"Is God dead?"
I shall never forget the indescribable look of horror and astonishment that swept over the young man's face.
"What do you mean, sir?" he asked with an air of stern authority which surprised me. His calling for the moment lifted him above himself: it was the Church which spoke.
I was on my feet in an instant, regretting the pain I had given him; and yet it seemed worth while now, having made my inadvertent remark, to show him frankly what lay in my mind. Such things sometimes help men.
"I meant no offence, sir," I said, "and I apologize for my flummery, but when I saw you coming up the hill, looking so gloomy and disconsolate on this bright day, as though you disapproved of God's world, the question slipped out before I knew it."
My words evidently struck deep down into some disturbed inner consciousness, for he asked—and his words seemed to slip out before he thought:
"Is THAT the way I impressed you?"
I found my heart going out strongly toward him. "Here," I thought to myself, "is a man in trouble."
I took a good long look at him. He still a young man, though worn-looking—and sad as I now saw it, rather than gloomy—with the sensitive lips and the unworldly look one sees sometimes in the faces of saints. His black coat was immaculately neat, but the worn button-covers and the shiny lapels told their own eloquent story. Oh, it seemed to me I knew him as well as if every incident of his life were written plainly upon his high, pale forehead! I have lived long in a country neighbourhood, and I knew him—poor flagellant of the rural church—I knew how he groaned under the sins of a Community too comfortably willing to cast all its burdens on the Lord, or on the Lord's accredited local representative. I inferred also the usual large family and the low salary (scandalously unpaid) and the frequent moves from place to place.
Unconsciously heaving a sigh the young man turned partly aside and said to me in a low, gentle voice:
"You are detaining my boys from church."
"I am very sorry," I said, "and I will detain them no longer," and with that I put aside my whistle, took up my bag and moved down the hill with them.
"The fact is," I said, "when I heard your bell I thought of going to church myself."
"Did you?" he asked eagerly. "Did you?"
I could see that my proposal of going to church had instantly affected his spirits. Then he hesitated abruptly with a sidelong glance at my bag and rusty clothing. I could see exactly what was passing in his mind.
"No," I said, smiling, as though answering a spoken question, "I am not exactly what you would call a tramp."
"I didn't mean—I WANT you to come. That's what a church is for. If I thought—"
But he did not tell me what he thought; and, though he walked quietly at my side, he was evidently deeply disturbed. Something of his discouragement I sensed even then, and I don't think I was ever sorrier for a man in my life than I was for him at that moment. Talk about the suffering sinners! I wonder if they are to be compared with the trials of the saints?
So we approached the little white church, and caused, I am certain, a tremendous sensation. Nowhere does the unpredictable, the unusual, excite such confusion as in that settled institution—the church.
I left my bag in the vestibule, where I have no doubt it was the object of much inquiring and suspicious scrutiny, and took my place in a convenient pew. It was a small church with an odd air of domesticity, and the proportion of old ladies and children in the audience was pathetically large. As a ruddy, vigorous, out-of-door person, with the dust of life upon him, I felt distinctly out of place.
I could pick out easily the Deacon, the Old Lady Who Brought Flowers, the President of the Sewing Circle, and, above all, the Chief Pharisee, sitting in his high place. The Chief Pharisee—his name I learned was Nash, Mr. J. H. Nash (I did not know then that I was soon to make his acquaintance)—the Chief Pharisee looked as hard as nails, a middle-aged man with stiff chin-whiskers, small round, sharp eyes, and a pugnacious jaw.
"That man," said I to myself, "runs this church," and instantly I found myself looking upon him as a sort of personification of the troubles I had seen in the minister's eyes.
I shall not attempt to describe the service in detail. There was a discouraging droop and quaver in the singing, and the mournful-looking deacon who passed the collection-plate seemed inured to disappointment. The prayer had in it a note of despairing appeal which fell like a cold hand upon one's living soul. It gave one the impression that this was indeed a miserable, dark, despairing world, which deserved to be wrathfully destroyed, and that this miserable world was full of equally miserable, broken, sinful, sickly people.
The sermon was a little better, for somewhere hidden within him this pale young man had a spark of the divine fire, but it was so dampened by the atmosphere of the church that it never rose above a pale luminosity.
I found the service indescribably depressing. I had an impulse to rise up and cry out—almost anything to shock these people into opening their eyes upon real life. Indeed, though I hesitate about setting it down here, I was filled for some time with the liveliest imaginings of the following serio-comic enterprise:
I would step up the aisle, take my place in front of the Chief Pharisee, wag my finger under his nose, and tell him a thing or two about the condition of the church.
"The only live thing here," I would tell him, "is the spark in that pale minister's soul; and you're doing your best to smother that."
And I fully made up my mind that when he answered back in his chief-pharisaical way I would gently—but firmly remove him from his seat, shake him vigorously two or three times (men's souls have often been saved with less!), deposit him flat in the aisle, and yes—stand on him while I elucidated the situation to the audience at large. While I confined this amusing and interesting project to the humours of the imagination I am still convinced that something of the sort would have helped enormously in clearing up the religious and moral atmosphere of the place.
I had a wonderful sensation of relief when at last I stepped out again into the clear afternoon sunshine and got a reviving glimpse of the smiling green hills and the quiet fields and the sincere trees—and felt the welcome of the friendly road.
I would have made straight for the hills, but the thought of that pale minister held me back; and I waited quietly there under the trees till he came out. He was plainly looking for me, and asked me to wait and walk along with him, at which his four boys, whose acquaintance I had made under such thrilling circumstances earlier in the day, seemed highly delighted, and waited with me under the tree and told me a hundred important things about a certain calf, a pig, a kite, and other things at home.
Arriving at the minister's gate, I was invited in with a whole-heartedness that was altogether charming. The minister's wife, a faded-looking woman who had once possessed a delicate sort of prettiness, was waiting for us on the steps with a fine chubby baby on her arm—number five.
The home was much the sort of place I had imagined—a small house undesirably located (but cheap!), with a few straggling acres of garden and meadow upon which the minister and his boys were trying with inexperienced hands to piece out their inadequate living. At the very first glimpse of the garden I wanted to throw off my coat and go at it.
And yet—and yet——what a wonderful thing love is! There was, after all, something incalculable, something pervasively beautiful about this poor household. The moment the minister stepped inside his own door he became a different and livelier person. Something boyish crept into his manner, and a new look came into the eyes of his faded wife that made her almost pretty again. And the fat, comfortable baby rolled and gurgled about on the floor as happily as though there had been two nurses and a governess to look after him. As for the four boys, I have never seen healthier or happier ones.
I sat with them at their Sunday-evening luncheon. As the minister bowed his head to say grace I felt him clasp my hand on one side while the oldest boy clasped my hand on the other, and thus, linked together, and accepting the stranger utterly, the family looked up to God.
There was a fine, modest gayety about the meal. In front of Mrs. Minister stood a very large yellow bowl filled with what she called rusk—a preparation unfamiliar to me, made by browning and crushing the crusts of bread and then rolling them down into a coarse meal. A bowl of this, with sweet, rich, yellow milk (for they kept their own cow), made one of the most appetizing dishes that ever I ate. It was downright good: it gave one the unalloyed aroma of the sweet new milk and the satisfying taste of the crisp bread.
Nor have I ever enjoyed a more perfect hospitality. I have been in many a richer home where there was not a hundredth part of the true gentility—the gentility of unapologizing simplicity and kindness.
And after it was over and cleared away—the minister himself donning a long apron and helping his wife—and the chubby baby put to bed, we all sat around the table in the gathering twilight.
I think men perish sometimes from sheer untalked talk. For lack of a creative listener they gradually fill up with unexpressed emotion. Presently this emotion begins to ferment, and finally—bang!—they blow up, burst, disappear in thin air. In all that community I suppose there was no one but the little faded wife to whom the minister dared open his heart, and I think he found me a godsend. All I really did was to look from one to the other and put in here and there an inciting comment or ask an understanding question. After he had told me his situation and the difficulties which confronted him and his small church, he exclaimed suddenly:
"A minister should by rights be a leader, not only inside of his church, but outside it in the community."
"You are right," I exclaimed with great earnestness; "you are right."
And with that I told him of our own Scotch preacher and how he led and moulded our community; and as I talked I could see him actually growing, unfolding, under my eyes.
"Why," said I, "you not only ought to be the moral leader of this community, but you are!"
"That's what I tell him," exclaimed his wife.
"But he persists in thinking, doesn't he, that he is a poor sinner?"
"He thinks it too much," she laughed.
"Yes, yes," he said, as much to himself as to us, "a minister ought to be a fighter!"
It was beautiful, the boyish flush which now came into his face and the light that came into his eyes. I should never have identified him with the Black Spectre of the afternoon.
"Why," said I, "you ARE a fighter; you're fighting the greatest battle in the world today—the only real battle—the battle for the spiritual view of life."
