Part 3 out of 4
Well, we had quite a wonderful visit, she made breakfast for me,
asking and talking eagerly as I ate.
"We've just had news that old Mr. Toombs is dead."
"Dead!" I exclaimed, dropping my fork; "old Nathan Toombs!"
"Yes, he was my uncle. Did you know him?"
"I knew Nathan Toombs," I said.
I spent two days there with the Ransomes, for they would not hear
of my leaving, and half of our spare time, I think, was spent in
discussing Nathan Toombs. I was not able to get him out of my
mind for days, for his death was one of those events which prove
so much and leave so much unproven.
I can recall vividly my astonishment at the first evidence I ever
had of the strange old man or of his work. It was not very long
after I came to my farm to live. I had taken to spending my spare
evenings--the long evenings of summer--in exploring the country
roads for miles around, getting acquainted with each farmstead,
each bit of grove and meadow and marsh, making my best bow to
each unfamiliar hill, and taking everywhere that toll of pleasure
which comes of quiet discovery.
One evening, having walked farther than usual, I came quite
suddenly around a turn in the road and saw stretching away before
me an extraordinary sight.
I feel that I am conveying no adequate impression of what I
beheld by giving it any such prim and decorous name as--a Hedge.
It was a menagerie, a living, green menagerie! I had no sooner
seen it than I began puzzling my brain as to whether one of the
curious ornaments into which the upper part of the hedge had been
clipped and trimmed was made to represent the head of a horse, or
a camel, or an Egyptian sphinx.
The hedge was of arbor vitae and as high as a man's waist. At more
or less regular intervals the trees in it had been allowed to
grow much taller and had been wonderfully pruned into the
similitude of towers, pinnacles, bells, and many other strange
designs. Here and there the hedge held up a spindling umbrella
of greenery, sometimes a double umbrella--a little one above the
big one--and over the gateway at the centre; as a sort of final
triumph, rose a grandiose arch of interlaced branches upon which
the artist had outdone himself in marvels of ornamentation.
I shall never forget the sensation of delight I had over this
discovery, or of how I walked, tiptoe, along the road in front,
studying each of the marvellous adornments. How eagerly, too, I
looked over at the house beyond--a rather bare, bleak house set
on a slight knoll or elevation and guarded at one corner by a
dark spruce tree. At some distance behind I saw a number of huge
barns, a cattle yard and a silo--all the evidences of
prosperity--with well-nurtured fields, now yellowing with the
summer crops, spreading pleasantly away on every hand.
It was nearly dark before I left that bit of roadside, and I
shall never forget the eerie impression I had as I turned back to
take a final look at the hedge, the strange, grotesque aspect it
presented there in the half light with the bare, lonely house
rising from the knoll behind.
It was not until some weeks later that I met the owner of the
wonderful hedge. By that time, however, having learned of my
interest, I found the whole countryside alive with stories about
it and about Old Nathan Toombs, its owner. It was as though I had
struck the rock of refreshment in a weary land.
I remember distinctly how puzzled was by the stories I heard. The
neighbourhood portrait--and ours is really a friendly
neighbourhood--was by no means flattering. Old Toombs was
apparently of that type of hard-shelled, grasping, self-reliant,
old-fashioned farmer not unfamiliar to many country
neighbourhoods. He had come of tough old American stock and he
was a worker, a saver, and thus he had grown rich, the richest
farmer in the whole neighbourhood. He was a regular
"A dour man," said the Scotch Preacher, "but just--you must admit
that he is just."
There was no man living about whom the Scotch Preacher could not
find something good to say.
"Yes, just," replied Horace, "but hard--hard, and as mean as
This portrait was true enough in itself, for I knew just the sort
of an aggressive, undoubtedly irritable old fellow it pictured,
but somehow, try as I would, I could not see any such old fellow
wasting his moneyed hours clipping bells, umbrellas, and camel's
heads on his ornamental greenery. It left just that incongruity
which is at once the lure, the humour, and the perplexity of
human life. Instead of satisfying my curiosity I was more anxious
than ever to see Old Toombs with my own eyes.
But the weeks passed and somehow I did not meet him. He was a
lonely, unneighbourly old fellow. He had apparently come to fit
into the community without ever really becoming a part of it. His
neighbours accepted him as they accepted a hard hill in the town
road. From time to time he would foreclose a mortgage where he
had loaned money to some less thrifty farmer, or he would extend
his acres by purchase, hard cash down, or he would build a bigger
barn. When any of these things happened the community would crowd
over a little, as it were, to give him more room. It is a curious
thing, and tragic, too, when you come to think of it, how the
world lets alone those people who appear to want to be let alone.
"I can live to myself," says the unneighbourly one. "Well, live
to yourself, then," cheerfully responds the world, and it goes
about its more or less amusing affairs and lets the unneighbourly
one cut himself off.
So our small community had let Old Toombs go his way with all his
money, his acres, his hedge, and his reputation for being a just
Not meeting him, therefore, in the familiar and friendly life of
the neighbourhood, I took to walking out toward his farm, looking
freshly at the wonderful hedge and musing upon that most
fascinating of all subjects--how men come to be what they are.
And at last I was rewarded.
One day I had scarcely reached the end of the hedge when I saw
Old Toombs himself, moving toward me down the country road.
Though I had never seen him before, I was at no loss to identify
him. The first and vital impression he gave me, if I can compress
it into a single word, was, I think, force--force. He came
stubbing down the country road with a brown hickory stick in his
hand which at every step he set vigorously into the soft earth.
Though not tall, he gave the impression of being enormously
strong. He was thick, solid, firm--thick through the body, thick
through the thighs; and his shoulders--what shoulders they
were!--round like a maple log; and his great head with its
thatching of coarse iron-gray hair, though thrust slightly
forward, seemed set immovably upon them,
He presented such a forbidding appearance that I was of two minds
about addressing him. Dour he was indeed! Nor shall I ever forget
how he looked when I spoke to him. He stopped short there in the
road. On his big square nose he wore a pair of curious
spring-bowed glasses with black rims. For a moment he looked at
me through these glasses, raising his chin a little, and then,
deliberately wrinkling his nose, they fell off and dangled at the
length of the faded cord by which they were hung. There was
something almost uncanny about this peculiar habit of his and of
the way in which, afterward, he looked at me from under his bushy
gray brows. This was in truth the very man of the neighbourhood
"I am a new settler here," I said, "and I've been interested in
looking at your wonderful hedge."
The old man's eyes rested upon me a moment with a mingled look of
suspicion and hostility.
"So you've heard o' me," he said in a high-pitched voice, "and
you've heard o' my hedge."
Again he paused and looked me over. "Well," he said, with an
indescribably harsh, cackling laugh, "I warrant you've heard
nothing good o' me down there. I'm a skinflint, ain't I? I'm a
hard citizen, ain't I? I grind the faces o' the poor, don't I?"
At first his words were marked by a sort of bitter humour, but as
he continued to speak his voice rose higher and higher until it
was positively menacing.
There were just two things I could do--haul down the flag and
retreat ingloriously, or face the music. With a sudden sense of
rising spirits--for such things do not often happen to a man in a
quiet country road--I paused a moment, looking him square in the
"Yes," I said, with great deliberation, "you've given me just
about the neighborhood picture of yourself as I have had it. They
do say you are a skinflint, yes, and a hard man. They say that
you are rich and friendless; they say that while you are a just
man, you do not know mercy. These are terrible things to say of
any man if they are true."
I paused. The old man looked for a moment as though he were going
to strike me with his stick, but he neither stirred nor spoke. It
was evidently a wholly new experience for him.
"Yes," I said, "you are not popular in this community, but what
do you suppose I care about that? I'm interested in your hedge.
What I'm curious to know--and I might as well tell you
frankly--is how such a man as you are reputed to be could grow
such an extraordinary hedge. You must have been at it a very long
I was surprised at the effect of my words. The old man turned
partly aside and looked for a moment along the proud and
flaunting embattlements of the green marvel before us. Then he
said in a moderate voice:
"It's a putty good hedge, a putty good hedge."
"I've got him," I thought exultantly, "I've got him!"
"How long ago did you start it?" I pursued my advantage eagerly.
"Thirty-two years come spring," said he.
"Thirty-two years!" I repeated; "you've been at it a long time."
With that I plied him with questions in the liveliest manner, and
in five minutes I had the gruff old fellow stumping along at my
side and pointing out the various notable-features of his
wonderful creation. His suppressed excitement was quite wonderful
to see. He would point his hickory stick with a poking motion,
and, when he looked up, instead of throwing back his big, rough
head, he bent at the hips, thus imparting an impression of
"It took me all o' ten years to get that bell right," he said,
and, "Take a look at that arch: now what is your opinion o'
Once, in the midst of our conversation, he checked himself
abruptly and looked around at me with a sudden dark expression of
suspicion. I saw exactly what lay in his mind, but I continued my
questioning as though I perceived no change in him. It was only
momentary, however, and he was soon as much interested as before.
He talked as though he had not had such an opportunity before in
years--and I doubt whether he had. It was plain to see that if
any one ever loved anything in this world, Old Toombs loved that
hedge of his. Think of it, indeed! He had lived with it, nurtured
it, clipped it, groomed it--for thirty-two years.
