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THE FRIENDLY ROAD (chapter2)

2006-09-07 20:17

    CHAPTER II. I WHISTLE

    When I was a boy I learned after many discouragements to play on a tin whistle. There was a wandering old fellow in our town who would sit for hours on the shady side of a certain ancient hotel-barn, and with his little whistle to his lips, and gently swaying his head to his tune and tapping one foot in the gravel, he would produce the most wonderful and beguiling melodies. His favourite selections were very lively; he played, I remember, "Old Dan Tucker," and "Money Musk," and the tune of a rollicking old song, now no doubt long forgotten, called "Wait for the Wagon." I can see him yet, with his jolly eyes half closed, his lips puckered around the whistle, and his fingers curiously and stiffly poised over the stops. I am sure I shall never forget the thrill which his music gave to the heart of a certain barefoot boy.

    At length, by means I have long since forgotten, I secured a tin whistle exactly like Old Tom Madison's and began diligently to practise such tunes as I knew. I am quite sure now that I must have made a nuisance of myself, for it soon appeared to be the set purpose of every member of the family to break up my efforts. Whenever my father saw me with the whistle to my lips, he would instantly set me at some useful work (oh, he was an adept in discovering useful work to do——for a boy!)。 And at the very sight of my stern aunt I would instantly secrete my whistle in my blouse and fly for the garret or cellar, like a cat caught in the cream. Such are the early tribulations of musical genius!

    At last I discovered a remote spot on a beam in the hay-barn where, lighted by a ray of sunlight which came through a crack in the eaves and pointed a dusty golden finger into that hay-scented interior, I practised rapturously and to my heart's content upon my tin whistle. I learned "Money Musk" until I could play it in Old Tom Madison's best style——even to the last nod and final foot-tap. I turned a certain church hymn called "Yield Not to Temptation" into something quite inspiriting, and I played "Marching Through Georgia" until all the "happy hills of hay" were to the fervid eye of a boy's imagination full of tramping soldiers. Oh, I shall never forget the joys of those hours in the hay-barn, nor the music of that secret tin whistle! I can hear yet the crooning of the pigeons in the eaves, and the slatey sound of their wings as they flew across the open spaces in the great barn; I can smell yet the odour of the hay.

    But with years, and the city, and the shame of youth, I put aside and almost forgot the art of whistling. When I was preparing for the present pilgrimage, however, it came to me with a sudden thrill of pleasure that nothing in the wide world now prevented me from getting a whistle and seeing whether I had forgotten my early cunning. At the very first good-sized town I came to I was delighted to find at a little candy and toy shop just the sort of whistle I wanted, at the extravagant price of ten cents. I bought it and put it in the bottom of my knapsack.

    "Am I not old enough now," I said to myself, "to be as youthful as I choose?"

    Isn't it the strangest thing in the world how long it takes us to learn to accept the joys of simple pleasures?——and some of us never learn at all. "Boo!" says the neighbourhood, and we are instantly frightened into doing a thousand unnecessary and unpleasant things, or prevented from doing a thousand beguiling things.

    For the first few days I was on the road I thought often with pleasure of the whistle lying there in my bag, but it was not until after I left the Stanleys' that I felt exactly in the mood to try it.

    The fact is, my adventures on the Stanley farm had left me in a very cheerful frame of mind. They convinced me that some of the great things I had expected of my pilgrimage were realizable possibilities. Why, I had walked right into the heart of as fine a family as I have seen these many days.

    I remained with them the entire day following the potato-planting. We were out at five o'clock in the morning, and after helping with the chores, and eating a prodigious breakfast, we went again to the potato-field, and part of the time I helped plant a few remaining rows, and part of the time I drove a team attached to a wing-plow to cover the planting of the previous day.

    In the afternoon a slashing spring rain set in, and Mr. Stanley, who was a forehanded worker, found a job for all of us in the barn. Ben, the younger son, and I sharpened mower-blades and a scythe or so, Ben turning the grindstone and I holding the blades and telling him stories into the bargain. Mr. Stanley and his stout older son overhauled the work-harness and tinkered the corn-planter. The doors at both ends of the barn stood wide open, and through one of them, framed like a picture, we could see the scudding floods descend upon the meadows, and through the other, across a fine stretch of open country, we could see all the roads glistening and the treetops moving under the rain.

    "Fine, fine!" exclaimed Mr. Stanley, looking out from time to time, "we got in our potatoes just in the nick of time."

    After supper that evening I told them of my plan to leave them on the

    following morning.

