Adventures in Friendship/Chapter VI

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VI
THE DRUNKARD

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It is a strange thing: Adventure. I looked for her high and I looked for her low, and she passed my door in a tattered garment—unheeded. For I had neither the eye of simplicity nor the heart of humility. One day I looked for her anew and I saw her beckoning from the Open Road; and underneath the tags and tatters I caught the gleam of her celestial garment; and I went with her into a new world.

I have had a singular adventure, in which I have made a friend. And I have seen new things which are also true.

My friend is a drunkard—at least so I call him, following the custom of the country. On his way from town he used often to come by my farm. I could hear him singing afar off. Beginning at the bridge, where on still days one can hear the rattle of a wagon on the loose boards, he sang in a peculiar clear high voice. I make no further comment upon the singing, nor the cause of it; but in the cool of the evening when the air was still—and he usually came in the evening—I often heard the cadences of his song with a thrill of pleasure. Then I saw him come driving by my farm, sitting on the spring seat of his one-horse wagon, and if he chanced to see me in my field, he would take off his hat and make me a grandiloquent bow, but never for a moment stop his singing. And so he passed by the house and I, with a smile, saw him moving up the hill in the north road, until finally his voice, still singing, died away in the distance.

Once I happened to reach the house just as the singer was passing, and Harriet said:

"There goes that drunkard."

It gave me an indescribable shock. Of course I had known as much, and yet I had not directly applied the term. I had not thought of my singer as that, for I had often been conscious in spite of myself, alone in my fields, of something human and cheerful which had touched me, in passing.

After Harriet applied her name to my singer, I was of two minds concerning him. I struggled with myself: I tried instinctively to discipline my pulses when I heard the sound of his singing. For was he not a drunkard? Lord! how we get our moralities mixed up with our realities!

And then one evening when I saw him coming—I had been a long day alone in my fields—I experienced a sudden revulsion of feeling. With an indescribable joyousness of adventure I stepped out toward the fence and pretended to be hard at work.

"After all," I said to myself, "this is a large world, with room in it for many curious people."

I waited in excitement. When he came near me I straightened up just as though I had seen him for the first time. When he lifted his hat to me I lifted my hat as grandiloquently as he.

"How are you, neighbour?" I asked.

He paused for a single instant and gave me a smile; then he replaced his hat as though he had far more important business to attend to, and went on up the road.

My next glimpse of him was a complete surprise to me. I saw him on the street in town. Harriet pointed him out, else I should never have recognized him: a quiet, shy, modest man, as different as one could imagine from the singer I had seen so often passing my farm. He wore neat, worn clothes; and his horse stood tied in front of the store. He had brought his honey to town to sell. He was a bee-man.

I stopped and asked him about his honey, and whether the fall flowers had been plenty; I ran my eye over his horse, and said that it seemed to be a good animal. But I could get very little from him, and that little in a rather low voice. I came away with my interest whetted to a still keener edge. How a man has come to be what he is—is there any discovery better worth making?


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After that day in town I watched for the bee-man, and I saw him often on his way to town, silent, somewhat bent forward in his seat, driving his horse with circumspection, a Dr. Jekyll of propriety; and a few hours later he would come homeward a wholly different person, straight of back, joyous of mien, singing his songs in his high clear voice, a very Hyde of recklessness. Even the old horse seemed changed: he held his head higher and stepped with a quicker pace. When the bee-man went toward town he never paused, nor once looked around to see me in my field; but when he came back he watched for me, and when I responded to his bow he would sometimes stop and reply to my greeting.

One day he came from town on foot and when he saw me, even though I was some distance away, he approached the fence and took off his hat, and held out his hand. I walked over toward him. I saw his full face for the first time: a rather handsome face. The hair was thin and curly, the forehead generous and smooth; but the chin was small. His face was slightly flushed and his eyes—his eyes burned! I shook his hand.

"I had hoped," I said, "that you would stop sometime as you went by."

"Well, I've wanted to stop—but I'm a busy man. I have important matters in hand almost all the time."

"You usually drive."

"Yes, ordinarily I drive. I do not use a team, but I have in view a fine span of roadsters. One of these days you will see me going by your farm in style. My wife and I both enjoy driving."

I wish I could here convey the tone of buoyancy with which he said these words. There was a largeness and confidence in them that carried me away. He told me that he was now "working with the experts"—those were his words—and that he would soon begin building a house that would astonish the country. Upon this he turned abruptly away, but came back and with fine courtesy shook my hand.

"You see," he said, "I am a busy man, Mr. Grayson—and a happy man."

So he set off down the road, and as he passed my house he began singing again in his high voice. I walked away with a feeling of wonder, not unmixed with sorrow. It was a strange case!

