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    Chapter 34

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    Chapter 34
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    THE HOUR AND THE MAN.

    Bressant jumped on to the platform of the newly-arrived train. The cars
    were pretty full; but, coming at last to a vacant seat by the side of a
    clean-shaven gentleman with a straight, hard mouth, and a glossy-brown
    wig, curling smoothly inward all around the edge, he dropped into it
    without ceremony.

    The train left the depot and hurried away over the road which Bressant
    had just traversed in the opposite direction. He sat with his arms
    folded, appearing to take no notice of any thing, and his neighbor with
    the wig read the latest edition of a New-York paper with stern
    attention, occasionally altering the position of his stove-pipe hat on
    his head. By-and-by, the conductor, a small, precise man, with a
    dark-blue coat, cap to match, a neatly-trimmed sandy beard, shaved upper
    lip, and an utterance as distinct and clippy as the holes his steel
    punch made in the tickets, came along upon his rounds.

    Bressant put his hands into his pockets, and discovered, with some
    consternation, that he had but a comparatively small amount of money
    left; his newly-accepted poverty was certainly losing no time in making
    itself felt. However, such as it was, he handed it to the conductor, and
    inquired how near it would take him to his proposed destination.

    "Eighty-one miles, rail," responded the official, as he took and clipped
    the ticket of the gentleman with the newspaper; "comes shorter by road,
    seventy-four to seventy-five," and he proceeded down the aisle, snapping
    up tickets on one side or the other, as a hen does grains of corn.

    Bressant covered his eyes with his hand, and amused himself by
    performing a little sum in mental arithmetic. The amount of money he had
    given the conductor represented a distance which it would take a certain
    length of time--say four hours--to traverse. It was now four o'clock in
    the afternoon, and consequently would be eight before that distance was
    accomplished. From eight o'clock Saturday night, till twelve o'clock
    Sunday noon, was sixteen hours, and in sixteen hours he must travel, on
    foot, and through the snow, seventy-five miles of unknown roads.

    "Four and a half miles an hour, and nothing to eat since breakfast,"
    said Bressant to himself. He took his hand from his eyes, and passed it
    down his face to his beard, which he twisted and turned unmercifully.
    "It's lucky it isn't any more," remarked he, philosophically.

    In the course of half an hour or so, the straight-mouthed gentleman,
    having finished the last column of his paper, folded it up into the
    smallest possible compass, and handed it politely to Bressant. The
    latter accepted it abstractedly, and, opening one fold, read the first
    paragraph which presented itself, his interest increasing as he
    proceeded. It was in the column of latest local news, and, after
    bewailing, in choice language, the frightful prevalence, even among the
    highest aristocracy, of opium-eating and kindred indulgences, it went on
    to particularize the sad case of an esteemed lady, of great wealth and
    high connections, widow of a scion of one of our oldest families, who,
    having unwisely yielded herself, during many years past, to an
    inordinate use of morphine, as an antidote to nervous disorder, had, on
    the previous evening, in a temporary paroxysm of madness, succeeded in
    taking her own life. "No other cause can be assigned for the rash act,"
    pursued the paragraph, "Mrs. V---- being, in all other respects than as
    regarded this unfortunate weakness, blessed beyond the average. She was
    at the moment, it is understood, contemplating immediate departure for a
    lengthened sojourn in Europe, taking with her an only son, a young man
    of fine attainments, and a recent graduate of one of our first
    theological seminaries, who desired to seek, among the European
    capitals, at once for the recreation and culture, which the arduous
    preparation for and the enlightened prosecution of his exalted calling
    rendered respectively necessary and desirable. It is not known whether
    this sad casualty will cause him to relinquish his design."

    After finishing this paragraph, which discreetly suppressed any further
    personality than to remark that the deceased bore one of those quaint
    old Knickerbocker surnames which are in New York synonymous with _haut
    ton_ and gentility, Bressant folded up the paper, and, resting his arms
    upon the back of the seat in front of him, made them a pillow for his
    forehead. This position he maintained so long, that his neighbor with
    the wig came to the conclusion that he must be either asleep or drunk;
    and, by way of arriving at some solution of the question, abstracted
    from his hand the rolled-up newspaper which protruded out of it. At this
    the young man roused himself, and presently turned to him of the wig,
    and thanked him for his loan with an earnestness which appeared to him,
    under the circumstances, rather uncalled for. He began to doubt the
    prudence of sitting next to so large a man, of so singular a behavior,
    and took advantage of the next vacancy that occurred to shift his
    quarters, carrying the newspaper with him.

