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THE FRIENDLY ROAD (chapter5)

2006-09-07 20:17

    CHAPTER V. I PLAY THE PARTOF A SPECTACLE PEDDLER

    Yesterday was exactly the sort of a day I love best——a spicy, unexpected, amusing day——crowned with a droll adventure.

    I cannot account for it, but it seems to me I take the road each morning with a livelier mind and keener curiosity. If you were to watch me narrowly these days you would see I am slowly shedding my years. I suspect that some one of the clear hill streams from which I have been drinking (lying prone on my face) was in reality the fountain of eternal youth. I shall not go back to see.

    It seems to me, when I feel like this, that in every least thing upon the roadside, or upon the hill, lurks the stuff of adventure. What a world it is! A mile south of here I shall find all that Stanley found in the jungles of Africa; a mile north I am Peary at the Pole!

    You there, brown-clad farmer on the tall seat of your wagon, driving townward with a red heifer for sale, I can show you that life ——your life——is not all a gray smudge, as you think it is, but crammed, packed, loaded with miraculous things. I can show you wonders past belief in your own soul. I can easily convince you that you are in reality a poet, a hero, a true lover, a saint.

    It is because we are not humble enough in the presence of the divine daily fact that adventure knocks so rarely at our door. A thousand times I have had to learn this truth (what lesson so hard to learn as the lesson o humility!) and I suppose I shall have to learn it a thousand times more. This very day, straining my eyes to see the distant wonders of the mountains, I nearly missed a miracle by the roadside.

    Soon after leaving the minister and his family——I worked with them in their garden with great delight most of the forenoon——I came, within a mile——to the wide white turnpike——the Great Road.

    Now, I usually prefer the little roads, the little, unexpected, curving, leisurely country roads. The sharp hills, the pleasant deep valleys, the bridges not too well kept, the verdure deep grown along old fences, the houses opening hospitably at the very roadside, all these things I love. They come to me with the same sort of charm and flavour, only vastly magnified, which I find often in the essays of the older writers——those leisurely old fellows who took time to write, REALLY write. The important thing to me about a road, as about life——and literature, is not that it goes anywhere, but that it is livable while it goes. For if I were to arrive-and who knows that I ever shall arrive?——I think I should be no happier than I am here.

    Thus I have commonly avoided the Great White Road——the broad, smooth turnpike——rock-bottomed and rolled by a State——without so much as a loitering curve to whet one's curiosity, nor a thank- you-ma'am to laugh over, nor a sinful hill to test your endurance——not so much as a dreamy valley! It pursues its hard, unshaded, practical way directly from some particular place to some other particular place and from time to time a motor-car shoots in at one end of it and out at the other, leaving its dust to settle upon quiet travellers like me.

    Thus to-day when I came to the turnpike I was at first for making straight across it and taking to the hills beyond, but at that very moment a motor-car whirled past me as I stood there and a girl with a merry face waved her hand at me. I lifted my hat in return,——and as I watched them out of sight I felt a curious new sense of warmth and friendliness——there in the Great Road.

    "These are just people, too," I said aloud ——"and maybe they really like it!"

    And with that I began laughing at myself, and at the whole, big, amazing, interesting world. Here was I pitying them for their benighted state, and there were they, no doubt, pitying me for mine!

    And with that pleasant and satisfactory thought in my mind and a song in my throat I swung into the Great Road.

    "It doesn't matter in the least," said I to myself, "whether a man takes hold of life by the great road or the little ones so long as he takes hold." And oh, it was a wonderful day! A day with movement in it; a day that flowed! In every field the farmers were at work, the cattle fed widely in the meadows, and the Great Road itself was alive with a hundred varied sorts of activity. Light winds stirred the tree-tops and rippled in the new grass; and from the thickets I heard the blackbirds crying. Everything animate and inanimate, that morning, seemed to have its own clear voice and to cry out at me for my interest, or curiosity, or sympathy. Under such circumstances it could not have been long——nor was it long——before I came plump upon the first of a series of odd adventures.

