[*Note: Please Credit to Sjaani]
ADVENTURES IN CONTENTMENT
"THE BURDEN OF THE VALLEY OF VISION"
I came here eight years ago as the renter of this farm, of which soon afterward I became the owner. The time before that I like to forget. The chief impression it left, upon my memory, now happily growing indistinct, is of being hurried faster than I could well travel. From the moment, as a boy of seventeen, I first began to pay my own way, my days were ordered by an inscrutable power which drove me hourly to my task. I was rarely allowed to look up or down, but always forward, toward that vague Success which we Americans love to glorify.
My senses, my nerves, even my muscles were continually strained to the utmost of attainment. If I loitered or paused by the wayside, as it seems natural for me to do, I soon heard the sharp crack of the lash. For many years, and I can say it truthfully, I never rested. I neither thought nor reflected. I had no pleasure, even though I pursued it fiercely during the brief respite of vacations. Through many feverish years I did not work: I merely produced.
The only real thing I did was to hurry as though every moment were my last, as though the world, which now seems so rich in everything, held only one prize which might be seized upon before I arrived. Since then I have tried to recall, like one who struggles to restore the visions of a fever, what it was that I ran to attain, or why I should have borne without rebellion such indignities to soul and body. That life seems now, of all illusions, the most distant and unreal. It is like the unguessed eternity before we are born: not of concern compared with that eternity upon which we are now embarked.
All these things happened in cities and among crowds. I like to forget them. They smack of that slavery of the spirit which is so much worse than any mere slavery of the body.
One day—it was in April, I remember, and the soft maples in the city park were just beginning to blossom—I stopped suddenly. I did not intend to stop. I confess in humiliation that it was no courage, no will of my own. I intended to go on toward Success: but Fate stopped me. It was as if I had been thrown violently from a moving planet: all the universe streamed around me and past me. It seemed to me that of all animate creation, I was the only thing that was still or silent. Until I stopped I had not known the pace I ran; and I had a vague sympathy and understanding, never felt before, for those who left the running. I lay prostrate with fever and close to death for weeks and watched the world go by: the dust, the noise, the very colour of haste. The only sharp pang that I suffered was the feeling that I should be broken-hearted and that I was not; that I should care and that I did not. It was as though I had died and escaped all further responsibility. I even watched with dim equanimity my friends racing past me, panting as they ran. Some of them paused an instant to comfort me where I lay, but I could see that their minds were still upon the running and I was glad when they went away. I cannot tell with what weariness their haste oppressed me. As for them, they somehow blamed me for dropping out. I knew. Until we ourselves understand, we accept no excuse from the man who stops. While I felt it all, I was not bitter. I did not seem to care. I said to myself: "This is Unfitness. I survive no longer. So be it."
Thus I lay, and presently I began to hunger and thirst. Desire rose within me: the indescribable longing of the convalescent for the food of recovery. So I lay, questioning wearily what it was that I required. One morning I wakened with a strange, new joy in my soul. It came to me at that moment with indescribable poignancy, the thought of walking barefoot in cool, fresh plow furrows as I had once done when a boy. So vividly the memory came to me—the high airy world as it was at that moment, and the boy I was walking free in the furrows—that the weak tears filled my eyes, the first I had shed in many years. Then I thought of sitting in quiet thickets in old fence corners, the wood behind me rising still, cool, mysterious, and the fields in front stretching away in illimitable pleasantness. I thought of the good smell of cows at milking—you do not know, if you do not know!—I thought of the sights and sounds, the heat and sweat of the hay fields. I thought of a certain brook I knew when a boy that flowed among alders and wild parsnips, where I waded with a three-foot rod for trout. I thought of all these things as a man thinks of his first love. Oh, I craved the soil. I hungered and thirsted for the earth. I was greedy for growing things.
And thus, eight years ago, I came here like one sore-wounded creeping from the field of battle. I remember walking in the sunshine, weak yet, but curiously satisfied. I that was dead lived again. It came to me then with a curious certainty, not since so assuring, that I understood the chief marvel of nature hidden within the Story of the Resurrection, the marvel of plant and seed, father and son, the wonder of the seasons, the miracle of life. I, too, had died: I had lain long in darkness, and now I had risen again upon the sweet earth. And I possessed beyond others a knowledge of a former existence, which I knew, even then, I could never return to.
For a time, in the new life, I was happy to drunkenness—working, eating, sleeping. I was an animal again, let out to run in green pastures. I was glad of the sunrise and the sunset. I was glad at noon. It delighted me when my muscles ached with work and when, after supper, I could not keep my eyes open for sheer weariness. And sometimes I was awakened in the night out of a sound sleep—seemingly by the very silences—and lay in a sort of bodily comfort impossible to describe.
I did not want to feel or to think: I merely wanted to live. In the sun or the rain I wanted to go out and come in, and never again know the pain of the unquiet spirit. I looked forward to an awakening not without dread for we are as helpless before birth as in the presence of death.
But like all birth, it came, at last, suddenly. All that summer I had worked in a sort of animal content. Autumn had now come, late autumn, with coolness in the evening air. I was plowing in my upper field—not then mine in fact—and it was a soft afternoon with the earth turning up moist and fragrant. I had been walking the furrows all day long. I had taken note, as though my life depended upon it, of the occasional stones or roots in my field, I made sure of the adjustment of the harness, I drove with peculiar care to save the horses. With such simple details of the work in hand I had found it my joy to occupy my mind. Up to that moment the most important things in the world had seemed a straight furrow and well-turned corners—to me, then, a profound accomplishment.
I cannot well describe it, save by the analogy of an opening door somewhere within the house of my consciousness. I had been in the dark: I seemed to emerge. I had been bound down: I seemed to leap up—and with a marvellous sudden sense of freedom and joy.
I stopped there in my field and looked up. And it was as if I had never looked up before. I discovered another world. It had been there before, for long and long, but I had never seen nor felt it. All discoveries are made in that way: a man finds the new thing, not in nature but in himself.
It was as though, concerned with plow and harness and furrow, I had never known that the world had height or colour or sweet sounds, or that there was feeling in a hillside. I forgot myself, or where I was. I stood a long time motionless. My dominant feeling, if I can at all express it, was of a strange new friendliness, a warmth, as though these hills, this field about me, the woods, had suddenly spoken to me and caressed me. It was as though I had been accepted in membership, as though I was now recognised, after long trial, as belonging here.
Across the town road which separates my farm from my nearest neighbour's, I saw a field, familiar, yet strangely new and unfamiliar, lying up to the setting sun, all red with autumn, above it the incalculable heights of the sky, blue, but not quite clear, owing to the Indian summer haze. I cannot convey the sweetness and softness of that landscape, the airiness of it, the mystery of it, as it came to me at that moment. It was as though, looking at an acquaintance long known, I should discover that I loved him. As I stood there I was conscious of the cool tang of burning leaves and brush heaps, the lazy smoke of which floated down the long valley and found me in my field, and finally I heard, as though the sounds were then made for the first time, all the vague murmurs of the country side—a cow-bell somewhere in the distance, the creak of a wagon, the blurred evening hum of birds, insects, frogs. So much it means for a man to stop and look up from his task. So I stood, and I looked up and down with a glow and a thrill which I cannot now look back upon without some envy and a little amusement at the very grandness and seriousness of it all. And I said aloud to myself:
"I will be as broad as the earth. I will not be limited."
Thus I was born into the present world, and here I continue, not knowing what other world I may yet achieve. I do not know, but I wait in expectancy, keeping my furrows straight and my corners well turned. Since that day in the field, though my fences include no more acres, and I still plow my own fields, my real domain has expanded until I crop wide fields and take the profit of many curious pastures. From my farm I can see most of the world; and if I wait here long enough all people pass this way.
And I look out upon them not in the surroundings which they have chosen for themselves, but from the vantage ground of my familiar world. The symbols which meant so much in cities mean little here. Sometimes it seems to me as though I saw men naked. They come and stand beside my oak, and the oak passes solemn judgment; they tread my furrows and the clods give silent evidence; they touch the green blades of my corn, the corn whispers its sure conclusions. Stern judgments that will be deceived by no symbols!
Thus I have delighted, secretly, in calling myself an unlimited farmer, and I make this confession in answer to the inner and truthful demand of the soul that we are not, after all, the slaves of things, whether corn, or banknotes, or spindles; that we are not the used, but the users; that life is more than profit and loss. And so I shall expect that while I am talking farm some of you may be thinking dry goods, banking, literature, carpentry, or what-not. But if you can say: I am an unlimited dry goods merchant, I am an unlimited carpenter, I will give you an old-fashioned country hand-shake, strong and warm. We are friends; our orbits coincide.
