The Lane that had No Turning/Parables of a Province/The Forge in the Valley

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THE FORGE IN THE VALLEY

HE lay where he could see her working at the forge. As she worked she sang:

 

"When God was making the world,
(Swift is the wind and white is the fire)
The feet of his people danced the stars;
There was laughter and swinging bells,
And clanging iron and breaking breath,
The hammers of heaven making the hills,
The vales on the anvil of God.
(Wild is the fire and low is the wind.)"

 

His eyes were shining, and his face had a pale radiance from the reflected light, though he lay in the shadow where he could watch her, while she could not see him. Now her hand was upon the bellows, and the low, white fire seethed hungrily up, and set its teeth upon the iron she held; now it turned the iron about upon the anvil, and the sparks showered about her very softly and strangely. There was a cheerful gravity in her motions, a high, fine look in her face.

They two lived alone in the solitudes of Megalon Valley.

It was night now, and the pleasant gloom of the valley was not broken by any sound save the hum of the stream near by, and the song, and the ringing anvil. But into the workshop came the moist, fragrant smell of the acacia and the maple, and a long brown lizard stretched its neck sleepily across the threshold of the door opening into the valley.

The song went on:

 

"When God had finished the world
(Bright was the fire and sweet was the wind)
Up from the valleys came song,
To answer the morning stars,
And the hand of man on the anvil rang;
His breath was big in his breast, his life
Beat strong on the walls of the world.
(Glad is the wind and tall is the fire.)"

 

He put his hands to his eyes, and took them away again, as though to make sure that the song was not a dream. Wonder grew upon his thin, bearded face, he ran his fingers through his thick hair in a dazed way. Then he lay and looked, and a rich warm flush crept over his cheek, and stayed there.

There was a great gap in his memory.

The evening wore on. Once or twice the woman turned towards the room where the man lay, and listened—she could not see his face from where she stood. At such times he lay still, though his heart beat quickly, like that of an expectant child. His lips opened to speak, but still they remained silent. As yet he was like a returned traveller who does not quickly recognise old familiar things, and who is struggling with vague suggestions and forgotten events. As time went on, the woman turned towards the doorway oftener, and shifted her position so that she faced it, and the sparks, flying up, lighted her face with a wonderful irregular brightness.

"Samantha," he said at last, and his voice sounded so strange to him that the word quivered timidly towards her.

She paused upon a stroke, and some new note in his voice sent so sudden a thrill to her heart that she caught her breath with a painful kind of joy. The hammer dropped upon the anvil, and, in a moment, she stood in the doorway of his room.

"Francis, Francis," she responded in a low whisper.

He started up from his couch of skins. "Samantha, my wife!" he cried, in a strong proud voice.

She dropped beside him and caught his head, like a mother, to her shoulder, and set her warm lips on his forehead and hair with a kind of hunger; and then he drew her face down and kissed her on the lips. Tears hung at her eyes, and presently dropped on her cheeks, a sob shook her, and then she was still, her hands grasping his shoulders.

"Have I been ill?" he asked.

"You have been very ill, Francis."

"Has it been long?"

Her fingers passed tenderly through his grizzled hair. "Too long, too long, my husband," she replied.

"Is it summer now?"

"Yes, Francis, it is summer."

"Was it in the spring, Samantha?—Yes, I think it was in the spring," he added, musing.

"It was in a spring."

"There was snow still on the mountain-top, the river was running high, and wild fowl were gathered on the island in the lake—yes, I remember, I think."

"And the men were working at the mine," she whispered, her voice shaking a little, and her eyes eagerly questioning his face.

"Ah! the mine—it was the mine, Samantha!" he said abruptly, his eyes flashing up. "I was working at the forge to make a great bolt for the machinery, and someone forgot and set the engine in motion. I ran out; but it was too late … and then …"

"And then you tried to save them, Francis, and you were hurt."

"What month is this, my wife?"

"It is December."

"And that was in October?"

"Yes, in October."

"I have been ill since? What happened?"

"Many were killed, Francis, and you and I came away."

"Where are we now? I do not know the place."

"This is Megalon Valley. You and I live alone here."

"Why did you bring me here?"

"I did not bring you, Francis; you wished me to come. One day you said to me: ‘There is a place in Megalon Valley where, long ago, an old man lived, who had become a stranger among men—a place where the blackbird stays, and the wolf-dog troops and hides, and the damson grows as thick as blossoms on the acacia. We will go there.’ And I came with you."

"I do not remember, my wife. What of the mine? Was I a coward and left the mine? There was no one understood the ways of the wheel, and rod, and steam, save me.

"The mine is closed, Francis," she answered gently. "You were no coward, but—but you had strange fancies.

"When did the mine close?" he said, with a kind of sorrow; "I put hard work and good years into it."

At that moment, when her face drew close to his, the vision of her as she stood at the anvil came to him with a new impression, and he said again in a half-frightened way: "When did it close, Samantha?"

"The mine was closed—twelve years ago, my own dear husband."

He got to his feet and clasped her to his breast. A strength came to him which had eluded him twelve years, and she, womanlike, delighted in that strength, and, with a great gladness, changed eyes and hands with him; keeping her soul still her own, brooding and lofty, as is the soul of every true woman, though, like this one, she labours at a forge, and in a far, untenanted country is faithful friend, ceaseless apothecary to a comrade with a disordered mind; living on savage meats, clothing herself and the other in skins, and, with a divine persistence, keeping a cheerful heart, certain that the intelligence which was frightened from its home would come back one day. It should be hers to watch for the great moment, and give the wanderer loving welcome, lest it should hurry madly away again into the desert, never to return.