So we walked down the sloping field within the hedge, and it
seemed as though one of the deep mysteries of human nature was
opening there before me. What strange things men set their hearts
Thus, presently, we came nearly to the farther end of the hedge.
Here the old man stopped and turned around, facing me.
"Do you see that valley?" he asked. "Do you see that slopin'
valley up through the meadow?"
His voice rose suddenly to a sort of high-pitched violence.
"That' passel o' hounds up there," he said, "want to build a road
down my valley."
He drew his breath fiercely.
"They want to build a road through my land. They want to ruin my
farm--they want to cut down my hedge. I'll fight 'em. I'll fight
'em. I'll show 'em yet!"
It was appalling. His face grew purple, his eyes narrowed to pin
points and grew red and angry--like the eyes of an infuriated
boar. His hands shook. Suddenly he turned upon me, poising his
stick in his hand, and said violently.
"And who are you? Who are you? Are you one of these surveyor
"My name," I answered as quietly as I could, "is Grayson. I live
on the old Mather farm. I am not in the least interested in any
of your road troubles."
He looked at me a moment more, and then seemed to shake himself
or shudder, his eyes dropped away and he began walking toward his
house. He had taken only a few steps, however, before he turned,
and, without looking at me, asked if I would like to see the
tools he used for trimming his hedge. When I hesitated, for I was
decidedly uncomfortable, he came up to me and laid his hand
awkwardly on my arm.
"You'll see something, I warrant, you never see before."
It was so evident that he regretted his outbreak that I followed
him, and he showed me an odd double ladder set on low wheels
which he said he used in trimming the higher parts of his hedge.
"It's my own invention," he said with pride.
"And that"--he pointed as we came out of the tool shed--"is my
house--a good house. I planned it all myself. I never needed to
take lessons of any carpenter I ever see. And there's my barns.
What do you think o' my barns? Ever see any bigger ones? They
ain't any bigger in this country than Old Toombs's barns. They
don't like Old Toombs, but they ain't any of one of 'em can ekal
He followed me down to the roadside now quite loquacious. Even
after I had thanked him and started to go he called after me.
When I stopped he came forward hesitatingly--and I had the
impressions, suddenly, and for the first time that he was an old
man. It may have been the result of his sudden fierce explosion
of anger, but his hand shook, his face was pale, and he seemed
"You--you like my hedge?" he asked.
"It is certainly wonderful hedge," I said. "I never have seen
anything like it?"
"The' AIN'T nothing like it," he responded, quickly. "The' ain't
nothing like it anywhere."
In the twilight as I passed onward I saw the lonely figure of the
old man moving with his hickory stick up the pathway to his
lonely house. The poor rich old man!
"He thinks he can live wholly to himself," I said aloud.
I thought, as I tramped homeward, of our friendly and kindly
community, of how we often come together of an evening with
skylarking and laughter, of how we weep with one another, of how
we join in making better roads and better schools, and building
up the Scotch Preacher's friendly little church. And in all these
things Old Toombs has never had a part. He is not even missed.
As a matter of fact, I reflected, and this is a strange, deep
thing, no man is in reality more dependent upon the community
which he despises and holds at arm's length than this same Old
Nathan Toombs. Everything he has, everything he does, gives
evidence of it. And I don't mean this in any mere material sense,
though of course his wealth and his farm would mean no more than
the stones in his hills to him if he did not have us here around
him. Without our work, our buying, our selling, our governing,
his dollars would be dust. But we are still more necessary to him
in other ways: the unfriendly man is usually the one who demands
most from his neighbours. Thus, if he have not people's love or
confidence, then he will smite them until they fear him, or
admire him, or hate him. Oh, no man, however may try, can hold
I came home deeply stirred from my visit with Old Toombs and lost
no time in making further inquiries. I learned, speedily, that
there was indeed something in the old man's dread of a road being
built through his farm. The case was already in the courts. His
farm was a very old one and extensive, and of recent years a
large settlement of small farmers had been developing the rougher
lands in the upper part of the townships called the Swan Hill
district. Their only way to reach the railroad was by a rocky,
winding road among the 'hills,' while their outlet was down a
gently sloping valley through Old Toombs's farm. They were now so
numerous and politically important that they had stirred up the
town authorities. A proposition had been made to Old Toombs for a
right-of-way; they argued with him that it was a good thing for
the whole country, that it would enhance the values of his own
upper lands, and that they would pay him far more for a
right-of-way than the land was actually worth, but he had spurned
them--I can imagine with what vehemence.
"Let 'em drive round," he said. "Didn't they know what they'd
have to do when they settled up there? What a passel o' curs!
They can keep off o' my land, or I'll have the law on 'em."
And thus the matter came to the courts with the town attempting
to condemn the land for a road through Old Toombs's farm.
"What can we do?" asked the Scotch Preacher, who was deeply
distressed by the bitterness of feeling displayed. "There is no
getting to the man. He will listen to no one."
At one time I thought of going over and talking with Old Toombs
myself, for it seemed that I had been able to get nearer to him
than any one had in a long time. But I dreaded it. I kept
dallying--for what, indeed, could I have said to him? If he had
been suspicious of me before, how much more hostile he might be
when I expressed an interest in his difficulties. As to reaching
the Swan Hill settlers, they were now aroused to an implacable
state of bitterness; and they had the people of the whole
community with them, for no one liked Old Toombs.
Thus while I hesitated time passed and my next meeting with Old
Toombs, instead of being premeditated, came about quite
unexpectedly. I was walking in the town road late one afternoon
when I heard a wagon rattling behind me, and then, quite
suddenly, a shouted, "Whoa."
Looking around, I saw Old Toombs, his great solid figure mounted
high on the wagon seat, the reins held fast in the fingers of one
hand. I was struck by the strange expression in his face--a sort
of grim exaltation. As I stepped aside he burst out in a loud,
shrill, cackling laugh:
I was too astonished to speak at once. Ordinarily when I meet any
one in the town road it is in my heart to cry out to him,
"Good morning, friend," or, "How are you, brother?" but I had no
such prompting that day.
"Git in, Grayson," he said; "git in, git in."
I climbed up beside him, and he slapped me on the knee with
another burst of shrill laughter.
"They thought they had the old man," he said, starting up his
horses. "They thought there weren't no law left in Israel. I
I cannot convey the bitter triumphancy of his voice.
"You mean the road case?" I asked.
"Road case!" he exploded, "they wan't no road case; they didn't
have no road case. I beat 'em. I says to 'em, 'What right hev any
o' you on my property? Go round with you,' I says. Oh, I beat
'em. If they'd had their way, they'd 'a' cut through my
When he set me down at my door, I had said hardly a word. There
seemed nothing that could be said. I remember I stood for some
time watching the old man as he rode away, his wagon jolting in
the country road, his stout figure perched firmly in the seat. I
went in with a sense of heaviness at the heart.
"Harriet," I said, "there are some things in this world beyond
Two evenings later I was surprised to see the Scotch Preacher
drive up to my gate and hastily tie his horse.
"David," said he, "there's bad business afoot. A lot of the young
fellows in Swan Hill are planning a raid on Old Toombs's hedge.
They are coming down to-night."
I got my hat and jumped in with him. We drove up the hilly road
and out around Old Toombs's farm and thus came, near to the
settlement. I had no conception of the bitterness that the
lawsuit had engendered.
"Where once you start men hating one another," said the Scotch
Preacher, "there's utterly no end of it."
I have seen our Scotch Preacher in many difficult places, but
never have I seen him rise to greater heights than he did that
night. It is not in his preaching that Doctor McAlway excels,
but what a power he is among men! He was like some stern old
giant, standing there and holding up the portals of civilization.
I saw men melt under his words like wax; I saw wild young fellows
subdued into quietude; I saw unwise old men set to thinking.
"Man, man," he'd say, lapsing in his earnestness into the broad
Scotch accent of his youth, "you canna' mean plunder, and
destruction, and riot! You canna! Not in this neighbourhood!"
"What about Old Toombs?" shouted one of the boys.
I never shall forget how Doctor McAlway drew himself up nor the
majesty that looked from his eye.
"Old Toombs!" he said in a voice that thrilled one to the bone,
"Old Toombs! Have you no faith, that you stand in the place of
Almighty God and measure punishments?"
Before we left it was past midnight and we drove home, almost
silent, in the darkness.
"Doctor McAlway," I said, "if Old Toombs could know the history
of this night it might change his point of view."
"I doot it," said the Scotch Preacher. "I doot it."
The night passed serenely; the morning saw Old Toombs's hedge
standing as gorgeous as ever. The community had again stepped
aside and let Old Toombs have his way: they had let him alone,
with all his great barns, his wide acres and his wonderful hedge.
He probably never even knew what had threatened him that night,
nor how the forces of religion, of social order, of
neighbourliness in the community which he despised had, after
all, held him safe. There is a supreme faith among common
people--it is, indeed, the very taproot of democracy--that
although the unfriendly one may persist long in his power and
arrogance, there is a moving Force which commands events.
I suppose if I were writing a mere story I should tell how Old
Toombs was miraculously softened at the age of sixty-eight years,
and came into new relationships with his neighbours, or else I
should relate how the mills of God, grinding slowly, had crushed
the recalcitrant human atom into dust.
