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As he left the dirty waiting-room, and the invisible man with the lantern, the clock over the door marked five minutes past eight.
Although it was more than twelve hours since he had eaten food, he was not (owing to having pa.s.sed so much of the day in sleep) so hungry as he might have been. Nevertheless, appreciating what a task was before him, he would have given any thing that he could call his own for a good meal before starting. But he had handed over his last cent to the conductor, and now, time pressed him.
He was young and strong, and no one was more tireless in walking than he; his joints were firm as iron, yet supple and springy; his muscles tough and lean, of immense enduring power; his lungs were deep, and he breathed easily through his nostrils; his gait was long and elastic; but, had he been twice the man he was, the journey upon which he was now started would have been no child's play; being what he was, it was nothing less than a hazard of life and death. But Bressant seemed to think the peril quite worth encountering, in consideration of the chance of arriving by noon next day at the Parsonage-door; and, for the first time in his life, he felt grateful to G.o.d for the mighty bones and sinews he had given him. This was the time to use them, if they were paralyzed forever after!
Having gained the road, he set off with a long, swinging stride, such as the Indians use, half-way between a walk and a run. As long as he could keep that up, he would be making six miles an hour--a mile and a half over the necessary rate; but he well knew he would need all his surplus before morning broke, and was determined to make it as large as possible before want of food weakened him. The road, except for the snow, was favorable for speed, being nearly level and tolerably straight; but the flakes flying into his eyes made it impossible to be sure of his footing; and the various ruts and inequalities, common to all American turn-pikes, and aggravated by the half-frozen snow covering, caused him several slips and stumbles; trifling matters enough at other times, but now, when every unnecessary breath and false step would count up terribly, in the end, quite sufficiently serious.
The vigorous motion, however, sent the blood singing through his body from head to foot. He felt exhilarated and braced. The driving snow melted pleasantly on his warm face, and ran down into his thickly-curling beard, crusted over with frozen breath and sleet. The cold air came long and refreshingly into his wide-open nostrils. He took off his fur cap and threw open the breast of his pea-jacket. His exuberant physical sensations wrought a corresponding effect upon his previous mental gloom: he found himself looking to the future with dawnings of a new hope and cheerfulness. At no time in his life had he felt himself existing through so wide and full a range. He was a man now in full breadth and height, and, as he looked back upon his previous life, he could trace, as from a lofty vantage-ground, the plan and bearing of his former thoughts and deeds.
He remarked the wide discrepancies between what he had proposed and what he had accomplished. How insignificant circ.u.mstances had effected momentous results! He saw how, whenever failure and dishonor had filtered in, it was where weakness, self-indulgence, or untruthfulness, had left an opening. He saw how one wrong had been a sure and easy path to another, until in the end he had groveled face downward in the mire.
His mind turned on the two women between whom his path had lain: how highly he had aimed, and how low he had fallen! How enviable would have been his fate had he consistently kept to either! for each had been peerless in her way. How despicable was his position having greedily grasped at both! And now the one was dying, and the other degraded like himself. A worthy record that!
One was dying: yes, that he knew, and felt that upon his speed and resolution did it depend whether in this world he might hope for the blessing of forgiveness from her lips. The thought urged him on, like an ever-fretting spur. He b.u.t.ted yet more swiftly into the darkness and against the reeling snow-flakes, and the road lay in steadily-lengthening stretches behind him. She was waiting for him--that he felt--and was striving, with all her kind and loving might, to hold herself in life until he came. G.o.d help him, then, to be there at the appointed hour!
And Cornelia? Of her he ventured not much to think. She was, perchance, the key whereby, for her and for himself, this dark riddle should hereafter be resolved. As Adam might labor for redemption only with his sin about his neck, so they, out of the fabric woven of their disgrace, must seek to fashion garments in which worthily to appear at heaven's gates.
As his mind rambled thus, he came to the outskirts of a long, wooded tract, which--for the map, as he had seen it at the railway-station, was clearly marked out in his memory, from the beginning to the end of his route--he knew was upward of ten miles from his starting-point; and, as near as he could judge (his watch, lying at the bottom of the fountain-basin in the Parsonage-garden, had never been replaced), it must be rather more than half-past nine o'clock. He maintained the same long, swinging trot, as unfalteringly as ever, though, perhaps, a trifle less springily than at first. The footing was deep and heavy, the thick fir-trees having kept the snow from being blown off the road, as in more exposed situations. Bressant was wet to his skin, for the temperature had risen, and the flakes melted as fast as they fell. Most of his glow and vigor remained, however, and he was no whit disheartened or doubtful. But the sky bent darkly over him, and the tall trees shut out all but a strip even of the scanty light that came thence. The moon would not rise for hours yet.
