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THE FRIENDLY ROAD (chapter6)

2006-09-07 20:17

    CHAPTER VI. AN EXPERIMENTIN HUMAN NATURE

    In the early morning after I left the husky road-mender (wearing his new spectacles), I remained steadfastly on the Great Road or near it. It was a prime spring day, just a little hazy, as though promising rain, but soft and warm.

    "They will be working in the garden at home," I thought, "and there will be worlds of rhubarb and asparagus." Then I remembered how the morning sunshine would look on the little vine-clad back porch (reaching halfway up the weathered door) of my own house among the hills.

    It was the first time since my pilgrimage began that I had thought with any emotion of my farm——or of Harriet.

    And then the road claimed me again, and I began to look out for some further explanation of the curious sign, the single word "Rest," which had interested me so keenly on the preceding day. It may seem absurd to some who read these lines——some practical people!——but I cannot convey the pleasure I had in the very elusiveness and mystery of the sign, nor how I wished I might at the next turn come upon the poet himself. I decided that no one but a poet could have contented himself with a lyric in one word, unless it might have been a humourist, to whom sometimes a single small word. is more blessed than all the verbal riches of Webster himself. For it is nothing short of genius that uses one word when twenty will say the same thing!

    Or, would he, after all, turn out to be only a more than ordinarily alluring advertiser? I confess my heart went into my throat that morning, when I first saw the sign, lest it read:

    [ RESTaurant  miles east ]

    nor should I have been surprised if it had.

    I caught a vicarious glimpse of the sign-man to-day, through the eyes of a young farmer. Yes, he s'posed he'd seen him, he said; wore a slouch hat, couldn't tell whether he was young or old. Drove into the bushes (just down there beyond the brook) and, standin' on the seat of his buggy, nailed something to a tree. A day or two later——the dull wonder of mankind!——the young farmer, passing that way to town, had seen the odd sign "Rest" on the tree: he s'posed the fellow put it there.

    "What does it mean?"

    "Well, naow, I hadn't thought," said the young farmer.

    "Did the fellow by any chance have long hair?"

    "Well, naow, I didn't notice," said he.

    "Are you sure he wore a slouch hat?"

    "Ye-es——or it may a-been straw," replied the observant young farmer.

    So I tramped that morning; and as I tramped I let my mind go out warmly to the people living all about on the farms or in the hills. It is pleasant at times to feel life, as it were, in general terms: no specific Mr. Smith or concrete Mr. Jones, but just human life. I love to think of people all around going out busily in the morning to their work and returning at night, weary, to rest. I like to think of them growing up, growing old, loving, achieving, sinning, failing——in short, living.

    In such a live-minded mood as this it often happens that the most ordinary things appear charged with new significance. I suppose I had seen a thousand rural-mail boxes along country roads before that day, but I had seen them as the young farmer saw the sign-man. They were mere inert objects of iron and wood.

    But as I tramped, thinking of the people in the hills, I came quite unexpectedly upon a sandy by-road that came out through a thicket of scrub oaks and hazel-brush, like some shy countryman, to join the turnpike. As I stood looking into it——for it seemed peculiarly inviting——I saw at the entrance a familiar group of rural-mail boxes. And I saw them not as dead things, but for the moment——the illusion was over-powering——they were living, eager hands outstretched to the passing throng I could feel, hear, see the farmers up there in the hills reaching out to me, to all the world, for a thousand inexpressible things, for more life, more companionship, more comforts, more money. It occurred to me at that moment, whimsically and yet somehow seriously, that I might respond to the appeal of the shy country road and the outstretched hands. At first I did not think of anything I could do——save to go up and eat dinner with one of the hill farmers, which might not be an unmixed blessing!——and then it came to me.

    "I will write a letter!"

