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THE FRIENDLY ROAD (chapter7)

2006-09-07 20:17

    CHAPTER VII. THEUNDISCOVERED 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 notebook 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.

    I turned slowly around and looked for a light; I think I never wanted so much to see some sign of human habitation as I did at that moment.

    What a coddled world we live in, truly. That being out after dark in a meadow should so disturb the very centre of our being! In all my life, indeed, and I suppose the same is true of ninety-nine out of a hundred of the people in America to-day, I had never before found myself where nothing stood between nature and me, where I had no place to sleep, no shelter for the night——nor any prospect of finding one. I was infinitely less resourceful at that moment than a rabbit, or a partridge, or a gray squirrel.

    Presently I sat down on the ground where I had been standing, with a vague fear (absurd to look back upon) that it, too, in some manner might slip away from under me. And as I sat there I began to have familiar gnawings at the pit of my stomach, and I remembered that, save for a couple of Mrs. Clark's doughnuts eaten while I was sitting on the hillside, ages ago, I had had nothing since my early breakfast.

    With this thought of my predicament——and the glimpse I had of myself "hungry and homeless"——the humour of the whole situation suddenly came over me, and, beginning with a chuckle, I wound up, as my mind dwelt upon my recent adventures, with a long, loud, hearty laugh.

    As I laughed——and what a roar it made in that darkness!——I got up on my feet and looked up at the sky. One bright star shone out over the woods, and in high heavens I could see dimly the white path of the Milky Way. And all at once I seemed again to be in command of myself and of the world. I felt a sudden lift and thrill of the spirits, a warm sense that this too was part of the great adventure——the Thing Itself.

    "This is the light," I said looking up again at the sky and the single bright star, "which is set for me to-night. I will make my bed by it."

    I can hope to make no one understand (unless he understands already) with what joy of adventure I now crept through the meadow toward the wood. It was an unknown, unexplored world I was in, and I, the fortunate discoverer, had here to shift for himself, make his home under the stars! Marquette on the wild shores of the Mississippi, or Stanley in Africa, had no joy that I did not know at that moment.

    I crept along the meadow and came at last to the wood. Here I chose a somewhat sheltered spot at the foot of a large tree——and yet a spot not so obscured that I could not look out over the open spaces of the meadow and see the sky. Here, groping in the darkness, like some primitive creature, I raked together a pile of leaves with my fingers, and found dead twigs and branches of trees; but in that moist forest (where the rain had fallen only the day before) my efforts to kindle a fire were unavailing. Upon this, I considered using some pages from my notebook, but another alternative suggested itself:

    "Why not Montaigne?"

    With that I groped for the familiar volume, and with a curious sensation of satisfaction I tore out a handful of pages from the back.

    "Better Montaigne than Grayson," I said, with a chuckle. It was amazing how Montaigne sparkled and crackled when he was well lighted.

    "There goes a bundle of quotations from Vergil," I said, "and there's his observations on the eating of fish. There are more uses than one for the classics."

    So I ripped out a good part of another chapter, and thus, by coaxing, got my fire to going. It was not difficult after that to find enough fuel to make it blaze up warmly.

    I opened my bag and took out the remnants of the luncheon which Mrs. Clark had given me that morning; and I was surprised and delighted to find, among the other things, a small bottle of coffee. This suggested all sorts of pleasing possibilities and, the spirit of invention being now awakened, I got out my tin cup, split a sapling stick so I could fit it into the handle, and set the cup, full of coffee, on the coals at the edge of the fire. It was soon heated, and although I spilled some of it in getting it off, and although it was well spiced with ashes, I enjoyed it, with Mrs. Clark's doughnuts and sandwiches (some of which I toasted with a sapling fork) as thoroughly, I think, as ever I enjoyed any meal.

    How little we know——we who dread life——how much there is in life!

    My activities around the fire had warmed me to the bone, and after I was well through with my meal I gathered a plentiful supply of wood and placed it near at hand, I got out my waterproof cape and put it on, and, finally piling more sticks on the fire, I sat down comfortably at the foot of the tree.

    I wish I could convey the mystery and the beauty of that night. Did you ever sit by a campfire and watch the flames dance, and the sparks fly upward into the cool dark air? Did you ever see the fitful light among the tree-depths, at one moment opening vast shadowy vistas into the forest, at the next dying downward and leaving it all in sombre mystery? It came to me that night with the wonderful vividness of a fresh experience.

    And what a friendly and companionable thing a campfire is! How generous and outright it is! It plays for you when you wish so be lively, and it glows for you when you wish to be reflective.

    After a while, for I did not feel in the least sleepy, I stepped out of the woods to the edge of the pasture. All around me lay the dark and silent earth, and above the blue bowl of the sky, all glorious with the blaze of a million worlds. Sometimes I have been oppressed by this spectacle of utter space, of infinite distance, of forces too great for me to grasp or understand, but that night it came upon me with fresh wonder and power, and with a sense of great humility that I belonged here too, that I was a part of it all——and would not be neglected or forgotten. It seemed to me I never had a moment of greater faith than that.

    And so, with a sense of satisfaction and peace, I returned to my fire. As I sat there I could hear the curious noises of the woods, the little droppings, cracklings, rustlings which seemed to make all the world alive. I even fancied I could see small bright eyes looking out at my fire, and once or twice I was almost sure I heard voices——whispering——perhaps the voices of the woods.

    Occasionally I added, with some amusement, a few dry pages of Montaigne to the fire, and watched the cheerful blaze that followed.

    "No," said I, "Montaigne is not for the open spaces and the stars. Without a roof over his head Montaigne would——well, die of sneezing."

    So I sat all night long there by the tree. Occasionally I dropped into a light sleep, and then, as my fire died down, I grew chilly and awakened, to build up the fire and doze again. I saw the first faint gray streaks of dawn above the trees, I saw the pink glow in the east before the sunrise, and I watched the sun himself rise upon a new day-When I walked out into the meadow by daylight and looked about me curiously, I saw, not forty rods away, the back of a barn. "Be you the fellow that was daown in my cowpasture all night?"

    asked the sturdy farmer. "I'm that fellow," I said. "Why didn't you come right up to the house?" "Well——" I said, and then paused. "Well . . ." said I.

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