It is surely one of the fundamental humours of life to see absurdly serious little human beings (like D. G. for example) trying to stand in the place of the Almighty. We are so confoundedly infallible in our judgments, so sure of what is good for our neighbour, so eager to force upon him our particular doctors or our particular remedies; we are so willing to put our childish fingers into the machinery of creation—and we howl so lustily when we get them pinched!
"Why!" I exclaimed, for it came to me like a new discovery, "it's exactly the same here as it is in the country! I haven't got to make over the universe: I've only got to do my own small job, and to look up often at the trees and the hills and the sky and be friendly with all men."
I cannot express the sense of comfort, and of trust, which this reflection brought me. I recall stopping just then at the corner of a small green city square, for I had now reached the better part of the city, and of seeing with keen pleasure the green of the grass and the bright colour of a bed of flowers, and two or three clean nursemaids with clean baby cabs, and a flock of pigeons pluming themselves near a stone fountain, and an old tired horse sleeping in the sun with his nose buried in a feed bag.
"Why," I said, "all this, too, is beautiful!" So I continued my walk with quite a new feeling in my heart, prepared again for any adventure life might have to offer me.
I supposed I knew no living soul in Kilburn but Bill the Socialist. What was my astonishment and pleasure, then in one of the business streets to discover a familiar face and figure. A man was just stepping from an automobile to the sidewalk. For an instant; in that unusual environment, I could not place him, then I stepped up quickly and said:
"Well, well, Friend Vedder."
He looked around with astonishment at the man in the shabby clothes—but it was only for an instant.
"David Grayson!" he exclaimed, "and how did YOU get into the city?"
"Walked," I said.
"But I thought you were an incurable and irreproachable countryman! Why are you here?"
"Love o' life," I said; "love o' life."
"Where are you stopping?" I waved my hand.
"Where the road leaves me," I said. "Last night I left my bag with some good friends I made in front of a livery stable and I spent the night in the mill district with a Socialist named Bill Hahn."
"Bill Hahn!" The effect upon Mr. Vedder was magical.
"Why, yes," I said, "and a remarkable man he is, too."
I discovered immediately that my friend was quite as much interested in the strike as Bill Hahn, but on the other side. He was, indeed, one of the directors of the greatest mill in Kilburn—the very one which I had seen the night before surrounded by armed sentinels. It was thrilling to me, this knowledge, for it seemed to plump me down at once in the middle of things—and soon, indeed, brought me nearer to the brink of great events than ever I was before in all my days.
I could see that Mr. Vedder considered Bill Hahn as a sort of devouring monster, a wholly incendiary and dangerous person. So terrible, indeed, was the warning he gave me (considering me, I suppose an unsophisticated person) that I couldn't help laughing outright.
"I assure you—" he began, apparently much offended.
But I interrupted him.
"I'm sorry I laughed," I said, "but as you were talking about Bill Hahn, I couldn't help thinking of him as I first saw him." And I gave Mr. Vedder as lively a description as I could of the little man with his bulging coat tails, his furry ears, his odd round spectacles. He was greatly interested in what I said and began to ask many questions. I told him with all the earnestness I could command of Bill's history and of his conversion to his present beliefs. I found that Mr. Vedder had known Robert Winter very well indeed, and was amazed at the incident which I narrated of Bill Hahn's attempt upon his life.
I have always believed that if men could be made to understand one another they would necessarily be friendly, so I did my best to explain Bill Hahn to Mr. Vedder.
"I'm tremendously interested in what you say," he said, "and we must have more talk about it."
He told me that he had now to put in an appearance at his office, and wanted me to go with him; but upon my objection he pressed me to take luncheon with him a little later, an invitation which I accepted with real pleasure.
"We haven't had a word about gardens," he said, "and there are no end of things that Mrs. Vedder and I found that we wanted to talk with you about after you had left us."
"Well!" I said, much delighted, "let's have a regular old-fashioned country talk."
So we parted for the time being, and I set off in the highest spirits to see something more of Kilburn.
A city, after all, is a very wonderful place. One thing, I recall, impressed me powerfully that morning—the way in which every one was working, apparently without any common agreement or any common purpose, and yet with a high sort of understanding. The first hearing of a difficult piece of music (to an uncultivated ear like mine) often yields nothing but a confused sense of unrelated motives, but later and deeper hearings reveal the harmony which ran so clear in the master's soul.
Something of this sort happened to me in looking out upon the life of that great city of Kilburn. All about on the streets, in the buildings, under ground and above ground, men were walking, running, creeping, crawling, climbing, lifting, digging, driving, buying, selling, sweating, swearing, praying, loving, hating, struggling, failing, sinning, repenting—all working and living according to a vast harmony, which sometimes we can catch clearly and sometimes miss entirely. I think, that morning, for a time, I heard the true music of the spheres, the stars singing together.