I BUY A FARM
As I have said, when I came here I came as a renter, working all of the first summer without that "open vision" of which the prophet Samuel speaks. I had no memory of the past and no hope of the future. I fed upon the moment. My sister Harriet kept the house and I looked after the farm and the fields. In all those months I hardly knew that I had neighbours, although Horace, from whom I rented my place, was not infrequently a visitor. He has since said that I looked at him as though he were a "statute." I was "citified," Horace said; and "citified" with us here in the country is nearly the limit of invective, though not violent enough to discourage such a gift of sociability as his. The Scotch Preacher, the rarest, kindest man I know, called once or twice, wearing the air of formality which so ill becomes him. I saw nothing in him: it was my fault, not his, that I missed so many weeks of his friendship. Once in that time the Professor crossed my fields with his tin box slung from his shoulder; and the only feeling I had, born of crowded cities, was that this was an intrusion upon my property. Intrusion: and the Professor! It is now unthinkable. I often passed the Carpentry Shop on my way to town. I saw Baxter many times at his bench. Even then Baxter's eyes attracted me: he always glanced up at me as I passed, and his look had in it something of a caress. So the home of Starkweather, standing aloof among its broad lawns and tall trees, carried no meaning for me.
Of all my neighbours, Horace is the nearest. From the back door of my house, looking over the hill, I can see the two red chimneys of his home, and the top of the windmill. Horace's barn and corn silo are more pretentious by far than his house, but fortunately they stand on lower ground, where they are not visible from my side of the hill. Five minutes' walk in a straight line across the fields brings me to Horace's door; by the road it takes at least ten minutes.
In the fall after my arrival I had come to love the farm and its surroundings so much that I decided to have it for my own. I did not look ahead to being a farmer. I did not ask Harriet's advice. I found myself sitting one day in the justice's office. The justice was bald and as dry as corn fodder in March. He sat with spectacled impressiveness behind his ink-stained table. Horace hitched his heel on the round of his chair and put his hat on his knee. He wore his best coat and his hair was brushed in deference to the occasion. He looked uncomfortable, but important. I sat opposite him, somewhat overwhelmed by the business in hand. I felt like an inadequate boy measured against solemnities too large for him. The processes seemed curiously unconvincing, like a game in which the important part is to keep from laughing; and yet when I thought of laughing I felt cold chills of horror. If I had laughed at that moment I cannot think what that justice would have said! But it was a pleasure to have the old man read the deed, looking at me over his spectacles from time to time to make sure I was not playing truant. There are good and great words in a deed. One of them I brought away with me from the conference, a very fine, big one, which I love to have out now and again to remind me of the really serious things of life. It gives me a peculiar dry, legal feeling. If I am about to enter upon a serious bargain, like the sale of a cow, I am more avaricious if I work with it under my tongue.
Some words need to be fenced in, pig-tight, so that they cannot escape us; others we prefer to have running at large, indefinite but inclusive. I would not look up that word for anything: I might find it fenced in so that it could not mean to me all that it does now.
Hereditaments! May there be many of them—or it!
Is it not a fine Providence that gives us different things to love? In the purchase of my farm both Horace and I got the better of the bargain—and yet neither was cheated. In reality a fairly strong lantern light will shine through Horace, and I could see that he was hugging himself with the joy of his bargain; but I was content. I had some money left—what more does anyone want after a bargain?—and I had come into possession of the thing I desired most of all. Looking at bargains from a purely commercial point of view, someone is always cheated, but looked at with the simple eye both seller and buyer always win.
We came away from the gravity of that bargaining in Horace's wagon. On our way home Horace gave me fatherly advice about using my farm. He spoke from the height of his knowledge to me, a humble beginner. The conversation ran something like this:
HORACE: Thar's a clump of plum trees along the lower pasture fence. Perhaps you saw 'm——
MYSELF: I saw them: that is one reason I bought the back pasture. In May they will be full of blossoms.
HORACE: They're wild plums: they ain't good for nothing.
MYSELF: But think how fine they will be all the year round.
HORACE: Fine! They take up a quarter-acre of good land. I've been going to cut 'em myself this ten years.
MYSELF: I don't think I shall want them cut out.
After a pause:
HORACE: There's a lot of good body cord-wood in that oak on the knoll.
MYSELF: Cord-wood! Why, that oak is the treasure of the whole farm, I have never seen a finer one. I could not think of cutting it.
HORACE: It will bring you fifteen or twenty dollars cash in hand.
MYSELF: But I rather have the oak.
So our conversation continued for some time. I let Horace know that I preferred rail fences, even old ones, to a wire fence, and that I thought a farm should not be too large, else it might keep one away from his friends. And what, I asked, is corn compared with a friend? Oh, I grew really oratorical! I gave it as my opinion that there should be vines around the house (Waste of time, said Horace), and that no farmer should permit anyone to paint medicine advertisements on his barn (Brings you ten dollars a year, said Horace), and that I proposed to fix the bridge on the lower road (What's a path-master for? asked Horace). I said that a town was a useful adjunct for a farm; but I laid it down as a principle that no town should be too near a farm. I finally became so enthusiastic in setting forth my conceptions of a true farm that I reduced Horace to a series of humphs. The early humphs were incredulous, but as I proceeded, with some joy, they became humorously contemptuous, and finally began to voice a large, comfortable, condescending tolerance. I could fairly feel Horace growing superior as he sat there beside me. Oh, he had everything in his favour. He could prove what he said: One tree + one thicket = twenty dollars. One landscape = ten cords of wood = a quarter-acre of corn = twenty dollars. These equations prove themselves. Moreover, was not Horace the "best off" of any farmer in the country? Did he not have the largest barn and the best corn silo? And are there better arguments?
Have you ever had anyone give you up as hopeless? And is it not a pleasure? It is only after people resign you to your fate that you really make friends of them. For how can you win the friendship of one who is trying to convert you to his superior beliefs?
As we talked, then, Horace and I, I began to have hopes of him. There is no joy comparable to the making of a friend, and the more resistant the material the greater the triumph. Baxter, the carpenter, says that when he works for enjoyment he chooses curly maple.
When Horace set me down at my gate that afternoon he gave me his hand and told me that he would look in on me occasionally, and that if I had any trouble to let him know.
A few days later I heard by the roundabout telegraph common in country neighbourhoods that Horace had found a good deal of fun in reporting what I said about farming and that he had called me by a highly humorous but disparaging name. Horace has a vein of humour all his own. I have caught him alone in his fields chuckling to himself, and even breaking out in a loud laugh at the memory of some amusing incident that happened ten years ago. One day, a month or more after our bargain, Horace came down across his field and hitched his jean-clad leg over my fence, with the intent, I am sure, of delving a little more in the same rich mine of humour.
"Horace," I said, looking him straight in the eye, "did you call me an—Agriculturist!"
I have rarely seen a man so pitifully confused as Horace was at that moment. He flushed, he stammered, he coughed, the perspiration broke out on his forehead. He tried to speak and could not. I was sorry for him.
"Horace," I said, "you're a Farmer."
We looked at each other a moment with dreadful seriousness, and then both of us laughed to the point of holding our sides. We slapped our knees, we shouted, we wriggled, we almost rolled with merriment. Horace put out his hand and we shook heartily. In five minutes I had the whole story of his humorous reports out of him.
No real friendship is ever made without an initial clashing which discloses the metal of each to each. Since that day Horace's jean-clad leg has rested many a time on my fence and we have talked crops and calves. We have been the best of friends in the way of whiffle-trees, butter tubs and pig killings—but never once looked up together at the sky.
The chief objection to a joke in the country is that it is so imperishable. There is so much room for jokes and so few jokes to fill it. When I see Horace approaching with a peculiar, friendly, reminiscent smile on his face I hasten with all ardour to anticipate him:
"Horace," I exclaim, "you're a Farmer."
THE JOY OF POSSESSION
"How sweet the west wind sounds in my own trees: How graceful climb these shadows on my hill."
Always as I travel, I think, "Here I am, let anything happen!"
I do not want to know the future; knowledge is too certain, too cold, too real.
It is true that I have not always met the fine adventure nor won the friend, but if I had, what should I have more to look for at other turnings and other hilltops?
The afternoon of my purchase was one of the great afternoons of my life. When Horace put me down at my gate, I did not go at once to the house; I did not wish, then, to talk with Harriet. The things I had with myself were too important. I skulked toward my barn, compelling myself to walk slowly until I reached the corner, where I broke into an eager run as though the old Nick himself were after me. Behind the barn I dropped down on the grass, panting with laughter, and not without some of the shame a man feels at being a boy. Close along the side of the barn, as I sat there in the cool of the shade, I could see a tangled mat of smartweed and catnip, and the boards of the barn, brown and weather-beaten, and the gables above with mud swallows' nests, now deserted; and it struck me suddenly, as I observed these homely pleasant things:
"All this is mine."
I sprang up and drew a long breath.
"Mine," I said.
It came to me then like an inspiration that I might now go out and take formal possession of my farm. I might experience the emotion of a landowner. I might swell with dignity and importance—for once, at least.
So I started at the fence corner back of the barn and walked straight up through the pasture, keeping close to my boundaries, that I might not miss a single rod of my acres. And oh, it was a prime afternoon! The Lord made it! Sunshine—and autumn haze—and red trees—and yellow fields—and blue distances above the far-away town. And the air had a tang which got into a man's blood and set him chanting all the poetry he ever knew.
"I climb that was a clod, I run whose steps were slow, I reap the very wheat of God That once had none to sow!"