    A great many people, I know, abominate the roadside sign. It seems to them a desecration of nature, the intrusion of rude commercialism upon the perfection of natural beauty. But not I. I have no such feeling. Oh, the signs in themselves are often rude and unbeautiful, and I never wished my own barn or fences to sing the praises of swamp root or sarsaparilla——and yet there is something wonderfully human about these painted and pasted vociferations of the roadside signs; and I don't know why they are less "natural" in their way than a house or barn or a planted field of corn. They also tell us about life. How eagerly they cry out at us, "Buy me, buy me!" What enthusiasm they have in their own concerns, what boundless faith in themselves! How they speak of the enormous energy, activity, resourcefulness of human kind!

    Indeed, I like all kinds of signs. The autocratic warnings of the road, the musts and the must-nots of traffic, I observe in passing; and I often stand long at the crossings and look up at the finger-posts, and consider my limitless wealth as a traveller. By this road I may, at my own pleasure, reach the Great City; by that——who knows?——the far wonders of Cathay. And I respond always to the appeal which the devoted pilgrim paints on the rocks at the roadside: "Repent ye, for the kingdom of God is at hand," and though I am certain that the kingdom of God is already here, I stop always and repent——just a little——knowing that there is always room for it. At the entrance of the little towns, also, or in the squares of the villages, I stop often to read the signs of taxes assessed, or of political meetings; I see the evidences of homes broken up in the notices of auction sales, and of families bereaved in the dry and formal publications of the probate court. I pause, too, before the signs of amusements flaming red and yellow on the barns (boys, the circus is coming to town!), and I pause also, but no longer, to read the silent signs carved in stone in the little cemeteries as I pass. Symbols, you say? Why, they're the very stuff of life. If you cannot see life here in the wide road, you will never see it at all.

    Well, I saw a sign yesterday at the roadside that I never saw anywhere before. It was not a large sign——indeed rather inconspicuous——consisting of a single word rather crudely painted in black (as by an amateur) upon a white board. It was nailed to a tree where those in swift passing cars could not avoid seeing it:

    [ REST ]

    I cannot describe the odd sense of enlivenment, of pleasure I had when I saw this new sign.

    "Rest!" I exclaimed aloud. "Indeed I will," and I sat down on a stone

    not far away.

    "Rest!"

    What a sign for this very spot! Here in the midst of the haste and hurry

    of the Great Road a quiet voice was saying,"Rest." Some one with imagination, I thought, evidently put that up; some quietist offering this mild protest against the breathless progress of the age. How often I have felt the same way myself——as though I were being swept onward through life faster than I could well enjoy it. For nature passes the dishes far more rapidly than we can help ourselves.

    Or perhaps, thought I, eagerly speculating, this may be only some cunning advertiser with rest for sale (in these days even rest has its price), thus piquing the curiosity of the traveller for the disclosure which he will make a mile or so farther on. Or else some humourist wasting his wit upon the Fraternity of the Road, too willing (like me, perhaps) to accept his ironical advice. But it would be well worth while should I find him, to see him chuckle behind his hand.

    So I sat there very much interested, for a long time, even framing a rather amusing picture in my own mind of the sort of person who painted these signs, deciding finally that he must be a zealot rather than a trader or humourist. (Confidentially, I could not make a picture of him in which he was not endowed with plentiful long hair)。 As I walked onward again, I decided that in any guise I should like to see him, and I enjoyed thinking what I should say if I met him. A mile farther up the road I saw another sign exactly like the first.

    "Here he is again," I said exultantly, and that sign being somewhat nearer the ground I was able to examine it carefully front and back, but it bore no evidence of its origin.

    In the next few miles I saw two other signs with nothing on them but the word "Rest."

    Now this excellent admonition——like much of the excellent admonitions in this world—— affected me perversely: it made me more restless than ever. I felt that I could not rest properly until I found out who wanted me to rest, and why. It opened indeed a limitless vista for new adventure.

    Presently, away ahead of me in the road, I saw a man standing near a one-horse wagon. He seemed to be engaged in some activity near the roadside, but I could not tell exactly what. As I hastened nearer I discovered that he was a short, strongly built, sun-bronzed man in working-clothes——and with the shortest of short hair. I saw him take a shovel from the wagon and begin digging. He was the road-worker.

    I asked the road-worker if he had seen the curious signs. He looked up

    at me with a broad smile (he had good-humoured, very bright blue eyes)。

    "Yes," he said, "but they ain't for me."

    "Then you don't follow the advice they give?"