Mr. Vedder took me to a quiet restaurant where we had a snug alcove all to ourselves. I shall remember it always as one of the truly pleasant experiences of my pilgrimage.
I could see that my friend was sorely troubled, that the strike rested heavy upon him, and so I led the conversation to the hills and the roads and the fields we both love so much. I plied him with a thousand questions about his garden. I told him in the liveliest way of my adventures after leaving his home, how I had telephoned him from the hills, how I had taken a swim in the mill-pond, and especially how I had lost myself in the old cowpasture, with an account of all my absurd and laughable adventures and emotions.
Well, before we had finished our luncheon I had every line ironed from the brow of that poor plagued rich man, I had brought jolly crinkles to the corners of his eyes, and once or twice I had him chuckling down deep inside (Where chuckles are truly effective). Talk about cheering up the poor: I think the rich are usually far more in need of it!
But I couldn't keep the conversation in these delightful channels. Evidently the strike and all that it meant lay heavy upon Mr. Vedder's consciousness, for he pushed back his coffee and began talking about it, almost in a tone of apology. He told me how kind he had tried to make the mill management in its dealings with its men.
"I would not speak of it save in explanation of our true attitude of helpfulness; but we have really given our men many advantages"—and he told me of the reading-room the company had established, of the visiting nurse they had employed, and of several other excellent enterprises, which gave only another proof of what I knew already of Mr. Vedder's sincere kindness of heart.
"But," he said, "we find they don't appreciate what we try to do for them."
I laughed outright.
"Why," I exclaimed, "you are having the same trouble I have had!"
"How's that?" he inquired, I thought a little sharply. Men don't like to have their seriousness trifled with.
"No longer ago than this morning," I said, "I had exactly that idea of giving them advantages; but I found that the difficulty lies not with the ability to give, but with the inability or unwillingness to take. You see I have a great deal of surplus wealth myself—"
Mr. Vedder's eyes flickered up at me.
"Yes," I said. "I've got immense accumulations of the wealth of the ages—ingots of Emerson and Whitman, for example, gems of Voltaire, and I can't tell what other superfluous coinage!" (And I waved my hand in the most grandiloquent manner.) "I've also quite a store of knowledge of corn and calves and cucumbers, and I've a boundless domain of exceedingly valuable landscapes. I am prepared to give bountifully of all these varied riches (for I shall still have plenty remaining), but the fact is that this generation of vipers doesn't appreciate what I am trying to do for them. I'm really getting frightened, lest they permit me to perish from undistributed riches!"
Mr. Vedder was still smiling.
"Oh," I said, warming up to my idea, "I'm a regular multimillionaire. I've got so much wealth that I'm afraid I shall not be as fortunate as jolly Andy Carnegie, for I don't see how I can possibly die poor!"
"Why not found a university or so?" asked Mr. Vedder.
"Well, I had thought of that. It's a good idea. Let's join our forces and establish a university where truly serious people can take courses in laughter."
"Fine idea!" exclaimed Mr. Vedder; "but wouldn't it require an enormous endowment to accommodate all the applicants? You must remember that this is a very benighted and illiterate world, laughingly speaking."
"It is, indeed," I said, "but you must remember that many people, for a long time, will be too serious to apply. I wonder sometimes if any one ever learns to laugh really laugh much before he is forty."
"But," said Mr. Vedder anxiously, "do you think such an institution would be accepted by the proletariat of the serious-minded?"
"Ah, that's the trouble," said I, "that's the trouble. The proletariat doesn't appreciate what we are trying to do for them! They don't want your reading-rooms nor my Emerson and cucumbers. The seat of the difficulty seems to be that what seems wealth to us isn't necessarily wealth for the other fellow."
I cannot tell with what delight we fenced our way through this foolery (which was not all foolery, either). I never met a man more quickly responsive than Mr. Vedder. But he now paused for some moments, evidently ruminating.
"Well, David," he said seriously, "what are we going to do about this obstreperous other fellow?"
"Why not try the experiment," I suggested, "of giving him what he considers wealth, instead of what you consider wealth?"
"But what does he consider wealth?"
"Equality," said I.
Mr. Vedder threw up his hands.
"So you're a Socialist, too!"
"That," I said, "is another story."
"Well, supposing we did or could give him this equality you speak of—what would become of us? What would we get out of it?"
"Why, equality, too!" I said.
Mr. Vedder threw up his hands up with a gesture of mock resignation.
"Come," said he, "let's get down out of Utopia!"
We had some further good-humoured fencing and then returned to the inevitable problem of the strike. While we were discussing the meeting of the night before which, I learned, had been luridly reported in the morning papers, Mr. Vedder suddenly turned to me and asked earnestly:
"Are you really a Socialist?"
"Well," said I, "I'm sure of one thing. I'm not ALL Socialist, Bill Hahn believes with his whole soul (and his faith has made him a remarkable man) that if only another class of people—his class—could come into the control of material property, that all the ills that man is heir to would be speedily cured. But I wonder if when men own property collectively—as they are going to one of these days—they will quarrel and hate one another any less than they do now. It is not the ownership of material property that interests me so much as the independence of it. When I started out from my farm on this pilgrimage it seemed to me the most blessed thing in the world to get away from property and possession."
