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THE FRIENDLY ROAD (chapter8)

2006-09-07 20:17

    CHAPTER VIII. THE HEDGE

    Strange, strange, how small the big world is!

    "Why didn't you come right into the house?" the sturdy farmer had asked me when I came out of the meadow where I had spent the night under the stars.

    "Well," I said, turning the question as adroitly as I could, "I'll make it

    up by going into the house now."

    So I went with him into his fine, comfortable house.

    "This is my wife," said he.

    A woman stood there facing me. "Oh!" she exclaimed, "Mr. Grayson!"

    I recalled swiftly a child——a child she seemed then——with braids down

    her back, whom I had known when I first came to my farm. She had grown up, married, and had borne three children, while I had been looking the other way for a minute or two. She had not been in our neighborhood for several years.

    "And how is your sister and Doctor McAlway?"

    Well, we had quite a wonderful visit, she made breakfast for me, asking and talking eagerly as I ate.

    "We've just had news that old Mr. Toombs is dead."

    "Dead!" I exclaimed, dropping my fork; "old Nathan Toombs!"

    "Yes, he was my uncle. Did you know him?"

    "I knew Nathan Toombs," I said.

    I spent two days there with the Ransomes, for they would not hear of

    my leaving, and half of our spare time, I think, was spent in discussing Nathan Toombs. I was not able to get him out of my mind for days, for his death was one of those events which prove so much and leave so much unproven.

    I can recall vividly my astonishment at the first evidence I ever had of the strange old man or of his work. It was not very long after I came to my farm to live. I had taken to spending my spare evenings——the long evenings of summer——in exploring the country roads for miles around, getting acquainted with each farmstead, each bit of grove and meadow and marsh, making my best bow to each unfamiliar hill, and taking everywhere that toll of pleasure which comes of quiet discovery.

    One evening, having walked farther than usual, I came quite suddenly around a turn in the road and saw stretching away before me an extraordinary sight.

    I feel that I am conveying no adequate impression of what I beheld by giving it any such prim and decorous name as——a Hedge. It was a menagerie, a living, green menagerie! I had no sooner seen it than I began puzzling my brain as to whether one of the curious ornaments into which the upper part of the hedge had been clipped and trimmed was made to represent the head of a horse, or a camel, or an Egyptian sphinx.

    The hedge was of arbor vite and as high as a man's waist. At more or less regular intervals the trees in it had been allowed to grow much taller and had been wonderfully pruned into the similitude of towers, pinnacles, bells, and many other strange designs. Here and there the hedge held up a spindling umbrella of greenery, sometimes a double umbrella——a little one above the big one——and over the gateway at the centre; as a sort of final triumph, rose a grandiose arch of interlaced branches upon which the artist had outdone himself in marvels of ornamentation.

    I shall never forget the sensation of delight I had over this discovery, or of how I walked, tiptoe, along the road in front, studying each of the marvellous adornments. How eagerly, too, I looked over at the house beyond——a rather bare, bleak house set on a slight knoll or elevation and guarded at one corner by a dark spruce tree. At some distance behind I saw a number of huge barns, a cattle yard and a silo——all the evidences of prosperity——with well-nurtured fields, now yellowing with the summer crops, spreading pleasantly away on every hand.

    It was nearly dark before I left that bit of roadside, and I shall never forget the eerie impression I had as I turned back to take a final look at the hedge, the strange, grotesque aspect it presented there in the half light with the bare, lonely house rising from the knoll behind.

    It was not until some weeks later that I met the owner of the wonderful hedge. By that time, however, having learned of my interest, I found the whole countryside alive with stories about it and about Old Nathan Toombs, its owner. It was as though I had struck the rock of refreshment in a weary land.

    I remember distinctly how puzzled was by the stories I heard. The neighbourhood portrait——and ours is really a friendly neighbourhood——was by no means flattering. Old Toombs was apparently of that type of hard-shelled, grasping, self-reliant, old-fashioned farmer not unfamiliar to many country neighbourhoods. He had come of tough old American stock and he was a worker, a saver, and thus he had grown rich, the richest farmer in the whole neighbourhood. He was a regular individualistic American.

    "A dour man," said the Scotch Preacher, "but just——you must admit that he is just."