Either of these results conceivably might have happened--all
things are possible--and being ingeniously related would somehow
have answered a need in the human soul that the logic of events
be constantly and conclusively demonstrated in the lives of
individual men and women.
But as a matter of fact, neither of these things did happen in
this quiet community of ours. There exists, assuredly, a logic of
events, oh, a terrible, irresistible logic of events, but it is
careless of the span of any one man's life. We would like to have
each man enjoy the sweets of his own virtues and suffer the lash
of his own misdeeds--but it rarely so happens in life. No, it is
the community which lives or dies, is regenerated or marred by
the deeds of men.
So Old Toombs continued to live. So he continued to buy more
land, raise more cattle, collect more interest, and the wonderful
hedge continued to flaunt its marvels still more notably upon the
country road. To what end? Who knows? Who knows?
I saw him afterward from time to time, tried to maintain some
sort of friendly relations with him; but it seemed as the years
passed that he grew ever lonelier and more bitter, and not only
more friendless, but seemingly more incapable of friendliness. In
times past I have seen what men call tragedies--I saw once a
perfect young man die in his strength--but it seems to me I never
knew anything more tragic than the life and death of Old Toombs.
If it cannot be said of a man when he dies that either his
nation, his state, his neighborhood, his family, or at least his
wife or child, is better for his having lived, what CAN be said
Old Toombs is dead. Like Jehoram, King of Judah, of whom it is
terribly said in the Book of Chronicles, "he departed without
Of this story of Nathan Toombs we talked much and long there in
the Ransome home. I was with them, as I said, about two
days--kept inside most of the time by a driving spring rain which
filled the valley with a pale gray mist and turned all the
country roads into running streams. One morning, the weather
having cleared, I swung my bag to my shoulder, and with much
warmth of parting I set my face again to the free road and the
CHAPTER IX. THE MAN POSSESSED
I suppose I was predestined (and likewise foreordained) to reach
the city sooner or later. My fate in that respect was settled for
me when I placed my trust in the vagrant road. I thought for a
time that I was more than a match for the Road, but I soon
learned that the Road was more than a match for me. Sly? There's
no name for it. Alluring, lovable, mysterious--as the heart of a
woman. Many a time I followed the Road where it led through
innocent meadows or climbed leisurely hill slopes only to find
that it had crept around slyly and led me before I knew it into
the back door of some busy town.
Mostly in this country the towns squat low in the valleys, they
lie in wait by the rivers, and often I scarcely know of their
presence until I am so close upon them that I can smell the
breath of their heated nostrils and hear their low growlings and
My fear of these lesser towns has never been profound. I have
even been bold enough, when I came across one of them, to hasten
straight through as though assured that Cerberus was securely
chained; but I found, after a time, what I might indeed have
guessed, that the Road, also led irresistibly to the lair of the
Old Monster himself, the He-one of the species, where he lies
upon the plain, lolling under his soiled gray blanket of smoke.
It is wonderful to be safe at home again, to watch the tender,
reddish brown shoots of the Virginia creeper reaching in at my
study window, to see the green of my own quiet fields, to hear
the peaceful clucking of the hens in the sunny dooryard--and
Harriet humming at her work in the kitchen.
When I left the Ransomes that fine spring morning, I had not the
slightest presentiment of what the world held in store for me.
After being a prisoner of the weather for so long, I took to the
Road with fresh joy. All the fields were of a misty greenness and
there were pools still shining in the road, but the air was
deliciously clear, clean, and soft. I came through the hill
country for three or four miles, even running down some of the
steeper places for the very joy the motion gave me, the feel of
the air on my face.
Thus I came finally to the Great Road, and stood for a moment
looking first this way, then that.
"Where now?" I asked aloud.
With an amusing sense of the possibilities that lay open before
me, I closed my eyes, turned slowly around several times and then
stopped. When I opened my eyes I was facing nearly southward: and
that way I set out, not knowing in the least what Fortune had
presided at that turning. If I had gone the other way--
I walked vigorously for two or three hours, meeting or passing
many people upon the busy road. Automobiles there were in
plenty, and loaded wagons, and jolly families off for town, and a
herdsman driving sheep, and small boys on their way to school
with their dinner pails, and a gypsy wagon with lean, led horses
following behind, and even a Jewish peddler with a crinkly black
beard, whom I was on the very point of stopping.
"I should like sometime to know a Jew," I said to myself.
As I travelled, feeling like one who possesses hidden riches, I
came quite without warning upon the beginning of my great
adventure. I had been looking for a certain thing all the
morning, first on one side of the road, then the other, and
finally I was rewarded. There it was, nailed high upon tree, the
curious, familiar sign:
[ REST ]
I stopped instantly. It seemed like an old friend.
"Well," said I. "I'm not at all tired, but I want to be
With that I sat down on a convenient stone, took off my hat,
wiped my forehead, and looked about me with satisfaction, for it
was a pleasant country.
I had not been sitting there above two minutes when my eyes fell
upon one of the oddest specimens of humanity (I thought then)
that ever I saw. He had been standing near the roadside, just
under the tree upon which I had seen the sign, "Rest." My heart
dotted and carried one.
"The sign man himself!" I exclaimed.
I arose instantly and walked down the road toward him.
"A man has only to stop anywhere here," I said exultantly, "and
The stranger's appearance was indeed extraordinary. He seemed at
first glimpse to be about twice as large around the hips as he
was at the shoulders, but this I soon discovered to be due to no
natural avoir-dupois but to the prodigious number of soiled
newspapers and magazines with which the low-hanging pockets of
his overcoat were stuffed. For he was still wearing an old shabby
overcoat though the weather was warm and bright--and on his head
was an odd and outlandish hat. It was of fur, flat at the top,
flat as a pie tin, with the moth-eaten earlaps turned up at the
sides and looking exactly like small furry ears. These, with the
round steel spectacles which he wore--the only distinctive
feature of his countenance--gave him an indescribably droll
"A fox!" I thought.
Then I looked at him more closely.
"No," said I, "an owl, an owl!"
The stranger stepped out into the road and evidently awaited my
approach. My first vivid impression of his face--I remember it
afterward shining with a strange inward illumination--was not
favourable. It was a deep-lined, scarred, worn-looking face,
insignificant if not indeed ugly in its features, and yet, even
at the first glance, revealing something
"Good day, friend," I said heartily.
Without replying to my greeting, he asked:
"Is this the road to Kilburn?"--with a faint flavour of
foreignness in his words.
"I think it is," I replied, and I noticed as he lifted his hand
to thank me that one finger was missing and that the hand itself
was cruelly twisted and scarred.
The stranger instantly set off up the Road without giving me much
more attention than he would have given any other signpost. I
stood a moment looking after him--the wings of his overcoat
beating about his legs and the small furry ears on his cap
"There," said I aloud, "is a man who is actually going
So many men in this world are going nowhere in particular that
when one comes along--even though he be amusing and
insignificant--who is really (and passionately) going somewhere,
what a stir he communicates to a dull world! We catch sparks of
electricity from the very friction of his passage.
It was so with this odd stranger. Though at one moment I could
not help smiling at him, at the next I was following him.
"It may be," said I to myself, "that this is really the sign
I felt like Captain Kidd under full sail to capture a treasure
ship; and as I approached I was much agitated as to the best
method of grappling and boarding. I finally decided, being a
lover of bold methods, to let go my largest gun first--for moral
"So," said I, as I ran alongside, "you are the man who puts up
He stopped and looked at me.
"Why the sign 'Rest' along this road."
He paused for some seconds with a perplexed expression on his
"Then you are not the sign man?" I said.
"No," he replied, "I ain't any sign man."
I was not a little disappointed, but having made my attack, I
determined to see if there was any treasure aboard--which, I
suppose, should be the procedure of any well-regulated pirate.
"I'm going this way myself," I said, "and if you have no
He stood looking at me curiously, indeed suspiciously, through
his round spectacles.
"Have you got the passport?" he asked finally.
"The passport!" I exclaimed, mystified in my turn.
"Yes," said he, "the passport. Let me see your hand."
When I held out my hand he looked at it closely for a moment, and
then took it with a quick warm pressure in one of his, and gave
it a little shake, in a way not quite American.
"You are one of us," said he, "you work."
I thought at first that it was a bit of pleasantry, and I was
about to return it in kind when I saw plainly in his face a look
of solemn intent.
"So," he said, "we shall travel like comrades."
He thrust his scarred hand through my arm, and we walked up the
road side by side, his bulging pockets beating first against his
legs and then against mine, quite impartially.
"I think," said the stranger, "that we shall be arrested at
"We shall!" I exclaimed with something, I admit, of a shock.
"Yes," he said, "but it is all in the day's work."
"How is that?"
He stopped in the road and faced me. Throwing back his overcoat
he pointed to a small red button on his coat lapel.
"They don't want me in Kilburn," said he, "the mill men are
strikin' there, and the bosses have got armed men on every
corner. Oh, the capitalists are watchin' for me, all right."
I cannot convey the strange excitement I felt. It seemed as
though these words suddenly opened a whole new world around me--a
world I had heard about for years, but never entered. And the
tone in which he had used the word "capitalist!" I had almost to
glance around to make sure that there were no ravening
capitalists hiding behind the trees.
"So you are a Socialist," I said.
"Yes," he answered. "I'm one of those dangerous persons."
