V. At the Sign o' the Dial
 

It was Sunday and a clear, frosty morning of midwinter. Trove had risen early and was walking out on a long pike that divided the village of Hillsborough and cut the waste of snow, winding over hills and dipping into valleys, from Lake Champlain to Lake Ontario. The air was cold but full of magic sun-fire. All things were aglow--the frosty roadway, the white fields, the hoary forest, and the mind of the beholder. Trove halted, looking off at the far hills. Then he heard a step behind him and, as he turned, saw a tall man approaching at a quick pace. The latter had no overcoat. A knit muffler covered his throat, and a satchel hung from a strap on his shoulder.

"What ho, boy!" said he, shivering. "'I'll follow thee a month, devise with thee where thou shalt rest, that thou may'st hear of us, an' we o' thee.' What o' thy people an' the filly?"

"All well," said Trove, who was delighted to see the clock tinker, of whom he had thought often. "And what of you?"

"Like an old clock, sor--a weak spring an' a bit slow. But, praise God! I've yet a merry gong in me. An' what think you, sor, I've travelled sixty miles an' tinkered forty clocks in the week gone."

"I think you yourself will need tinkering."

"Ah, but I thank the good God, here is me home," the old man remarked wearily.

"I'm going to school here," said Trove, "and hope I may see you often."

"Indeed, boy, we'll have many a blessed hour," said the tinker. "Come to me shop; we'll talk, meditate, explore, an' I'll see what o'clock it is in thy country."

They were now in the village, and, halfway down its main thoroughfare, went up a street of gloom and narrowness between dingy workshops. At one of them, shaky, and gray with the stain of years, they halted. The two lower windows in front were dim with dirt and cobwebs. A board above them was the rude sign of Sam Bassett, carpenter. On the side of the old shop was a flight of sagging, rickety stairs. At the height of a man's head an old brass dial was nailed to the gray boards. Roughly lettered in lampblack beneath it were the words, "Clocks Mended." They climbed the shaky stairs to a landing, supported by long braces, and whereon was a broad door, with latch and keyhole in its weathered timber.

"All bow at this door," said the old tinker, as he put his long iron key in the lock. "It's respect for their own heads, not for mine," he continued, his hand on the eaves that overhung below the level of the door-top.

They entered a loft, open to the peak and shingles, with a window in each end. Clocks, dials, pendulums, and tiny cog-wheels of wood and brass were on a long bench by the street window. Thereon, also, were a vice and tools. The room was cleanly, with a crude homelikeness about it. Chromos and illustrated papers had been pasted on the rough, board walls.

"On me life, it is cold," said the tinker, opening a small stove and beginning to whittle shavings, "'Cold as a dead man's nose.' Be seated, an' try--try to be happy."

There was an old rocker and two small chairs in the room.

"I do not feel the cold," said Trove, taking one of them.

"Belike, good youth, thou hast the rose of summer in thy cheeks," said the old man.

"And no need of an overcoat," the boy answered, removing the one he wore and passing it to the tinker. "I wish you to keep it, sir."

"Wherefore, boy? 'Twould best serve me on thy back."

"Please take it," said Trove. "I cannot bear to think of you shivering in the cold. Take it, and make me happy."

"Well, if it keep me warm, an' thee happy, it will be a wonderful coat," said the old man, wiping his gray eyes.

Then he rose and filled the stove with wood and sat down, peering at Trove between the upper rim of his spectacles and the feathery arches of silvered hair upon his brows.

"Thy coat hath warmed me heart already--thanks to the good God!" said he, fervently. "Why so kind?"

"If I am kind, it is because I must be," said the boy. "Who were my father and mother, I never knew. If I meet a man who is in need, I say to myself, 'He may be my father or my brother, I must be good to him;' and if it is a woman, I cannot help thinking that, maybe, she is my mother or my sister. So I should have to be kind to all the people in the world if I were to meet them."

"Noble suspicion! by the faith o' me fathers!" said the old man, thoughtfully, rubbing his long nose. "An' have ye thought further in the matter? Have ye seen whither it goes?"

"I fear not."