    Darkness had fallen, and the lighted interior of the crowded car had
    duplicated itself, through the medium of the glass window-pane, upon the
    black vacancy without, long before the train halted at the station which
    marked the boundary of Bressant's riding privilege. He got out, and was
    immediately smitten in the face by the cold, impalpable fingers of a
    thick falling snow-storm.

    A bobbing lantern, carried by an invisible man, was all that came to
    welcome him. He walked into the waiting-room, which was lighted by a
    lamp with a dirty tin reflector behind it, and was furnished with a few
    well-worn chairs, painted gray, and polished by use; a couple of
    spittoons, and a pyramidal stove containing the ashes of the day's fire.
    The plaster walls were ornamented by many-colored railway cards, and by
    a fly-spotted and dusty map. A clock was fastened over the door.

    He turned to the man with the lantern (who was standing in the door-way,
    looking as if he rather suspected Bressant contemplated stealing some of
    the valuables of the place), and asked him whether he could tell him
    the nearest road to his destination. After considerable questioning and
    delay, the man finally announced his entire ignorance in the matter; and
    Bressant was just about to make him a sharp rejoinder, when his eyes
    happened to fall upon the map. He stepped up to it, and found it to be
    of the State in which they were.

    By the aid of the lantern, and a good deal of dusting, he finally
    discovered the spot in which he then stood, and managed to trace out a
    doubtful line of road, between that and the place whither he was bound.
    There seemed to be few cross-roads, however, and such as there were he
    rapidly noted in his memory. In one place the road ran off in a kind of
    loop, to pass through an outlying village, and, by making a cross-cut at
    that point, he might save himself five or six miles. But since, on
    calculation, he found it would be at least six o'clock in the morning
    before he got to the loop in question, he decided not to risk
    abandoning, in the state he would then be in, the beaten track for any
    such problematical advantage.

    As he left the dirty waiting-room, and the invisible man with the
    lantern, the clock over the door marked five minutes past eight.
    Although it was more than twelve hours since he had eaten food, he was
    not (owing to having passed so much of the day in sleep) so hungry as he
    might have been. Nevertheless, appreciating what a task was before him,
    he would have given any thing that he could call his own for a good meal
    before starting. But he had handed over his last cent to the conductor,
    and now, time pressed him.

    He was young and strong, and no one was more tireless in walking than
    he; his joints were firm as iron, yet supple and springy; his muscles
    tough and lean, of immense enduring power; his lungs were deep, and he
    breathed easily through his nostrils; his gait was long and elastic;
    but, had he been twice the man he was, the journey upon which he was now
    started would have been no child's play; being what he was, it was
    nothing less than a hazard of life and death. But Bressant seemed to
    think the peril quite worth encountering, in consideration of the chance
    of arriving by noon next day at the Parsonage-door; and, for the first
    time in his life, he felt grateful to God for the mighty bones and
    sinews he had given him. This was the time to use them, if they were
    paralyzed forever after!

    Having gained the road, he set off with a long, swinging stride, such as
    the Indians use, half-way between a walk and a run. As long as he could
    keep that up, he would be making six miles an hour--a mile and a half
    over the necessary rate; but he well knew he would need all his surplus
    before morning broke, and was determined to make it as large as possible
    before want of food weakened him. The road, except for the snow, was
    favorable for speed, being nearly level and tolerably straight; but the
    flakes flying into his eyes made it impossible to be sure of his
    footing; and the various ruts and inequalities, common to all American
    turn-pikes, and aggravated by the half-frozen snow covering, caused him
    several slips and stumbles; trifling matters enough at other times, but
    now, when every unnecessary breath and false step would count up
    terribly, in the end, quite sufficiently serious.

