THE HILLS OF HINGHAM
DALLAS LORE SHARP
BOSTON AND NEW YORK
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
The Riverside Press Cambridge
COPYRIGHT, 1916, BY DALLAS LORE SHARP
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Published April 1916
TO THOSE WHO
"Enforst to seek some shelter nigh at hand"
HAVE FOUND THE HILLS OF HINGHAM
The is not exactly the book I thought it was going to be—though I can say the same of its author for that matter. I had intended this book to set forth some features of the Earth that make it to be preferred to Heaven as a place of present abode, and to note in detail the peculiar attractions of Hingham over Boston, say,—Boston being quite the best city on the Earth to live in. I had the book started under the title "And this Our Life"
. . . exempt from public haunt, Finds tongues in trees,"
—when, suddenly, war broke out, the gates of Hell swung wide open into Belgium, and Heaven began to seem the better place. Meanwhile, a series of lesser local troubles had been brewing—drouth, caterpillars, rheumatism, increased commutation rates, more college themes,—more than I could carry back and forth to Hingham,—so that as the writing went on Boston began to seem, not a better place than Hingham, but a nearer place, somehow, and more thoroughly sprayed.
And all this time the book on Life that I thought I was writing was growing chapter by chapter into a defense of that book—a defense of Life—my life here by my fireside with my boys and Her, and the garden and woodlot and hens and bees, and days off and evenings at home and books to read, yes, and books to write—all of which I had taken for granted at twenty, and believed in with a beautiful faith at thirty, when I moved out here into what was then an uninfected forest.
That was the time to have written the book that I had intended this one to be—while the adventure in contentment was still an adventure, while the lure of the land was of fourteen acres yet unexplored, while back to the soil meant exactly what the seed catalogues picture it, and my summer in a garden had not yet passed into its frosty fall. Instead, I have done what no writer ought to do, what none ever did before, unless Jacob wrote,—taken a fourteen-year-old enthusiasm for my theme, to find the enthusiasm grown, as Rachel must have grown by the time Jacob got her, into a philosophy, and like all philosophies, in need of defense.
What men live by is an interesting speculative question, but what men live on, and where they can live,—with children to bring up, and their own souls to save,—is an intensely practical question which I have been working at these fourteen years here in the Hills of Hingham.
I. THE HILLS OF HINGHAM II. THE OPEN FIRE III. THE ICE CROP IV. SEED CATALOGUES V. THE DUSTLESS-DUSTER VI. SPRING PLOUGHING VII. MERE BEANS VIII. A PILGRIM FROM DUBUQUE IX. THE HONEY FLOW X. A PAIR OF PIGS XI. LEAFING XII. THE LITTLE FOXES XIII. OUR CALENDAR XIV. THE FIELDS OF FODDER XV. GOING BACK TO TOWN XVI. THE CHRISTMAS TREE
THE HILLS OF HINGHAM
"As Surrey hills to mountains grew In White of Selborne's loving view"
Really there are no hills in Hingham, to speak of, except Bradley Hill and Peartree Hill and Turkey Hill, and Otis and Planter's and Prospect Hills, Hingham being more noted for its harbor and plains. Everybody has heard of Hingham smelts. Mullein Hill is in Hingham, too, but Mullein Hill is only a wrinkle on the face of Liberty Plain, which accounts partly for our having it. Almost anybody can have a hill in Hingham who is content without elevation, a surveyor's term as applied to hills, and a purely accidental property which is not at all essential to real hillness, or the sense of height. We have a stump on Mullein Hill for height. A hill in Hingham is not only possible, but even practical as compared with a Forest in Arden, Arden being altogether too far from town; besides
". . . there's no clock in the forest"
and we have the 8.35 train to catch of a winter morning!
"A sheep-cote fenced about with olive trees"
sounds more pastoral than apple trees around a house on a hill in Hingham, and it would be more ideal, too, if New England weather were not so much better adapted to apples, and if one did not prefer apples, and if one could raise a family in a sheep-cote.
We started in the sheep-cote, back yonder when all the world was twenty or thereabouts, and when every wild-cherry-bush was an olive tree. But one day the tent caterpillar like a wolf swept down on our fold of cherry-bushes and we fled Arden, never to get back. We lived for a time in town and bought olives in bottles, stuffed ones sometimes, then we got a hill in Hingham, just this side of Arden, still buying our olives, but not our apples now, nor our peaches, nor our musk melons, nor our wood for the open fire. We buy commutation tickets, and pay dearly for the trips back and forth. But we could n't make a living in Arden. Our hill in Hingham is a compromise.
Only folk of twenty and close to twenty live in Arden. We are forty now and no longer poets. When we are really old and our grasshoppers become a burden, we may go back to town where the insects are an entirely different species; but for this exceedingly busy present, between our fading dawn of visions and our coming dusk of dreams, a hill in Hingham, though a compromise, is an almost strategic position, Hingham being more or less of an escape from Boston, and the hill, though not in the Forest of Arden, something of an escape from Hingham, a quaint old village of elm-cooled streets and gentle neighbors. Not that we hate Boston, nor that we pass by on the other side in Hingham. We gladly pick our neighbors up and set them in our motor car and bring them to the foot of the hill. We people of the hills do not hate either crowds or neighbors. We are neighbors ourselves and parts of the city crowds too; and we love to bind up wounds and bring folk to their inns. But we cannot take them farther, for there are no inns out here. We leave them in Hingham and journey on alone into a region where neither thief nor anyone infests the roadsides; where there are no roads in fact, but only driftways and footpaths through the sparsely settled hills.
We leave the crowd on the streets, we leave the kind neighbor at his front gate, and travel on, not very far, but on alone into a wide quiet country where we shall have a chance, perhaps, of meeting with ourselves—the day's great adventure, and far to find; yet this is what we have come out to the hills for.
Not for apples nor wood fires have we a hill in Hingham; not for hens and a bigger house, and leisure, and conveniences, and excitements; not for ways to earn a living, nor for ways to spend it. Stay in town for that. There "you can even walk alone without being bored. No long, uneventful stretches of bleak, wintry landscape, where nothing moves, not even the train of thought. No benumbed and self-centered trees holding out pathetic frozen branches for sympathy. Impossible to be introspective here. Fall into a brown or blue study and you are likely to be run over. Thought is brought to the surface by mental massage. No time to dwell upon your beloved self. So many more interesting things to think about. And the changing scenes unfold more rapidly than a moving-picture reel."
This sounds much more interesting than the country. And it is more interesting, Broadway asking nothing of a country lane for excitement. And back they go who live on excitement; while some of us take this same excitement as the best of reasons for double windows and storm doors and country life the year through.
You can think in the city, but it is in spite of the city. Gregariousness and individuality do not abide together; nor is external excitement the cause or the concomitant of thought. In fact this "mental massage" of the city is to real thinking about what a mustard-plaster is to circulation—a counter-irritant. The thinker is one who finds himself (quite impossible on Broadway!); and then finds himself interesting—more interesting than Broadway—another impossibility within the city limits. Only in the country can he do that, in a wide and negative environment of quiet, room, and isolation—necessary conditions for the enjoyment of one's own mind. Thought is a country product and comes in to the city for distribution, as books are gathered and distributed by libraries, but not written in libraries. It is against the wide, drab background of the country that thought most naturally reacts, thinking being only the excitement of a man discovering himself, as he is compelled to do, where bending horizon and arching sky shift as he shifts in all creation's constant endeavor to swing around and center on him. Nothing centers on him in the city, where he thinks by "mental massage"—through the scalp with laying on of hands, as by benediction or shampoo.
But for the busy man, say of forty, are the hills of Hingham with their adventure possible? Why, there is nothing ailing the man of forty except that he now is neither young nor old, nor rich, the chances are; nor a dead failure either, but just an average man; yet he is one of God's people, if the Philistines were (He brought them from Caphtor) and the Syrians (those He brought from Kir). The man of forty has a right to so much of the Promised Land as a hill in Hingham. But he is afraid to possess it because it is so far from work and friends and lighted streets. He is afraid of the dark and of going off to sit down upon a stump for converse with himself. He is afraid he won't get his work done. If his work were planting beans, he would get none planted surely while on the stump; but so he might be saved the ungracious task of giving away his surplus beans to bean-ridden friends for the summer. A man, I believe, can plant too many beans. He might not finish the freshman themes either. But when was the last freshman theme ever done? Finish them if he can, he has only baked the freshmen into sophomores, and so emptied the ovens for another batch of dough. He shall never put a crust on the last freshman, and not much of a crust on the last sophomore either, the Almighty refusing to cooeperate with him in the baking. Let him do the best he can, not the most he can, and quit for Hingham and the hills where he can go out to a stump and sit down.
College students also are a part of that world which can be too much with us, cabbages, too, if we are growing cabbages. We don't do over-much, but we are over-busy. We want too much. Buy a little hill in Hingham, and even out here, unless you pray and go apart often to your stump, your desire will be toward every hill in sight and the valleys between.
According to the deed my hill comprises "fourteen acres more or less" of an ancient glacier, a fourteen-acre heap of unmitigated gravel, which now these almost fourteen years I have been trying to clear of stones, picking, picking for a whole Stone Age, and planning daily to buy the nine-acre ridge adjoining me which is gravelier than mine. By actual count we dumped five hundred cartloads of stones into the foundation of a porch when making over the house recently—and still I am out in the garden picking, picking, living in the Stone Age still, and planning to prolong the stay by nine acres more that are worse than these I now have, nine times worse for stones!
I shall never cease picking stones, I presume, but perhaps I can get out a permanent injunction against myself, to prevent my buying that neighboring gravel hill, and so find time to climb my own and sit down among the beautiful moth-infested oak trees.
