THE BLACK MAN CHECKED.
The two looked at each other. The look was not a very gentle one on the part of either of them. Shiana felt the same terror coming upon him as he had felt the first day. He took a hard grip of the jewel that he had in his bosom, and the terror left him. He looked steadily at his foe. He saw the horns and the malignant forehead, and the baleful, raging eyes, and the goat-beard, and the tail, and the hoof. But he saw something that he did not see the first day. He saw on the fingers of the hands great long curved claws, such as there would be on the talons of an eagle. And there was a point on each of those claws as fine and as sharp as there was upon the awl he had in his hand. Again his courage was on the point of giving way when he thought of the state he would be in if those claws should get at his skin! He pressed his hand again upon the gem which he had in his bosom, and that terror left him also. The Black Man noticed how the terror would forsake Shiana, but he did not understand it. He was wondering what it was that was banishing Shiana's fear, or what was giving him so much courage, or why he himself was not able to lay hold of him at once.
"Why are you not coming away with me?" he said at last. "Don't you remember the bargain?"
"I remember the bargain right well," said Shiana, "but I don't think you remember it." And it seemed to him, just as it had seemed when he was on the mountain, talking to the woman, that it was not his own voice that was coming from his chest.
"Was it not the bargain," said the Black Man, "that I should give you as much money as would buy leather for you for thirteen years, and that you should come with me when that time should have been spent?"
"That was the bargain," said Shiana.
"Why don't you come along then?" said the other.
"Because the time has not been spent," said Shiana.
"What? The time has not been spent?" said the Black Man. "It is now exactly thirteen years since I put my purse into your hand."
"Perhaps so," said Shiana, "but the purse has not been thirteen years in my possession yet."
"How is that?" said the Black Man.
"Because it was taken from me for a while," said Shiana.
"It was taken from you!" said the Black Man. "I would not believe a word from you!"
"You would not? Then what is the reason that you are not able to touch me?" said Shiana.
"Who took it from you?" said the Black Man.
"Yourself, I suppose," said Shiana.
"I did not," said the Black Man.
"I suppose," said Shiana, with a short laugh, "that you think I ought to believe you."
"When was it taken from you?" said the Black Man.
"I suppose it is you that know that best," said Shiana. "It was your business not to let anybody take it from me."
"And I thought I did not," said the Black Man. "I wonder very much that anyone should have been able to take it from you without my knowledge. When will the time be up?"
"When the thirteen years are up," said Shiana, with another laugh.
"You are very witty," said the Black Man, clenching up his claws. "But hold on a while. Some of the wit will be knocked out of you by-and-by, I promise you."
Shiana's hand was firm upon the jewel he had in his bosom. The two paused, looking at each other. Shiana sitting in his work-seat, with the shoe in his left hand resting on his knee, and his right hand in his bosom; the Black Man standing opposite him, with wonder and anger and hate and malice and every sort of ill-will concentrated in his mouth and eyes, and in the murderous-looking brow that was above them.
"If I had to stay here until morning," said he, "I will not part from you now!"
"Ach, there is no need for anger," said Shiana. "Take it easy. You know right well that when the time comes I have no chance of escaping from you. You made your bargain firm enough, 'under the virtue of the Holy Things.' I consented to it without making any reservation. I have the fruit of that now. The money was good then, I thought. It is little good now. Thirteen years was a fine long space of time then, when they were before me. What good are they now? But, good or bad, they will have to be finished honestly and justly. You had no right to come until they were finished. They are not finished yet; and I must do my best to finish this shoe if I can. Go away up from me and sit in that chair above, and let me do my work."
"You are the most extraordinary man I have ever met yet!" said the Black Man. "You have no fear or dread of me any more than you would have of a puppy dog!"
"Well, that is a comical thing," said Shiana, with a burst of laughter. " You think that because you have horns and claws we should run into an auger-hole to hide from you. If it is your bargain you want, fulfil your own side of it, man! The time belongs to me as yet. I want to finish this shoe. You are preventing me from doing it. You are breaking the bargain even now. You lost the time during which the purse was out of my possession. Every moment you are spending there, answering me back every second word, is going down in the account against you. You broke the bargain by coming here to claim me, while you had no right to me until the time should come. You made a mistake in that. You are under no mistake now. You know well that the time has not come yet, and that you are violating the contract. Go up there and sit in that chair above, and don't speak to me again until the right time comes, or you will have dissolved the contract yourself, and I shall be free from you, and I promise you it is not I that will be sorry for it. See! There is the purse. There is the shoe. There is the leather. The time belongs to me as yet. Go up there and sit down or else the contract is dissolved and I am free from you."
The tip of the tail began to twist and turn, just as a cat's tail would when he thought a rat was coming to him out of a hole.
"Will you go!" said Shiana, and there was a sharp ring in his voice, and he moved as if he were going to stand up.
The Black Man did nothing but turn and go up and sit in the chair as he was ordered. Shiana fell to work.
