Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 33

Chapter 33

That very night, Ilooked in at the little shop beneath us and met Riggs. It was no small blessing, just as I was entering upon dark and unknown ways of life, to meet this hoary headed man with all his lanterns. He would sell you anchors and fathoms of chain and rope enough to hang you to the moon but his 'lights'were the great attraction of Riggs s. He had every kind of lantern that had ever swung on land or sea. After dark, when light was streaming out of its open door and broad window Riggs's looked like the side of an old lantern itself. It was a door, low and wide, for a time when men had big round bellies and nothing to do but fill them and heads not too far above their business. It was a window gone blind with dust and cobwebs so it resembled the dim eye of age. If the door were closed its big brass knocker and massive iron latch invited the passer. An old ship's anchor and a coil of chain lay beside it. Blocks and heavy bolts, steering wheels, old brass compasses, coils of rope and rusty chain lay on the floor and benches, inside the shop. There were rows of lanterns, hanging on the bare beams. And there was Riggs. He sat by a dusty desk and gave orders in a sleepy, drawling tone to the lad who served him. An old Dutch lantern, its light softened with green glass, sent a silver bean across the gloomy upper air of the shop that evening. Riggs held an old un lantern with little streams of light bursting through its perforated walls. He was blind, one would know it at a glance. Blindness is so easy to be seen. Riggs was showing it to a stranger.

'Turn down the lights,'he said and the boy got his step-ladder and obeyed him.

Then he held it aloft in the dusk and the little lantern was like a castle tower with many windows lighted, and, when he set it down, there was a golden sprinkle on the floor as if something had plashed into a magic pool of light there in the darkness.

Riggs lifted the lantern, presently, and stood swinging it in his hand. Then its rays were sown upon the darkness falling silently into every nook and corner of the gloomy shop and breaking into flowing dapples on the wall.

'See how quick it is!'said he as the rays flashed with the speed of lightning. 'That is the only traveller from Heaven that travels fast enough to ever get to earth.

Then came the words that had a mighty fitness for his tongue.

'Hail, holy light! Offspring of Heaven first born.

His voice rose and fell, riding the mighty rhythm of inspired song. As he stood swinging the lantern, then, he reminded me of a chanting priest behind the censer. In a moment he sat down, and, holding the lantern between his knees, opened its door and felt the candle. Then as the light streamed out upon his hands, he rubbed them a time, silently, as if washing them in the bright flood.

'One dollar for this little box of daylight,'he said.

'Blind?'said the stranger as he paid him the money.

'No,'said Riggs, 'only dreaming as you are.

I wondered what he meant by the words 'dreaming as you are .

'Went to bed on my way home to marry,'he continued, stroking his long white beard, 'and saw the lights go out an'went asleep and it hasn t come morning yet - that's what I believe. I went into a dream. Think I m here in a shop talking but I m really in my bunk on the good ship Arid coming home. Dreamed everything since then - everything a man could think of. Dreamed I came home and found Annie dead, dreamed of blindness, of old age, of poverty, of eating and drinking and sleeping and of many people who pass like dim shadows and speak to me - you are one of them. And sometimes I forget I am dreaming and am miserable, and then I remember and am happy. I know when the morning comes I shall wake and laugh at all these phantoms. And I shall pack my things and go up on deck, for we shall be in the harbour probably - ay! maybe Annie and mother will be waving their hands on the dock!

The old face had a merry smile as he spoke of the morning and all it had for him.

'Seems as if it had lasted a thousand years,'he continued, yawning and rubbing his eyes. 'But I've dreamed the like before, and, my God! how glad I felt when I woke in the morning.

It gave me an odd feeling - this remarkable theory of the old man. I thought then it would be better for most of us if we could think all our miserya dream and have his faithin the morning-thatitwould bring back the things we have lost. I had come to buy a lock for my door, but I forgot my errand and sat down by Riggs while the stranger went away with his lantern.

'You see no reality in anything but happiness,'I said.

'It's all a means to that end,'he answered. 'It is good for me, this dream. I shall be all the happier when I do wake, and I shall love Annie all the better, I suppose.

'I wish I could take my ifi luck as a dream and have faith only in good things,'I said.

'All that is good shall abide,'said he, stroking his white beard, 'and all evil shall vanish as the substance of a dream. In the end the only realities are God and love and Heaven. To die is just like waking up in the morning.

'But I know I m awake,'I said.

'You think you are - that's a part of your dream. Sometimes I think I m awake - it all seems so real to me. But I have thought it out, and I am the only man I meet that knows he is dreaming. When you do wake, in the morning, you may remember how you thought you came to a certain shop and made some words with a man as to whether you were both dreaming, and you will laugh and tell your friends about it. Hold on! I can feel the ship lurching. I believe I am going to wake.

He sat a moment leaning back in his chair with closed eyes, and a silence fell upon us in the which I could hear only the faint ticking of a tall clock that lifted its face out of the gloom beyond me.

'You there?'he whispered presently.

'I am here,'I said.

'Odd!'he muttered. 'I know how it will be - I know how it has been before. Generally come to some high place and a great fear seizes me. I slip, I fall - fall - fall, and then I wake.

After a little silence I heard him snoring heavily. He was still leaning back in his chair. I walked on tiptoe to the door where the boy stood looking out.

'Crazy?'I whispered.

'Dunno,'said he, smiling.

I went to my room above and wrote my first tale, which was nothing more or less than some brief account of what I had heard and seen down at the little shop that evening. I mailed it next day to the Knickerbocker, with stamps for return if unavailable.