I do sit down, and I thrust my idle hands hard into my pockets to keep them from the Devil who would have them out at the moths instantly—an evil job, killing moths, worse than picking stones!
Nothing is more difficult to find anywhere than time to sit down with yourself, except the ability to enjoy the time after finding it,—even here on a hill in Hingham, if the hill is in woods. There are foes to face in the city and floods to stem out here, but let no one try to fight several acres of caterpillars. When you see them coming, climb your stump and wait on the Lord. He is slow; and the caterpillars are horribly fast. True. Yet I say. To your stump and wait—and learn how restful a thing it is to sit down by faith. For the town sprayer is a vain thing. The roof of green is riddled. The rafters overhead reach out as naked as in December. Ruin looks through. On sweep the devouring hosts in spite of arsenate of lead and "wilt" disease and Calasoma beetles. Nothing will avail; nothing but a new woodlot planted with saplings that the caterpillars do not eat. Sit still my soul, and know that when these oak trees fall there will come up the fir tree and the pine tree and the shagbark, distasteful to the worms; and they shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
This is good forestry, and good philosophy—a sure handling of both worms and soul.
But how hard to follow! I would so like to help the Lord. Not to do my own share only; but to shoulder the Almighty's too, saying—
"If it were done when 't is done, then 't were well It were done quickly";
and I up and do it. But it does not stay done. I had sprayed, creosoted, cut, trimmed, cemented, only to see the trees die, until I was forced to rest upon the stump, when I saw what I had been blind to before: that the pine trees were tipped with cones, and that there in the tops were the red squirrels shucking and giving the winged seeds to the winds to sow; and that even now up the wooded slope below me, where the first of the old oaks had perished, was climbing a future grove of seedling pines.
The forests of Arden are not infested with gypsy moths, nor the woods of Heaven either, I suppose; but the trees in the hills of Hingham are. And yet they are the trees of the Lord; the moths are his also, and the caring for them. I am caring for a few college freshmen and my soul. I shall go forth to my work until the evening. The Lord can take the night-shift; for it was He who instituted the twilight, and it is He who must needs be responsible till the morning.
So here a-top my stump in the beleaguered woodlot I sit with idle hands, and no stars falling, and the universe turning all alone!
To wake up at forty a factory hand! a floor-walker! a banker! a college professor! a man about town or any other respectably successful, humdrum, square wooden peg-of-a-thing in a square tight hole! There is an evil, says the Preacher, which I have seen under the sun—the man of about forty who has become moderately successful and automatic, but who has not, and now knows he cannot, set the world on fire. This is a vanity and it is an evil disease.
From running the universe at thirty the man of forty finds himself running with it, paced before, behind, and beside, by other runners and by the very stars in their courses. He has struck the universal gait, a strong steady stride that will carry him to the finish, but not among the medals. This is an evil thing. Forty is a dangerous age. The wild race of twenty, the staggering step of eighty, are full of peril, but not so deadly as the even, mechanical going of forty; for youth has the dash in hand; old age has ceased to worry and is walking in; while the man of forty is right in the middle of the run, grinding along on his second wind with the cheering all ahead of him.
In fact, the man of forty finds himself half-way across the street with the baby carriage in his hands, and touring cars in front of him, and limousines behind him, and the hand-of-the-law staying and steadying him on his perilous course.
Life may be no busier at forty than at thirty, but it is certainly more expensive. Work may not be so hard, but the facts of life are a great deal harder, the hardest, barest of them being the here-and-now of all things, the dead levelness of forty—an irrigated plain that has no hill of vision, no valley of dream. But it may have its hill in Hingham with a bit of meadow down below.
Mullein Hill is the least of all hills, even with the added stump; but looking down through the trees I can see the gray road, and an occasional touring car, like a dream, go by; and off on the Blue Hills of Milton—higher hills than ours in Hingham—hangs a purple mist that from our ridge seems the very robe and veil of vision.
The realities are near enough to me here crawling everywhere, indeed; but close as I am to the flat earth I can yet look down at things—at the road and the passing cars; and off at things—the hills and the distant horizon; and so I can escape for a time that level stare into the face of things which sees them as things close and real, but seldom as life, far off and whole.
Perhaps I have never seen life whole; I may need a throne and not a hill and a stump for that; but here in the wideness of the open skies, in the sweet quiet, in the hush that often fills these deep woods, I sometimes see life free, not free from men and things, but unencumbered, coming to meet me out of the morning and passing on with me toward the sunset until, at times, the stepping westward, the uneventful onwardness of life has
". . . seemed to be A kind of heavenly destiny"
and, even the back-and-forth of it, a divine thing.
This knowledge is too wonderful for me; I cannot keep fast hold of it; yet to know occasionally that you are greater than your rhetoric, or your acres of stones, or your woods of worms, worms that may destroy your trees though you spray, is to steady and establish your soul, and vastly to comfort it!
To be greater than your possessions, than your accomplishments, than your desires—greater than you know, than anybody at home knows or will admit! So great that you can leave your plough in the turret that you can leave the committees to meet, and the trees to fall, and the sun to hurry on, while you take your seat upon a stump, assured from many a dismaying observation that the trees will fall anyhow, that the sun will hasten on its course, and that the committees, even the committees, will meet and do business whether you attend or not!
This is bed-rock fact, the broad and solid bottom for a cheerful philosophy. To know that they can get on without you (more knowledge than many ever attain!) is the beginning of wisdom; and to learn that you can get on without them—at the close of the day, and out here on your hill in Hingham—this is the end of understanding.
If I am no more than the shoes I stitch, or the lessons I peg, and the college can so calmly move on without me, how small I am! Let me hope that I am useful there, and useful as a citizen-at-large; but I know that I am chiefly and utterly dispensable at large, everywhere at large, even in Hingham. But not here on my hilltop. Here I am indispensable. In the short shift from my classroom, from chair to hill, from doing to being, I pass from a means into an end, from a part in the scheme of things to the scheme of things itself.
Here stands my hill on the highway from dawn to dusk, and just where the bending walls of the sky center and encircle it. This is not only a large place, with room and verge enough; it is also a chief place, where start the north and south and east and west, and the gray crooked road over which I travel daily.
I can trace the run of the road from my stump on the hill, off to where it bends on the edge of night for its returning and rest here.
"Let me live in a house by the aide of the road,"
sings the poet; but as for me, after traveling all day let me come back to a house at the end of the road—for in returning and rest shall a man be saved, in quietness and confidence shall he find strength. Nowhere shall he find that quietness and confidence in larger measure than here in the hills. And where shall he return to more rest?
There are men whose souls are like these hills, simple, strong, quiet men who can heal and restore; and there are books that help like the hills, simple elemental, large books; music, and sleep, and prayer, and play are healing too; but none of these cure and fill one with a quietness and confidence as deep as that from the hills, even from the little hills and the small fields and the vast skies of Hingham; a confidence and joy in the earth, perhaps, rather than in heaven, and yet in heaven too.
If it is not also a steadied thinking and a cleared seeing, it is at least a mental and moral convalescence that one gets—out of the landscape, out of its largeness, sweetness and reality. I am quickly conscious on the hills of space all about me—room for myself, room for the things that crowd and clutter me; and as these arrange and set themselves in order, I am aware of space within me, of freedom and wideness there, of things in order, of doors unlocked and windows opened, through which I look out upon a new young world, new like the morning, young like the seedling pines on the slope—young and new like my soul!
Now I can go back to my classroom. Now I can read themes once more. Now I can gaze into the round, moon-eyed face of youth and have faith—as if my chair were a stump, my classroom a wooded hillside covered with young pines, seedlings of the Lord, and full of sap, and proof against the worm.
Yet these are the same youth who yesterday wrote the "Autobiography of a Fountain Pen" and "The Exhilarations of the Straw-Ride" and the essays on "The Beauties of Nature." It is I who am not the same. I have been changed, renewed, having seen from my stump the face of eternal youth in the freshmen pines marching up the hillside, in the young brook playing and pursuing through the meadow, in the young winds over the trees, the young stars in the skies, the young moon riding along the horizon
"With the auld moon in her arm"—
youth immortal, and so, unburdened by its withered load of age.
I come down from the hill with a soul resurgent,—strong like the heave that overreaches the sag of the sea,—and bold in my faith—to a lot of college students as the hope of the world!
From the stump in the woodlot I see not only the face of things but the course of things, that they are moving past me, over me, and round and round me their fixed center—for the horizon to bend about, for the sky to arch over, for the highways to start from, for every influence and interest between Hingham and Heaven to focus on.
"All things journey sun and moon Morning noon and afternoon, Night and all her stars,"—
and they all journey about me on my stump in the hilltop.
We love human nature; we love to get back to it in New York and Boston,—for a day, for six months in the winter even,—but we need to get back to the hills at night. We are a conventional, gregarious, herding folk. Let an American get rich and he builds a grand house in the city. Let an Englishman get rich and he moves straight into the country—out to such a spot as Bradley Hill in Hingham.
There are many of the city's glories and conveniences lacking here on Mullein Hill, but Mullein Hill has some of the necessities that are lacking in the city—wide distances and silent places, and woods and stumps where you can sit down and feel that you are greater than anything in sight. In the city the buildings are too vast; the people are too many. You might feel greater than any two or three persons there, perhaps, but not greater than nearly a million.