    There was no man living about whom the Scotch Preacher could not

    find something good to say.

    "Yes, just," replied Horace, "but hard——hard, and as mean as pusley."

    This portrait was true enough in itself, for I knew just the sort of an

    aggressive, undoubtedly irritable old fellow it pictured, but somehow, try as I would, I could not see any such old fellow wasting his moneyed hours clipping bells, umbrellas, and camel's heads on his ornamental greenery. It left just that incongruity which is at once the lure, the humour, and the perplexity of human life. Instead of satisfying my curiosity I was more anxious than ever to see Old Toombs with my own eyes.

    But the weeks passed and somehow I did not meet him. He was a lonely, unneighbourly old fellow. He had apparently come to fit into the community without ever really becoming a part of it. His neighbours accepted him as they accepted a hard hill in the town road. From time to time he would foreclose a mortgage where he had loaned money to some less thrifty farmer, or he would extend his acres by purchase, hard cash down, or he would build a bigger barn. When any of these things happened the community would crowd over a little, as it were, to give him more room. It is a curious thing, and tragic, too, when you come to think of it, how the world lets alone those people who appear to want to be let alone. "I can live to myself," says the unneighbourly one. "Well, live to yourself, then," cheerfully responds the world, and it goes about its more or less amusing affairs and lets the unneighbourly one cut himself off.

    So our small community had let Old Toombs go his way with all his money, his acres, his hedge, and his reputation for being a just man.

    Not meeting him, therefore, in the familiar and friendly life of the neighbourhood, I took to walking out toward his farm, looking freshly at the wonderful hedge and musing upon that most fascinating of all subjects——how men come to be what they are. And at last I was rewarded.

    One day I had scarcely reached the end of the hedge when I saw Old Toombs himself, moving toward me down the country road. Though I had never seen him before, I was at no loss to identify him. The first and vital impression he gave me, if I can compress it into a single word, was, I think,force——force. He came stubbing down the country road with a brown hickory stick in his hand which at every step he set vigorously into the soft earth. Though not tall, he gave the impression of being enormously strong. He was thick, solid, firm——thick through the body, thick through the thighs; and his shoulders——what shoulders they were!——round like a maple log; and his great head with its thatching of coarse iron-gray hair, though thrust slightly forward, seemed set immovably upon them,

    He presented such a forbidding appearance that I was of two minds about addressing him. Dour he was indeed! Nor shall I ever forget how he looked when I spoke to him. He stopped short there in the road. On his big square nose he wore a pair of curious spring-bowed glasses with black rims. For a moment he looked at me through these glasses, raising his chin a little, and then, deliberately wrinkling his nose, they fell off and dangled at the length of the faded cord by which they were hung. There was something almost uncanny about this peculiar habit of his and of the way in which, afterward, he looked at me from under his bushy gray brows. This was in truth the very man of the neighbourhood portrait.

    "I am a new settler here," I said, "and I've been interested in looking at your wonderful hedge."

    The old man's eyes rested upon me a moment with a mingled look of suspicion and hostility.

    "So you've heard o' me," he said in a high-pitched voice, "and you've heard o' my hedge."

    Again he paused and looked me over. "Well," he said, with an indescribably harsh, cackling laugh, "I warrant you've heard nothing good o' me down there. I'm a skinflint, ain't I ? I'm a hard citizen, ain't I? I grind the faces o' the poor, don't I?"

    At first his words were marked by a sort of bitter humour, but as he continued to speak his voice rose higher and higher until it was positively menacing.

    There were just two things I could do——haul down the flag and retreat ingloriously, or face the music. With a sudden sense of rising spirits——for such things do not often happen to a man in a quiet country road——I paused a moment, looking him square in the eye.

    "Yes," I said, with great deliberation, "you've given me just about the neighborhood picture of yourself as I have had it. They do say you are a skinflint, yes, and a hard man. They say that you are rich and friendless; they say that while you are a just man, you do not know mercy. These are terrible things to say of any man if they are true."

    I paused. The old man looked for a moment as though he were going to strike me with his stick, but he neither stirred nor spoke. It was evidently a wholly new experience for him.