First and last I have read much of Socialism, and thought about
it, too, from the quiet angle of my farm among the hills, but
this was the first time I had ever had a live Socialist on my
arm. I could not have been more surprised if the stranger had
said, "Yes, I am Theodore Roosevelt."
One of the discoveries we keep making all our life long (provided
we remain humble) is the humorous discovery of the ordinariness
of the extraordinary. Here was this disrupter of society, this
man of the red flag--here he was with his mild spectacled eyes
and his furry ears wagging as he walked. It was
unbelievable!--and the sun shining on him quite as impartially as
it shone on me.
Coming at last to a pleasant bit of woodland, where a stream ran
under the roadway, I said:
"Stranger, let's sit down and have a bite of luncheon."
He began to expostulate, said he was expected in Kilburn.
"Oh, I've plenty for two," I said, "and I can say, at least, that
I am a firm believer in cooperation.
Without more urging he followed me into the woods, where we sat
down comfortably under a tree.
Now, when I take a fine thick sandwich out of my bag, I always
feel like making it a polite bow, and before I bite into a big
brown doughnut, I am tempted to say, "By your leave, madam," and
as for MINCE PIE----Beau Brummel himself could not outdo me in
respectful consideration. But Bill Hahn neither saw, nor smelled,
nor, I think, tasted Mrs. Ransome's cookery. As soon as we sat
down he began talking. From time to time he would reach out for
another sandwich or doughnut or pickle (without knowing in the
least which he was getting), and when that was gone some reflex
impulse caused him to reach out for some more. When the last
crumb of our lunch had disappeared Bill Hahn still reached out.
His hand groped absently about, and coming in contact with no
more doughnuts or pickles he withdrew it--and did not know, I
think, that the meal was finished. (Confidentially, I have
speculated on what might have happened if the supply had been
But that was Bill Hahn. Once started on his talk, he never
thought of food or clothing or shelter; but his eyes glowed, his
face lighted up with a strange effulgence, and he quite lost
himself upon the tide of his own oratory. I saw him afterward by
a flare-light at the centre of a great crowd of men and
women--but that is getting ahead of my story.
His talk bristled with such words as "capitalism," "proletariat,"
"class-consciousness"--and he spoke with fluency of "economic
determinism" and "syndicalism." It was quite wonderful! And from
time to time, he would bring in a smashing quotation from
Aristotle, Napoleon, Karl Marx, or Eugene V. Debs, giving them
all equal value, and he cited statistics!--oh, marvellous
statistics, that never were on sea or land.
Once he was so swept away by his own eloquence that he sprang to
his feet and, raising one hand high above his head (quite
unconscious that he was holding up a dill pickle), he worked
through one of his most thrilling periods.
Yes, I laughed, and yet there was so brave a simplicity about
this odd, absurd little man that what I laughed at was only his
outward appearance (and that he himself had no care for), and all
the time I felt a growing respect and admiration for him. He was
not only sincere, but he was genuinely simple--a much higher
virtue, as Fenelon says. For while sincere people do not aim at
appearing anything but what they are, they are always in fear of
passing for something they are not. They are forever thinking
about themselves, weighing all their words and thoughts and
dwelling upon what they have done, in the fear of having done too
much or too little, whereas simplicity, as Fenelon says, is an
uprightness of soul which has ceased wholly to dwell upon itself
or its actions. Thus there are plenty of sincere folk in the
world but few who are simple.
Well, the longer he talked, the less interested I was in what he
said and the more fascinated I became in what he was. I felt a
wistful interest in him: and I wanted to know what way he took to
purge himself of himself. I think if I had been in that group
nineteen hundred years ago, which surrounded the beggar who was
born blind, but whose anointed eyes now looked out upon glories
of the world, I should have been among the questioners:
"What did he to thee? How opened he thine eyes?"
I tried ineffectually several times to break the swift current of
his oratory and finally succeeded (when he paused a moment to
finish off a bit of pie crust).
"You must have seen some hard experiences in your life," I said.
"That I have," responded Bill Hahn, "the capitalistic system--"
"Did you ever work in the mills yourself?" I interrupted hastily.
"Boy and man," said Bill Hahn, "I worked in that hell for
thirty-two years--The class-conscious proletariat have only to
"And your wife, did she work too--and your sons and daughters?"
A spasm of pain crossed his face.
"My daughter?" he said. "They killed her in the mills."
It was appalling--the dead level of the tone in which he uttered
those words--the monotone of an emotion long ago burned out, and
yet leaving frightful scars.
"My friend!" I exclaimed, and I could not help laying my hand on
I had the feeling I often have with troubled children--an
indescribable pity that they have had to pass through the valley
of the shadow, and I not there to take them by the hand.
"And was this--your daughter--what brought you to your present
"No," said he, "oh, no. I was a Socialist, as you might say, from
youth up. That is, I called myself a Socialist, but, comrade,
I've learned this here truth: that it ain't of so much importance
that you possess a belief, as that the belief possess you. Do you
"I think," said I, "that I understand."
Well, he told me his story, mostly in a curious, dull, detached
way--as though he were speaking of some third person in whom he
felt only a brotherly interest, but from time to time some
incident or observation would flame up out of the narrative, like
the opening of the door of a molten pit--so that the glare hurt
one!--and then the story would die back again into quiet
Like most working people he had never lived in the twentieth
century at all. He was still in the feudal age, and his whole
life had been a blind and ceaseless struggle for the bare
necessaries of life, broken from time to time by fierce irregular
wars called strikes. He had never known anything of a real
self-governing commonwealth, and such progress as he and his kind
had made was never the result of their citizenship, of their
powers as voters, but grew out of the explosive and ragged
upheavals, of their own half-organized societies and unions.
It was against the "black people" he said, that he was first on
strike back in the early nineties. He told me all about it, how
he had been working in the mills pretty comfortably--he was young
and strong then; with a fine growing family and a small home of
"It was as pretty a place as you would want to see," he said; "we
grew cabbages and onions and turnips--everything grew fine!--in
the garden behind the house."
And then the "black people" began to come in, little by little at
first, and then by the carload. By the "black people" he meant
the people from Southern Europe, he called them "hordes"--"hordes
and hordes of 'em"--Italians mostly, and they began getting into
the mills and underbidding for the jobs, so that wages slowly
went down and at the same time the machines were speeded up. It
seems that many of these "black people" were single men or
vigorous young married people with only themselves to support,
while the old American workers were men with families and little
homes to pay for, and plenty of old grandfathers and mothers, to
say nothing of babies, depending upon them.
"There wasn't a living for a decent family left," he said.
So they struck--and he told me in his dull monotone of the long
bitterness of that strike, the empty cupboards, the approach of
winter with no coal for the stoves and no warm clothing for the
children. He told me that many of the old workers began to leave
the town (some bound for the larger cities, some for the Far
"But," said he with a sudden outburst of emotion, "I couldn't
leave. I had the woman and the children!"
And presently the strike collapsed, and the workers rushed helter
skelter back to the mills to get their old jobs. "Begging like
whipped dogs," he said bitterly.
Many of them found their places taken by the eager "black
people," and many had to go to work at lower wages in poorer
places--punished for the fight they had made.
But he got along somehow, he said--"the woman was a good
manager"-- until one day he had the misfortune to get his hand
caught in the machinery. It was a place which should have been
protected with guards, but was not. He was laid up for several
weeks, and the company, claiming that the accident was due to his
own stupidity and carelessness, refused even to pay his wages
while he was idle. Well, the family had to live somehow, and the
woman and the daughter--"she was a little thing," he said, "and
frail"--the woman and the daughter went into the mill. But even
with this new source of income they began to fall behind. Money
which should have gone toward making the last payments on their
home (already long delayed by the strike) had now to go to the
doctor and the grocer.
"We had to live," said Bill Hahn.
Again and again he used this same phrase, "We had to live!" as a
sort of bedrock explanation for all the woes of life.
After a time, with one finger gone and a frightfully scarred
hand--he held it up for me to see--he went back into the mill.
"But it kept getting worse and worse," said he, "and finally I
couldn't stand it any longer."
He and a group of friends got together secretly and tried to
organize a union, tried to get the workmen together to improve
their own condition; but in some way ("they had spies
everywhere," he said) the manager learned of the attempt and one
morning when he reported at the mill he was handed a slip asking
him to call for his wages, that his help was no longer required.
"I'd been with that one company for twenty years and four
months," he said bitterly, "I'd helped in my small way to build
it up, make it a big concern payin' 28 per cent. dividends every
year; I'd given part of my right hand in doin' it--and they threw
me out like an old shoe."
He said he would have pulled up and gone away, but he still had
the little home and the garden, and his wife and daughter were
still at work, so he hung on grimly, trying to get some other
job. "But what good is a man for any other sort of work," he
said, "when he has been trained to the mills for thirty-two
It was not very long after that when the "great strike"
began--indeed, it grew out of the organization which he had tried
to launched--and Bill Hahn threw himself into it with all his
strength. He was one of the leaders. I shall not attempt to
repeat here his description of the bitter struggle, the coming of
the soldiery, the street riots, the long lists of arrests
("some," said he, "got into jail on purpose, so that they could
at least have enough to eat!"), the late meetings of strikers,
the wild turmoil and excitement.
