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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThere & Back - Chapter 6. Simon Armour
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There & Back - Chapter 6. Simon Armour Post by :healthyways2101 Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :3235

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There & Back - Chapter 6. Simon Armour

CHAPTER VI. SIMON ARMOUR

Simon Armour was past only the agility, not the strength of his youth, and in his feats of might and skill he cherished pride. Without being offensively conceited, he regarded himself--and well might--as the superior of any baronet such as his daughter's husband, and desired of him no recognition of the relationship. All he looked for from any man, whether he stood above or beneath his own plane, was proper pay for good work, and natural human respect. Some of the surrounding gentry, possibly not uninfluenced, in sentiment at least, by the growing radicalism of the age, enjoyed the free, jolly, but unpresuming carriage of the stalwart old man, to whom, if indeed on his head the almond-tree was already in blossom, the grasshopper was certainly not yet a burden: he could still ply a sledge-hammer in each hand. "My lord," came from his lips in a clear, ringing tone of good-fellowship, which the nobleman who occasionally stopped at his forge to give him some direction about the shoeing of this or that horse, liked well to hear, and felt the friendlier for--though I doubt if he would have welcomed it from a younger man.

Besides his daughter Jane and her husband, he alone was aware of the real parentage of the lad who passed as their son; and he knew that, if he lived long enough, an hour would call him to stand up for the rights of his grandson. Perhaps it was partly in view of this, that he had for years been an abstainer from strong drink; but I am inclined to attribute the fact chiefly to his having found the love of it gaining upon him. "Damn the drink!" he had been more than once overheard to say, "it shall know which of us is master!" And when Simon had made up his mind to a thing, the thing was--not indeed as good, but almost as sure as done. The smallest of small beer was now his strongest drink.

He was a hard-featured, good-looking, white-haired man of sixty, with piercing eyes of quite cerulean blue, and a rough voice with an undertone of music in it. There was music, indeed, all through him. In the roughest part of his history it was his habit to go to church--mainly, I may say entirely, for the organ, but his behaviour was never other than reverent. How much he understood, may be left a question somewhat dependent on how much there may have been to understand; but he had a few ideas in religion which were very much his own, and which, especially some with regard to certain of the lessons from the Old Testament, would have considerably astonished some parsons, and considerably pleased others. He was a big, broad-shouldered man, with the brawniest arms, and eyes so bright and scintillant that one might fancy they caught and kept for their own use the sparks that flew from his hammer. His face was red, with a great but short white beard, suggesting the sun in a clean morning-fog.

A rickety omnibus carried Richard from the railway-station some five miles to the smithy. When the old man heard it stop, he threw down his hammer, strode hastily to the door, met his grandson with a gripe that left a black mark and an ache, and catching up his portmanteau, set it down inside.

"I'll go with you in a moment, lad!" he said, and seizing with a long pair of pincers the horse-shoe that lay in process on the anvil, he thrust it into the fire, blew a great roaring blast from the bellows, plucked out the shoe glowing white, and fell upon it as if it were a devil. Having thus cowed it a bit, he grew calm, and more deliberately shaped it to an invisible idea. His grandson was delighted with the mingling of determination, intent, and power, with certainty of result, manifest in every blow. In two minutes he had the shoe on the end of a long hooked rod, and was hanging it beside others on a row of nails in a beam. Then he turned and said--

"There, lad! that's off the anvil--and off my mind! Now I'm for you!"

"Grandfather," said Richard, "I shouldn't like to have you for an enemy!"

"Why not, you rascal! Do you think I would take unfair advantage of you?"

"No, that I don't! But you've got awful arms and hands!"

"They've done a job or two in their day, lad!" he answered; "but I'm getting old now! I can't do what I thought nothing of once. Well, no man was made to last for ever--no more than a horse-shoe! There'd be no work for the Maker if he did!"

"I'm glad to see we're of one mind, grandfather!" said Richard.

"Well, why shouldn't we--if so be we're in the right mind!--Yes; we must be o' one mind if we're o' the right mind! The year or two I may be ahead o' you in gettin' at it, goes for nothing: I started sooner!--But what may be the mind you speak of, sonny?"

The look of keen question the old man threw on him, woke a doubt in Richard whether he might not have misunderstood his grandfather.