Oh, I knew exactly what was the trouble with his religion—at least the religion which, under the pressure of that church he felt obliged to preach! It was the old, groaning, denying, resisting religion. It was the sort of religion which sets a man apart and assures him that the entire universe in the guise of the Powers of Darkness is leagued against him. What he needed was a reviving draught of the new faith which affirms, accepts, rejoices, which feels the universe triumphantly behind it. And so whenever the minister told me what he ought to be—for he too sensed the new impulse—I merely told him he was just that. He needed only this little encouragement to unfold.
"Yes," said he again, "I am the real moral leader here."
At this I saw Mrs. Minister nodding her head vigorously.
"It's you," she said, "and not Mr. Nash, who should lead this community."
How a woman loves concrete applications. She is your only true pragmatist. If a philosophy will not work, says she, why bother with it?
The minister rose quickly from his chair, threw back his head, and strode quickly up and down the room.
"You are right," said he; "and I WILL lead it. I'll have my farmers' meetings as I planned."
It may have been the effect of the lamplight, but it seemed to me that little Mrs. Minister, as she glanced up at him, looked actually pretty.
The minister continued to stride up and down the room with his chin in the air.
"Mr. Nash," said she in a low voice to me, "is always trying to hold him down and keep him back. My husband WANTS to do the great things"—wistfully.
"By every right," the minister was repeating, quite oblivious of our presence, "I should lead these people."
"He sees the weakness of the church," she continued, "as well as any one, and he wants to start some vigorous community work—have agricultural meetings and boys' clubs, and lots of things like that—but Mr. Nash says it is no part of a minister's work: that it cheapens religion. He says that when a parson—Mr. Nash always calls him parson, and I just LOATHE that name—has preached, and prayed, and visited the sick, that's enough for HIM."
At this very moment a step sounded upon the walk, and an instant later a figure appeared in the doorway.
"Why, Mr. Nash," exclaimed little Mrs. Minister, exhibiting that astonishing gift of swift recovery which is the possession of even the simplest women, "come right in."
It was some seconds before the minister could come down from the heights and greet Mr. Nash. As for me, I was never more interested in my life.
"Now," said I to myself, "we shall see Christian meet Apollyon."
As soon as Mrs. Minister lighted the lamp I was introduced to the great man. He looked at me sharply with his small, round eyes, and said:
"Oh, you are the—the man who was in church this afternoon."
I admitted it, and he looked around at the minister with an accusing expression. He evidently did not approve of me, nor could I wholly blame him, for I knew well how he, as a rich farmer, must look upon a rusty man of the road like me. I should have liked dearly to cross swords with him myself, but greater events were imminent.
In no time at all the discussion, which had evidently been broken off at some previous meeting, concerning the proposed farmers' assembly at the church, had taken on a really lively tone. Mr. Nash was evidently in the somewhat irritable mood with which important people may sometimes indulge themselves, for he bit off his words in a way that was calculated to make any but an unusually meek and saintly man exceedingly uncomfortable. But the minister, with the fine, high humility of those whose passion is for great or true things, was quite oblivious to the harsh words. Borne along by an irresistible enthusiasm, he told in glowing terms what his plan would mean to the community, how the people needed a new social and civic spirit—a "neighbourhood religious feeling" he called it. And as he talked his face flushed, and his eyes shone with the pure fire of a great purpose. But I could see that all this enthusiasm impressed the practical Mr. Nash as mere moonshine. He grew more and more uneasy. Finally he brought his hand down with a resounding thwack upon his knee, and said in a high, cutting voice:
"I don't believe in any such newfangled nonsense. It ain't none of a parson's business what the community does. You're hired, ain't you, an' paid to run the church? That's the end of it. We ain't goin' to have any mixin' of religion an' farmin' in THIS neighbourhood."
My eyes were on the pale man of God. I felt as though a human soul were being weighed in the balance. What would he do now? What was he worth REALLY as a man as well as a minister?
He paused a moment with downcast eyes. I saw little Mrs. Minister glance at him—once—wistfully. He rose from his place, drew himself up to his full height—I shall not soon forget the look on his face—and uttered these amazing words:
"Martha, bring the ginger-jar."
Mrs. Minister, without a word, went to a little cupboard on the farther side of the room and took down a brown earthenware jar, which she brought over and placed on the table, Mr. Nash following her movements with astonished eyes. No one spoke.
The minister took the jar in his hands as he might the communion-cup just before saying the prayer of the sacrament.
"Mr. Nash," said he in a loud voice, "I've decided to hold that farmers' meeting."
Before Mr. Nash could reply the minister seated himself and was pouring out the contents of the jar upon the table—a clatter of dimes, nickels, pennies, a few quarters and half dollars, and a very few bills.
"Martha, just how much money is there?"
"Twenty-four dollars and sixteen cents."
The minister put his hand into his pocket and, after counting out certain coins, said:
"Here's one dollar and eighty-four cents more. That makes twenty-six dollars. Now, Mr. Nash, you're the largest contributor to my salary in this neighbourhood. You gave twenty-six dollars last year—fifty cents a week. It is a generous contribution, but I cannot take it any longer. It is fortunate that my wife has saved up this money to buy a sewing-machine, so that we can pay back your contribution in full."
He paused; no one of us spoke a word.
"Mr. Nash," he continued, and his face was good to see, "I am the minister here. I am convinced that what the community needs is more of a religious and social spirit, and I am going about getting it in the way the Lord leads me."
At this I saw Mrs. Minister look up at her husband with such a light in her eyes as any man might well barter his life for—I could not keep my own eyes from pure beauty of it.
I knew too what this defiance meant. It meant that this little family was placing its all upon the altar—even the pitiful coins for which they had skimped and saved for months for a particular purpose. Talk of the heroism of the men who charged with Pickett at Gettysburg! Here was a courage higher and whiter than that; here was a courage that dared to fight alone.
As for Mr. Nash, the face of that Chief Pharisee was a study. Nothing is so paralyzing to a rich man as to find suddenly that his money will no longer command him any advantage. Like all hard-shelled, practical people, Mr. Nash could only dominate in a world which recognized the same material supremacy that he recognized. Any one who insisted upon flying was lost to Mr. Nash.
The minister pushed the little pile of coins toward him.
"Take it, Mr. Nash," said he.
At that Mr. Nash rose hastily.
"I will not," he said gruffly.
He paused, and looked at the minister with a strange expression in his small round eyes—was it anger, or was it fear, or could it have been admiration?
"If you want to waste your time on fiddlin' farmers' meetings—a man that knows as little of farmin' as you do—why go ahead for all o' me. But don't count me in."
He turned, reached for his hat, and then went out of the door into the darkness.
For a moment we all sat perfectly silent, then the minister rose, and said solemnly:
"Martha, let's sing something."
Martha crossed the room to the cottage organ and seated herself on the stool.
"What shall we sing?" said she.
"Something with fight in it, Martha," he responded; "something with plenty of fight in it."
So we sang "Onward, Christian Soldier, Marching as to War," and followed up with:
Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve And press with rigour on; A heavenly race demands thy zeal And an immortal crown.
When we had finished, and as Martha rose from her seat, the minister impulsively put his hands on her shoulders, and said:
"Martha, this is the greatest night of my life."
He took a turn up and down the room, and then with an exultant boyish laugh said:
"We'll go to town to-morrow and pick out that sewing-machine!"
I remained with them that night and part of the following day, taking a hand with them in the garden, but of the events of that day I shall speak in another chapter.
CHAPTER V. I PLAY THE PART OF A SPECTACLE PEDDLER
Yesterday was exactly the sort of a day I love best—a spicy, unexpected, amusing day—crowned with a droll adventure.
I cannot account for it, but it seems to me I take the road each morning with a livelier mind and keener curiosity. If you were to watch me narrowly these days you would see I am slowly shedding my years. I suspect that some one of the clear hill streams from which I have been drinking (lying prone on my face) was in reality the fountain of eternal youth. I shall not go back to see.
It seems to me, when I feel like this, that in every least thing upon the roadside, or upon the hill, lurks the stuff of adventure. What a world it is! A mile south of here I shall find all that Stanley found in the jungles of Africa; a mile north I am Peary at the Pole!
You there, brown-clad farmer on the tall seat of your wagon, driving townward with a red heifer for sale, I can show you that life—your life—is not all a gray smudge, as you think it is, but crammed, packed, loaded with miraculous things. I can show you wonders past belief in your own soul. I can easily convince you that you are in reality a poet, a hero, a true lover, a saint.
It is because we are not humble enough in the presence of the divine daily fact that adventure knocks so rarely at our door. A thousand times I have had to learn this truth (what lesson so hard to learn as the lesson of humility!) and I suppose I shall have to learn it a thousand times more. This very day, straining my eyes to see the distant wonders of the mountains, I nearly missed a miracle by the roadside.