So I walked up the margin of my field looking broadly about me: and presently, I began to examine my fences—my fences—with a critical eye. I considered the quality of the soil, though in truth I was not much of a judge of such matters. I gloated over my plowed land, lying there open and passive in the sunshine. I said of this tree: "It is mine," and of its companion beyond the fence: "It is my neighbour's." Deeply and sharply within myself I drew the line between meum and tuum: for only thus, by comparing ourselves with our neighbours, can we come to the true realisation of property. Occasionally I stopped to pick up a stone and cast it over the fence, thinking with some truculence that my neighbour would probably throw it back again. Never mind, I had it out of my field. Once, with eager surplusage of energy, I pulled down a dead and partly rotten oak stub, long an eye-sore, with an important feeling of proprietorship. I could do anything I liked. The farm was mine.
How sweet an emotion is possession! What charm is inherent in ownership! What a foundation for vanity, even for the greater quality of self-respect, lies in a little property! I fell to thinking of the excellent wording of the old books in which land is called "real property," or "real estate." Money we may possess, or goods or chattels, but they give no such impression of mineness as the feeling that one's feet rest upon soil that is his: that part of the deep earth is his with all the water upon it, all small animals that creep or crawl in the holes of it, all birds or insects that fly in the air above it, all trees, shrubs, flowers, and grass that grow upon it, all houses, barns and fences—all, his. As I strode along that afternoon I fed upon possession. I rolled the sweet morsel of ownership under my tongue. I seemed to set my feet down more firmly on the good earth. I straightened my shoulders: this land was mine. I picked up a clod of earth and let it crumble and drop through my fingers: it gave me a peculiar and poignant feeling of possession. I can understand why the miser enjoys the very physical contact of his gold. Every sense I possessed, sight, hearing, smell, touch, led upon the new joy.
At one corner of my upper field the fence crosses an abrupt ravine upon leggy stilts. My line skirts the slope halfway up. My neighbour owns the crown of the hill which he has shorn until it resembles the tonsured pate of a monk. Every rain brings the light soil down the ravine and lays it like a hand of infertility upon my farm. It had always bothered me, this wastage; and as I looked across my fence I thought to myself:
"I must have that hill. I will buy it. I will set the fence farther up. I will plant the slope. It is no age of tonsures either in religion or agriculture."
The very vision of widened acres set my thoughts on fire. In imagination I extended my farm upon all sides, thinking how much better I could handle my land than my neighbours. I dwelt avariciously upon more possessions: I thought with discontent of my poverty. More land I wanted. I was enveloped in clouds of envy. I coveted my neighbour's land: I felt myself superior and Horace inferior: I was consumed with black vanity.
So I dealt hotly with these thoughts until I reached the top of the ridge at the farther corner of my land. It is the highest point on the farm.
For a moment I stood looking about me on a wonderful prospect of serene beauty. As it came to me—hills, fields, woods—the fever which had been consuming me died down. I thought how the world stretched away from my fences—just such fields—for a thousand miles, and in each small enclosure a man as hot as I with the passion of possession. How they all envied, and hated, in their longing for more land! How property kept them apart, prevented the close, confident touch of friendship, how it separated lovers and ruined families! Of all obstacles to that complete democracy of which we dream, is there a greater than property?
I was ashamed. Deep shame covered me. How little of the earth, after all, I said, lies within the limits of my fences. And I looked out upon the perfect beauty of the world around me, and I saw how little excited it was, how placid, how undemanding.
I had come here to be free and already this farm, which I thought of so fondly as my possession, was coming to possess me. Ownership is an appetite like hunger or thirst, and as we may eat to gluttony and drink to drunkenness so we may possess to avarice. How many men have I seen who, though they regard themselves as models of temperance, wear the marks of unbridled indulgence of the passion of possession, and how like gluttony or licentiousness it sets its sure sign upon their faces.
I said to myself, Why should any man fence himself in? And why hope to enlarge one's world by the creeping acquisition of a few acres to his farm? I thought of the old scientist, who, laying his hand upon the grass, remarked: "Everything under my hand is a miracle"—forgetting that everything outside was also a miracle.
As I stood there I glanced across the broad valley wherein lies the most of my farm, to a field of buckwheat which belongs to Horace. For an instant it gave me the illusion of a hill on fire: for the late sun shone full on the thick ripe stalks of the buckwheat, giving forth an abundant red glory that blessed the eye. Horace had been proud of his crop, smacking his lips at the prospect of winter pancakes, and here I was entering his field and taking without hindrance another crop, a crop gathered not with hands nor stored in granaries: a wonderful crop, which, once gathered, may long be fed upon and yet remain unconsumed.
So I looked across the countryside; a group of elms here, a tufted hilltop there, the smooth verdure of pastures, the rich brown of new-plowed fields—and the odours, and the sounds of the country—all cropped by me. How little the fences keep me out: I do not regard titles, nor consider boundaries. I enter either by day or by night, but not secretly. Taking my fill, I leave as much as I find.
And thus standing upon the highest hill in my upper pasture, I thought of the quoted saying of a certain old abbot of the middle ages—"He that is a true monk considers nothing as belonging to him except a lyre."
What finer spirit? Who shall step forth freer than he who goes with nothing save his lyre? He shall sing as he goes: he shall not be held down nor fenced in.
With a lifting of the soul I thought of that old abbot, how smooth his brow, how catholic his interest, how serene his outlook, how free his friendships, how unlimited his whole life. Nothing but a lyre!
So I made a covenant there with myself. I said: "I shall use, not be used. I do not limit myself here. I shall not allow possessions to come between me and my life or my friends."
For a time—how long I do not know—I stood thinking. Presently I discovered, moving slowly along the margin of the field below me, the old professor with his tin botany box. And somehow I had no feeling that he was intruding upon my new land. His walk was slow and methodical, his head and even his shoulders were bent—almost habitually—from looking close upon the earth, and from time to time he stooped, and once he knelt to examine some object that attracted his eye. It seemed appropriate that he should thus kneel to the earth. So he gathered his crop and fences did not keep him out nor titles disturb him. He also was free! It gave me at that moment a peculiar pleasure to have him on my land, to know that I was, if unconsciously, raising other crops than I knew. I felt friendship for this old professor: I could understand him, I thought. And I said aloud but in a low tone, as though I were addressing him:
—Do not apologise, friend, when you come into my field. You do not interrupt me. What you have come for is of more importance at this moment than corn. Who is it that says I must plow so many furrows this day? Come in, friend, and sit here on these clods: we will sweeten the evening with fine words. We will invest our time not in corn, or in cash, but in life.—
I walked with confidence down the hill toward the professor. So engrossed was he with his employment that he did not see me until I was within a few paces of him. When he looked up at me it was as though his eyes returned from some far journey. I felt at first out of focus, unplaced, and only gradually coming into view. In his hand he held a lump of earth containing a thrifty young plant of the purple cone-flower, having several blossoms. He worked at the lump deftly, delicately, so that the earth, pinched, powdered and shaken out, fell between his fingers, leaving the knotty yellow roots in his hand. I marked how firm, slow, brown, the old man was, how little obtrusive in my field. One foot rested in a furrow, the other was set among the grass of the margin, near the fence—his place, I thought.
His first words, though of little moment in themselves, gave me a curious satisfaction, as when a coin, tested, rings true gold, or a hero, tried, is heroic.
"I have rarely," he said, "seen a finer display of rudbeckia than this, along these old fences."
If he had referred to me, or questioned, or apologised, I should have been disappointed. He did not say, "your fences," he said "these fences," as though they were as much his as mine. And he spoke in his own world, knowing that if I could enter I would, but that if I could not, no stooping to me would avail either of us.
"It has been a good autumn for flowers," I said inanely, for so many things were flying through my mind that I could not at once think of the great particular words which should bring us together. At first I thought my chance had passed, but he seemed to see something in me after all, for he said:
"Here is a peculiarly large specimen of the rudbeckia. Observe the deep purple of the cone, and the bright yellow of the petals. Here is another that grew hardly two feet away, in the grass near the fence where the rails and the blackberry bushes have shaded it. How small and undeveloped it is."
"They crowd up to the plowed land," I observed.
"Yes, they reach out for a better chance in life—like men. With more room, better food, freer air, you see how much finer they grow."
It was curious to me, having hitherto barely observed the cone-flowers along my fences, save as a colour of beauty, how simply we fell to talking of them as though in truth they were people like ourselves, having our desires and possessed of our capabilities. It gave me then, for the first time, the feeling which has since meant such varied enjoyment, of the peopling of the woods.
"See here," he said, "how different the character of these individuals. They are all of the same species. They all grow along this fence within two or three rods; but observe the difference not only in size but in colouring, in the shape of the petals, in the proportions of the cone. What does it all mean? Why, nature trying one of her endless experiments. She sows here broadly, trying to produce better cone-flowers. A few she plants on the edge of the field in the hope that they may escape the plow. If they grow, better food and more sunshine produce more and larger flowers."
So we talked, or rather he talked, finding in me an eager listener. And what he called botany seemed to me to be life. Of birth, of growth, of reproduction, of death, he spoke, and his flowers became sentient creatures under my eyes.
