Adventures in Contentment/IV
ENTERTAIN AN AGENT UNAWARES
With the coming of winter I thought the life of a farmer might lose something of its charm. So much interest lies in the growth not only of crops but of trees, vines, flowers, sentiments and emotions. In the summer the world is busy, concerned with many things and full of gossip: in the winter I anticipated a cessation of many active interests and enthusiasms. I looked forward to having time for my books and for the quiet contemplation of the life around me. Summer indeed is for activity, winter for reflection. But when winter really came every day discovered some new work to do or some new adventure to enjoy. It is surprising how many things happen on a small farm. Examining the book which accounts for that winter, I find the history of part of a forenoon, which will illustrate one of the curious adventures of a farmer's life. It is dated January 5.
I went out this morning with my axe and hammer to mend the fence along the public road. A heavy frost fell last night and the brown grass and the dry ruts of the roads were powdered white. Even the air, which was perfectly still, seemed full of frost crystals, so that when the sun came up one seemed to walk in a magic world. I drew in a long breath and looked out across the wonderful shining country and I said to myself:
"Surely, there is nowhere I would rather be than here." For I could have travelled nowhere to find greater beauty or a better enjoyment of it than I had here at home.
As I worked with my axe and hammer, I heard a light wagon come rattling up the road. Across the valley a man had begun to chop a tree. I could see the axe steel flash brilliantly in the sunshine before I heard the sound of the blow.
The man in the wagon had a round face and a sharp blue eye. I thought he seemed a businesslike young man.
"Say, there," he shouted, drawing up at my gate, "would you mind holding my horse a minute? It's a cold morning and he's restless."
"Certainly not," I said, and I put down my tools and held his horse.
He walked up to my door with a brisk step and a certain jaunty poise of the head.
"He is well contented with himself," I said. "It is a great blessing for any man to be satisfied with what he has got."
I heard Harriet open the door—how every sound rang through the still morning air!
The young man asked some question and I distinctly heard Harriet's answer:
"He's down there."
The young man came back: his hat was tipped up, his quick eye darted over my grounds as though in a single instant he had appraised everything and passed judgment upon the cash value of the inhabitants. He whistled a lively little tune.
"Say," he said, when he reached the gate, not at all disconcerted, "I thought you was the hired man. Your name's Grayson, ain't it? Well, I want to talk with you."
After tying and blanketing his horse and taking a black satchel from his buggy he led me up to my house. I had a pleasurable sense of excitement and adventure. Here was a new character come to my farm. Who knows, I thought, what he may bring with him: who knows what I may send away by him? Here in the country we must set our little ships afloat on small streams, hoping that somehow, some day, they will reach the sea.
It was interesting to see the busy young man sit down so confidently in our best chair. He said his name was Dixon, and he took out from his satchel a book with a fine showy cover. He said it was called "Living Selections from Poet, Sage and Humourist."
"This," he told me, "is only the first of the series. We publish six volumes full of literchoor. You see what a heavy book this is?"
I tested it in my hand: it was a heavy book.
"The entire set," he said, "weighs over ten pounds. There are 1,162 pages, enough paper if laid down flat, end to end, to reach half a mile."
I cannot quote his exact language: there was too much of it, but he made an impressive showing of the amount of literature that could be had at a very low price per pound. Mr. Dixon was a hypnotist. He fixed me with his glittering eye, and he talked so fast, and his ideas upon the subject were so original that he held me spellbound. At first I was inclined to be provoked: one does not like to be forcibly hypnotised, but gradually the situation began to amuse me, the more so when Harriet came in.
"Did you ever see a more beautiful binding?" asked the agent, holding his book admiringly at arm's length. "This up here," he said, pointing to the illuminated cover, "is the Muse of Poetry She is scattering flowers—poems, you know. Fine idea, ain't it? Colouring fine, too."
He jumped up quickly and laid the book on my table, to the evident distress of Harriet.
"Trims up the room, don't it?" he exclaimed, turning his head a little to one side and observing the effect with an expression of affectionate admiration.
"How much," I asked, "will you sell the covers for without the insides?"
"Without the insides?"
"Yes," I said, "the binding will trim up my table just as well without the insides."
I thought he looked at me a little suspiciously, but he was evidently satisfied by my expression of countenance, for he answered promptly:
"Oh, but you want the insides. That's what the books are for. The bindings are never sold alone."