No matter how centered and serene I start from Hingham, a little way into Boston and I am lost. First I begin to hurry (a thing unnecessary in Hingham) for everybody else is hurrying; then I must get somewhere; everybody else is getting somewhere, getting everywhere. For see them in front of me and behind me, getting there ahead of me and coming after me to leave no room for me when I shall arrive! But when shall I and where shall I arrive? And what shall I arrive for? And who am I that I would arrive? I look around for the encircling horizon, and up for the overarching sky, and in for the guiding purpose; but instead of a purpose I am hustled forward by a crowd, and at the bottom of a street far down beneath such overhanging walls as leave me but a slit of smoky sky. I am in the hands of a force mightier than I, in the hands of the police force at the street corners, and am carried across to the opposite curb through a breaker that rolls in front of me again at the next crossing. So I move on, by external compulsion, knowing, as I move, by a kind of mental contagion, feeling by a sort of proxy, and putting my trust everywhere in advertising and the police.
Thus I come, it may be, into the Public Library, "where is all the recorded wit of the world, but none of the recording,"—where Shakespeare and Old Sleuth and Pansy look all alike and as readable as the card catalogues, or the boy attendants, or the signs of the Zodiac in the vestibule floor.
Who can read all these books? Who wishes to read any of these books? They are too many—more books in here than men on the street outside! And how dead they are in here, wedged side by side in this vast sepulcher of human thought!
I move among them dully, the stir of the streets coming to me as the soughing of wind on the desert or the wash of waves on a distant shore. Here I find a book of my own among the dead. I read its inscription curiously. I must have written it—when I was alive aeons ago, and far from here. But why did I? For see the unread, the shelved, the numbered, the buried books!
Let me out to the street! Dust we are, not books, and unto dust, good fertile soil, not paper and ink, we shall return. No more writing for me—but breathing and eating and jostling with the good earthy people outside, laughing and loving and dying with them!
The sweet wind in Copley Square! The sweet smell of gasoline! The sweet scream of electric horns!
And how sweet—how fat and alive and friendly the old colored hack driver, standing there by the stone post! He has a number on his cap; he is catalogued somewhere, but not in the library. Thank heaven he is no book, but just a good black human being. I rush up and shake hands with him. He nearly falls into his cab with astonishment; but I must get hold of life again, and he looks so real and removed from letters!
"Uncle!" I whisper, close in his ear, "have ye got it? Quick—
"'Cross me twice wid de raabbit foot— Dar's steppin' at de doo'! Cross me twice wid de raabbit foot— Dar's creakin' on de floo'!'"
He makes the passes, and I turn down Boylston Street, a living thing once more with face toward—the hills of Hingham.
It is five o'clock, and a winter evening, and all the street pours forth to meet me—some of them coming with me bound for Hingham, surely, as all of them are bound for a hill somewhere and a home.
I love the city at this winter hour. This home-hurrying crowd—its excitement of escape! its eagerness and expectancy! its camaraderie! The arc-lights overhead glow and splutter with the joy they see on the faces beneath them.
It is nearly half-past five as I turn into Winter Street. Now the very stores are closing. Work has ceased. Drays and automobiles are gone. The two-wheeled fruit man is going from his stand at the Subway entrance. The street is filled from wall to wall with men and women, young women and young men, fresher, more eager, more excited, more joyous even than the lesser crowd of shoppers down Boylston Street. They don't notice me particularly. No one notices any one particularly, for the lights overhead see us all, and we all understand as we cross and dodge and lockstep and bump and jostle through this deep narrow place of closing doors toward home. Then the last rush at the station, that nightly baptism into human brotherhood as we plunge into the crowd and are carried through the gates and into our train—which is speeding far out through the dark before I begin to come to myself—find myself leaving the others, separating, individualizing, taking on definite shape and my own being. The train is grinding in at my station, and I drop out along the track in the dark alone.
I gather my bundles and hug them to me, feeling not the bread and bananas, but only the sense of possession, as I step off down the track. Here is my automobile. Two miles of back-country road lie before me. I drive slowly, the stars overhead, but not far away, and very close about me the deep darkness of the woods—and silence and space and shapes invisible, and voices inaudible as yet to my city-dinned ears and staring eyes. But sight returns, and hearing, till soon my very fingers, feeling far into the dark, begin to see and hear.
And now I near the hill: these are my woods; this is my gravel bank; that my meadow, my wall, my postbox, and up yonder among the trees shines my light. They are expecting me, She, and the boys, and the dog, and the blazing fire, the very trees up there, and the watching stars.
How the car takes the hill—as if up were down, and wheels were wings, and just as if the boys and the dog and the dinner and the fire were all waiting for it! As they are, of course, it and me. I open up the throttle, I jam the shrieking whistle, and rip around the bend in the middle of the hill,—puppy yelping down to meet me. The noise we make as the lights flash on, as the big door rolls back, and we come to our nightly standstill inside the boy-filled barn! They drag me from the wheel—puppy yanking at my trouser leg; they pounce upon my bundles; they hustle me toward the house, where, in the lighted doorway more welcome waits me—and questions, batteries of them, even puppy joining the attack!
Who would have believed I had seen and done all this,—had any such adventurous trip,—lived any such significant day,—catching my regular 8.35 train as I did!
But we get through the dinner and some of the talk and then the out-loud reading before the fire; then while she is tucking the children in bed, I go out to see that all is well about the barn.
How the night has deepened since my return! No wind stirs. The hill-crest blazes with the light of the stars. Such an earth and sky! I lock the barn, and crossing the field, climb the ridge to the stump. The bare woods are dark with shadow and deep with the silence of the night. A train rumbles somewhere in the distance, then the silence and space reach off through the shadows, infinitely far off down the hillside; and the stars gather in the tops of the trees.
THE OPEN FIRE
It is a January night.
". . . . . . . Enclosed From Chaos and the inroad of Darkness old,"
we sit with our book before the fire. Outside in the night ghostly shapes pass by, ghostly faces press against the window, and at the corners of the house ghostly voices pause for parley, muttering thickly through the swirl and smother of the snow. Inside burns the fire, kindling into glorious pink and white peonies on the nearest wall and glowing warm and sweet on her face as she reads. The children are in bed. She is reading aloud to me:
"'I wish the good old times would come again,' she said, 'when we were not quite so rich. I do not mean that I want to be poor, but there was a middle state'—so she was pleased to ramble on—'in which, I am sure, we were a great deal happier.'"
Her eyes left the familiar page, wandering far away beyond the fire.
"Is it so hard to bear up under two thousand five hundred a year?" I asked.
The gleam of the fire, or perhaps a fancy out of the far-beyond, lighted her eyes as she answered,
"We began on four hundred and fifty a year; and we were perfectly—"
"Yes, but you forget the parsonage; that was rent free!"
"Four hundred and fifty with rent free—and we had everything we could—"
"You forget again that we had n't even one of our four boys."
Her gaze rested tenderly upon the little chairs between her and the fire, just where the boys had left them at the end of their listening an hour before.
"If you had allowed me," she went on, "I was going to say how glad we ought to be that we are not quite so rich as—"
"We should like to be?" I questioned.
"'A purchase'"—she was reading again—"'is but a purchase, now that you have money enough and to spare. Formerly it used to be a triumph. Do you not remember the brown suit, which you made to hang upon you, till all your friends cried shame upon you, it grew so threadbare—and all because of that folio Beaumont and Fletcher which you dragged home late at night from Barker's in Covent Garden? Do you remember how we eyed it for weeks before we could make up our minds to the purchase, and had not come to a determination till it was near ten o'clock of the Saturday night, when you set off from Islington, fearing—'
"Is n't this exactly our case?" she asked, interrupting herself for no other purpose than to prolong the passage she was reading.
"Truly," I replied, trying hard to hide a note of eagerness in my voice, for I had kept my battery masked these many months, "only Lamb wanted an old folio, whereas we need a new car. I have driven that old machine for five years and it was second-hand to begin with."
I watched for the effect of the shot, but evidently I had not got the range, for she was saying.
"Is there a sweeter bit in all of 'Elia' than this, do you think"?
"'—And when the old bookseller with some grumbling opened his shop, and by the twinkling taper (for he was setting bedwards) lighted out the relic from his dusty treasures—and when you lugged it home, wishing it were twice as cumbersome—'"
She had paused again. To know when to pause! how to make the most of your author! to draw out the linked sweetness of a passage to its longest—there reads your loving reader!
"You see," laying her hand on mine, "old books and old friends are best, and I should think you had really rather have a nice safe old car than any new one. Thieves don't take old cars, as you know. And you can't insure them, that's a comfort! And cars don't skid and collide just because they are old, do they? And you never have to scold the children about the paint and—and the old thing does go—what do you think Lamb would say about old cars?"
"Lamb be hanged on old cars!" and I sent the sparks flying with a fresh stick.
"Well, then let's hear the rest of him on 'Old China.'" And so she read, while the fire burned, and outside swept the winter storm.
I have a weakness for out-loud reading and Lamb, and a peculiar joy in wood fires when the nights are dark and snowy. My mind is not, after all, much set on automobiles then; there is such a difference between a wild January night on Mullein Hill and an automobile show—or any other show. If St. Bernard of Cluny had been an American and not a monk, I think Jerusalem the Golden might very likely have been a quiet little town like Hingham, all black with a winter night and lighted for the Saint with a single open fire. Anyhow I cannot imagine the mansions of the Celestial City without fireplaces. I don't know how the equatorial people do; I have never lived on the equator, and I have no desire to—nor in any other place where it is too hot for a fireplace, or where wood is so scarce that one is obliged to substitute a gas-log. I wish I could build an open hearth into every lowly home and give every man who loves out-loud reading a copy of Lamb and sticks enough for a fire. I wish—is it futile to wish that besides the fireplace and the sticks I might add a great many more winter evenings to the round of the year? I would leave the days as they are in their beautiful and endless variety, but the long, shut-in winter evenings
"When young and old in circle About the firebrands close—"
these I would multiply, taking them away from June to give to January, could I supply the fire and the boys and the books and the reader to go with them.