Gradually I became really acquainted with the bee-man, at first with the exuberant, confident, imaginative, home-going bee-man; far more slowly with the shy, reserved, townward-bound bee-man. It was quite an adventure, my first talk with the shy bee-man. I was driving home; I met him near the lower bridge. I cudgeled my brain to think of some way to get at him. As he passed, I leaned out and said:

"Friend, will you do me a favour? I neglected to stop at the post-office. Would you call and see whether anything has been left for me in the box since the carrier started?'"

"Certainly," he said, glancing up at me, but turning his head swiftly aside again.

On his way back he stopped and left me a paper. He told me volubly about the way he would run the post-office if he were "in a place of suitable authority."

"Great things are possible," he said, "to the man of ideas."

At this point began one of the by-plays of my acquaintance with the bee-man. The exuberant bee-man referred disparagingly to the shy bee-man.

"I must have looked pretty seedy and stupid this morning on my way in. I was up half the night; but I feel all right now."

The next time I met the shy bee-man he on his part apologised for the exuberant bee-man—hesitatingly, falteringly, winding up with the words, "I think you will understand." I grasped his hand, and left him with a wan smile on his face. Instinctively I came to treat the two men in a wholly different manner. With the one I was blustering, hail-fellow-well-met, listening with eagerness to his expansive talk; but to the other I said little, feeling my way slowly to his friendship, for I could not help looking upon him as a pathetic figure. He needed a friend! The exuberant bee-man was sufficient unto himself, glorious in his visions, and I had from him no little entertainment.

I told Harriet about my adventures: they did not meet with her approval. She said I was encouraging a vice.

"Harriet," I said, "go over and see his wife. I wonder what she thinks about it."

"Thinks!" exclaimed Harriet. "What should the wife of a drunkard think?"

But she went over. As soon as she returned I saw that something was wrong, but I asked no questions. During supper she was extraordinarily preoccupied, and it was not until an hour or more afterward that she came into my room.

"David," she said, "I can't understand some things."

"Isn't human nature doing what it ought to?" I asked.

But she was not to be joked with.

"David, that man's wife doesn't seem to be sorry because he comes home drunken every week or two! I talked with her about it and what do you think she said? She said she knew it was wrong, but she intimated that when he was in that state she loved—liked—him all the better. Is it believable? She said: 'Perhaps you won't understand—it's wrong, I know, but when he comes home that way he seems so full of—life. He—he seems to understand me better then!' She was heartbroken, one could see that, but she would not admit it. I leave it to you, David, what can anyone do with a woman like that? How is the man ever to overcome his habits?"

It is a strange thing, when we ask questions directly of life, how often the answers are unexpected and confusing. Our logic becomes illogical! Our stories won't turn out.

She told much more about her interview: the neat home, the bees in the orchard, the well-kept garden. "When he's sober," she said, "he seems to be a steady, hard worker."

After that I desired more than ever to see deep into the life of the strange bee-man. Why was he what he was?

And at last the time came, as things come to him who desires them faithfully enough. One afternoon not long ago, a fine autumn afternoon, when the trees were glorious on the hills, the Indian summer sun never softer, I was tramping along a wood lane far back of my farm. And at the roadside, near the trunk of an oak tree, sat my friend, the bee-man. He was a picture of despondency, one long hand hanging limp between his knees, his head bowed down. When he saw me he straightened up, looked at me, and settled back again. My heart went out to him, and I sat down beside him.

"Have you ever seen a finer afternoon?" I asked.

He glanced up at the sky.

"Fine?" he answered vaguely, as if it had never occurred to him.

I saw instantly what the matter was; the exuberant bee-man was in process of transformation into the shy bee-man. I don't know exactly how it came about, for such things are difficult to explain, but I led him to talk of himself.

"After it is all over," he said, "of course I am ashamed of myself. You don't know, Mr. Grayson, what it all means. I am ashamed of myself now, and yet I know I shall do it again."

"No," I said, "you will not do it again."

"Yes, I shall. Something inside of me argues: Why should you be sorry? Were you not free for a whole afternoon?"

"Free?" I asked.

"Yes—free. You will not understand. But every day I work, work, work. I have friends, but somehow I can't get to them; I can't even get to my wife. It seems as if a wall hemmed me in, as if I were bound to a rock which I couldn't get away from, I am also afraid. When I am sober I know how to do great things, but I can't do them. After a few glasses—I never take more—I not only know I can do great things, but I feel as though I were really doing them."

"But you never do?"

"No, I never do, but I feel that I can. All the bonds break and the wall falls down and I am free. I can really touch people. I feel friendly and neighbourly."

