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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter22)

2006-08-28 22:44

  Book One Chapter XXII. In Which I Meet with a Literary Tinker

  Even in that drowsy, semi-conscious state, that most delightful borderland which lies midway between sleeping and waking, I knew it could not be the woodpecker who, as I judged from sundry manifest signs, lodged in the tree above me. No woodpecker that ever pecked could originate such sounds as these——two quick, light strokes, followed by another, and heavier, thus: Tap, tap——TAP; a pause, and then, tap, tap——TAP again, and so on.

  Whatever doubts I may have yet harbored on the subject, however, were presently dispelled by a fragrance sweeter, to the nostrils of a hungry man, than the breath of flowers, the spices of the East, or all the vaunted perfumes of Arabia——in a word, the odor of frying bacon.

  Hereupon, I suddenly realized how exceedingly keen was my appetite, and sighed, bethinking me that I must first find a tavern before I could satisfy my craving, when a voice reached me from no great distance, a full, rich, sonorous voice, singing a song. And the words of the song were these:

  "A tinker I am, O a tinker am I,A tinker I'll live, and a tinker I'll die;If the King in his crown would change places wi' me I'd laugh so I would, and I'd say unto he:

  'A tinker I am, O a tinker am I. A tinker I'll live, and a tinker I'll die.'"

  It was a quaint air, with a shake at the end of the first two and last two lines, which, altogether, I thought very pleasing. I advanced, guided by the voice, until I came out into a grassy lane. Seated upon an artfully-contrived folding stool, was a man. He was a very small man despite his great voice, who held a kettle between his knees, and a light hammer in his hand, while a little to one side of him there blazed a crackling fire of twigs upon which a hissing frying-pan was balanced. But what chiefly drew and held my attention was the man's face; narrow and peaked, with little, round, twinkling eyes set deep in his head, close black hair, grizzled at the temples, and a long, blue chin.

  And presently, as I stood staring at him, he finished his song, and chancing to raise his eyes stared back at me.

  "Good morning!" said he at last, with a bright nod.

  "So then you didn't cut your throat in the Hollow Oak, after all?" said I.

  "Nor likely to either, master," he answered, shaking his head. "Lord love your eyes and limbs, no!"

  "But," said I, "some day or so ago I met a man——"

  "Ah!" nodded the Tinker, "to be sure you did."

  "A pedler of brooms, and ribands——"

  "'Gabbing' Dick!" nodded the Tinker.

  "Who told me very seriously——"

  "That I'd been found in the big holler oak wi' my throat cut," nodded the Tinker.

  "But what did he mean by it?"

  "Why, y' see," explained the Tinker, leaning over to turn a frizzling bacon-rasher very dexterously with the blade of a jack-knife, "y' see, 'Gabbing' Dick is oncommon fond of murders, hangings, sooicides, and such like——it's just a way he's got."

  "A very unpleasant way!" said I.

  "But very harmless when all's done and said," added the Tinker.

  "You mean?"

  "A leetle weak up here," explained the Tinker, tapping his forehead with the handle of the jack-knife. "His father was murdered the day afore he were born, d'ye see, which druv his poor mother out of her mind, which conditions is apt to make a man a leetle strange."

  "Poor fellow!" said I, while the Tinker began his tap-tapping again.

  "Are you hungry?" he inquired suddenly, glancing up at me with his hammer poised.

  "Very hungry!" said I. Hereupon he set down his hammer, and, turning to a pack at his side, proceeded to extract therefrom a loaf of bread, a small tin of butter, and a piece of bacon, from which last he cut sundry slices with the jack-knife. He now lifted the hissing rashers from the pan to a tin plate, which he set upon the grass at my feet, together with the bread and the butter; and, having produced a somewhat battered knife and fork, handed them to me with another bright nod.

  "You are very kind!" said I.

