Adventures In Contentment
Part 2 out of 3
"A farmer," I said to myself with exultation, "has only to wait long
enough and all the world comes his way."
I had just begun to grease my farm wagon and was experiencing some
difficulty in lifting and steadying the heavy rear axle while I took off
the wheel. I kept busily at work, pretending (such is the perversity of
the human mind) that I did not see Mr. Starkweather. He stood for a
moment watching me; then he said:
"Good morning, sir."
I looked up and said:
"Oh, good morning!"
"Nice little farm you have here."
"It's enough for me," I replied. I did not especially like the "little."
One is human.
Then I had an absurd inspiration: he stood there so trim and jaunty and
prosperous. So rich! I had a good look at him. He was dressed in a
woollen jacket coat, knee-trousers and leggins; on his head he wore a
jaunty, cocky little Scotch cap; a man, I should judge, about fifty
years old, well-fed and hearty in appearance, with grayish hair and a
good-humoured eye. I acted on my inspiration:
"You've arrived," I said, "at the psychological moment."
"Take hold here and help me lift this axle and steady it. I'm having a
hard time of it."
The look of astonishment in his countenance was beautiful to see.
For a moment failure stared me in the face. His expression said with
emphasis: "Perhaps you don't know who I am." But I looked at him with
the greatest good feeling and my expression said, or I meant it to say:
"To be sure I don't: and what difference does it make, anyway!"
"You take hold there," I said, without waiting for him to catch his
breath, "and I'll get hold here. Together we can easily get the wheel
Without a word he set his cane against the barn and bent his back, up
came the axle and I propped it with a board.
"Now," I said, "you hang on there and steady it while I get the wheel
off"--though, indeed, it didn't really need much steadying.
As I straightened up, whom should I see but Harriet standing transfixed
in the pathway half way down to the barn, transfixed with horror. She
had recognised John Starkweather and had heard at least part of what I
said to him, and the vision of that important man bending his back to
help lift the axle of my old wagon was too terrible! She caught my eye
and pointed and mouthed. When I smiled and nodded, John Starkweather
straightened up and looked around.
"Don't, on your life," I warned, "let go of that axle."
He held on and Harriet turned and retreated ingloriously. John
Starkweather's face was a study!
"Did you ever grease a wagon?" I asked him genially.
"Never," he said.
"There's more of an art in it than you think," I said, and as I worked I
talked to him of the lore of axle-grease and showed him exactly how to
put it on--neither too much nor too little, and so that it would
distribute itself evenly when the wheel was replaced.
"There's a right way of doing everything," I observed.
"That's so," said John Starkweather: "if I could only get workmen that
By that time I could see that he was beginning to be interested. I put
back the wheel, gave it a light turn and screwed on the nut. He helped
me with the other end of the axle with all good humour.
"Perhaps," I said, as engagingly as I knew how, "you'd like to try the
art yourself? You take the grease this time and I'll steady the wagon."
"All right!" he said, laughing, "I'm in for anything."
He took the grease box and the paddle--less gingerly than I thought he
"Is that right?" he demanded, and so he put on the grease. And oh, it
was good to see Harriet in the doorway!
"Steady there," I said, "not so much at the end: now put the box down on
And so together we greased the wagon, talking all the time in the
friendliest way. I actually believe that he was having a pretty good
time. At least it had the virtue of unexpectedness. He wasn't bored!
When he had finished we both straightened our backs and looked at each
other. There was a twinkle in his eye: then we both laughed. "He's all
right," I said to myself. I held up my hands, then he held up his: it
was hardly necessary to prove that wagon-greasing was not a delicate
"It's a good wholesome sign," I said, "but it'll come off. Do you happen
to remember a story of Tolstoi's called Ivan the Fool'?"
("What is a farmer doing quoting Tolstoi!" remarked his
countenance--though he said not a word.)
"In the kingdom of Ivan, you remember," I said, "it was the rule that
whoever had hard places on his hands came to table, but whoever had not
must eat what the others left."
Thus I led him up to the back steps and poured him a basin of hot
water--which I brought myself from the kitchen, Harriet having
marvellously and completely disappeared. We both washed our hands,
talking with great good humour.
When we had finished I said:
"Sit down, friend, if you've time, and let's talk."
So he sat down on one of the logs of my woodpile: a solid sort of man,
rather warm after his recent activities. He looked me over with some
interest and, I thought, friendliness.
"Why does a man like you," he asked finally, "waste himself on a little
farm back here in the country?"
For a single instant I came nearer to being angry than I have been for a
long time. _Waste_ myself! So we are judged without knowledge. I had a
sudden impulse to demolish him (if I could) with the nearest sarcasms I
could lay hand to. He was so sure of himself! "Oh well," I thought, with
vainglorious superiority, "he doesn't know," So I said:
"What would you have me be--a millionnaire?"
He smiled, but with a sort of sincerity.
"You might be," he said: "who can tell!"
I laughed outright: the humour of it struck me as delicious. Here I had
been, ever since I first heard of John Starkweather, rather gloating
over him as a poor suffering millionnaire (of course millionnaires _are_
unhappy), and there he sat, ruddy of face and hearty of body, pitying
_me_ for a poor unfortunate farmer back here in the country! Curious,
this human nature of ours, isn't it? But how infinitely beguiling!
So I sat down beside Mr. Starkweather on the log and crossed my legs. I
felt as though I had set foot in a new country.
"Would you really advise me," I asked, "to start in to be a
"Well, that's one way of putting it. Hitch your wagon to a star; but
begin by making a few dollars more a year than you spend. When I
began----" he stopped short with an amused smile, remembering that I did
not know who he was.
"Of course," I said, "I understand that."
"A man must begin small"--he was on pleasant ground--"and anywhere he
likes, a few dollars here, a few there. He must work hard, he must save,
he must be both bold and cautious. I know a man who began when he was
about your age with total assets of ten dollars and a good digestion.
He's now considered a fairly wealthy man. He has a home in the city, a
place in the country, and he goes to Europe when he likes. He has so
arranged his affairs that young men do most of the work and he draws the
dividends--and all in a little more than twenty years. I made every
single cent--but as I said, it's a penny business to start with. The
point is, I like to see young men ambitious."
[Illustration: "What would you have me be--a millionaire?"]
"Ambitious," I asked, "for what?"
"Why, to rise in the world; to get ahead."
"I know you'll pardon me," I said, "for appearing to cross-examine you,
but I'm tremendously interested in these things. What do you mean by
rising? And who am I to get ahead of?"
He looked at me in astonishment, and with evident impatience at my
"I am serious," I said. "I really want to make the best I can of my
life. It's the only one I've got."
"See here," he said: "let us say you clear up five hundred a year from
"You exaggerate--" I interrupted.
"Do I?" he laughed; "that makes my case all the better. Now, isn't it
possible to rise from that? Couldn't you make a thousand or five
thousand or even fifty thousand a year?"
It seems an unanswerable argument: fifty thousand dollars!
"I suppose I might," I said, "but do you think I'd be any better off or
happier with fifty thousand a year than I am now? You see, I like all
these surroundings better than any other place I ever knew. That old
green hill over there with the oak on it is an intimate friend of mine.
I have a good cornfield in which every year I work miracles. I've a cow
and a horse, and a few pigs. I have a comfortable home. My appetite is
perfect, and I have plenty of food to gratify it. I sleep every night
like a boy, for I haven't a trouble in this world to disturb me. I enjoy
the mornings here in the country: and the evenings are pleasant. Some of
my neighbours have come to be my good friends. I like them and I am
pretty sure they like me. Inside the house there I have the best books
ever written and I have time in the evenings to read them--I mean
_really_ read them. Now the question is, would I be any better off, or
any happier, if I had fifty thousand a year?"
John Starkweather laughed.
"Well, sir," he said, "I see I've made the acquaintance of a
"Let us say," I continued, "that you are willing to invest twenty years
of your life in a million dollars." ("Merely an illustration," said
John Starkweather.) "You have it where you can put it in the bank and
take it out again, or you can give it form in houses, yachts, and other
things. Now twenty years of my life--to me--is worth more than a million
dollars. I simply can't afford to sell it for that. I prefer to invest
it, as somebody or other has said, unearned in life. I've always had a
liking for intangible properties."
"See here," said John Starkweather, "you are taking a narrow view of
life. You are making your own pleasure the only standard. Shouldn't a
man make the most of the talents given him? Hasn't he a duty to
"Now you are shifting your ground," I said, "from the question of
personal satisfaction to that of duty. That concerns me, too. Let me ask
you: Isn't it important to society that this piece of earth be plowed
"Isn't it honest and useful work?"
"Isn't it important that it shall not only be done, but well done?"
"It takes all there is in a good man," I said, "to be a good farmer."
"But the point is," he argued, "might not the same faculties applied to
other things yield better and bigger results?"
"That is a problem, of course," I said. "I tried money-making once--in a
city--and I was unsuccessful and unhappy; here I am both successful and
happy. I suppose I was one of the young men who did the work while some
millionnaire drew the dividends." (I was cutting close, and I didn't
venture to look at him). "No doubt he had his houses and yachts and went
to Europe when he liked. I know I lived upstairs--back--where there
wasn't a tree to be seen, or a spear of green grass, or a hill, or a
brook: only smoke and chimneys and littered roofs. Lord be thanked for
my escape! Sometimes I think that Success has formed a silent conspiracy
against Youth. Success holds up a single glittering apple and bids Youth
strip and run for it; and Youth runs and Success still holds the apple."
John Starkweather said nothing.