Soon after leaving the minister and his family—I worked with them in their garden with great delight most of the forenoon—I came, within a mile—to the wide white turnpike—the Great Road.
Now, I usually prefer the little roads, the little, unexpected, curving, leisurely country roads. The sharp hills, the pleasant deep valleys, the bridges not too well kept, the verdure deep grown along old fences, the houses opening hospitably at the very roadside, all these things I love. They come to me with the same sort of charm and flavour, only vastly magnified, which I find often in the essays of the older writers—those leisurely old fellows who took time to write, REALLY write. The important thing to me about a road, as about life—and literature, is not that it goes anywhere, but that it is livable while it goes. For if I were to arrive—and who knows that I ever shall arrive?—I think I should be no happier than I am here.
Thus I have commonly avoided the Great White Road—the broad, smooth turnpike—rock-bottomed and rolled by a State—without so much as a loitering curve to whet one's curiosity, nor a thank-you-ma'am to laugh over, nor a sinful hill to test your endurance—not so much as a dreamy valley! It pursues its hard, unshaded, practical way directly from some particular place to some other particular place and from time to time a motor-car shoots in at one end of it and out at the other, leaving its dust to settle upon quiet travellers like me.
Thus to-day when I came to the turnpike I was at first for making straight across it and taking to the hills beyond, but at that very moment a motor-car whirled past me as I stood there and a girl with a merry face waved her hand at me. I lifted my hat in return—and as I watched them out of sight I felt a curious new sense of warmth and friendliness there in the Great Road.
"These are just people, too," I said aloud—"and maybe they really like it!"
And with that I began laughing at myself, and at the whole, big, amazing, interesting world. Here was I pitying them for their benighted state, and there were they, no doubt, pitying me for mine!
And with that pleasant and satisfactory thought in my mind and a song in my throat I swung into the Great Road.
"It doesn't matter in the least," said I to myself, "whether a man takes hold of life by the great road or the little ones so long as he takes hold."
And oh, it was a wonderful day! A day with movement in it; a day that flowed! In every field the farmers were at work, the cattle fed widely in the meadows, and the Great Road itself was alive with a hundred varied sorts of activity. Light winds stirred the tree-tops and rippled in the new grass; and from the thickets I heard the blackbirds crying. Everything animate and inanimate, that morning, seemed to have its own clear voice and to cry out at me for my interest, or curiosity, or sympathy. Under such circumstances it could not have been long—nor was it long—before I came plump upon the first of a series of odd adventures.
A great many people, I know, abominate the roadside sign. It seems to them a desecration of nature, the intrusion of rude commercialism upon the perfection of natural beauty. But not I. I have no such feeling. Oh, the signs in themselves are often rude and unbeautiful, and I never wished my own barn or fences to sing the praises of swamp root or sarsaparilla—and yet there is something wonderfully human about these painted and pasted vociferations of the roadside signs; and I don't know why they are less "natural" in their way than a house or barn or a planted field of corn. They also tell us about life. How eagerly they cry out at us, "Buy me, buy me!" What enthusiasm they have in their own concerns, what boundless faith in themselves! How they speak of the enormous energy, activity, resourcefulness of human kind!
Indeed, I like all kinds of signs. The autocratic warnings of the road, the musts and the must-nots of traffic, I observe in passing; and I often stand long at the crossings and look up at the finger-posts, and consider my limitless wealth as a traveller. By this road I may, at my own pleasure, reach the Great City; by that—who knows?—the far wonders of Cathay. And I respond always to the appeal which the devoted pilgrim paints on the rocks at the roadside: "Repent ye, for the kingdom of God is at hand," and though I am certain that the kingdom of God is already here, I stop always and repent—just a little—knowing that there is always room for it. At the entrance of the little towns, also, or in the squares of the villages, I stop often to read the signs of taxes assessed, or of political meetings; I see the evidences of homes broken up in the notices of auction sales, and of families bereaved in the dry and formal publications of the probate court. I pause, too, before the signs of amusements flaming red and yellow on the barns (boys, the circus is coming to town!), and I pause also, but no longer, to read the silent signs carved in stone in the little cemeteries as I pass. Symbols, you say? Why, they're the very stuff of life. If you cannot see life here in the wide road, you will never see it at all.
Well, I saw a sign yesterday at the roadside that I never saw anywhere before. It was not a large sign—indeed rather inconspicuous—consisting of a single word rather crudely painted in black (as by an amateur) upon a white board. It was nailed to a tree where those in swift passing cars could not avoid seeing it:
[ REST ]
I cannot describe the odd sense of enlivenment, of pleasure I had when I saw this new sign.
"Rest!" I exclaimed aloud. "Indeed I will," and I sat down on a stone not far away.
What a sign for this very spot! Here in the midst of the haste and hurry of the Great Road a quiet voice was saying, "Rest." Some one with imagination, I thought, evidently put that up; some quietist offering this mild protest against the breathless progress of the age. How often I have felt the same way myself—as though I were being swept onward through life faster than I could well enjoy it. For nature passes the dishes far more rapidly than we can help ourselves.
Or perhaps, thought I, eagerly speculating, this may be only some cunning advertiser with rest for sale (in these days even rest has its price), thus piquing the curiosity of the traveller for the disclosure which he will make a mile or so farther on. Or else some humourist wasting his wit upon the Fraternity of the Road, too willing (like me, perhaps) to accept his ironical advice. But it would be well worth while should I find him, to see him chuckle behind his hand.
So I sat there very much interested, for a long time, even framing a rather amusing picture in my own mind of the sort of person who painted these signs, deciding finally that he must be a zealot rather than a trader or humourist. (Confidentially, I could not make a picture of him in which he was not endowed with plentiful long hair). As I walked onward again, I decided that in any guise I should like to see him, and I enjoyed thinking what I should say if I met him. A mile farther up the road I saw another sign exactly like the first.
"Here he is again," I said exultantly, and that sign being somewhat nearer the ground I was able to examine it carefully front and back, but it bore no evidence of its origin.
In the next few miles I saw two other signs with nothing on them but the word "Rest."
Now this excellent admonition—like much of the excellent admonitions in this world—affected me perversely: it made me more restless than ever. I felt that I could not rest properly until I found out who wanted me to rest, and why. It opened indeed a limitless vista for new adventure.
Presently, away ahead of me in the road, I saw a man standing near a one-horse wagon. He seemed to be engaged in some activity near the roadside, but I could not tell exactly what. As I hastened nearer I discovered that he was a short, strongly built, sun-bronzed man in working-clothes—and with the shortest of short hair. I saw him take a shovel from the wagon and begin digging. He was the road-worker.
I asked the road-worker if he had seen the curious signs. He looked up at me with a broad smile (he had good-humoured, very bright blue eyes).
"Yes," he said, "but they ain't for me."
"Then you don't follow the advice they give?"
"Not with a section like mine," said he, and he straightened up and looked first one way of the road and then the other. "I have from Grabow Brook, but not the bridge, to the top o' Sullivan Hill, and all the culverts between, though two of 'em are by rights bridges. And I claim that's a job for any full-grown man."
He began shovelling again in the road as if to prove how busy he was. There had been a small landslide from an open cut on one side and a mass of gravel and small boulders lay scattered on the smooth macadam. I watched him for a moment. I love to watch the motions of vigorous men at work, the easy play of the muscles, the swing of the shoulders, the vigour of stoutly planted legs. He evidently considered the conversation closed, and I, as—well, as a dusty man of the road—easily dismissed. (You have no idea, until you try it, what a weight of prejudice the man of the road has to surmount before he is accepted on easy terms by the ordinary members of the human race.)
A few other well-intentioned observations on my part having elicited nothing but monosyllabic replies, I put my bag down by the roadside and, going up to the wagon, got out a shovel, and without a word took my place at the other end of the landslide and began to shovel for all I was worth.
I said not a word to the husky road-worker and pretended not to look at him, but I saw him well enough out of the corner of my eye. He was evidently astonished and interested, as I knew he would be: it was something entirely new on the road. He didn't quite know whether to be angry, or amused, or sociable. I caught him looking over at me several times, but I offered no response; then he cleared his throat and said:
"Where you from?"
I answered with a monosyllable which I knew he could not quite catch. Silence again for some time, during which I shovelled valiantly and with great inward amusement. Oh, there is nothing like cracking a hard human nut! I decided at that moment, to have him invite me to supper.
Finally, when I showed no signs of stopping my work, he himself paused and leaned on his shovel. I kept right on.
"Say, partner," said he, finally, "did YOU read those signs as you come up the road?"
"Yes," I said, "but they weren't for me, either. My section's a long one, too."
"Say, you ain't a road-worker, are you?" he asked eagerly.
"Yes," said I, with a sudden inspiration, "that's exactly what I am—a road-worker."
"Put her there, then, partner," he said, with a broad smile on his bronzed face.