  "Why, I'm a man as is fond o' company, y' see——especially of one who can think, and talk, and you have the face of both. I am——as you might say——a literary cove, being fond o' books, nov-els, and such like." And in a little while, the bacon being done to his liking, we sat down together, and began to eat.

  "That was a strange song of yours," said I, after a while.

  "Did you like it?" he inquired, with a quick tilt of his head.

  "Both words and tune," I answered.

  "I made the words myself," said the Tinker.

  "And do you mean it?"

  "Mean what?" asked the Tinker.

  "That you would rather be a tinker than a king?"

  "Why, to be sure I would," he rejoined. "Bein' a literary cove I know summat o' history, and a king's life weren't all lavender——not by no manner o' means, nor yet a bed o' roses."

  "Yet there's much to be said for a king."

  "Very little, I think," said the Tinker.

  "A king has great advantages."

  "Which he generally abuses," said the Tinker.

  "There have been some great and noble kings."

  "But a great many more bad 'uns!" said the Tinker. "And then, look how often they got theirselves pisoned, or stabbed, or 'ad their 'eads chopped off! No——if you axes me, I prefer to tinker a kettle under a hedge."

  "Then you are contented?"

  "Not quite," he answered, his face falling; "me being a literary cove (as I think I've mentioned afore), it has always been my wish to be a scholar."

  "Far better be a tinker," said I.

  "Young fellow," said the Tinker, shaking his head reprovingly, "you're off the mark there——knowledge is power; why, Lord love my eyes and limbs! what's finer than to be able to read in the Greek and Latin?"

  "To possess the capacity of earning an honest livelihood," said I.

  "Why, I tell you," continued the Tinker, unheeding my remark, "I'd give this here left hand o' mine to be able to read the very words of such men as Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Xenophon, and all the rest of 'em."

  "There are numerous translations," said I.

  "Ah, to be sure!" sighed the Tinker, "but then, they are translations."

  "There are good translations as well as bad," said I.

  "Maybe," returned the Tinker, "maybe, but a translation's only a echo, after all, however good it be." As he spoke, he dived into his pack and brought forth a book, which he handed to me. It was a smallish volume in battered leathern covers, and had evidently seen much long and hard service. Opening it at the title-page, I read:

  Epictetus his ENCHIRIDION with Simplicius his COMMENT. Made English from the Greek By George Stanhope, late Fellow Of King's College in Camb. LONDON Printed for Richard Sare at Gray's Inn Gate in Holborn And Joseph Hindmarsh against the Exchange in Cornhill. 1649.

  "You've read Epictetus, perhaps?" inquired the Tinker.

  "I have."

  "Not in the Greek, of course."

  "Yes," said I, smiling, "though by dint of much labor."

  The Tinker stopped chewing to stare at me wide-eyed, then swallowed his mouthful at one gulp.

  "Lord love me!" he exclaimed, "and you so young, too!"

  "No," said I; "I'm twenty-five."

  "And Latin, now——don't tell me you can read the Latin."

  "But I can't make a kettle, or even mend one, for that matter," said I.

  "But you are a scholar, and it's a fine thing to be a scholar!"

  "And I tell you again, it is better to be a tinker," said I.

  "How so?"

  "It is a healthier life, in the first place," said I.

  "That, I can believe," nodded the Tinker.

  "It is a happier life, in the second place."

  "That, I doubt," returned the Tinker.

  "And, in the third place, it pays much better."

  "That, I don't believe," said the Tinker.

  "Nevertheless," said I, "speaking for myself, I have, in the course of my twenty-five years, earned but ten shillings, and that——but by the sale of my waistcoat."

  "Lord love me!" exclaimed the Tinker, staring.

  "A man," I pursued, "may be a far better scholar than I——may be full of the wisdom of the Ancients, and the teachings of all the great thinkers and philosophers, and yet starve to death——indeed frequently does; but who ever heard of a starving Tinker?"

  "But a scholar may write great books," said the Tinker.

  "A scholar rarely writes a great book," said I, shaking my head, "probably for the good and sufficient reason that great books never _are_ written."