"I think," he answered, "if a man was made to last for ever, the world would get tired of him. When a horse or a dog has done his work, he's content--and so is his master."

"Nay, but I bean't! I bean't content to lose the old horse as I've shod mayhap for twenty years--no, not if I bean't his master!"

"There's no help for it, though!"

"None as I knows on. I'd be main glad to hear any news on the subjec' as you can supply!--No, I ain't content; I'm sorry!"

"Why don't the parsons say the old horse'll rise again?"

"'Cause the parsons knows nought about it. How should they?"

"They say we're going to rise again."

"Why shouldn't they? I guess I'll be up as soon as I may! I don't want no night to lie longer than rest my bones!"

"I mistook what you meant, grandfather. I thought, when you said you weren't made to last for ever, that you meant there was an end of you!"

"Well, so you might, and small blame to you! It's a wrong way of speaking we all have. But you've set me thinking--whether by mistake or not, where's the matter! I never thought what come o' the old horse, a'ter all his four shoes takes to shinin' at oncet! For the old smith when he drops his hammer--I have thought about _him_. Lord!--to think o' that anvil never ringin' no more to this here fist o' mine!"

While they talked, the blacksmith had put off his thick apron of hide; and now, catching up Richard's portmanteau as if it had been a hand-basket, he led the way to a cottage not far from the forge, in a lane that here turned out of the high road. It was a humble place enough--one story and a wide attic. The front was almost covered with jasmine, rising from a little garden filled with cottage flowers. Behind was a larger garden, full of cabbages and gooseberry-bushes.

A girl came to the door, with a kind, blushing face, and hands as red as her cheeks--a great-niece of the old smith. He passed her and led the way into a room half kitchen, half parlour.

"Here you are, lad--_at home, I hope! Sech as it is, an' as much as it's mine, it's yours, an' I hope you'll make it so."

He deposited the portmanteau, glanced quickly round, saw that Jessie had not followed them, and said--

"You'll keep your good news till I've turned it over!"

"What good news, grandfather?"

"The good news that them as is close pared, has no call to look out for the hoof to grow. I'm not saying you're wrong, lad--not _yet_; but everybody mightn't think your news so good as to be worth a special messenger! So till you're quite sure of it--"

"I _am quite sure of it, grandfather!"

"I'm not; and having charge of the girl there, I'll ha' no dish served i' my house as I don't think wholesome!"

"You're right there, grandfather! You may trust me!" answered Richard respectfully.

The blacksmith had spoken with a decision that was imperative. His red face shone out of his white beard, and his eyes sparkled out of his red face; his head gave a nod, and his jaws a snap.

They had tea, with bread and butter and marmalade, and much talk about John and Jane Tuke, in which the old man said oftener, "your aunt," and "your uncle," than "your father" or "your mother;" but Richard put it down to the confusion that often accompanies age. When the bookbinding came up, Richard was surprised to discover that the blacksmith was far from looking upon their trade as superior to his own. It was plain indeed that he regarded bookbinding as a quite inferior and scarce manly employment. To the blacksmith, bookbinding and tailoring were much the same--fit only for women. Richard did not relish this. He endeavoured to make his grandfather see the dignity of the work, insisting that its difficulty was the greater because of the less strength required in it: the strength itself had, he said, in certain of its operations, to be pared to the requisite fineness, to be modified with extreme accuracy; while in others, all the strength a man had was necessary, and especially in a shop like theirs, where everything was done by hand. But the fine work, he said, tired one much the most.

"Fine work!" echoed the smith with contempt. "There came a gentleman here to be shod t'other day from the Hall, who was a great traveller; and he told me he seen in Japan a blacksmith with a sprig of may on the anvil before him, an' him a-copyin' to the life them blossoms in hard iron with his one hammer! What say you to that, lad?"

"Wonderful! But that same man couldn't do the heavy work you think nothing of, grandfather!"

"Nay, for that I don't know. I know I couldn't do his!"

"Then we'll allow that fine work may be a manly thing as well as hard work. But I do wish I could shoe a horse!"

"What's to hinder you?"

"Will you let me learn, grandfather?"

"Learn! I'll learn you myself. _You'll soon learn. It's not as if you was a bumpkin to teach! The man as can do anything, can do everything."