He was talking eagerly now, trying to explain, for the first time in his life, he said, how it was that he did what he did. He told me how beautiful it made the world, where before it was miserable and friendless, how he thought of great things and made great plans, how his home seemed finer and better to him, and his work more noble. The man had a real gift of imagination and spoke with an eagerness and eloquence that stirred me deeply. I was almost on the point of asking him where his magic liquor was to be found! When he finally gave me an opening, I said:

"I think I understand. Many men I know are in some respects drunkards. They all want some way to escape themselves—to be free of their own limitations."

"That's it! That's it!" he exclaimed eagerly.

We sat for a time side by side, saying nothing. I could not help thinking of that line of Virgil referring to quite another sort of intoxication:

"With Voluntary dreams they cheat their minds."

Instead of that beautiful unity of thought and action which marks the finest character, here was this poor tragedy of the divided life. When Fate would destroy a man it first separates his forces! It drives him to think one way and act another; it encourages him to seek through outward stimulation—whether drink, or riches, or fame—a deceptive and unworthy satisfaction in place of that true contentment which comes only from unity within. No man can be two men successfully.

So we sat and said nothing. What indeed can any man say to another under such circumstances? As Bobbie Burns remarks out of the depths of his own experience:

"What's done we partly may compute But know not what's resisted."

I've always felt that the best thing one man can give another is the warm hand of understanding. And yet when I thought of the pathetic, shy bee-man, hemmed in by his sunless walls, I felt that I should also say something. Seeing two men struggling shall I not assist the better? Shall I let the sober one be despoiled by him who is riotous? There are realities, but there are also moralities—if we can keep them properly separated.

"Most of us," I said finally, "are in some respects drunkards. We don't give it so harsh a name, but we are just that. Drunkenness is not a mere matter of intoxicating liquors; it goes deeper—far deeper. Drunkenness is the failure of a man to control his thoughts."

The bee-man sat silent, gazing out before him. I noted the blue veins in the hand that lay on his knee. It came over me with sudden amusement and I said:

"I often get drunk myself."

"You?"

"Yes—dreadfully drunk."

He looked at me and laughed—for the first time! And I laughed, too. Do you know, there's a lot of human nature in people! And when you think you are deep in tragedy, behold, humour lurks just around the corner!

"I used to laugh at it a good deal more than I do now," he said. "I've been through it all. Sometimes when I go to town I say to myself, 'I will not turn at that corner,' but when I come to the corner, I do turn. Then I say 'I will not go into that bar,' but I do go in. 'I will not order anything to drink,' I say to myself, and then I hear myself talking aloud to the barkeeper just as though I were some other person. 'Give me a glass of rye,' I say, and I stand off looking at myself, very angry and sorrowful. But gradually I seem to grow weaker and weaker—or rather stronger and stronger—for my brain begins to become clear, and I see things and feel things I never saw or felt before. I want to sing."

"And you do sing," I said.

"I do, indeed," he responded, laughing, "and it seems to me the most beautiful music in the world."

"Sometimes," I said, "when I'm on my kind of spree, I try not so much to empty my mind of the thoughts which bother me, but rather to fill my mind with other, stronger thoughts----"

Before I could finish he had interrupted:

"Haven't I tried that, too? Don't I think of other things? I think of bees—and that leads me to honey, doesn't it? And that makes me think of putting the honey in the wagon and taking it to town. Then, of course, I think how it will sell. Instantly, stronger than you can imagine, I see a dime in my hand. Then it appears on the wet bar. I smell the smell of the liquor. And there you are!"

We did not talk much more that day. We got up and shook hands and looked each other in the eye. The bee-man turned away, but came back hesitatingly.

"I am glad of this talk, Mr. Grayson. It makes me feel like taking hold again. I have been in hell for years----"

"Of course," I said. "You needed a friend. You and I will come up together."

As I walked toward home that evening I felt a curious warmth of satisfaction in my soul—and I marvelled at the many strange things that are to be found upon this miraculous earth.

I suppose, if I were writing a story, I should stop at this point; but I am dealing in life. And life does not always respond to our impatience with satisfactory moral conclusions. Life is inconclusive: quite open at the end. I had a vision of a new life for my neighbour, the bee-man—and have it yet, for I have not done with him—but----

Last evening, and that is why I have been prompted to write the whole story, my bee-man came again along the road by my farm; my exuberant bee-man. I heard him singing afar off.

He did not see me as he went by, but as I stood looking out at him, it came over me with a sudden sense of largeness and quietude that the sun shone on him as genially as it did on me, and that the leaves did not turn aside from him, nor the birds stop singing when he passed.

"He also belongs here," I said.

And I watched him as he mounted the distant hill, until I could no longer hear the high clear cadences of his song. And it seemed to me that something human, in passing, had touched me.

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