Another hour pa.s.sed on over the toiling man. He had now begun to get among hills, and his course was always either up or down. This was in some degree a relief, affording change of movement to his muscles; but it probably lost him some little time, and certainly gave plenty of exercise to his lungs. Something of the superabundant warmth was leaving his body. He replaced his cap and b.u.t.toned up his jacket. What would not half a dozen biscuits have been worth to him now!
On and on. The hills opened, and in the inclosure they made lay a small village, with its white meeting-house and cl.u.s.tering dwellings. The windows were many of them alight: the people were sitting up for the new year. Bressant wondered whether it would dawn for any of them so strangely as for him! As he hurried along the empty street, a sign over one of the doors, barely discernible in the darkness, attracted his attention. He paused close to it, and made out the words, "West India goods and groceries;" and at once his fancy reveled in the savory eatables stored beyond his reach. What cheese and b.u.t.ter, what hams, biscuits, and apples; what salted codfish and strings of sausages, were there! Had the store been open, he would have been tempted to rush in, knock the salesman senseless, and make off with whatever he could carry.
Strange thoughts these for a man bound on an errand of life and death!
But hunger is no respecter of occasions, however inopportune, or of emotions, however incongruous. Bressant pa.s.sed on. He was now twenty-five miles on his way, and as he came beneath the meeting-house clock, it struck twelve: the new year had come! To Bressant it brought only the knowledge that he was seven miles ahead of his time; and this served in some measure to counteract the depression caused by his hunger. But on--on! There were still fifty miles to go!
The village vanished, like the old year, behind him. He was now crossing a lofty plateau, over which swept the wind, strong and chilly. He began to feel the cold now, and his wet clothes, once in a while, made him shiver. His physical exhilaration had left him, and his long trot, save where a downward slope favored him, had gradually sobered into a quick walk. His shoes, soaked with snow-water, began to chafe his feet. But he knew better than to stop for rest: the only safety lay in keeping steadily on; and on he kept, his mouth set grimly, and his head a little bent forward.
From the top of the plateau was a gradual descent of some five miles; and here Bressant again fell into a run, reaching the bottom, without extraordinary exertion, in a trifle less than three-quarters of an hour.
He felt the need of his watch very keenly now; it would have been a great a.s.sistance and encouragement to know just how much he was doing.
He could no longer afford to waste any strength, even in making calculations; he was fully occupied in putting one foot before another.
How dark, and cold, and blankly disheartening it was! He had now completed fifty miles, though he knew it not; but it seemed to him as if he had been full a hundred. His feet, rubbed raw, and stiffened by the cold, were beginning to r.e.t.a.r.d his pace alarmingly. His face and lips were pale; a sensation of emptiness and chilled vitality pervaded his body. It had come down to grim hard work; every step was a conscious effort; and yet he had no time to spare.
The storm had lightened considerably, but the young man's eyes were dull and heavy; it was a constant struggle to keep awake. He scarcely attended to the road, but plunged along, careless of where he trod.
Suddenly, however, and for the first time since starting, he came to a dead halt, and, after gazing about him a moment, cried out in dismay.
And well he might, for he stood in a field, with no sign anywhere of road or path! In his sleepy inattention, he had lost his way and wandered he knew not whither.
At first he was too much paralyzed by this discovery to think or act. He threw himself face downward on the snow, and lay like a log. G.o.d was against him! How could he go on? Ah, how sweet felt that cold bed! Let him lie there in peace, to move no more! Surely he had done his best; who could blame him for a failure beyond his power to avert? The darkness would pa.s.s over him, and leave him stretched there motionless; the first light of morning would mark the dark outlines of his prostrate figure, and he would not turn to greet it. Daylight would succeed, the sun would climb the sky and shine down upon him warmly; but he would be insensible as to the darkness or the cold. Twilight would settle over the field again, and night, following, would find him as she had left him, p.r.o.ne upon his face, with outstretched arms. For he would be dead--dead--dead--and at rest!
But the end had not yet come. Ere he had quite sunk into insensibility, he was conscious of a feeling within him, as if some one were pulling--pulling at his heart, with a force benign and loving, yet strong as death itself. He staggered to his feet, and, stumbling as he walked, set his face against the cold and cheerless sky once more. The pulling at his heart-strings seemed to draw him steadily in one certain direction; he traversed acres of field and pasture-land blind and insensible to every thing save this mysterious guide. In his weak and exhausted state his spiritual perceptions were doubtless less inc.u.mbered than when he was in full possession of his strength. So he was drawn undeviatingly on and on, until, unexpectedly, he found himself in a road again. Then he recognized that it was Sophie's spirit which had rescued him from death and failure. He had unconsciously made the short cut across the fields, which he had noticed and decided not to attempt when examining the map. He had saved five miles in distance, equal to fully an hour in time. The thought inspired him anew, and gave him further strength. With such divine encouragement, he could falter and hesitate no more.
