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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter58)

2006-09-08 19:56

  CHAPTER LVIII Rolf Learns Something from Van

  A man can't handle his own case, any more than a delirious doctor kin give himself the right physic. ——Saying of Si Sylvanne.

  However superior Rolf might feel in the canoe or the woods, there was one place where Van Cortlandt took the lead, and that was in the long talks they had by the campfire or in Van's own shanty which Quonab rarely entered.

  The most interesting subjects treated in these were ancient Greece and modern Albany. Van Cortlandt was a good Greek scholar, and, finding an intelligent listener, he told the stirring tales of royal Ilion, Athens, and Pergamos, with the loving enthusiasm of one whom the teachers found it easy to instruct in classic lore. And when he recited or intoned the rolling Greek heroics of the siege of Troy, Rolf listened with an interest that was strange, considering that he knew not a word of it. But he said, "It sounded like real talk, and the tramp of men that were all astir with something big a-doing."

  Albany and politics, too, were vital strains, and life at the Government House, with the struggling rings and cabals, social and political. These were extraordinarily funny and whimsical to Rolf. No doubt because Van Cortlandt presented them that way. And he more than once wondered how rational humans could waste their time in such tomfoolery and childish things as all conventionalities seemed to be. Van Cortlandt smiled at his remarks, but made no answer for long.

  One day, the first after the completion of Van Cortlandt's cabin, as the two approached, the owner opened the door and stood aside for Rolf to enter.

  "Go ahead," said Rolf.

  "After you," was the polite reply.

  "Oh, go on," rejoined the lad, in mixed amusement and impatience.

  Van Cortlandt touched his hat and went in.

  Inside, Rolf turned squarely and said: "The other day you said there was a reason for all kinds o' social tricks; now will you tell me what the dickens is the why of all these funny- do's? It 'pears to me a free-born American didn't ought to take off his hat to any one but God."

  Van Cortlandt chuckled softly and said: "You may be very sure that everything that is done in the way of social usage is the result of common-sense, with the exception of one or two things that have continued after the reason for them has passed, like the buttons you have behind on your coat; they were put there originally to button the tails out of the way of your sword. Sword wearing and using have passed away, but still you see the buttons.

  "As to taking off your hat to no man: it depends entirely on what you mean by it; and, being a social custom, you must accept its social meaning.

  "In the days of knight errantry, every one meeting a stranger had to suppose him an enemy; ten to one he was. And the sign and proof of friendly intention was raising the right hand without a weapon in it. The hand was raised high, to be seen as far as they could shoot with a bow, and a further proof was added when they raised the vizor and exposed the face. The danger of the highway continued long after knights ceased to wear armour; so, with the same meaning, the same gesture was used, but with a lifting of the hat. If a man did not do it, he was either showing contempt, or hostility for the other, or proving himself an ignorant brute. So, in all civilized countries, lifting the hat is a sign of mutual confidence and respect."

  "Well! that makes it all look different. But why should you touch your hat when you went ahead of me just now?"

  "Because this is my house; you are my guest. I am supposed to serve you in reasonable ways and give you precedence. Had I let you open my door for me, it would have been putting you in the place of my servant; to balance that, I give you the sign of equality and respect."

  "H'm," said Rolf, "'it just shows,' as old Sylvanne sez, 'this yer steel-trap, hair-trigger, cocksure jedgment don't do. An' the more a man learns, the less sure he gits. An' things as hez lasted a long time ain't liable to be on a rotten foundation.'"

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