    "Not with a section like mine," said he, and he straightened up and

    looked first one way of the road and then the other. "I have from Grabow Brook, but not the bridge, to the top o' Sullivan Hill, and all the culverts between, though two of 'em are by rights bridges. And I claim that's a job for any full-grown man."

    He began shovelling again in the road as if to prove how busy he was. There had been a small landslide from an open cut on one side and a mass of gravel and small boulders lay scattered on the smooth macadam. I watched him for a moment. I love to watch the motions of vigorous men at work, the easy play of the muscles, the swing of the shoulders, the vigour of stoutly planted legs. He evidently considered the conversation closed, and I, as——well, as a dusty man of the road——easily dismissed. (You have no idea, until you try it, what a weight of prejudice the man of the road has to surmount before he is accepted on easy terms by the ordinary members of the human race.)

    A few other well-intentioned observations on my part having elicited nothing but monosyllabic replies, I put my bag down by the roadside and, going up to the wagon, got out a shovel, and without a word took my place at the other end of the landslide and began to shovel for all I was worth.

    I said not a word to the husky road-worker and pretended not to look at him, but I saw him well enough out of the corner of my eye. He was evidently astonished and interested, as I knew he would be: it was something entirely new on the road. He didn't quite know whether to be angry, or amused, or sociable. I caught him looking over at me several times, but I offered no response; then he cleared his throat and said:

    "Where you from?" I answered with a monosyllable which I knew he could not quite catch. Silence again for some time, during which I shovelled valiantly and with great inward amusement. Oh, there is nothing like cracking a hard human nut! I decided at that moment, to have him invite me to supper.

    Finally, when I showed no signs of stopping my work, he himself paused and leaned on his shovel. I kept right on.

    "Say, partner," said he, finally, "did YOU read those signs as you come up the road?"

    "Yes," I said, "but they weren't for me, either. My section's a long one,

    too."

    "Say, you ain't a road-worker, are you?" he asked eagerly.

    "Yes," said I, with a sudden inspiration, "that's exactly what I am——a road-worker."

    "Put her there, then, partner," he said, with a broad smile on his bronzed face.

    He and I struck hands, rested on our shovels (like old hands at it), and looked with understanding into each other's eyes. We both knew the trade and the tricks of the trade; all bars were down between us. The fact is, we had both seen and profited by the peculiar signs at the roadside.

    "Where's your section?" he asked easily.

    "Well," I responded after considering the question, "I have a very long and hard section. It begins at a place called Prosy Common——do you know it?——and reaches to the top of Clear Hill. There are several bad spots on the way, I can tell you."

    "Don't know it," said the husky road-worker; "'tain't round here, is it? In the town of Sheldon, maybe?"

    Just at this moment, perhaps fortunately, for there is nothing so difficult to satisfy as the appetite of people for specific information, a motor-car whizzed past, the driver holding up his hand in greeting, and the road-worker and I responding in accordance with the etiquette of the Great Road.

    "There he goes in the ruts again," said the husky road-worker. "Why is it, I'd like to know, that every one wants to run in the same identical track when they've got the whole wide road before 'em?"

    "That's what has long puzzled me, too," I said. "Why WILL people

    continue to run in ruts?"

    "It don't seem to do no good to put up signs," said the road-worker.

    "Very little indeed," said I. "The fact is, people have got to be bumped

    out of the ruts they get into."

    "You're right," said he enthusiastically, and his voice dropped into the tone of one speaking to a member of the inner guild. "I know how to get 'em."

    "How?" I asked in an equally mysterious voice.

    "I put a stone or two in the ruts!"

    "Do you?" I exclaimed. "I've done that very thing myself——many a time! Just place a good hard tru——I mean stone, with a bit of common dust sprinkled over it, in the middle of the rut, and they'll look out for THAT rut for some time to come."

    "Ain't it gorgeous," said the husky road-worker, chuckling joyfully, "to see 'em bump?"

    "It is," said I——"gorgeous."

    After that, shovelling part of the time in a leisurely way, and part of

    the time responding to the urgent request of the signs by the roadside (it pays to advertise!), the husky road-worker and I discussed many great and important subjects, all, however, curiously related to roads. Working all day long with his old horse, removing obstructions, draining out the culverts, filling ruts and holes with new stone, and repairing the damage of rain and storm, the road-worker was filled with a world of practical information covering roads and road-making. And having learned that I was of the same calling, we exchanged views with the greatest enthusiasm. It was astonishing to see how nearly in agreement we were as to what constituted an ideal road.