"Yes," I said, "there are duties. We realise, we farmers, that we must
produce more than we ourselves can eat or wear or burn. We realise that
we are the foundation: we connect human life with the earth. We dig and
plant and produce, and having eaten at the first table ourselves, we
pass what is left to the bankers and millionnaires. Did you ever think,
stranger, that most of the wars of the world have been fought for the
control of this farmer's second table? Have you thought that the surplus
of wheat and corn and cotton is what the railroads are struggling to
carry? Upon our surplus run all the factories and mills; a little of it
gathered in cash makes a millionnaire. But we farmers, we sit back
comfortably after dinner, and joke with our wives and play with our
babies, and let all the rest of you fight for the crumbs that fall from
our abundant tables. If once we really cared and got up and shook
ourselves, and said to the maid: 'Here, child, don't waste the crusts:
gather 'em up and to-morrow we'll have a cottage pudding,' where in the
world would all the millionnaires be?"
Oh, I tell you, I waxed eloquent. I couldn't let John Starkweather, or
any other man, get away with the conviction that a millionnaire is
better than a farmer. "Moreover," I said, "think of the position of the
millionnaire. He spends his time playing not with life, but with the
symbols of life, whether cash or houses. Any day the symbols may change;
a little war may happen along, there may be a defective flue or a
western breeze, or even a panic because the farmers aren't scattering as
many crumbs as usual (they call it crop failure, but I've noticed that
the farmers still continue to have plenty to eat) and then what happens
to your millionnaire? Not knowing how to produce anything himself, he
would starve to death if there were not always, somewhere, a farmer to
take him up to the table."
"You're making a strong case," laughed John Starkweather.
"Strong!" I said. "It is simply wonderful what a leverage upon society a
few acres of land, a cow, a pig or two, and a span of horses gives a
man. I'm ridiculously independent. I'd be the hardest sort of a man to
dislodge or crush. I tell you, my friend, a farmer is like an oak, his
roots strike deep in the soil, he draws a sufficiency of food from the
earth itself, he breathes the free air around him, his thirst is
quenched by heaven itself--and there's no tax on sunshine."
I paused for very lack of breath. John Starkweather was laughing.
"When you commiserate me, therefore" ("I'm sure I shall never do it
again," said John Starkweather)--"when you commiserate me, therefore,
and advise me to rise, you must give me really good reasons for changing
my occupation and becoming a millionnaire. You must prove to me that I
can be more independent, more honest, more useful as a millionnaire, and
that I shall have better and truer friends!"
John Starkweather looked around at me (I knew I had been absurdly eager
and I was rather ashamed of myself) and put his hand on my knee (he has
a wonderfully fine eye!).
"I don't believe," he said, "you'd have any truer friends."
"Anyway," I said repentantly, "I'll admit that millionnaires have their
place--at present I wouldn't do entirely away with them, though I do
think they'd enjoy farming better. And if I were to select a
millionnaire for all the best things I know, I should certainly choose
you, Mr. Starkweather."
He jumped up.
"You know who I am?" he asked.
"And you knew all the time?"
"Well, you're a good one!"
We both laughed and fell to talking with the greatest friendliness. I
led him down my garden to show him my prize pie-plant, of which I am
enormously proud, and I pulled for him some of the finest stalks I could
"Take it home," I said, "it makes the best pies of any pie-plant in this
He took it under his arm.
"I want you to come over and see me the first chance you get," he said.
"I'm going to prove to you by physical demonstration that it's better
sport to be a millionnaire than a farmer--not that I am a millionnaire:
I'm only accepting the reputation you give me."
So I walked with him down to the lane.
"Let me know when you grease up again," he said, "and I'll come over."
So we shook hands: and he set off sturdily down the road with the
pie-plant leaves waving cheerfully over his shoulder.
[Illustration: "Somehow, and suddenly, I was a boy again"]
A BOY AND A PREACHER
This morning I went to church with Harriet. I usually have some excuse
for not going, but this morning I had them out one by one and they were
altogether so shabby that I decided not to use them. So I put on my
stiff shirt and Harriet came out in her best black cape with the silk
fringes. She looked so immaculate, so ruddy, so cheerfully sober (for
Sunday) that I was reconciled to the idea of driving her up to the
church. And I am glad I went, for the experience I had.
It was an ideal summer Sunday: sunshiny, clear and still. I believe if
I had been some Rip Van Winkle waking after twenty years' sleep I should
have known it for Sunday. Away off over the hill somewhere we could hear
a lazy farm boy singing at the top of his voice: the higher cadences of
his song reached us pleasantly through the still air. The hens sitting
near the lane fence, fluffing the dust over their backs, were holding a
small and talkative service of their own. As we turned into the main
road we saw the Patterson children on their way to church, all the
little girls in Sunday ribbons, and all the little boys very
uncomfortable in knit stockings.
"It seems a pity to go to church on a day like this," I said to Harriet.
"A pity!" she exclaimed. "Could anything be more appropriate?"
Harriet is good because she can't help it. Poor woman!--but I haven't
any pity for her.
It sometimes seems to me the more worshipful I feel the less I want to
go to church. I don't know why it is, but these forms, simple though
they are, trouble me. The moment an emotion, especially a religious
emotion, becomes an institution, it somehow loses life. True emotion is
rare and costly and that which is awakened from without never rises to
the height of that which springs spontaneously from within.
Back of the church stands a long low shed where we tied our horse. A
number of other buggies were already there, several women were standing
in groups, preening their feathers, a neighbour of ours who has a
tremendous bass voice was talking to a friend:
"Yas, oats is showing up well, but wheat is backward."
His voice, which he was evidently trying to subdue for Sunday, boomed
through the still air. So we walked among the trees to the door of the
church. A smiling elder, in an unaccustomed long coat, bowed and greeted
us. As we went in there was an odour of cushions and our footsteps on
the wooden floor echoed in the warm emptiness of the church. The Scotch
preacher was finding his place in the big Bible; he stood solid and
shaggy behind the yellow oak pulpit, a peculiar professional look on his
face. In the pulpit the Scotch preacher is too much minister, too little
man. He is best down among us with his hand in ours. He is a sort of
human solvent. Is there a twisted and hardened heart in the community he
beams upon it from his cheerful eye, he speaks out of his great charity,
he gives the friendly pressure of his large hand, and that hardened
heart dissolves and its frozen hopelessness loses itself in tears. So he
goes through life, seeming always to understand. He is not surprised by
wickedness nor discouraged by weakness: he is so sure of a greater
But I must come to my experience, which I am almost tempted to call a
resurrection--the resurrection of a boy, long since gone away, and of a
tall lank preacher who, in his humility, looked upon himself as a
failure. I hardly know how it all came back to me; possibly it was the
scent-laden breeze that came in from the woods and through the half-open
church window, perhaps it was a line in one of the old songs, perhaps it
was the droning voice of the Scotch preacher--somehow, and suddenly, I
was a boy again.
----To this day I think of death as a valley: a dark shadowy valley:
the Valley of the Shadow of Death. So persistent are the impressions of
boyhood! As I sat in the church I could see, as distinctly as though I
were there, the church of my boyhood and the tall dyspeptic preacher
looming above the pulpit, the peculiar way the light came through the
coarse colour of the windows, the barrenness and stiffness of the great
empty room, the raw girders overhead, the prim choir. There was
something in that preacher, gaunt, worn, sodden though he appeared: a
spark somewhere, a little flame, mostly smothered by the gray dreariness
of his surroundings, and yet blazing up at times to some warmth.
As I remember it, our church was a church of failures. They sent us the
old gray preachers worn out in other fields. Such a succession of them I
remember, each with some peculiarity, some pathos. They were of the old
sort, indoctrinated Presbyterians, and they harrowed well our barren
field with the tooth of their hard creed. Some thundered the Law, some
pleaded Love; but of all of them I remember best the one who thought
himself the greatest failure. I think he had tried a hundred churches--a
hard life, poorly paid, unappreciated--in a new country. He had once had
a family, but one by one they had died. No two were buried in the same
cemetery; and finally, before he came to our village, his wife, too, had
gone. And he was old, and out of health, and discouraged: seeking some
final warmth from his own cold doctrine. How I see him, a trifle bent,
in his long worn coat, walking in the country roads: not knowing of a
boy who loved him!
He told my father once: I recall his exact, words:
"My days have been long, and I have failed. It was not given me to reach
Oh, gray preacher, may I now make amends? Will you forgive me? I was a
boy and did not know; a boy whose emotions were hidden under mountains
of reserve: who could have stood up to be shot more easily than he could
have said: "I love you!"
Of that preacher's sermons I remember not one word, though I must have
heard scores of them--only that they were interminably long and dull and
that my legs grew weary of sitting and that I was often hungry. It was
no doubt the dreadful old doctrine that he preached, thundering the
horrors of disobedience, urging an impossible love through fear and a
vain belief without reason. All that touched me not at all, save with a
sort of wonder at the working of his great Adam's apple and the strange
rollings of his cavernous eyes. This he looked upon as the work of God;
thus for years he had sought, with self-confessed failure, to touch the
souls of his people. How we travel in darkness and the work we do in all
seriousness counts for naught, and the thing we toss off in play-time,
unconsciously, God uses!
One tow-headed boy sitting there in a front row dreaming dreams, if the
sermons touched him not, was yet thrilled to the depths of his being by
that tall preacher. Somewhere, I said, he had a spark within him. I
think he never knew it: or if he knew it, he regarded it as a wayward
impulse that might lead him from his God. It was a spark of poetry:
strange flower in such a husk. In times of emotion it bloomed, but in
daily life it emitted no fragrance. I have wondered what might have been
if some one--some understanding woman--had recognised his gift, or if he
himself as a boy had once dared to cut free! We do not know: we do not
know the tragedy of our nearest friend!
By some instinct the preacher chose his readings mostly from the Old
Testament--those splendid, marching passages, full of oriental imagery.
As he read there would creep into his voice a certain resonance that
lifted him and his calling suddenly above his gray surroundings.