And thus the sun went down and the purple mists crept silently along the distant low spots, and all the great, great mysteries came and stood before me beckoning and questioning. They came and they stood, and out of the cone-flower, as the old professor spoke, I seemed to catch a glimmer of the true light. I reflected how truly everything is in anything. If one could really understand a cone-flower he could understand this Earth. Botany was only one road toward the Explanation.
Always I hope that some traveller may have more news of the way than I, and sooner or later, I find I must make inquiry of the direction of every thoughtful man I meet. And I have always had especial hope of those who study the sciences: they ask such intimate questions of nature. Theology possesses a vain-gloriousness which places its faith in human theories; but science, at its best, is humble before nature herself. It has no thesis to defend: it is content to kneel upon the earth, in the way of my friend, the old professor, and ask the simplest questions, hoping for some true reply.
I wondered, then, what the professor thought, after his years of work, of the Mystery; and finally, not without confusion, I asked him. He listened, for the first time ceasing to dig, shake out and arrange his specimens. When I had stopped speaking he remained for a moment silent, then he looked at me with a new regard. Finally he quoted quietly, but with a deep note in his voice:
"Canst thou by searching find God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven: what canst thou do? deeper than hell, what canst thou know?"
When the professor had spoken we stood for a moment silent, then he smiled and said briskly:
"I have been a botanist for fifty-four years. When I was a boy I believed implicitly in God. I prayed to him, having a vision of him—a person—before my eyes. As I grew older I concluded that there was no God. I dismissed him from the universe. I believed only in what I could see, or hear, or feel. I talked about Nature and Reality."
He paused, the smile still lighting his face, evidently recalling to himself the old days. I did not interrupt him. Finally he turned to me and said abruptly.
"And now—it seems to me—there is nothing but God."
As he said this he lifted his arm with a peculiar gesture that seemed to take in the whole world.
For a time we were both silent. When I left him I offered my hand and told him I hoped I might become his friend. So I turned my face toward home. Evening was falling, and as I walked I heard the crows calling, and the air was keen and cool, and I thought deep thoughts.
And so I stepped into the darkened stable. I could not see the outlines of the horse or the cow, but knowing the place so well I could easily get about. I heard the horse step aside with a soft expectant whinny. I smelled the smell of milk, the musty, sharp odour of dry hay, the pungent smell of manure, not unpleasant. And the stable was warm after the cool of the fields with a sort of animal warmth that struck into me soothingly. I spoke in a low voice and laid my hand on the horse's flank. The flesh quivered and shrunk away from my touch—coming back confidently, warmly. I ran my hand along his back and up his hairy neck. I felt his sensitive nose in my hand. "You shall have your oats," I said, and I gave him to eat. Then I spoke as gently to the cow, and she stood aside to be milked.
And afterward I came out into the clear bright night, and the air was sweet and cool, and my dog came bounding to meet me.—So I carried the milk into the house, and Harriet said in her heartiest tone:
"You are late, David. But sit up, I have kept the biscuits warm."
And that night my sleep was sound.
ENTERTAIN AN AGENT UNAWARES
With the coming of winter I thought the life of a farmer might lose something of its charm. So much interest lies in the growth not only of crops but of trees, vines, flowers, sentiments and emotions. In the summer the world is busy, concerned with many things and full of gossip: in the winter I anticipated a cessation of many active interests and enthusiasms. I looked forward to having time for my books and for the quiet contemplation of the life around me. Summer indeed is for activity, winter for reflection. But when winter really came every day discovered some new work to do or some new adventure to enjoy. It is surprising how many things happen on a small farm. Examining the book which accounts for that winter, I find the history of part of a forenoon, which will illustrate one of the curious adventures of a farmer's life. It is dated January 5.
* * * * *
I went out this morning with my axe and hammer to mend the fence along the public road. A heavy frost fell last night and the brown grass and the dry ruts of the roads were powdered white. Even the air, which was perfectly still, seemed full of frost crystals, so that when the sun came up one seemed to walk in a magic world. I drew in a long breath and looked out across the wonderful shining country and I said to myself:
"Surely, there is nowhere I would rather be than here." For I could have travelled nowhere to find greater beauty or a better enjoyment of it than I had here at home.
As I worked with my axe and hammer, I heard a light wagon come rattling up the road. Across the valley a man had begun to chop a tree. I could see the axe steel flash brilliantly in the sunshine before I heard the sound of the blow.
The man in the wagon had a round face and a sharp blue eye. I thought he seemed a businesslike young man.
"Say, there," he shouted, drawing up at my gate, "would you mind holding my horse a minute? It's a cold morning and he's restless."
"Certainly not," I said, and I put down my tools and held his horse.
He walked up to my door with a brisk step and a certain jaunty poise of the head.
"He is well contented with himself," I said. "It is a great blessing for any man to be satisfied with what he has got."
I heard Harriet open the door—how every sound rang through the still morning air!
The young man asked some question and I distinctly heard Harriet's answer:
"He's down there."
The young man came back: his hat was tipped up, his quick eye darted over my grounds as though in a single instant he had appraised everything and passed judgment upon the cash value of the inhabitants. He whistled a lively little tune.
"Say," he said, when he reached the gate, not at all disconcerted, "I thought you was the hired man. Your name's Grayson, ain't it? Well, I want to talk with you."
After tying and blanketing his horse and taking a black satchel from his buggy he led me up to my house. I had a pleasurable sense of excitement and adventure. Here was a new character come to my farm. Who knows, I thought, what he may bring with him: who knows what I may send away by him? Here in the country we must set our little ships afloat on small streams, hoping that somehow, some day, they will reach the sea.
It was interesting to see the busy young man sit down so confidently in our best chair. He said his name was Dixon, and he took out from his satchel a book with a fine showy cover. He said it was called "Living Selections from Poet, Sage and Humourist."
"This," he told me, "is only the first of the series. We publish six volumes full of literchoor. You see what a heavy book this is?"
I tested it in my hand: it was a heavy book.
"The entire set," he said, "weighs over ten pounds. There are 1,162 pages, enough paper if laid down flat, end to end, to reach half a mile."
I cannot quote his exact language: there was too much of it, but he made an impressive showing of the amount of literature that could be had at a very low price per pound. Mr. Dixon was a hypnotist. He fixed me with his glittering eye, and he talked so fast, and his ideas upon the subject were so original that he held me spellbound. At first I was inclined to be provoked: one does not like to be forcibly hypnotised, but gradually the situation began to amuse me, the more so when Harriet came in.
"Did you ever see a more beautiful binding?" asked the agent, holding his book admiringly at arm's length. "This up here," he said, pointing to the illuminated cover, "is the Muse of Poetry She is scattering flowers—poems, you know. Fine idea, ain't it? Colouring fine, too."
He jumped up quickly and laid the book on my table, to the evident distress of Harriet.
"Trims up the room, don't it?" he exclaimed, turning his head a little to one side and observing the effect with an expression of affectionate admiration.
"How much," I asked, "will you sell the covers for without the insides?"
"Without the insides?"
"Yes," I said, "the binding will trim up my table just as well without the insides."
I thought he looked at me a little suspiciously, but he was evidently satisfied by my expression of countenance, for he answered promptly:
"Oh, but you want the insides. That's what the books are for. The bindings are never sold alone."
He then went on to tell me the prices and terms of payment, until it really seemed that it would be cheaper to buy the books than to let him carry them away again. Harriet stood in the doorway behind him frowning and evidently trying to catch my eye. But I kept my face turned aside so that I could not see her signal of distress and my eyes fixed on the young man Dixon. It was as good as a play. Harriet there, serious-minded, thinking I was being befooled, and the agent thinking he was befooling me, and I, thinking I was befooling both of them—and all of us wrong. It was very like life wherever you find it.
Finally, I took the book which he had been urging upon me, at which Harriet coughed meaningly to attract my attention. She knew the danger when I really got my hands on a book. But I made up as innocent as a child. I opened the book almost at random—and it was as though, walking down a strange road, I had come upon an old tried friend not seen before in years. For there on the page before me I read:
"The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending we lay waste our powers: Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! The sea that bares her bosom to the moon; The winds that will be howling at all hours, But are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers; For this, for everything, we are out of tune; It moves us not."
And as I read it came back to me—a scene like a picture—the place, the time, the very feel of the hour when I first saw those lines. Who shall say that the past does not live! An odour will sometimes set the blood coursing in an old emotion, and a line of poetry is the resurrection and the life. For a moment I forgot Harriet and the agent, I forgot myself, I even forgot the book on my knee—everything but that hour in the past—a view of shimmering hot housetops, the heat and dust and noise of an August evening in the city, the dumb weariness of it all, the loneliness, the longing for green fields; and then these great lines of Wordsworth, read for the first time, flooding in upon me:
"Great God! I'd rather be A pagan suckled in a creed outworn: So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; And hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn."
When I had finished I found myself standing in my own room with one arm raised, and, I suspect, a trace of tears in my eyes—there before the agent and Harriet. I saw Harriet lift one hand and drop it hopelessly. She thought I was captured at last. I was past saving. And as I looked at the agent I saw "grim conquest glowing in his eye!" So I sat down not a little embarrassed by my exhibition—when I had intended to be self-poised.
"You like it, don't you?" said Mr. Dixon unctuously.