"What are you then, anyway?" asked Mr. Vedder, smiling.
"Well, I've thought of a name I would like to have applied to me sometimes," I said. "You see I'm tremendously fond of this world exactly as it is now. Mr. Vedder, it's a wonderful and beautiful place! I've never seen a better one. I confess I could not possibly live in the rarefied atmosphere of a final solution. I want to live right here and now for all I'm worth. The other day a man asked me what I thought was the best time of life. 'Why,' I answered without a thought, 'Now.' It has always seemed to me that if a man can't make a go of it, yes, and be happy at this moment, he can't be at the next moment. But most of all, it seems to me, I want to get close to people, to look into their hearts, and be friendly with them. Mr. Vedder, do you know what I'd like to be called?"
"I cannot imagine," said he.
"Well, I'd like to be called an Introducer. My friend, Mr. Blacksmith, let me introduce you to my friend, Mr. Plutocrat. I could almost swear that you were brothers, so near alike are you! You'll find each other wonderfully interesting once you get over the awkwardness of the introduction. And Mr. White Man, let me present you particularly to my good friend, Mr. Negro. You will see if you sit down to it that this colour of the face is only skin deep."
"It's a good name!" said Mr. Vedder, laughing.
"It's a wonderful name," said I, "and it's about the biggest and finest work in the world—to know human beings just as they are, and to make them acquainted with one another just as they are. Why, it's the foundation of all the democracy there is, or ever will be. Sometimes I think that friendliness is the only achievement of life worth while—and unfriendliness the only tragedy."
I have since felt ashamed of myself when I thought how I lectured my unprotected host that day at luncheon; but it seemed to boil out of me irresistibly. The experiences of the past two days had stirred me to the very depths, and it seemed to me I must explain to somebody how it all impressed me—and to whom better than to my good friend Vedder?
As we were leaving the table an idea flashed across my mind which seemed, at first, so wonderful that it quite turned me dizzy.
"See here, Mr. Vedder," I exclaimed, "let me follow my occupation practically. I know Bill Hahn and I know you. Let me introduce you. If you could only get together, if you could only understand what good fellows you both are, it might go far toward solving these difficulties."
I had some trouble persuading him, but finally he consented, said he wanted to leave no stone unturned, and that he would meet Bill Hahn and some of the other leaders, if proper arrangements could be made.
I left him, therefore, in excitement, feeling that I was at the point of playing a part in a very great event. "Once get these men together," I thought, "and they MUST come to an understanding."
So I rushed out to the mill district, saying to myself over and over (I have smiled about it since!): "We'll settle this strike: we'll settle this strike: we'll settle this strike." After some searching I found my friend Bill in the little room over a saloon that served as strike headquarters. A dozen or more of the leaders were there, faintly distinguishable through clouds of tobacco smoke. Among them sat the great R—— D——, his burly figure looming up at one end of the table, and his strong, rough, iron-jawed face turning first toward this speaker and then toward that. The discussion, which had evidently been lively, died down soon after I appeared at the door, and Bill Hahn came out to me and we sat down together in the adjoining room. Here I broke eagerly into an account of the happenings of the day, described my chance meeting with Mr. Vedder—who was well known to Bill by reputation—and finally asked him squarely whether he would meet him. I think my enthusiasm quite carried him away.
"Sure, I will," said Bill Hahn heartily.
"When and where?" I asked, "and will any of the other men join you?"
Bill was all enthusiasm at once, for that was the essence of his temperament, but he said that he must first refer it to the committee. I waited, in a tense state of impatience, for what seemed to me a very long time; but finally the door opened and Bill Hahn came out bringing R—— D—— himself with him. We all sat down together, and R—— D—— began to ask questions (he was evidently suspicious as to who and what I was); but I think, after I talked with them for some time that I made them see the possibilities and the importance of such a meeting. I was greatly impressed with R—— D——, the calmness and steadiness of the man, his evident shrewdness. "A real general," I said to myself. "I should like to know him better."
After a long talk they returned to the other room, closing the door behind them, and I waited again, still more impatiently.
It seems rather absurd now, but at that moment I felt firmly convinced that I was on the way to the permanent settlement of a struggle which had occupied the best brains of Kilburn for many weeks.
While I was waiting in that dingy ante-room, the other door slowly opened and a boy stuck his head in.
"Is David Grayson here?" he asked.
"Here he is," said I, greatly astonished that any one in Kilburn should be inquiring for me, or should know where I was.
The boy came in, looked at me with jolly round eyes for a moment, and dug a letter out of his pocket. I opened it at once, and glancing at the signature discovered that it was from Mr. Vedder.
"He said I'd probably find you at strike headquarters," remarked the boy.
