VI. A Certain Rick Man
 

Riley Brooke had a tongue for gossip, an ear for evil report, an eye for rascals. Every day new suspicions took root in him, while others grew and came to great size and were as hard to conceal as pumpkins. He had meanness enough to equip all he knew, and gave it with a lavish tongue. In his opinion Hillsborough came within one of having as many rascals in it as there were people. He had tried to bring them severally to justice by vain appeals to the law, having sued for every cause in the books, but chiefly for trespass and damages, real and exemplary. He was a money-lender, shaving notes or taking them for larger sums than he lent, with chattel mortgages for security. Foreclosure and sale were a perennial source of profit to him. He was tall and well past middle age, with a short, gray beard, a look of severity, a stoop in his shoulders, and a third wife whom nobody, within the knowledge of the townfolk, had ever seen. If he had no other to gossip with, he provided imaginary company and talked to his own ears. He thought himself a most powerful and agile man, boasting often that he still kept the vigour of his youth. On his errands in the village he often broke into an awkward gallop, like a child at play. When he slackened pace it was to shake his head solemnly, as if something had reminded him of the wickedness of the world.

"If I dared tell all I knew," he would whisper suggestively, and then proceed to tell much more than he could possibly have known. Any one of many may have started his tongue, but the shortcomings of one Ezekiel Swackhammer were for him an ever present help and provocation. If there were nothing new to talk about, there was always Swackhammer. Poor Swackhammer had done everything he ought not to have done. The good God himself was the only being that had the approval of old Riley Brooke. It was curious--that turning of his tongue from the slander of men to the praise of God. And of the goodness of the Almighty he was quite as sure as of the badness of men. Assurance of his own salvation had come to him one day when he was shearing sheep, and when, as he related often, finding himself on his knees to shear, he remained to pray. Sundays and every Wednesday evening he wore a stove-pipe hat and a long frock coat of antique and rusty aspect. On his way to church--with hospitality even for the like of him, thank God!--he walked slowly with head bent until, remembering his great agility and strength, he began to run, giving a varied exhibition of skips and jumps terminating in a sort of gallop. Once in the sacred house he looked to right and left accusingly, and aloft with encouraging applause. His God was one of wrath, vengeance, and destruction; his hell the destination of his enemies. They who resented the screw of his avarice, and pulled their thumbs away; they who treated him with contempt, and whose faults, compared to his own, were as a mound to a mountain--they were all to burn with everlasting fire, while he, on account of that happy thought the day of the sheep-shearing, was to sit forever with the angels in heaven.

"Ye're going t' heaven, I hear," said Darrel, who had repaired a clock for him, and heard complaint of his small fee.

"I am," was the spirited reply.

"God speed ye!" said the tinker, as he went away.

In such disfavour was the poor man, that all would have been glad to have him go anywhere, so he left Hillsborough.

One day in the Christmas holidays, a boy came to the door of Riley Brooke, with a buck-saw on his arm.

"I'm looking for work," said the boy, "and I'd be glad of the chance to saw your wood."

"How much a cord?" was the loud inquiry.

"Forty cents."

"Too much," said Brooke. "How much a day?"

"Six shillings."

"Too much," said the old man, snappishly. "I used to git six dollars a month, when I was your age, an' rise at four o'clock in the mornin' an' work till bedtime. You boys now-days are a lazy good-fer-nothin' lot. What's yer name?"

"Sidney Trove."

"Don't want ye."

"Well, mister," said the boy, who was much in need of money, "I'll saw your wood for anything you've a mind to give me."

"I'll give ye fifty cents a day," said the old man.

Trove hesitated. The sum was barely half what he could earn, but he had given his promise, and fell to. Riley Brooke spent half the day watching and urging him to faster work. More than once the boy was near quitting, but kept his good nature and a strong pace. When, at last, Brooke went away, Trove heard a sly movement of the blinds, and knew that other eyes were on the watch. He spent three days at the job--laming, wearisome days, after so long an absence from heavy toil.

"Wal, I suppose y& want money," Brooke snapped, as the boy came to the door. "How much?"

"One dollar and a half."

"Too much, too much; I won't pay it."

"That was the sum agreed upon."

"Don't care, ye hain't earned no dollar 'n a half. Here, take that an' clear out;" having said which, Brooke tossed some money at the boy and slammed the door in his face. Trove counted the money--it was a dollar and a quarter. He was sorely tempted to open the door and fling it back at him, but wisely kept his patience and walked away. It was the day before Christmas. Trove had planned to walk home that evening, but a storm had come, drifting the snow deep, and he had to forego the visit. After supper he went to the Sign of the Dial. The tinker was at home in his odd little shop and gave him a hearty welcome. Trove sat by the fire, and told of the sawing for Riley Brooke.

"God rest him!" said the tinker, thoughtfully puffing his pipe. "What would happen, think ye, if a man like him were let into heaven?"

"I cannot imagine," said the boy.

"Well, for one thing," said the tinker, "he'd begin to look for chattels, an' I do fear me there'd soon be many without harps."

"What is one to do with a man like that?" Trove inquired.

"Only this," said the tinker; "put him in thy book. He'll make good history. But, sor, for company he's damnably poor."

"It's a new way to use men," said Trove.

"Nay, an old way--a very old way. Often God makes an example o' rare malevolence an' seems to say, 'Look, despise, and be anything but this.' Like Judas and Herod he is an excellent figure in a book. Put him in thine, boy."

"And credit him with full payment?" the boy asked.

"Long ago, praise God, there was a great teacher," said the old man. "It is a day to think of Him. Return good for evil--those were His words. We've never tried it, an' I'd like to see how it may work. The trial would be amusing if it bore no better fruit."

"What do you propose?"

"Well, say we take him a gift with our best wishes," said the tinker.

"If I can afford it," the boy replied.

The tinker answered quickly: "Oh, I've always a little for a Christmas, an' I'll buy the gifts. Ah, boy, let's away for the gifts. We'll--we'll punish him with kindness."

They went together and bought a pair of mittens and a warm muffler for Riley Brooke and walked to his door with them and rapped upon it. Brooke came to the door with a candle.

"What d'ye want?" he demanded.

"To wish you Merry Christmas and present you gifts," said Trove.

The old man raised his candle, surveying them with surprise and curiosity.

"What gifts?" he inquired in a milder tone.

"Well," said the boy, "we've brought you mittens and a muffler."

"Ha! ha! Yer consciences have smote ye," said Brooke, "Glory to God who brings the sinner to repentance!"

"And fills the bitter cup o' the ungrateful," said the tinker. And they went away.

"I'd like to bring one other gift," said Darrel.

"What's that?"

"God forgive me! A rope to hang him. But mind thee, boy, we are trying the law o' the great teacher, and let us see if we can learn to love this man."

"Love Riley Brooke?" said Trove, doubtfully.

"A great achievement, I grant thee," said the tinker. "For if we can love him, we shall be able to love anybody. Let us try and see what comes of it."

A man was waiting for Darrel at the foot of the old stairs--a tall man, poorly dressed, whom Trove had not seen before, and whom, now, he was not able to see clearly in the darkness.

"The mare is ready," said Darrel. "Tis a dark night."

He to whom the tinker had spoken made no answer.

"Good night," said the tinker, turning. "A Merry Christmas to thee, boy, an' peace an' plenty."

"I have peace, and you have given me plenty to think about," said Trove.

On his way home the boy thought of the stranger at the stairs, wondering if he were the other tinker of whom Darrel had told him. At his lodging he found a new pair of boots with only the Christmas greeting on a card.

"Well," said Trove, already merrier than most of far better fortune, "he must have been somebody that knew my needs."