"Come along then, grandfather! I want to let you see that though my hands may catch a blister or two, they're not the less fit for hard work that they can do fine. I'll be safe to shoe a horse before many days are over. Only you must have a little patience with me."

"Nay, lad, I'll have a great patience with you. Before many days are over, make the shoe you may, and make it well; but to shoe a horse as the horse ought to be shod, that comes by God's grace."

They went back to the smithy, and there, the very day of his arrival, more to Simon's delight than he cared to show, the soft-handed bookbinder began to wield a hammer, and compel the stubborn iron. So deft and persevering was he, that, ere they went from the forge that same night, he could not only bend the iron to a proper curve round the beak of the anvil, but had punched the holes in half a dozen shoes. At last he confessed himself weary; and when his grandfather saw the state of his hands, blistered and swollen so that he could not close them, he was able no longer to restrain his satisfaction.

"Come!" he cried; "you're a man after all, bookbinder! In six months I should have you a thorough blacksmith."

"I wouldn't undertake to make a bookbinder of you, grandfather, in the time!" returned Richard.

"Tit for tat, sonny, and it's fair!" said Simon. "I should leave the devil his mark on your white pages.--How much of them do you rend now, as you stick them together?"

"Not a word as I stick them together. But many are brought me to be doctored and mended up, and from some of them I take part of my pay in reading them--books, I mean, that I wouldn't otherwise find it easy to lay my hands upon--scarce books, you know."

"You would like to go to Oxford, wouldn't ye, lad--and lay in a stock to last your life out?"

"You might as well think to lay victuals into you for a lifetime, grandfather! But I should like to lay in a stock of the tools to be got at Oxford! It would be grand to be able to pick the lock of any door I wanted to see the other side of."

"I'll put you up to pick any lock you ever saw, or are likely to see," returned Armour. "I served my time to a locksmith. We didn't hit it off always, and so hit one another--as often almost as the anvil. So when I was out of my time, and couldn't get locksmith's work except in a large forge, I knew better than take it: for I couldn't help getting into rows, and was afraid of doing somebody a mischief when my blood was up. So I started for myself as a general blacksmith-in a small way, of course. But my right hand 'ain't forgot its cunning in locks! I'll teach you to pick the cunningest lock in the world--whether made in Italy or in China."

"The lock I was thinking of," said Richard, "was that of the tree of knowledge."

"I've heerd," returned Simon, with more humour than accuracy, "as that was a raither pecooliar lock. How it was kep' red hot all the time without coal and bellows, I don't seem to see!"

"Ah!" said Richard, "you mean the flaming sword that turned every way?"

"I reckon I do!"

"You don't say you believe that story, grandfather?"

"I don't say what I believe or what I don't believe. The flamin' iron as I've had to do with, has both kep' me out o' knowledge, an' led me into knowledge! I'll turn the tale over again! You see, lad, when I was a boy, I thought everything my mother said and my father did, old-fashioned, and a bit ignorant-like; but when I was a man, I saw that, if I had started right off from where they set me down, I would ha' been farther ahead. To honour your father an' mother don't mean to stick by their chimbley-corner all your life, but to start from their front door and go foret. I went by the back door, like the fool I was, to get into the front road, and had a long round to make."

"I shan't do so with my father. He don't read much, but he thinks. He's got a head, my father!"

"There was fathers afore yours, lad! You needn't scorn yer gran'ther for your father!"

"Scorn you, grandfather! God forbid!--or, at least,--"

"You don't see what I'm drivin' at, sonny!--When an old tale comes to me from the far-away time, I don't pitch it into the road, any more'n I would an old key or an old shoe--a horse-shoe, I mean: it was something once, and it may be something again! I hang the one up, and turn the other over. An' if you be strong set on throwin' either away, lad, I misdoubt me you an' me won't blaze together like _one flamin' sword!"

Richard held his peace. The old man had already somehow impressed him. If he had not, like his father, bid good-bye to superstition, there was in him a power that was not in his father--a power like that he found in his favourite books.

"Mind what he says, and do what he tells you, and you'll get on splendid!" his mother had said as he came away.

"Don't be afraid of him, but speak up: he'll like you the better for it," his father had counselled. "I should never have married your mother if I'd been afraid of him."

Richard, trying to follow both counsels, got on with his grandfather better than fairly.

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