This was the letter: marked "Confidential."
My Dear Grayson: I think you must be something of a hypnotist. After you left me I began to think of the project you mentioned, and I have talked it over with one or two of my associates. I would gladly hold this conference, but it does not now seem wise for us to do so. The interests we represent are too important to be jeopardized. In theory you are undoubtedly right, but in this case I think you will agree with me (when you think it over), we must not show any weakness. Come and stop with us to-night: Mrs. Vedder will be overjoyed to see you and we'll have another fine talk.
I confess I was a good deal cast down as I read this letter.
"What interests are so important?" I asked myself, "that they should keep friends apart?"
But I was given only a moment for reflection for the door opened and my friend Bill, together with R—— D—— and several other members of the committee, came out. I put the letter in my pocket, and for a moment my brain never worked under higher pressure. What should I say to them now? How could I explain myself?
Bill Hahn was evidently labouring under considerable excitement, but R—— D—— was as calm as a judge. He sat down in the chair opposite and said to me:
"We've been figuring out this proposition of Mr. Vedder's. Your idea is all right, and it would be a fine thing if we could really get together as you suggest upon terms of common understanding and friendship."
"Just what Mr. Vedder said," I exclaimed.
"Yes," he continued, "it's all right in theory; but in this case it simply won't work. Don't you see it's got to be war? Your friend and I could probably understand each other—but this is a class war. It's all or nothing with us, and your friend Vedder knows it as well as we do."
After some further argument and explanation, I said:
"I see: and this is Socialism."
"Yes," said the great R—— D——, "this is Socialism."
"And it's force you would use," I said.
"It's force THEY use," he replied.
After I left the strike headquarters that evening—for it was almost dark before I parted with the committee—I walked straight out through the crowded streets, so absorbed in my thoughts that I did not know in the least where I was going. The street lights came out, the crowds began to thin away, I heard a strident song from a phonograph at the entrance to a picture show, and as I passed again in front of the great, dark, many-windowed mill which had made my friend Vedder a rich man I saw a sentinel turn slowly at the corner. The light glinted on the steel of his bayonet. He had a fresh, fine, boyish face.
"We have some distance yet to go in this world," I said to myself, "no man need repine for lack of good work ahead."
It was only a little way beyond this mill that an incident occurred which occupied probably not ten minutes of time, and yet I have thought about it since I came home as much as I have thought about any other incident of my pilgrimage. I have thought how I might have acted differently under the circumstances, how I could have said this or how I ought to have done that—all, of course, now to no purpose whatever. But I shall not attempt to tell what I ought to have done or said, but what I actually did do and say on the spur of the moment.
It was in a narrow, dark street which opened off the brightly lighted main thoroughfare of that mill neighbourhood. A girl standing in the shadows between two buildings said to me as I passed:
I stopped instantly, it was such a pleasant, friendly voice.
"Good evening," I said, lifting my hat and wondering that there should be any one here in this back street who knew me.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
I stepped over quickly toward her, hat in hand. She was a mere slip of a girl, rather comely, I thought, with small childish features and a half-timid, half-bold look in her eyes. I could not remember having seen her before.
She smiled at me—and then I knew!
Well, if some one had struck me a brutal blow in the face I could not have been more astonished.
We know of things!—and yet how little we know until they are presented to us in concrete form. Just such a little school girl as I have seen a thousand times in the country, the pathetic childish curve of the chin, a small rebellious curl hanging low on her temple.
I could not say a word. The girl evidently saw in my face that something was the matter, for she turned and began to move quickly away. Such a wave of compassion (and anger, too) swept over me as I cannot well describe. I stepped after her and asked in a low voice:
"Do you work in the mills?"
"Yes, when there's work."
"What is your name?"
"Well, Maggie," I said, "let's be friends."
She looked around at me curiously, questioningly.
"And friends," I said, "should know something about each other. You see I am a farmer from the country. I used to live in a city myself, a good many years ago, but I got tired and sick and hopeless. There was so much that was wrong about it. I tried to keep the pace and could not. I wish I could tell you what the country has done for me."
We were walking along slowly, side by side, the girl perfectly passive but glancing around at me from time to time with a wondering look. I don't know in the least now what prompted me to do it, but I began telling in a quiet, low voice—for, after all, she was only a child—I began telling her about our chickens at the farm and how Harriet had named them all, and one was Frances E. Willard, and one, a speckled one, was Martha Washington, and I told her of the curious antics of Martha Washington and of the number of eggs she laid, and of the sweet new milk we had to drink, and the honey right out of our own hives, and of the things growing in the garden.
Once she smiled a little, and once she looked around at me with a curious, timid, half-wistful expression in her eyes.
"Maggie," I said, "I wish you could go to the country."
"I wish to God I could," she replied.
We walked for a moment in silence. My head was whirling with thoughts: again I had that feeling of helplessness, of inadequacy, which I had felt so sharply on the previous evening. What could I do?