"I don't see," I said earnestly, "how you can afford to sell such things as this so cheap."
"They are cheap," he admitted regretfully. I suppose he wished he had tried me with the half-morocco.
"They are priceless," I said, "absolutely priceless. If you were the only man in the world who had that poem, I think I would deed you my farm for it."
Mr. Dixon proceeded, as though it were all settled, to get out his black order book and open it briskly for business. He drew his fountain pen, capped it, and looked up at me expectantly. My feet actually seemed slipping into some irresistible whirlpool. How well he understood practical psychology! I struggled within myself, fearing engulfment: I was all but lost.
"Shall I deliver the set at once," he said, "or can you wait until the first of February?"
At that critical moment a floating spar of an idea swept my way and I seized upon it as the last hope of the lost.
"I don't understand," I said, as though I had not heard his last question, "how you dare go about with all this treasure upon you. Are you not afraid of being stopped in the road and robbed? Why, I've seen the time when, if I had known you carried such things as these, such cures for sick hearts, I think I should have stopped you myself!"
"Say, you are an odd one," said Mr. Dixon.
"Why do you sell such priceless things as these?" I asked, looking at him sharply.
"Why do I sell them?" and he looked still more perplexed. "To make money, of course; same reason you raise corn."
"But here is wealth," I said, pursuing my advantage. "If you have these you have something more valuable than money."
Mr. Dixon politely said nothing. Like a wise angler, having failed to land me at the first rush, he let me have line. Then I thought of Ruskin's words, "Nor can any noble thing be wealth except to a noble person." And that prompted me to say to Mr. Dixon:
"These things are not yours; they are mine. You never owned them; but I will sell them to you."
He looked at me in amazement, and then glanced around—evidently to discover if there were a convenient way of escape.
"You're all straight, are you?" he asked tapping his forehead; "didn't anybody ever try to take you up?"
"The covers are yours," I continued as though I had not heard him, "the insides are mine and have been for a long time: that is why I proposed buying the covers separately."
I opened his book again. I thought I would see what had been chosen for its pages. And I found there many fine and great things.
"Let me read you this," I said to Mr. Dixon; "it has been mine for a long time. I will not sell it to you. I will give it to you outright. The best things are always given."
Having some gift in imitating the Scotch dialect, I read:
"November chill blaws loud wi' angry sugh; The shortening winter day is near a close; The miry beasts retreating frae the pleugh; The black'ning trains o' craws to their repose: The toil-worn Cotter frae his labour goes, This night his weekly moil is at an end, Collects his spades, his mattocks and his hoes, Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend, And weary, o'er the moor, his course does hameward bend."
So I read "The Cotter's Saturday Night." I love the poem very much myself, sometimes reading it aloud, not so much for the tenderness of its message, though I prize that, too, as for the wonder of its music:
"Compared with these, Italian trills are tame; The tickl'd ear no heart-felt raptures raise."
I suppose I showed my feeling in my voice. As I glanced up from time to time I saw the agent's face change, and his look deepen and the lips, usually so energetically tense, loosen with emotion. Surely no poem in all the language conveys so perfectly the simple love of the home, the quiet joys, hopes, pathos of those who live close to the soil.
When I had finished—I stopped with the stanza beginning:
"Then homeward all take off their sev'ral way";
the agent turned away his head trying to brave out his emotion. Most of us, Anglo-Saxons, tremble before a tear when we might fearlessly beard a tiger.
I moved up nearer to the agent and put my hand on his knee; then I read two or three of the other things I found in his wonderful book. And once I had him laughing and once again I had the tears in his eyes. Oh, a simple young man, a little crusty without, but soft inside—like the rest of us.
Well, it was amazing once we began talking not of books but of life, how really eloquent and human he became. From being a distant and uncomfortable person, he became at once like a near neighbour and friend. It was strange to me—as I have thought since—how he conveyed to us in few words the essential emotional note of his life. It was no violin tone, beautifully complex with harmonics, but the clear simple voice of the flute. It spoke of his wife and his baby girl and his home. The very incongruity of detail—he told us how he grew onions in his back yard—added somehow to the homely glamour of the vision which he gave us. The number of his house, the fact that he had a new cottage organ, and that the baby ran away and lost herself in Seventeenth Street—were all, curiously, fabrics of his emotion.
It was beautiful to see commonplace facts grow phosphorescent in the heat of true feeling. How little we may come to know Romance by the cloak she wears and how humble must be he who would surprise the heart of her!
It was, indeed, with an indescribable thrill that I heard him add the details, one by one—the mortgage on his place, now rapidly being paid off, the brother who was a plumber, the mother-in-law who was not a mother-in-law of the comic papers. And finally he showed us the picture of the wife and baby that he had in the cover of his watch; a fat baby with its head resting on its mother's shoulder.
"Mister," he said, "p'raps you think it's fun to ride around the country like I do, and be away from home most of the time. But it ain't. When I think of Minnie and the kid—"
He broke off sharply, as if he had suddenly remembered the shame of such confidences.
"Say," he asked, "what page is that poem on?"
I told him.
"One forty-six," he said. "When I get home I'm going to read that to Minnie. She likes poetry and all such things. And where's that other piece that tells how a man feels when he's lonesome? Say, that fellow knew!"
We had a genuinely good time, the agent and I, and when he finally rose to go, I said:
"Well, I've sold you a new book."
"I see now, mister, what you mean."
I went down the path with him and began to unhitch his horse.
"Let me, let me," he said eagerly.
Then he shook hands, paused a moment awkwardly as if about to say something, then sprang into his buggy without saying it.
When he had taken up his reins he remarked:
"Say! but you'd make an agent! You'd hypnotise 'em."
I recognised it as the greatest compliment he could pay me: the craft compliment.
Then he drove off, but pulled up before he had gone five yards. He turned in his seat, one hand on the back of it, his whip raised.
"Say!" he shouted, and when I walked up he looked at me with fine embarrassment.
"Mister, perhaps you'd accept one of these sets from Dixon free gratis, for nothing."
"I understand," I said, "but you know I'm giving the books to you—and I couldn't take them back again."
"Well," he said, "you're a good one, anyhow. Good-bye again," and then, suddenly, business naturally coming uppermost, he remarked with great enthusiasm:
"You've given me a new idea. Say, I'll sell 'em."
"Carry them carefully, man," I called after him; "they are precious."
So I went back to my work, thinking how many fine people there are in this world—if you scratch 'em deep enough.
April the 15th.
This morning I broke my old axe handle. I went out early while the fog still filled the valley and the air was cool and moist as it had come fresh from the filter of the night. I drew a long breath and let my axe fall with all the force I could give it upon a new oak log. I swung it unnecessarily high for the joy of doing it and when it struck it communicated a sharp yet not unpleasant sting to the palms of my hands. The handle broke short off at the point where the helve meets the steel. The blade was driven deep in the oak wood. I suppose I should have regretted my foolishness, but I did not. The handle was old and somewhat worn, and the accident gave me an indefinable satisfaction: the culmination of use, that final destruction which is the complement of great effort.
This feeling was also partly prompted by the thought of the new helve I already had in store, awaiting just such a catastrophe. Having come somewhat painfully by that helve, I really wanted to see it in use.
Last spring, walking in my fields, I looked out along the fences for a well-fitted young hickory tree of thrifty second growth, bare of knots at least head high, without the cracks or fissures of too rapid growth or the doziness of early transgression. What I desired was a fine, healthy tree fitted for a great purpose and I looked for it as I would look for a perfect man to save a failing cause. At last I found a sapling growing in one of the sheltered angles of my rail fence. It was set about by dry grass, overhung by a much larger cherry tree, and bearing still its withered last year's leaves, worn diaphanous but curled delicately, and of a most beautiful ash gray colour, something like the fabric of a wasp's nest, only yellower. I gave it a shake and it sprung quickly under my hand like the muscle of a good horse. Its bark was smooth and trim, its bole well set and solid.
A perfect tree! So I came up again with my short axe and after clearing away the grass and leaves with which the wind had mulched it, I cut into the clean white roots. I had no twinge of compunction, for was this not fulfillment? Nothing comes of sorrow for worthy sacrifice. When I had laid the tree low, I clipped off the lower branches, snapped off the top with a single clean stroke of the axe, and shouldered as pretty a second-growth sapling stick as anyone ever laid his eyes upon.
I carried it down to my barn and put it on the open rafters over the cow stalls. A cow stable is warm and not too dry, so that a hickory log cures slowly without cracking or checking. There it lay for many weeks. Often I cast my eyes up at it with satisfaction, watching the bark shrink and slightly deepen in colour, and once I climbed up where I could see the minute seams making way in the end of the stick.
In the summer I brought the stick into the house, and put it in the dry, warm storeroom over the kitchen where I keep my seed corn. I do not suppose it really needed further attention, but sometimes when I chanced to go into the storeroom, I turned it over with my foot. I felt a sort of satisfaction in knowing that it was in preparation for service: good material for useful work. So it lay during the autumn and far into the winter.