"Well, sor, under the ancient law, ye reap as ye have sown, but more abundantly. I gave me coat to one that needed it more, an' by the goodness o' God I have reaped another an' two friends. Hold to thy course, boy, thou shalt have friends an' know their value. An' then thou shalt say, 'I'll be kind to this man because he may be a friend;' an' love shall increase in thee, an' around thee, an' bring happiness. Ah, boy! in the business o' the soul, men pay thee better than they owe. Kindness shall bring friendship, an' friendship shall bring love, an' love shall bring happiness, an' that, sor, that is the approval o' God. What speculation hath such profit? Hast thou learned to think?"

"I hope I have," said the boy.

"Prithee--think a thought for me. What is the first law o' life?"

There was a moment of silence.

"Thy pardon, boy," said the venerable tinker, filling a clay pipe and stretching himself on a lounge. "Thou art not long out o' thy clouts. It is, 'Thou shalt learn to think an' obey.' Consider how man and beast are bound by it. Very well--think thy way up. Hast thou any fear?"

The old man was feeling his gray hair, thoughtfully.

"Only the fear o' God," said the boy, after a moment of hesitation.

"Well, on me word, I am full sorry," said the tinker. "Though mind ye, boy, fear is an excellent good thing, an' has done a work in the world. But, hear me, a man had two horses the same age, size, shape, an' colour, an' one went for fear o' the whip, an' the other went as well without a whip in the wagon. Now, tell me, which was the better horse?"

"The one that needed no whip."

"Very well!" said the old man, with emphasis. "A man had two sons, an' one obeyed him for fear o' the whip, an' the other, because he loved his father, an' could not bear to grieve him. Tell me again, boy, which was the better son?"

"The one that loved him," said the boy.

"Very well! very well!" said the old man, loudly. "A man had two neighbours, an' one stole not his sheep for fear o' the law, an' the other, sor, he stole them not, because he loved his neighbour. Now which was the better man?"

"The man that loved him."

"Very well! very well! and again very well!" said the tinker, louder than before. "There were two kings, an' one was feared, an' the other, he was beloved; which was the better king?"

"The one that was beloved."

"Very well! and three times again very well!" said the old man, warmly. "An' the good God is he not greater an' more to be loved than all kings? Fear, boy, that is the whip o' destiny driving the dumb herd. To all that fear I say 'tis well, have fear, but pray that love may conquer it. To all that love I say, fear only lest ye lose the great treasure. Love is the best thing, an' with too much fear it sickens. Always keep it with thee--a little is a goodly property an' its revenoo is happiness. Therefore, be happy, boy--try ever to be happy."

There was a moment of silence broken by the sound of a church bell.

"To thy prayers," said the clock tinker, rising, "an' I'll to mine. Dine with me at five, good youth, an' all me retinoo--maids, warders, grooms, attendants--shall be at thy service."

"I'll be glad to come," said the boy, smiling at his odd host.

"An' see thou hast hunger."

"Good morning, Mr. ---- ?" the boy hesitated.

"Darrel--Roderick Darrel--" said the old man, "that's me name, sor, an' ye'll find me here at the Sign o' the Dial."

A wind came shrieking over the hills, and long before evening the little town lay dusky in a scud of snow mist. The old stairs were quivering in the storm as Trove climbed them.

"Welcome, good youth," said the clock tinker, shaking the boy's hand as he came in. "Ho there! me servitors. Let the feast be spread," he called in a loud voice, stepping quickly to the stove that held an upper deck of wood, whereon were dishes. "Right Hand bring the meat an' Left Hand the potatoes an' Quick Foot give us thy help here."

He suited his action to the words, placing a platter of ham and eggs in the centre of a small table and surrounding it with hot roast potatoes, a pot of tea, new biscuit, and a plate of honey.

"Ho! Wit an' Happiness, attend upon us here," said he, making ready to sit down.

Then, as if he had forgotten something, he hurried to the door and opened it.

"Care, thou skeleton, go hence, and thou, Poverty, go also, and see thou return not before cock-crow," said he, imperatively.

"You have many servants," said Trove.