How vividly I recall his reading of the twenty-third Psalm--a particular
reading. I suppose I had heard the passage many times before, but upon
this certain morning----
Shall I ever forget? The windows were open, for it was May, and a boy
could look out on the hillside and see with longing eyes the inviting
grass and trees. A soft wind blew in across the church; it was full of
the very essence of spring. I smell it yet. On the pulpit stood a bunch
of crocuses crowded into a vase: some Mary's offering. An old man named
Johnson who sat near us was already beginning to breathe heavily,
preparatory to sinking into his regular Sunday snore. Then those words
from the preacher, bringing me suddenly--how shall I express it?--out of
some formless void, to intense consciousness--a miracle of creation:
"Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will
fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort
Well, I saw the way to the place of death that morning; far more vividly
I saw it than any natural scene I know: and myself walking therein. I
shall know it again when I come to pass that way; the tall, dark, rocky
cliffs, the shadowy path within, the overhanging dark branches, even the
whitened dead bones by the way--and as one of the vivid phantasms of
boyhood--cloaked figures I saw, lurking mysteriously in deep recesses,
fearsome for their very silence. And yet I with magic rod and staff
walking within--boldly, fearing no evil, full of faith, hope, courage,
love, invoking images of terror but for the joy of braving them. Ah,
tow-headed boy, shall I tread as lightly that dread pathway when I come
to it? Shall I, like you, fear no evil!
So that great morning went away. I heard nothing of singing or sermon
and came not to myself until my mother, touching my arm, asked me if I
had been asleep! And I smiled and thought how little grown people
knew--and I looked up at the sad sick face of the old preacher with a
new interest and friendliness. I felt, somehow, that he too was a
familiar of my secret valley. I should have liked to ask him, but I did
not dare. So I followed my mother when she went to speak to him, and
when he did not see, I touched his coat.
After that how I watched when he came to the reading. And one great
Sunday, he chose a chapter from Ecclesiastes, the one that begins
"Remember now thy creator in the days of thy
Surely that gaunt preacher had the true fire in his gray soul. How his
voice dwelt and quivered and softened upon the words!
"While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the
stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after
Thus he brought in the universe to that
small church and filled the heart of a boy.
"In the days when the keepers of the house shall
tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves,
and the grinders cease because they are few, and those
that look out of the windows be darkened."
"And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when
the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up
at the voice of the bird and all the daughters of music
shall be brought low."
Do not think that I understood the meaning of those passages: I am not
vain enough to think I know even now--but the _sound_ of them, the roll
of them, the beautiful words, and above all, the pictures!
Those Daughters of Music, how I lived for days imagining them! They were
of the trees and the hills, and they were very beautiful but elusive;
one saw them as he heard singing afar off, sweet strains fading often
into silences. Daughters of Music! Daughters of Music! And why should
they be brought low?
Doors shut in the street--how I _saw_ them--a long, long street, silent,
full of sunshine, and the doors shut, and no sound anywhere but the low
sound of the grinding: and the mill with the wheels drowsily turning and
no one there at all save one boy with fluttering heart, tiptoeing in the
And the voice of the bird. Not the song but the _voice_. Yes, a bird had
a voice. I had known it always, and yet somehow I had not dared to say
it. I felt that they would look at me with that questioning,
incredulous look which I dreaded beyond belief. They might laugh! But
here it was in the Book--the voice of a bird. How my appreciation of
that Book increased and what a new confidence it gave me in my own
images! I went about for days, listening, listening, listening--and
So the words of the preacher and the fire in them:
"And when they shall be afraid of that which is
high and fears shall be in the way----"
I knew the fear of that which is high: I had dreamed of it commonly. And
I knew also the Fear that stood in the way: him I had seen in a myriad
of forms, looming black by darkness in every lane I trod; and yet with
what defiance I met and slew him!
And then, more thrilling than all else, the words of the preacher:
"Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden
bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain,
or the wheel broken at the cistern."
Such pictures: that silver cord, that golden bowl! And why and
A thousand ways I turned them in my mind--and always with the sound of
the preacher's voice in my ears--the resonance of the words conveying an
indescribable fire of inspiration. Vaguely and yet with certainty I knew
the preacher spoke out of some unfathomable emotion which I did not
understand--which I did not care to understand. Since then I have
thought what those words must have meant to him!
Ah, that tall lank preacher, who thought himself a failure: how long I
shall remember him and the words he read and the mournful yet resonant
cadences of his voice--and the barren church, and the stony religion!
Heaven he gave me, unknowing, while he preached an ineffectual hell.
As we rode home Harriet looked into my face.
"You have enjoyed the service," she said softly.
"Yes," I said.
"It _was_ a good sermon," she said.
"Was it?" I replied.
I have had a new and strange experience--droll in one way, grotesque in
another and when everything is said, tragic: at least an adventure.
Harriet looks at me accusingly, and I have had to preserve the air of
one deeply contrite now for two days (no easy accomplishment for me!),
even though in secret I have smiled and pondered.
How our life has been warped by books! We are not contented with
realities: we crave conclusions. With what ardour our minds respond to
real events with literary deductions. Upon a train of incidents, as
unconnected as life itself, we are wont to clap a booky ending. An
instinctive desire for completeness animates the human mind (a struggle
to circumscribe the infinite). We would like to have life "turn
out"--but it doesn't--it doesn't. Each event is the beginning of a whole
new genealogy of events. In boyhood I remember asking after every story
I heard: "What happened next?" for no conclusion ever quite satisfied
me--even when the hero died in his own gore. I always knew there was
something yet remaining to be told. The only sure conclusion we can
reach is this: Life changes. And what is more enthralling to the human
mind than this splendid, boundless, coloured mutability!--life in the
making? How strange it is, then, that we should be contented to take
such small parts of it as we can grasp, and to say, "This is the true
explanation." By such devices we seek to bring infinite existence within
our finite egoistic grasp. We solidify and define where solidification
means loss of interest; and loss of interest, not years, is old age.
So I have mused since my tramp came in for a moment out of the Mystery
(as we all do) and went away again into the Mystery (in our way, too).
There are strange things in this world!
* * * * *
As I came around the corner I saw sitting there on my steps the very
personification of Ruin, a tumble-down, dilapidated wreck of manhood. He
gave one the impression of having been dropped where he sat, all in a
heap. My first instinctive feeling was not one of recoil or even of
hostility, but rather a sudden desire to pick him up and put him where
he belonged, the instinct, I should say, of the normal man who hangs his
axe always on the same nail. When he saw me he gathered himself together
with reluctance and stood fully revealed. It was a curious attitude of
mingled effrontery and apology. "Hit me if you dare," blustered his
outward personality. "For God's sake, don't hit me," cried the innate
fear in his eyes. I stopped and looked at him sharply, His eyes dropped,
his look slid away, so that I experienced a sense of shame, as though I
had trampled upon him. A damp rag of humanity! I confess that my first
impulse, and a strong one, was to kick him for the good of the human
race. No man has a right to be like that.
And then, quite suddenly, I had a great revulsion of feeling. What was I
that I should judge without knowledge? Perhaps, after all, here was one
bearing treasure. So I said:
"You are the man I have been expecting."
He did not reply, only flashed his eyes up at me, wherein fear deepened.
"I have been saving up a coat for you," I said, "and a pair of shoes.
They are not much worn," I said, "but a little too small for me. I think
they will fit you."
He looked at me again, not sharply, but with a sort of weak cunning. So
far he had not said a word.
"I think our supper is nearly ready," I said: "let us go in."
"No, mister," he mumbled, "a bite out here--no, mister"--and then, as
though the sound of his own voice inspired him, he grew declamatory.
"I'm a respectable man, mister, plumber by trade, but----"
"But," I interrupted, "you can't get any work, you're cold and you
haven't had anything to eat for two days, so you are walking out here in
the country where we farmers have no plumbing to do. At home you have a
starving wife and three small children----"
"Well, six--And now we will go in to supper."
I led him into the entry way and poured for him a big basin of hot
water. As I stepped out again with a comb he was slinking toward the
"Here," I said, "is a comb; we are having supper now in a few minutes."
I wish I could picture Harriet's face when I brought him into her
immaculate kitchen. But I gave her a look, one of the commanding sort
that I can put on in times of great emergency, and she silently laid
another place at the table.
When I came to look at our Ruin by the full lamplight I was surprised to
see what a change a little warm water and a comb had wrought in him. He
came to the table uncertain, blinking, apologetic. His forehead, I saw,
was really impressive--high, narrow and thin-skinned. His face gave one
somehow the impression of a carving once full of significant lines, now
blurred and worn as though Time, having first marked it with the lines
of character, had grown discouraged and brushed the hand of
forgetfulness over her work. He had peculiar thin, silky hair of no
particular colour, with a certain almost childish pathetic waviness
around the ears and at the back of the neck. Something, after all, about
the man aroused one's compassion.
I don't know that he looked dissipated, and surely he was not as dirty
as I had at first supposed. Something remained that suggested a care for
himself in the past. It was not dissipation, I decided; it was rather an
indefinable looseness and weakness, that gave one alternately the
feeling I had first experienced, that of anger, succeeded by the
compassion that one feels for a child. To Harriet, when she had once
seen him, he was all child, and she all compassion.
We disturbed him with no questions. Harriet's fundamental quality is
homeliness, comfortableness. Her tea-kettle seems always singing; an
indefinable tabbiness, as of feather cushions, lurks in her
dining-room, a right warmth of table and chairs, indescribably
comfortable at the end of a chilly day. A busy good-smelling steam
arises from all her dishes at once, and the light in the middle of the
table is of a redness that enthralls the human soul. As for Harriet
herself, she is the personification of comfort, airy, clean, warm,
inexpressibly wholesome. And never in the world is she so engaging as
when she ministers to a man's hunger. Truthfully, sometimes, when she
comes to me out of the dimmer light of the kitchen to the radiance of
the table with a plate of muffins, it is as though she and the muffins
were a part of each other, and that she is really offering some of
herself. And down in my heart I know she is doing just that!