    "Yes," I said, "you are not popular in this community, but what do you suppose I care about that? I'm interested in your hedge. What I'm curious to know——and I might as well tell you frankly——is how such a man as you are reputed to be could grow such an extraordinary hedge. You must have been at it a very long time."

    I was surprised at the effect of my words. The old man turned partly aside and looked for a moment along the proud and flaunting embattlements of the green marvel before us. Then he said in a moderate voice:

    "It's a putty good hedge, a putty good hedge."

    "I've got him," I thought exultantly, "I've got him!" "How long ago did you start it?" I pursued my advantage eagerly.

    "Thirty-two years come spring," said he.

    "Thirty-two years!" I repeated; "you've been at it a long time."

    With that I plied him with questions in the liveliest manner, and in five minutes I had the gruff old fellow stumping along at my side and pointing out the various notable-features of his wonderful creation. His suppressed excitement was quite wonderful to see. He would point his hickory stick with a poking motion, and, when he looked up, instead of throwing back his big, rough head, he bent at the hips, thus imparting an impression of astonishing solidity. "It took me all o' ten years to get that bell right," he said, and, "Take a look at that arch: now what is your opinion o' that?"

    Once, in the midst of our conversation, he checked himself abruptly and looked around at me with a sudden dark expression of suspicion. I saw exactly what lay in his mind, but I continued my questioning as though I perceived no change in him. It was only momentary, however, and he was soon as much interested as before. He talked as though he had not had such an opportunity before in years——and I doubt whether he had. It was plain to see that if any one ever loved anything in this world, Old Toombs loved that hedge of his. Think of it, indeed! He had lived with it, nurtured it, clipped it, groomed it——for thirty-two years.

    So we walked down the sloping field within the hedge, and it seemed as though one of the deep mysteries of human nature was opening there before me. What strange things men set their hearts upon!

    Thus, presently, we came nearly to the farther end of the hedge. Here the old man stopped and turned around, facing me.

    "Do you see that valley?" he asked. "Do you see that slopin' valley up

    through the meadow?"

    His voice rose suddenly to a sort of high-pitched violence.

    "That' passel o' hounds up there," he said, "want to build a road down

    my valley."

    He drew his breath fiercely.

    "They want to build a road through my land. They want to ruin my

    farm——they want to cut down my hedge. I'll fight 'em. I'll fight 'em. I'll show 'em yet!"

    It was appalling. His face grew purple, his eyes narrowed to pin points and grew red and angry——like the eyes of an infuriated boar. His hands shook. Suddenly he turned upon me, poising his stick in his hand, and said violently.

    "And who are you? Who are you? Are you one of these surveyor fellows?"

    "My name," I answered as quietly as I could, "is Grayson. I live on the old Mather farm. I am not in the least interested in any of your road troubles."

    He looked at me a moment more, and then seemed to shake himself or shudder, his eyes dropped away and he began walking toward his house. He had taken only a few steps, however, before he turned, and, without looking at me, asked if I would like to see the tools he used for trimming his hedge. When I hesitated, for I was decidedly uncomfortable, he came up to me and laid his hand awkwardly on my arm.

    "You'll see something, I warrant, you never see before."

    It was so evident that he regretted his outbreak that I followed him, and he showed me an odd double ladder set on low wheels which he said he used in trimming the higher parts of his hedge.

    "It's my own invention," he said with pride.

    "And that"——he pointed as we came out of the tool shed——"is my house-a good house. I planned it all myself. I never needed to take lessons of any carpenter I ever see. And there's my barns. What do you think o' my barns? Ever see any bigger ones? They ain't any bigger in this country than Old Toombs's barns. They don't like Old Toombs, but they ain't any of one of 'em can ekal his barns!"

    He followed me down to the roadside now quite loquacious. Even after I had thanked him and started to go he called after me.

    When I stopped he came forward hesitatingly——and I had the impressions, suddenly, and for the first time that he was an old man. It may have been the result of his sudden fierce explosion of anger, but his hand shook, his face was pale, and he seemed somehow broken. "You——you like my hedge?" he asked.

    "It is certainly wonderful hedge," I said. "I never have seen anything like it?"

    "The' AIN'T nothing like it," he responded, quickly. "The' ain't nothing like it anywhere."

    In the twilight as I passed onward I saw the lonely figure of the old man moving with his hickory stick up the pathway to his lonely house. The poor rich old man!

