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THE FRIENDLY ROAD (chapter12)

2006-09-07 20:17

    CHAPTER XII. THE RETURN

    "Everything divine runs with light feet."

    Surely the chief delight of going away from home is the joy of getting back again. I shall never forget that spring morning when I walked from the city of Kilburn into the open country, my bag on my back, a song in my throat, and the gray road stretching straight before me. I remember how eagerly, I looked out across the fields and meadows and rested my eyes upon the distant hills. How roomy it all was! I looked up into the clear blue of the sky. There was space here to breathe, and distances in which the spirit might spread its wings. As the old prophet says, it was a place where a man might be placed alone in the midst of the earth.

    I was strangely glad that morning of every little stream that ran under the bridges, I was glad of the trees I passed, glad of every bird and squirrel in the branches, glad of the cattle grazing in the fields, glad of the jolly boys I saw on their way to school with their dinner pails, glad of the bluff, red-faced teamster I met, and of the snug farmer who waved his hand at me and wished me a friendly good morning. It seemed to me that I liked every one I saw, and that every one liked me.

    So I walked onward that morning, nor ever have had such a sense of relief and escape, nor ever such a feeling of gayety.

    "Here is where I belong," I said. "This is my own country. Those hills are mine, and all the fields, and the trees and the sky—— and the road here belongs to me as much as it does to any one."

    Coming presently to a small house near the side of the road, I saw a woman working with a trowel in her sunny garden. It was good to see her turn over the warm brown soil; it was good to see the plump green rows of lettuce and the thin green rows of onions, and the nasturtiums and sweet peas; it was good——after so many days in that desert of a city——to get a whiff of blossoming things. I stood for a moment looking quietly over the fence before the woman saw me. When at last she turned and looked up, I said:"Good morning."

    She paused, trowel in hand.

    "Good morning," she replied; "you look happy."

    I wasn't conscious that I was smiling outwardly.

    "Well, I am," I said; "I'm going home."

    "Then you OUGHT to be happy," said she.

    "And I'm glad to escape THAT," and I pointed toward the city.

    "What?"

    "Why, that old monster lying there in the valley."

    I could see that she was surprised and even a little alarmed. So I began intently to admire her young cabbages and comment on the perfection of her geraniums. But I caught her eying me from time to time as I leaned there on the fence, and I knew that she would come back sooner or later to my remark about the monster. Having shocked your friend (not too unpleasantly), abide your time, and he will want to be shocked again. So I was not at all surprised to hear her ask:

    "Have you travelled far?"

    "I should say so!" I replied. "I've been on a very long journey. I've seen many strange sights and met many wonderful people."

    "You may have been in California, then. I have a daughter in California."

    "No," said I, "I was never in California."

    "You've been a long time from home, you say?"

    "A very long time from home."

    "How long?"

    "Three weeks."

    "Three weeks! And how far did you say you had travelled?"

    "At the farthest point, I should say sixty miles from home."

    "But how can you say that in travelling only sixty miles and being gone three weeks that you have seen so many strange places and people?"

    "Why," I exclaimed, "haven't you seen anything strange around here?'"

    "Why, no——" glancing quickly around her.

    "Well, I'm strange, am I not?" "Well——"

    "And you're strange."

    She looked at me with the utmost amazement. I could scarcely keep from laughing.

    "I assure you," I said, "that if you travel a thousand miles you will find no one stranger than I am——or you are——nor anything more wonderful than all this" and I waved my hand.

    This time she looked really alarmed, glancing quickly toward the

    house, so that I began to laugh.

    "Madam," I said, "good morning!"

    So I left her standing there by the fence looking after me, and I went

    on down the road.

    "Well," I said, "she'll have something new to talk about. It may add a month to her life. Was there ever such an amusing world!"

    About noon that day I had an adventure that I have to laugh over every time I think of it. It was unusual, too, as being almost the only incident of my journey which was of itself in the least thrilling or out of the ordinary. Why, this might have made an item in the country paper!

    For the first time on my trip I saw a man that I really felt like calling a tramp——a tramp in the generally accepted sense of the term. When I left home I imagined I should meet many tramps, and perhaps learn from them odd and curious things about life; but when I actually came into contact with the shabby men of the road, I began to be puzzled. What was a tramp, anyway?