The Black Man was sitting in the chair with his back to Shiana. The tail was out at the back of the chair and down on the ground, and Shiana could see the claw that was in the tip of it. After a while, by a side-look that Shiana gave over his shoulder, he noticed the claw stretching and contracting and starting, like an eel on a hot stone. Shiana went on with his work, just as if there were no one in the house but himself. It was not long until he heard some kind of rolling going on in the chair. He raised his head and looked up. The Black Man was tossing and twisting himself as if he were trying to get up and could not. Shiana sprang to his feet and went up to him. He stood opposite the Black Man, looking at him. The Black Man was in a terrible state. His mouth was open and saliva running from it. The jaw and the goat's-beard were trembling and shaking. The two horns were loose and falling from side to side on his head. With both hands he was holding fast to the front corners of the chair, and his claws were digging into the wood, and he was writhing and grunting. The tail extended backward and downward, and it was stretched out and down upon the floor, and the claw in the tail was scratching against the floor.
"Well, my fine fellow!" said Shiana, "I rather fancy I have got a grip of you!"
"Oh! Shiana, you have, and a firm one!" said he. "Oh, let me go until the right time comes!"
"Patience, patience!" said Shiana. "There is nothing better than patience. 'Patience conquers fate.'"
"Oh!" said the Black Man, wriggling and grunting, "this fate beats all the patience that was ever practised. This fate belies the proverb. Let me go from you, Shiana, and I will not come until the right time."
"Yes, and you will come then!" said Shiana. "I am in no such hurry. You will go soon enough for me. The time you will spend in that nice soogaun chair is not going into the account between us. Whatever is wanting of the thirteen years, that want will not become less until you leave that place. If I wished to keep you there for ever, the end of the time would not come for ever."
"Right well you know," said the Black Man, "that if you were to consent to that wish, you would have broken the contract at once, and that I would have the same grip of you then that you have of me now."
"I need not consent to it, and at the same time I need not be in too great a hurry about letting you go. If it were you that had the upper hand and an opportunity of using those claws upon me, you would let me go, wouldn't you? You would, indeed!" said Shiana, and he drew a chair to him and sat down in it, opposite the Black Man.
"How long will you keep me here?" said the Black Man, looking as if he were at the last gasp.
"Answer, you, a few questions for me first," said Shiana, calmly and quietly.
"Ask me them! Ask me them!" said the Black Man.
"What became of the thimble-man?" said Shiana.
"You have him here, stuck fast."
"You!" said Shiana.
"Me exactly, the very one," said the Black Man.
"And what were you doing at the fair?" said Shiana.
"I was doing a good many things there. For one thing, I was watching you to see if you would buy that horse. If you had bought it, the bargain would have been broken by you, and I would have had a grip of you."
"And you would have let me go!" said Shiana.
"Indeed I would not!" said the Black Man.
"Just as little notion have I of letting you go—for some time," said Shiana. "So it is just as well for you to keep quiet and have patience. I have the upper hand of you, and I will work my will upon you while I have the opportunity; the very thing you would do to me if you had the opportunity. Perhaps I might have some pity for you if it would be any use, but it would not. If I were to do anything to soften your pains now, you would pay me back for it, by-and-by, by sharpening my own pain as much as you possibly could. It is as well for us to be straight and honest in our dealings with each other. I shall do my utmost against you now, and you may do your utmost against me by-and-by, or as soon as you have the opportunity. It is all the same for me to do good or evil to you now, for any good I should get for it by-and-by. Whatever good act were done for you, you would return nothing for it but evil. Your money has done me great good for the last thirteen years. I think I have given you a little of your own law in the transaction. I don't say but that I did a good deal to annoy you during those thirteen years, as a return for the benefit of your money. How did you like all the good I did by means of your money? I gave the purse a good airing, didn't I? Did you succeed in destroying much of the good? You know for Whose sake it was that I gave your money away. What do you think of the business?"
The Black Man burst out laughing, great as was his torment.
"Oh, confound you, you fool," said he. "I liked the business splendidly. I spoil it! By the deer, it was not necessary for me to take a particle of trouble about it. I could not, if I did my best a thousand times, spoil the good you did more thoroughly than you spoilt it yourself, you senseless man! You spoilt it yourself, and nobody could have spoilt it better. 'Good' you call your work! Ach, you idiot, it wasn't good you were doing most of the time, but the very cream of mischief. It is my special work you were doing, and a good hand you were at it, and I really assure you that I was most thankful to you. You did my work far better than I could have done it myself. You did it more nicely and tidily and thoroughly than I could have done it at my best. I could not, at my very best, have spoilt so much good and accomplished so much mischief as you have by means of my money. I have often laid out money to advantage, and much is the damage and misfortune and quarrelling and bloodshed that came of it, but I rather think the bit of money I have given you is about the most profitable I have ever expended."
Shiana paused, and you may say he was astonished.
"How is that now?" said he. "Or is it that you would think to persuade me that almsgiving is wrong?"