    "Almost everything," said he, "depends on depth. If you get a good solid foundation, the' ain't anything that can break up your road."

    "Exactly what I have discovered," I responded. "Get down to bedrock

    and do an honest job of building."

    "And don't have too many sharp turns."

    "No," said I, "long, leisurely curves are best——all through life. You have

    observed that nearly all the accidents on the road are due to sharp

    turnings."

    "Right you are!" he exclaimed.

    "A man who tries to turn too sharply on his way nearly always skids."

    "Or else turns turtle in the ditch."

    But it was not until we reached the subject of oiling that we mounted

    to the real summit of enthusiastic agreement. Of all things on the road, or above the road, or in the waters under the road, there is nothing that the road-worker dislikes more than oil.

    "It's all right," said he, "to use oil for surfacin' and to keep down the dust. You don't need much and it ain't messy. But sometimes when you see oil pumped on a road, you know that either the contractor has been jobbin', or else the road's worn out and ought to be rebuilt."

    "That's exactly what I've found," said I. "Let a road become almost impassable with ruts and rocks and dust, and immediately some man says, 'Oh, it's all right——put on a little oil——'"

    "That's what our supervisor is always sayin'," said the road-worker.

    "Yes," I responded, "it usually is the supervisor. He lives by it. He wants to smooth over the defects, he wants to lay the dust that every passerby kicks up, he tries to smear over the truth regarding conditions with messy and ill-smelling oil. Above everything, he doesn't want the road dug up and rebuilt——says it will interfere with traffic, injure business, and even set people to talking about changing the route entirely! Oh, haven't I seen it in religion, where they are doing their best to oil up roads that are entirely worn out——and as for politics, is not the cry of the party-roadster and the harmony-oilers abroad in the land?"

    In the excited interest with which this idea now bore me along I had entirely forgotten the existence of my companion, and as I now glanced at him I saw him standing with a curious look of astonishment and suspicion on his face. I saw that I had unintentionally gone a little too far. So I said abruptly:

    "Partner, let's get a drink. I'm thirsty."

    He followed me, I thought a bit reluctantly, to a little brook not far up the road where we had been once before. As we were drinking, silently, I looked at the stout young fellow standing there, and I thought to myself:

    What a good, straightforward young fellow he is anyway, and how thoroughly he knows his job. I thought how well he was equipped with unilluminated knowledge, and it came to me whimsically, that here was a fine bit of road-mending for me to do.

    Most people have sight, but few have insight; and as I looked into the clear blue eyes of my friend I had a sudden swift inspiration, and before I could repent of it I had said to him in the most serious voice that I could command:

    "Friend, I am in reality a spectacle-peddler——"

    His glance shifted uncomfortably to my gray bag. "And I want to sell you a pair of spectacles," I said. "I see that you are

    nearly blind."

    "Me blind!"

    It would be utterly impossible to describe the expression on his face.

    His hand went involuntarily to his eyes, and he glanced quickly, somewhat fearfully, about.

    "Yes, nearly blind," said I. "I saw it when I first met you. You don't know it yourself yet, but I can assure you it is a bad case."

    I paused, and shook my head slowly. If I had not been so much in earnest, I think I should have been tempted to laugh outright. I had begun my talk with him half jestingly, with the amusing idea of breaking through his shell, but I now found myself tremendously engrossed, and desired nothing in the world (at that moment) so much as to make him see what I saw. I felt as though I held a live human soul in my hand.

    "Say, partner," said the road-worker, "are you sure you aren't——" He tapped his forehead and began to edge away.

    I did not answer his question at all, but continued, with my eyes fixed on him:

    "It is a peculiar sort of blindness. Apparently, as you look about, you see everything there is to see, but as a matter of fact you see nothing in the world but this road——"

    "It's time that I was seein' it again then," said he, making as if to turn back to work, but remaining with a disturbed expression on his countenance.