    The vigorous motion, however, sent the blood singing through his body
    from head to foot. He felt exhilarated and braced. The driving snow
    melted pleasantly on his warm face, and ran down into his
    thickly-curling beard, crusted over with frozen breath and sleet. The
    cold air came long and refreshingly into his wide-open nostrils. He took
    off his fur cap and threw open the breast of his pea-jacket. His
    exuberant physical sensations wrought a corresponding effect upon his
    previous mental gloom: he found himself looking to the future with
    dawnings of a new hope and cheerfulness. At no time in his life had he
    felt himself existing through so wide and full a range. He was a man now
    in full breadth and height, and, as he looked back upon his previous
    life, he could trace, as from a lofty vantage-ground, the plan and
    bearing of his former thoughts and deeds.

    He remarked the wide discrepancies between what he had proposed and what
    he had accomplished. How insignificant circumstances had effected
    momentous results! He saw how, whenever failure and dishonor had
    filtered in, it was where weakness, self-indulgence, or untruthfulness,
    had left an opening. He saw how one wrong had been a sure and easy path
    to another, until in the end he had groveled face downward in the mire.

    His mind turned on the two women between whom his path had lain: how
    highly he had aimed, and how low he had fallen! How enviable would have
    been his fate had he consistently kept to either! for each had been
    peerless in her way. How despicable was his position having greedily
    grasped at both! And now the one was dying, and the other degraded like
    himself. A worthy record that!

    One was dying: yes, that he knew, and felt that upon his speed and
    resolution did it depend whether in this world he might hope for the
    blessing of forgiveness from her lips. The thought urged him on,
    like an ever-fretting spur. He butted yet more swiftly into the
    darkness and against the reeling snow-flakes, and the road lay in
    steadily-lengthening stretches behind him. She was waiting for him--that
    he felt--and was striving, with all her kind and loving might, to hold
    herself in life until he came. God help him, then, to be there at the
    appointed hour!

    And Cornelia? Of her he ventured not much to think. She was, perchance,
    the key whereby, for her and for himself, this dark riddle should
    hereafter be resolved. As Adam might labor for redemption only with his
    sin about his neck, so they, out of the fabric woven of their disgrace,
    must seek to fashion garments in which worthily to appear at heaven's
    gates.

    As his mind rambled thus, he came to the outskirts of a long, wooded
    tract, which--for the map, as he had seen it at the railway-station, was
    clearly marked out in his memory, from the beginning to the end of his
    route--he knew was upward of ten miles from his starting-point; and, as
    near as he could judge (his watch, lying at the bottom of the
    fountain-basin in the Parsonage-garden, had never been replaced), it
    must be rather more than half-past nine o'clock. He maintained the same
    long, swinging trot, as unfalteringly as ever, though, perhaps, a trifle
    less springily than at first. The footing was deep and heavy, the thick
    fir-trees having kept the snow from being blown off the road, as in
    more exposed situations. Bressant was wet to his skin, for the
    temperature had risen, and the flakes melted as fast as they fell. Most
    of his glow and vigor remained, however, and he was no whit disheartened
    or doubtful. But the sky bent darkly over him, and the tall trees shut
    out all but a strip even of the scanty light that came thence. The moon
    would not rise for hours yet.

    Another hour passed on over the toiling man. He had now begun to get
    among hills, and his course was always either up or down. This was in
    some degree a relief, affording change of movement to his muscles; but
    it probably lost him some little time, and certainly gave plenty of
    exercise to his lungs. Something of the superabundant warmth was leaving
    his body. He replaced his cap and buttoned up his jacket. What would not
    half a dozen biscuits have been worth to him now!

    On and on. The hills opened, and in the inclosure they made lay a small
    village, with its white meeting-house and clustering dwellings. The
    windows were many of them alight: the people were sitting up for the new
    year. Bressant wondered whether it would dawn for any of them so
    strangely as for him! As he hurried along the empty street, a sign over
    one of the doors, barely discernible in the darkness, attracted his
    attention. He paused close to it, and made out the words, "West India
    goods and groceries;" and at once his fancy reveled in the savory
    eatables stored beyond his reach. What cheese and butter, what hams,
    biscuits, and apples; what salted codfish and strings of sausages, were
    there! Had the store been open, he would have been tempted to rush in,
    knock the salesman senseless, and make off with whatever he could carry.
    Strange thoughts these for a man bound on an errand of life and death!
    But hunger is no respecter of occasions, however inopportune, or of
    emotions, however incongruous. Bressant passed on. He was now
    twenty-five miles on his way, and as he came beneath the meeting-house
    clock, it struck twelve: the new year had come! To Bressant it brought
    only the knowledge that he was seven miles ahead of his time; and this
    served in some measure to counteract the depression caused by his
    hunger. But on--on! There were still fifty miles to go!