    Straightway and with the liveliest amusement I began to formulate in my mind what I should say:

    Dear Friend: You do not know me. I am a passerby in the road. My name is David Grayson. You do not know me, and it may seem odd to you to receive a letter from an entire stranger. But I am something of a farmer myself, and as I went by I could not help thinking of you and your family and your farm. The fact is, I should like to look you up, and talk with you about many things. I myself cultivate a number of curious fields, and raise many kinds of crops-

    At this interesting point my inspiration suddenly collapsed, for I had a vision, at once amusing and disconcerting, of my hill farmer (and his practical wife!) receiving such a letter (along with the country paper, a circular advertising a cure for catarrh, and the most recent catalogue of the largest mail-order house in creation)。 I could see them standing there in their doorway, the man with his coat off, doubtfully scratching his head as he read my letter, the woman wiping her hands on her apron and looking over his shoulder, and a youngster squeezing between the two and demanding, "What is it, Paw?"

    I found myself wondering how they would receive such an unusual letter, what they would take it to mean. And in spite of all I could do, I could imagine no expression on their faces save one of incredulity and suspicion. I could fairly see the shrewd worldly wise look come into the farmer's face; I could hear him say:

    "Ha, guess he thinks we ain't cut our eye-teeth!" And he would instantly begin speculating as to whether this was a new scheme for selling him second-rate nursery stock, or the smooth introduction of another sewing-machine agent. Strange world, strange world! Sometimes it seems to me that the hardest thing of all to believe in is simple friendship. Is it not a comment upon our civilization that it is so often easier to believe that a man is a friend-for-profit, or even a cheat, than that he is frankly a well-wisher of his neighbours?

    These reflections put such a damper upon my enthusiasm that I was on the point of taking again to the road, when it came to me powerfully: Why not try the experiment? Why not?

    "Friendship," I said aloud, "is the greatest thing in the world. There is no door it will not unlock, no problem it will not solve. It is, after all, the only real thing in this world."

    The sound of my own voice brought me suddenly to myself, and I found that I was standing there in the middle of the public road, one clenched fist absurdly raised in air, delivering an oration to a congregation of rural-mail boxes!

    And yet, in spite of the humorous aspects of the idea, it still appeared to me that such an experiment would not only fit in with the true object of my journeying, but that it might be full of amusing and interesting adventures. Straightway I got my notebook out of my bag and, sitting down near the roadside, wrote my letter. I wrote it as though my life depended upon it, with the intent of making some one household there in the hills feel at least a little wave of warmth and sympathy from the great world that was passing in the road below. I tried to prove the validity of a kindly thought with no selling device attached to it; I tried to make it such a word of frank companionship as I myself, working in my own fields, would like to receive.

    Among the letter-boxes in the group, was one that stood a little detached and behind the others, as though shrinking from such prosperous company. It was made of unpainted wood, with leather hinges, and looked shabby in comparison with the jaunty red, green, and gray paint of some of the other boxes (with their cocky little metallic flags upraised)。 It bore the good American name of Clark——T. N. Clark——and it seemed to me that I could tell something of the Clarks by the box at the crossing. "I think they need a friendly word," I said to myself.

    So I wrote the name T. N. Clark on my envelope and put the letter in his box.

    It was with a sense of joyous adventure that I now turned aside into the sandy road and climbed the hill. My mind busied itself with thinking how I should carry out my experiment, how I should approach these Clarks, and how and what they were. A thousand ways I pictured to myself the receipt of the letter: it would at least be something new for them, something just a little disturbing, and I was curious to see whether it might open the rift of wonder wide enough to let me slip into their lives.