    I found them all strangely different, each with his own distinctive history, and each accounting for himself as logically as I could for myself. And save for the fact that in none of them I met were the outward graces and virtues too prominently displayed, I have come back quite uncertain as to what a scientist might call type-characteristics. I had thought of following Emerson in his delightfully optimistic definition of a weed. A weed, he says, is a plant whose virtues have not been discovered. A tramp, then, is a man whose virtues have not been discovered. Or, I might follow my old friend the Professor (who dearly loves all growing things) in his even kindlier definition of a weed. He says that it is merely a plant misplaced. The virility of this definition has often impressed me when I have tried to grub the excellent and useful horseradish plants out of my asparagus bed! Let it be then——a tramp is a misplaced man, whose virtues have not been discovered.

    Whether this is an adequate definition or not, it fitted admirably the man I overtook that morning on the road. He was certainly misplaced, and during my brief but exciting experience with him I discovered no virtues whatever.

    In one way he was quite different from the traditional tramp. He walked with far too lively a step, too jauntily, and he had with him a small, shaggy, nondescript dog, a dog as shabby as he, trotting close at his heels. He carried a light stick, which he occasionally twirled over in his hand. As I drew nearer I could hear him whistling and even, from time to time, breaking into a lively bit of song. What a devil-may-care chap he seemed, anyway! I was greatly interested.

    When at length I drew alongside he did not seem in the least surprised. He turned, glanced at me with his bold black eyes, and broke out again into the song he was singing. And these were the words of his song——at least, all I can remember of them:

    Oh, I'm so fine and gay, I'm so fine and gay, I have to take a dog along, To kape the ga-irls away.

    What droll zest he put into it! He had a red nose, a globular red nose set on his face like an overgrown strawberry, and from under the worst derby hat in the world burst his thick curly hair.

    "Oh, I'm so fine and gay," he sang, stepping to the rhythm of his song, and looking the very image of good-humoured impudence. I can't tell how amused and pleased I was——though if I had known what was to happen later I might not have been quite so friendly——yes, I would too!

    We fell into conversation, and it wasn't long before I suggested that we stop for luncheon together somewhere along the road. He cast a quick appraising eye at my bag, and assented with alacrity. We climbed a fence and found a quiet spot near a little brook. was much astonished to observe the resources of my jovial companion. Although he carried neither bag nor pack and appeared to have nothing whatever in his pockets, he proceeded, like a professional prestidigitator, to produce from his shabby clothing an extraordinary number of curious things——a black tin can with a wire handle, a small box of matches, a soiled package which I soon learned contained tea, a miraculously big dry sausage wrapped in an old newspaper, and a clasp-knife. I watched him with breathless interest.

    He cut a couple of crotched sticks to hang the pail on and in two or three minutes had a little fire, no larger than a man's hand, burning brightly under it. ("Big fires," said he wisely, "are not for us.") This he fed with dry twigs, and in a very few minutes he had a pot of tea from which he offered me the first drink. This, with my luncheon and part of his sausage, made up a very good meal.

    While we were eating, the little dog sat sedately by the fire. From time to time his master would say, "Speak, Jimmy."

    Jimmy would sit up on his haunches, his two front paws hanging limp, turn his head to one side in the drollest way imaginable and give a yelp. His master would toss him a bit of sausage or bread and he would catch it with a snap.

    "Fine dog!" commented my companion.

    "So he seems," said I.

    After the meal was over my companion proceeded to produce other surprises from his pockets——a bag of tobacco, a brier pipe (which he kindly offered to me and which I kindly refused), and a soiled packet of cigarette papers. Having rolled a cigarette with practised facility, he leaned up against a tree, took off his hat, lighted the cigarette and, having taken a long draw at it, blew the smoke before him with an incredible air of satisfaction.

    "Solid comfort this here——hey!" he exclaimed.

    We had some further talk, but for so jovial a specimen he was surprisingly uncommunicative. Indeed, I think he soon decided that I somehow did not belong to the fraternity, that I was a "farmer"——in the most opprobrious sense——and he soon began to drowse, rousing himself once or twice to roll another cigarette, but finally dropping (apparently, at least) fast asleep.

    I was glad enough of the rest and quiet after the strenuous experience of the last , two days——and I, too, soon began to drowse. It didn't seem to me then that I lost consciousness at all, but I suppose I must have done so, for when I suddenly opened my eyes and sat up my companion had vanished. How he succeeded in gathering up his pail and packages so noiselessly and getting away so quickly is a mystery to me.