Well, it was wonderful to see our Ruin expand in the warmth of Harriet's
presence. He had been doubtful of me; of Harriet, I could see, he was
absolutely sure. And how he did eat, saying nothing at all, while
Harriet plied him with food and talked to me of the most disarming
commonplaces. I think it did her heart good to see the way he ate: as
though he had had nothing before in days. As he buttered his muffin,
not without some refinement, I could see that his hand was long, a
curious, lean, ineffectual hand, with a curving little finger. With the
drinking of the hot coffee colour began to steal up into his face, and
when Harriet brought out a quarter of pie saved over from our dinner and
placed it before him--a fine brown pie with small hieroglyphics in the
top from whence rose sugary bubbles--he seemed almost to escape himself.
And Harriet fairly purred with hospitality.
The more he ate the more of a man he became. His manners improved, his
back straightened up, he acquired a not unimpressive poise of the head.
Such is the miraculous power of hot muffins and pie!
"As you came down," I asked finally, "did you happen to see old man
Masterson's threshing machine?"
"A big red one, with a yellow blow-off?"
"That's the one," I said.
"Well, it was just turning into a field about two miles above here," he
"Big gray, banked barn?" I asked.
"Yes, and a little unpainted house," said our friend.
"That's Parsons'," put in Harriet, with a mellow laugh. "I wonder if he
ever _will_ paint that house. He builds bigger barns every year and
doesn't touch the house. Poor Mrs. Parsons----"
And so we talked of barns and threshing machines in the way we farmers
love to do and I lured our friend slowly into talking about himself. At
first he was non-committal enough and what he said seemed curiously made
to order; he used certain set phrases with which to explain simply what
was not easy to explain--a device not uncommon to all of us. I was
fearful of not getting within this outward armouring, but gradually as
we talked and Harriet poured him a third cup of hot coffee he dropped
into a more familiar tone. He told with some sprightliness of having
seen threshings in Mexico, how the grain was beaten out with flails in
the patios, and afterwards thrown up in the wind to winnow out.
"You must have seen a good deal of life," remarked Harriet
At this remark I saw one of our Ruin's long hands draw up and clinch. He
turned his head toward Harriet. His face was partly in the shadow, but
there was something striking and strange in the way he looked at her,
and a deepness in his voice when he spoke:
"Too much! I've seen too much of life." He threw out one arm and brought
it back with a shudder.
"You see what it has left me," he said, "I am an example of too much
In response to Harriet's melting compassion he had spoken with
unfathomable bitterness. Suddenly he leaned forward toward me with a
piercing gaze as though he would look into my soul. His face had changed
completely; from the loose and vacant mask of the early evening it had
taken on the utmost tensity of emotion.
"You do not know," he said, "what it is to live too much--and to be
"Live too much?" I asked.
"Yes, live too much, that is what I do--and I am afraid."
He paused a moment and then broke out in a higher key:
"You think I am a tramp. Yes--you do. I know--a worthless fellow, lying,
begging, stealing when he can't beg. You have taken me in and fed me.
You have said the first kind words I have heard, it seems to me, in
years. I don't know who you are. I shall never see you again."
I cannot well describe the intensity of the passion with which he spoke,
his face shaking with emotion, his hands trembling.
"Oh, yes," I said easily, "we are comfortable people here--and it is a
good place to live."
"No no," he returned. "I know, I've got my call--" Then leaning forward
he said in a lower, even more intense voice--"I live everything
I was startled by the look of his eyes: the abject terror of it: and I
thought to myself, "The man is not right in his mind." And yet I longed
to know of the life within this strange husk of manhood.
"I know," he said, as if reading my thought, "you think"--and he tapped
his forehead with one finger--"but I'm not. I'm as sane as you are."
It was a strange story he told. It seems almost unbelievable to me as I
set it down here, until I reflect how little any one of us knows of the
deep life within his nearest neighbour--what stories there are, what
tragedies enacted under a calm exterior! What a drama there _may_ be in
this commonplace man buying ten pounds of sugar at the grocery store, or
this other one driving his two old horses in the town road! We do not
know. And how rarely are the men of inner adventure articulate!
Therefore I treasure the curious story the tramp told me. I do not
question its truth. It came as all truth does, through a clouded and
unclean medium: and any judgment of the story itself must be based upon
a knowledge of the personal equation of the Ruin who told it.
"I am no tramp," he said, "in reality, I am no tramp. I began as well as
anyone--It doesn't matter now, only I won't have any of the sympathy
that people give to the man who has seen better days. I hate sentiment.
_I hate it_----"
I cannot attempt to set down the story in his own words. It was broken
with exclamations and involved with wandering sophistries and diatribes
of self-blame. His mind had trampled upon itself in throes of
introspection until it was often difficult to say which way the paths of
the narrative really led. He had thought so much and acted so little
that he travelled in a veritable bog of indecision. And yet, withal,
some ideas, by constant attrition, had acquired a really striking form.
"I am afraid before life," he said. "It makes me dizzy with thought."
At another time he said, "If I am a tramp at all, I am a mental tramp. I
have an unanchored mind."
It seems that he came to a realisation that there was something peculiar
about him at a very early age. He said they would look at him and
whisper to one another and that his sayings were much repeated, often in
his hearing. He knew that he was considered an extraordinary child: they
baited him with questions that they might laugh at his quaint replies.
He said that as early as he could remember he used to plan situations so
that he might say things that were strange and even shocking in a
child. His father was a small professor in a small college--a "worm" he
called him bitterly--"one of those worms that bores in books and finally
dries up and blows off." But his mother--he said she was an angel. I
recall his exact expression about her eyes that "when she looked at one
it made him better." He spoke of her with a softening of the voice,
looking often at Harriet. He talked a good deal about his mother, trying
to account for himself through her. She was not strong, he said, and
very sensitive to the contact of either friends or enemies--evidently a
nervous, high-strung woman.
"You have known such people," he said, "everything hurt her."
He said she "starved to death." She starved for affection and
One of the first things he recalled of his boyhood was his passionate
love for his mother.
"I can remember," he said, "lying awake in my bed and thinking how I
would love her and serve her--and I could see myself in all sorts of
impossible places saving her from danger. When she came to my room to
bid me good night, I imagined how I should look--for I have always been
able to see myself doing things--when I threw my arms around her neck to
Here he reached a strange part of his story. I had been watching Harriet
out of the corner of my eye. At first her face was tearful with
compassion, but as the Ruin proceeded it became a study in wonder and
finally in outright alarm. He said that when his mother came in to bid
him good night he saw himself so plainly beforehand ("more vividly than
I see you at this moment") and felt his emotion so keenly that when his
mother actually stooped to kiss him, somehow he could not respond, he
could not throw his arms around her neck. He said he often lay quiet, in
waiting, trembling all over until she had gone, not only suffering
himself but pitying her, because he understood how she must feel. Then
he would follow her, he said, in imagination through the long hall,
seeing himself stealing behind her, just touching her hand, wistfully
hoping that she might turn to him again--and yet fearing. He said no one
knew the agonies he suffered at seeing his mother's disappointment over
his apparent coldness and unresponsiveness.
"I think," he said, "it hastened her death." He would not go to the
funeral; he did not dare, he said. He cried and fought when they came to
take him away, and when the house was silent he ran up to her room and
buried his head in her pillows and ran in swift imagination to her
funeral. He said he could see himself in the country road, hurrying in
the cold rain--for it seemed raining--he said he could actually feel the
stones and ruts, although he could not tell how it was possible that he
should have seen himself at a distance and _felt_ in his own feet the
stones of the road. He said he saw the box taken from the wagon--_saw_
it--and that he heard the sound of the clods thrown in, and it made him
shriek until they came running and held him.
As he grew older he said he came to live everything beforehand, and that
the event as imagined was so far more vivid and affecting that he had no
heart for the reality itself.
"It seems strange to you," he said, "but I am telling you exactly what
my experience was."
It was curious, he said, when his father told him he must not do a
thing, how he went on and imagined in how many different ways he could
do it--and how, afterward, he imagined he was punished by that "worm,"
his father, whom he seemed to hate bitterly. Of those early days, in
which he suffered acutely--in idleness, apparently--and perhaps that was
one of the causes of his disorder--he told us at length, but many of the
incidents were so evidently worn by the constant handling of his mind
that they gave no clear impression.
Finally, he ran away from home, he said. At first he found that a wholly
new place and new people took him out of himself ("surprised me," he
said, "so that I could not live everything beforehand"). Thus he fled.
The slang he used, "chased himself all over the country," seemed
peculiarly expressive. He had been in foreign countries; he had herded
sheep in Australia (so he said), and certainly from his knowledge of the
country he had wandered with the gamboleros of South America; he had
gone for gold to Alaska, and worked in the lumber camps of the Pacific
Northwest. But he could not escape, he said. In a short time he was no
longer "surprised." His account of his travels, while fragmentary, had a
peculiar vividness. He _saw_ what he described, and he saw it so plainly
that his mind ran off into curious details that made his words strike
sometimes like flashes of lightning. A strange and wonderful
mind--uncontrolled. How that man needed the discipline of common work!
I have rarely listened to a story with such rapt interest. It was not
only what he said, nor how he said it, but how he let me see the strange
workings of his mind. It was continuously a story of a story. When his
voice finally died down I drew a long breath and was astonished to
perceive that it was nearly midnight--and Harriet speechless with her
emotions. For a moment he sat quiet and then burst out:
"I cannot get away: I cannot escape," and the veritable look of some
trapped creature came into his eyes, fear so abject that I reached over
and laid my hand on his arm:
"Friend," I said, "stop here. We have a good country. You have travelled
far enough. I know from experience what a cornfield will do for a man."