    I have often wondered why it is that men should be so fearful of new ventures in social relationships, when I have found them so fertile, so enjoyable. Most of us fear (actually fear) people who differ from ourselves, either up or down the scale. Your Edison pries fearlessly into the intimate secrets of matter; your Marconi employs the mysterious properties of the "jellied ether," but let a man seek to experiment with the laws of that singular electricity which connects you and me (though you be a millionaire and I a ditch-digger), and we think him a wild visionary, an academic person. I think sometimes that the science of humanity to-day is in about the state of darkness that the natural sciences were when Linneus and Cuvier and Lamarck began groping for the great laws of natural unity. Most of the human race is still groaning under the belief that each of us is a special and unrelated creation, just as men for ages saw no relationships between the fowls of the air, the beasts of the field, and the fish of the sea. But, thank God, we are beginning to learn that unity is as much a law of life as selfish struggle, and love a more vital force than avarice or lust of power or place. A Wandering Carpenter knew it, and taught it, twenty centuries ago.

    "The next house beyond the ridge," said the toothless old woman, pointing with a long finger, "is the Clarks'. You can't miss it," and I thought she looked at me oddly.

    I had been walking briskly for some three miles, and it was with keen expectation that I now mounted the ridge and saw the farm for which I was looking, lying there in the valley before me. It was altogether a wild and beautiful bit of country——stunted cedars on the knolls of the rolling hills, a brook trailing its way among alders and willows down a long valley, and shaggy old fields smiling in the sun. As I came nearer I could see that the only disharmony in the valley was the work (or idleness) of men. A broken mowing-machine stood in the field where it had been left the summer before, rusty and forlorn, and dead weeds marked the edges of a field wherein the spring ploughing was now only half done. The whole farmstead, indeed, looked tired. As for the house and barn, they had reached that final stage of decay in which the best thing that could be said of them was that they were picturesque. Everything was as different from the farm of the energetic and joyous Stanleys, whose work I had shared only a few days before, as anything that could be imagined.

    Now, my usual way of getting into step with people is simplicity itself. I take off my coat and go to work with them and the first thing I know we have become first-rate friends. One doesn't dream of the possibilities of companionship in labour until he has tried it.

    But how shall one get into step with a man who is not stepping?

    On the porch of the farmhouse, there in the mid-afternoon, a man sat idly; and children were at play in the yard. I went in at the gate, not knowing in the least what I should say or do, but determined to get hold of the problem somewhere. As I approached the step, I swung my bag from my shoulder.

    "Don't want to buy nothin'," said the man.

    "Well," said I, "that is fortunate, for I have nothing to sell. But you've got something I want."

    He looked at me dully.

    "What's that?"

    "A drink of water."

    Scarcely moving his head, he called to a shy older girl who had just

    appeared in the doorway.

    "Mandy, bring a dipper of water."

    As I stood there the children gathered curiously around me, and the man continued to sit in his chair, saying absolutely nothing, a picture of

    dull discouragement.

    "How they need something to stir them up," I thought.

    When I had emptied the dipper, I sat down on the top step of the porch,

    and, without saying a word to the man, placed my bag beside me and began to open it. The shy girl paused, dipper in hand, the children stood on tiptoe, and even the man showed signs of curiosity. With studied deliberation I took out two books I had with me and put them on the porch; then I proceeded to rummage for a long time in the bottom of the bag as though I could not find what I wanted. Every eye was glued upon me, and I even heard the step of Mrs. Clark as she came to the but I did not look up or speak. Finally I pulled out my tin whistle and, leaning back against the porch column, placed it to my lips, and began playing in Tom Madison's best style (eyes half closed, one toe tapping to the music, head nodding, fingers lifted high from the stops), I began playing "Money Musk," and "Old Dan Tucker." Oh, I put vim into it, I can tell you! And bad as my playing was, I had from the start an absorption of attention from my audience that Paderewski himself might have envied. I wound up with a lively trill in the high notes and took my whistle from my lips with a hearty laugh, for the whole thing had been downright good fun, the playing itself, the make-believe which went with it, the surprise and interest in the children's faces, the slow-breaking smile of the little girl with the dipper.

    "I'll warrant you, madam," I said to the woman who now stood frankly in the doorway with her hands wrapped in her apron, "you haven't heard those tunes since you were a girl and danced to 'em."

    "You're right," she responded heartily.