He and I struck hands, rested on our shovels (like old hands at it), and looked with understanding into each other's eyes. We both knew the trade and the tricks of the trade; all bars were down between us. The fact is, we had both seen and profited by the peculiar signs at the roadside.
"Where's your section?" he asked easily.
"Well," I responded after considering the question, "I have a very long and hard section. It begins at a place called Prosy Common—do you know it?—and reaches to the top of Clear Hill. There are several bad spots on the way, I can tell you."
"Don't know it," said the husky road-worker; "'tain't round here, is it? In the town of Sheldon, maybe?"
Just at this moment, perhaps fortunately, for there is nothing so difficult to satisfy as the appetite of people for specific information, a motor-car whizzed past, the driver holding up his hand in greeting, and the road-worker and I responding in accordance with the etiquette of the Great Road.
"There he goes in the ruts again," said the husky road-worker. "Why is it, I'd like to know, that every one wants to run in the same identical track when they've got the whole wide road before 'em?"
"That's what has long puzzled me, too," I said. "Why WILL people continue to run in ruts?"
"It don't seem to do no good to put up signs," said the road-worker.
"Very little indeed," said I. "The fact is, people have got to be bumped out of the ruts they get into."
"You're right," said he enthusiastically, and his voice dropped into the tone of one speaking to a member of the inner guild. "I know how to get 'em."
"How?" I asked in an equally mysterious voice.
"I put a stone or two in the ruts!"
"Do you?" I exclaimed. "I've done that very thing myself—many a time! Just place a good hard tru—I mean stone, with a bit of common dust sprinkled over it, in the middle of the rut, and they'll look out for THAT rut for some time to come."
"Ain't it gorgeous," said the husky road-worker, chuckling joyfully, "to see 'em bump?"
"It is," said I—"gorgeous."
After that, shovelling part of the time in a leisurely way, and part of the time responding to the urgent request of the signs by the roadside (it pays to advertise!), the husky road-worker and I discussed many great and important subjects, all, however, curiously related to roads. Working all day long with his old horse, removing obstructions, draining out the culverts, filling ruts and holes with new stone, and repairing the damage of rain and storm, the road-worker was filled with a world of practical information covering roads and road-making. And having learned that I was of the same calling, we exchanged views with the greatest enthusiasm. It was astonishing to see how nearly in agreement we were as to what constituted an ideal road.
"Almost everything," said he, "depends on depth. If you get a good solid foundation, the' ain't anything that can break up your road."
"Exactly what I have discovered," I responded. "Get down to bedrock and do an honest job of building."
"And don't have too many sharp turns."
"No," said I, "long, leisurely curves are best—all through life. You have observed that nearly all the accidents on the road are due to sharp turnings."
"Right you are!" he exclaimed.
"A man who tries to turn too sharply on his way nearly always skids."
"Or else turns turtle in the ditch."
But it was not until we reached the subject of oiling that we mounted to the real summit of enthusiastic agreement. Of all things on the road, or above the road, or in the waters under the road, there is nothing that the road-worker dislikes more than oil.
"It's all right," said he, "to use oil for surfacin' and to keep down the dust. You don't need much and it ain't messy. But sometimes when you see oil pumped on a road, you know that either the contractor has been jobbin', or else the road's worn out and ought to be rebuilt."
"That's exactly what I've found," said I. "Let a road become almost impassable with ruts and rocks and dust, and immediately some man says, 'Oh, it's all right—put on a little oil—'"
"That's what our supervisor is always sayin'," said the road-worker.
"Yes," I responded, "it usually is the supervisor. He lives by it. He wants to smooth over the defects, he wants to lay the dust that every passerby kicks up, he tries to smear over the truth regarding conditions with messy and ill-smelling oil. Above everything, he doesn't want the road dug up and rebuilt—says it will interfere with traffic, injure business, and even set people to talking about changing the route entirely! Oh, haven't I seen it in religion, where they are doing their best to oil up roads that are entirely worn out—and as for politics, is not the cry of the party-roadster and the harmony-oilers abroad in the land?"
In the excited interest with which this idea now bore me along I had entirely forgotten the existence of my companion, and as I now glanced at him I saw him standing with a curious look of astonishment and suspicion on his face. I saw that I had unintentionally gone a little too far. So I said abruptly:
"Partner, let's get a drink. I'm thirsty."
He followed me, I thought a bit reluctantly, to a little brook not far up the road where we had been once before. As we were drinking, silently, I looked at the stout young fellow standing there, and I thought to myself:
What a good, straightforward young fellow he is anyway, and how thoroughly he knows his job. I thought how well he was equipped with unilluminated knowledge, and it came to me whimsically, that here was a fine bit of road-mending for me to do.
Most people have sight, but few have insight; and as I looked into the clear blue eyes of my friend I had a sudden swift inspiration, and before I could repent of it I had said to him in the most serious voice that I could command:
"Friend, I am in reality a spectacle-peddler—"
His glance shifted uncomfortably to my gray bag.
"And I want to sell you a pair of spectacles," I said. "I see that you are nearly blind."
It would be utterly impossible to describe the expression on his face. His hand went involuntarily to his eyes, and he glanced quickly, somewhat fearfully, about.
"Yes, nearly blind," said I. "I saw it when I first met you. You don't know it yourself yet, but I can assure you it is a bad case."
I paused, and shook my head slowly. If I had not been so much in earnest, I think I should have been tempted to laugh outright. I had begun my talk with him half jestingly, with the amusing idea of breaking through his shell, but I now found myself tremendously engrossed, and desired nothing in the world (at that moment) so much as to make him see what I saw. I felt as though I held a live human soul in my hand.
"Say, partner," said the road-worker, "are you sure you aren't—" He tapped his forehead and began to edge away.
I did not answer his question at all, but continued, with my eyes fixed on him:
"It is a peculiar sort of blindness. Apparently, as you look about, you see everything there is to see, but as a matter of fact you see nothing in the world but this road—"
"It's time that I was seein' it again then," said he, making as if to turn back to work, but remaining with a disturbed expression on his countenance.
"The Spectacles I have to sell," said I, "are powerful magnifiers"—he glanced again at the gray bag. "When you put them on you will see a thousand wonderful things besides the road—"
"Then you ain't road-worker after all!" he said, evidently trying to be bluff and outright with me.
Now your substantial, sober, practical American will stand only about so much verbal foolery; and there is nothing in the world that makes him more uncomfortable—yes, downright mad!—than to feel that he is being played with. I could see that I had nearly reached the limit with him, and that if I held him now it must be by driving the truth straight home. So I stepped over toward him and said very earnestly:
"My friend, don't think I am merely joking you. I was never more in earnest in all my life. When I told you I was a road-worker I meant it, but I had in mind the mending of other kinds of roads than this."
I laid my hand on his arm, and explained to him as directly and simply as English words could do it, how, when he had spoken of oil for his roads, I thought of another sort of oil for another sort of roads, and when he spoke of curves in his roads I was thinking of curves in the roads I dealt with, and I explained to him what my roads were. I have never seen a man more intensely interested: he neither moved nor took his eyes from my face.
"And when I spoke of selling you a pair of spectacles," said I, "it was only a way of telling you how much I wanted to make you see my kinds of roads as well as your own."
I paused, wondering if, after all, he could be made to see. I know now how the surgeon must feel at the crucial moment of his accomplished operation. Will the patient live or die?
The road-worker drew a long breath as he came out from under the anesthetic.
"I guess, partner," said he, "you're trying to put a stone or two in my ruts!"
I had him!
"Exactly," I exclaimed eagerly.
We both paused. He was the first to speak—with some embarrassment:
"Say, you're just like a preacher I used to know when I was a kid. He was always sayin' things that meant something else and when you found out what he was drivin' at you always felt kind of queer in your insides."
"It's a mighty good sign," I said, "when a man begins to feel queer in the insides. It shows that something is happening to him."
With that we walked back to the road, feeling very close and friendly—and shovelling again, not saying much. After quite a time, when we had nearly cleaned up the landslide, I heard the husky road-worker chuckling to himself; finally, straightening up, he said:
"Say, there's more things in a road than ever I dreamt of."
"I see," said I, "that the new spectacles are a good fit."
The road-worker laughed long and loud.
"You're a good one, all right," he said. "I see what YOU mean. I catch your point."
"And now that you've got them on," said I, "and they are serving you so well, I'm not going to sell them to you at all. I'm going to present them to you—for I haven't seen anybody in a long time that I've enjoyed meeting more than I have you."
We nurse a fiction that people love to cover up their feelings; but I have learned that if the feeling is real and deep they love far better to find a way to uncover it.
"Same here," said the road-worker simply, but with a world of genuine feeling in his voice.
Well, when it came time to stop work the road-worker insisted that I get in and go home with him.
"I want you to see my wife and kids," said he.
The upshot of it was that I not only remained for supper—and a good supper it was—but I spent the night in his little home, close at the side of the road near the foot of a fine hill. And from time to time all night long, it seemed to me, I could hear the rush of cars going by in the smooth road outside, and sometimes their lights flashed in at my window, and sometimes I heard them sound their brassy horns.