    "Well," I said, "that's odd."

    Rousing myself deliberately I put on my hat and was about to take up my bag when I suddenly discovered that it was open. My rain-cape was missing! It wasn't a very good rain-cape, but it was missing.

    At first I was inclined to be angry, but when I thought of my jovial companion and the cunning way in which he had tricked me, I couldn't help laughing. At the same time I jumped up quickly and ran down the road.

    "I may get him yet," I said.

    Just as I stepped out of the woods I caught a glimpse of a man some hundreds of yards away, turning quickly from the main road into a lane or by-path. I wasn't altogether sure that he was my man, but I ran across the road and climbed the fence. I had formed the plan instantly of cutting across the field and so striking the by-road farther up the hill. I had a curious sense of amused exultation, the very spirit of the chase, and my mind dwelt with the liveliest excitement on what I should say or do if I really caught that jolly spark of impudence

    So I came by way of a thicket along an old stone fence to the by-road, and there, sure enough, only a little way ahead of me, was my man with the shaggy little dog close at his heels. He was making pretty good time, but I skirted swiftly along the edge of the road until I had nearly overtaken him. Then I slowed down to a walk and stepped out into the middle of the road. I confess my heart was pounding at a lively rate. The next time he looked behind him——guiltily enough, too!——I said in the calmest voice I could command:

    "Well, brother, you almost left me behind."

    He stopped and I stepped up to him.

    I wish I could describe the look in his face——mingled astonishment,

    fear, and defiance.

    "My friend," I said, "I'm disappointed in you."

    He made no reply.

    "Yes, I'm disappointed. You did such a very poor job."

    "Poor job!" he exclaimed.

    "Yes," I said, and I slipped my bag off my shoulder and began to

    rummage inside. My companion watched me silently and suspiciously.

    "You should not have left the rubbers."

    With that I handed him my old rubbers. A peculiar expression came

    into the man's face.

    "Say, pardner, what you drivin' at?"

    "Well," I said, "I don't like to see such evidences of haste and inefficiency."

    He stood staring at me helplessly, holding my old rubbers at arm's length.

    "Come on now," I said, "that's over. We'll walk along together."

    I was about to take his arm, but quick as a flash he dodged, cast both

    rubbers and rain-cape away from him, and ran down the road for all he was worth, the little dog, looking exactly like a rolling ball of fur, pelting after him. He never once glanced back, but ran for his life. I stood there and laughed until the tears came, and ever since then, at the thought of the expression on the jolly rover's face when I gave him my rubbers, I've had to smile. I put the rain-cape and rubbers back into my bag and turned again to the road.

    Before the afternoon was nearly spent I found myself very tired, for my two days' experience in the city had been more exhausting for me, I think, than a whole month of hard labour on my farm. I found haven with a friendly farmer, whom I joined while he was driving his cows in from the pasture. I helped him with his milking both that night and the next morning, and found his situation and family most interesting——but I shall not here enlarge upon that experience.

    It was late afternoon when I finally surmounted the hill from which I knew well enough I could catch the first glimpse of my farm. For a moment after I reached the top I could not raise my eyes, and when finally I was able to raise them I could not see.

    "There is a spot in Arcady——a spot in Arcady——a spot in Arcady——" So runs the old song.

    There IS a spot in Arcady, and at the centre of it there is a weatherworn old house, and not far away a perfect oak tree, and green fields all about, and a pleasant stream fringed with alders in the little valley. And out of the chimney into the sweet, still evening air rises the slow white smoke of the supper-fire.

    I turned from the main road, and climbed the fence and walked across my upper field to the old wood lane. The air was heavy and sweet with clover blossoms, and along the fences I could see that the raspberry bushes were ripening their fruit.

    So I came down the lane and heard the comfortable grunting of pigs in the pasture lot and saw the calves licking one another as they stood at the gate.

    "How they've grown!" I said.

    I stopped at the corner of the barn for a moment. From within I heard the rattling of milk in a pail (a fine sound), and heard a man's voice saying:

    "Whoa, there! Stiddy now!"

    "Dick's milking," I said.

    So I stepped in at the doorway.

    "Lord, Mr. Grayson!" exclaimed Dick, rising instantly and clasping my hand like a long-lost brother.