    "The Spectacles I have to sell," said I, "are powerful magnifiers"——he glanced again at the gray bag. "When you put them on you will see a thousand wonderful things besides the road——"

    "Then you ain't road-worker after all!" he said, evidently trying to be bluff and outright with me.

    Now your substantial, sober, practical American will stand only about so much verbal foolery; and there is nothing in the world that makes him more uncomfortable——yes, downright mad!—— than to feel that he is being played with. I could see that I had nearly reached the limit with him, and that if I held him now it must be by driving the truth straight home. So I stepped over toward him and said very earnestly:

    "My friend, don't think I am merely joking you. I was never more in earnest in all my life. When I told you I was a road-worker I meant it, but I had in mind the mending of other kinds of roads than this."

    I laid my hand on his arm, and explained to him as directly and simply as English words could do it, how, when he had spoken of oil for his roads, I thought of another sort of oil for another sort of roads, and when he spoke of curves in his roads I was thinking of curves in the roads I dealt with, and I explained to him what my roads were. I have never seen a man more intensely interested: he neither moved nor took his eyes from my face.

    "And when I spoke of selling you a pair of spectacles," said I, "it was only a way of telling you how much I wanted to make you see my kinds of roads as well as your own."

    I paused, wondering if, after all, he could be made to see. I know now how the surgeon must feel at the crucial moment of his accomplished operation. Will the patient live or die?

    The road-worker drew a long breath as he came out from under the anesthetic.

    "I guess, partner," said he, "you're trying to put a stone or two in my

    ruts!"

    I had him!

    "Exactly," I exclaimed eagerly.

    We both paused. He was the first to speak——with some embarrassment:

    "Say, you're just like a preacher I used to know when I was a kid. He

    was always sayin' things that meant something else and when you found

    out what he was drivin' at you always felt kind of queer in your insides."

    I laughed.

    "It's a mighty good sign," I said, "when a man begins to feel queer in

    the insides. It shows that something is happening to him."

    With that we walked back to the road, feeling very close and friendly-and shovelling again, not saying much. After quite a time, when we had nearly cleaned up the landslide, I heard the husky road-worker chuckling

    to himself; finally, straightening up, he said:

    "Say, there's more things in a road than ever I dreamt of."

    "I see," said I, "that the new spectacles are a good fit."

    The road-worker laughed long and loud.

    "You're a good one, all right," he said. "I see what YOU mean. I catch

    your point."

    "And now that you've got them on," said I, "and they are serving you so well, I'm not going to sell them to you at all. I'm going to present them to you——for I haven't seen anybody in a long time that I've enjoyed meeting more than I have you."

    We nurse a fiction that people love to cover up their feelings; but I have learned that if the feeling is real and deep they love far better to find a way to uncover it.

    "Same here," said the road-worker simply, but with a world of genuine feeling in his voice.

    Well, when it came time to stop work the road-worker insisted that I

    get in and go home with him.

    "I want you to see my wife and kids," said he.

    The upshot of it was that I not only remained for supper——and a good

    supper it was——but I spent the night in his little home, close at the side of the road near the foot of a fine hill. And from time to time all night long, it seemed to me, I could hear the rush of cars going by in the smooth road outside, and sometimes their lights flashed in at my window, and sometimes I heard them sound their brassy horns.

    I wish I could tell more of what I saw there, of the garden back of the house, and of all the road-worker and his wife told me of their simple history——but, the road calls!

    When I set forth early this morning the road-worker followed me out to the smooth macadam (his wife standing in the doorway with her hands rolled in her apron) and said to me, a bit shyly:

    "I'll be more sort o'——sort o' interested in roads since I've seen you."

    "I'll be along again some of these days," said I, laughing, "and I'll stop in and show you my new stock of spectacles. Maybe I can sell you another

    pair!"

    "Maybe you kin," and he smiled a broad, understanding smile.

    Nothing brings men together like having a joke in common.

    So I walked off down the road——in the best of spirits——ready for the events of another day.

    It will surely be a great adventure, one of these days, to come this way again——and to visit the Stanleys, and the Vedders, and the Minister, and drop in and sell another pair of specs to the Road-worker. It seems to me I have a wonderfully rosy future ahead of me!

    P. S.——I have not yet found out who painted the curious signs; but I am not as uneasy about it as I was. I have seen two more of them already this morning——and find they exert quite a psychological influence.

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