"Almsgiving is not wrong," said the Black Man. "But it was not almsgiving on your part to give money that was not yours to people who did not want it much—setting them praising you before the whole country—'Oh, dear me! What a good man Shiana is! What a wonderful amount of good he is doing!' And he twisted up his mouth in derision, in spite of the trouble and pain he was in.
"It was not for that I gave the money," said Shiana.
"How do I know that?" said the Black Man. "You got yourself highly praised at all events. And there was another spoiling in the business The money did a great deal more harm than good to some of them, even though they might have been badly in want of it. I have some of them now below, hard and fast, and they would not be there but for your giving them my money. If you had allowed them to die of hunger they would be up above now. You gave alms to them to vex me. Wait till we go down, and till you see them. It is then you will understand the benefit of your work, and who it is that you have vexed. Then you will see how thankful they are to you. They praised you when you gave them the money. You will get a different sort of praise from them when you go down by-and-by with me."
"I am sure," said Shiana, "that you would give them every help to make them use the money to their own hurt. The money would not have done them any harm but for your egging them on."
"The best I could do would have availed little against them, but for your giving them the money," said the Black Man.
Shiana paused for a while, looking at him.
"I ask you this," said he. "What was there to prevent you from giving them the money yourself? Why need you have waited for me to give it to them? Or was it for their good that you did not give it to them? You kept it from them, I suppose, lest it should do them some spiritual injury! That is not the character you bear. Perhaps we have been doing you injustice."
"Drop your irony," said the Black Man. "It was not for their good that I did not give it to them myself. The character I bear is nothing but the truth. I did not give it to them myself because they would not have taken it from me, great as was their desire for it, and great as was their need for it. It was not everybody that would make the bargain with me that you made."
"I dare say it is not everybody that would have come out of it as I have come out of it," said Shiana.
"Don't be too sure!" said the Black Man. "You have not come out of it yet."
"Let us leave that as it is for a while," said Shiana. "Let us take things in their order. Let us settle each point by itself. According to you I did more harm than good when I gave away the money in charity. I suppose you remember the first charity I gave out of the purse. You remember the widow to whom I gave the rent so that she should not be evicted out of her little house. I would like you to tell me what was the particular harm that I did to the widow when I gave her the rent."
"You think," said the Black Man, "that you did a great act that day. Perhaps you will be astonished when I say that you prevented on that day an act which was much greater and nobler than the act you did."
"What was the noble act I prevented on that day? Name it. Indefinite talk of that sort won't do. If I were to let you talk vaguely like that, there is no knowing where we should stop, and you would pawn off black for white and white for black on me. That is your trade. Drop that trade now, and speak plainly. Put its name and surname upon the noble deed which I prevented the day I gave the rent to the widow out of your purse."
"I will speak plainly, never you fear," said the Black Man. "If the widow had been evicted that day she would have conformed her will to the will of God, as she always does, the little wretch! That would have been a nobler act than the act you did when you gave her the rent, a thing that did not impoverish yourself a bit in the world. Do you understand that? Or must I speak more plainly?"
"Very fine," said Shiana. "Very beautiful! Very beautiful, indeed! I suppose," said he, "that if the bailiff had evicted her, he would have done a nobler act than either of the others."
"How is that?" said the Black Man, with a sharp, searching look in his eyes.
"Why, look you now, how very dull you are!" said Shiana. "She would have conformed her will to the will of God. But is it not the bailiff that would have forced her to do so! When a widow is evicted, and when she and her poor children are driven out to cold and wandering, if she conforms her will to the will of God it is a noble act. But it is not she that ought to be thanked for it, but the bailiff who evicted her. But for the bailiff she would not have done that noble act. Don't you understand?"
"Oh, indeed, you are a sharp-witted man!" said the Black Man. "If you were suffering as much as I am suffering here, perhaps it would take some of your sharp wit from you."
"You have the widow's remedy for it," said Shiana.
"What remedy is that?" said the Black Man.
"To conform your will to the will of God; praise be to Him!" said Shiana.
"I would not do that if I were to be given the freedom of Heaven for it!" said the Black Man.
"Oh, is that so?" said Shiana. "By the law, you may have your choice. 'A man's will is his life, even if it consists in his sitting in water'—or, I meant to say, 'in fire.' But tell me this. Do you mean to say, to my very face, that I did not vex you by giving what I gave of your money to God's poor?"
"Not very much," said the Black Man, "and it is not worth talking of, compared with how you vexed me by an act of your own which had nothing to do with the money at all."
"1 don't remember any act I did that was better than what little alms I gave out of the money," said Shiana.
"I put an enemy in your way, and you did not yield to that enemy," said the Black Man.
"An enemy!" said Shiana. "I never had an enemy but yourself. I suppose you would not expect that I would yield to you as long as I could get the better of you."
"I was of little consequence as an enemy, compared with her," said the Black Man.
"Compared with her!" said Shiana. "I do not remember the person. Who was she? Tell me her name. Speak plainly, and drop your hinting."
"The woman that made a stone of your heart and a mist of your head, and a forge-fire of your mind! Is that plain enough for you?" said the Black Man.