"An' how may one have a castle without servants? Forsooth, boy, horses an' hounds, an' lords an' ladies have to be attended to. But the retinoo is that run down ye'd think me home a hospital. Wit is a creeping dotard, and Happiness he is in poor health an' can barely drag himself to me table, an' Hope is a tippler, an' Right Hand is getting the palsy. Alack! me best servant left me a long time ago."

"And who was he?"

"Youth! lovely, beautiful Youth! but let us be happy. I would not have him back--foolish, inconstant Youth! dreaming dreams an' seeing visions. God love ye, boy! what is thy dream?"

This rallying style of talk, in which the clock tinker indulged so freely, afforded his young friend no little amusement. His tongue had long obeyed the lilt of classic diction; his thought came easy in Elizabethan phrase. The slight Celtic brogue served to enhance the piquancy of his talk. Moreover he was really a man of wit and imagination.

"Once," said the boy, after a little hesitation, "I thought I should try to be a statesman, but now I am sure I would rather write books."

"An' what kind o' books, pray?"

"Tales."

"An' thy merchandise be truth, capital!" exclaimed the tinker. "Hast thou an ear for tales?"

"I'm very fond of them."

"Marry, I'll tell thee a true tale, not for thy ear only but for thy soul, an' some day, boy, 'twill give thee occupation for thy wits."

"I'd love to hear it," said the boy.

The pendulums were ever swinging like the legs of a procession trooping through the loft, some with quick steps, some with slow. Now came a sound as of drums beating. It was for the hour of eight, and when it stopped the tinker began.

"Once upon a time," said he, as they rose from the table and the old man went for his pipe, "'twas long ago, an' I had then the rose o' youth upon me, a man was tempted o' the devil an' stole money--a large sum--an' made off with it. These hands o' mine used to serve him those days, an' I remember he was a man comely an' well set up, an', I think, he had honour an' a good heart in him."

The old man paused.

"I should not think it possible," said Trove, who was at the age of certainty in his opinions and had long been trained to the uncompromising thought of the Puritan. "A man who steals can have no honour in him."

"Ho! Charity," said the clock tinker, turning as if to address one behind him. "Sweet Charity! attend upon this boy. Mayhap, sor," he continued meekly. "God hath blessed me with little knowledge o' what is possible. But I speak of a time before guilt had sored him. He was officer of a great bank--let us say--in Boston. Some thought him rich, but he lived high an' princely, an' I take it, sor, his income was no greater than his needs. It was a proud race he belonged to--grand people they were, all o' them--with houses an' lands an' many servants. His wife was dead, sor, an' he'd one child--a little lad o' two years, an' beautiful. One day the boy went out with his nurse, an' where further nobody knew. He never came back. Up an' down, over an' across they looked for him, night an' day, but were no wiser, A month went by an' not a sight or sign o' him, an' their hope failed. One day the father he got a note,--I remember reading it in the papers, sor,--an' it was a call for ransom money--one hundred thousand dollars."

"Kidnapped!" Trove exclaimed with much interest.

"He was, sor," the clock tinker resumed. "The father he was up to his neck in trouble, then, for he was unable to raise the money. He had quarrelled with an older brother whose help would have been sufficient. Well, God save us all! 'twas the old story o' pride an' bitterness. He sought no help o' him. A year an' a half passes an' a gusty night o' midwinter the bank burns. Books, papers, everything is destroyed. Now the poor man has lost his occupation. A week more an' his good name is gone; a month an' he's homeless. A whisper goes down the long path o' gossip. Was he a thief an' had he burned the record of his crime? The scene changes, an' let me count the swift, relentless years."

The old man paused a moment, looking up thoughtfully.

"Well, say ten or mayhap a dozen passed--or more or less it matters little. Boy an' man, where were they? O the sad world, sor! To all that knew them they were as people buried in their graves. Think o' this drowning in the flood o' years--the stately ships sunk an' rotting in oblivion; some word of it, sor, may well go into thy book."

The tinker paused a moment, lighting his pipe, and after a puff or two went on with the tale.