    "I'm glad to see you!"

    "I'm glad to see YOU!"

    The warm smell of the new milk, the pleasant sound of animals

    stepping about in the stable, the old mare reaching her long head over the stanchion to welcome me, and nipping at my fingers when I rubbed her nose-

    And there was the old house with the late sun upon it, the vines hanging green over the porch, Harriet's trim flower bed——I crept along quietly. to the corner. The kitchen door stood open.

    "Well, Harriet!" I said, stepping inside.

    "Mercy! David!"

    I have rarely known Harriet to be in quite such a reckless mood. She kept thinking of a new kind of sauce or jam for supper (I think there were seven, or were there twelve? on the table before I got through)。 And there was a new rhubarb pie such as only Harriet can make, just brown enough on top, and not too brown, with just the right sort of hills and hummocks in the crust, and here and there little sugary bubbles where a suggestion of the goodness came through——such a pie——! and such an appetite to go with it!

    "Harriet," I said, "you're spoiling me. Haven't you heard how dangerous it is to set such a supper as this before a man who is perishing with hunger? Have you no mercy for me?"

    This remark produced the most extraordinary effect. Harriet was at that moment standing in the corner near the pump. Her shoulders suddenly began to shake convulsively.

    "She's so glad I'm home that she can't help laughing," I thought, which shows how penetrating I really am.

    She was crying.

    "Why, Harriet!" I exclaimed.

    "Hungry!" she burst out, "and j-joking about it!"

    I couldn't say a single word; something——it must have been a piece of the rhubarb pie——stuck in my throat. So I sat there and watched her moving quietly about in that immaculate kitchen. After a time I walked over to where she stood by the table and put my arm around her quickly. She half turned her head, in her quick, businesslike way. I noted how firm and clean and sweet her face was.

    "Harriet," I said, "you grow younger every year." No response.

    "Harriet," I said, "I haven't seen a single person anywhere on my journey that I like as much as I do you."

    The quick blood came up.

    "There——there——David!" she said.

    So I stepped away.

    "And as for rhubarb pie, Harriet——"

    When I first came to my farm years ago there were mornings when I

    woke up with the strong impression that I had just been hearing the most exquisite sounds of music. I don't know whether this is at all a common experience, but in those days (and farther back in my early boyhood) I had it frequently. It did not seem exactly like music either, but was rather a sense of harmony, so wonderful, so pervasive that it cannot be described. I have not had it so often in recent years, but on the morning after I reached home it came to me as I awakened with a strange depth and sweetness. I lay for a moment there in my clean bed. The morning sun was up and coming in cheerfully through the vines at the window; a gentle breeze stirred the clean white curtains, and I could smell even there the odours of the garden.

    I wish I had room to tell, but I cannot, of all the crowded experiences of that day——, the renewal of acquaintance with the fields, the cattle, the fowls, the bees, of my long talks with Harriet and Dick Sheridan, who had cared for my work while I was away; of the wonderful visit of the Scotch Preacher, of Horace's shrewd and whimsical comments upon the general absurdity of the head of the Grayson family——oh, of a thousand things——and how when I went into my study and took up the nearest book in my favourite case——it chanced to be "The Bible in Spain"——it opened of itself at one of my favourite sages, the one beginning:

    "Mistos amande, I am content——"

    So it's all over! It has been a great experience; and it seems to me now that I have a firmer grip on life, and a firmer trust in that Power which orders the ages. In a book I read not long ago, called "A Modern Utopia," the writer provides in his imaginary perfect state of society a class of leaders known as Samurai. And, from time to time, it is the custom of these Samurai to cut themselves loose from the crowding world of men, and with packs on their backs go away alone to far places in the deserts or on Arctic ice caps. I am convinced that every man needs some such change as this, an opportunity to think things out, to get a new grip on life, and a new hold on God. But not for me the Arctic ice cap or the desert! I choose ——and all the mon people who travel in it or live along it——I choose even the busy city at the end of it.

    I assure you, friend, that it is a wonderful thing for a man to cast himself freely for a time upon the world, not knowing where his next meal is coming from, nor where he is going to sleep for the night. It is a surprising readjuster of values. I paid my way, I think, throughout my pilgrimage; but I discovered that stamped metal is far from being the world's only true coin. As a matter of fact, there are many things that men prize more highly——because they are rarer and more precious.

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