and stick upon the red- tiled floor. ‘May neither you nor you_on ever learn under them. They are rough masters.’
‘You have wandered from the road, too,’ said the widow, in a tone of pity.
‘Maybe, maybe,’ returned the blind man with a sigh, and yet with something o_ smile upon his face, ‘that’s likely. Handposts and milestones are dumb, indeed, to me. Thank you the more for this rest, and this refreshing drink!’
As he spoke, he raised the mug of water to his mouth. It was clear, and cold, and sparkling, but not to his taste nevertheless, or his thirst was not ver_reat, for he only wetted his lips and put it down again.
He wore, hanging with a long strap round his neck, a kind of scrip or wallet, in which to carry food. The widow set some bread and cheese before him, but h_hanked her, and said that through the kindness of the charitable he ha_roken his fast once since morning, and was not hungry. When he had made he_his reply, he opened his wallet, and took out a few pence, which was all i_ppeared to contain.
‘Might I make bold to ask,’ he said, turning towards where Barnaby stoo_ooking on, ‘that one who has the gift of sight, would lay this out for me i_read to keep me on my way? Heaven’s blessing on the young feet that wil_estir themselves in aid of one so helpless as a sightless man!’
Barnaby looked at his mother, who nodded assent; in another moment he was gon_pon his charitable errand. The blind man sat listening with an attentiv_ace, until long after the sound of his retreating footsteps was inaudible t_he widow, and then said, suddenly, and in a very altered tone:
‘There are various degrees and kinds of blindness, widow. There is th_onnubial blindness, ma’am, which perhaps you may have observed in the cours_f your own experience, and which is a kind of wilful and self-bandagin_lindness. There is the blindness of party, ma’am, and public men, which i_he blindness of a mad bull in the midst of a regiment of soldiers clothed i_ed. There is the blind confidence of youth, which is the blindness of youn_ittens, whose eyes have not yet opened on the world; and there is tha_hysical blindness, ma’am, of which I am, contrairy to my own desire, a mos_llustrious example. Added to these, ma’am, is that blindness of th_ntellect, of which we have a specimen in your interesting son, and which, having sometimes glimmerings and dawnings of the light, is scarcely to b_rusted as a total darkness. Therefore, ma’am, I have taken the liberty to ge_im out of the way for a short time, while you and I confer together, and thi_recaution arising out of the delicacy of my sentiments towards yourself, yo_ill excuse me, ma’am, I know.’
Having delivered himself of this speech with many flourishes of manner, h_rew from beneath his coat a flat stone bottle, and holding the cork betwee_is teeth, qualified his mug of water with a plentiful infusion of the liquo_t contained. He politely drained the bumper to her health, and the ladies, and setting it down empty, smacked his lips with infinite relish.
‘I am a citizen of the world, ma’am,’ said the blind man, corking his bottle, ‘and if I seem to conduct myself with freedom, it is therefore. You wonder wh_ am, ma’am, and what has brought me here. Such experience of human nature a_ have, leads me to that conclusion, without the aid of eyes by which to rea_he movements of your soul as depicted in your feminine features. I wil_atisfy your curiosity immediately, ma’am; immediately.’ With that he slappe_is bottle on its broad back, and having put it under his garment as before, crossed his legs and folded his hands, and settled himself in his chair, previous to proceeding any further.
The change in his manner was so unexpected, the craft and wickedness of hi_eportment were so much aggravated by his condition—for we are accustomed t_ee in those who have lost a human sense, something in its place almos_ivine—and this alteration bred so many fears in her whom he addressed, tha_he could not pronounce one word. After waiting, as it seemed, for some remar_r answer, and waiting in vain, the visitor resumed:
‘Madam, my name is Stagg. A friend of mine who has desired the honour o_eeting with you any time these five years past, has commissioned me to cal_pon you. I should be glad to whisper that gentleman’s name in you_ar.—Zounds, ma’am, are you deaf? Do you hear me say that I should be glad t_hisper my friend’s name in your ear?’
‘You need not repeat it,’ said the widow, with a stifled groan; ‘I see to_ell from whom you come.’
‘But as a man of honour, ma’am,’ said the blind man, striking himself on th_reast, ‘whose credentials must not be disputed, I take leave to say that _ill mention that gentleman’s name. Ay, ay,’ he added, seeming to catch wit_is quick ear the very motion of her hand, ‘but not aloud. With your leave, ma’am, I desire the favour of a whisper.’
She moved towards him, and stooped down. He muttered a word in her ear; and, wringing her hands, she paced up and down the room like one distracted. Th_lind man, with perfect composure, produced his bottle again, mixed anothe_lassful; put it up as before; and, drinking from time to time, followed he_ith his face in silence.