    "Don't do that," said Mrs. Stanley heartily; "stay on with us."

    "Yes," said Mr. Stanley, "we're shorthanded, and I'd be glad to have a

    man like you all summer. There ain't any one around here will pay a good

    man more'n I will, nor treat 'im better."

    "I'm sure of it, Mr. Stanley," I said, "but I can't stay with you."

    At that the tide of curiosity which I had seen rising ever since I came

    began to break through. Oh, I know how difficult it is to let the wanderer get by without taking toll of him! There are not so many people here in the country that we can afford to neglect them. And as I had nothing in the world to conceal, and, indeed, loved nothing better than the give and take of getting acquainted, we were soon at it in good earnest.

    But it was not enough to tell them that my name was David Grayson and where my farm was located, and how many acres there were, and how much stock I had, and what I raised. The great particular "Why?" ——as I knew it would be——concerned my strange presence on the road at this season of the year and the reason why I should turn in by chance, as I had done, to help at their planting. If a man is stationary, it seems quite impossible for him to imagine why any one should care to wander; and as for the wanderer it is inconceivable to him how any one can remain permanently at home.

    We were all sitting comfortably around the table in the living-room. The lamps were lighted, and Mr. Stanley, in slippers, was smoking his pipe and Mrs. Stanley was darning socks over a mending-gourd, and the two young Stanleys were whispering and giggling about some matter of supreme consequence to youth. The windows were open, and we could smell the sweet scent of the lilacs from the yard and hear the drumming of the rain as it fell on the roof of the porch.

    "It's easy to explain," I said. "The fact is, it got to the point on my farm that I wasn't quite sure whether I owned it or it owned me. And I made up my mind I'd get away for a while from my own horses and cattle and see what the world was like. I wanted to see how people lived up here, and what they are thinking about, and how they do their farming."

    As I talked of my plans and of the duty one had, as I saw it, to be a good broad man as well as a good farmer, I grew more and more interested and enthusiastic. Mr. Stanley took his pipe slowly from his mouth, held it poised until it finally went out, and sat looking at me with a rapt expression. I never had a better audience. Finally, Mr. Stanley said very earnestly:

    "And you have felt that way, too?"

    "Why, father!" exclaimed Mrs. Stanley, in astonishment.

    Mr. Stanley hastily put his pipe back into his mouth and confusedly searched in his pockets for a match; but I knew I had struck down deep into a common experience. Here was this brisk and prosperous farmer having his dreams too——dreams that even his wife did not know!

    So I continued my talk with even greater fervour. I don't think that the boy Ben understood all that I said, for I was dealing with experiences common mostly to older men, but he somehow seemed to get the spirit of it, for quite unconsciously he began to hitch his chair toward me, then he laid his hand on my chair-arm and finally and quite simply he rested his arm against mine and looked at me with all his eyes. I keep learning that there is nothing which reaches men's hearts like talking straight out the convictions and emotions of your innermost soul. Those who hear you may not agree with you, or they may not understand you fully, but something incalculable, something vital, passes. And as for a boy or girl it is one of the sorriest of mistakes to talk down to them; almost always your lad of fifteen thinks more simply, more fundamentally, than you do; and what he accepts as good coin is not facts or precepts, but feelings and convictions——LIFE. And why shouldn't we speak out?

    "I long ago decided," I said, "to try to be fully what I am and not to be anything or anybody else."

    "That's right, that's right," exclaimed Mr. Stanley, nodding his head vigorously.

    "It's about the oldest wisdom there is," I said, and with that I thought of the volume I carried in my pocket, and straightway I pulled it out and after a moment's search found the passage I wanted.

    "Listen," I said, "to what this old Roman philosopher said"——and I held the book up to the lamp and read aloud:

    "'You can be invincible if you enter into no contest in which it is not in your power to conquer. Take care, then, when you observe a man honoured before others or possessed of great power, or highly esteemed for any reason, not to suppose him happy and be not carried away by the appearance. For if the nature of the good is in our power, neither envy nor jealousy will have a place in us. But you yourself will not wish to be a general or a senator or consul, but a free man, and there is only one way to do this, to care not for the things which are not in our power.'"

    "That," said Mr. Stanley, "is exactly what I've always said, but I didn't know it was in any book. I always said I didn't want to be a senator or a legislator, or any other sort of office-holder. It's good enough for me right here on this farm."

    At that moment I glanced down into Ben's shining eyes.

    "But I want to be a senator or——something——when I grow up," he said eagerly.