He then went on to tell me the prices and terms of payment, until it really seemed that it would be cheaper to buy the books than to let him carry them away again. Harriet stood in the doorway behind him frowning and evidently trying to catch my eye. But I kept my face turned aside so that I could not see her signal of distress and my eyes fixed on the young man Dixon. It was as good as a play. Harriet there, serious-minded, thinking I was being befooled, and the agent thinking he was befooling me, and I, thinking I was befooling both of them—and all of us wrong. It was very like life wherever you find it.
Finally, I took the book which he had been urging upon me, at which Harriet coughed meaningly to attract my attention. She knew the danger when I really got my hands on a book. But I made up as innocent as a child. I opened the book almost at random—and it was as though, walking down a strange road, I had come upon an old tried friend not seen before in years. For there on the page before me I read:
"The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending we lay waste our powers: Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! The sea that bares her bosom to the moon; The winds that will be howling at all hours, But are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers; For this, for everything, we are out of tune; It moves us not."
And as I read it came back to me—a scene like a picture—the place, the time, the very feel of the hour when I first saw those lines. Who shall say that the past does not live! An odour will sometimes set the blood coursing in an old emotion, and a line of poetry is the resurrection and the life. For a moment I forgot Harriet and the agent, I forgot myself, I even forgot the book on my knee—everything but that hour in the past—a view of shimmering hot housetops, the heat and dust and noise of an August evening in the city, the dumb weariness of it all, the loneliness, the longing for green fields; and then these great lines of Wordsworth, read for the first time, flooding in upon me:
"Great God! I'd rather be A pagan suckled in a creed outworn: So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; And hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn."
When I had finished I found myself standing in my own room with one arm raised, and, I suspect, a trace of tears in my eyes—there before the agent and Harriet. I saw Harriet lift one hand and drop it hopelessly. She thought I was captured at last. I was past saving. And as I looked at the agent I saw "grim conquest glowing in his eye!" So I sat down not a little embarrassed by my exhibition—when I had intended to be self-poised.
"You like it, don't you?" said Mr. Dixon unctuously.
"I don't see," I said earnestly, "how you can afford to sell such things as this so cheap."
"They are cheap," he admitted regretfully. I suppose he wished he had tried me with the half-morocco.
"They are priceless," I said, "absolutely priceless. If you were the only man in the world who had that poem, I think I would deed you my farm for it."
Mr. Dixon proceeded, as though it were all settled, to get out his black order book and open it briskly for business. He drew his fountain pen, capped it, and looked up at me expectantly. My feet actually seemed slipping into some irresistible whirlpool. How well he understood practical psychology! I struggled within myself, fearing engulfment: I was all but lost.
"Shall I deliver the set at once," he said, "or can you wait until the first of February?"
At that critical moment a floating spar of an idea swept my way and I seized upon it as the last hope of the lost.
"I don't understand," I said, as though I had not heard his last question, "how you dare go about with all this treasure upon you. Are you not afraid of being stopped in the road and robbed? Why, I've seen the time when, if I had known you carried such things as these, such cures for sick hearts, I think I should have stopped you myself!"
"Say, you are an odd one," said Mr. Dixon.
"Why do you sell such priceless things as these?" I asked, looking at him sharply.
"Why do I sell them?" and he looked still more perplexed. "To make money, of course; same reason you raise corn."
"But here is wealth," I said, pursuing my advantage. "If you have these you have something more valuable than money."
Mr. Dixon politely said nothing. Like a wise angler, having failed to land me at the first rush, he let me have line. Then I thought of Ruskin's words, "Nor can any noble thing be wealth except to a noble person." And that prompted me to say to Mr. Dixon:
"These things are not yours; they are mine. You never owned them; but I will sell them to you."
He looked at me in amazement, and then glanced around—evidently to discover if there were a convenient way of escape.
"You're all straight, are you?" he asked tapping his forehead; "didn't anybody ever try to take you up?"
"The covers are yours," I continued as though I had not heard him, "the insides are mine and have been for a long time: that is why I proposed buying the covers separately."
I opened his book again. I thought I would see what had been chosen for its pages. And I found there many fine and great things.
"Let me read you this," I said to Mr. Dixon; "it has been mine for a long time. I will not sell it to you. I will give it to you outright. The best things are always given."