And I often wonder if more men might not supply these things for themselves? There are January nights for all, and space enough outside of city and suburb for simple firesides; books enough also; yes, and readers-aloud if they are given the chance. But the boys are hard to get. They might even come girls. Well, what is the difference, anyway? Suppose mine had been dear things with ribbons in their hair—not these four, but four more? Then all the glowing circle about the fireplace had been filled, the chain complete, a link of fine gold for every link of steel! Ah! the cat hath nine lives, as Phisologus saith; but a man hath as many lives as he hath sons, with two lives besides for every daughter. So it must always seem to me when I remember the precious thing that vanished from me before I could even lay her in her mother's arms. She would have been, I think, a full head taller than the oldest boy, and wiser than all four of the boys, being a girl.
The real needs of life are few, and to be had by most men, even though they include children and an automobile. Second-hand cars are very cheap, and the world seems full of orphans—how many orphans now! It is n't a question of getting the things; the question is, What are the necessary things?
First, I say, a fireplace. A man does well to build his fireplace first instead of the garage. Better than a roof over one's head is a fire at one's feet; for what is there deadlier than the chill of a fireless house? The fireplace first, unless indeed he have the chance, as I had when a boy, to get him a pair of tongs.
The first piece of household furniture I ever purchased was a pair of old tongs. I was a lad in my teens. "Five—five—five—five—v-v-v-ve will you make it ten?" I heard the auctioneer cry as I passed the front gate. He held a pair of brass-headed hearth tongs above his head, waving them wildly at the unresponsive bidders.
"Will you make it ten?" he yelled at me as the last comer.
"Ten," I answered, a need for fire tongs, that blistering July day, suddenly overcoming me.
"And sold for ten cents to the boy in the gate," shouted the auctioneer. "Will somebody throw in the fireplace to go with them!"
I took my tongs rather sheepishly, I fear, rather helplessly, and got back through the gate, for I was on foot and several miles from home. I trudged on for home carrying those tongs with me all the way, not knowing why, not wishing to throw them into the briers for they were very old and full of story, and I—was very young and full of—I cannot tell, remembering what little boys are made of. And now here they lean against the hearth, that very pair. I packed them in the bottom of my trunk when I started for college; I saved them through the years when our open fire was a "base-burner," and then a gas-radiator in a city flat. Moved, preserved, "married" these many years, they stand at last where the boy must have dreamed them standing—that hot July day, how long, long ago!
But why should a boy have dreamed such dreams? And what was it in a married old pair of brass-headed hearth tongs that a boy in his teens should have bought them at auction and then have carried them to college with him, rattling about on the bottom of his trunk? For it was not an over-packed trunk. There were the tongs on the bottom and a thirty-cent edition of "The Natural History of Selborne" on the top—that is all. That is all the boy remembers. These two things, at least, are all that now remain out of the trunkful he started with from home—the tongs for sentiment, and for friendship the book.
"Are you listening?" she asks, looking up to see if I have gone to sleep.
"Yes, I 'm listening."
"Yes, dreaming a little, too,—of you, dear, and the tongs there, and the boys upstairs, and the storm outside, and the fire, and of this sweet room,—an old, old dream that I had years and years ago,—all come true, and more than true."
She slipped her hand into mine.
"Shall I go on?"
"Yes, go on, please, and I will listen—and, if you don't mind, dream a little, too, perhaps."
There is something in the fire and the rise and fall of her voice, something so infinitely soothing in its tones, and in Lamb, and in such a night as this—so vast and fearful, but so futile in its bitter sweep about the fire—that while one listens one must really dream too.
THE ICE CROP
The ice-cart with its weighty tongs never climbs our Hill, yet the icechest does not lack its clear blue cake of frozen February. We gather our own ice as we gather our own hay and apples. The small ice-house under the trees has just been packed with eighteen tons of "black" ice, sawed and split into even blocks, tier on tier, the harvest of the curing cold, as loft and cellar are still filled with crops made in the summer's curing heat. So do the seasons overlap and run together! So do they complement and multiply each other! Like the star-dust of Saturn they belt our fourteen-acre planet, not with three rings, nor four, but with twelve, a ring for every month, a girdle of twelve shining circles running round the year—the tinkling ice of February in the goblet of October!—the apples of October red and ripe on what might have been April's empty platter!
He who sows the seasons and gathers the months into ice-house and barn lives not from sunup to sundown, revolving with the hands of the clock, but, heliocentric, makes a daily circuit clear around the sun—the smell of mint in the hay-mow, a reminder of noontime passed; the prospect of winter in the growing garden, a gentle warning of night coming on. Twelve times one are twelve—by so many times are months and meanings and values multiplied for him whose fourteen acres bring forth abundantly—provided that the barns on the place be kept safely small.
Big barns are an abomination unto the Lord, and without place on a wise man's estate. As birds have nests, and foxes dens, so may any man have a place to lay his head, with a mansion prepared in the sky for his soul.
Big barns are as foolish for the ice-man as for others. The barns of an ice-man must needs be large, yet they are over-large if he can say to his soul: "Soul, thou hast much ice laid up for many days; eat, drink, and be merry among the cakes"—and when the autumn comes he still has a barn full of solid cemented cakes that must be sawed out! No soul can be merry long on ice—nor on sugar, nor shoes, nor stocks, nor hay, nor anything of that sort in great quantities. He who builds great barns for ice, builds a refrigerator for his soul. Ice must never become a man's only crop; for then winter means nothing but ice; and the year nothing but winter; for the year's never at the spring for him, but always at February or when the ice is making and the mercury is down to zero.
As I have already intimated, a safe kind of ice-house is one like mine, that cannot hold more than eighteen tons—a year's supply (shrinkage and Sunday ice-cream and other extras provided for). Such an ice-house is not only an ice-house, it is also an act of faith, an avowal of confidence in the stability of the frame of things, and in their orderly continuance. Another winter will come, it proclaims, when the ponds will be pretty sure to freeze. If they don't freeze, and never do again—well, who has an ice-house big enough in that event?
My ice-house is one of life's satisfactions; not architecturally, of course, for there has been no great development yet in ice-house lines, and this one was home-done; it is a satisfaction morally, being one thing I have done that is neither more nor less. I have the big-barn weakness—the desire for ice—for ice to melt—as if I were no wiser than the ice-man! I builded bigger than I knew when I put the stone porches about the dwelling-house, consulting in my pride the architect first instead of the town assessors. I took no counsel of pride in building the ice-house, nor of fear, nor of my love of ice. I said: "I will build me a house to carry a year's supply of ice and no more, however the price of ice may rise, and even with the risk of facing seven hot and iceless years. I have laid up enough things among the moths and rust. Ice against the rainy day I will provide, but ice for my children and my children's children, ice for a possible cosmic reversal that might twist the equator over the poles, I will not provide for. Nor will I go into the ice business."
Nor did I! And I say the building of that ice-house has been an immense satisfaction to me. I entertain my due share of
"Gorgons, and hydras and chimaeras dire";
but a cataclysm of the proportions mentioned above would as likely as not bring on another Ice Age, or indeed—
". . . run back and fetch the Age of Gold."
To have an ice-house, and yourself escape cold storage—that seems to me the thing.
I can fill the house in a single day, and so trade a day for a year; or is it not rather that I crowd a year into a day? Such days are possible. It is not any day that I can fill the ice-house. Ice-day is a chosen, dedicated day, one of the year's high festivals, the Day of First Fruits, the ice crop being the year's earliest harvest. Hay is made when the sun shines, a condition sometimes slow in coming; but ice of the right quality and thickness, with roads right, and sky right for harvesting, requires a conjunction of right conditions so difficult as to make a good ice-day as rare as a day in June. June! why, June knows no such glorious weather as that attending the harvest of the ice.
This year it fell early in February—rather late in the season; so late, in fact, that, in spite of my faith in winter, I began to grow anxious—something no one on a hill in Hingham need ever do. Since New Year's Day unseasonable weather had prevailed: shifty winds, uncertain skies, rain and snow and sleet—that soft, spongy weather when the ice soaks and grows soggy. By the middle of January what little ice there had been in the pond was gone, and the ice-house was still empty.
Toward the end of the month, however, the skies cleared, the wind settled steadily into the north, and a great quiet began to deepen over the fields, a quiet that at night grew so tense you seemed to hear the close-glittering heavens snapping with the light of the stars. Everything seemed charged with electric cold; the rich soil of the garden struck fire like flint beneath your feet; the tall hillside pines, as stiff as masts of steel, would suddenly crack in the brittle silence, with a sharp report; and at intervals throughout the taut boreal night you could hear a hollow rumbling running down the length of the pond—the ice being split with the wide iron wedge of the cold.
Down and down for three days slipped the silver column in the thermometer until at eight o'clock on the fourth day it stood just above zero. Cold? It was splendid weather! with four inches of ice on the little pond behind the ridge, glare ice, black as you looked across it, but like a pane of plate glass as you peered into it at the stirless bottom below; smooth glare ice untouched by the wing of the wind or by even the circling runner of the skater-snow. Another day and night like this and the solid square-edged blocks could come in.
I looked at the glass late that night and found it still falling. I went on out beneath the stars. It may have been the tightened telephone wires overhead, or the frozen ground beneath me ringing with the distant tread of the coming north wind, yet over these, and with them, I heard the singing of a voiceless song, no louder than the winging hum of bees, but vaster—the earth and air responding to a starry lyre as some Aeolian harper, sweeping through the silvery spaces of the night, brushed the strings with her robes of jeweled cold.
The mercury stood at zero by one o'clock. A biting wind had risen and blew all the next day. Eight inches of ice by this time. One night more and the crop would be ripe. And it was ripe.