    "He thinks he can live wholly to himself," I said aloud.

    I thought, as I tramped homeward, of our friendly and kindly community, of how we often come together of an evening with skylarking and laughter, of how we weep with one another, of how we join in making better roads and better schools, and building up the Scotch Preacher's friendly little church. And in all these things Old Toombs has never had a part. He is not even missed.

    As a matter of fact, I reflected, and this is a strange, deep thing, no man is in reality more dependent upon the community which he despises and holds at arm's length than this same Old Nathan Toombs. Everything he has, everything he does, gives evidence of it. And I don't mean this in any mere material sense, though of course his wealth and his farm would mean no more than the stones in his hills to him if he did not have us here around him. Without our work, our buying, our selling, our governing, his dollars would be dust. But we are still more necessary to him in other ways: the unfriendly man is usually the one who demands most from his neighbours. Thus, if he have not people's love or confidence, then he will smite them until they fear him, or admire him, or hate him. Oh, no man, however may try, can hold himself aloof!

    I came home deeply stirred from my visit with Old Toombs and lost no time in making further inquiries. I learned, speedily, that there was indeed something in the old man's dread of a road being built through his farm. The case was already in the courts. His farm was a very old one and extensive, and of recent years a large settlement of small farmers had been developing the rougher lands in the upper part of the townships called the Swan Hill district. Their only way to reach the railroad was by a rocky, winding road among the 'hills,' while their outlet was down a gently sloping through Old Toombs's farm. They were now so numerous and politically important that they had stirred up the town authorities. A proposition had been made to Old Toombs for a right-of-way; they argued with him that it was a good thing for the whole country, that it would enhance the values of his own upper lands, and that they would pay him far more for a right-of-way than the land was actually worth, but he had spurned them——I can imagine with what vehemence.

    "Let 'em drive round," he said. "Didn't they know what they'd have to do when they settled up there? What a passel o' curs! They can keep off o' my land, or I'll have the law on 'em."

    And thus the matter came to the courts with the town attempting to condemn the land for a road through Old Toombs's farm.

    "What can we do?" asked the Scotch Preacher, who was deeply distressed by the bitterness of feeling displayed. "There is no getting to the man. He will listen to no one."

    At one time I thought of going over and talking with Old Toombs myself, for it seemed that I had been able to get nearer to him than any one had in a long time. But I dreaded it. I kept dallying,——for what, indeed, could I have said to him? If he had been suspicious of me before, how much more hostile he might be when I expressed an interest in his difficulties. As to reaching the Swan Hill settlers, they were now aroused to an implacable state of bitterness; and they had the people of the whole community with them, for no one liked Old Toombs.

    Thus while I hesitated time passed and my next meeting with Old Toombs, instead of being premeditated, came about quite unexpectedly. I was walking in the town road late one afternoon when I heard a wagon rattling behind me, and then, quite suddenly, a shouted, "Whoa."

    Looking around, I saw Old Toombs, his great solid figure mounted high on the wagon seat, the reins held fast in the fingers of one hand. I was struck by the strange expression in his face——a sort of grim exaltation. As I stepped aside he burst out in a loud, shrill, cackling laugh:"He-he-he——he-he-he——"

    I was too astonished to speak at once. Ordinarily when I meet any one in the town road it is in my heart to cry out to him,

    "Good morning, friend," or, "How are you, brother?" but I had no such prompting that day.

    "Git in, Grayson," he said; "git in, git in."

    I climbed up beside him, and he slapped me on the knee with another burst of shrill laughter.

    "They thought they had the old man," he said, starting up his horses. "They thought there weren't no law left in Israel. I showed 'em."

    I cannot convey the bitter triumphancy of his voice.

    "You mean the road case?" I asked.

    "Road case!" he exploded, "they wan't no road case; they didn't have no road case. I beat 'em. I says to 'em, 'What right hev any o' you on my property? Go round with you,' I says. Oh, I beat 'em. If they'd had their way, they'd 'a' cut through my hedge——the hounds!"

    When he set me down at my door, I had said hardly a word. There seemed nothing that could be said. I remember I stood for some time watching the old man as he rode away, his wagon jolting in the country road, his stout figure perched firmly in the seat. I went in with a sense of heaviness at the heart.