"I have lived all sorts of life," he continued as if he had not heard a
word I said, "and I have lived it all twice, and I am afraid."
"Face it," I said, gripping his arm, longing for some power to "blow
grit into him."
"Face it!" he exclaimed, "don't you suppose I have tried. If I could do
a thing--anything--a few times without thinking--_once_ would be
enough--I might be all right. I should be all right."
He brought his fist down on the table, and there was a note of
resolution in his voice. I moved my chair nearer to him, feeling as
though I were saving an immortal soul from destruction. I told him of
our life, how the quiet and the work of it would solve his problems. I
sketched with enthusiasm my own experience and I planned swiftly how he
could live, absorbed in simple work--and in books.
"Try it," I said eagerly.
"I will," he said, rising from the table, and grasping my hand. "I'll
I had a peculiar thrill of exultation and triumph. I know how the priest
must feel, having won a soul from torment!
He was trembling with excitement and pale with emotion and weariness.
One must begin the quiet life with rest. So I got him off to bed, first
pouring him a bathtub of warm water. I laid out clean clothes by his
bedside and took away his old ones, talking to him cheerfully all the
time about common things. When I finally left him and came downstairs I
found Harriet standing with frightened eyes in the middle of the
"I'm afraid to have him sleep in this house," she said.
But I reassured her. "You do not understand," I said.
Owing to the excitement of the evening I spent a restless night. Before
daylight, while I was dreaming a strange dream of two men running, the
one who pursued being the exact counterpart of the one who fled, I heard
my name called aloud:
I sprang out of bed.
"The tramp has gone," called Harriet.
He had not even slept in his bed. He had raised the window, dropped out
on the ground and vanished.
I find that we have an infidel in this community. I don't know that I
should set down the fact here on good white paper; the walls, they say,
have eyes, the stones have ears. But consider these words written in
bated breath! The worst of it is--I gather from common report--this
infidel is a Cheerful Infidel, whereas a true infidel should bear upon
his face the living mark of his infamy. We are all tolerant enough of
those who do not agree with us, provided only they are sufficiently
miserable! I confess when I first heard of him--through Mrs. Horace
(with shudders)--I was possessed of a consuming secret desire to see
him. I even thought of climbing a tree somewhere along the public
road--like Zaccheus, wasn't it?--and watching him go by. If by any
chance he should look my way I could easily avoid discovery by crouching
among the leaves. It shows how pleasant must be the paths of
unrighteousness that we are tempted to climb trees to see those who walk
therein. My imagination busied itself with the infidel. I pictured him
as a sort of Moloch treading our pleasant countryside, flames and smoke
proceeding from his nostrils, his feet striking fire, his voice like the
sound of a great wind. At least that was the picture I formed of him
from common report.
And yesterday afternoon I met the infidel and I must here set down a
true account of the adventure. It is, surely, a little new door opened
in the house of my understanding. I might travel a whole year in a city,
brushing men's elbows, and not once have such an experience. In country
spaces men develop sensitive surfaces, not calloused by too frequent
contact, accepting the new impression vividly and keeping it bright to
I met the infidel as the result of a rather unexpected series of
incidents. I don't think I have said before that we have for some time
been expecting a great event on this farm. We have raised corn and
buckwheat, we have a fertile asparagus bed and onions and pie-plant
(enough to supply the entire population of this community) and I can't
tell how many other vegetables. We have had plenty of chickens hatched
out (I don't like chickens, especially hens, especially a certain gaunt
and predatory hen named [so Harriet says] Evangeline, who belongs to a
neighbour of ours) and we have had two litters of pigs, but until this
bright moment of expectancy we never have had a calf.
Upon the advice of Horace, which I often lean upon as upon a staff, I
have been keeping my young heifer shut up in the cow-yard now for a week
or two. But yesterday, toward the middle of the afternoon, I found the
fence broken down and the cow-yard empty. From what Harriet said, the
brown cow must have been gone since early morning. I knew, of course,
what that meant, and straightway I took a stout stick and set off over
the hill, tracing the brown cow as far as I could by her tracks. She had
made way toward a clump of trees near Horace's wood lot, where I
confidently expected to find her. But as fate would have it, the pasture
gate, which is rarely used, stood open and the tracks led outward into
an old road. I followed rapidly, half pleased that I had not found her
within the wood. It was a promise of new adventure which I came to with
downright enjoyment (confidentially--I should have been cultivating
corn!). I peered into every thicket as I passed: once I climbed an old
fence and, standing on the top rail, intently surveyed my neighbour's
pasture. No brown cow was to be seen. At the crossing of the brook I
shouldered my way from the road down a path among the alders, thinking
the brown cow might have gone that way to obscurity.
It is curious how, in spite of domestication and training, Nature in her
great moments returns to the primitive and instinctive! My brown cow,
never having had anything but the kindest treatment, is as gentle an
animal as could be imagined, but she had followed the nameless,
ages-old law of her breed: she had escaped in her great moment to the
most secret place she knew. It did not matter that she would have been
safer in my yard--both she and her calf--that she would have been surer
of her food; she could only obey the old wild law. So turkeys will hide
their nests. So the tame duck, tame for unnumbered generations, hearing
from afar the shrill cry of the wild drake, will desert her quiet
surroundings, spread her little-used wings and become for a time the
wildest of the wild.
So we think--you and I--that we are civilised! But how often, how often,
have we felt that old wildness which is our common heritage, scarce
shackled, clamouring in our blood!
I stood listening among the alders, in the deep cool shade. Here and
there a ray of sunshine came through the thick foliage: I could see it
where it silvered the cobweb ladders of those moist spaces. Somewhere in
the thicket I heard an unalarmed catbird trilling her exquisite song, a
startled frog leaped with a splash into the water; faint odours of some
blossoming growth, not distinguishable, filled the still air. It was
one of those rare moments when one seems to have caught Nature unaware.
I lingered a full minute, listening, looking; but my brown cow had not
gone that way. So I turned and went up rapidly to the road, and there I
found myself almost face to face with a ruddy little man whose
countenance bore a look of round astonishment. We were both surprised. I
"Have you seen a brown cow?" I asked.
He was still so astonished that he began to look around him; he thrust
his hands nervously into his coat pockets and pulled them out again.
"I think you won't find her in there," I said, seeking to relieve his
But I didn't know, then, how very serious a person I had encountered.
"No--no," he stammered, "I haven't seen your cow."
So I explained to him with sobriety, and at some length, the problem I
had to solve. He was greatly interested and inasmuch as he was going my
way he offered at once to assist me in my search. So we set off
together. He was rather stocky of build, and decidedly short of breath,
so that I regulated my customary stride to suit his deliberation. At
first, being filled with the spirit of my adventure, I was not
altogether pleased with this arrangement. Our conversation ran something
STRANGER: Has she any spots or marks on her?
MYSELF: No, she is plain brown.
STRANGER: How old a cow is she?
MYSELF: This is her first calf.
STRANGER: Valuable animal?
MYSELF: _(fencing):_ I have never put a price on her; she is a promising
STRANGER: Pure blood?
MYSELF: No, grade.
After a pause:
STRANGER: Live around here?
MYSELF: Yes, half a mile below here. Do you?
STRANGER: Yes, three miles above here. My name's Purdy.
MYSELF: Mine is Grayson.
He turned to me solemnly and held out his hand. "_I'm_ glad to meet you,
Mr. Grayson," he said. "And I'm glad," I said, "to meet you, Mr. Purdy."
I will not attempt to put down all we said: I couldn't. But by such
devices is the truth in the country made manifest.
So we continued to walk and look. Occasionally I would unconsciously
increase my pace until I was warned to desist by the puffing of Mr.
Purdy. He gave an essential impression of genial timidity: and how he
_did_ love to talk!
We came at last to a rough bit of land grown up to scrubby oaks and
"This," said Mr. Purdy, "looks hopeful."
We followed the old road, examining every bare spot of earth for some
evidence of the cow's tracks, but without finding so much as a sign. I
was for pushing onward but Mr. Purdy insisted that this clump of woods
was exactly such a place as a cow would like. He developed such a
capacity for argumentation and seemed so sure of what he was talking
about that I yielded, and we entered the wood.
"We'll part here," he said: "you keep over there about fifty yards and
I'll go straight ahead. In that way we'll cover the ground. Keep
So we started and I kept a-shoutin'. He would answer from time to time:
It was a wild and beautiful bit of forest. The ground under the trees
was thickly covered with enormous ferns or bracken, with here and there
patches of light where the sun came through the foliage. The low spots
were filled with the coarse green verdure of skunk cabbage. I was so
sceptical about finding the cow in a wood where concealment was so easy
that I confess I rather idled and enjoyed the surroundings. Suddenly,
however, I heard Mr. Purdy's voice, with a new note in it:
"I'm coming--" and I turned and ran as rapidly as I could through the
trees, jumping over logs and dodging low branches, wondering what new
thing my friend had discovered. So I came to his side.
"Have you got trace of her?" I questioned eagerly.
"Sh!" he said, "over there. Don't you see her?"
He pointed, but for a moment I could see nothing but the trees and the
bracken. Then all at once, like the puzzle in a picture, I saw her
plainly. She was standing perfectly motionless, her head lowered, and in
such a peculiar clump of bushes and ferns that she was all but
indistinguishable. It was wonderful, the perfection with which her
instinct had led her to conceal herself.
All excitement, I started toward her at once. But Mr. Purdy put his hand
on my arm.
"Wait," he said, "don't frighten her. She has her calf there."
"No!" I exclaimed, for I could see nothing of it.