When we reached the corner, I said:
"Maggie, I will see you safely home."
She laughed—a hard, bitter laugh.
"Oh, I don't need any one to show me around these streets!"
"I will see you home," I said.
So we walked quickly along the street together.
"Here it is," she said finally, pointing to a dark, mean-looking, one-story house, set in a dingy, barren areaway.
"Well, good night, Maggie," I said, "and good luck to you."
"Good night," she said faintly.
When I had walked to the corner, I stopped and looked back. She was standing stock-still just where I had left her—a figure I shall never forget.
I have hesitated about telling of a further strange thing that happened to me that night—but have decided at last to put it in. I did not accept Mr. Vedder's invitation: I could not; but I returned to the room in the tenement where I had spent the previous night with Bill Hahn the Socialist. It was a small, dark, noisy room, but I was so weary that I fell almost immediately into a heavy sleep. An hour or more later I don't know how long indeed—I was suddenly awakened and found myself sitting bolt upright in bed. It was close and dark and warm there in the room, and from without came the muffled sounds of the city. For an instant I waited, rigid with expectancy. And then I heard as clearly and plainly as ever I heard anything:
"David! David!" in my sister Harriet's voice.
It was exactly the voice in which she has called me a thousand times. Without an instant's hesitation, I stepped out of bed and called out:
"I'm coming, Harriet! I'm coming!"
"What's the matter?" inquired Bill Hahn sleepily.
"Nothing," I replied, and crept back into bed.
It may have been the result of the strain and excitement of the previous two days. I don't explain it—I can only tell what happened.
Before I went to sleep again I determined to start straight for home in the morning: and having decided, I turned over, drew a long, comfortable breath and did not stir again, I think, until long after the morning sun shone in at the window.
CHAPTER XII. THE RETURN
"Everything divine runs with light feet."
Surely the chief delight of going away from home is the joy of getting back again. I shall never forget that spring morning when I walked from the city of Kilburn into the open country, my bag on my back, a song in my throat, and the gray road stretching straight before me. I remember how eagerly I looked out across the fields and meadows and rested my eyes upon the distant hills. How roomy it all was! I looked up into the clear blue of the sky. There was space here to breathe, and distances in which the spirit might spread its wings. As the old prophet says, it was a place where a man might be placed alone in the midst of the earth.
I was strangely glad that morning of every little stream that ran under the bridges, I was glad of the trees I passed, glad of every bird and squirrel in the branches, glad of the cattle grazing in the fields, glad of the jolly boys I saw on their way to school with their dinner pails, glad of the bluff, red-faced teamster I met, and of the snug farmer who waved his hand at me and wished me a friendly good morning. It seemed to me that I liked every one I saw, and that every one liked me.
So I walked onward that morning, nor ever have had such a sense of relief and escape, nor ever such a feeling of gayety.
"Here is where I belong," I said. "This is my own country. Those hills are mine, and all the fields, and the trees and the sky—and the road here belongs to me as much as it does to any one."
Coming presently to a small house near the side of the road, I saw a woman working with a trowel in her sunny garden. It was good to see her turn over the warm brown soil; it was good to see the plump green rows of lettuce and the thin green rows of onions, and the nasturtiums and sweet peas; it was good—after so many days in that desert of a city—to get a whiff of blossoming things. I stood for a moment looking quietly over the fence before the woman saw me. When at last she turned and looked up, I said:
She paused, trowel in hand.
"Good morning," she replied; "you look happy."
I wasn't conscious that I was smiling outwardly.
"Well, I am," I said; "I'm going home."
"Then you OUGHT to be happy," said she.
"And I'm glad to escape THAT," and I pointed toward the city.
"Why, that old monster lying there in the valley."
I could see that she was surprised and even a little alarmed. So I began intently to admire her young cabbages and comment on the perfection of her geraniums. But I caught her eying me from time to time as I leaned there on the fence, and I knew that she would come back sooner or later to my remark about the monster. Having shocked your friend (not too unpleasantly), abide your time, and he will want to be shocked again. So I was not at all surprised to hear her ask:
"Have you travelled far?"
"I should say so!" I replied. "I've been on a very long journey. I've seen many strange sights and met many wonderful people."
"You may have been in California, then. I have a daughter in California."
"No," said I, "I was never in California."
"You've been a long time from home, you say?"
"A very long time from home."
"Three weeks! And how far did you say you had travelled?"
"At the farthest point, I should say sixty miles from home."
"But how can you say that in travelling only sixty miles and being gone three weeks that you have seen so many strange places and people?"
"Why," I exclaimed, "haven't you seen anything strange around here?'"
"Why, no—" glancing quickly around her.
"Well, I'm strange, am I not?"
"And you're strange."
She looked at me with the utmost amazement. I could scarcely keep from laughing.
"I assure you," I said, "that if you travel a thousand miles you will find no one stranger than I am—or you are—nor anything more wonderful than all this—" and I waved my hand.