One cold night when I sat comfortably at my fireplace, listening to the wind outside, and feeling all the ease of a man at peace with himself, my mind took flight to my snowy field sides and I thought of the trees there waiting and resting through the winter. So I came in imagination to the particular corner in the fence where I had cut my hickory sapling. Instantly I started up, much to Harriet's astonishment, and made my way mysteriously up the kitchen stairs. I would not tell what I was after: I felt it a sort of adventure, almost like the joy of seeing a friend long forgotten. It was as if my hickory stick had cried out at last, after long chrysalishood:
"I am ready."
I stood it on end and struck it sharply with my knuckles: it rang out with a certain clear resonance.
"I am ready."
I sniffed at the end of it. It exhaled a peculiar good smell, as of old fields in the autumn.
"I am ready."
So I took it under my arm and carried it down.
"Mercy, what are you going to do?" exclaimed Harriet.
"Deliberately, and with malice aforethought," I responded, "I am going to litter up your floor. I have decided to be reckless. I don't care what happens."
Having made this declaration, which Harriet received with becoming disdain, I laid the log by the fireplace—not too near—and went to fetch a saw, a hammer, a small wedge, and a draw-shave.
I split my log into as fine white sections as a man ever saw—every piece as straight as morality, and without so much as a sliver to mar it. Nothing is so satisfactory as to have a task come out in perfect time and in good order. The little pieces of bark and sawdust I swept scrupulously into the fireplace, looking up from time to time to see how Harriet was taking it. Harriet was still disdainful.
Making an axe-helve is like writing a poem (though I never wrote one). The material is free enough, but it takes a poet to use it. Some people imagine that any fine thought is poetry, but there was never a greater mistake. A fine thought, to become poetry, must be seasoned in the upper warm garrets of the mind for long and long, then it must be brought down and slowly carved into words, shaped with emotion, polished with love. Else it is no true poem. Some people imagine that any hickory stick will make an axe-helve. But this is far from the truth. When I had whittled away for several evenings with my draw-shave and jack-knife, both of which I keep sharpened to the keenest edge, I found that my work was not progressing as well as I had hoped.
"This is more of a task," I remarked one evening, "than I had imagined."
Harriet, rocking placidly in her arm-chair, was mending a number of pairs of new socks, Poor Harriet! Lacking enough old holes to occupy her energies, she mends holes that may possibly appear. A frugal person!
"Well, David," she said, "I warned you that you could buy a helve cheaper than you could make it."
"So I can buy a book cheaper than I can write it," I responded.
I felt somewhat pleased with my return shot, though I took pains not to show it. I squinted along my hickory stick which was even then beginning to assume, rudely, the outlines of an axe-handle. I had made a prodigious pile of fine white shavings and I was tired, but quite suddenly there came over me a sort of love for that length of wood. I sprung it affectionately over my knee, I rubbed it up and down with my hand, and then I set it in the corner behind the fireplace.
"After all," I said, for I had really been disturbed by Harriet's remark—"after all, power over one thing gives us power over everything. When you mend socks prospectively—into futurity—Harriet, that is an evidence of true greatness."
"Sometimes I think it doesn't pay," remarked Harriet, though she was plainly pleased.
"Pretty good socks," I said, "can be bought for fifteen cents a pair."
Harriet looked at me suspiciously, but I was as sober as the face of nature.
For the next two or three evenings I let the axe-helve stand alone in the corner. I hardly looked at it, though once in a while, when occupied with some other work, I would remember, or rather half remember, that I had a pleasure in store for the evening. The very thought of sharp tools and something, to make with them acts upon the imagination with peculiar zest. So we love to employ the keen edge of the mind upon a knotty and difficult subject.
One evening the Scotch preacher came in. We love him very much, though he sometimes makes us laugh—perhaps, in part, because he makes us laugh. Externally he is a sort of human cocoanut, rough, brown, shaggy, but within he has the true milk of human kindness. Some of his qualities touch greatness. His youth was spent in stony places where strong winds blew; the trees where he grew bore thorns; the soil where he dug was full of roots. But the crop was human love. He possesses that quality, unusual in one bred exclusively in the country, of magnanimity toward the unlike. In the country we are tempted to throw stones at strange hats! But to the Scotch preacher every man in one way seems transparent to the soul. He sees the man himself, not his professions any more than his clothes. And I never knew anyone who had such an abiding disbelief in the wickedness of the human soul. Weakness he sees and comforts; wickedness he cannot see.
When he came in I was busy whittling my axe-helve, it being my pleasure at that moment to make long, thin, curly shavings so light that many of them were caught on the hearth and bowled by the draught straight to fiery destruction.
There is a noisy zest about the Scotch preacher: he comes in "stomping" as we say, he must clear his throat, he must strike his hands together; he even seems noisy when he unwinds the thick red tippet which he wears wound many times around his neck. It takes him a long time to unwind it, and he accomplishes the task with many slow gyrations of his enormous rough head. When he sits down he takes merely the edge of the chair, spreads his stout legs apart, sits as straight as a post, and blows his nose with a noise like the falling of a tree.
His interest in everything is prodigious. When he saw what I was doing he launched at once upon an account of the methods of axe-helving, ancient and modern, with true incidents of his childhood.
"Man," he exclaimed, "you've clean forgotten one of the preenciple refinements of the art. When you chop, which hand do you hold down?"
At the moment, I couldn't have told "to save my life, so we both got up on our feet and tried.
"It's the right hand down," I decided; "that's natural to me."
"You're a normal right-handed chopper, then," said the Scotch preacher, "as I was thinking. Now let me instruct you in the art. Being right-handed, your helve must bow out—so. No first-class chopper uses a straight handle."
He fell to explaining, with gusto, the mysteries of the bowed handle, and as I listened I felt a new and peculiar interest in my task This was a final perfection to be accomplished, the finality of technique!
So we sat with our heads together talking helves and axes, axes with single blades and axes with double blades, and hand axes and great choppers' axes, and the science of felling trees, with the true philosophy of the last chip, and arguments as to the best procedure when a log begins to "pinch"—until a listener would have thought that the art of the chopper included the whole philosophy of existence—as indeed it does, if you look at it in that way. Finally I rushed out and brought in my old axe-handle, and we set upon it like true artists, with critical proscription for being a trivial product of machinery.
"Man," exclaimed the preacher, "it has no character. Now your helve here, being the vision of your brain and work of your hands, will interpret the thought of your heart."
Before the Scotch preacher had finished his disquisition upon the art of helve-making and its relations with all other arts, I felt like Peary discovering the Pole.
In the midst of the discourse, while I was soaring high, the Scotch preacher suddenly stopped, sat up, and struck his knee with a tremendous resounding smack.
"Spoons!" he exclaimed.
Harriet and I stopped and looked at him in astonishment.
"Spoons," repeated Harriet.
"Spoons," said the Scotch preacher. "I've not once thought of my errand; and my wife told me to come straight home. I'm more thoughtless every day!"
Then he turned to Harriet:
"I've been sent to borrow some spoons," he said.
"Spoons!" exclaimed Harriet.
"Spoons," answered the Scotch preacher. "We've invited friends for dinner to-morrow, and we must have spoons."
"But why—how—I thought—" began Harriet, still in astonishment.
The Scotch preacher squared around toward her and cleared his throat.
"It's the baptisms," he said: "when a baby is brought for baptism, of course it must have a baptismal gift. What is the best gift for a baby? A spoon. So we present it with a spoon. To-day we discovered we had only three spoons left, and company coming. Man, 'tis a proleefic neighbourhood."
He heaved a great sigh.
Harriet rushed out and made up a package. When she came in I thought it seemed suspiciously large for spoons, but the Scotch preacher having again launched into the lore of the chopper, took it without at first perceiving anything strange. Five minutes after we had closed the door upon him he suddenly returned holding up the package.
"This is an uncommonly heavy package," he remarked; "did I say table-spoons?"
"Go on!" commanded Harriet; "your wife will understand."
"All right—good-bye again," and his sturdy figure soon disappeared in the dark.
"The impractical man!" exclaimed Harriet. "People impose on him."
"What was in that package, Harriet?"
"Oh, I put in a few jars of jelly and a cake of honey."
After a moment Harriet looked up from her work.
"Do you know the greatest sorrow of the Scotch preacher and his wife?"
"What is it?" I asked.
"They have no chick nor child of their own," said Harriet.
It is prodigious, the amount of work required to make a good axe-helve—I mean to make it according to one's standard. I had times of humorous discouragement and times of high elation when it seemed to me I could not work fast enough. Weeks passed when I did not touch the helve but left it standing quietly in the corner. Once or twice I took it out and walked about with it as a sort of cane, much to the secret amusement, I think, of Harriet. At times Harriet takes a really wicked delight in her superiority.
Early one morning in March the dawn came with a roaring wind, sleety snow drove down over the hill, the house creaked and complained in every clapboard. A blind of one of the upper windows, wrenched loose from its fastenings, was driven shut with such force that it broke a window pane. When I rushed up to discover the meaning of the clatter and to repair the damage, I found the floor covered with peculiar long fragments of glass—the pane having been broken inward from the centre.
"Just what I have wanted," I said to myself.
I selected a few of the best pieces and so eager was I to try them that I got out my axe-helve before breakfast and sat scratching away when Harriet came down.