    The village vanished, like the old year, behind him. He was now crossing
    a lofty plateau, over which swept the wind, strong and chilly. He began
    to feel the cold now, and his wet clothes, once in a while, made him
    shiver. His physical exhilaration had left him, and his long trot, save
    where a downward slope favored him, had gradually sobered into a quick
    walk. His shoes, soaked with snow-water, began to chafe his feet. But he
    knew better than to stop for rest: the only safety lay in keeping
    steadily on; and on he kept, his mouth set grimly, and his head a little
    bent forward.

    From the top of the plateau was a gradual descent of some five miles;
    and here Bressant again fell into a run, reaching the bottom, without
    extraordinary exertion, in a trifle less than three-quarters of an hour.
    He felt the need of his watch very keenly now; it would have been a
    great assistance and encouragement to know just how much he was doing.
    He could no longer afford to waste any strength, even in making
    calculations; he was fully occupied in putting one foot before another.

    How dark, and cold, and blankly disheartening it was! He had now
    completed fifty miles, though he knew it not; but it seemed to him as if
    he had been full a hundred. His feet, rubbed raw, and stiffened by the
    cold, were beginning to retard his pace alarmingly. His face and lips
    were pale; a sensation of emptiness and chilled vitality pervaded his
    body. It had come down to grim hard work; every step was a conscious
    effort; and yet he had no time to spare.

    The storm had lightened considerably, but the young man's eyes were dull
    and heavy; it was a constant struggle to keep awake. He scarcely
    attended to the road, but plunged along, careless of where he trod.
    Suddenly, however, and for the first time since starting, he came to a
    dead halt, and, after gazing about him a moment, cried out in dismay.
    And well he might, for he stood in a field, with no sign anywhere of
    road or path! In his sleepy inattention, he had lost his way and
    wandered he knew not whither.

    At first he was too much paralyzed by this discovery to think or act. He
    threw himself face downward on the snow, and lay like a log. God was
    against him! How could he go on? Ah, how sweet felt that cold bed! Let
    him lie there in peace, to move no more! Surely he had done his best;
    who could blame him for a failure beyond his power to avert? The
    darkness would pass over him, and leave him stretched there motionless;
    the first light of morning would mark the dark outlines of his prostrate
    figure, and he would not turn to greet it. Daylight would succeed, the
    sun would climb the sky and shine down upon him warmly; but he would be
    insensible as to the darkness or the cold. Twilight would settle over
    the field again, and night, following, would find him as she had left
    him, prone upon his face, with outstretched arms. For he would be
    dead--dead--dead--and at rest!

    But the end had not yet come. Ere he had quite sunk into insensibility,
    he was conscious of a feeling within him, as if some one were
    pulling--pulling at his heart, with a force benign and loving, yet
    strong as death itself. He staggered to his feet, and, stumbling as he
    walked, set his face against the cold and cheerless sky once more. The
    pulling at his heart-strings seemed to draw him steadily in one certain
    direction; he traversed acres of field and pasture-land blind and
    insensible to every thing save this mysterious guide. In his weak and
    exhausted state his spiritual perceptions were doubtless less incumbered
    than when he was in full possession of his strength. So he was drawn
    undeviatingly on and on, until, unexpectedly, he found himself in a road
    again. Then he recognized that it was Sophie's spirit which had rescued
    him from death and failure. He had unconsciously made the short cut
    across the fields, which he had noticed and decided not to attempt when
    examining the map. He had saved five miles in distance, equal to fully
    an hour in time. The thought inspired him anew, and gave him further
    strength. With such divine encouragement, he could falter and hesitate
    no more.

    Morning began to break dully over the sullen clouds as he resumed in
    earnest his weary journey. Each yard of ground passed was now a battle
    gained--every breath drawn a sobbing groan. Hills and dales rose
    successively before him, clothed in the dead-white snow that had become
    a nightmare to his darkening sight. He reeled sometimes as he walked,
    dizzy from lack of sleep; a thousand fantastic fancies flitted through
    his hot brain; a deadly lethargy began once more to creep over his
    senses, but he gnawed the flesh of his lips to keep back consciousness.
    And still, when will grew powerless, he felt the mysterious strain upon
    his heart.