This time she looked really alarmed, glancing quickly toward the house, so that I began to laugh.
"Madam," I said, "good morning!"
So I left her standing there by the fence looking after me, and I went on down the road.
"Well," I said, "she'll have something new to talk about. It may add a month to her life. Was there ever such an amusing world!"
About noon that day I had an adventure that I have to laugh over every time I think of it. It was unusual, too, as being almost the only incident of my journey which was of itself in the least thrilling or out of the ordinary. Why, this might have made an item in the country paper!
For the first time on my trip I saw a man that I really felt like calling a tramp—a tramp in the generally accepted sense of the term. When I left home I imagined I should meet many tramps, and perhaps learn from them odd and curious things about life; but when I actually came into contact with the shabby men of the road, I began to be puzzled. What was a tramp, anyway?
I found them all strangely different, each with his own distinctive history, and each accounting for himself as logically as I could for myself. And save for the fact that in none of them I met were the outward graces and virtues too prominently displayed, I have come back quite uncertain as to what a scientist might call type-characteristics. I had thought of following Emerson in his delightfully optimistic definition of a weed. A weed, he says, is a plant whose virtues have not been discovered. A tramp, then, is a man whose virtues have not been discovered. Or, I might follow my old friend the Professor (who dearly loves all growing things) in his even kindlier definition of a weed. He says that it is merely a plant misplaced. The virility of this definition has often impressed me when I have tried to grub the excellent and useful horseradish plants out of my asparagus bed! Let it be then—a tramp is a misplaced man, whose virtues have not been discovered.
Whether this is an adequate definition or not, it fitted admirably the man I overtook that morning on the road. He was certainly misplaced, and during my brief but exciting experience with him I discovered no virtues whatever.
In one way he was quite different from the traditional tramp. He walked with far too lively a step, too jauntily, and he had with him a small, shaggy, nondescript dog, a dog as shabby as he, trotting close at his heels. He carried a light stick, which he occasionally twirled over in his hand. As I drew nearer I could hear him whistling and even, from time to time, breaking into a lively bit of song. What a devil-may-care chap he seemed, anyway! I was greatly interested.
When at length I drew alongside he did not seem in the least surprised. He turned, glanced at me with his bold black eyes, and broke out again into the song he was singing. And these were the words of his song—at least, all I can remember of them:
Oh, I'm so fine and gay, I'm so fine and gay, I have to take a dog along, To kape the ga-irls away.
What droll zest he put into it! He had a red nose, a globular red nose set on his face like an overgrown strawberry, and from under the worst derby hat in the world burst his thick curly hair.
"Oh, I'm so fine and gay," he sang, stepping to the rhythm of his song, and looking the very image of good-humoured impudence. I can't tell how amused and pleased I was—though if I had known what was to happen later I might not have been quite so friendly—yes, I would too!
We fell into conversation, and it wasn't long before I suggested that we stop for luncheon together somewhere along the road. He cast a quick appraising eye at my bag, and assented with alacrity. We climbed a fence and found a quiet spot near a little brook.
I was much astonished to observe the resources of my jovial companion. Although he carried neither bag nor pack and appeared to have nothing whatever in his pockets, he proceeded, like a professional prestidigitator, to produce from his shabby clothing an extraordinary number of curious things—a black tin can with a wire handle, a small box of matches, a soiled package which I soon learned contained tea, a miraculously big dry sausage wrapped in an old newspaper, and a clasp-knife. I watched him with breathless interest.
He cut a couple of crotched sticks to hang the pail on and in two or three minutes had a little fire, no larger than a man's hand, burning brightly under it. ("Big fires," said he wisely, "are not for us.") This he fed with dry twigs, and in a very few minutes he had a pot of tea from which he offered me the first drink. This, with my luncheon and part of his sausage, made up a very good meal.
While we were eating, the little dog sat sedately by the fire. From time to time his master would say, "Speak, Jimmy."
Jimmy would sit up on his haunches, his two front paws hanging limp, turn his head to one side in the drollest way imaginable and give a yelp. His master would toss him a bit of sausage or bread and he would catch it with a snap.
"Fine dog!" commented my companion.
"So he seems," said I.
After the meal was over my companion proceeded to produce other surprises from his pockets—a bag of tobacco, a brier pipe (which he kindly offered to me and which I kindly refused), and a soiled packet of cigarette papers. Having rolled a cigarette with practised facility, he leaned up against a tree, took off his hat, lighted the cigarette and, having taken a long draw at it, blew the smoke before him with an incredible air of satisfaction.
"Solid comfort this here—hey!" he exclaimed.
We had some further talk, but for so jovial a specimen he was surprisingly uncommunicative. Indeed, I think he soon decided that I somehow did not belong to the fraternity, that I was a "farmer"—in the most opprobrious sense—and he soon began to drowse, rousing himself once or twice to roll another cigarette, but finally dropping (apparently, at least) fast asleep.