    "I'll give you another jolly one,".I said, and, replacing my. whistle, I began with even greater zest to play "Yankee Doodle."

    When I had gone through it half a dozen times with such added variations and trills as I could command, and had two of the children hopping about in the yard, and the forlorn man tapping his toe to the tune, and a smile on the face of the forlorn woman, I wound up with a rush and then, as if I could hold myself in no longer (and I couldn't either!), I suddenly burst out:

    Yankee doodle dandy! Yankee doodle dandy! Mind the music and the step, And with the girls be handy.

    It may seem surprising, but I think I can understand why it was-when I looked up at the woman in the doorway there were tears in her eyes!

    "Do you know 'John Brown's Body'?" eagerly inquired the little girl with the dipper, and then, as if she had done something quite bold and improper, she blushed and edged toward the doorway.

    "How does it go?" I asked, and one of the bold lads in the yard instantly puckered his lips to show me, and immediately they were all trying it.

    "Here goes," said I, and for the next few minutes, and in my very best style, I hung Jeff Davis on the sour apple-tree, and I sent the soul of John Brown marching onward with an altogether unnecessary number of hallelujahs.

    I think sometimes that people——whole families of 'em——literally perish for want of a good, hearty, whole-souled, mouth-opening, throat-stretching, side-aching laugh. They begin to think themselves the abused of creation, they begin to advise with their livers and to hate their neighbours, and the whole world becomes a miserable dark blue place quite unfit for human habitation. Well, all this is often only the result of a neglect to exercise properly those muscles of the body (and of the soul) which have to do with honest laughter.

    I've never supposed I was an especially amusing person, but before I got through with it I had the Clark family well loosened up with laughter, although I wasn't quite sure some of the time whether Mrs. Clark was laughing or crying. I had them all laughing and talking, asking questions and answering them as though I were an old and valued neighbour.

    Isn't it odd how unconvinced we often are by the crises in the lives of other people? They seem to us trivial or unimportant; but the fact is, the crises in the life of a boy, for example, or of a poor man, are as commanding as the crises in the life of the greatest statesman or millionaire, for they involve equally the whole personality, the entire prospects.

    The Clark family, I soon learned, had lost its pig. A trivial matter, you say? I wonder if anything is ever trivial. A year of poor crops, sickness, low prices, discouragement and, at the end of it, on top of it all, the cherished pig had died!

    From all accounts (and the man on the porch quite lost his apathy in telling me about it) it must have been a pig of remarkable virtues and attainments, a paragon of pigs—— in whom had been bound up the many possibilities of new shoes for the children, a hat for the lady, a new pair of overalls for the gentleman, and I know not what other kindred luxuries. I do not think, indeed, I ever had the portrait of a pig drawn for me with quite such ardent enthusiasm of detail, and the more questions I asked the more eager the story, until finally it became necessary for me to go to the barn, the cattle-pen, the pig-pen and the chicken-house, that I might visualize more clearly the scene of the tragedy. The whole family trooped after us like a classic chorus, but Mr. Clark himself kept the centre of the stage.

    How plainly I could read upon the face of the land the story of this hill farmer and his meagre existence——his ill-directed effort to wring a poor living for his family from these upland fields, his poverty, and, above all, his evident lack of knowledge of his own calling. Added to these things, and perhaps the most depressing of all his difficulties, was the utter loneliness of the task, the feeling that it mattered little to any one whether the Clark family worked or not, or indeed whether they lived or died. A perfectly good American family was here being wasted, with the precious land they lived on, because no one had taken the trouble. to make them feel that they were a part of this Great American Job.

    As we went back to the house, a freckled-nosed neighbour's boy came in at the gate.

    "A letter for you, Mr. Clark," said he. "I brought it up with our mail."

    "A letter!" exclaimed Mrs. Clark. "A letter!" echoed at least three of the children in unison.

    "Probably a dun from Brewster," said Mr. Clark discouragingly.