    Only ten miles more! But they seemed by far the longer part of the whole
    way. He was now within the range of his walks while living at the
    boarding-house, and could see in his mind every slope and ascent, every
    curve and angle, that lay between him and the Parsonage-door; and he
    felt the weight of every hill upon his shoulders. At the risk of
    falling, he stooped, snatched a handful of snow, and put it inside his
    cap, so that it lay, cold and refreshing, upon his brain. Then he took a
    handful in either hand, and so kept on.

    The minutes grew into hours; the hours seemed to become days; but there,
    at last, the well-known village lay! How reposeful and unconcerned the
    houses looked, as if there were no such thing in the world as effort,
    despair, or victory! As he came near, Bressant tried to nerve himself,
    to walk erect and steady, to clear and concentrate his swimming sight
    and confused head. He dreaded to meet the village-people, to have them
    come staring and questioning about him, whispering and laughing among
    themselves, and asking one another what was the matter with the man who
    was engaged to the minister's daughter on this his wedding-morning.
    Just then he felt a gentle pulling at his heart!

    Presently he was in the village. There was a disjointed vision of faces,
    some of which he knew, floating around him. Once in a while he caught
    the sound of a voice through the humming in his ears. Were they offering
    him assistance? warning him? calling to him? He knew not, nor cared. He
    passed on, feebly but desperately. He saw the clock on the
    church-steeple mark half-past eleven; still in time, thank God! but no
    time to lose.

    How well he knew the road, over which he was now groping his staggering
    and uncertain way! In how many moods he had walked it, actuated by how
    many different passions and impulses! And now he was as one dead, whose
    body is dragged strangely onward by some invincibly-determined will. A
    great fear suddenly seized upon him that here, upon this very last mile
    of all the weary ones he had trod since the previous night-fall, he was
    going to sink down, and give up his life and his attempt at the same
    moment. Oh, Heaven help him to the end! O Sophie, let not the tender
    strain upon his heart relax!

    For nothing less than that can save him now! His eyes see no longer; his
    feet stumble in ignorance; he sleeps, and dreams of events which
    happened--was it long ago?--upon this road. Here he met and talked with
    Cornelia, that autumn day. Back there, they paused on the brow of the
    hill, one moonlight night, was that so long ago, too? Here, some time in
    the past, he had found a lifeless body in the snow, clad in a bridal
    dress; here, he had caught a runaway horse by the head, and--

    He fell headlong to the ground. The shock partly awoke him. He struggled
    up to his knees--was there any one assisting him?--another struggle--he
    was on his feet. Right before him lay the house--the old Parsonage;
    there were the gate, the path, the porch. He made a final effort--it
    forced a deadly sweat from his forehead--and still there was a vague
    sense of being supported and directed by some one--he could not stop to
    see or question who; but, had it not been for that support, he must have
    failed. The gate opened, with its old creak and rattle, before him; a
    hand he saw not held it till he passed through.

    Now, at the moment when he had fallen in the road, of the three who had
    all along been awaiting him within--of these three, two only were left.
    But, so quietly had the third departed, the others perceived not that
    she was gone. The features, which remained, wore an expression of
    angelic happiness. It was as she had wished.

    At the same moment, too, through a rift in the dull sky, a little gleam
    of sunshine--the first of that gray day--descended, and rested upon
    Bressant. It accompanied him to the gate, and, still keeping close to
    him, slipped up the path between the trees, and even followed him on to
    the porch, where it brightened about him, as he put his hand to the
    latch. Was it a symbol of some loving spirit, newly set free from its
    mortal body, come to watch over him for evermore?

    An old woman, who stood without clutching the palings of the gate, saw
    Bressant open the door and pass inward, and the sunshine entered with
    him. The door was left ajar--might she not enter too? Just then, a
    little ormolu clock, on the mantel-piece inside, gave a preliminary
    whirr, and hastily struck the hour of noon. As if in answer to a signal,
    the sun smiled broadly forth, and quite transfigured the weather-beaten
    old Parsonage.

    THE END.
    Chapter 34
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