I was glad enough of the rest and quiet after the strenuous experience of the last two days—and I, too, soon began to drowse. It didn't seem to me then that I lost consciousness at all, but I suppose I must have done so, for when I suddenly opened my eyes and sat up my companion had vanished. How he succeeded in gathering up his pail and packages so noiselessly and getting away so quickly is a mystery to me.
"Well," I said, "that's odd."
Rousing myself deliberately I put on my hat and was about to take up my bag when I suddenly discovered that it was open. My rain-cape was missing! It wasn't a very good rain-cape, but it was missing.
At first I was inclined to be angry, but when I thought of my jovial companion and the cunning way in which he had tricked me, I couldn't help laughing. At the same time I jumped up quickly and ran down the road.
"I may get him yet," I said.
Just as I stepped out of the woods I caught a glimpse of a man some hundreds of yards away, turning quickly from the main road into a lane or by-path. I wasn't altogether sure that he was my man, but I ran across the road and climbed the fence. I had formed the plan instantly of cutting across the field and so striking the by-road farther up the hill. I had a curious sense of amused exultation, the very spirit of the chase, and my mind dwelt with the liveliest excitement on what I should say or do if I really caught that jolly spark of impudence.
So I came by way of a thicket along an old stone fence to the by-road, and there, sure enough, only a little way ahead of me, was my man with the shaggy little dog close at his heels. He was making pretty good time, but I skirted swiftly along the edge of the road until I had nearly overtaken him. Then I slowed down to a walk and stepped out into the middle of the road. I confess my heart was pounding at a lively rate. The next time he looked behind him—guiltily enough, too!—I said in the calmest voice I could command:
"Well, brother, you almost left me behind."
He stopped and I stepped up to him.
I wish I could describe the look in his face—mingled astonishment, fear, and defiance.
"My friend," I said, "I'm disappointed in you."
He made no reply.
"Yes, I'm disappointed. You did such a very poor job."
"Poor job!" he exclaimed.
"Yes," I said, and I slipped my bag off my shoulder and began to rummage inside. My companion watched me silently and suspiciously.
"You should not have left the rubbers."
With that I handed him my old rubbers. A peculiar expression came into the man's face.
"Say, pardner, what you drivin' at?"
"Well," I said, "I don't like to see such evidences of haste and inefficiency."
He stood staring at me helplessly, holding my old rubbers at arm's length.
"Come on now," I said, "that's over. We'll walk along together."
I was about to take his arm, but quick as a flash he dodged, cast both rubbers and rain-cape away from him, and ran down the road for all he was worth, the little dog, looking exactly like a rolling ball of fur, pelting after him. He never once glanced back, but ran for his life. I stood there and laughed until the tears came, and ever since then, at the thought of the expression on the jolly rover's face when I gave him my rubbers, I've had to smile. I put the rain-cape and rubbers back into my bag and turned again to the road.
Before the afternoon was nearly spent I found myself very tired, for my two days' experience in the city had been more exhausting for me, I think, than a whole month of hard labour on my farm. I found haven with a friendly farmer, whom I joined while he was driving his cows in from the pasture. I helped him with his milking both that night and the next morning, and found his situation and family most interesting—but I shall not here enlarge upon that experience.
It was late afternoon when I finally surmounted the hill from which I knew well enough I could catch the first glimpse of my farm. For a moment after I reached the top I could not raise my eyes, and when finally I was able to raise them I could not see.
"There is a spot in Arcady—a spot in Arcady—a spot in Arcady—" So runs the old song.
There IS a spot in Arcady, and at the centre of it there is a weather-worn old house, and not far away a perfect oak tree, and green fields all about, and a pleasant stream fringed with alders in the little valley. And out of the chimney into the sweet, still evening air rises the slow white smoke of the supper-fire.
I turned from the main road, and climbed the fence and walked across my upper field to the old wood lane. The air was heavy and sweet with clover blossoms, and along the fences I could see that the raspberry bushes were ripening their fruit.
So I came down the lane and heard the comfortable grunting of pigs in the pasture lot and saw the calves licking one another as they stood at the gate.
"How they've grown!" I said.
I stopped at the corner of the barn for a moment. From within I heard the rattling of milk in a pail (a fine sound), and heard a man's voice saying:
"Whoa, there! Stiddy now!"
"Dick's milking," I said.
So I stepped in at the doorway.
"Lord, Mr. Grayson!" exclaimed Dick, rising instantly and clasping my hand like a long-lost brother.
"I'm glad to see you!"
"I'm glad to see YOU!"
The warm smell of the new milk, the pleasant sound of animals stepping about in the stable, the old mare reaching her long head over the stanchion to welcome me, and nipping at my fingers when I rubbed her nose—
And there was the old house with the late sun upon it, the vines hanging green over the porch, Harriet's trim flower bed—I crept along quietly to the corner. The kitchen door stood open.
