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- Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood - 6/86 -
"Well, sir, I can't deny it. It's not much I spend on baccay, anyhow. Is it, dame?
"No, that it bean't," answered his wife.
"You don't think there's any harm in smoking a pipe, sir?"
"Not the least," I answered, with emphasis.
"You see, sir," he went on, not giving me time to prove how far I was from thinking there was any harm in it; "You see, sir, sailors learns many ways they might be better without. I used to take my pan o' grog with the rest of them; but I give that up quite, 'cause as how I don't want it now."
"'Cause as how," interrupted his wife, "you spend the money on tea for me, instead. You wicked old man to tell stories!"
"Well, I takes my share of the tea, old woman, and I'm sure it's a deal better for me. But, to tell the truth, sir, I was a little troubled in my mind about the baccay, not knowing whether I ought to have it or not. For you see, the parson that's gone didn't more than half like it, as I could tell by the turn of his hawse-holes when he came in at the door and me a-smokin'. Not as he said anything; for, ye see, I was an old man, and I daresay that kep him quiet. But I did hear him blow up a young chap i' the village he come upon promiscus with a pipe in his mouth. He did give him a thunderin' broadside, to be sure! So I was in two minds whether I ought to go on with my pipe or not."
"And how did you settle the question, Rogers?"
"Why, I followed my own old chart, sir."
"Quite right. One mustn't mind too much what other people think."
"That's not exactly what I mean, sir."
"What do you mean then? I should like to know."
"Well, sir, I mean that I said to myself, 'Now, Old Rogers, what do you think the Lord would say about this here baccay business?"'
"And what did you think He would say?"
"Why, sir, I thought He would say, 'Old Rogers, have yer baccay; only mind ye don't grumble when you 'aint got none.'"
Something in this--I could not at the time have told what--touched me more than I can express. No doubt it was the simple reality of the relation in which the old man stood to his Father in heaven that made me feel as if the tears would come in spite of me.
"And this is the man," I said to myself, "whom I thought I should be able to teach! Well, the wisest learn most, and I may be useful to him after all."
As I said nothing, the old man resumed--
"For you see, sir, it is not always a body feels he has a right to spend his ha'pence on baccay; and sometimes, too, he 'aint got none to spend."
"In the meantime," I said, "here is some that I bought for you as I came along. I hope you will find it good. I am no judge."
The old sailor's eyes glistened with gratitude. "Well, who'd ha' thought it. You didn't think I was beggin' for it, sir, surely?"
"You see I had it for you in my pocket."
"Well, that IS good o' you, sir!"
"Why, Rogers, that'll last you a month!" exclaimed his wife, looking nearly as pleased as himself.
"Six weeks at least, wife," he answered. "And ye don't smoke yourself, sir, and yet ye bring baccay to me! Well, it's just like yer Master, sir."
I went away, resolved that Old Rogers should have no chance of "grumbling" for want of tobacco, if I could help it.
On the way back, my thoughts were still occupied with the woman I had seen in the little shop. The old man-of-war's man was probably the nobler being of the two; and if I had had to choose between them, I should no doubt have chosen him. But I had not to choose between them; I had only to think about them; and I thought a great deal more about the one I could not understand than the one I could understand. For Old Rogers wanted little help from me; whereas the other was evidently a soul in pain, and therefore belonged to me in peculiar right of my office; while the readiest way in which I could justify to myself the possession of that office was to make it a shepherding of the sheep. So I resolved to find out what I could about her, as one having a right to know, that I might see whether I could not help her. From herself it was evident that her secret, if she had one, was not to be easily gained; but even the common reports of the village would be some enlightenment to the darkness I was in about her.
As I went again through the village, I observed a narrow lane striking off to the left, and resolved to explore in that direction. It led up to one side of the large house of which I have already spoken. As I came near, I smelt what has been to me always a delightful smell--that of fresh deals under the hands of the carpenter. In the scent of those boards of pine is enclosed all the idea the tree could gather of the world of forest where it was reared. It speaks of many wild and bright but chiefly clean and rather cold things. If I were idling, it would draw me to it across many fields.--Turning a corner, I heard the sound of a saw. And this sound drew me yet more. For a carpenter's shop was the delight of my boyhood; and after I began to read the history of our Lord with something of that sense of reality with which we read other histories, and which, I am sorry to think, so much of the well-meant instruction we receive in our youth tends to destroy, my feeling about such a workshop grew stronger and stronger, till at last I never could go near enough to see the shavings lying on the floor of one, without a spiritual sensation such as I have in entering an old church; which sensation, ever since having been admitted on the usual conditions to a Mohammedan mosque, urges me to pull off, not only my hat, but my shoes likewise. And the feeling has grown upon me, till now it seems at times as if the only cure in the world for social pride would be to go for five silent minutes into a carpenter's shop. How one can think of himself as above his neighbours, within sight, sound, or smell of one, I fear I am getting almost unable to imagine, and one ought not to get out of sympathy with the wrong. Only as I am growing old now, it does not matter so much, for I daresay my time will not be very long.
So I drew near to the shop, feeling as if the Lord might be at work there at one of the benches. And when I reached the door, there was my pale-faced hearer of the Sunday afternoon, sawing a board for a coffin-lid.
As my shadow fell across and darkened his work, he lifted his head and saw me.
I could not altogether understand the expression of his countenance as he stood upright from his labour and touched his old hat with rather a proud than a courteous gesture. And I could not believe that he was glad to see me, although he laid down his saw and advanced to the door. It was the gentleman in him, not the man, that sought to make me welcome, hardly caring whether I saw through the ceremony or not. True, there was a smile on his lips, but the smile of a man who cherishes a secret grudge; of one who does not altogether dislike you, but who has a claim upon you--say, for an apology, of which claim he doubts whether you know the existence. So the smile seemed tightened, and stopped just when it got half-way to its width, and was about to become hearty and begin to shine.
"May I come in?" I said.
"Come in, sir," he answered.
"I am glad I have happened to come upon you by accident," I said.
He smiled as if he did not quite believe in the accident, and considered it a part of the play between us that I should pretend it. I hastened to add--
"I was wandering about the place, making some acquaintance with it, and with my friends in it, when I came upon you quite unexpectedly. You know I saw you in church on Sunday afternoon."
"I know you saw me, sir," he answered, with a motion as if to return to his work; "but, to tell the truth, I don't go to church very often."
I did not quite know whether to take this as proceeding from an honest fear of being misunderstood, or from a sense of being in general superior to all that sort of thing. But I felt that it would be of no good to pursue the inquiry directly. I looked therefore for something to say.
"Ah! your work is not always a pleasant one," I said, associating the feelings of which I have already spoken with the facts before me, and looking at the coffin, the lower part of which stood nearly finished upon trestles on the floor.
"Well, there are unpleasant things in all trades," he answered. "But it does not matter," he added, with an increase of bitterness in his smile.
"I didn't mean," I said, "that the work was unpleasant--only sad. It must always be painful to make a coffin."
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