    "Harriet," I said, "there are some things in this world beyond human remedy."

    Two evenings later I was surprised to see the Scotch Preacher drive up to my gate and hastily tie his horse.

    "David," said he, "there's bad business afoot. A lot of the young fellows in Swan Hill are planning a raid on Old Toombs's hedge. They are coming down to-night."

    I got my hat and jumped in with him. We drove up the hilly road and out around Old Toombs's farm and thus came, near to the settlement. I had no conception of the bitterness that the lawsuit had engendered.

    "Where once you start men hating one another," said the Scotch Preacher, "there's utterly no end of it." I have seen our Scotch Preacher in many difficult places, but never have I seen him rise to greater heights than he did that night. It is not in his preaching that Doctor McAlway excels, but what a power he is among men! He was like some stern old giant, standing there and holding up the portals of civilization. I saw men melt under his words like wax; I saw wild young fellows subdued into quietude; I saw unwise old men set to thinking.

    "Man, man," he'd say, lapsing in his earnestness into the broad Scotch accent of his youth, "you canna' mean plunder, and destruction, and riot! You canna! Not in this neighbourhood!"

    "What about Old Toombs?" shouted one of the boys.

    I never shall forget how Doctor McAlway drew himself up nor the majesty that looked from his eye.

    "Old Toombs!" he said in a voice that thrilled one to the bone, "Old Toombs! Have you no faith, that you stand in the place of Almighty God and measure punishments?"

    Before we left it was past midnight and we drove home, almost silent, in the darkness.

    "Doctor McAlway," I said, "if Old Toombs could know the history of

    this night it might change his point of view."

    "I doot it," said the Scotch Preacher. "I doot it."

    The night passed serenely; the morning saw Old Toombs's hedge

    standing as gorgeous as ever. The community had again stepped aside and let Old Toombs have his way: they had let him alone, with all his great barns, his wide acres and his wonderful hedge. He probably never even knew what had threatened him that night, nor how the forces of religion, of social order, of neighbourliness in the community which he despised had, after all, held him safe. There is a supreme faith among common people——it is, indeed, the very taproot of democracy——that although the unfriendly one may persist long in his power and arrogance, there is a moving Force which commands events.

    I suppose if I were writing a mere story I should tell how Old Toombs was miraculously softened at the age of sixty-eight years, and came into new relationships with his neighbours, or else I should relate how the mills of God, grinding slowly, had crushed the recalcitrant human atom into dust.

    Either of these results conceivably might have happened——all things are possible——and being ingeniously related would somehow have answered a need in the human soul that the logic of events be constantly and conclusively demonstrated in the lives of individual men and women.

    But as a matter of fact, neither of these things did happen in this quiet community of ours. There exists, assuredly, a logic of events, oh, a terrible, irresistible logic of events, but it is careless of the span of any one man's life. We would like to have each man enjoy the sweets of his own virtues and suffer the lash of his own misdeeds——but it rarely so happens in life. No, it is the community which lives or dies, is regenerated or marred by the deeds of men.

    So Old Toombs continued to live. So he continued to buy more land, raise more cattle, collect more interest, and the wonderful hedge continued to flaunt its marvels still more notably upon the country road. To what end? Who knows? Who knows?

    I saw him afterward from time to time, tried to maintain some sort of friendly relations with him; but it seemed as the years passed that he grew ever lonelier and more bitter, and not only more friendless, but seemingly more incapable of friendliness. In times past I have seen what men call tragedies——I saw once a perfect young man die in his strength——but it seems to me I never knew anything more tragic than the life and death of Old Toombs. If it cannot be said of a man when he dies that either his nation, his state, his neighborhood, his family, or at least his wife or child, is better for his having lived, what CAN be said for him?

    Old Toombs is dead. Like Jehoram, King of Judah, of whom it is terribly said in the Book of Chronicles, "he departed without being desired."

    Of this story of Nathan Toombs we talked much and long there in the Ransome home. I was with them, as I said, about two days——kept inside most of the time by a driving spring rain which filled the valley with a pale gray mist and turned all the country roads into running streams. One morning, the weather having cleared, I swung my bag to my shoulder, and with much warmth of parting I set my face again to the free road and the open country.

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