I was out before the sun, tramping down to the pond with pike and saw, the team not likely to be along for half an hour yet, the breaking of the marvelous day all mine. Like apples of gold in baskets of silver were the snow-covered ridges in the light of the slow-coming dawn. The wind had fallen, but the chill seemed the more intense, so silently it took hold. My breath hung about me in little gray clouds, covering my face, and even my coat, with rime. As the hurt passed from my fingers, my eyebrows seemed to become detached, my cheeks shrunk, my flesh suddenly free of cumbering clothes. But in half a minute the rapid red blood would come beating back, spreading over me and out from me, with the pain, and then the glow, of life, of perfect life that seemed itself to feed upon the consuming cold.
No other living thing was yet abroad, no stir or sound except the tinkling of tiny bells all about me that were set to swinging as I moved along. The crusted snow was strewn with them; every twig was hung, and every pearl-bent grass blade. Then off through the woods rang the chime of louder bells, sleigh bells; then the shrill squeal of iron runners over dry snow; then the broken voices of men; and soon through the winding wood road came the horses, their bay coats white, as all things were, with the glittering dust of the hoar frost.
It was beautiful work. The mid-afternoon found us in the thick of a whirling storm, the grip of the cold relaxed, the woods abloom with the clinging snow. But the crop was nearly in. High and higher rose the cold blue cakes within the ice-house doors until they touched the rafter plate.
It was hard work. The horses pulled hard; the men swore hard, now and again, and worked harder than they swore. They were rough, simple men, crude and elemental like their labor. It was elemental work—filling a house with ice, three hundred-pound cakes of clean, clear ice, cut from the pond, skidded into the pungs, and hauled through the woods all white, and under a sky all gray, with softly-falling snow. They earned their penny; and I earned my penny, and I got it, though I asked only the wages of going on from dawn to dark, down the crystal hours of the day.
"The new number of the 'Atlantic' came to-day," She said, stopping by the table. "It has your essay in it."
"Yes?" I replied, only half hearing.
"You have seen it, then?"
"No"—still absorbed in my reading.
"What is it you are so interested in?" she inquired, laying down the new magazine.
"A seed catalogue."
"More seed catalogues! Why, you read nothing else last night."
"But this is a new one," I replied, "and I declare I never saw turnips that could touch this improved strain here. I am going to plant a lot of them this year."
"How many seed catalogues have you had this spring?"
"Only six, so far."
"And you plant your earliest seeds—"
"In April, the middle of April, though I may be able to get my first peas in by the last of March. You see peas"—she was backing away—"this new Antarctic Pea—will stand a lot of cold; but beans—do come here, and look at these Improved Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans!" holding out the wonderfully lithographed page toward her. But she backed still farther away, and, putting her hands behind her, looked at me instead, and very solemnly.
I suppose every man comes to know that unaccountable expression in his wife's eyes soon or late: a sad, baffled expression, detached, remote, as of things seen darkly, or descried afar off; an expression which leaves you feeling that you are afar off,—discernible, but infinitely dwindled. Two minds with but a single thought—so you start; but soon she finds, or late, that as the heavens are high above the earth, so are some of your thoughts above her thoughts. She cannot follow. On the brink she stands and sees you, through the starry spaces, drift from her ken in your fleet of—seed catalogues.
I have never been able to explain to her the seed catalogue. She is as fond of vegetables as I, and neither of us cares much for turnips—nor for carrots, nor parsnips either, when it comes to that, our two hearts at the table beating happily as one. Born in the country, she inherited a love of the garden, but a feminine garden, the garden parvus, minor, minimus—so many cut-worms long, so many cut-worms wide. I love a garden of size, a garden that one cut-worm cannot sweep down upon in the night.
For years I have wanted to be a farmer, but there in the furrow ahead of me, like a bird on its nest, she has sat with her knitting; and when I speak of loving long rows to hoe, she smiles and says, "For the boys to hoe." Her unit of garden measure is a meal—so many beet seeds for a meal; so many meals for a row, with never two rows of anything, with hardly a full-length row of anything, and with all the rows of different lengths, as if gardening were a sort of geometry or a problem in arithmetic, figuring your vegetable with the meal for a common divisor—how many times it will go into all your rows without leaving a remainder!
Now I go by the seed catalogue, planting, not after the dish, as if my only vision were a garden peeled and in the pot, but after the Bush., Peck, Qt., Pt., Lb., Oz., Pkg.,—so many pounds to the acre, instead of so many seeds to the meal.
And I have tried to show her that gardening is something of a risk, attended by chance, and no such exact science as dressmaking; that you cannot sow seeds as you can sew buttons; that the seed-man has no machine for putting sure-sprout-humps into each of his minute wares as the hook-and-eye-man has; that with all wisdom and understanding one could do no better than to buy (as I am careful to do) out of that catalogue whose title reads "Honest Seeds"; and that even the Sower in Holy Writ allowed somewhat for stony places and other inherent hazards of planting time.
But she follows only afar off, affirming the primary meaning of that parable to be plainly set forth in the context, while the secondary meaning pointeth out the folly of sowing seed anywhere save on good ground—which seemed to be only about one quarter of the area in the parable that was planted; and that anyhow, seed catalogues, especially those in colors, designed as they are to catch the simple-minded and unwary, need to be looked into by the post-office authorities and if possible kept from all city people, and from college professors in particular.
She is entirely right about the college professors. Her understanding is based upon years of observation and the patient cooking of uncounted pots of beans.
I confess to a weakness for gardening and no sense at all of proportion in vegetables. I can no more resist a seed catalogue than a toper can his cup. There is no game, no form of exercise, to compare for a moment in my mind with having a row of young growing things in a patch of mellow soil; no possession so sure, so worth while, so interesting as a piece of land. The smell of it, the feel of it, the call of it, intoxicate me. The rows are never long enough, nor the hours, nor the muscles strong enough either, when there is hoeing to do.
Why should she not take it as a solemn duty to save me from the hoe? Man is an immoderate animal, especially in the spring when the doors of his classroom are about to open for him into the wide and greening fields. There is only one place to live,—here in the hills of Hingham; and there is nothing better to do here or anywhere, than the hoeing, or the milking, or the feeding of the hens.
A professor in the small college of Slimsalaryville tells in a recent magazine of his long hair and no dress suit, and of his wife's doing the washing in order that they might have bread and the "Eugenic Review" on a salary of twelve hundred dollars a year. It is a sad story, in the midst of which he exclaims: "I may even get to the place where I can spare time (italics mine) to keep chickens or a cow, and that would help immensely; but I am so constituted that chickens or a cow would certainly cripple my work." How cripple it? Is n't it his work to teach? Far from it. "Let there be light," he says at the end of the essay, is his work, and he adds that he has been so busy with it that he is on the verge of a nervous break-down. Of course he is. Who would n't be with that job? And of course he has n't a constitution for chickens and a cow. But neither does he seem to have constitution enough for the light-giving either, being ready to collapse from his continuous shining.
But isn't this the case with many of us? Aren't we overworking—doing our own simple job of teaching and, besides that, taking upon ourselves the Lord's work of letting there be light?
I have come to the conclusion that there might not be any less light were the Lord allowed to do his own shining, and that probably there might be quite as good teaching if the teacher stuck humbly to his desk, and after school kept chickens and a cow. The egg-money and cream "would help immensely," even the Professor admits, the Professor's wife fully concurring no doubt.
Don't we all take ourselves a little seriously—we college professors and others? As if the Lord could not continue to look after his light, if we looked after our students! It is only in these last years that I have learned that I can go forth unto my work and to my labor until the evening, quitting then, and getting home in time to feed the chickens and milk the cow. I am a professional man, and I dwell in the midst of professional men, all of whom are inclined to help the Lord out by working after dark—all of whom are really in dire constitutional need of the early roosting chickens and the quiet, ruminating cow.
To walk humbly with the hens, that's the thing—after the classes are dismissed and the office closed. To get out of the city, away from books, and theories, and students, and patients, and clients, and customers—back to real things, simple, restful, healthful things for body and soul, homely domestic things that lay eggs at 70 cents per dozen, and make butter at $2.25 the 5-pound box! As for me, this does "help immensely," affording me all necessary hair-cuts (I don't want the "Eugenic Review"), and allowing Her to send the family washing (except the flannels) to the laundry.
Instead of crippling normal man's normal work, country living (chickens and a cow) will prevent his work from crippling him—keeping him a little from his students and thus saving him from too much teaching; keeping him from reading the "Eugenic Review" and thus saving him from too much learning; curing him, in short, of his "constitution" that is bound to come to some sort of a collapse unless rested and saved by chickens and a cow.
"By not too many chickens," she would add; and there is no one to match her with a chicken—fried, stewed, or turned into pie.
The hens are no longer mine, the boys having taken them over; but the gardening I can't give up, nor the seed catalogues.
The one in my hands was exceptionally radiant, and exceptionally full of Novelties and Specialties for the New Year, among them being an extraordinary new pole bean—an Improved Kentucky Wonder. She had backed away, as I have said, and instead of looking at the page of beans, looked solemnly at me; then with something sorrowful, something somewhat Sunday-like in her voice, an echo, I presume, of lessons in the Catechism, she asked me—
"Who makes you plant beans?"
"My dear," I began, "I—"
"How many meals of pole beans did we eat last summer?"
"Three—just three," she answered. "And I think you must remember how many of that row of poles we picked?"
"Why, yes, I—"
"Three—just three out of thirty poles! Now, do you think you remember how many bushels of those beans went utterly unpicked?"
I was visibly weakening by this time.
"Three—do you think?"
"Multiply that three by three-times-three! And now tell me—"
But this was too much.
"My dear," I protested, "I recollect exactly. It was—"
"No, I don't believe you do. I cannot trust you at all with beans. But I should like to know why you plant ten or twelve kinds of beans when the only kind we like are limas!"