We went, cautiously, a few steps nearer. She threw up her head and
looked at us so wildly for a moment that I should hardly have known her
for my cow. She was, indeed, for the time being, a wild creature of the
wood. She made a low sound and advanced a step threateningly.
"Steady," said Mr. Purdy, "this is her first calf. Stop a minute and
keep quiet. She'll soon get used to us."
Moving to one side cautiously, we sat down on an old log. The brown
heifer paused, every muscle tense, her eyes literally blazing, We sat
perfectly still. After a minute or two she lowered her head, and with
curious guttural sounds she began to lick her calf, which lay quite
hidden in the bracken.
"She has chosen a perfect spot," I thought to myself, for it was the
wildest bit of forest I had seen anywhere in this neighbourhood. At one
side, not far off, rose a huge gray rock, partly covered on one side
with moss, and round about were oaks and a few ash trees of a poor
scrubby sort (else they would long ago have been cut out). The earth
underneath was soft and springy with leaf mould.--
Mr. Purdy was one to whom silence was painful; he fidgeted about,
evidently bursting with talk, and yet feeling compelled to follow his
own injunction of silence. Presently he reached into his capacious
pocket and handed me a little paper-covered booklet. I took it, curious,
and read the title:
"Is There a Hell?"
It struck me humorously. In the country we are always--at least some of
us are--more or less in a religious ferment, The city may distract
itself to the point where faith is unnecessary; but in the country we
must, perforce, have something to believe in. And we talk about it, too!
I read the title aloud, but in a low voice:
"Is There a Hell?" Then I asked: "Do you really want to know?"
"The argument is all there," he replied.
"Well," I said, "I can tell you off-hand, out of my own experience, that
there certainly is a hell----"
He turned toward me with evident astonishment, but I proceeded with
"Yes, sir, there's no doubt about it. I've been near enough myself
several times to smell the smoke. It isn't around here," I said.
As he looked at me his china-blue eyes grew larger, if that were
possible, and his serious, gentle face took on a look of pained
"Before you say such things," he said, "I beg you to read my book."
He took the tract from my hands and opened it on his knee.
"The Bible tells us," he said, "that in the beginning God created the
heavens and the earth, He made the firmament and divided the waters.
But does the Bible say that He created a hell or a devil? Does it?"
I shook my head.
"Well, then!" he said triumphantly, "and that isn't all, either. The
historian Moses gives in detail a full account of what was made in six
days. He tells how day and night were created, how the sun and the moon
and the stars were made; he tells how God created the flowers of the
field, and the insects, and the birds, and the great whales, and said,
'Be fruitful and multiply,' He accounts for every minute of the time in
the entire six days--and of course God rested on the seventh--and there
is not one word about hell. Is there?"
I shook my head.
"Well then--" exultantly, "where is it? I'd like to have any man, no
matter how wise he is, answer that. Where is it?"
"That," I said, "has troubled me, too. We don't always know just where
our hells are. If we did we might avoid them. We are not so sensitive to
them as we should be--do you think?"
He looked at me intently: I went on before he could answer:
"Why, I've seen men in my time living from day to day in the very
atmosphere of perpetual torment, and actually arguing that there was no
hell. It is a strange sight, I assure you, and one that will trouble you
afterwards. From what I know of hell, it is a place of very loose
boundaries. Sometimes I've thought we couldn't be quite sure when we
were in it and when we were not."
I did not tell my friend, but I was thinking of the remark of old
Swedenborg: "The trouble with hell is we shall not know it when we
At this point Mr. Purdy burst out again, having opened his little book
at another page.
"When Adam and Eve had sinned," he said, "and the God of Heaven walked
in the garden in the cool of the evening and called for them and they
had hidden themselves on account of their disobedience, did God say to
them: Unless you repent of your sins and get forgiveness I will shut you
up in yon dark and dismal hell and torment you (or have the devil do it)
for ever and ever? Was there such a word?"
I shook my head.
[Illustration: "He reached into his pocket and handed me a little
"No, sir," he said vehemently, "there was not."
"But does it say," I asked, "that Adam and Eve had not themselves been
using their best wits in creating a hell? That point has occurred to me.
In my experience I've known both Adams and Eves who were most adroit in
their capacity for making places of torment--and afterwards of getting
into them. Just watch yourself some day after you've sown a crop of
desires and you'll see promising little hells starting up within you
like pigweeds and pusley after a warm rain in your garden. And our
heavens, too, for that matter--they grow to our own planting: and how
sensitive they are too! How soon the hot wind of a passion withers them
away! How surely the fires of selfishness blacken their perfection!"
I'd almost forgotten Mr. Purdy--and when I looked around, his face wore
a peculiar puzzled expression not unmixed with alarm. He held up his
little book eagerly almost in my face.
"If God had intended to create a hell," he said, "I assert without fear
of successful contradiction that when God was there in the Garden of
Eden it was the time for Him to have put Adam and Eve and all their
posterity on notice that there was a place of everlasting torment. It
would have been only a square deal for Him to do so. But did He?"
I shook my head.
"He did not. If He had mentioned hell on that occasion I should not now
dispute its existence. But He did not. This is what He said to Adam--the
very words: 'In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou
return unto the ground: for out of it thou wast taken: for dust thou
art, and unto dust shalt thou return.' You see He did not say 'Unto hell
shalt thou return.' He said, 'Unto dust.' That isn't hell, is it?"
"Well," I said, "there are in my experience a great many different kinds
of hells. There are almost as many kinds of hells as there are men and
women upon this earth. Now, your hell wouldn't terrify me in the least.
My own makes me no end of trouble. Talk about burning pitch and
brimstone: how futile were the imaginations of the old fellows who
conjured up such puerile torments. Why, I can tell you of no end of
hells that are worse--and not half try. Once I remember, when I was
I happened to glance around at my companion. He sat there looking at me
with horror--fascinated horror.
"Well, I won't disturb your peace of mind by telling _that_ story," I
"Do you believe that we shall go to hell?" he asked in a low voice.
"That depends," I said. "Let's leave out the question of 'we'; let's be
more comfortably general in our discussion. I think we can safely say
that some go and some do not. It's a curious and noteworthy thing," I
said, "but I've known of cases--There are some people who aren't really
worth good honest tormenting--let alone the rewards of heavenly bliss.
They just haven't anything to torment! What is going to become of such
folks? I confess I don't know. You remember when Dante began his journey
into the infernal regions----"
"I don't believe a word of that Dante," he interrupted excitedly; "it's
all a made up story. There isn't a word of truth in it; it is a
blasphemous book. Let me read you what I say about it in here."
"I will agree with you without argument," I said, "that it is not _all_
true. I merely wanted to speak of one of Dante's experiences as an
illustration of the point I'm making. You remember that almost the first
spirits he met on his journey were those who had never done anything in
this life to merit either heaven or hell. That always struck me as being
about the worst plight imaginable for a human being. Think of a creature
not even worth good honest brimstone!"
Since I came home, I've looked up the passage; and it is a wonderful
one. Dante heard wailings and groans and terrible things said in many
tongues. Yet these were not the souls of the wicked. They were only
those "who had lived without praise or blame, thinking of nothing but
themselves." "Heaven would not dull its brightness with those, nor would
lower hell receive them."
"And what is it," asked Dante, "that makes them so grievously suffer?"
"Hopelessness of death," said Virgil, "Their blind existence here, and
immemorable former life, make them so wretched that they envy every
other lot. Mercy and Justice alike disdain them. Let us speak of them
no more. Look, and pass!"
But Mr. Purdy, in spite of his timidity, was a man of much persistence.
"They tell me," he said, "when they try to prove the reasonableness of
hell, that unless you show sinners how they're goin' to be tormented,
they'd never repent. Now, I say that if a man has to be scared into
religion, his religion ain't much good."
"There," I said, "I agree with you completely."
His face lighted up, and he continued eagerly:
"And I tell 'em: You just go ahead and try for heaven; don't pay any
attention to all this talk about everlasting punishment."
"Good advice!" I said.
It had begun to grow dark. The brown cow was quiet at last. We could
hear small faint sounds from the calf. I started slowly through the
bracken. Mr. Purdy hung at my elbow, stumbling sideways as he walked,
but continuing to talk eagerly. So we came to the place where the calf
lay. I spoke in a low voice:
"So boss, so boss."
I would have laid my hand on her neck but she started back with a wild
toss of her horns. It was a beautiful calf! I looked at it with a
peculiar feeling of exultation, pride, ownership. It was red-brown, with
a round curly pate and one white leg. As it lay curled there among the
ferns, it was really beautiful to look at. When we approached, it did
not so much as stir. I lifted it to its legs, upon which the cow
uttered a strange half-wild cry and ran a few steps off, her head thrown
in the air. The calf fell back as though it had no legs.
"She is telling it not to stand up," said Mr. Purdy.
I had been afraid at first that something was the matter!
"Some are like that," he said. "Some call their calves to run. Others
won't let you come near 'em at all; and I've even known of a case where a
cow gored its calf to death rather than let anyone touch it."
I looked at Mr. Purdy not without a feeling of admiration. This was a
thing he knew: a language not taught in the universities. How well it
became him to know it; how simply he expressed it! I thought to myself:
There are not many men in this world, after all, that it will not pay
us to go to school to--for something or other.
I should never have been able, indeed, to get the cow and calf home,
last night at least, if it had not been for my chance friend. He knew
exactly what to do and how to do it. He wore a stout coat of denim,
rather long in the skirts. This he slipped off, while I looked on in
some astonishment, and spread it out on the ground. He placed my staff
under one side of it and found another stick nearly the same size for
the other side. These he wound into the coat until he had made a sort of
stretcher. Upon this we placed the unresisting calf. What a fine one it
was! Then, he in front and I behind, we carried the stretcher and its
burden out of the wood. The cow followed, sometimes threatening,
sometimes bellowing, sometimes starting off wildly, head and tail in the
air, only to rush back and, venturing up with trembling muscles, touch
her tongue to the calf, uttering low maternal sounds.