I wish I could tell more of what I saw there, of the garden back of the house, and of all the road-worker and his wife told me of their simple history—but, the road calls!
When I set forth early this morning the road-worker followed me out to the smooth macadam (his wife standing in the doorway with her hands rolled in her apron) and said to me, a bit shyly:
"I'll be more sort o'—sort o' interested in roads since I've seen you."
"I'll be along again some of these days," said I, laughing, "and I'll stop in and show you my new stock of spectacles. Maybe I can sell you another pair!"
"Maybe you kin," and he smiled a broad, understanding smile.
Nothing brings men together like having a joke in common.
So I walked off down the road—in the best of spirits—ready for the events of another day.
It will surely be a great adventure, one of these days, to come this way again—and to visit the Stanleys, and the Vedders, and the Minister, and drop in and sell another pair of specs to the Road-worker. It seems to me I have a wonderfully rosy future ahead of me!
P. S.—I have not yet found out who painted the curious signs; but I am not as uneasy about it as I was. I have seen two more of them already this morning—and find they exert quite a psychological influence.
CHAPTER VI. AN EXPERIMENT IN HUMAN NATURE
In the early morning after I left the husky road-mender (wearing his new spectacles), I remained steadfastly on the Great Road or near it. It was a prime spring day, just a little hazy, as though promising rain, but soft and warm.
"They will be working in the garden at home," I thought, "and there will be worlds of rhubarb and asparagus." Then I remembered how the morning sunshine would look on the little vine-clad back porch (reaching halfway up the weathered door) of my own house among the hills.
It was the first time since my pilgrimage began that I had thought with any emotion of my farm—or of Harriet.
And then the road claimed me again, and I began to look out for some further explanation of the curious sign, the single word "Rest," which had interested me so keenly on the preceding day. It may seem absurd to some who read these lines—some practical people!—but I cannot convey the pleasure I had in the very elusiveness and mystery of the sign, nor how I wished I might at the next turn come upon the poet himself. I decided that no one but a poet could have contented himself with a lyric in one word, unless it might have been a humourist, to whom sometimes a single small word is more blessed than all the verbal riches of Webster himself. For it is nothing short of genius that uses one word when twenty will say the same thing!
Or, would he, after all, turn out to be only a more than ordinarily alluring advertiser? I confess my heart went into my throat that morning, when I first saw the sign, lest it read:
[ RESTaurant 2 miles east ]
nor should I have been surprised if it had.
I caught a vicarious glimpse of the sign-man to-day, through the eyes of a young farmer. Yes, he s'posed he'd seen him, he said; wore a slouch hat, couldn't tell whether he was young or old. Drove into the bushes (just down there beyond the brook) and, standin' on the seat of his buggy, nailed something to a tree. A day or two later—the dull wonder of mankind!—the young farmer, passing that way to town, had seen the odd sign "Rest" on the tree: he s'posed the fellow put it there.
"What does it mean?"
"Well, naow, I hadn't thought," said the young farmer.
"Did the fellow by any chance have long hair?"
"Well, naow, I didn't notice," said he.
"Are you sure he wore a slouch hat?"
"Ye-es—or it may a-been straw," replied the observant young farmer.
So I tramped that morning; and as I tramped I let my mind go out warmly to the people living all about on the farms or in the hills. It is pleasant at times to feel life, as it were, in general terms: no specific Mr. Smith or concrete Mr. Jones, but just human life. I love to think of people all around going out busily in the morning to their work and returning at night, weary, to rest. I like to think of them growing up, growing old, loving, achieving, sinning, failing—in short, living.
In such a live-minded mood as this it often happens that the most ordinary things appear charged with new significance. I suppose I had seen a thousand rural-mail boxes along country roads before that day, but I had seen them as the young farmer saw the sign-man. They were mere inert objects of iron and wood.
But as I tramped, thinking of the people in the hills, I came quite unexpectedly upon a sandy by-road that came out through a thicket of scrub oaks and hazel-brush, like some shy countryman, to join the turn-pike. As I stood looking into it—for it seemed peculiarly inviting—I saw at the entrance a familiar group of rural-mail boxes. And I saw them not as dead things, but for the moment—the illusion was over-powering—they were living, eager hands outstretched to the passing throng I could feel, hear, see the farmers up there in the hills reaching out to me, to all the world, for a thousand inexpressible things, for more life, more companionship, more comforts, more money.
It occurred to me at that moment, whimsically and yet somehow seriously, that I might respond to the appeal of the shy country road and the outstretched hands. At first I did not think of anything I could do—save to go up and eat dinner with one of the hill farmers, which might not be an unmixed blessing!—and then it came to me.
"I will write a letter!"
Straightway and with the liveliest amusement I began to formulate in my mind what I should say:
Dear Friend: You do not know me. I am a passerby in the road. My name is David Grayson. You do not know me, and it may seem odd to you to receive a letter from an entire stranger. But I am something of a farmer myself, and as I went by I could not help thinking of you and your family and your farm. The fact is, I should like to look you up, and talk with you about many things. I myself cultivate a number of curious fields, and raise many kinds of crops—
At this interesting point my inspiration suddenly collapsed, for I had a vision, at once amusing and disconcerting, of my hill farmer (and his practical wife!) receiving such a letter (along with the country paper, a circular advertising a cure for catarrh, and the most recent catalogue of the largest mail-order house in creation). I could see them standing there in their doorway, the man with his coat off, doubtfully scratching his head as he read my letter, the woman wiping her hands on her apron and looking over his shoulder, and a youngster squeezing between the two and demanding, "What is it, Paw?"
I found myself wondering how they would receive such an unusual letter, what they would take it to mean. And in spite of all I could do, I could imagine no expression on their faces save one of incredulity and suspicion. I could fairly see the shrewd worldly wise look come into the farmer's face; I could hear him say:
"Ha, guess he thinks we ain't cut our eye-teeth!" And he would instantly begin speculating as to whether this was a new scheme for selling him second-rate nursery stock, or the smooth introduction of another sewing-machine agent.
Strange world, strange world! Sometimes it seems to me that the hardest thing of all to believe in is simple friendship. Is it not a comment upon our civilization that it is so often easier to believe that a man is a friend-for-profit, or even a cheat, than that he is frankly a well-wisher of his neighbours?
These reflections put such a damper upon my enthusiasm that I was on the point of taking again to the road, when it came to me powerfully: Why not try the experiment? Why not?
"Friendship," I said aloud, "is the greatest thing in the world. There is no door it will not unlock, no problem it will not solve. It is, after all, the only real thing in this world."
The sound of my own voice brought me suddenly to myself, and I found that I was standing there in the middle of the public road, one clenched fist absurdly raised in air, delivering an oration to a congregation of rural-mail boxes!
And yet, in spite of the humorous aspects of the idea, it still appeared to me that such an experiment would not only fit in with the true object of my journeying, but that it might be full of amusing and interesting adventures. Straightway I got my notebook out of my bag and, sitting down near the roadside, wrote my letter. I wrote it as though my life depended upon it, with the intent of making some one household there in the hills feel at least a little wave of warmth and sympathy from the great world that was passing in the road below. I tried to prove the validity of a kindly thought with no selling device attached to it; I tried to make it such a word of frank companionship as I myself, working in my own fields, would like to receive.
Among the letter-boxes in the group was one that stood a little detached and behind the others, as though shrinking from such prosperous company. It was made of unpainted wood, with leather hinges, and looked shabby in comparison with the jaunty red, green, and gray paint of some of the other boxes (with their cocky little metallic flags upraised). It bore the good American name of Clark—T. N. Clark—and it seemed to me that I could tell something of the Clarks by the box at the crossing.
"I think they need a friendly word," I said to myself.
So I wrote the name T. N. Clark on my envelope and put the letter in his box.
It was with a sense of joyous adventure that I now turned aside into the sandy road and climbed the hill. My mind busied itself with thinking how I should carry out my experiment, how I should approach these Clarks, and how and what they were. A thousand ways I pictured to myself the receipt of the letter: it would at least be something new for them, something just a little disturbing, and I was curious to see whether it might open the rift of wonder wide enough to let me slip into their lives.
I have often wondered why it is that men should be so fearful of new ventures in social relationships, when I have found them so fertile, so enjoyable. Most of us fear (actually fear) people who differ from ourselves, either up or down the scale. Your Edison pries fearlessly into the intimate secrets of matter; your Marconi employs the mysterious properties of the "jellied ether," but let a man seek to experiment with the laws of that singular electricity which connects you and me (though you be a millionaire and I a ditch-digger), and we think him a wild visionary, an academic person. I think sometimes that the science of humanity to-day is in about the state of darkness that the natural sciences were when Linneus and Cuvier and Lamarck began groping for the great laws of natural unity. Most of the human race is still groaning under the belief that each of us is a special and unrelated creation, just as men for ages saw no relationships between the fowls of the air, the beasts of the field, and the fish of the sea. But, thank God, we are beginning to learn that unity is as much a law of life as selfish struggle, and love a more vital force than avarice or lust of power or place. A Wandering Carpenter knew it, and taught it, twenty centuries ago.