Nothing equals a bit of broken glass for putting on the final perfect touch to a work of art like an axe-helve. Nothing will so beautifully and delicately trim out the curves of the throat or give a smoother turn to the waist. So with care and an indescribable affection, I added the final touches, trimming the helve until it exactly fitted my hand. Often and often I tried it in pantomime, swinging nobly in the centre of the sitting-room (avoiding the lamp), attentive to the feel of my hand as it ran along the helve. I rubbed it down with fine sandpaper until it fairly shone with whiteness. Then I borrowed a red flannel cloth of Harriet and having added a few drops—not too much—of boiled oil, I rubbed the helve for all I was worth. This I continued for upward of an hour. At that time the axe-helve had taken on a yellowish shade, very clear and beautiful.
I do not think I could have been prouder if I had carved a statue or built a parthenon. I was consumed with vanity; but I set the new helve in the corner with the appearance of utter unconcern.
"There," I remarked, "it's finished."
I watched Harriet out of the corner of my eye: she made as if to speak and then held silent.
That evening friend Horace came in. I was glad to see him. Horace is or was a famous chopper. I placed him at the fireplace where his eye, sooner or later, must fall upon my axe-helve. Oh, I worked out my designs! Presently he saw the helve, picked it up at once and turned it over in his hands. I had a suffocating, not unhumorous, sense of self-consciousness. I know how a poet must feel at hearing his first poem read aloud by some other person who does not know its authorship. I suffer and thrill with the novelist who sees a stranger purchase his book in a book-shop. I felt as though I stood that moment before the Great Judge.
Horace "hefted" it and balanced it, and squinted along it; he rubbed it with his thumb, he rested one end of it on the floor and sprung it roughly.
"David," he said severely, "where did you git this?"
Once when I was a boy I came home with my hair wet. My father asked:
"David, have you been swimming?"
I had exactly the same feeling when Horace asked his question. Now I am, generally speaking, a truthful man. I have written a good deal about the immorality, the unwisdom, the short-sightedness, the sinful wastefulness of a lie. But at that moment, if Harriet had not been present—and that illustrates one of the purposes of society, to bolster up a man's morals—I should have evolved as large and perfect a prevarication as it lay within me to do—cheerfully. But I felt Harriet's moral eye upon me: I was a coward as well as a sinner. I faltered so long that Horace finally looked around at me.
Horace has no poetry in his soul, neither does he understand the philosophy of imperfection nor the art of irregularity.
It is a tender shoot, easily blasted by cold winds, the creative instinct: but persistent. It has many adventitious buds. A late frost destroying the freshness of its early verdure, may be the means of a richer growth in later and more favourable days.
* * * * *
For a week I left my helve standing there in the corner. I did not even look at it. I was slain. I even thought of getting up in the night and putting the helve on the coals—secretly. Then, suddenly, one morning, I took it up not at all tenderly, indeed with a humorous appreciation of my own absurdities, and carried it out into the yard. An axe-helve is not a mere ornament but a thing of sober purpose. The test, after all, of axe-helves is not sublime perfection, but service. We may easily find flaws in the verse of the master—how far the rhythm fails of the final perfect music, how often uncertain the rhyme—but it bears within it, hidden yet evident, that certain incalculable fire which kindles and will continue to kindle the souls of men. The final test is not the perfection of precedent, not regularity, but life, spirit.
It was one of those perfect, sunny, calm mornings that sometimes come in early April: the zest of winter yet in the air, but a promise of summer.
I built a fire of oak chips in the middle of the yard, between two flat stones. I brought out my old axe, and when the fire had burned down somewhat, leaving a foundation of hot coals, I thrust the eye of the axe into the fire. The blade rested on one of the flat stones, and I kept it covered with wet rags in order that it might not heat sufficiently to destroy the temper of the steel. Harriet's old gray hen, a garrulous fowl, came and stood on one leg and looked at me first with one eye and then with the other. She asked innumerable impertinent questions and was generally disagreeable.
"I am sorry, madam," I said finally, "but I have grown adamant to criticism. I have done my work as well as it lies in me to do it. It is the part of sanity to throw it aside without compunction. A work must prove itself. Shoo!"
I said this with such conclusiveness and vigour that the critical old hen departed hastily with ruffled feathers.
So I sat there in the glorious perfection of the forenoon, the great day open around me, a few small clouds abroad in the highest sky, and all the earth radiant with sunshine. The last snow of winter was gone, the sap ran in the trees, the cows fed further afield.
When the eye of the axe was sufficiently expanded by the heat I drew it quickly from the fire and drove home the helve which I had already whittled down to the exact size. I had a hickory wedge prepared, and it was the work of ten seconds to drive it into the cleft at the lower end of the helve until the eye of the axe was completely and perfectly filled. Upon cooling the steel shrunk upon the wood, clasping it with such firmness that nothing short of fire could ever dislodge it. Then, carefully, with knife and sandpaper I polished off the wood around the steel of the axe until I had made as good a job of it as lay within my power.
So I carried the axe to my log-pile. I swung it above my head and the feel of it was good in my hands. The blade struck deep into the oak wood. And I said to myself with satisfaction:
"It serves the purpose."
THE MARSH DITCH
"If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-smelling herbs—is more elastic, more starry, more immortal—that is your Success."
In all the days of my life I have never been so well content as I am this spring. Last summer I thought I was happy, the fall gave me a finality of satisfaction, the winter imparted perspective, but spring conveys a wholly new sense of life, a quickening the like of which I never before experienced. It seems to me that everything in the world is more interesting, more vital, more significant. I feel like "waving aside all roofs," in the way of Le Sage's Asmodeus.
I even cease to fear Mrs. Horace, who is quite the most formidable person in this neighbourhood. She is so avaricious in the saving of souls—and so covetous of mine, which I wish especially to retain. When I see her coming across the hill I feel like running and hiding, and if I were as bold as a boy, I should do it, but being a grown-up coward I remain and dissemble.
She came over this morning. When I beheld her afar off, I drew a long breath: "One thousand," I quoted to myself, "shall flee at the rebuke of one."
In calmness I waited. She came with colours flying and hurled her biblical lance. When I withstood the shock with unexpected jauntiness, for I usually fall dead at once, she looked at me with severity and said:
"Mr. Grayson, you are a materialist."
"You have shot me with a name," I replied. "I am unhurt."
It would be impossible to slay me on a day like this. On a day like this I am immortal.
It comes to me as the wonder of wonders, these spring days, how surely everything, spiritual as well as material, proceeds out of the earth. I have times of sheer Paganism when I could bow and touch my face to the warm bare soil. We are so often ashamed of the Earth—the soil of it, the sweat of it, the good common coarseness of it. To us in our fine raiment and soft manners, it seems indelicate. Instead of seeking that association with the earth which is the renewal of life, we devise ourselves distant palaces and seek strange pleasures. How often and sadly we repeat the life story of the yellow dodder of the moist lanes of my lower farm. It springs up fresh and clean from the earth itself, and spreads its clinging viny stems over the hospitable wild balsam and golden rod. In a week's time, having reached the warm sunshine of the upper air, it forgets its humble beginnings. Its roots wither swiftly and die out, but the sickly yellow stems continue to flourish and spread, drawing their nourishment not from the soil itself, but by strangling and sucking the life juices of the hosts on which it feeds. I have seen whole byways covered thus with yellow dodder—rootless, leafless, parasitic—reaching up to the sunlight, quite cutting off and smothering the plants which gave it life. A week or two it flourishes and then most of it perishes miserably. So many of us come to be like that: so much of our civilization is like that. Men and women there are—the pity of it—who, eating plentifully, have never themselves taken a mouthful from the earth. They have never known a moment's real life of their own. Lying up to the sun in warmth and comfort—but leafless—they do not think of the hosts under them, smothered, strangled, starved. They take nothing at first hand. They experience described emotion, and think prepared thoughts. They live not in life, but in printed reports of life. They gather the odour of odours, not the odour itself: they do not hear, they overhear. A poor, sad, second-rate existence!
Bring out your social remedies! They will fail, they will fail, every one, until each man has his feet somewhere upon the soil!
My wild plum trees grow in the coarse earth, among excrementitious mould, a physical life which finally blossoms and exhales its perfect odour: which ultimately bears the seed of its immortality.
Human happiness is the true odour of growth, the sweet exhalation of work: and the seed of human immortality is borne secretly within the coarse and mortal husk. So many of us crave the odour without cultivating the earthly growth from which it proceeds: so many, wasting mortality, expect immortality!
——"Why," asks Charles Baxter, "do you always put the end of your stories first?"
"You may be thankful," I replied, "that I do not make my remarks all endings. Endings are so much more interesting than beginnings."
Without looking up from the buggy he was mending, Charles Baxter intimated that my way had at least one advantage: one always knew, he said, that I really had an end in view—and hope deferred, he said——
——How surely, soundly, deeply, the physical underlies the spiritual. This morning I was up and out at half-past four, as perfect a morning as I ever saw: mists yet huddled in the low spots, the sun coming up over the hill, and all the earth fresh with moisture, sweet with good odours, and musical with early bird-notes.