Morning began to break dully over the sullen clouds as he resumed in earnest his weary journey. Each yard of ground pa.s.sed was now a battle gained--every breath drawn a sobbing groan. Hills and dales rose successively before him, clothed in the dead-white snow that had become a nightmare to his darkening sight. He reeled sometimes as he walked, dizzy from lack of sleep; a thousand fantastic fancies flitted through his hot brain; a deadly lethargy began once more to creep over his senses, but he gnawed the flesh of his lips to keep back consciousness.
And still, when will grew powerless, he felt the mysterious strain upon his heart.
Only ten miles more! But they seemed by far the longer part of the whole way. He was now within the range of his walks while living at the boarding-house, and could see in his mind every slope and ascent, every curve and angle, that lay between him and the Parsonage-door; and he felt the weight of every hill upon his shoulders. At the risk of falling, he stooped, s.n.a.t.c.hed a handful of snow, and put it inside his cap, so that it lay, cold and refreshing, upon his brain. Then he took a handful in either hand, and so kept on.
The minutes grew into hours; the hours seemed to become days; but there, at last, the well-known village lay! How reposeful and unconcerned the houses looked, as if there were no such thing in the world as effort, despair, or victory! As he came near, Bressant tried to nerve himself, to walk erect and steady, to clear and concentrate his swimming sight and confused head. He dreaded to meet the village-people, to have them come staring and questioning about him, whispering and laughing among themselves, and asking one another what was the matter with the man who was engaged to the minister's daughter on this his wedding-morning.
Just then he felt a gentle pulling at his heart!
Presently he was in the village. There was a disjointed vision of faces, some of which he knew, floating around him. Once in a while he caught the sound of a voice through the humming in his ears. Were they offering him a.s.sistance? warning him? calling to him? He knew not, nor cared. He pa.s.sed on, feebly but desperately. He saw the clock on the church-steeple mark half-past eleven; still in time, thank G.o.d! but no time to lose.
How well he knew the road, over which he was now groping his staggering and uncertain way! In how many moods he had walked it, actuated by how many different pa.s.sions and impulses! And now he was as one dead, whose body is dragged strangely onward by some invincibly-determined will. A great fear suddenly seized upon him that here, upon this very last mile of all the weary ones he had trod since the previous night-fall, he was going to sink down, and give up his life and his attempt at the same moment. Oh, Heaven help him to the end! O Sophie, let not the tender strain upon his heart relax!
For nothing less than that can save him now! His eyes see no longer; his feet stumble in ignorance; he sleeps, and dreams of events which happened--was it long ago?--upon this road. Here he met and talked with Cornelia, that autumn day. Back there, they paused on the brow of the hill, one moonlight night, was that so long ago, too? Here, some time in the past, he had found a lifeless body in the snow, clad in a bridal dress; here, he had caught a runaway horse by the head, and--
He fell headlong to the ground. The shock partly awoke him. He struggled up to his knees--was there any one a.s.sisting him?--another struggle--he was on his feet. Right before him lay the house--the old Parsonage; there were the gate, the path, the porch. He made a final effort--it forced a deadly sweat from his forehead--and still there was a vague sense of being supported and directed by some one--he could not stop to see or question who; but, had it not been for that support, he must have failed. The gate opened, with its old creak and rattle, before him; a hand he saw not held it till he pa.s.sed through.
Now, at the moment when he had fallen in the road, of the three who had all along been awaiting him within--of these three, two only were left.
But, so quietly had the third departed, the others perceived not that she was gone. The features, which remained, wore an expression of angelic happiness. It was as she had wished.
At the same moment, too, through a rift in the dull sky, a little gleam of sunshine--the first of that gray day--descended, and rested upon Bressant. It accompanied him to the gate, and, still keeping close to him, slipped up the path between the trees, and even followed him on to the porch, where it brightened about him, as he put his hand to the latch. Was it a symbol of some loving spirit, newly set free from its mortal body, come to watch over him for evermore?
An old woman, who stood without clutching the palings of the gate, saw Bressant open the door and pa.s.s inward, and the sunshine entered with him. The door was left ajar--might she not enter too? Just then, a little ormolu clock, on the mantel-piece inside, gave a preliminary whirr, and hastily struck the hour of noon. As if in answer to a signal, the sun smiled broadly forth, and quite transfigured the weather-beaten old Parsonage.