    I felt a curious sensation about the heart, and an eagerness of interest I

    have rarely experienced. I had no idea what a mere letter——a mere

    unopened unread letter——would mean to a family like this.

    "It has no stamp on it!" exclaimed the older girl.

    Mrs. Clark turned it over wonderingly in her hands. Mr. Clark hastily

    put on a pair of steel-bowed spectacles.

    "Let me see it," he said, and when he also had inspected it minutely he solemnly tore open the envelope and drew forth my letter.

    'I assure you I never awaited the reading of any writing of mine with such breathless interest. How would they take it? Would they catch the meaning that I meant to convey? And would they suspect me of having written it?

    Mr. Clark sat on the porch and read the letter slowly through to the end, turned the sheet over and examined it carefully, and then began reading it again to himself, Mrs. Clark leaning over his shoulder.

    "What does it mean?" asked Mr. Clark.

    "It's too good to be true," said Mrs. Clark with a sigh.

    I don't know how long the discussion might have continued——probably

    for days or weeks——had not the older girl, now flushed of face and rather

    pretty, looked at me and said breathlessly (she was as sharp as a briar):

    "You wrote it."

    I stood the battery of all their eyes for a moment, smiling and rather

    excited.

    "Yes," I said earnestly, "I wrote it, and I mean every word of it."

    I had anticipated some shock of suspicion and inquiry, but to my

    surprise it was accepted as simply as a neighbourly good morning. I suppose the mystery of it was eclipsed by my astonishing presence there upon the scene with my tin whistle.

    At any rate, it was a changed, eager, interested family which now occupied the porch of that dilapidated farmhouse. And immediately we fell into a lively discussion of crops and farming, and indeed the whole farm question, in which I found both the man and his wife singularly acute——sharpened upon the stone of hard experience.

    Indeed, I found right here, as I have many times found among our American farmers, an intelligence (a literacy growing out of what I believe to be improper education) which was better able to discuss the problems of rural life than to grapple with and solve them. A dull, illiterate Polish farmer, I have found, will sometimes succeed much better at the job of life than his American neighbour.

    Talk with almost any man for half an hour, and you will find that his conversation, like an old-fashioned song, has a regularly recurrent chorus. I soon discovered Mr. Clark's chorus.

    "Now, if only I had a little cash," he sang, or, "If I had a few dollars, I could do so and so."

    Why, he was as helplessly, dependent upon money as any soft-handed millionairess. He considered himself poor and helpless because he lacked dollars, whereas people are really poor and helpless only when they lack courage and faith.

    We were so much absorbed in our talk that I was greatly surprised to hear Mrs. Clark's voice at the doorway.

    "Won't you come in to supper?"

    After we had eaten, there was a great demand for more of my tin whistle (oh, I know how Caruso must feel!), and I played over every blessed tune I knew, and some I didn't, four or five times, and after that we told stories and cracked jokes in a way that must have been utterly astonishing in that household. After the children had been, yes, driven to bed, Mr. Clark seemed about to drop back into his lamentations over his condition (which I have no doubt had come to give him a sort of pleasure), but I turned to Mrs. Clark, whom I had come to respect very highly, and began to talk about the little garden she had started, which was about the most enterprising thing about the place.

    "Isn't it one of the finest things in this world," said I, "to go out into a good garden in the summer days and bring in loaded baskets filled with beets and cabbages and potatoes, just for the gathering?" I knew from the expression on Mrs. Clark's face that I had touched a sounding note.

    "Opening the green corn a little at the top to see if it is ready and then stripping it off and tearing away the moist white husks——"

    "And picking tomatoes?" said Mrs. Clark. "And knuckling the watermelons to see if they are ripe? Oh, I tell you there are thousands of people in this country who'd like to be able to pick their dinner in the garden!"

    "It's fine!" said Mrs. Clark with amused enthusiasm, "but I like best to hear the hens cackling in the barnyard in the morning after they've laid, and to go and bring in the eggs."