"It is a winter day in a great city--there are buildings an' crowds an' busy streets an' sleet'in the bitter wind. I am there,--an' me path is one o' many crossing each other like--well, sor, like lines on a slate, if thou were to make ten thousand o' them an' both eyes shut. I am walking slowly, an' lo! there is the banker. I meet him face to face--an ill-clad, haggard, cold, forgotten creature. I speak to him.

"'The blessed Lord have mercy on thee,' I said.

"'For meeting thee?' said the poor man. 'What is thy name?'

"'Roderick Darrel.'

"'An' I,' said he, sadly, 'am one o' the lost in hell. Art thou the devil?'

"'Nay, this hand o' mine hath opened thy door an' blacked thy boots for thee often,' said I. 'Dost thou not remember?'

"'Dimly--it was a long time ago,' he answered.

"We said more, sor, but that is no part o' the story. Very well! I went with him to his lodgings,--a little cold room in a garret,--an' there alone with me he gave account of himself. He had shovelled, an' dug, an' lifted, an' run errands until his strength was low an' the weight of his hand a burden. What hope for him--what way to earn a living!

"'Have courage, man,' I said to him. 'Thou shalt learn to mend clocks. It's light an' decent work, an' one may live by it an' see much o' the world.'

"There was an old clock, sor, in a heap o' rubbish that lay in a corner. I took it apart, and soon he saw the office of each wheel an' pinion an' the infirmity that stopped them an' the surgery to make them sound. I tarried long in the great city, an' every evening we were together in the little room. I bought him a kit o' tools an' some brass, an' we would shatter the clockworks an' build them up again until he had skill, sor, to make or mend.

"'Me good friend,' said he, one evening after we had been a long time at work, 'I wish thou could'st teach me how to mend a broken life. For God's sake, help me! I am fainting under a great burden.'

"'What can I do?' said I to him.

"Then, sor, he went over his story with me from beginning to end. It was an impressive, a sacred confidence. Ah, boy, it would be dishonour to tell thee his name, but his story, that I may tell thee, changing the detail, so it may never add a straw to his burden. I shall quote him in substance only, an' follow the long habit o' me own tongue.

"'Well, ye remember how me son was taken,' said he. 'I could not raise the ransom, try as I would. Now, large sums were in me keeping an' I fell. I remember that day. Ah! man, the devil seemed to whisper to me. But, God forgive! it was for love that I fell. Little by little I began to take the money I must have an' cover its absence. I said to meself, some time I'll pay it back--that ancient sophistry o' the devil. When me thieving had gone far, an' near its goal, the bank burned. As God's me witness I'd no hand in that. I weighed the chances an' expected to go to prison--well, say for ten years, at least. I must suffer in order to save the boy, an' was ready for the sacrifice. Free again, I would help him to return the money. That burning o' the records shut off the prison, but opened the fire o' hell upon me. Half a year had gone by, an' not a word from the kidnappers. I took a note to the place appointed,--a hollow log in the woods, a bit east of a certain bridge on the public highway twenty miles out o' the city,--but no answer,--not a word,--not a line up to this moment. They must have relinquished hope an' put the boy to death.

"'In that old trunk there under the bed is a dusty, moulding, cursed heap o' money done up in brown paper an' tied with a string. It is a hundred thousand dollars, an' the price o' me soul.'

"'An' thou in rags an' a garret,' said I.

"'An' I in rags an' hell,' said he, sor, looking down at himself.

"He drew out the trunk an' showed me the money, stacks of it, dirty, an' stinking o' damp mould.

"'There it is,' said he, 'every dollar I stole is there. I brought it with me an' over these hundreds o' miles I could hear the tongue o' gossip. Every night as I lay down I could hear the whispering of all the people I ever knew. I could see them shake their heads. Then came this locket o' gold.'

"A beautiful, shiny thing it was, an' he took out of it a little strand o' white hair an' read these words cut in the gleaming case:--

  "'Here are silver an' gold,
  The one for a day o' remembrance between thee an' dishonour,
  The other for a day o' plenty between thee an' want.'