‘You are slow in conversation, widow,’ he said after a time, pausing in hi_raught. ‘We shall have to talk before your son.’
‘What would you have me do?’ she answered. ‘What do you want?’
‘We are poor, widow, we are poor,’ he retorted, stretching out his right hand, and rubbing his thumb upon its palm.
‘Poor!’ she cried. ‘And what am I?’
‘Comparisons are odious,’ said the blind man. ‘I don’t know, I don’t care. _ay that we are poor. My friend’s circumstances are indifferent, and so ar_ine. We must have our rights, widow, or we must be bought off. But you kno_hat, as well as I, so where is the use of talking?’
She still walked wildly to and fro. At length, stopping abruptly before him, she said:
‘Is he near here?’
‘He is. Close at hand.’
‘Then I am lost!’
‘Not lost, widow,’ said the blind man, calmly; ‘only found. Shall I call him?’
‘Not for the world,’ she answered, with a shudder.
‘Very good,’ he replied, crossing his legs again, for he had made as though h_ould rise and walk to the door. ‘As you please, widow. His presence is no_ecessary that I know of. But both he and I must live; to live, we must ea_nd drink; to eat and drink, we must have money:—I say no more.’
‘Do you know how pinched and destitute I am?’ she retorted. ‘I do not thin_ou do, or can. If you had eyes, and could look around you on this poor place, you would have pity on me. Oh! let your heart be softened by your ow_ffliction, friend, and have some sympathy with mine.’
The blind man snapped his fingers as he answered:
‘—Beside the question, ma’am, beside the question. I have the softest heart i_he world, but I can’t live upon it. Many a gentleman lives well upon a sof_ead, who would find a heart of the same quality a very great drawback. Liste_o me. This is a matter of business, with which sympathies and sentiments hav_othing to do. As a mutual friend, I wish to arrange it in a satisfactor_anner, if possible; and thus the case stands.—If you are very poor now, it’_our own choice. You have friends who, in case of need, are always ready t_elp you. My friend is in a more destitute and desolate situation than mos_en, and, you and he being linked together in a common cause, he naturall_ooks to you to assist him. He has boarded and lodged with me a long time (fo_s I said just now, I am very soft-hearted), and I quite approve of hi_ntertaining this opinion. You have always had a roof over your head; he ha_lways been an outcast. You have your son to comfort and assist you; he ha_obody at all. The advantages must not be all one side. You are in the sam_oat, and we must divide the ballast a little more equally.’
She was about to speak, but he checked her, and went on.
‘The only way of doing this, is by making up a little purse now and then fo_y friend; and that’s what I advise. He bears you no malice that I know of, ma’am: so little, that although you have treated him harshly more than once, and driven him, I may say, out of doors, he has that regard for you that _elieve even if you disappointed him now, he would consent to take charge o_our son, and to make a man of him.’
He laid a great stress on these latter words, and paused as if to find ou_hat effect they had produced. She only answered by her tears.
‘He is a likely lad,’ said the blind man, thoughtfully, ‘for many purposes, and not ill-disposed to try his fortune in a little change and bustle, if _ay judge from what I heard of his talk with you to-night.—Come. In a word, m_riend has pressing necessity for twenty pounds. You, who can give up a_nnuity, can get that sum for him. It’s a pity you should be troubled. Yo_eem very comfortable here, and it’s worth that much to remain so. Twent_ounds, widow, is a moderate demand. You know where to apply for it; a pos_ill bring it you.—Twenty pounds!’
She was about to answer him again, but again he stopped her.
‘Don’t say anything hastily; you might be sorry for it. Think of it a littl_hile. Twenty pounds—of other people’s money—how easy! Turn it over in you_ind. I’m in no hurry. Night’s coming on, and if I don’t sleep here, I shal_ot go far. Twenty pounds! Consider of it, ma’am, for twenty minutes; giv_ach pound a minute; that’s a fair allowance. I’ll enjoy the air the while, which is very mild and pleasant in these parts.’
With these words he groped his way to the door, carrying his chair with him.
Then seating himself, under a spreading honeysuckle, and stretching his leg_cross the threshold so that no person could pass in or out without hi_nowledge, he took from his pocket a pipe, flint, steel and tinder-box, an_egan to smoke. It was a lovely evening, of that gentle kind, and at that tim_f year, when the twilight is most beautiful. Pausing now and then to let hi_moke curl slowly off, and to sniff the grateful fragrance of the flowers, h_at there at his ease—as though the cottage were his proper dwelling, and h_ad held undisputed possession of it all his life—waiting for the widow’_nswer and for Barnaby’s return.