"The next house beyond the ridge," said the toothless old woman, pointing with a long finger, "is the Clarks'. You can't miss it," and I thought she looked at me oddly.
I had been walking briskly for some three miles, and it was with keen expectation that I now mounted the ridge and saw the farm for which I was looking, lying there in the valley before me. It was altogether a wild and beautiful bit of country—stunted cedars on the knolls of the rolling hills, a brook trailing its way among alders and willows down a long valley, and shaggy old fields smiling in the sun. As I came nearer I could see that the only disharmony in the valley was the work (or idleness) of men. A broken mowing-machine stood in the field where it had been left the summer before, rusty and forlorn, and dead weeds marked the edges of a field wherein the spring ploughing was now only half done. The whole farmstead, indeed, looked tired. As for the house and barn, they had reached that final stage of decay in which the best thing that could be said of them was that they were picturesque. Everything was as different from the farm of the energetic and joyous Stanleys, whose work I had shared only a few days before, as anything that could be imagined.
Now, my usual way of getting into step with people is simplicity itself. I take off my coat and go to work with them and the first thing I know we have become first-rate friends. One doesn't dream of the possibilities of companionship in labour until he has tried it.
But how shall one get into step with a man who is not stepping?
On the porch of the farmhouse, there in the mid-afternoon, a man sat idly; and children were at play in the yard. I went in at the gate, not knowing in the least what I should say or do, but determined to get hold of the problem somewhere. As I approached the step, I swung my bag from my shoulder.
"Don't want to buy nothin'," said the man.
"Well," said I, "that is fortunate, for I have nothing to sell. But you've got something I want."
He looked at me dully.
"A drink of water."
Scarcely moving his head, he called to a shy older girl who had just appeared in the doorway.
"Mandy, bring a dipper of water."
As I stood there the children gathered curiously around me, and the man continued to sit in his chair, saying absolutely nothing, a picture of dull discouragement.
"How they need something to stir them up," I thought.
When I had emptied the dipper, I sat down on the top step of the porch, and, without saying a word to the man, placed my bag beside me and began to open it. The shy girl paused, dipper in hand, the children stood on tiptoe, and even the man showed signs of curiosity. With studied deliberation I took out two books I had with me and put them on the porch; then I proceeded to rummage for a long time in the bottom of the bag as though I could not find what I wanted. Every eye was glued upon me, and I even heard the step of Mrs. Clark as she came to the but I did not look up or speak. Finally I pulled out my tin whistle and, leaning back against the porch column, placed it to my lips, and began playing in Tom Madison's best style (eyes half closed, one toe tapping to the music, head nodding, fingers lifted high from the stops), I began playing "Money Musk," and "Old Dan Tucker." Oh, I put vim into it, I can tell you! And bad as my playing was, I had from the start an absorption of attention from my audience that Paderewski himself might have envied. I wound up with a lively trill in the high notes and took my whistle from my lips with a hearty laugh, for the whole thing had been downright good fun, the playing itself, the make-believe which went with it, the surprise and interest in the children's faces, the slow-breaking smile of the little girl with the dipper.
"I'll warrant you, madam," I said to the woman who now stood frankly in the doorway with her hands wrapped in her apron, "you haven't heard those tunes since you were a girl and danced to 'em."
"You're right," she responded heartily.
"I'll give you another jolly one," I said, and, replacing my whistle, I began with even greater zest to play "Yankee Doodle."
When I had gone through it half a dozen times with such added variations and trills as I could command, and had two of the children hopping about in the yard, and the forlorn man tapping his toe to the tune, and a smile on the face of the forlorn woman, I wound up with a rush and then, as if I could hold myself in no longer (and I couldn't either!), I suddenly burst out:
Yankee doodle dandy! Yankee doodle dandy! Mind the music and the step, And with the girls be handy.
It may seem surprising, but I think I can understand why it was—when I looked up at the woman in the doorway there were tears in her eyes!
"Do you know 'John Brown's Body'?" eagerly inquired the little girl with the dipper, and then, as if she had done something quite bold and improper, she blushed and edged toward the doorway.
"How does it go?" I asked, and one of the bold lads in the yard instantly puckered his lips to show me, and immediately they were all trying it.
"Here goes," said I, and for the next few minutes, and in my very best style, I hung Jeff Davis on the sour apple-tree, and I sent the soul of John Brown marching onward with an altogether unnecessary number of hallelujahs.
I think sometimes that people—whole families of 'em—literally perish for want of a good, hearty, whole-souled, mouth-opening, throat-stretching, side-aching laugh. They begin to think themselves the abused of creation, they begin to advise with their livers and to hate their neighbours, and the whole world becomes a miserable dark blue place quite unfit for human habitation. Well, all this is often only the result of a neglect to exercise properly those muscles of the body (and of the soul) which have to do with honest laughter.
I've never supposed I was an especially amusing person, but before I got through with it I had the Clark family well loosened up with laughter, although I wasn't quite sure some of the time whether Mrs. Clark was laughing or crying. I had them all laughing and talking, asking questions and answering them as though I were an old and valued neighbour.
Isn't it odd how unconvinced we often are by the crises in the lives of other people? They seem to us trivial or unimportant; but the fact is, the crises in the life of a boy, for example, or of a poor man, are as commanding as the crises in the life of the greatest statesman or millionaire, for they involve equally the whole personality, the entire prospects.
The Clark family, I soon learned, had lost its pig. A trivial matter, you say? I wonder if anything is ever trivial. A year of poor crops, sickness, low prices, discouragement and, at the end of it, on top of it all, the cherished pig had died!
From all accounts (and the man on the porch quite lost his apathy in telling me about it) it must have been a pig of remarkable virtues and attainments, a paragon of pigs—in whom had been bound up the many possibilities of new shoes for the children, a hat for the lady, a new pair of overalls for the gentleman, and I know not what other kindred luxuries. I do not think, indeed, I ever had the portrait of a pig drawn for me with quite such ardent enthusiasm of detail, and the more questions I asked the more eager the story, until finally it became necessary for me to go to the barn, the cattle-pen, the pig-pen and the chicken-house, that I might visualize more clearly the scene of the tragedy. The whole family trooped after us like a classic chorus, but Mr. Clark himself kept the centre of the stage.
How plainly I could read upon the face of the land the story of this hill farmer and his meagre existence—his ill-directed effort to wring a poor living for his family from these upland fields, his poverty, and, above all, his evident lack of knowledge of his own calling. Added to these things, and perhaps the most depressing of all his difficulties, was the utter loneliness of the task, the feeling that it mattered little to any one whether the Clark family worked or not, or indeed whether they lived or died. A perfectly good American family was here being wasted, with the precious land they lived on, because no one had taken the trouble to make them feel that they were a part of this Great American Job.
As we went back to the house, a freckled-nosed neighbour's boy came in at the gate.
"A letter for you, Mr. Clark," said he. "I brought it up with our mail."
"A letter!" exclaimed Mrs. Clark.
"A letter!" echoed at least three of the children in unison.
"Probably a dun from Brewster," said Mr. Clark discouragingly.
I felt a curious sensation about the heart, and an eagerness of interest I have rarely experienced. I had no idea what a mere letter—a mere unopened unread letter—would mean to a family like this.
"It has no stamp on it!" exclaimed the older girl.
Mrs. Clark turned it over wonderingly in her hands. Mr. Clark hastily put on a pair of steel-bowed spectacles.
"Let me see it," he said, and when he also had inspected it minutely he solemnly tore open the envelope and drew forth my letter.
'I assure you I never awaited the reading of any writing of mine with such breathless interest. How would they take it? Would they catch the meaning that I meant to convey? And would they suspect me of having written it?
Mr. Clark sat on the porch and read the letter slowly through to the end, turned the sheet over and examined it carefully, and then began reading it again to himself, Mrs. Clark leaning over his shoulder.
"What does it mean?" asked Mr. Clark.
"It's too good to be true," said Mrs. Clark with a sigh.
I don't know how long the discussion might have continued—probably for days or weeks—had not the older girl, now flushed of face and rather pretty, looked at me and said breathlessly (she was as sharp as a briar):
"You wrote it."
I stood the battery of all their eyes for a moment, smiling and rather excited.
"Yes," I said earnestly, "I wrote it, and I mean every word of it."
I had anticipated some shock of suspicion and inquiry, but to my surprise it was accepted as simply as a neighbourly good morning. I suppose the mystery of it was eclipsed by my astonishing presence there upon the scene with my tin whistle.