"Yes, the catalogue advises—"
"You don't seem to understand, my dear, that—"
"Now, why don't I understand?"
I paused. This is always a hard question, and peculiarly hard as the end of a series, and on a topic as difficult as beans. I don't know beans. There is little or nothing about beans in the history of philosophy or in poetry. Thoreau says that when he was hoeing his beans it was not beans that he hoed nor he that hoed beans—which was the only saying that came to mind at the moment, and under the circumstances did not seem to help me much.
"Well," I replied, fumbling among my stock of ready-made reasons, "I—really—don't—know exactly why you don't understand. Indeed, I really don't know—that I exactly understand. Everything is full of things that even I can't understand—how to explain my tendency to plant all kinds of beans, for instance; or my 'weakness,' as you call it, for seed catalogues; or—"
She opened her magazine, and I hastened to get the stool for her feet. As I adjusted the light for her she said:—
"Let me remind you that this is the night of the annual banquet of your Swampatalk Club; you don't intend to forego that famous roast beef for the seed catalogues?"
"I did n't intend to, but I must say that literature like this is enough to make a man a vegetarian. Look at that page for an old-fashioned New England Boiled Dinner! Such carrots. Really they look good enough to eat. I think I 'll plant some of those improved carrots; and some of these parsnips; and some—"
"You had better go get ready," she said, "and please put that big stick on the fire for me," drawing the lamp toward her, as she spoke, so that all of its green-shaded light fell over her—over the silver in her hair, with its red rose; over the pink and lacy thing that wrapped her from her sweet throat to the silver stars on her slippers.
"I'm not going to that Club!" I said. "I have talked myself for three hours to-day, attended two conferences, and listened to one address. There were three different societies for the general improving of things that met at the University halls to-day with big speakers from the ends of the earth. To-morrow night I address The First Century Club in the city after a dinner with the New England Teachers of English Monthly Luncheon Club—and I would like to know what we came out here in the woods for, anyhow?"
"If you are going—" She was speaking calmly.
"Going where?" I replied, picking up the seed catalogues to make room for myself on the couch. "Please look at this pumpkin! Think of what a jack-o'-lantern it would make for the boys! I am going to plant—"
"You 'll be cold," she said, rising and drawing a steamer rug up over me; then laying the open magazine across my shoulders while giving the pillow a motherly pull, she added, with a sigh of contentment:—
"Perhaps, if it had n't been for me, you might have been a great success with pumpkins or pigs—I don't know."
There are beaters, brooms and Bissell's Sweepers; there are dry-mops, turkey-wings, whisks, and vacuum-cleaners; there are—but no matter. Whatever other things there are, and however many of them in the closet, the whole dust-raising kit is incomplete without the Dustless-Duster.
For the Dustless-Duster is final, absolute. What can be added to, or taken away from, a Dustless-Duster? A broom is only a broom, even a new broom. Its sphere is limited; its work is partial. Dampened and held persistently down by the most expert of sweepers, the broom still leaves something for the Dustless-Duster to do. But the Dustless-Duster leaves nothing for anything to do. The dusting is done.
Because there are many who dust, and because they have searched in vain for a dustless-duster, I should like to say that the Dustless-Duster can be bought at department stores, at those that have a full line of departments—at any department store, in fact; for the Dustless-Duster department is the largest of all the departments, whatever the store. Ask for it of your jeweler, grocer, milliner. Ask for "The Ideal," "The Universal," "The Indispensable," of any man with anything to sell or preach or teach, and you shall have it—the perfect thing which you have spent life looking for; which you have thought so often to have, but found as often that you had not. You shall have it. I have it. One hangs, rather, in the kitchen on the clothes-dryer.
And one (more than one) hangs in the kitchen closet, and in the cellar, and in the attic. I have often brought it home, for my search has been diligent since a certain day, years ago,—a "Commencement Day" at the Institute.
I had never attended a Commencement exercise before; I had never been in an opera house before; and the painted light through the roof of windows high overhead, the strains of the orchestra from far below me, the banks of broad-leaved palms, the colors, the odors, the confusion of flowers and white frocks, were strangely thrilling. Nothing had ever happened to me in the woods like this: the exaltation, the depression, the thrill of joy, the throb of pain, the awakening, the wonder, the purpose, and the longing! It was all a dream—all but the form and the face of one girl graduate, and the title of her essay, "The Real and the Ideal."
I do not know what large and lofty sentiments she uttered; I only remember the way she looked them. I did not hear the words she read; but I still feel the absolute fitness of her theme—how real her simple white frock, her radiant face, her dark hair! And how ideal!
I had seen perfection. Here was the absolute, the final, the ideal, the indispensable! And I was fourteen! Now I am past forty; and upon the kitchen clothes-dryer hangs the Dustless-Duster.
No, I have not lost the vision. The daughter of that girl, the image of her mother, slipped into my classroom the other day. Nor have I faltered in the quest. The search goes on, and must go on; for however often I get it, only to cast it aside, the indispensable, the ultimate, must continue to be indispensable and ultimate, until, some day—
What matters how many times I have had it, to discover every time that it is only a piece of cheesecloth, ordinary cheesecloth, dyed black and stamped with red letters? The search must go on, notwithstanding the clutter in the kitchen closet. The cellar is crowded with Dustless-Dusters, too; the garret is stuffed with them. There is little else besides them anywhere in the house. And this was an empty house when I moved into it, a few years ago.
As I moved in, an old man moved out, back to the city whence a few years before he had come; and he took back with him twelve two-horse wagon-loads of Dustless-Dusters. He had spent a long life collecting them, and now, having gathered all there were in the country, he was going back to the city, in a last pathetic, a last heroic, effort to find the one Dustless-Duster more.
It was the old man's twelve two-horse loads that were pathetic. There were many sorts of things in those twelve loads, of many lands, of many dates, but all of one stamp. The mark was sometimes hard to find, corroded sometimes nearly past deciphering, yet never quite gone. The red letters were indelible on every piece, from the gross of antique candle-moulds (against the kerosene's giving out) to an ancient coffin-plate, far oxidized, and engraved "Jones," which, the old man said, as he pried it off the side of the barn, "might come in handy any day."
The old man has since died and been laid to rest. Upon his coffin was set a new silver plate, engraved simply and truthfully, "Brown."
We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain, says Holy Writ, that we can carry nothing out. But it is also certain that we shall attempt to carry out, or try to find as soon as we are out, a Dustless-Duster. For we did bring something with us into this world, losing it temporarily, to be forever losing and finding it; and when we go into another world, will it not be to carry the thing with us there, or to continue there our eternal search for it? We are not so certain of carrying nothing out of this world, but we are certain of leaving many things behind.
Among those that I shall leave behind me is The Perfect Automatic Carpet-Layer. But I did not buy that. She did. It was one of the first of our perfections.
We have more now. I knew as I entered the house that night that something had happened; that the hope of the early dawn had died, for some cause, with the dusk. The trouble showed in her eyes: mingled doubt, chagrin, self-accusation, self-defense, defeat—familiar symptoms. She had seen something, something perfect, and had bought it.
I knew the look well, and the feelings all too well, and said nothing. For suppose I had been at home that day and she had been in town? Still, on my trip into town that morning I ran the risk of meeting the man who sold me "The Magic Stropless Razor Salve." No, not that man! I shall never meet him again, for vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. But suppose I had met him? And suppose he had had some other salve, Safety Razor Salve this time to sell?
It is for young men to see visions and for old men to dream dreams; but it is for no man or woman to buy one.
She had seen a vision, and had bought it—"The Perfect Automatic Carpet-Layer."
I kept silence, as I say, which is often a thoughtful thing to do.
"Are you ill?" she ventured, handing me my tea.
"I hope you are not very tired, for the Parsonage Committee brought the new carpet this afternoon, and I have started to put it down. I thought we would finish it this evening. It won't be any work at all for you, for I—I—bought you one of these to-day to put it down with,"—pushing an illustrated circular across the table toward me.
ANY CHILD CAN USE IT
THE PERFECT AUTOMATIC CARPET-LAYER
No more carpet-laying bills. Do your own laying. No wrinkles. No crowded corners. No sore knees. No pounded fingers. No broken backs. Stand up and lay your carpet with the Perfect Automatic. Easy as sweeping. Smooth as putting paper on the wall. You hold the handle, and the Perfect Automatic does the rest. Patent Applied For. Price—
—but it was not the price! It was the tool—a weird hybrid tool, part gun, part rake, part catapult, part curry-comb, fit apparently for almost any purpose, from the business of blunderbuss to the office of an apple-picker. Its handle, which any child could hold, was somewhat shorter and thicker than a hoe-handle, and had a slotted tin barrel, a sort of intestine, on its ventral side along its entire length. Down this intestine, their points sticking through the slot, moved the tacks in single file to a spring-hammer close to the floor. This hammer was operated by a lever or tongue at the head of the handle, the connection between the hammer at the distal end and the lever at the proximal end being effected by means of a steel-wire spinal cord down the dorsal side of the handle. Over the fist of a hammer spread a jaw of sharp teeth to take hold of the carpet. The thing could not talk; but it could do almost anything else, so fearfully and wonderfully was it made.
As for laying carpets with it, any child could do that. But we did n't have any children then, and I had quite outgrown my childhood. I tried to be a boy again just for that night. I grasped the handle of the Perfect Automatic, stretched with our united strength, and pushed down on the lever. The spring-hammer drew back, a little trap or mouth at the end of the slotted tin barrel opened for the tack, the tack jumped out, turned over, landed point downward upon the right spot in the carpet, the crouching hammer sprang, and—
And then I lifted up the Perfect Automatic to see if the tack went in,—a simple act that any child could do, but which took automatically and perfectly all the stretch out of the carpet; for the hammer did not hit the tack; the tack really did not get through the trap; the trap did not open the slot; the slot—but no matter. We have no carpets now. The Perfect Automatic stands in the garret with all its original varnish on. At its feet sits a half-used can of "Beesene, The Prince of Floor Pastes."