  "Young fellow," said the Tinker, staring, "what do you mean by that?"

  "I mean that truly great books only happen, and very rarely."

  "But a scholar may happen to write a great book," said the Tinker.

  "To be sure——he may; a book that nobody will risk publishing, and if so——a book that nobody will trouble to read, nowadays."

  "Why so?"

  "Because this is an eminently unliterary age, incapable of thought, and therefore seeking to be amused. Whereas the writing of books was once a painful art, it has of late become a trick very easy of accomplishment, requiring no regard for probability, and little thought, so long as it is packed sufficiently full of impossible incidents through which a ridiculous heroine and a more absurd hero duly sigh their appointed way to the last chapter. Whereas books were once a power, they are, of late, degenerated into things of amusement with which to kill an idle hour, and be promptly forgotten the next."

  "Yet the great books remain," said the Tinker.

  "Yes," said I; "but who troubles their head over Homer or Virgil these days——who cares to open Steele's 'Tatler,' or Addison's 'Spectator,' while there is the latest novel to be had, or 'Bell's Life' to be found on any coffee-house table?"

  "And why," said the Tinker, looking at me over a piece of bacon skewered upon the point of his jack-knife, "why don't you write a book?"

  "I probably shall some day," I answered.

  "And supposing," said the Tinker, eyeing the piece of bacon thoughtfully, "supposing nobody ever reads it?"

  "The worse for them!" said I.

  Thus we talked of books, and the making of books (something of which I have already set down in another place) until our meal was at an end.

  "You are a rather strange young man, I think," said the Tinker, as, having duly wiped knife, and fork, and plate upon a handful of grass, I handed them back.

  "Yet you are a stranger tinker."

  "How so?"

  "Why, who ever heard of a tinker who wrote verses, and worked with a copy of Epictetus at his elbow?"

  "Which I don't deny as I'm a great thinker," nodded the Tinker; "to be sure, I think a powerful lot."

  "A dangerous habit," said I, shaking my head, "and a most unwise one!"

  "Eh?" cried the Tinker, staring.

  "Your serious, thinking man," I explained, "is seldom happy——as a rule has few friends, being generally regarded askance, and is always misunderstood by his fellows. All the world's great thinkers, from Christ down, were generally misunderstood, looked at askance, and had very few friends."

  "But these were all great men," said the Tinker.

  "We think so now, but in their day they were very much despised, and who was more hated, by the very people He sought to aid, than Christ?"

  "By the evil-doers, yes," nodded the Tinker.

  "On the contrary," said I, "his worst enemies were men of learning, good citizens, and patterns of morality, who looked upon him as a dangerous zealot, threatening the destruction of the old order of things; hence they killed him——as an agitator. Things are much the same to-day. History tells us that Christ, or the spirit of Christ, has entered into many men who have striven to enlighten and better the conditions of their kind, and they have generally met with violent deaths, for Humanity is very gross and blind."

  The Tinker slowly wiped his clasp-knife upon the leg of his breeches, closed it, and slipped it into his pocket.

  "Nevertheless," said he at last, "I am convinced that you are a very strange young man."

  "Be that as it may," said I, "the bacon was delicious. I have never enjoyed a meal so much——except once at an inn called 'The Old Cock.'"

  "I know it," nodded the Tinker; "a very poor house."

  "But the ham and eggs are beyond praise," said I; "still, my meal here under the trees with you will long remain a pleasant memory."

  "Good-by, then," said the Tinker. "Good-by, young man, and I wish you happiness."

  "What is happiness?" said I. The Tinker removed his hat, and, having scratched his head, put it on again.

  "Happiness," said he, "happiness is the state of being content with one's self, the world, and everything in general."

  "Then," said I, "I fear I can never be happy."

  "And why not?"

  "Because, supposing I ever became contented with the world, and everything in general, which is highly improbable, I shall never, never be contented with myself."

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