"Keep steady," said Mr. Purdy, "and everything'll be all right."
When we came to the brook we stopped to rest. I think my companion would
have liked to start his argument again, but he was too short of breath.
It was a prime spring evening! The frogs were tuning up. I heard a
drowsy cowbell somewhere over the hills in the pasture. The brown cow,
with eager, outstretched neck, was licking her calf as it lay there on
the improvised stretcher. I looked up at the sky, a blue avenue of
heaven between the tree tops; I felt the peculiar sense of mystery which
nature so commonly conveys.
"I have been too sure!" I said. "What do we know after all! Why may
there not be future heavens and hells--'other heavens for other earths'?
We do not know--we do not _know_--"
So, carrying the calf, in the cool of the evening, we came at last to my
yard. We had no sooner put the calf down than it jumped nimbly to its
feet and ran, wobbling absurdly, to meet its mother.
"The rascal," I said, "after all our work."
"It's the nature of the animal," said Mr. Purdy, as he put on his coat.
I could not thank him enough. I invited him to stay with us to supper,
but he said he must hurry home.
"Then come down soon to see me," I said, "and we will settle this
question as to the existence of a hell."
He stepped up close to me and said, with an appealing note in his voice:
"You do not really believe in a hell, do you?"
How human nature loves collusiveness: nothing short of the categorical
will satisfy us! What I said to Mr. Purdy evidently appeased him, for he
seized my hand and shook and shook.
"We haven't understood each other," he said eagerly. "You don't believe
in eternal damnation any more than I do." Then he added, as though some
new uncertainty puzzled him, "Do you?"
At supper I was telling Harriet with gusto of my experiences. Suddenly
she broke out:
"What was his name?"
"Why, he's the infidel that Mrs. Horace tells about!"
"Is that possible?" I said, and I dropped my knife and fork. The
strangest sensation came over me.
"Why," I said, "then I'm an infidel too!"
So I laughed and I've been laughing gloriously ever since--at myself, at
the infidel, at the entire neighbourhood. I recalled that delightful
character in "The Vicar of Wakefield" (my friend the Scotch Preacher
loves to tell about him), who seasons error by crying out "Fudge!"
"Fudge!" I said.
We're all poor sinners!
THE COUNTRY DOCTOR
_Sunday afternoon, June 9._
We had a funeral to-day in this community and the longest funeral
procession, Charles Baxter says, he has seen in all the years of his
memory among these hills. A good man has gone away--and yet remains. In
the comparatively short time I have been here I never came to know him
well personally, though I saw him often in the country roads, a ruddy
old gentleman with thick, coarse, iron-gray hair, somewhat stern of
countenance, somewhat shabby of attire, sitting as erect as a trooper in
his open buggy, one muscular hand resting on his knee, the other holding
the reins of his familiar old white horse. I said I did not come to know
him well personally, and yet no one who knows this community can help
knowing Doctor John North. I never so desired the gift of moving
expression as I do at this moment, on my return from his funeral, that I
may give some faint idea of what a good man means to a community like
ours--as the more complete knowledge of it has come to me to-day.
In the district school that I attended when a boy we used to love to
leave our mark, as we called it, wherever our rovings led us. It was a
bit of boyish mysticism, unaccountable now that we have grown older and
wiser (perhaps); but it had its meaning. It was an instinctive
outreaching of the young soul to perpetuate the knowledge of its
existence upon this forgetful earth. My mark, I remember, was a notch
and a cross. With what secret fond diligence I carved it in the gray
bark of beech trees, on fence posts, or on barn doors, and once, I
remember, on the roof-ridge of our home, and once, with high imaginings
of how long it would remain, I spent hours chiseling it deep in a
hard-headed old boulder in the pasture, where, if man has been as kind
as Nature, it remains to this day. If you should chance to see it you
would not know of the boy who carved it there.
So Doctor North left his secret mark upon the neighbourhood--as all of
us do, for good or for ill, upon _our_ neighbourhoods, in accordance
with the strength of that character which abides within us. For a long
time I did not know that it was he, though it was not difficult to see
that some strong good man had often passed this way. I saw the mystic
sign of him deep-lettered in the hearthstone of a home; I heard it
speaking bravely from the weak lips of a friend; it is carved in the
plastic heart of many a boy. No, I do not doubt the immortalities of the
soul; in this community, which I have come to love so much, dwells more
than one of John North's immortalities--and will continue to dwell. I,
too, live more deeply because John North was here.
He was in no outward way an extraordinary man, nor was his life
eventful. He was born in this neighbourhood: I saw him lying quite still
this morning in the same sunny room of the same house where he first saw
the light of day. Here among these common hills he grew up, and save for
the few years he spent at school or in the army, he lived here all his
life long. In old neighbourhoods and especially farm neighbourhoods
people come to know one another--not clothes knowledge, or money
knowledge--but that sort of knowledge which reaches down into the hidden
springs of human character. A country community may be deceived by a
stranger, too easily deceived, but not by one of its own people. For it
is not a studied knowledge; it resembles that slow geologic uncovering
before which not even the deep buried bones of the prehistoric saurian
remain finally hidden.
I never fully realised until this morning what a supreme triumph it is,
having grown old, to merit the respect of those who know us best. Mere
greatness offers no reward to compare with it, for greatness compels
that homage which we freely bestow upon goodness. So long as I live I
shall never forget this morning. I stood in the door-yard outside of
the open window of the old doctor's home. It was soft, and warm, and
very still--a June Sunday morning. An apple tree not far off was still
in blossom, and across the road on a grassy hillside sheep fed
unconcernedly. Occasionally, from the roadway where the horses of the
countryside were waiting, I heard the clink of a bit-ring or the low
voice of some new-comer seeking a place to hitch. Not half those who
came could find room in the house: they stood uncovered among the trees.
From within, wafted through the window, came the faint odour of flowers,
and the occasional minor intonation of someone speaking--and finally our
own Scotch Preacher! I could not see him, but there lay in the cadences
of his voice a peculiar note of peacefulness, of finality. The day
before he died Dr. North had said:
"I want McAlway to conduct my funeral, not as a minister but as a man.
He has been my friend for forty years; he will know what I mean."
The Scotch Preacher did not say much. Why should he? Everyone there
_knew_: and speech would only have cheapened what we knew. And I do not
now recall even the little he said, for there was so much all about me
that spoke not of the death of a good man, but of his life. A boy who
stood near me--a boy no longer, for he was as tall as a man--gave a more
eloquent tribute than any preacher could have done. I saw him stand his
ground for a time with that grim courage of youth which dreads emotion
more than a battle: and then I saw him crying behind a tree! He was not
a relative of the old doctor's; he was only one of many into whose deep
life the doctor had entered.
They sang "Lead, Kindly Light," and came out through the narrow doorway
into the sunshine with the coffin, the hats of the pallbearers in a row
on top, and there was hardly a dry eye among us.
And as they came out through the narrow doorway, I thought how the
Doctor must have looked out daily through so many, many years upon this
beauty of hills and fields and of sky above, grown dearer from long
familiarity--which he would know no more. And Kate North, the Doctor's
sister, his only relative, followed behind, her fine old face gray and
set, but without a tear in her eye. How like the Doctor she looked: the
same stern control!
In the hours which followed, on the pleasant winding way to the
cemetery, in the groups under the trees, on the way homeward again, the
community spoke its true heart, and I have come back with the feeling
that human nature, at bottom, is sound and sweet. I knew a great deal
before about Doctor North, but I knew it as knowledge, not as emotion,
and therefore it was not really a part of my life.
I heard again the stories of how he drove the country roads, winter and
summer, how he had seen most of the population into the world and had
held the hands of many who went out! It was the plain, hard life of a
country doctor, and yet it seemed to rise in our community like some
great tree, its roots deep buried in the soil of our common life, its
branches close to the sky. To those accustomed to the outward
excitements of city life it would have seemed barren and uneventful. It
was significant that the talk was not so much of what the Doctor did as
of _how_ he did it, not so much of his actions as of the natural
expression of his character. And when we come to think of it, goodness
_is_ uneventful. It does not flash, it glows. It is deep, quiet and very
simple. It passes not with oratory, it is commonly foreign to riches,
nor does it often sit in the places of the mighty: but may be felt in
the touch of a friendly hand or the look of a kindly eye.
Outwardly, John North often gave the impression of brusqueness. Many a
woman, going to him for the first time, and until she learned that he
was in reality as gentle as a girl, was frightened by his manner. The
country is full of stories of such encounters. We laugh yet over the
adventure of a woman who formerly came to spend her summers here. She
dressed very beautifully and was "nervous." One day she went to call on
the Doctor. He made a careful examination and asked many questions.
Finally he said, with portentous solemnity:
"Madam, you're suffering from a very common complaint."
The Doctor paused, then continued, impressively:
"You haven't enough work to do. This is what I would advise. Go home,
discharge your servants, do your own cooking, wash your own clothes and
make your own beds. You'll get well."
She is reported to have been much offended, and yet to-day there was a
wreath of white roses in Doctor North's room sent from the city by that
If he really hated anything in this world the Doctor hated whimperers.
He had a deep sense of the purpose and need of punishment, and he
despised those who fled from wholesome discipline.
A young fellow once went to the Doctor--so they tell the story--and
asked for something to stop his pain.
"Stop it!" exclaimed the Doctor: "why, it's good for you. You've done
wrong, haven't you? Well, you're being punished; take it like a man.
There's nothing more wholesome than good honest pain."
And yet how much pain he alleviated in this community--in forty years!