Of all this he told me, and then he stopped suddenly, and after a
long pause he said in a low voice:
"Comrade, did ye ever see your wife and your sickly daughter and
your kids sufferin' for bread to eat?"
He paused again with a hard, dry sob in his voice.
"Did ye ever see that?"
"No," said I, very humbly, "I have never seen anything like
He turned on me suddenly, and I shall never forget the look on
his face, nor the blaze in his eyes:
"Then what can you know about working-men?"
What could I answer?
A moment passed and then he said, as if a little remorseful at
having turned thus on me:
"Comrade, I tell you, the iron entered my soul--them days."
It seems that the leaders of the strike were mostly old employees
like Bill Hahn, and the company had conceived the idea that if
these men could be eliminated the organization would collapse,
and the strikers be forced back to work. One day Bill Hahn found
that proceedings had been started to turn him out of his home,
upon which he had not been able to keep up his payments, and at
the same time the merchant, of whom he had been a respected
customer for years, refused to give him any further credit.
"But we lived somehow," he said, "we lived and we fought."
It was then that he began to see clearly what it all meant. He
said he made a great discovery: that the "black people" against
whom they had struck in 1894 were not to blame!
"I tell you," said he, "we found when we got started that them
black people--we used to call 'em dagoes--were just workin'
people like us--and in hell with us. They were good soldiers,
them Eyetalians and Poles and Syrians, they fought with us to the
I shall not soon forget the intensely dramatic but perfectly
simple way in which he told me how he came, as he said, "to see
the true light." Holding up his maimed right hand (that trembled
a little), he pointed one finger upward.
"I seen the big hand in the sky," he said, "I seen it as clear as
He said he saw at last what Socialism meant. One day he went home
from a strikers' meeting--one of the last, for the men were worn
out with their long struggle. It was a bitter cold day, and he
was completely discouraged. When he reached his own street he saw
a pile of household goods on the sidewalk in front of his home.
He saw his wife there wringing her hands and crying. He said he
could not take a step further, but sat down on a neighbour's
porch and looked and looked. "It was curious," he said, "but the
only thing I could see or think about was our old family clock
which they had stuck on top of the pile, half tipped over. It
looked odd and I wanted to set it up straight. It was the clock
we bought when we were married, and we'd had it about twenty
years on the mantel in the livin'-room. It was a good clock," he
He paused and then smiled a little.
"I never have figured it out why I should have been able to think
of nothing but that clock," he said, "but so it was."
When he got home, he found his frail daughter just coming out of
the empty house, "coughing as though she was dyin'." Something,
he said, seemed to stop inside him. Those were his words:
"Something seemed to stop inside 'o me."
He turned away without saying a word, walked back to strike
headquarters, borrowed a revolver from a friend, and started out
along the main road which led into the better part of the town.
"Did you ever hear o' Robert Winter?" he asked.
"No," said I.
"Well, Robert Winter was the biggest gun of 'em all. He owned the
mills there and the largest store and the newspaper-- he pretty
nearly owned the town."
He told me much more about Robert Winter which betrayed still a
curious sort of feudal admiration for him, and for his great
place and power; but I need not dwell on it here. He told me how
he climbed through a hemlock hedge (for the stone gateway was
guarded) and walked through the snow toward the great house.
"An' all the time I seemed to be seein' my daughter Margy right
there before my eyes coughing as though she was dyin'."
It was just nightfall and all the windows were alight. He crept
up to a clump of bushes under a window and waited there a moment
while he drew out and cocked his revolver. Then he slowly reached
upward until his head cleared the sill and he could look into the
room. "A big, warm room," he described it.
"Comrade," said he, "I had murder in my heart that night."
So he stood there looking in with the revolver ready cocked in
"And what do you think I seen there?" he asked.
"I cannot guess," I said.
"Well," said Bill Hahn, "I seen the great Robert Winter that we
had been fighting for five long months--and he was down on his
hands and knees on the carpet--he had his little daughter on his
back--and he was creepin' about with her--an' she was laughin'."
Bill Hahn paused.
"I had a bead on him," he said, "but I couldn't do it--I just
couldn't do it."
He came away all weak and trembling and cold, and, "Comrade," he
said, "I was cryin' like a baby, and didn't know why."
The next day the strike collapsed and there was the familiar
stampede for work-- but Bill Hahn did not go back. He knew it
would be useless. A week later his frail daughter died and was
buried in the paupers field.
"She was as truly killed," he said, "as though some one had fired
a bullet at her through a window."
"And what did you do after that?" I asked, when he had paused for
a long time with his chin on his breast.
"Well," said he, "I did a lot of thinking them days, and I says
to myself: 'This thing is wrong, and I will go out and stop it--I
will go out and stop it.'"
As he uttered these words, I looked at him curiously--his absurd
flat fur hat with the moth-eaten ears, the old bulging overcoat,
the round spectacles, the scarred, insignificant face--he seemed
somehow transformed, a person elevated above himself, the tool of
some vast incalculable force.
I shall never forget the phrase he used to describe his own
feelings when he had reached this astonishing decision to go out
and stop the wrongs of the World. He said he "began to feel all
"I see it didn't matter what become o' me, and I began to feel
all clean inside."
It seemed, he explained, as though something big and strong had
got hold of him, and he began to be happy.
"Since then," he said in a low voice, "I've been happier than I
ever was before in all my life. I ain't got any family, nor any
home--rightly speakin'--nor any money, but, comrade, you see here
in front of you, a happy man."
When he had finished his story we sat quiet for some time.
"Well," said he, finally, "I must be goin'. The committee will
wonder what's become o' me."
I followed him out to the road. There I put my hand on his
shoulder, and said:
"Bill Hahn, you are a better man than I am."
He smiled, a beautiful smile, and we walked off together down the
I wish I had gone on with him at that time into the city, but
somehow I could not do it. I stopped near the top of the hill
where one can see in the distance that smoky huddle of buildings
which is known as Kilburn, and though he urged me, I turned aside
and sat down in the edge of a meadow. There were many things I
wanted to think about, to get clear in my mind.
As I sat looking out toward that great city, I saw three men
walking in the white road. As I watched them, I could see them
coming quickly, eagerly. Presently they threw up their hands and
evidently began to shout, though I could not hear what they said.
At that moment I saw my friend Bill Hahn running in the road, his
coat skirts flapping heavily about his legs. When they met they
almost fell into another's arms.
I suppose it was so that the early Christians, those who hid in
the Roman catacombs, were wont to greet one another.
So I sat thinking.
"A man," I said to myself, "who can regard himself as a function,
not an end of creation, has arrived."
After a time I got up and walked down the hill--some strange
force carrying me onward--and came thus to the city of Kilburn.
CHAPTER X. I AM CAUGHT UP INTO LIFE
I can scarcely convey in written words the whirling emotions I
felt when I entered the city of Kilburn. Every sight, every
sound, recalled vividly and painfully the unhappy years I had
once spent in another and greater city. Every mingled odour of
the streets--and there is nothing that will so surely re-create
(for me) the inner emotion of a time or place as a remembered
odour--brought back to me the incidents of that immemorial
For a time, I confess it frankly here, I felt afraid. More than
once I stopped short in the street where I was walking, and
considered turning about and making again for the open country.
Some there may be who will feel that I am exaggerating my
sensations and impressions, but they do not know of my memories
of a former life, nor of how, many years ago, I left the city
quite defeated, glad indeed that I was escaping, and thinking (as
I have related elsewhere) that I should never again set foot upon
a paved street. These things went deep with me. Only the other
day, when a friend asked me how old I was, I responded
instantly--our unpremeditated words are usually truest--with the
date of my arrival at this farm.
"Then you are only ten years old!" he exclaimed with a laugh,
thinking I was joking.
"Well," I said, "I am counting only the years worth living."
No; I existed, but I never really lived until I was reborn, that
wonderful summer here among these hills.
I said I felt afraid in the streets of Kilburn, but it was no
physical fear. Who could be safer in a city than the man who has
not a penny in his pockets? It was rather a strange, deep,
spiritual shrinking. There seemed something so irresistible about
this life of the city, so utterly overpowering. I had a sense of
being smaller than I had previously felt myself, that in some way
my personality, all that was strong or interesting or original
about me, was being smudged over, rubbed out. In the country I
had in some measure come to command life, but here, it seemed to
me, life was commanding me and crushing me down. It is a
difficult thing to describe: I never felt just that way before.
I stopped at last on the main street of Kilburn in the very heart
of the town. I stopped because it seemed necessary to me, like a
man in a flood, to touch bottom, to get hold upon something
immovable and stable. It was just at that hour of evening when
the stores and shops are pouring forth their rivulets of humanity
to join the vast flood of the streets. I stepped quickly aside
into a niche near the corner of an immense building of brick and
steel and glass, and there I stood with my back to the wall, and
I watched the restless, whirling, torrential tide of the streets.
I felt again, as I had not felt it before in years, the
mysterious urge of the city--the sense of unending, overpowering
There was another strange, indeed uncanny, sensation that began
to creep over me as I stood there. Though hundreds upon hundreds
of men and women were passing me every minute, not one of them
seemed to see me. Most of them did not even look in my direction,
and those who did turn their eyes toward me see me to glance
through me to the building behind. I wonder if this is at all a
common experience, or whether I was unduly sensitive that day,
unduly wrought up? I began to feel like one clad in garments of
invisibility. I could see, but was not seen. I could feel, but
was not felt. In the country there are few who would not stop to
speak to me, or at least appraise me with their eyes; but here I
was a wraith, a ghost--not a palpable human being at all. For a
moment I felt unutterably lonely.