She had her reward, yet she wept. She had carried herself before him with the bright ways of an unvexed girl these twelve years past; she had earned the salt of her tears. He was dazed still, but, the doublet of his mind no longer unbraced, he understood what she had been to him, and how she had tended him in absolute loneliness, her companions the wild things of the valley—these and God.

He drew her into the workshop, and put his hand upon the bellows and churned them, so that the fire roared joyously up, and the place was red with the light. In this light he turned her to him and looked at her. The look was as that of one who had come back from the dead—that naked, profound, unconditional gaze which is as deep and honest as the primeval sense. His eyes fell upon her rich, firm, stately body; it lingered for a moment on the brown fulness of her hair; then her look was gathered to his, and they fell into each other’s arms.

For long they sat in the solemn silence of their joy, and so awed were they by the thing which had come to them that they felt no surprise when a wolf-dog crawled over the lizard on the threshold, and stole along the wall with shining, bloody eyes to an inner room, and stayed there munching meat to surfeit and drowsiness, and at last crept out and lay beside the forge in a thick sleep. These two had lived so much with the untamed things of nature, the bellows and the fire had been so long there, and the clang of the anvil was so familiar, that there was a kinship among them, man and beast, with the woman as ruler.

"Tell me, my wife," he said at last, "what has happened during these twelve years, all from the first. Keep nothing back. I am strong now." He looked around the workshop, then, suddenly, at her, with a strange pain, and they both turned their heads away for an instant, for the same thought was on them. Then, presently, she spoke, and answered his shy, sorrowful thought before all else. "The child is gone," she softly said.

He sat still, but a sob was in his throat. He looked at her with a kind of fear. He wondered if his madness had cost the life of the child. She understood.

"Did I ever see the child?" he asked.

"Oh, yes, I sometimes thought that through the babe you would be yourself again. When you were near her you never ceased to look at her and fondle her, as I thought very timidly; and you would start sometimes and gaze at me with the old wise look hovering at your eyes. But the look did not stay. The child was fond of you, but she faded and pined, and one day as you nursed her you came to me and said: ‘See, my wife, the little one will not wake. She pulled at my beard and said, "Daddy," and fell asleep.’ And I took her from your arms.… There is a chestnut tree near the door of our cottage at the mine. One night you and I buried her there; but you do not remember her, do you?"

"My child! My child!" he said, looking out into the night, and he lifted up his arms and looked at them. "I held her here, and still I never held her; I fondled her, and yet I never fondled her; I buried her, yet—to me—she never was born."

"You have been far away, Francis; you have come back home. I waited, and prayed, and worked with you, and was patient. … It is very strange," she continued. "In all these twelve years you cannot remember our past, though you remembered about this place—the one thing, as if God had made it so—and now you cannot remember those twelve years."

"Tell me now of the twelve years," he urged.

"It was the same from day to day. When we came from the mountain, we brought with us the implements of the forge upon a horse. Now and again as we travelled we cut our way through the heavy woods. You were changed for the better then; a dreadful trouble seemed to have gone from your face. There was a strong kind of peace in the valley, and there were so many birds and animals, and the smell of the trees was so fine, that we were not lonely, neither you nor I."

She paused, thinking, her eyes looking out to where the Evening Star was sailing slowly out of the wooded horizon, his look on her. In the pause the wolf-dog raised its big, sleepy eyes at them, then plunged its head into its paws, its wildness undisturbed by their presence.

Presently the wife continued: "At last we reached here, and here we have lived, where no human being, save one, has ever been. We put up the forge, and in a little hill not far away we found coal for it. The days went on. It was always summer, though there came at times a sharp frost, and covered the ground with a coverlet of white. But the birds were always with us, and the beasts were our friends. I learned to love even the shrill cry of the reed hens, and the soft tap-tap of the woodpecker is the sweetest music to my ear after the song of the anvil. How often have you and I stood here at the anvil, the fire heating the iron, and our hammers falling constantly! Oh, my husband, I knew that only here with God and His dumb creatures, and His wonderful healing world, all sun, and wind, and flowers, and blossoming trees, working as you used to work, as the first of men worked, would the sane wandering soul return to you. The thought was in you, too, for you led me here, and have been patient also in the awful exile of your mind."

"I have been as a child, and not as a man," he said gravely. "Shall I ever again be a man, as I once was, Samantha?"

"You cannot see yourself," she said. "A week ago you fell ill, and since then you have been pale and worn; but your body has been, and is, that of a great strong man. In the morning I will take you to a spring in the hills, and you shall see yourself, my husband."

He stood up, stretched himself, went to the door, and looked out into the valley flooded with moonlight. He drew in a great draught of air, and said: "The world! the great, wonderful world, where men live, and love work, and do strong things!"—he paused, and turned with a trouble in his face. "My wife," he said, "you have lived with a dead man twelve years, and I have lost twelve years in the world. I had a great thought once—an invention—but now—" he hung his head bitterly.

She came to him, and her hands slid up along his breast to his shoulders, and rested there; and she said, with a glad smile: "Francis, you have lost nothing. The thing—the invention—was all but finished when you fell ill a week ago. We have worked at it for these twelve years; through it, I think, you have been brought back to me. Come, there is a little work yet to do upon it;" and she drew him to where a machine of iron lay in the corner. With a great cry he fell upon his knees beside it, and fondled it.

Then, presently, he rose, and caught his wife to his breast.

Together, a moment later, they stood beside the anvil. The wolf-dog fled out into the night from the shower of sparks, as, in the red light, the two sang to the clanging of the hammers:

 

"When God was making the world
(Swift is the wind and white is the fire)—"