At any rate, it was a changed, eager, interested family which now occupied the porch of that dilapidated farmhouse. And immediately we fell into a lively discussion of crops and farming, and indeed the whole farm question, in which I found both the man and his wife singularly acute—sharpened upon the stone of hard experience.
Indeed, I found right here, as I have many times found among our American farmers, an intelligence (a literacy growing out of what I believe to be improper education) which was better able to discuss the problems of rural life than to grapple with and solve them. A dull, illiterate Polish farmer, I have found, will sometimes succeed much better at the job of life than his American neighbour.
Talk with almost any man for half an hour, and you will find that his conversation, like an old-fashioned song, has a regularly recurrent chorus. I soon discovered Mr. Clark's chorus.
"Now, if only I had a little cash," he sang, or, "If I had a few dollars, I could do so and so."
Why, he was as helplessly, dependent upon money as any soft-handed millionairess. He considered himself poor and helpless because he lacked dollars, whereas people are really poor and helpless only when they lack courage and faith.
We were so much absorbed in our talk that I was greatly surprised to hear Mrs. Clark's voice at the doorway.
"Won't you come in to supper?"
After we had eaten, there was a great demand for more of my tin whistle (oh, I know how Caruso must feel!), and I played over every blessed tune I knew, and some I didn't, four or five times, and after that we told stories and cracked jokes in a way that must have been utterly astonishing in that household. After the children had been, yes, driven to bed, Mr. Clark seemed about to drop back into his lamentations over his condition (which I have no doubt had come to give him a sort of pleasure), but I turned to Mrs. Clark, whom I had come to respect very highly, and began to talk about the little garden she had started, which was about the most enterprising thing about the place.
"Isn't it one of the finest things in this world," said I, "to go out into a good garden in the summer days and bring in loaded baskets filled with beets and cabbages and potatoes, just for the gathering?"
I knew from the expression on Mrs. Clark's face that I had touched a sounding note.
"Opening the green corn a little at the top to see if it is ready and then stripping it off and tearing away the moist white husks—"
"And picking tomatoes?" said Mrs. Clark. "And knuckling the watermelons to see if they are ripe? Oh, I tell you there are thousands of people in this country who'd like to be able to pick their dinner in the garden!"
"It's fine!" said Mrs. Clark with amused enthusiasm, "but I like best to hear the hens cackling in the barnyard in the morning after they've laid, and to go and bring in the eggs."
"Just like a daily present!" I said.
"Ye-es," responded the soundly practical Mrs. Clark, thinking, no doubt, that there were other aspects of the garden and chicken problem.
"I'll tell you another thing I like about a farmer's life," said I, "that's the smell in the house in the summer when there are preserves, or sweet pickles, or jam, or whatever it is, simmering on the stove. No matter where you are, up in the garret or down cellar, it's cinnamon, and allspice, and cloves, and every sort of sugary odour. Now, that gets me where I live!"
"It IS good!" said Mrs. Clark with a laugh that could certainly be called nothing if not girlish.
All this time I had been keeping one eye on Mr. Clark. It was amusing to see him struggling against a cheerful view of life. He now broke into the conversation.
"Well, but—" he began.
Instantly I headed him off.
"And think," said I, "of living a life in which you are beholden to no man. It's a free life, the farmer's life. No one can discharge you because you are sick, or tired, or old, or because you are a Democrat or a Baptist!"
"And think of having to pay no rent, nor of having to live upstairs in a tenement!"
"Or getting run over by a street-car, or having the children play in the gutters."
"I never did like to think of what my children would do if we went to town," said Mrs. Clark.
"I guess not!" I exclaimed.
The fact is, most people don't think half enough of themselves and of their jobs; but before we went to bed that night I had the forlorn T. N. Clark talking about the virtues of his farm in quite a surprising way.
I even saw him eying me two or three times with a shrewd look in his eyes (your American is an irrepressible trader) as though I might possibly be some would-be purchaser in disguise.
(I shall write some time a dissertation on the advantages, of wearing shabby clothing.)
The farm really had many good points. One of them was a shaggy old orchard of good and thriving but utterly neglected apple-trees.
"Man alive," I said, when we went out to see it in the morning, "you've got a gold mine here!" And I told him how in our neighbourhood we were renovating the old orchards, pruning them back, spraying, and bringing them into bearing again.
He had never, since he owned the place, had a salable crop of fruit. When we came in to breakfast I quite stirred the practical Mrs. Clark with my enthusiasm, and she promised at once to send for a bulletin on apple-tree renovation, published by the state experiment station. I am sure I was no more earnest in my advice than the conditions warranted.
After breakfast we went into the field, and I suggested that instead of ploughing any more land—for the season was already late—we get out all the accumulations of rotted manure from around the barn and strew it on the land already ploughed and harrow it in.
"A good job on a little piece of land," I said, "is far more profitable than a poor job on a big piece of land."
Without more ado we got his old team hitched up and began loading, and hauling out the manure, and spent all day long at it. Indeed, such was the height of enthusiasm which T. N. Clark now reached (for his was a temperament that must either soar in the clouds or grovel in the mire), that he did not wish to stop when Mrs. Clark called us in to supper. In that one day his crop of corn, in perspective, overflowed his crib, he could not find boxes and barrels for his apples, his shed would not hold all his tobacco, and his barn was already being enlarged to accommodate a couple more cows! He was also keeping bees and growing ginseng.
But it was fine, that evening, to see Mrs. Clark's face, the renewed hope and courage in it. I thought as I looked at her (for she was the strong and steady one in that house):
"If you can keep the enthusiasm up, if you can make that husband of yours grow corn, and cows, and apples as you raise chickens and make garden, there is victory yet in this valley."
That night it rained, but in spite of the moist earth we spent almost all of the following day hard at work in the field, and all the time talking over ways and means for the future, but the next morning, early, I swung my bag on my back and left them.
I shall not attempt to describe the friendliness of our parting. Mrs. Clark followed me wistfully to the gate.
"I can't tell you—" she began, with the tears starting in her eyes.
"Then don't try—" said I, smiling.
And so I swung off down the country road, without looking back.
CHAPTER VII. THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY
In some strange deep way there is no experience of my whole pilgrimage that I look back upon with so much wistful affection as I do upon the events of the day—the day and the wonderful night—which followed my long visit with the forlorn Clark family upon their hill farm. At first I hesitated about including an account of it here because it contains so little of what may be called thrilling or amusing incident.
"They want only the lively stories of my adventures," I said to myself, and I was at the point of pushing my notes to the edge of the table where (had I let go) they would have fallen into the convenient oblivion of the waste-basket. But something held me back.
"No," said I, "I'll tell it; if it means so much to me, it may mean something to the friends who are following these lines."
For, after all, it is not what goes on outside of a man, the clash and clatter of superficial events, that arouses our deepest interest, but what goes on inside. Consider then that in this narrative I shall open a little door in my heart and let you look in, if you care to, upon the experiences of a day and a night in which I was supremely happy.
If you had chanced to be passing, that crisp spring morning, you would have seen a traveller on foot with a gray bag on his shoulder, swinging along the country road; and you might have been astonished to see him lift his hat at you and wish you a good morning. You might have turned to look back at him, as you passed, and found him turning also to look back at you—and wishing he might know you. But you would not have known what he was chanting under his breath as he tramped (how little we know of a man by the shabby coat he wears), nor how keenly he was enjoying the light airs and the warm sunshine of that fine spring morning.
After leaving the hill farm he had walked five miles up the valley, had crossed the ridge at a place called the Little Notch, where all the world lay stretched before him like the open palm of his hand, and had come thus to the boundaries of the Undiscovered Country. He had been for days troubled with the deep problems of other people, and it seemed to him this morning as though a great stone had been rolled from the door of his heart, and that he was entering upon a new world—a wonderful, high, free world. And, as he tramped, certain lines of a stanza long ago caught up in his memory from some forgotten page came up to his lips, and these were the words (you did not know as you passed) that he was chanting under his breath as he tramped, for they seem charged with the spirit of the hour:
I've bartered my sheets for a starlit bed; I've traded my meat for a crust of bread; I've changed my book for a sapling cane, And I'm off to the end of the world again.
In the Undiscovered Country that morning it was wonderful how fresh the spring woods were, and how the birds sang in the trees, and how the brook sparkled and murmured at the roadside. The recent rain had washed the atmosphere until it was as clear and sparkling and heady as new wine, and the footing was firm and hard. As one tramped he could scarcely keep from singing or shouting aloud for the very joy of the day.
"I think," I said to myself, "I've never been in a better country," and it did not seem to me I cared to know where the gray road ran, nor how far away the blue hills were.
"It is wonderful enough anywhere here," I said.