We have only hard-wood floors now, which we treated, upon the strength of the label, with this Prince of Pastes, "Beesene"—"guaranteed not to show wear or dirt or to grow gritty; water-proof, gravel-proof. No rug will ruck on it, no slipper stick to it. Needs no weighted brush. Self-shining. The only perfect Floor Wax known. One box will do all the floors you have."
Indeed, half a box did all the floors we have. No slipper would stick to the paste, but the paste would stick to the slipper; and the greasy Prince did in spots all the floors we have: the laundry floor, the attic floor, and the very boards of the vegetable cellar.
I am young yet. I have not had time to collect my twelve two-horse loads. But I am getting them fast.
Only the other day a tall lean man came to the side door, asking after my four boys by name, and inquiring when my new book would be off the stocks, and, incidentally, showing me a patent-applied-for device called "The Fat Man's Friend."
"The Friend" was a steel-wire hoop, shaped and jointed like a pair of calipers, but knobbed at its points with little metal balls. The instrument was made to open and spring closed about the Fat Man's neck, and to hold, by means of a clasp on each side, a napkin, or bib, spread securely over the Fat Man's bosom.
"Ideal thing, now, is n't it?" said the agent, demonstrating with his handkerchief.
"Why—yes"—I hesitated—"for a fat man, perhaps."
"Just so," he replied, running me over rapidly with a professional eye; "but you know, Professor, that when a man's forty, or thereabouts, it's the nature of him to stouten. Once past forty he's liable to pick up any day. And when he starts, you know as well as I, Professor, when he starts there's nothing fattens faster than a man of forty. You ought to have one of these 'Friends' on hand."
"But fat does n't run in my family," I protested, my helpless, single-handed condition being plainly manifest in my tone.
"No matter," he rejoined, "look at me! Six feet three, and thin as a lath. I 'm what you might call a walking skeleton, ready to disjoint, as the poet says, and eat all my meals in fear, which I would do if 't wa'n't for this little 'Friend.' I can't eat without it. I miss it more when I am eatin' than I miss the victuals. I carry one with me all the time. Awful handy little thing. Now—"
"But—" I put in.
"Certainly," he continued, with the smoothest-running motor I ever heard, "but here's the point of the whole matter, as you might say. This thing is up to date, Professor. Now, the old-fashioned way of tying a knot in the corner of your napkin and anchoring it under your Adam's apple—that's gone by. Also the stringed bib and safety-pin. Both those devices were crude—but necessary, of course, Professor—and inconvenient, and that old-fashioned knot really dangerous; for the knot, pressing against the Adam's apple, or the apple, as you might say, trying to swallow the knot—well, if there isn't less apoplexy and strangulation when this little Friend finds universal application, then I 'm no Prophet, as the Good Book says."
"But you see—" I broke in.
"I do, Professor. It's right here. I understand your objection. But it is purely verbal and academic, Professor. You are troubled concerning the name of this indispensable article. But you know, as well as I—even better with your education, Professor—that there 's nothing, absolutely nothing in a name. 'What's in a name?' the poet says. And I 'll agree with you—though, of course, it's confidential—that 'The Fat Man's Friend' is, as you literary folks would say, more or less of a nom de plume. Isn't it? Besides,—if you 'll allow me the language, Professor,—it's too delimiting, restricting, prejudicing. Sets a lean man against it. But between us, Professor, they 're going to change the name of the next batch. They're—"
"Indeed!" I exclaimed; "what's the next batch going to be?"
"Oh, just the same—fifteen cents each—two for a quarter. You could n't tell them apart. You might just as well have one of these, and run no chances getting one of the next lot. They'll be precisely the same; only, you see, they're going to name the next ones 'Every Bosom's Friend,' to fit lean and fat, and without distinction of sex. Ideal thing now, is n't it? Yes, that's right—fifteen cents—two for twenty-five, Professor?—don't you want another for your wife?"
No, I did not want another for her. But if she had been at home, and I had been away, who knows but that all six of us had come off with a "Friend" apiece? They were a bargain by the half-dozen.
A bargain? Did anybody ever get a bargain—something worth more than he paid? Well—you shall, when you bring home a Dustless-Duster.
And who has not brought it home! Or who is not about to bring it home! Not all the years that I have searched, not all the loads that I have collected, count against the conviction that at last I have it—the perfect thing—until I reach home. But with several of my perfections I have never yet reached home, or I am waiting an opportune season to give them to my wife. I have been disappointed; but let no one try to tell me that there is no such thing as Perfection. Is not the desire for it the breath of my being? Is not the search for it the end of my existence? Is not the belief that at last I possess it—in myself, my children, my breed of hens, my religious creed, my political party—is not this conviction, I say, all there is of existence?
It is very easy to see that perfection is not in any of the other political parties. During a political campaign, not long since, I wrote to a friend in New Jersey,—
"Now, whatever your particular, personal brand of political faith, it is clearly your moral duty to vote this time the Democratic ticket."
Whereupon (and he is a thoughtful, God-fearing man, too) he wrote back,—
"As I belong to the only party of real reform, I shall stick to it this year, as I always have, and vote the straight ticket."
Is there a serener faith than this human faith in perfection? A surer, more unshakable belief than this human belief in the present possession of it?
There is only one thing deeper in the heart of man than his desire for completeness, and that is his conviction of being about to attain unto it. He dreams of completeness by night; works for completeness by day; buys it of every agent who comes along; votes for it at every election; accepts it with every sermon; and finds it—momentarily—every time he finds himself. The desire for it is the sweet spring of all his satisfactions; the possession of it the bitter fountain of many of his woes.
Apply the conviction anywhere, to anything—creeds, wives, hens—and see how it works out.
As to hens:—
There are many breeds of fairly good hens, and I have tried as many breeds as I have had years of keeping hens, but not until the poultry show, last winter, did I come upon the perfect hen. I had been working toward her through the Bantams, Brahmas, and Leghorns, to the Plymouth Rocks. I had tried the White and the Barred Plymouth Rocks, but they were not the hen. Last winter I came upon the originator of the Buff Plymouth Rocks—and here she was! I shall breed nothing henceforth but Buff Plymouth Rocks.
In the Buff Rock we have a bird of ideal size, neither too large nor too small, weighing about three pounds more than the undersized Leghorn, and about three pounds less than the oversized Brahma; we have a bird of ideal color, too—a single, soft, even tone, and no such barnyard daub as the Rhode Island Red; not crow-colored, either, like the Minorca; nor liable to all the dirt of the White Plymouth Rocks. Being a beautiful and uniform buff, this perfect Plymouth Rock is easily bred true to color, as the vari-colored fowls are not.
Moreover, the Buff Rock is a layer, is the layer, maturing as she does about four weeks later than the Rhode Island Reds, and so escaping that fatal early fall laying with its attendant moult and eggless interim until March! On the other hand, the Buff Rock matures about a month earlier than the logy, slow-growing breeds, and so gets a good start before the cold and eggless weather comes.
And such an egg! There are white eggs and brown eggs, large and small eggs, but only one ideal egg—the Buff Rock's. It is of a soft lovely brown, yet whitish enough for a New York market, but brown enough, however, to meet the exquisite taste of the Boston trade. In fact it is neither white nor brown, but rather a delicate blend of the two—a new tone, indeed, a bloom rather, that I must call fresh-laid lavender.
So, at least, I am told. My pullets are not yet laying, having had a very late start last spring. But the real question, speaking professionally, with any breed of fowls is a market question: How do they dress? How do they eat?
If the Buff Plymouth Rock is an ideal bird in her feathers, she is even more so plucked. All white-feathered fowl, in spite of yellow legs, look cadaverous when picked. All dark-feathered fowl, with their tendency to green legs and black pin-feathers, look spotted, long dead, and unsavory. But the Buff Rock, a melody in color, shows that consonance, that consentaneousness, of flesh to feather that makes the plucked fowl to the feathered fowl what high noon is to the faint and far-off dawn—a glow of golden legs and golden neck, mellow, melting as butter, and all the more so with every unpicked pinfeather.
Can there be any doubt of the existence of hen-perfection? Any question of my having attained unto it—with the maturing of this new breed of hens?
For all spiritual purposes, that is, for all satisfactions, the ideal hen is the pullet—the Buff Plymouth Rock pullet.
Just so the ideal wife. If we could only keep them pullets!
The trouble we husbands have with our wives begins with our marrying them. There is seldom any trouble with them before. Our belief in feminine perfection is as profound and as eternal as youth. And the perfection is just as real as the faith. Youth is always bringing the bride home—to hang her on the kitchen clothes-dryer. She turns out to be ordinary cheese-cloth, dyed a more or less fast black—this perfection that he had stamped in letters of indelible red!
The race learns nothing. I learn, but not my children after me. They learn only after themselves. Already I hear my boys saying that their wives—! And the oldest of these boys has just turned fourteen!
Fourteen! the trouble all began at fourteen. No, the trouble began with Adam, though Eve has been responsible for much of it since. Adam had all that a man should have wanted in his perfect Garden. Nevertheless he wanted Eve. Eve in turn had Adam, a perfect man! but she wanted something more—if only the apple tree in the middle of the Garden. And we all of us were there in that Garden—with Adam thinking he was getting perfection in Eve; with Eve incapable of appreciating perfection in Adam. The trouble is human.
"Flounder, flounder in the sea, Prythee quickly come to me! For my wife, Dame Isabel, Wants strange things I scarce dare tell."