Having some gift in imitating the Scotch dialect, I read:
"November chill blaws loud wi' angry sugh; The shortening winter day is near a close; The miry beasts retreating frae the pleugh; The black'ning trains o' craws to their repose: The toil-worn Cotter frae his labour goes, This night his weekly moil is at an end, Collects his spades, his mattocks and his hoes, Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend, And weary, o'er the moor, his course does hameward bend."
So I read "The Cotter's Saturday Night." I love the poem very much myself, sometimes reading it aloud, not so much for the tenderness of its message, though I prize that, too, as for the wonder of its music:
"Compared with these, Italian trills are tame; The tickl'd ear no heart-felt raptures raise."
I suppose I showed my feeling in my voice. As I glanced up from time to time I saw the agent's face change, and his look deepen and the lips, usually so energetically tense, loosen with emotion. Surely no poem in all the language conveys so perfectly the simple love of the home, the quiet joys, hopes, pathos of those who live close to the soil.
When I had finished—I stopped with the stanza beginning:
"Then homeward all take off their sev'ral way";
the agent turned away his head trying to brave out his emotion. Most of us, Anglo-Saxons, tremble before a tear when we might fearlessly beard a tiger.
I moved up nearer to the agent and put my hand on his knee; then I read two or three of the other things I found in his wonderful book. And once I had him laughing and once again I had the tears in his eyes. Oh, a simple young man, a little crusty without, but soft inside—like the rest of us.
Well, it was amazing once we began talking not of books but of life, how really eloquent and human he became. From being a distant and uncomfortable person, he became at once like a near neighbour and friend. It was strange to me—as I have thought since—how he conveyed to us in few words the essential emotional note of his life. It was no violin tone, beautifully complex with harmonics, but the clear simple voice of the flute. It spoke of his wife and his baby girl and his home. The very incongruity of detail—he told us how he grew onions in his back yard—added somehow to the homely glamour of the vision which he gave us. The number of his house, the fact that he had a new cottage organ, and that the baby ran away and lost herself in Seventeenth Street—were all, curiously, fabrics of his emotion.
It was beautiful to see commonplace facts grow phosphorescent in the heat of true feeling. How little we may come to know Romance by the cloak she wears and how humble must be he who would surprise the heart of her!
It was, indeed, with an indescribable thrill that I heard him add the details, one by one—the mortgage on his place, now rapidly being paid off, the brother who was a plumber, the mother-in-law who was not a mother-in-law of the comic papers. And finally he showed us the picture of the wife and baby that he had in the cover of his watch; a fat baby with its head resting on its mother's shoulder.
"Mister," he said, "p'raps you think it's fun to ride around the country like I do, and be away from home most of the time. But it ain't. When I think of Minnie and the kid—"
He broke off sharply, as if he had suddenly remembered the shame of such confidences.
"Say," he asked, "what page is that poem on?"
I told him.
"One forty-six," he said. "When I get home I'm going to read that to Minnie. She likes poetry and all such things. And where's that other piece that tells how a man feels when he's lonesome? Say, that fellow knew!"
We had a genuinely good time, the agent and I, and when he finally rose to go, I said:
"Well, I've sold you a new book."
"I see now, mister, what you mean."
I went down the path with him and began to unhitch his horse.
"Let me, let me," he said eagerly.
Then he shook hands, paused a moment awkwardly as if about to say something, then sprang into his buggy without saying it.
When he had taken up his reins he remarked:
"Say! but you'd make an agent! You'd hypnotise 'em."
I recognised it as the greatest compliment he could pay me: the craft compliment.
Then he drove off, but pulled up before he had gone five yards. He turned in his seat, one hand on the back of it, his whip raised.
"Say!" he shouted, and when I walked up he looked at me with fine embarrassment.
"Mister, perhaps you'd accept one of these sets from Dixon free gratis, for nothing."
"I understand," I said, "but you know I'm giving the books to you—and I couldn't take them back again."
"Well," he said, "you're a good one, anyhow. Good-bye again," and then, suddenly, business naturally coming uppermost, he remarked with great enthusiasm:
"You've given me a new idea. Say, I'll sell 'em."
"Carry them carefully, man," I called after him; "they are precious."
So I went back to my work, thinking how many fine people there are in this world—if you scratch 'em deep enough.