It is this way with me. When I have reached the very depths of
any serious situation or tragic emotion, something within me
seems at last to stop--how shall I describe it?--and I rebound
suddenly and see the world, as it were, double--see that my
condition instead of being serious or tragic is in reality
amusing--and I usually came out of it with an utterly absurd or
whimsical idea. It was so upon this occasion. I think it was the
image of my robust self as a wraith that did it.
"After all," I said aloud taking a firm hold on the good hard
flesh of one of my legs, "this is positively David Grayson."
I looked out again into that tide of faces--interesting, tired,
passive, smiling, sad, but above all, preoccupied faces.
"No one," I thought, "seems to know that David Grayson has come
I had the sudden, almost irresistible notion of climbing up a
step near me, holding up one hand, and crying out:
"Here I am, my friends. I am David Grayson. I am real and solid
and opaque; I have plenty of red blood running in my veins. I
assure you that I am a person well worth knowing."
I should really have enjoyed some such outlandish enterprise, and
I am not at all sure yet that it would not have brought me
adventures and made me friends worth while. We fail far more
often by under-daring than by over-daring.
But this imaginary object had the result, at least, of giving me
a new grip on things. I began to look out upon the amazing
spectacle before me in a different mood. It was exactly like some
enormous anthill into which an idle traveller had thrust his
cane. Everywhere the ants were running out of their tunnels and
burrows, many carrying burdens and giving one strangely the
impression that while they were intensely alive and active, not
more than half of them had any clear idea of where they were
going. And serious, deadly serious, in their haste! I felt a
strong inclination to stop a few of them and say:
"Friends, cheer up. It isn't half as bad as you think it is.
After a time the severity of the human flood began to abate, and
here and there at the bottom of that gulch of a street, which had
begun to fill with soft, bluish-gray shadows, the evening lights
a appeared. The air had grown cooler; in the distance around a
corner I heard a street organ break suddenly and joyously into
the lively strains of "The Wearin' o' the Green."
I stepped out into the street with quite a new feeling of
adventure. And as if to testify that I was now a visible person a
sharp-eyed newsboy discovered me--the first human being in
Kilburn who had actually seen me --and came up with a paper in
I was interested in the shrewd, world-wise, humorous look in the
"No," I began, with the full intent of bantering him into some
sort of acquaintance; but he evidently measured my purchasing
capacity quite accurately, for he turned like a flash to another
customer. "Herald, boss?"
"You'll have to step lively, David Grayson," I said to myself,
"if you get aboard in this city."
A slouchy negro with a cigarette in his fingers glanced at me in
passing and then, hesitating, turned quickly toward me.
"Got a match, boss?"
I gave him a match.
"Thank you, boss," and he passed on down the street.
"I seem to be 'boss' around here," I said.
This contact, slight as it was, gave me a feeling of warmth,
removed a little the sensation of aloofness I had felt, and I
strolled slowly down the street, looking in at the gay windows,
now ablaze with lights, and watching the really wonderful
procession of vehicles of all shapes and sizes that rattled by on
the pavement. Even at that hour of the day I think there were
more of them in one minute than I see in a whole month at my
It's a great thing to wear shabby clothes and an old hat. Some of
the best things I have ever known, like these experiences of the
streets, have resulted from coming up to life from underneath; of
being taken for less than I am rather than for more than I am.
I did not always believe in this doctrine. For many years--the
years before I was rightly born into this alluring world--I tried
quite the opposite course. I was constantly attempting to come
down to life from above. Instead of being content to carry
through life a sufficiently wonderful being named David Grayson I
tried desperately to set up and support a sort of dummy creature
which, so clad, so housed, so fed, should appear to be what I
thought David Grayson ought to appear in the eyes of the world.
Oh, I spent quite a lifetime trying to satisfy other people!
Once I remember staying at home, in bed, reading "Huckleberry
Finn," while I sent my trousers out to be mended.
Well, that dummy Grayson perished in a cornfield. His empty coat
served well for a scarecrow. A wisp of straw stuck out through a
hole in his finest hat.
And I--the man within--I escaped, and have been out freely upon
the great adventure of life.
If a shabby coat (and I speak here also symbolically, not
forgetful of spiritual significances) lets you into the
adventurous world of those who are poor it does not on the other
hand rob you of any true friendship among those who are rich or
mighty. I say true friendship, for unless a man who is rich and
mighty is able to see through my shabby coat (as I see through
his fine one), I shall gain nothing by knowing him.
I've permitted myself all this digression--left myself walking
alone there in the streets of Kilburn while I philosophized upon
the ways and means of life--not without design, for I could have
had no such experiences as I did have in Kilburn if I had worn a
better coat or carried upon me the evidences of security in life.
I think I have already remarked upon the extraordinary
enlivenment of wits which comes to the man who has been without a
meal or so and does not know when or where he is again to break
his fast. Try it, friend and see! It was already getting along in
the evening, and I knew or supposed I knew no one in Kilburn save
only Bill Hahn, Socialist who was little better off than I was.
In this emergency my mind began to work swiftly. A score of
fascinating plans for getting my supper and a bed to sleep in
flashed through my mind.
"Why," said I, "when I come to think of it, I'm comparatively
rich. I'll warrant there are plenty of places in Kilburn, and
good ones, too, where I could barter a chapter of Montaigne and a
little good conversation for a first-rate supper, and I've no
doubt that I could whistle up a bed almost anywhere!"
I thought of a little motto I often repeat to myself:
TO KNOW LIFE, BEGIN ANYWHERE!
There were several people on the streets of Kilburn that night
who don't know yet how very near they were to being boarded by a
somewhat shabby looking farmer who would have offered them, let
us say, a notable musical production called "Old Dan Tucker,"
exquisitely performed on a tin whistle, in exchange for a good
There was one man in particular--a fine, pompous citizen who came
down the street swinging his cane and looking as though the
universe was a sort of Christmas turkey, lying all brown and
sizzling before him ready to be carved--a fine pompous citizen
who never realized how nearly Fate with a battered volume of
Montaigne in one hand and a tin whistle in the other--came to
pouncing upon him that evening! And I am firmly convinced that if
I had attacked him with the Great Particular Word he would have
carved me off a juicy slice of the white breast meat.
"I'm getting hungry," I said; "I must find Bill Hahn!"
I had turned down a side street, and seeing there in front of a
building a number of lounging men with two or three cabs or
carriages standing nearby in the street I walked up to them. It
was a livery barn.
Now I like all sorts of out-of-door people: I seem to be related
to them through horses and cattle and cold winds and sunshine. I
like them and understand them, and they seem to like me and
understand me. So I walked up to the group of jolly drivers and
stablemen intending to ask my directions. The talking died out
and they all turned to look at me. I suppose I was not altogether
a familiar type there in the city streets. My bag, especially,
seemed to set me apart as a curious person.
"Friends," I said, "I am a farmer--"
They all broke out laughing; they seemed to know it already! I
was just a little taken aback, but I laughed, too, knowing that
there was a way of getting at them if only I could find it.
"It may surprise you," I said, but this is the first time in some
dozen years that I've been in a big city like this."
"You hadn't 'ave told us, partner!" said one of them, evidently
the wit of the group, in a rich Irish brogue.
"Well," I responded, laughing with the best of them, "you've been
living right here all the time, and don't realize how amusing and
curious the city looks to me. Why, I feel as though I had been
away sleeping for twenty years, like Rip Van Winkle. When I left
the city there was scarcely an automobile to be seen
anywhere--and now look at them snorting through the streets. I
counted twenty-two passing that corner up there in five minutes
by the clock."
This was a fortunate remark, for I found instantly that the
invasion of the automobile was a matter of tremendous import to
such Knights of Bucephalus as these.
At first the wit interrupted me with amusing remarks, as wits
will, but I soon had him as quiet as the others. For I have found
the things that chiefly interest people are the things they
already know about--provided you show them that these common
things are still mysterious, still miraculous, as indeed they
After a time some one pushed me a stable stool and I sat down
among them, and we had quite a conversation, which finally
developed into an amusing comparison (I wish I had room to repeat
it here) between the city and the country. I told them something
about my farm, how much I enjoyed it, and what a wonderful free
life one had in the country. In this I was really taking an
unfair advantage of them, for I was trading on the fact that
every man, down deep in his heart, has more or less of an
instinct to get back to the soil--at least all outdoor men have.
And when I described the simplest things about my barn, and the
cattle and pigs, and the bees--and the good things we have to
eat--I had every one of them leaning forward and hanging on my
Harriet sometimes laughs at me for the way I celebrate farm life.
She says all my apples are the size of Hubbard squashes, my eggs
all double-yolked, and my cornfields tropical jungles. Practical
Harriet! My apples may not ALL be the size of Hubbard squashes,
but they are good, sizable apples, and as for flavour--all the
spices of Arcady--! And I believe, I KNOW, from my own experience
that these fields and hills are capable of healing men's souls.