The deep sense that a man should stand up to his fate was one of the
key-notes of his character; and the way he taught it, not only by word
but by every action of his life, put heart into many a weak man and
woman, Mrs. Patterson, a friend of ours, tells of a reply she once had
from the Doctor to whom she had gone with a new trouble. After telling
him about it she said:
"I've left it all with the Lord."
"You'd have done better," said the Doctor, "to keep it yourself. Trouble
is for your discipline: the Lord doesn't need it."
It was thus out of his wisdom that he was always telling people what
they knew, deep down in their hearts, to be true. It sometimes hurt at
first, but sooner or later, if the man had a spark of real manhood in
him, he came back, and gave the Doctor an abiding affection.
There were those who, though they loved him, called him intolerant. I
never could look at it that way. He _did_ have the only kind of
intolerance which is at all tolerable, and that is the intolerance of
intolerance. He always set himself with vigour against that unreason and
lack of sympathy which are the essence of intolerance; and yet there was
a rock of conviction on many subjects behind which he could not be
driven. It was not intolerance: it was with him a reasoned certainty of
belief. He had a phrase to express that not uncommon state of mind in
this age particularly, which is politely willing to yield its foothold
within this universe to almost any reasoner who suggests some other
universe, however shadowy, to stand upon. He called it a "mush of
concession." He might have been wrong in his convictions, but he, at
least, never floundered in a "mush of concession." I heard him say once:
"There are some things a man can't concede, and one is, that a man who
has broken a law, like a man who has broken a leg, has got to suffer for
It was only with the greatest difficulty that he could be prevailed upon
to present a bill. It was not because the community was poor, though
some of our people are poor, and it was certainly not because the Doctor
was rich and could afford such philanthropy, for, saving a rather
unproductive farm which during the last ten years of his life lay wholly
uncultivated, he was as poor as any man in the community. He simply
seemed to forget that people owed him.
It came to be a common and humorous experience for people to go to the
Doctor and say:
"Now, Doctor North, how much do I owe you? You remember you attended my
wife two years ago when the baby came--and John when he had the
"Yes, yes," said the Doctor, "I remember."
"I thought I ought to pay you."
"Well, I'll look it up when I get time."
But he wouldn't. The only way was to go to him and say:
"Doctor, I want to pay ten dollars on account."
"All right," he'd answer, and take the money.
To the credit of the community I may say with truthfulness that the
Doctor never suffered. He was even able to supply himself with the best
instruments that money could buy. To him nothing was too good for our
neighbourhood. This morning I saw in a case at his home a complete set
of oculist's instruments, said to be the best in the county--a very
unusual equipment for a country doctor. Indeed, he assumed that the
responsibility for the health of the community rested upon him. He was a
sort of self-constituted health officer. He was always sniffing about
for old wells and damp cellars--and somehow, with his crisp humour and
sound sense, getting them cleaned. In his old age he even grew
querulously particular about these things--asking a little more of human
nature than it could quite accomplish. There were innumerable other
ways--how they came out to-day all glorified now that he is gone!--in
which he served the community.
Horace tells how he once met the Doctor driving his old white horse in
the town road.
"Horace," called the Doctor, "why don't you paint your barn?"
"Well," said Horace, "it _is_ beginning to look a bit shabby."
"Horace," said the Doctor, "you're a prominent citizen. We look to you
to keep up the credit of the neighbourhood."
Horace painted his barn.
I think Doctor North was fonder of Charles Baxter than of anyone else,
save his sister. He hated sham and cant: if a man had a single _reality_
in him the old Doctor found it; and Charles Baxter in many ways exceeds
any man I ever knew in the downright quality of genuineness. The Doctor
was never tired of telling--and with humour--how he once went to Baxter
to have a table made for his office. When he came to get it he found
the table upside clown and Baxter on his knees finishing off the under
part of the drawer slides. Baxter looked up and smiled in the engaging
way he has, and continued his work. After watching him for some time the
"Baxter, why do you spend so much time on that table? Who's going to
know whether or not the last touch has been put on the under side of
Baxter straightened up and looked at the Doctor in surprise.
"Why, I will," he said.
How the Doctor loved to tell that story! I warrant there is no boy who
ever grew up in this country who hasn't heard it.
It was a part of his pride in finding reality that made the Doctor such
a lover of true sentiment and such a hater of sentimentality. I prize
one memory of him which illustrates this point. The district school gave
a "speaking" and we all went. One boy with a fresh young voice spoke a
"soldier piece"--the soliloquy of a one-armed veteran who sits at a
window and sees the troops go by with dancing banners and glittering
bayonets, and the people cheering and shouting. And the refrain went
something like this:
"Never again call 'Comrade'
To the men who were comrades for years;
Never again call 'Brother'
To the men we think of with tears."
I happened to look around while the boy was speaking, and there sat the
old Doctor with the tears rolling unheeded down his ruddy face; he was
thinking, no doubt, of _his_ war time and the comrades _he_ knew.
On the other hand, how he despised fustian and bombast. His "Bah!"
delivered explosively, was often like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy
room. Several years ago, before I came here--and it is one of the
historic stories of the county--there was a semi-political Fourth of
July celebration with a number of ambitious orators. One of them, a
young fellow of small worth who wanted to be elected to the legislature,
made an impassioned address on "Patriotism." The Doctor was present, for
he liked gatherings: he liked people. But he did not like the young
orator, and did not want him to be elected. In the midst of the speech,
while the audience was being carried through the clouds of oratory, the
Doctor was seen to be growing more and more uneasy. Finally he burst
The orator caught himself, and then swept on again.
"Bah!" said the Doctor.
By this time the audience was really interested. The orator stopped. He
knew the Doctor, and he should have known better than to say what he
did. But he was very young and he knew the Doctor was opposing him.
"Perhaps," he remarked sarcastically, "the Doctor can make a better
speech than I can."
The Doctor rose instantly, to his full height--and he was an
"Perhaps," he said, "I can, and what is more, I will." He stood up on a
chair and gave them a talk on Patriotism--real patriotism--the
patriotism of duty done in the small concerns of life. That speech,
which ended the political career of the orator, is not forgotten to-day.
One thing I heard to-day about the old Doctor impressed me deeply. I
have been thinking about it ever since: it illuminates his character
more than anything I have heard. It is singular, too, that I should not
have known the story before. I don't believe it was because it all
happened so long ago; it rather remained untold out of deference to a
sort of neighbourhood delicacy.
I had, indeed, wondered why a man of such capacities, so many qualities
of real greatness and power, should have escaped a city career. I said
something to this effect to a group of men with whom I was talking this
morning. I thought they exchanged glances; one said:
"When he first came out of the army he'd made such a fine record as a
surgeon that everyone-urged him to go to the city and practice----"
A pause followed which no one seemed inclined to fill.
"But he didn't go," I said.
"No, he didn't go. He was a brilliant young fellow. He _knew_ a lot, and
he was popular, too. He'd have had a great success----"
"But he didn't go?" I asked promptingly.
"No; he staid here. He was better educated than any man in this county.
Why, I've seen him more'n once pick up a book of Latin and read it _for
I could see that all this was purposely irrelevant, and I liked them for
it. But walking home from the cemetery Horace gave me the story; the
community knew it to the last detail. I suppose it is a story not
uncommon among men, but this morning, told of the old Doctor we had just
laid away, it struck me with a tragic poignancy difficult to describe.
"Yes," said Horace, "he was to have been married, forty years ago, and
the match was broken off because he was a drunkard."
"A drunkard!" I exclaimed, with a shock I cannot convey.
"Yes, sir," said Horace, "one o' the worst you ever see. He got it in
the army. Handsome, wild, brilliant--that was the Doctor. I was a little
boy but I remember it mighty well."
He told me the whole distressing story. It was all a long time ago and
the details do not matter now. It was to be expected that a man like the
old Doctor should love, love once, and love as few men do. And that is
what he did--and the girl left him because he was a drunkard!
"They all thought," said Horace, "that he'd up an' kill himself. He
said he would, but he didn't. Instid o' that he put an open bottle on
his table and he looked at it and said: 'Which is stronger, now, you or
John North? We'll make that the test,' he said, 'we'll live or die by
that.' Them was his exact words. He couldn't sleep nights and he got
haggard like a sick man, but he left the bottle there and never touched
How my heart throbbed with the thought of that old silent struggle! How
much it explained; how near it brought all these people around him! It
made him so human. It is the tragic necessity (but the salvation) of
many a man that he should come finally to an irretrievable experience,
to the assurance that everything is lost. For with that moment, if he be
strong, he is saved. I wonder if anyone ever attains real human sympathy
who has not passed through the fire of some such experience. Or to
humour either! For in the best laughter do we not hear constantly that
deep minor note which speaks of the ache in the human heart? It seems to
me I can understand Doctor North!
He died Friday morning. He had been lying very quiet all night;
suddenly he opened his eyes and said to his sister: "Good-bye, Kate,"
and shut them again. That was all. The last call had come and he was
ready for it. I looked at his face after death. I saw the iron lines of
that old struggle in his mouth and chin; and the humour that it brought
him in the lines around his deep-set eyes.
----And as I think of him this afternoon, I can see him--curiously, for
I can hardly explain it--carrying a banner as in battle right here among
our quiet hills. And those he leads seem to be the people we know, the
men, and the women, and the boys! He is the hero of a new age. In olden
days he might have been a pioneer, carrying the light of civilisation to
a new land; here he has been a sort of moral pioneer--a pioneering far
more difficult than any we have ever known. There are no heroics
connected with it, the name of the pioneer will not go ringing down the
ages; for it is a silent leadership and its success is measured by
victories in other lives. We see it now, only too dimly, when he is
gone. We reflect sadly that we did not stop to thank him. How busy we
were with our own affairs when he was among us! I wonder is there
anyone here to take up the banner he has laid down!
Back to Full Books