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But, all of a sudden something heavy touched her clothes, and startled her, and two dark objects pa.s.sed her.
They were animals.
In a moment it darted through her mind that animals are wiser than man in some things. She got up with difficulty, for her limbs were stiffened, and followed them.
The dark forms struggled on before. They knew the ground, and soon took her to the edge of that very stream into which Coventry had fallen.
They all three went within a yard of Mr. Coventry, and still they pursued their way; and Grace hoped they were making for some shelter.
She now called aloud to Mr. Coventry, thinking he must be on before her.
But he had not recovered his senses.
Unfortunately, the cry startled the sheep, and they made a rush, and she could not keep up with them: she toiled, she called, she prayed for strength; but they left her behind, and she could see their very forms no more. Then she cried out in agony, and still, with that power of self-excitement, which her s.e.x possess in an eminent degree, she struggled on and on, beyond her strength till, at last, she fell down from sheer exhaustion, and the snow fell fast upon her body.
But, even as she lay, she heard a tinkling. She took it for sheep-bells, and started up once more, and once more cried to Mr. Coventry; and this time he heard her, and shook off his deadly lethargy, and tried to hobble toward her voice.
Meantime, Grace struggled toward the sound, and lo, a light was before her, a light gleaming red and dullish in the laden atmosphere. With her remnant of life and strength, she dashed at it, and found a wall in her way. She got over it somehow, and saw the light quite close, and heard the ringing of steel on steel.
She cried out for help, for she felt herself failing. She tottered along the wall of the building, searching for a door. She found the porch. She found the church door. But by this time she was quite spent; her senses reeled; her cry was a moan.
She knocked once with her hands. She tried to knock again; but the door flew suddenly open, and, in the vain endeavor to knock again, her helpless body, like a pillar of snow, fell forward; but Henry Little caught her directly, and then she clutched him feebly, by mere instinct.
He uttered a cry of love and alarm. She opened her filmy eyes, and stared at him. Her cold neck and white cheek rested on his bare and glowing arm.
The moment he saw it was really Grace Carden that had fallen inanimate into his arms, Henry Little uttered a loud cry of love and terror, and, putting his other sinewy arm under her, carried her swiftly off to his fires, uttering little moans of fear and pity as he went; he laid her down by the fire, and darted to the forge, and blew it to a white heat; and then darted back to her, and kissed her cold hands with pretty moans of love; and then blew up the other fires; and then back to her, and patted her hands, and kissed them with all his soul, and drew them to his bosom to warm them; and drew her head to his heart to warm her; and all with pretty moans of love, and fear, and pity; and the tears rained out of his eyes at sight of her helpless condition, and the tears fell upon her brow and her hands; and all this vitality and love soon electrified her; she opened her eyes, and smiled faintly, but such a smile, and murmured, "It's you," and closed her eyes again.
Then he panted out, "Yes, it is I,--a friend. I won't hurt you--I won't tell you how I love you any more--only live! Don't give way. You shall marry who you like. You shall never be thwarted, nor worried, nor made love to again; only be brave and live; don't rob the world of the only angel that is in it. Have mercy, and live! I'll never ask more of you than that. Oh, how pale! I am frightened. Cursed fires, have you no warmth IN you?" And he was at the bellows again. And the next moment back to her, imploring her, and sighing over her, and saying the wildest, sweetest, drollest things, such as only those who love can say, in moments when hearts are bursting.
How now? Her cheek that was so white is pink--pinker--red--scarlet. She is blushing.
She had closed her eyes at love's cries. Perhaps she was not altogether unwilling to hear that divine music of the heart, so long as she was not bound to reply and remonstrate--being insensible.
But now she speaks, faintly, but clearly, "Don't he frightened. I promise not to die. Pray don't cry so." Then she put out her hand to him, and turned her head away, and cried herself, gently, but plenteously.
Henry, kneeling by her, clasped the hand she lent him with both his, and drew it to his panting heart in ecstasy.
Grace's cheeks were rosy red.
They remained so a little while in silence.
Henry's heart was too full of beat.i.tude to speak. He drew her a little nearer to the glowing fires, to revive her quite; but still kneeled by her, and clasped her hand to his heart. She felt it beat, and turned her blushing brow away, but made no resistance: she was too weak.
"Halloo!" cried a new voice, that jarred with the whole scene; and Mr.
Coventry hobbled in sight. He gazed in utter amazement on the picture before him.
Grace s.n.a.t.c.hed her hand from Henry, and raised herself with a vigor that contrasted with her late weakness. "Oh, it is Mr. Coventry. How wicked of me to forget him for a moment. Thank Heaven you are alive. Where have you been?"
"I fell into the mountain stream, and it rolled me down, nearly to here.
I think I must have fainted on the bank. I found myself lying covered with snow; it was your beloved voice that recalled me to life."
Henry turned yellow, and rose to his feet.
Grace observed him, and replied, "Oh, Mr. Coventry, this is too high-flown. Let us both return thanks to the Almighty, who has preserved us, and, in the next place, to Mr. Little: we should both be dead but for him." Then, before he could reply, she turned to Little, and said, beseechingly, "Mr. Coventry has been the companion of my danger."