And when I see people wandering around a lonesome city like
Kilburn, with never a soft bit of soil to put their heels into,
nor a green thing to cultivate, nor any corn or apples or honey
to harvest, I feel--well, that they are wasting their time.
(It's a fact, Harriet!)
Indeed I had the most curious experience with my friend the
wit--his name I soon learned was Healy--a jolly, round,
red-nosed, outdoor chap with fists that looked like small-sized
hams, and a rich, warm Irish voice. At first he was inclined to
use me as the ready butt of his lively mind, but presently he
became so much interested in what I was saying that he sat
squarely in front of me with both his jolly eyes and his smiling
mouth wide open.
"If ever you pass my way," I said to him, "just drop in and I'll
give you a dinner of baked beans"--and I smacked--"and home made
bread" and I smacked again--"and pumpkin pie"--and I smacked a
third time--"that will make your mouth water."
All this smacking and the description of baked beans and pumpkin
pie had an odd counter effect upon ME; for I suddenly recalled my
own tragic state. So I jumped up quickly and asked directions for
getting down to the mill neighbourhood, where I hoped to find
Bill Hahn. My friend Healy instantly volunteered the information.
"And now," I said, "I want to ask a small favour of you. I'm
looking for a friend, and I'd like to leave my bag here for the
"Sure, sure," said the Irishman heartily. "Put it there in the
office--on top o' the desk. It'll be all right."
So I put it in the office and was about to say good-bye, when my
friend said to me:
"Come in, partner, and have a drink before you go"--and he
pointed to a nearby saloon.
"Thank you," I answered heartily, for I knew it was as fine a bit
of hospitality as he could offer me, "thank you, but I must find
my friend before it gets too late."
"Aw, come on now," he cried, taking my arm. "Sure you'll be
better off for a bit o' warmth inside."
I had hard work to get away from them, and I am as sure as can be
that they would have found supper and a bed for me if they had
known I needed either.
"Come agin," Healy shouted after me, "we're glad to see a farmer
My way led me quickly out of the well-groomed and glittering main
streets of the town. I passed first through several blocks of
quiet residences, and then came to a street near the river which
was garishly lighted, and crowded with small, poor shops and
stores, with a saloon on nearly every corner. I passed a huge,
dark, silent box of a mill, and I saw what I never saw before in
a city, armed men guarding the streets.
Although it was growing late--it was after nine o'clock--crowds
of people were still parading the streets, and there was
something intangibly restless, something tense, in the very
atmosphere of the neighbourhood. It was very plain that I had
reached the strike district. I was about to make some further
inquiries for the headquarters of the mill men or for Bill Hahn
personally, when I saw, not far ahead of me, a black crowd of
people reaching out into the street. Drawing nearer I saw that an
open space or block between two rows of houses was literally
black with human beings, and in the centre on a raised platform,
under a gasolene flare, I beheld my friend of the road, Bill
Hahn. The overcoat and the hat with the furry ears had
disappeared, and the little man stood there bare-headed, before
that great audience.
My experience in the world is limited, but I have never heard
anything like that speech for sheer power. It was as unruly and
powerful and resistless as life itself. It was not like any other
speech I ever heard, for it was no mere giving out by the orator
of ideas and thoughts and feelings of his own. It seemed
rather--how shall I describe it?--as though the speaker was
looking into the very hearts of that vast gathering of poor men
and poor women and merely telling them what they themselves felt,
but could not tell. And I shall never forget the breathless hush
of the people or the quality of their responses to the orator's
words. It was as though they said, "Yes, yes" with a feeling of
vast relief--"Yes, yes--at last our own hopes and fears and
desires are being uttered--yes, yes."
As for the orator himself, he held up one maimed hand and leaned
over the edge of the platform, and his undistinguished face
glowed with the white light of a great passion within. The man
had utterly forgotten himself.
I confess, among those eager working people, clad in their poor
garments, I confess I was profoundly moved. Faith is not so
bounteous a commodity in this world that we can afford to treat
even its unfamiliar manifestations with contempt. And when a
movement is hot with life, when it stirs common men to their
depths, look out! look out!
Up to that time I had never known much of the practical workings
of Socialism; and the main contention of its philosophy has never
accorded wholly with my experience in life.
But the Socialism of to-day is no mere abstraction--as it was,
perhaps, in the days of Brook Farm. It is a mode of action. Men
whose view of life is perfectly balanced rarely soil themselves
with the dust of battle. The heat necessary to produce social
conflict (and social progress--who knows?) is generated by a
supreme faith that certain principles are universal in their
application when in reality they are only local or temporary.
Thus while one may not accept the philosophy of Socialism as a
final explanation of human life, he may yet look upon Socialism
in action as a powerful method of stimulating human progress. The
world has been lagging behind in its sense of brotherhood, and we
now have the Socialists knit together in a fighting friendship as
fierce and narrow in its motives as Calvinism, pricking us to
reform, asking the cogent question:
"Are we not all brothers?"
Oh, we are going a long way with these Socialists, we are going
to discover a new world of social relationships--and then, and
then, like a mighty wave; will flow in upon us a renewed and more
wonderful sense of the worth of the individual human soul. A new
individualism, bringing with it, perhaps, some faint realization
of our dreams of a race of Supermen, lies just beyond! Its
prophets, girded with rude garments and feeding upon the wild
honey of poverty, are already crying in the wilderness.
I think I could have remained there at the Socialist meeting all
night long: there was something about it that brought a hard, dry
twist to my throat. But after a time my friend Bill Hahn,
evidently quite worn out, yielded his place to another and far
less clairvoyant speaker, and the crowd, among whom I now
discovered quite a number of policemen, began to thin out.
I made my way forward and saw Bill Hahn and several other men
just leaving the platform. I stepped up to him, but it was not
until I called him by name (I knew how absent minded he was!)
that he recognized me.
"Well, well," he said; "you came after all!"
He seized me by both arms and introduced me to several of his
companions as "Brother Grayson." They all shook hands with me
Although he was perspiring, Bill put on his overcoat and the old
fur hat with the ears, and as he now took my arm I could feel one
of his bulging pockets beating against my leg. I had not the
slightest idea where they were going, but Bill held me by the arm
and presently we came, a block or so distant, to a dark, narrow
stairway leading up from the street. I recall the stumbling sound
of steps on the wooden boards, a laugh or two, the high voice of
a woman asserting and denying. Feeling our way along the wall, we
came to the top and went into a long, low, rather dimly lighted
room set about with tables and chairs--a sort of restaurant. A
number of men and a few women had already gathered there. Among
them my eyes instantly singled out a huge, rough-looking man who
stood at the centre of an animated group. He had thick, shaggy
hair, and one side of his face over the cheekbone was of a dull
blue-black and raked and scarred, where it had been burned in a
Powder blast. He had been a miner. His gray eyes, which had a
surprisingly youthful and even humorous expression, looked out
from under coarse, thick, gray brows. A very remarkable face and
figure he presented. I soon learned that he was R--- D---, the
leader of whom I had often heard, and heard no good thing. He
was quite a different type from Bill Hahn: he was the man of
authority, the organizer, the diplomat--as Bill was the prophet,
preaching a holy war.
How wonderful human nature is! Only a short time before I had
been thrilled by the intensity of the passion of the throng, but
here the mood suddenly changed to one of friendly gayety. Fully a
third of those present were women, some of them plainly from the
mills and some of them curiously different--women from other
walks in life who had thrown themselves heart and soul into the
strike. Without ceremony but with much laughing and joking, they
found their places around the tables. A cook, who appeared in a
dim doorway was greeted with a shout, to which he responded with
a wide smile, waving the long spoon which he held in his hand.
I shall not attempt to give any complete description of the
gathering or of what they said or did. I think I could devote a
dozen pages to the single man who was placed next to me. I was
interested in him from the outset. The first thing that struck me
about him was an air of neatness, even fastidiousness, about his
person--though he wore no stiff collar, only a soft woollen shirt
without a necktie. He had the long sensitive, beautiful hands of
an artist, but his face was thin and marked with the pallor
peculiar to the indoor worker. I soon learned that he was a
weaver in the mills, an Englishman by birth, and we had not
talked two minutes before I found that, while he had never had
any education in the schools, he had been a gluttonous reader of
books-- all kind of books--and, what is more, had thought about
them and was ready with vigorous (and narrow) opinions about this
author or that. And he knew more about economics and sociology, I
firmly believe, than half the college professors. A truly
It was an Italian restaurant, and I remember how, in my hunger, I
assailed the generous dishes of boiled meat and spaghetti. A red
wine was served in large bottles which circulated rapidly around
the table, and almost immediately the room began to fill with
tobacco smoke. Every one seemed to be talking and laughing at
once, in the liveliest spirit of good fellowship. They joked from
table to table, and sometimes the whole room would quiet down
while some one told a joke, which invariably wound up with a roar
"Why," I said, "these people have a whole life, a whole society,
of their own!"
In the midst of this jollity the clear voice of a girl rang out
with the first lines of a song. Instantly the room was hushed:
Arise, ye prisoners of starvation,
Arise, ye wretched of the earth,
For justice thunders condemnation
A better world's in birth.
These were the words she sang, and when the clear, sweet voice
died down the whole company, as though by a common impulse, arose
from their chairs, and joined in a great swelling chorus:
It is the final conflict,
Let each stand in his place,
The Brotherhood of Man
Shall be the human race.