"And what does she want now?" asks the flounder.
"Oh, she wants to vote now," says the fisherman.
"Go home, and you shall find her with the ballot," sighs the flounder. "But has n't she Dustless-Dusters enough already?"
It would seem so. But once having got Adam, who can blame her for wanting an apple tree besides, or the ballot?
'T is no use to forbid her. Yes, she has you, but—but Eve had Adam, too, another perfect man! Don't forbid her, for she will have it anyhow. It may not turn out to be all that she thinks it is. But did you turn out to be all that she thought you were? She will have a bite of this new apple if she has to disobey, and die for it, because such disobedience and death are in answer to a higher command, and to a larger life from within. Eve's discovery that Adam was cheese-cloth, and her reaching out for something better, did not, as Satan promised, make us as God; but it did make us different from all the other animals in the Garden, placing us even above the angels,—so far above, as to bring us, apparently, by a new and divine descent, into Eden.
The hope of the race is in Eve,—in her making the best she can of Adam; in her clear understanding of his lame logic,—that her imperfections added to his perfections make the perfect Perfection; and in her reaching out beyond Adam for something more—for the ballot now.
If there is growth, if there is hope, if there is continuance, if there is immortality for the race and for the soul, it is to be found in this sure faith in the Ultimate, the Perfect, in this certain disappointment every time we think we have it; and in this abiding conviction that we are about to bring it home. But let a man settle down on perfection as a present possession, and that man is as good as dead already—even religiously dead, if he has possession of a perfect Salvation.
Now, "Sister Smith" claimed to possess Perfection—a perfect infallible book of revelations in her King James Version of the Scriptures, and she claimed to have lived by it, too, for eighty years. I was fresh from the theological school, and this was my first "charge." This was my first meal, too, in this new charge, at the home of one of the official brethren, with whom Sister Smith lived.
There was an ominous silence at the table for which I could hardly account—unless it had to do with the one empty chair. Then Sister Smith appeared and took the chair. The silence deepened. Then Sister Smith began to speak and everybody stopped eating. Brother Jones laid down his knife, Sister Jones dropped her hands into her lap until the thing should be over. Leaning far forward toward me across the table, her steady gray eyes boring through me, her long bony finger pointing beyond me into eternity, Sister Smith began with spaced and measured words:—
"My young Brother—what—do—you—think—of—Jonah?"
I reached for a doughnut, broke it, slowly, dipped it up and down in the cup of mustard and tried for time. Not a soul stirred. Not a word or sound broke the tense silence about the operating-table.
"Well, Sister Smith, I—"
"Never mind. Don't commit yourself. You needn't tell me what you think of Jonah. You—are—too—young—to—know—what—you—think—of—Jonah. But I will tell you what I think of Jonah: if the Scriptures had said that Jonah swallowed the whale, it would be just as easy to believe as it is that the whale swallowed Jonah."
"So it would, Sister Smith," I answered weakly, "just as easy."
"And now, my young Brother, you preach the Scriptures—the old genuine inspired Authorized Version, word for word, just as God spoke it!"
Sister Smith has gone to Heaven, but in spite of her theology. Dear old soul, she sent me many a loaf of her salt-rising bread after that, for she had as warm a heart as ever beat its brave way past eighty.
But she had neither a perfect Book, nor a perfect Creed, nor a perfect Salvation. She did not need them; nor could she have used them; for they would have posited a divine command to be perfect—a too difficult accomplishment for any of us, even for Sister Smith.
There is no such divine command laid upon us; but only such a divinely human need springing up within us, and reaching out for everything, in its deep desire, from dust-cloths dyed black to creeds of every color.
This is a life of imperfections, a world made of cheese-cloth, merely dyed black, and stamped in red letters—The Dustless-Duster. Yet a cheese-cloth world so dyed and stamped is better than a cloth-of-gold world, for the cloth-of-gold you would not want to dye nor to stamp with burning letters.
We have never found it,—this perfect thing,—and perhaps we never shall. But the desire, the search, the faith, must not fail us, as at times they seem to do. At times the very tides of the ocean seem to fail,—when the currents cease to run. Yet when they are at slack here, they are at flood on the other side of the world, turning already to pour back—
". . . lo, out of his plenty the sea Pours fast; full soon the time of the flood-tide shall be—"
The faith cannot fail us—for long. Full soon the ebb-tide turns,
"And Belief overmasters doubt, and I know that I know"
that there is perfection; that the desire for it is the breath of life; that the search for it is the hope of immortality.
But I know only in part. I see through a glass darkly, and I may be no nearer it now than when I started, yet the search has carried me far from that start. And if I never arrive, then, at least, I shall keep going on, which, in itself maybe the thing—the Perfect Thing that I am seeking.
"See-Saw, Margery Daw! Sold her bed and lay upon straw"
—the very worst thing, I used to think, that ever happened in Mother Goose. I might steal a pig, perhaps, like Tom the Piper's Son, but never would I do such a thing as Margery did; the dreadful picture of her nose and of that bottle in her hand made me sure of that. And yet—snore on, Margery!—I sold my plough and bought an automobile! As if an automobile would carry me
"To the island-valley of Avilion,"
where I should no longer need the touch of the soil and the slow simple task to heal me of my grievous wound!
Speed, distance, change—are these the cure for that old hurt we call living, the long dull ache of winter, the throbbing bitter-sweet pain of spring? We seek for something different, something not different but faster and still faster, to fill our eyes with flying, our ears with rushing, our skins with scurrying, our diaphragms, which are our souls, with the thrill of curves, and straight stretches, of lifts, and drops, and sudden halts—as of elevators, merry-go-rounds, chutes, scenic railways, aeroplanes, and heavy low-hung cars.
To go—up or down, or straight away—anyway, but round and round, and slowly—as if one could speed away from being, or ever travel beyond one's self! How pathetic to sell all that one has and buy an automobile! to shift one's grip from the handles of life to the wheel of change! to forsake the furrow for the highway, the rooted soil for the flying dust, the here for the there; imagining that somehow a car is more than a plough, that going is the last word in living—demountable rims and non-skid tires, the great gift of the God Mechanic, being the 1916 model of the wings of the soul!
But women must weep in spite of modern mechanics, and men must plough. Petroleum, with all of its by-products, cannot be served for bread. I have tried many substitutes for ploughing; and as for the automobile, I have driven that thousands of miles, driven it almost daily, summer and winter; but let the blackbirds return, let the chickweed start in the garden, then the very stones of the walls cry out—"Plough! plough!"
It is not the stones I hear, but the entombed voices of earlier primitive selves far back in my dim past; those, and the call of the boy I was yesterday, whose landside toes still turn in, perhaps, from walking in the furrow. When that call comes, no
"Towered cities please us then And the busy hum of men,"
or of automobiles. I must plough. It is the April wind that wakes the call—
"Zephirus eek, with his sweete breeth"—
and many hearing it long to "goon on pilgrimages," or to the Maine woods to fish, or, waiting until the 19th, to leave Boston by boat and go up and down the shore to see how fared their summer cottages during the winter storms; some even imagine they have malaria and long for bitters—as many men as many minds when
"The time of the singing of birds is come And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land."
But as for me it is neither bitters, nor cottages, nor trout, nor
"ferne halwes couth in sondry landes"
that I long for: but simply for the soil, for the warming, stirring earth, for my mother. It is back to her breast I would go, back to the wide sweet fields, to the slow-moving team and the lines about my shoulder, to the even furrow rolling from the mould-board, to the taste of the soil, the sight of the sky, the sound of the robins and bluebirds and blackbirds, and the ringing notes of Highhole over the sunny fields.
I hold the plough as my only hold upon the earth, and as I follow through the fresh and fragrant furrow I am planted with every footstep, growing, budding, blooming into a spirit of the spring. I can catch the blackbirds ploughing, I can turn under with my furrow the laughter of the flowers, the very joy of the skies. But if I so much as turn in my tracks, the blackbirds scatter; if I shout, Highhole is silent; if I chase the breeze, it runs away; I might climb into the humming maples, might fill my hands with arbutus and bloodroot, might run and laugh aloud with the light; as if with feet I could overtake it, could catch it in my hands, and in my heart could hold it all—this living earth, shining sky, flowers, buds, voices, colors, odors—this spring!
But I can plough—while the blackbirds come close behind me in the furrow; and I can be the spring.
I could plough, I mean, when I had a plough. But I sold it for five dollars and bought a second-hand automobile for fifteen hundred—as everybody else has. So now I do as everybody else does,—borrow my neighbor's plough, or still worse, get my neighbor to do my ploughing, being still blessed with a neighbor so steadfast and simple as to possess a plough. But I must plough or my children's children will never live to have children,—they will have motor cars instead. The man who pulls down his barns and builds a garage is not planning for posterity. But perhaps it does not matter; for while we are purring cityward over the sleek and tarry roads, big hairy Finns are following the plough round and round our ancestral fields, planting children in the furrows, so that there shall be some one here when we have motored off to possess the land.
I see no way but to keep the automobile and buy another plough, not for my children's sake any more than for my own. There was an old man living in this house when I bought it who moved back into the city and took with him, among other things, a big grindstone and two long-handled hayforks—for crutches, did he think? and to keep a cutting edge on the scythe of his spirit as he mowed the cobblestones? When I am old and my children compel me to move back near the asylums and hospitals, I shall carry into the city with me a plough; and I shall pray the police to let me go every springtime to the Garden or the Common and there turn a few furrows as one whom still his mother comforteth.
It is only a few furrows that I now turn. A half-day and it is all over, all the land ploughed that I own,—all that the Lord intended should be tilled. A half-day—but every fallow field and patch of stubble within me has been turned up in that time, given over for the rain and sunshine to mellow and put into tender tilth.