"It was an odd thought an' worth keeping, an' often I have repeated the words. The silvered hair, that was for remembrance; an' the gold he might sell and turn it into a day o' plenty.

"'In the locket was a letter,' said the poor man. 'Here it is,' an' he held it in the light o' the candle. 'See, it is signed "mother."'

"An' he read from the letter words o' sorrow an' bitter shame, an' firm confidence in his honour,

"'It ground me to the very dust,' he went on. 'I put the money in that bundle, every dollar. I could not return it, an' so confirm the disgrace o' her an' all the rest. I could not use it, for if I lived in comfort they would ask--all o' them--whence came his money? For their sake I must walk in poverty all me days. An' I went to work at heavy toil, sor, as became a poor man. As God's me judge I felt a pride in rags an' the horny hand.'"

The tinker paused a moment in which all the pendulums seemed to quicken pace, tick lapping upon tick, as if trying to get ahead of each other.

"Think of it, boy," Darrel continued. "A pride in rags an' poverty. Bring that into thy book an' let thy best thinking bear upon it. Show us how patch an' tatter were for the poor man as badges of honour an' success.

"'I thought to burn the money,' me host went on. 'But no, that would have robbed me o' one great possibility--that o' restoring it. Some time, when they were dead, maybe, an' I could suffer alone, I would restore it, or, at least, I might see a way to turn it into good works. So I could not be quit o' the money. Day an' night these slow an' heavy years it has been me companion, cursing an' accusing me.

"'I lie here o' nights thinking. In that heap o' money I seem to hear the sighs an' sobs o' the poor people that toiled to earn it. I feel their sweat upon me, an' God! this heart o' mine is crowded to bursting with the despair o' hundreds. An', betimes, I hear the cry o' murder in the cursed heap as if there were some had blood upon it. An' then I dream it has caught fire beneath me an' I am burning raw in the flame.'"

The tinker paused again, crossing the room and watching the swing of a pendulum.

"Boy, boy," said he, returning to his chair, "think' o' that complaining, immovable heap lying there like the blood of a murder. An' thy reader must feel the toil an' sweat an' misery an' despair that is in a great sum, an' how it all presses on the heart o' him that gets it wrongfully.

"'Well, sor,' the poor fellow continued, 'now an' then I met those had known me, an' reports o' me poverty went home. An' those dear to me sent money, the sight o' which filled me with a mighty sickness, an' I sent it back to them. Long ago, thank God! they ceased to think me a thief, but only crazy. Tell me, man, what shall I do with the money? There be those living I have to consider, an' those dead, an' those unborn.'

"'Hide it,' said I, 'an' go to thy work an' God give thee counsel.'"

Man and boy rose from the table and drew up to the little stove.

"Now, boy," said the clock tinker, leaning toward him with knitted brows, "consider this poor thief who suffered so for his friends. Think o' these good words, 'Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.' If thou should'st ever write of it, thy problem will be to reckon the good an' evil, an' give each a careful estimate an' him his proper rank!"

"What a sad tale!" said the boy, thoughtfully. "It's terrible to think he may be my father."

"I'd have no worry o' that, sor," said the clock tinker. "There be ten thousand--ay, more--who know not their fathers. An', moreover, 'twas long, long ago."

"Please tell me when was the boy taken," said Trove.

"Time, or name, or place, I cannot tell thee, lest I betray him," said the old man, "Neither is necessary to thy tale. Keep it with thee a while; thou art young yet an' close inshore. Wait until ye sound the further deep. Then, sor, write, if God give thee power, and think chiefly o' them in peril an' about to dash their feet upon the stones."

For a moment the clocks' ticking was like the voice of many ripples washing the shore of the Infinite. A new life had begun for Trove, and they were cutting it into seconds. He looked up at them and rose quickly and stood a moment, his thumb on the door-latch. Outside they could hear the rush and scatter of the snow.

"Poor youth!" said the old man. "Thou hast no coat--take mine. Take it, I say. It will give thee comfort an' me happiness."

He would hear no refusal, and again the coat changed owners, giving happiness to the old and comfort to the new.

Then Trove went down the rickety stairs and away in the darkness.