It is the time of the spring just after the last seeding and before the early haying: a catch-breath in the farmer's year. I have been utilising it in digging a drainage ditch at the lower end of my farm. A spot of marsh grass and blue flags occupies nearly half an acre of good land and I have been planning ever since I bought the place to open a drain from its lower edge to the creek, supplementing it in the field above, if necessary, with submerged tiling. I surveyed it carefully several weeks ago and drew plans and contours of the work as though it were an inter-oceanic canal. I find it a real delight to work out in the earth itself the details of the drawing.
This morning, after hastening with the chores, I took my bag and my spade on my shoulder and set off (in rubber boots) for the ditch. My way lay along the margin of my cornfield in the deep grass. On my right as I walked was the old rail fence full of thrifty young hickory and cherry trees with here and there a clump of blackberry bushes. The trees beyond the fence cut off the sunrise so that I walked in the cool broad shadows. On my left stretched the cornfield of my planting, the young corn well up, very attractive and hopeful, my really frightful scarecrow standing guard on the knoll, a wisp of straw sticking up through a hole in his hat and his crooked thumbs turned down—"No mercy."
"Surely no corn ever before grew like this," I said to myself. "To-morrow I must begin cultivating again."
So I looked up and about me—not to miss anything of the morning—and I drew in a good big breath and I thought the world had never been so open to my senses.
I wonder why it is that the sense of smell is so commonly under-regarded. To me it is the source of some of my greatest pleasures. No one of the senses is more often allied with robustity of physical health. A man who smells acutely may be set down as enjoying that which is normal, plain, wholesome. He does not require seasoning: the ordinary earth is good enough for him. He is likely to be sane—which means sound, healthy—in his outlook upon life.
Of all hours of the day there is none like the early morning for downright good odours—the morning before eating. Fresh from sleep and unclogged with food a man's senses cut like knives. The whole world comes in upon him. A still morning is best, for the mists and the moisture seem to retain the odours which they have distilled through the night. Upon a breezy morning one is likely to get a single predominant odour as of clover when the wind blows across a hay field or of apple blossoms when the wind comes through the orchard, but upon a perfectly still morning, it is wonderful how the odours arrange themselves in upright strata, so that one walking passes through them as from room to room in a marvellous temple of fragrance, (I should have said, I think, if I had not been on my way to dig a ditch, that it was like turning the leaves of some delicate volume of lyrics!)
So it was this morning. As I walked along the margin of my field I was conscious, at first, coming within the shadows of the wood, of the cool, heavy aroma which one associates with the night: as of moist woods and earth mould. The penetrating scent of the night remains long after the sights and sounds of it have disappeared. In sunny spots I had the fragrance of the open cornfield, the aromatic breath of the brown earth, giving curiously the sense of fecundity—a warm, generous odour of daylight and sunshine. Down the field, toward the corner, cutting in sharply, as though a door opened (or a page turned to another lyric), came the cloying, sweet fragrance of wild crab-apple blossoms, almost tropical in their richness, and below that, as I came to my work, the thin acrid smell of the marsh, the place of the rushes and the flags and the frogs.
How few of us really use our senses! I mean give ourselves fully at any time to the occupation of the senses. We do not expect to understand a treatise on Economics without applying our minds to it, nor can we really smell or hear or see or feel without every faculty alert. Through sheer indolence we miss half the joy of the world!
Often as I work I stop to see: really see: see everything, or to listen, and it is the wonder of wonders, how much there is in this old world which we never dreamed of, how many beautiful, curious, interesting sights and sounds there are which ordinarily make no impression upon our clogged, overfed and preoccupied minds. I have also had the feeling—it may be unscientific but it is comforting—that any man might see like an Indian or smell like a hound if he gave to the senses the brains which the Indian and the hound apply to them. And I'm pretty sure about the Indian! It is marvellous what a man can do when he puts his entire mind upon one faculty and bears down hard.
So I walked this morning, not hearing nor seeing, but smelling. Without desiring to stir up strife among the peaceful senses, there is this further marvel of the sense of smell. No other possesses such an after-call. Sight preserves pictures: the complete view of the aspect of objects, but it is photographic and external. Hearing deals in echoes, but the sense of smell, while saving no vision of a place or a person, will re-create in a way almost miraculous the inner emotion of a particular time or place. I know of nothing that will so "create an appetite under the ribs of death."
Only a short time ago I passed an open doorway in the town. I was busy with errands, my mind fully engaged, but suddenly I caught an odour from somewhere within the building I was passing. I stopped! It was as if in that moment I lost twenty years of my life: I was a boy again, living and feeling a particular instant at the time of my father's death. Every emotion of that occasion, not recalled in years, returned to me sharply and clearly as though I experienced it for the first time. It was a peculiar emotion: the first time I had ever felt the oppression of space—can I describe it?—the utter bigness of the world and the aloofness of myself, a little boy, within it—now that my father was gone. It was not at that moment sorrow, nor remorse, nor love: it was an inexpressible cold terror—that anywhere I might go in the world, I should still be alone!
And there I stood, a man grown, shaking in the sunshine with that old boyish emotion brought back to me by an odour! Often and often have I known this strange rekindling of dead fires. And I have thought how, if our senses were really perfect, we might lose nothing, out of our lives: neither sights, nor sounds, nor emotions: a sort of mortal immortality. Was not Shakespeare great because he lost less of the savings of his senses than other men? What a wonderful seer, hearer, smeller, taster, feeler, he must have been—and how, all the time, his mind must have played upon the gatherings of his senses! All scenes, all men, the very turn of a head, the exact sound of a voice, the taste of food, the feel of the world—all the emotions of his life must he have had there before him as he wrote, his great mind playing upon them, reconstructing, re-creating and putting them down hot upon his pages. There is nothing strange about great men; they are like us, only deeper, higher, broader: they think as we do, but with more intensity: they suffer as we do, more keenly: they love as we do, more tenderly.
I may be over-glorifying the sense of smell, but it is only because I walked this morning in a world of odours. The greatest of the senses, of course, is not smell or hearing, but sight. What would not any man exchange for that: for the faces one loves, for the scenes one holds most dear, for all that is beautiful and changeable and beyond description? The Scotch Preacher says that the saddest lines in all literature are those of Milton, writing of his blindness.
"Seasons return; but not to me returns Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn, Or sight of vernal bloom or Summer's rose, Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine."
—I have wandered a long way from ditch-digging, but not wholly without intention. Sooner or later I try to get back into the main road. I throw down my spade in the wet trampled grass at the edge of the ditch. I take off my coat and hang it over a limb of the little hawthorn tree. I put my bag near it. I roll up the sleeves of my flannel shirt: I give my hat a twirl; I'm ready for work.
—The senses are the tools by which we lay hold upon the world: they are the implements of consciousness and growth. So long as they are used upon the good earth—used to wholesome weariness—they remain healthy, they yield enjoyment, they nourish growth; but let them once be removed from their natural employment and they turn and feed upon themselves, they seek the stimulation of luxury, they wallow in their own corruption, and finally, worn out, perish from off the earth which they have not appreciated. Vice is ever the senses gone astray.
—So I dug. There is something fine in hard physical labour, straight ahead: no brain used, just muscles. I stood ankle-deep in the cool water: every spadeful came out with a smack, and as I turned it over at the edge of the ditch small turgid rivulets coursed back again. I did not think of anything in particular. I dug. A peculiar joy attends the very pull of the muscles. I drove the spade home with one foot, then I bent and lifted and turned with a sort of physical satisfaction difficult to describe. At first I had the cool of the morning, but by seven o'clock the day was hot enough! I opened the breast of my shirt, gave my sleeves another roll, and went at it again for half an hour, until I dripped with perspiration.
"I will knock off," I said, so I used my spade as a ladder and climbed out of the ditch. Being very thirsty, I walked down through the marshy valley to the clump of alders which grows along the creek. I followed a cow-path through the thicket and came to the creek side, where I knelt on a log and took a good long drink. Then I soused my head in the cool stream, dashed the water upon my arms and came up dripping and gasping! Oh, but it was fine!
So I came back to the hawthorn tree, where I sat down comfortably and stretched my legs. There is a poem in stretched legs—after hard digging—but I can't write it, though I can feel it! I got my bag and took out a half loaf of Harriet's bread. Breaking off big crude pieces, I ate it there in the shade. How rarely we taste the real taste of bread! We disguise it with butter, we toast it, we eat it with milk or fruit. We even soak it with gravy (here in the country where we aren't at all polite—but very comfortable), so that we never get the downright delicious taste of the bread itself. I was hungry this morning and I ate my half loaf to the last crumb—and wanted more. Then I lay down for a moment in the shade and looked up into the sky through the thin outer branches of the hawthorn. A turkey buzzard was lazily circling cloud-high above me: a frog boomed intermittently from the little marsh, and there were bees at work in the blossoms.
—I had another drink at the creek and went back somewhat reluctantly, I confess, to the work. It was hot, and the first joy of effort had worn off. But the ditch was to be dug and I went at it again. One becomes a sort of machine—unthinking, mechanical: and yet intense physical work, though making no immediate impression on the mind, often lingers in the consciousness. I find that sometimes I can remember and enjoy for long afterward every separate step in a task.