"Well, Harriet!" I said, stepping inside.
I have rarely known Harriet to be in quite such a reckless mood. She kept thinking of a new kind of sauce or jam for supper (I think there were seven, or were there twelve? on the table before I got through). And there was a new rhubarb pie such as only Harriet can make, just brown enough on top, and not too brown, with just the right sort of hills and hummocks in the crust, and here and there little sugary bubbles where a suggestion of the goodness came through—such a pie—! and such an appetite to go with it!
"Harriet," I said, "you're spoiling me. Haven't you heard how dangerous it is to set such a supper as this before a man who is perishing with hunger? Have you no mercy for me?"
This remark produced the most extraordinary effect. Harriet was at that moment standing in the corner near the pump. Her shoulders suddenly began to shake convulsively.
"She's so glad I'm home that she can't help laughing," I thought, which shows how penetrating I really am.
She was crying.
"Why, Harriet!" I exclaimed.
"Hungry!" she burst out, "and j-joking about it!"
I couldn't say a single word; something—it must have been a piece of the rhubarb pie—stuck in my throat. So I sat there and watched her moving quietly about in that immaculate kitchen. After a time I walked over to where she stood by the table and put my arm around her quickly. She half turned her head, in her quick, businesslike way. I noted how firm and clean and sweet her face was.
"Harriet," I said, "you grow younger every year."
"Harriet," I said, "I haven't seen a single person anywhere on my journey that I like as much as I do you."
The quick blood came up.
"There—there—David!" she said.
So I stepped away.
"And as for rhubarb pie, Harriet—"
When I first came to my farm years ago there were mornings when I woke up with the strong impression that I had just been hearing the most exquisite sounds of music. I don't know whether this is at all a common experience, but in those days (and farther back in my early boyhood) I had it frequently. It did not seem exactly like music either, but was rather a sense of harmony, so wonderful, so pervasive that it cannot be described. I have not had it so often in recent years, but on the morning after I reached home it came to me as I awakened with a strange depth and sweetness. I lay for a moment there in my clean bed. The morning sun was up and coming in cheerfully through the vines at the window; a gentle breeze stirred the clean white curtains, and I could smell even there the odours of the garden.
I wish I had room to tell, but I cannot, of all the crowded experiences of that day—the renewal of acquaintance with the fields, the cattle, the fowls, the bees, of my long talks with Harriet and Dick Sheridan, who had cared for my work while I was away; of the wonderful visit of the Scotch Preacher, of Horace's shrewd and whimsical comments upon the general absurdity of the head of the Grayson family—oh, of a thousand things—and how when I went into my study and took up the nearest book in my favourite case—it chanced to be "The Bible in Spain"—it opened of itself at one of my favourite passages, the one beginning:
"Mistos amande, I am content—"
So it's all over! It has been a great experience; and it seems to me now that I have a firmer grip on life, and a firmer trust in that Power which orders the ages. In a book I read not long ago, called "A Modern Utopia," the writer provides in his imaginary perfect state of society a class of leaders known as Samurai. And, from time to time, it is the custom of these Samurai to cut themselves loose from the crowding world of men, and with packs on their backs go away alone to far places in the deserts or on Arctic ice caps. I am convinced that every man needs some such change as this, an opportunity to think things out, to get a new grip on life, and a new hold on God. But not for me the Arctic ice cap or the desert! I choose the Friendly Road—and all the common people who travel in it or live along it—I choose even the busy city at the end of it.
I assure you, friend, that it is a wonderful thing for a man to cast himself freely for a time upon the world, not knowing where his next meal is coming from, nor where he is going to sleep for the night. It is a surprising readjuster of values. I paid my way, I think, throughout my pilgrimage; but I discovered that stamped metal is far from being the world's only true coin. As a matter of fact, there are many things that men prize more highly—because they are rarer and more precious.
My friend, if you should chance yourself some day to follow the Friendly Road, you may catch a fleeting glimpse of a man in a rusty hat, carrying a gray bag, and sometimes humming a little song under his breath for the joy of being there. And it may actually happen, if you stop him, that he will take a tin whistle from his bag and play for you, "Money Musk," or "Old Dan Tucker," or he may produce a battered old volume of Montaigne from which he will read you a passage. If such an adventure should befall you, know that you have met
P. S.—Harriet bemoans most of all the unsolved mystery of the sign man. But it doesn't bother me in the least. I'm glad now I never found him. The poet sings his song and goes his way. If we sought him out how horribly disappointed we might be! We might find him shaving, or eating sausage, or drinking a bottle of beer. We might find him shaggy and unkempt where we imagined him beautiful, weak where we thought him strong, dull where we thought him brilliant. Take then the vintage of his heart and let him go. As for me, I'm glad some mystery is left in this world. A thousand signs on my roadways are still as unexplainable, as mysterious, and as beguiling as this. And I can close my narrative with no better motto for tired spirits than that of the country roadside:
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