And presently I turned from the road and climbed a gently sloping hillside among oak and chestnut trees. The earth was well carpeted for my feet, and here and there upon the hillside, where the sun came through the green roof of foliage, were warm splashes Of yellow light, and here and there, on shadier slopes, the new ferns were spread upon the earth like some lacy coverlet. I finally sat down at the foot of a tree where through a rift in the foliage in the valley below I could catch a glimpse in the distance of the meadows and the misty blue hills. I was glad to rest, just rest, for the two previous days of hard labour, the labour and the tramping, had wearied me, and I sat for a long time quietly looking about me, scarcely thinking at all, but seeing, hearing, smelling—feeling the spring morning, and the woods and the hills, and the patch of sky I could see.
For a long, long time I sat thus, but finally my mind began to flow again, and I thought how fine it would be if I had some good friend there with me to enjoy the perfect surroundings—some friend who would understand. And I thought of the Vedders with whom I had so recently spent a wonderful day; and I wished that they might be with me; there were so many things to be said—to be left unsaid. Upon this it occurred to me, suddenly, whimsically, and I exclaimed aloud:
"Why, I'll just call them up."
Half turning to the trunk of the tree where I sat, I placed one hand to my ear and the other to my lips and said:
"Hello, Central, give me Mr. Vedder."
I waited a moment, smiling a little at my own absurdity and yet quite captivated by the enterprise.
"Is this Mr. Vedder? Oh, Mrs. Vedder! Well, this is David Grayson."....
"Yes, the very same. A bad penny, a rolling stone."....
"Yes. I want you both to come here as quickly as you can. I have the most important news for you. The mountain laurels are blooming, and the wild strawberries are setting their fruit. Yes, yes, and in the fields—all around here, to-day there are wonderful white patches of daisies, and from where I sit I can see an old meadow as yellow as gold with buttercups. And the bobolinks are hovering over the low spots. Oh, but it is fine here—and we are not together!"....
"No; I cannot give exact directions. But take the Long Road and turn at the turning by the tulip-tree, and you will find me at home. Come right in without knocking."
I hung up the receiver. For a single instant it had seemed almost true, and indeed I believe—I wonder—
Some day, I thought, just a bit sadly, for I shall probably not be here then—some day, we shall be able to call our friends through space and time. Some day we shall discover that marvellously simple coherer by which we may better utilize the mysterious ether of love.
For a time I was sad with thoughts of the unaccomplished future, and then I reflected that if I could not call up the Vedders so informally I could at least write down a few paragraphs which would give them some faint impression of that time and place. But I had no sooner taken out my note-book and put down a sentence or two than I stuck fast. How foolish and feeble written words are anyway! With what glib facility they describe, but how inadequately they convey. A thousand times I have thought to myself, "If only I could WRITE!"
Not being able to write I turned, as I have so often turned before, to some good old book, trusting that I might find in the writing of another man what I lacked in my own. I took out my battered copy of Montaigne and, opening it at random, as I love to do, came, as luck would have it, upon a chapter devoted to coaches, in which there is much curious (and worthless) information, darkened with Latin quotations. This reading had an unexpected effect upon me.
I could not seem to keep my mind down upon the printed page; it kept bounding away at the sight of the distant hills, at the sound of a woodpecker on a dead stub which stood near me, and at the thousand and one faint rustlings, creepings, murmurings, tappings, which animate the mystery of the forest. How dull indeed appeared the printed page in comparison with the book of life, how shut-in its atmosphere, how tinkling and distant the sound of its voices. Suddenly I shut my book with a snap.
"Musty coaches and Latin quotations!" I exclaimed. "Montaigne's no writer for the open air. He belongs at a study fire on a quiet evening!"
I had anticipated, when I started out, many a pleasant hour by the roadside or in the woods with my books, but this was almost the first opportunity I had found for reading (as it was almost the last), so full was the present world of stirring events. As for poor old Montaigne, I have been out of harmony with him ever since, nor have I wanted him in the intimate case at my elbow.
After a long time in the forest, and the sun having reached the high heavens, I gathered up my pack and set forth again along the slope of the hills—not hurrying, just drifting and enjoying every sight and sound. And thus walking I came in sight, through the trees, of a glistening pool of water and made my way straight toward it.
A more charming spot I have rarely seen. In some former time an old mill had stood at the foot of the little valley, and a ruinous stone dam still held the water in a deep, quiet pond between two round hills. Above it a brook ran down through the woods, and below, with a pleasant musical sound, the water dripped over the mossy stone lips of the dam and fell into the rocky pool below. Nature had long ago healed the wounds of men; she had half-covered the ruined mill with verdure, had softened the stone walls of the dam with mosses and lichens, and had crept down the steep hillside and was now leaning so far out over the pool that she could see her reflection in the quiet water.
Near the upper end of the pond I found a clear white sand-bank, where no doubt a thousand fishermen had stood, half hidden by the willows, to cast for trout in the pool below. I intended merely to drink and moisten my face, but as I knelt by the pool and saw my reflection in the clear water wanted something more than that! In a moment I had thrown aside my bag and clothes and found myself wading naked into the water.
It was cold! I stood a moment there in the sunny air, the great world open around me, shuddering, for I dreaded the plunge—and then with a run, a shout and a splash I took the deep water. Oh, but it was fine! With long, deep strokes I carried myself fairly to the middle of the pond. The first chill was succeeded by a tingling glow, and I can convey no idea whatever of the glorious sense of exhilaration I had. I swam with the broad front stroke, I swam on my side, head half submerged, with a deep under stroke, and I rolled over on my back and swam with the water lapping my chin. Thus I came to the end of the pool near the old dam, touched my feet on the bottom, gave a primeval whoop, and dove back into the water again. I have rarely experienced keener physical joy. After swimming thus boisterously for a time, I quieted down to long, leisurely strokes, conscious of the water playing across my shoulders and singing at my ears, and finally, reaching the centre of the pond, I turned over on my back and, paddling lazily, watched the slow procession of light clouds across the sunlit openings of the trees above me. Away up in the sky I could see a hawk slowly swimming about (in his element as I was in mine), and nearer at hand, indeed fairly in the thicket about the pond, I could hear a wood-thrush singing.
And so, shaking the water out of my hair and swimming with long and leisurely strokes, I returned to the sand-bank, and there, standing in a spot of warm sunshine, I dried myself with the towel from my bag. And I said to myself:
"Surely it is good to be alive at a time like this!"
Slowly I drew on my clothes, idling there in the sand, and afterward I found an inviting spot in an old meadow where I threw myself down on the grass under an apple-tree and looked up into the shadowy places in the foliage above me. I felt a delicious sense of physical well-being, and I was pleasantly tired.
So I lay there—and the next thing I knew, I turned over, feeling cold and stiff, and opened my eyes upon the dusky shadows of late evening. I had been sleeping for hours!
The next few minutes (or was it an hour or eternity?), I recall as containing some of the most exciting and, when all is said, amusing incidents in my whole life. And I got quite a new glimpse of that sometimes bumptious person known as David Grayson.
The first sensation I had was one of complete panic. What was I to do? Where was I to go?
Hastily seizing my bag—and before I was half awake—I started rapidly across the meadow, in my excitement tripping and falling several times in the first hundred yards. In daylight I have no doubt that I should easily have seen a gateway or at least an opening from the old meadow, but in the fast-gathering darkness it seemed to me that the open field was surrounded on every side by impenetrable forests. Absurd as it may seem, for no one knows what his mind will do at such a moment, I recalled vividly a passage from Stanley's story of his search for Livingstone, in which he relates how he escaped from a difficult place in the jungle by KEEPING STRAIGHT AHEAD.
I print these words in capitals because they seemed written that night upon the sky. KEEPING STRAIGHT AHEAD, I entered the forest on one side of the meadow (with quite a heroic sense of adventure), but scraped my shin on a fallen log and ran into a tree with bark on it that felt like a gigantic currycomb—and stopped!
Up to this point I think I was still partly asleep. Now, however, I waked up.
"All you need," said I to myself in my most matter-of-fact tone, "is a little cool sense. Be quiet now and reason it out."
So I stood there for some moments reasoning it out, with the result that I turned back and found the meadow again.
"What a fool I've been!" I said. "Isn't it perfectly plain that I should have gone down to the pond, crossed over the inlet, and reached the road by the way I came?"
Having thus settled my problem, and congratulating myself on my perspicacity, I started straight for the mill-pond, but to my utter amazement, in the few short hours while I had been asleep, that entire body of water had evaporated, the dam had disappeared, and the stream had dried up. I must certainly present the facts in this remarkable case to some learned society.
I then decided to return to the old apple-tree where I had slept, which now seemed quite like home, but, strange to relate, the apple-tree had also completely vanished from the enchanted meadow. At that I began to suspect that in coming out of the forest I had somehow got into another and somewhat similar old field. I have never had a more confused or eerie sensation; not fear, but a sort of helplessness in which for an instant I actually began to doubt whether it was I myself, David Grayson, who stood there in the dark meadow, or whether I was the victim of a peculiarly bad dream. I suppose many other people have had these sensations under similar conditions, but they were new to me.