It was beyond belief, to me, the spirit with which these words
were sung. In no sense with jollity--all that seemed to have been
dropped when they came to their feet--but with an unmistakable
fervour of faith. Some of the things I had thought and dreamed
about secretly among the hills of my farm all these years,
dreamed about as being something far off and as unrealizable as
the millennium, were here being sung abroad with jaunty faith by
these weavers of Kilburn, these weavers and workers whom I had
schooled myself to regard with a sort of distant pity.
Hardly had the company sat down again, with a renewal of the flow
of jolly conversation When I heard a rapping on one of the
tables. I saw the great form of R--- D--- slowly rising.
"Brothers and sisters," he said, "a word of caution. The
authorities will lose no chance of putting us in the wrong. Above
all we must comport ourselves here and in the strike with great
care. We are fighting a great battle, bigger than we are--"
At this instant the door from the dark hallway suddenly opened
and a man in a policeman's uniform stepped in. There fell an
instant's dead silence--an explosive silence. Every person there
seemed to be petrified in the position in which his attention was
attracted. Every eye was fixed on the figure at the door. For an
instant no one said a word; then I heard a woman's shrill voice,
like a rifle-shot:
I cannot imagine what might have happened next, for the feeling
in the room, as in the city itself, was at the tensest, had not
the leader suddenly brought the goblet which he held in his hand
down with a bang upon the table.
"As I was saying," he continued in a steady, clear voice, "we are
fighting to-day the greatest of battles, and we cannot permit
trivial incidents, or personal bitterness, or small persecutions,
to turn us from the great work we have in hand. However our
opponents may comport themselves, we must be calm, steady, sure,
patient, for we know that our cause is just and will prevail."
"You're right," shouted a voice back in the room.
Instantly the tension relaxed, conversation started again and
every one turned away from the policeman at the door. In a few
minutes, he disappeared without having said a word.
There was no regular speaking, and about midnight the party began
to break up. I leaned over and said to my friend Bill Hahn:
"Can you find me a place to sleep tonight?"
"Certainly I can," he said heartily.
There was to be a brief conference of the leaders after the
supper, and those present soon departed. I went down the long,
dark stairway and out into the almost deserted street. Looking up
between the buildings I could see the clear blue sky and the
stars. And I walked slowly up and down awaiting my friend and
trying, vainly to calm my whirling emotions.
He came at last and I went with him. That night I slept scarcely
at all, but lay looking up into the darkness. And it seemed as
though, as I lay there, listening, that I could hear the city
moving in its restless sleep and sighing as with heavy pain. All
night long I lay there thinking.
CHAPTER XI. I COME TO GRAPPLE WITH THE CITY
I have laughed heartily many times since I came home to think of
the Figure of Tragedy I felt myself that morning in the city of
Kilburn. I had not slept well, had not slept at all, I think, and
the experiences and emotions of the previous night still lay
heavy upon me. Not before in many years had I felt such a
depression of the spirits.
It was all so different from the things I love! Not so much as a
spear of grass or a leafy tree to comfort the eye, or a bird to
sing; no quiet hills, no sight of the sun coming up in the
morning over dewy fields, no sound of cattle in the lane, no
cheerful cackling of fowls, nor buzzing of bees! That morning, I
remember, when I first went out into those squalid streets and
saw everywhere the evidences of poverty, dirt, and ignorance--and
the sweet, clean country not two miles away--the thought of my
own home among the hills (with Harriet there in the doorway) came
upon me with incredible longing.
"I must go home; I must go home!" I caught myself saying aloud.
I remember how glad I was when I found that my friend Bill Hahn
and other leaders of the strike were to be engaged in conferences
during the forenoon, for I wanted to be alone, to try to get a
few things straightened out in my mind.
But I soon found that a city is a poor place for reflection or
contemplation. It bombards one with an infinite variety of new
impressions and new adventures; and I could not escape the
impression made by crowded houses, and ill-smelling streets, and
dirty sidewalks, and swarming human beings. For a time the burden
of these things rested upon my breast like a leaden weight; they
all seemed so utterly wrong to me, so unnecessary; so unjust! I
sometimes think of religion as only a high sense of good order;
and it seemed to me that morning as though the very existence of
this disorderly mill district was a challenge to religion, and an
offence to the Orderer of an Orderly Universe. I don't now how
such conditions may affect other people, but for a time I felt a
sharp sense of impatience--yes, anger--with it all. I had an
impulse to take off my coat then and there and go at the job of
setting things to rights. Oh, I never was more serious in my
life: I was quite prepared to change the entire scheme of things
to my way of thinking whether the people who lived there liked it
or not. It seemed to me for a few glorious moments that I had
only to tell them of the wonders in our country, the pleasant,
quiet roads, the comfortable farmhouses, the fertile fields, and
the wooded hills--and, poof! all this crowded poverty would
dissolve and disappear, and they would all come to the country
and be as happy as I was.
I remember how, once in my life, I wasted untold energy trying to
make over my dearest friends. There was Harriet, for example,
dear, serious, practical Harriet. I used to be fretted by the way
she was forever trying to clip my wing feathers--I suppose to
keep me close to the quiet and friendly and unadventurous roost!
We come by such a long, long road, sometimes, to the acceptance
of our nearest friends for exactly what they are. Because we are
so fond of them we try to make them over to suit some curious
ideal of perfection of our own--until one day we suddenly laugh
aloud at our own absurdity (knowing that they are probably trying
as hard to reconstruct us as we are to reconstruct them) and
thereafter we try no more to change them, we just love 'em and
Some such psychological process went on in my consciousness that
morning. As I walked briskly through the streets I began to look
out more broadly around me. It was really a perfect spring
morning, the air crisp, fresh, and sunny, and the streets full of
life and activity. I looked into the faces of the people I met,
and it began to strike me that most of them seemed oblivious of
the fact that they should, by good rights, be looking downcast
and dispirited. They had cheered their approval the night before
when the speakers had told them how miserable they were (even
acknowledging that they were slaves), and yet here they were
this morning looking positively good-humoured, cheerful, some of
them even gay. I warrant if I had stepped up to one of them that
morning and intimated that he was a slave he would have--well, I
should have had serious trouble with him! There was a degree of
sociability in those back streets, a visiting from window to
window, gossipy gatherings in front area-ways, a sort of pavement
domesticity, that I had never seen before. Being a lover myself
of such friendly intercourse I could actually feel the hum and
warmth of that neighbourhood.
A group of brightly clad girl strikers gathered on a corner were
chatting and laughing, and children in plenty ran and shouted at
their play in the street. I saw a group of them dancing merrily
around an Italian hand-organ man who was filling the air with
jolly music. I recall what a sinking sensation I had at the pit
of my reformer's stomach when it suddenly occurred to me that
these people some of them, anyway, might actually LIKE this
crowded, sociable neighbourhood! "They might even HATE the
country," I exclaimed.
It is surely one of the fundamental humours of life to see
absurdly serious little human beings (like D. G. for example)
trying to stand in the place of the Almighty. We are so
confoundedly infallible in our judgments, so sure of what is good
for our neighbour, so eager to force upon him our particular
doctors or our particular remedies; we are so willing to put our
childish fingers into the machinery of creation--and we howl so
lustily when we get them pinched!
"Why!" I exclaimed, for it came to me like a new discovery, "it's
exactly the same here as it is in the country! I haven't got to
make over the universe: I've only got to do my own small job, and
to look up often at the trees and the hills and the sky and be
friendly with all men."
I cannot express the sense of comfort, and of trust, which this
reflection brought me. I recall stopping just then at the corner
of a small green city square, for I had now reached the better
part of the city, and of seeing with keen pleasure the green of
the grass and the bright colour of a bed of flowers, and two or
three clean nursemaids with clean baby cabs, and a flock of
pigeons pluming themselves near a stone fountain, and an old
tired horse sleeping in the sun with his nose buried in a feed
"Why," I said, "all this, too, is beautiful!" So I continued my
walk with quite a new feeling in my heart, prepared again for any
adventure life might have to offer me.
I supposed I knew no living soul in Kilburn but Bill the
Socialist. What was my astonishment and pleasure, then in one of
the business streets to discover a familiar face and figure. A
man was just stepping from an automobile to the sidewalk. For an
instant; in that unusual environment, I could not place him, then
I stepped up quickly and said:
"Well, well, Friend Vedder."
He looked around with astonishment at the man in the shabby
clothes--but it was only for an instant.
"David Grayson!" he exclaimed, "and how did YOU get into the
"Walked," I said.
"But I thought you were an incurable and irreproachable
countryman! Why are you here?"
"Love o' life," I said; "love o' life."
"Where are you stopping?" I waved my hand.
"Where the road leaves me," I said. "Last night I left my bag
with some good friends I made in front of a livery stable and I
spent the night in the mill district with a Socialist named Bill
"Bill Hahn!" The effect upon Mr. Vedder was magical.
"Why, yes," I said, "and a remarkable man he is, too."
I discovered immediately that my friend was quite as much
interested in the strike as Bill Hahn, but on the other side. He
was, indeed, one of the directors of the greatest mill in
Kilburn--the very one which I had seen the night before
surrounded by armed sentinels. It was thrilling to me, this
knowledge, for it seemed to plump me down at once in the middle