    "Just like a daily present!" I said.

    "Ye-es," responded the soundly practical Mrs. Clark, thinking, no doubt, that there were other aspects of the garden and chicken problem.

    "I'll tell you another thing I like about a farmer's life," said I, "that's the smell in the house in the summer when there are preserves, or sweet pickles, or jam, or whatever it is, simmering on the stove. No matter where you are, up in the garret or down cellar, it's cinnamon, and allspice, and cloves, and every sort of sugary odour. Now, that gets me where I live!"

    "It IS good!" said Mrs. Clark with a laugh that could certainly be called nothing if not girlish.

    All this time I had been keeping one eye on Mr. Clark. It was amusing to see him struggling against a cheerful view of life. He now broke into the conversation.

    "Well, but——" he began.

    Instantly I headed him off.

    "And think," said I, "of living a life in which you are beholden to no man. It's a free life, the farmer's life. No one can discharge you because you are sick, or tired, or old, or because you are a Democrat or a Baptist!"

    "Well, but——"

    "And think of having to pay no rent, nor of having to live upstairs in a tenement!"

    "Well, but——" "Or getting run over by a street-car, or having the children play in the gutters."

    "I never did like to think of what my children would do if we went to

    town," said Mrs. Clark.

    "I guess not!" I exclaimed.

    The fact is, most people don't think half enough of themselves and of

    their jobs; but before we went to bed that night I had the forlorn T. N. Clark talking about the virtues of his farm in quite a surprising way.

    I even saw him eying me two or three times with a shrewd look in his eyes (your American is an irrepressible trader) as though I might possibly be some would-be purchaser in disguise.

    (I shall write some time a dissertation on the advantages, of wearing shabby clothing.)

    The farm really had many good points. One of them was a shaggy old orchard of good and thriving but utterly neglected apple-trees.

    "Man alive," I said, when we went out to see it in the morning, "you've got a gold mine here!" And I told him how in our neighbourhood we were renovating the old orchards, pruning them back, spraying, and bringing them into bearing again.

    He had never, since he owned the place, had a salable crop of fruit. When we came in to breakfast I quite stirred the practical Mrs. Clark with my enthusiasm, and she promised at once to send for a bulletin on apple-tree renovation, published by the state experiment station. I am sure I was no more earnest in my advice than the conditions warranted.

    After breakfast we went into the field, and I suggested that instead of ploughing any more land——for the season was already late——we get out all the accumulations of rotted manure from around the barn and strew it on the land already ploughed and harrow it in.

    "A good job on a little piece of land," I said, "is far more profitable than a poor job on a big piece of land."

    Without more ado we got his old team hitched up and began loading, and hauling out the manure, and spent all day long at it. Indeed, such was the height of enthusiasm which T. N. Clark now reached (for his was a temperament that must either soar in the clouds or grovel in the mire), that he did not wish to stop when Mrs. Clark called us in to supper. In that one day his crop of corn, in perspective, overflowed his crib, he could not find boxes and barrels for his apples, his shed would not hold all his tobacco, and his barn was already being enlarged to accommodate a couple more cows! He was also keeping bees and growing ginseng.

    But it was fine, that evening, to see Mrs. Clark's face, the renewed hope and courage in it. I thought as I looked at her (for she was the strong and steady one in that house):

    "If you can keep the enthusiasm up, if you can make that husband of yours grow corn, and cows, and apples as you raise chickens and make garden, there is victory yet in this valley."

    That night it rained, but in spite of the moist earth we spent almost all of the following day hard at work in the field, and all the time talking over ways and means for the future, but the next morning, early, I swung my bag on my back and left them.

    I shall not attempt to describe the friendliness of our parting. Mrs. Clark followed me wistfully to the gate.

    "I can't tell you——" she began, with the tears starting in her eyes.

    "Then don't try——" said I, smiling.

    And so I swung off down the country road, without looking back.

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