    At this the older brother, who was sitting not far off, broke into a laugh, and the boy, who for a moment had been drawn out of his reserve, shrank back again and coloured to the hair.

    "Well, Ben," said I, putting my hand on his knee, "don't you let anything stop you. I'll back you up; I'll vote for you."

    After breakfast the next morning Mr. Stanley drew me aside and said:

    "Now I want to pay you for your help yesterday and the day before."

    "No," I said. "I've had more than value received. You've taken me in

    like a friend and brother. I've enjoyed it."

    So Mrs. Stanley half filled my knapsack with the finest luncheon I've seen in many a day, and thus, with as pleasant a farewell as if I'd been a near relative, I set off up the country road. I was a little distressed in parting to see nothing of the boy Ben, for I had formed a genuine liking for him, but upon reaching a clump of trees which hid the house from the road I saw him standing in the moist grass of a fence corner.

    "I want to say good-bye," he said in the gruff voice of embarrassment.

    "Ben," I said, "I missed you, and I'd have hated to go off without seeing you again. Walk a bit with me."

    So we walked side by side, talking quietly and when at last I shook his hand I said:

    "Ben, don't you ever be afraid of acting up to the very best thoughts you have in your heart."

    He said nothing for a moment, and then: "Gee! I'm sorry you're goin'

    away!"

    "Gee!" I responded, "I'm sorry, too!"

    With that we both laughed, but when I reached the top of the hill, and

    looked back, I saw him still standing there bare-footed in the road looking after me. I waved my hand and he waved his: and I saw him no more.

    No country, after all, produces any better crop than its inhabitants. And as I travelled onward I liked to think of these brave, temperate, industrious, God-friendly American people. I have no fear of the country while so many of them are still to be found upon the farms and in the towns of this land.

    So I tramped onward full of cheerfulness. The rain had ceased, but all the world was moist and very green and still. I walked for more than two hours with the greatest pleasure. About ten o'clock in the morning I stopped near a brook to drink and rest, for I was warm and tired. And it was then that I bethought me of the little tin pipe in my knapsack, and straightway I got it out, and, sitting down at the foot of a tree near the brook, I put it to my lips and felt for the stops with unaccustomed fingers. At first I made the saddest sort of work of it, and was not a little disappointed, indeed, with the sound of the whistle itself. It was nothing to my memory of it! It seemed thin and tinny.

    However, I persevered at it, and soon produced a recognizable imitation of Tom Madison's "Old Dan Tucker." My success quite pleased me, and I became so absorbed that I quite lost account of the time and place. There was no one to hear me save a bluejay which for an hour or more kept me company. He sat on a twig just across the brook, cocking his head at me, and saucily wagging his tail. Occasionally he would dart off among the trees crying shrilly; but his curiosity would always get the better of him and back he would come again to try to solve the mystery of this rival whistling, which I'm sure was as shrill and as harsh as his own.

    Presently, quite to my astonishment, I saw a man standing near the brookside not a dozen paces away from me. How long he had been there I don't know, for I had heard nothing of his coming. Beyond him in the town road I could see the head of his horse and the top of his buggy. I said not a word, but continued with my practising. Why shouldn't I? But it gave me quite a thrill for the moment; and at once I began to think of the possibilities of the situation. What a thing it was have so many unexpected and interesting situations developing! So I nodded my head and tapped my foot, and blew into my whistle all the more energetically. I knew my visitor could not possibly keep away. And he could not; presently he came nearer and said:

    "What are you doing, neighbour?"

    I continued a moment with my playing, but commanded him with my eye.

    Oh, I assure you I assumed all the airs of a virtuoso. When I had finished my tune I removed my whistle deliberately and wiped my lips. "Why, enjoying myself," I replied with greatest good humour. "What are you doing?"

    "Why," he said, "watching you enjoy yourself. I heard you playing as I passed in the road, and couldn't imagine what it could be."

    I told him I thought it might still be difficult, having heard me near at hand, to imagine what it could be——and thus, tossing the ball of good-humoured repartee back and forth, we walked down to the road together. He had a quiet old horse and a curious top buggy with the unmistakable box of an agent or peddler built on behind.

    "My name," he said, "is Canfield. I fight dust."

    "And mine," I said, "is Grayson. I whistle."

