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Salted With Fire
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CHAPTER XI

It would be difficult to represent the condition of mind in which Blatherwick sat on the box-seat of the Defiance coach that evening, behind four gray thorough-breds, carrying him at the rate of ten miles an hour towards Deemouth. Hurt pride, indignation, and a certain mild revenge in contemplating Maggie's disappointment when at length she should become aware of the distinction he had gained and she had lost, were its main components. He never noted a feature of the rather tame scenery that went hurrying past him, and yet the time did not seem to go slowly, for he was astonished when the coach stopped, and he found his journey at an end.

He got down rather cramped and stiff, and, as it was still early, started for a stroll about the streets to stretch his legs, and see what was going on, glad that he had not to preach in the morning, and would have all the afternoon to go over his sermon once more in that dreary memory of his. The streets were brilliant with gas, for Saturday was always a sort of market- night, and at that moment they were crowded with girls going merrily home from the paper-mill at the close of the week's labour. To Blatherwick, who had very little sympathy with gladness of any sort, the sight only called up by contrast the very different scene on which his eyes would look down the next evening from the vantage coigne of the pulpit, in a church filled with an eminently respectable congregation—to which he would be setting forth the results of certain late geographical discoveries and local identifications, not knowing that already even later discoveries had rendered all he was about to say more than doubtful.

But while, sunk in a not very profound reverie, he was in the act of turning the corner of a narrow wynd, he was all but knocked down by a girl whom another in the crowd had pushed violently against him. Recoiling from the impact, and unable to recover her equilibrium, she fell helplessly prostrate on the granite pavement, and lay motionless. Annoyed and half- angry, he was on the point of walking on, heedless of the accident, when something in the pale face among the coarse and shapeless shoes that had already gathered thick around it, arrested him with a strong suggestion of some one he had once known. But the same moment the crowd hid her from his view; and, shocked even to be reminded of Isy in such an assemblage, he turned resolutely away, and cherishing the thought of the many chances against its being she, walked steadily on. When he looked round again ere crossing the street, the crowd had vanished, the pavement was nearly empty, and a policeman who just then came up, had seen nothing of the occurrence, remarking only that the girls at the paper-mills were a rough lot.

A moment more and his mind was busy with a passage in his sermon which seemed about to escape his memory: it was still as impossible for him to talk freely about the things a minister is supposed to love best, as it had been when he began to preach. It was not, certainly, out of the fulness of the heart that his mouth ever spoke!

He sought the house of Mr. Robertson, the friend he had come to assist, had supper with him and his wife, and retired early. In the morning he went to his friend's church, in the afternoon rehearsed his sermon to himself, and when the evening came, climbed the pulpit-stair, and soon appeared engrossed in its rites. But as he seemed to be pouring out his soul in the long extempore prayer, he suddenly opened his eyes as if unconsciously compelled, and that moment saw, in the front of the gallery before him, a face he could not doubt to be that of Isy. Her gaze was fixed upon him; he saw her shiver, and knew that she saw and recognized him. He felt himself grow blind. His head swam, and he felt as if some material force was bending down his body sideways from her. Such, nevertheless, was his self- possession, that he reclosed his eyes, and went on with his prayer—if that could in any sense be prayer where he knew neither word he uttered, thing he thought, nor feeling that moved him. With Claudius in Hamlet he might have said,

   My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
   Words without thoughts never to heaven go!

But while yet speaking, and holding his eyes fast that he might not see her again, his consciousness all at once returned—it seemed to him through a mighty effort of the will, and upon that he immediately began to pride himself. Instantly there-upon he was aware of his thoughts and words, and knew himself able to control his actions and speech. All the while, however, that he conducted the rest of the "service," he was constantly aware, although he did not again look at her, of the figure of Isy before him, with its gaze fixed motionless upon him, and began at last to wonder vaguely whether she might not be dead, and come back from the grave to his mind a mysterious thought-spectre. But at the close of the sermon, when the people stood up to sing, she rose with them; and the half-dazed preacher sat down, exhausted with emotion, conflict, and effort at self-command. When he rose once more for the benediction, she was gone; and yet again he took refuge in the doubt whether she had indeed been present at all.

When Mrs. Robertson had retired, and James was sitting with his host over their tumbler of toddy, a knock came to the door. Mr. Robertson went to open it, and James's heart sank within him. But in a moment his host returned, saying it was a policeman to let him know that a woman was lying drunk at the bottom of his doorsteps, and to inquire what he wished done with her.

"I told him," said Mr. Robertson, "to take the poor creature to the station, and in the morning I would see her. When she's ill the next day, you see," he added, "I may have a sort of chance with her; but it is seldom of any use."

A horrible suspicion that it was Isy herself had seized on Blatherwick; and for a moment he was half inclined to follow the men to the station; but his friend would be sure to go with him, and what might not come of it! Seeing that she had kept silent so long, however, it seemed to him more than probable that she had lost all care about him, and if let alone would say nothing. Thus he reasoned, lost in his selfishness, and shrinking from the thought of looking the disreputable creature in the eyes. Yet the awful consciousness haunted him that, if she had fallen into drunken habits and possibly worse, it was his fault, and the ruin of the once lovely creature lay at his door, and his alone.

He made haste to his room, and to bed, where for a long while he lay unable even to think. Then all at once, with gathered force, the frightful reality, the keen, bare truth broke upon him like a huge, cold wave; he had a clear vision of his guilt, and the vision was conscious of itself as his guilt; he saw it rounded in a gray fog of life-chilling dismay. What was he but a troth-breaker, a liar—and that in strong fact, not in feeble tongue? "What am I," said Conscience, "but a cruel, self-seeking, loveless horror—a contemptible sneak, who, in dread of missing the praises of men, crept away unseen, and left the woman to bear alone our common sin?" What was he but a whited sepulchre, full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness?—a fellow posing in the pulpit as an example to the faithful, but knowing all the time that somewhere in the land lived a woman—once a loving, trusting woman—who could with a word hold him up to the world a hypocrite and a dastard—

   A fixed figure for the Time of scorn
   To point his slow unmoving finger at!

He sprang to the floor; the cold hand of an injured ghost seemed clutching feebly at his throat. But, in or out of bed, what could he do? Utterly helpless, he thought, but in truth not daring to look the question as to what he could do in the face, he crept back ignominiously into his bed; and, growing a little less uncomfortable, began to reason with himself that things were not so bad as they had for that moment seemed; that many another had failed in like fashion with him, but his fault had been forgotten, and had never reappeared against him! No culprit was ever required to bear witness against himself! He must learn to discipline and repress his over-sensitiveness, otherwise it would one day seize him at a disadvantage, and betray him into self-exposure!

Thus he reasoned—and sank back once more among the all but dead; the loud alarum of his rousing conscience ceased, and he fell asleep in the resolve to get away from Deemouth the first thing in the morning, before Mr. Robertson should be awake. How much better it had been for him to hold fast his repentant mood, and awake to tell everything! but he was very far from having even approached any such resolution. Indeed no practical idea of his, however much brooded over at night, had ever lived to bear fruit in the morning; not once had he ever embodied in action an impulse toward atonement! He could welcome the thought of a final release from sin and suffering at the dissolution of nature, but he always did his best to forget that at that very moment he was suffering because of wrong he had done for which he was taking no least trouble to make amends. He had lived for himself, to the destruction of one whom he had once loved, and to the denial of his Lord and Master!

More than twice on his way home in the early morning, he all but turned to go back to the police-station, but it was, as usual, only all but, and he kept walking on.

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