"Oh, I'll do the best I can for him," said Henry, doggedly. "Draw nearer the fire, sir." He then put some coal on the forge, and blew up an amazing fire: he also gave the hand-bellows to Mr. Coventry, and set him to blow at the small grates in the mausoleum. He then produced a pair of woolen stockings. "Now, Miss Carden," said he, "just step into that pew, if you please, and make a dressing-room of it."
She demurred, faintly, but he insisted, and put her into the great pew, and shut her in.
"And now, please take off your shoes and stockings, and hand them over the pew to me."
"Oh, Mr. Little: you are giving yourself so much trouble."
"Nonsense. Do what you are bid." He said this a little roughly.
"I'll do whatever YOU bid me," said she, meekly: and instantly took off her dripping shoes, and stockings, and handed them over the pew. She received, in return, a nice warm pair of worsted stockings.
"Put on these directly," said he, "while I warm your shoes."
He dashed all the wet he could out of the shoes, and, taking them to the forge, put hot cinders in: he shook the cinders up and down the shoes so quickly, they had not time to burn, but only to warm and dry them. He advised Coventry to do the same, and said he was sorry he had only one pair of stockings to lend. And that was a lie: for he was glad he had only one pair to lend. When he had quite dried the shoes, he turned round, and found Grace was peeping over the pew, and looking intolerably lovely in the firelight. He kissed the shoes furtively, and gave them to her. She shook her head in a remonstrating way, but her eyes filled.
He turned away, and, rousing all his generous manhood, said, "Now you must both eat something, before you go." He produced a Yorkshire pie, and some bread, and a bottle of wine. He gave Mr. Coventry a saucepan, and set him to heat the wine; then turned up his sleeves to the shoulder, blew his bellows, and, with his pincers, took a lath of steel and placed it in the white embers. "I have only got one knife, and you won't like to eat with that. I must forge you one apiece."
Then Grace came out, and stood looking on, while he forged knives, like magic, before the eyes of his astonished guests. Her feet were now as warm as a toast, and her healthy young body could resist all the rest.
She stood, with her back to the nearest pew, and her hands against the pew too, and looked with amazement, and dreamy complacency, at the strange scene before her: a scene well worthy of Salvator Rosa; though, in fact, that painter never had the luck to hit on so variegated a subject.
Three broad bands of light shot from the fires, expanding in size, but weakening in intensity. These lights, and the candles at the west end, revealed in a strange combination the middle ages, the nineteenth century, and eternal nature.
Nature first. Snow gleaming on the windows. Oh, it was cozy to see it gleam and sparkle, and to think "Aha! you all but killed me; now King Fire warms both thee and me." Snow-flakes, of enormous size, softly descending, and each appearing a diamond brooch, as it pa.s.sed through the channels of fiery light.
The middle ages. Ma.s.sive old arches, chipped, and stained; a moldering altar-piece, dog's-eared (Henry had nailed it up again all but the top corner, and in it still faintly gleamed the Virgin's golden crown).
Pulpit, richly carved, but moldering: gaunt walls, streaked and stained by time. At the west end, one saint--the last of many--lit by two candles, and glowing ruby red across the intervening gulf of blackness: on the nearest wall an inscription, that still told, in rusty letters, how Giles de la Beche had charged his lands with six merks a year forever, to buy bread and white watered herrings, the same to be brought into Cairnhope Church every Sunday in Lent, and given to two poor men and four women; and the same on Good Friday with a penny dole, and, on that day, the clerk to toll the bell at three of the clock after noon, and read the lamentation of a sinner, and receive one groat.
Ancient monuments, sculptures with here an arm gone, and here a head, that yet looked half-alive in the weird and partial light.
And between one of those mediaeval sculptures, and that moldering picture of the Virgin, stood a living horse, munching his corn; and in the foreground was a portable forge, a mausoleum turned into fires and hot plate, and a young man, type of his century, forging table-knives amidst the wrecks of another age.
When Grace had taken in the whole scene with wonder, her eye was absorbed by this one figure, a model of manly strength, and skill, and grace. How lightly he stepped: how easily his left arm blew the coals to a white heat, with blue flames rising from them. How deftly he drew out the white steel. With what tremendous force his first blows fell, and scattered hot steel around. Yet all that force was regulated to a hair--he beat, he molded, he never broke. Then came the lighter blows; and not one left the steel as it found it. In less than a minute the bar was a blade, it was work incredibly unlike his method in carving; yet, at a glance, Grace saw it was also perfection, but in an opposite style.
In carving, the hand of a countess; in forging, a blacksmith's arm.
She gazed with secret wonder and admiration; and the comparison was to the disadvantage of Mr. Coventry; for he sat shivering, and the other seemed all power. And women adore power.
When Little had forged the knives and forks, and two deep saucers, with magical celerity, he plunged them into water a minute, and they hissed; he sawed off the rim of a pew, and fitted handles.