    I discovered that he was an agent for brushes, and he opened his box and showed me the greatest assortment of big and little brushes: bristle brushes, broom brushes, yarn brushes, wire brushes, brushes for man and brushes for beast, brushes of every conceivable size and shape that ever I saw in all my life. He had out one of his especial pets——he called it his "leader"——and feeling it familiarly in his hand he instinctively began the jargon of well-handled and voice-worn phrases which went with that particular brush. It was just as though some one had touched a button and had started him going. It was amazing to me that any one in the world should be so much interested in mere brushes——until he actually began to make me feel that brushes were as interesting as anything else!

    What a strange, little, dried-up old fellow he was, with his balls of muttonchop sidewhiskers, his thick eyebrows, and his lively blue eyes!——a man evidently not readily turned aside by rebuffs. He had already shown that his wit as a talker had been sharpened by long and varied contact with a world of reluctant purchasers. I was really curious to know more of him, so I said finally:

    "See here, Mr. Canfield, it's just noon. Why not sit down here with me

    and have a bit of luncheon?"

    "Why not?" he responded with alacrity. "As the fellow said, why not?"

    He unhitched his horse, gave him a drink from the brook, and then

    tethered him where he could nip the roadside grass. I opened my bag and explored the wonders of Mrs. Stanley's luncheon. I cannot describe the absolutely carefree feeling I had. Always at home, when I would have liked to stop at the roadside with a stranger, I felt the nudge of a conscience troubled with cows and corn, but here I could stop where I liked, or go on when I liked, and talk with whom I pleased, as long as I pleased.

    So we sat there, the brush-peddler and I, under the trees, and ate Mrs. Stanley's fine luncheon, drank the clear water from the brook, and talked great talk. Compared with Mr. Canfield I was a babe at wandering——and equally at talking. Was there any business he had not been in, or any place in the country he had not visited? He had sold everything from fly-paper to threshing-machines, he had picked up a large working knowledge of the weaknesses of human nature, and had arrived at the age of sixty-six with just enough available cash to pay the manufacturer for a new supply of brushes. In strict confidence, I drew certain conclusions from the colour of his nose! He had once had a family, but dropped them somewhere along the road. Most of our brisk neighbours would have put him down as a failure——an old man, and nothing laid by! But I wonder——I wonder. One thing I am coming to learn in this world, and that is to let people haggle along with their lives as I haggle along with mine.

    We both made tremendous inroads on the luncheon, and I presume we might have sat there talking all the afternoon if I had not suddenly bethought myself with a not unpleasant thrill that my resting-place for the night was still gloriously undecided.

    "Friend," I said, "I've got to be up and going. I haven't so much as a penny in my pocket, and I've got to find a place to sleep."

    The effect of this remark upon Mr. Canfield was magical. He threw up both his hands and cried out:

    "You're that way, are you?"——as though for the first time he really understood. We were at last on common ground.

    "Partner," said he, "you needn't tell nothin' about it. I've been right there myself."

    At once he began to bustle about with great enthusiasm. He was for taking complete charge of me, and I think, if I had permitted it, would instantly have made a brush-agent of me. At least he would have carried me along with him in his buggy; but when he suggested it I felt very much, I think, as some old monk must have who had taken a vow to do some particular thing in some particular way. With great difficulty I convinced him finally that my way was different from his——though he was regally impartial as to what road he took next——and, finally, with some reluctance, he started to climb into his buggy.

    A thought, however, struck him suddenly, and he stepped down again, ran around to the box at the back of his buggy, opened it with a mysterious and smiling look at me, and took out a small broom-brush with which he instantly began brushing off my coat and trousers——in the liveliest and most exuberant way. When he had finished this occupation, he quickly handed the brush to me.

    "A token of esteem," he said, "from a fellow traveller."

    I tried in vain to thank him, but he held up his hand, scrambled quickly into his buggy, and was for driving off instantly, but paused and beckoned me toward him. When I approached the buggy, he took hold of one the lapels of my coat, bent over, and said with the utmost seriousness:

    "No man ought to take the road without a brush. A good broom-brush is the world's greatest civilizer. Are you looking seedy or dusty?——why, this here brush will instantly make you a respectable citizen. Take my word for it, friend, never go into any strange house without stoppin' and brushin' off. It's money in your purse! You can get along without dinner sometimes, or even without a shirt, but without a brush ——never! There's nothin' in the world so necessary to rich AN' poor, old AN' young as a good brush!"

    And with a final burst of enthusiasm the brush-peddler drove off up the hill. I stood watching him and when he turned around I waved the brush high over my head in token of a grateful farewell.

    It was a good, serviceable, friendly brush. I carried it throughout my wanderings; and as I sit here writing in my study, at this moment, I can see it hanging on a hook at the side of my fireplace.

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