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The Tramp Post by :widodo Category :Essays Author :David Grayson Date :October 2011 Read :2559

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The Tramp

I have had a new and strange experience--droll in one way, grotesque in another and when everything is said, tragic: at least an adventure. Harriet looks at me accusingly, and I have had to preserve the air of one deeply contrite now for two days (no easy accomplishment for me!), even though in secret I have smiled and pondered.

How our life has been warped by books! We are not contented with realities: we crave conclusions. With what ardour our minds respond to real events with literary deductions. Upon a train of incidents, as unconnected as life itself, we are wont to clap a booky ending. An instinctive desire for completeness animates the human mind (a struggle to circumscribe the infinite). We would like to have life "turn out"--but it doesn't--it doesn't. Each event is the beginning of a whole new genealogy of events. In boyhood I remember asking after every story I heard: "What happened next?" for no conclusion ever quite satisfied me--even when the hero died in his own gore. I always knew there was something yet remaining to be told. The only sure conclusion we can reach is this: Life changes. And what is more enthralling to the human mind than this splendid, boundless, coloured mutability!--life in the making? How strange it is, then, that we should be contented to take such small parts of it as we can grasp, and to say, "This is the true explanation." By such devices we seek to bring infinite existence within our finite egoistic grasp. We solidify and define where solidification means loss of interest; and loss of interest, not years, is old age.

So I have mused since my tramp came in for a moment out of the Mystery (as we all do) and went away again into the Mystery (in our way, too).

There are strange things in this world!

* * * * *

As I came around the corner I saw sitting there on my steps the very personification of Ruin, a tumble-down, dilapidated wreck of manhood. He gave one the impression of having been dropped where he sat, all in a heap. My first instinctive feeling was not one of recoil or even of hostility, but rather a sudden desire to pick him up and put him where he belonged, the instinct, I should say, of the normal man who hangs his axe always on the same nail. When he saw me he gathered himself together with reluctance and stood fully revealed. It was a curious attitude of mingled effrontery and apology. "Hit me if you dare," blustered his outward personality. "For God's sake, don't hit me," cried the innate fear in his eyes. I stopped and looked at him sharply, His eyes dropped, his look slid away, so that I experienced a sense of shame, as though I had trampled upon him. A damp rag of humanity! I confess that my first impulse, and a strong one, was to kick him for the good of the human race. No man has a right to be like that.

And then, quite suddenly, I had a great revulsion of feeling. What was I that I should judge without knowledge? Perhaps, after all, here was one bearing treasure. So I said:

"You are the man I have been expecting."

He did not reply, only flashed his eyes up at me, wherein fear deepened.

"I have been saving up a coat for you," I said, "and a pair of shoes. They are not much worn," I said, "but a little too small for me. I think they will fit you."

He looked at me again, not sharply, but with a sort of weak cunning. So far he had not said a word.

"I think our supper is nearly ready," I said: "let us go in."

"No, mister," he mumbled, "a bite out here--no, mister"--and then, as though the sound of his own voice inspired him, he grew declamatory.

"I'm a respectable man, mister, plumber by trade, but----"

"But," I interrupted, "you can't get any work, you're cold and you haven't had anything to eat for two days, so you are walking out here in the country where we farmers have no plumbing to do. At home you have a starving wife and three small children----"

"Six, mister----"

"Well, six--And now we will go in to supper."

I led him into the entry way and poured for him a big basin of hot water. As I stepped out again with a comb he was slinking toward the doorway.

"Here," I said, "is a comb; we are having supper now in a few minutes."

I wish I could picture Harriet's face when I brought him into her immaculate kitchen. But I gave her a look, one of the commanding sort that I can put on in times of great emergency, and she silently laid another place at the table.

When I came to look at our Ruin by the full lamplight I was surprised to see what a change a little warm water and a comb had wrought in him. He came to the table uncertain, blinking, apologetic. His forehead, I saw, was really impressive--high, narrow and thin-skinned. His face gave one somehow the impression of a carving once full of significant lines, now blurred and worn as though Time, having first marked it with the lines of character, had grown discouraged and brushed the hand of forgetfulness over her work. He had peculiar thin, silky hair of no particular colour, with a certain almost childish pathetic waviness around the ears and at the back of the neck. Something, after all, about the man aroused one's compassion.

I don't know that he looked dissipated, and surely he was not as dirty as I had at first supposed. Something remained that suggested a care for himself in the past. It was not dissipation, I decided; it was rather an indefinable looseness and weakness, that gave one alternately the feeling I had first experienced, that of anger, succeeded by the compassion that one feels for a child. To Harriet, when she had once seen him, he was all child, and she all compassion.

We disturbed him with no questions. Harriet's fundamental quality is homeliness, comfortableness. Her tea-kettle seems always singing; an indefinable tabbiness, as of feather cushions, lurks in her dining-room, a right warmth of table and chairs, indescribably comfortable at the end of a chilly day. A busy good-smelling steam arises from all her dishes at once, and the light in the middle of the table is of a redness that enthralls the human soul. As for Harriet herself, she is the personification of comfort, airy, clean, warm, inexpressibly wholesome. And never in the world is she so engaging as when she ministers to a man's hunger. Truthfully, sometimes, when she comes to me out of the dimmer light of the kitchen to the radiance of the table with a plate of muffins, it is as though she and the muffins were a part of each other, and that she is really offering some of herself. And down in my heart I know she is doing just that!

Well, it was wonderful to see our Ruin expand in the warmth of Harriet's presence. He had been doubtful of me; of Harriet, I could see, he was absolutely sure. And how he did eat, saying nothing at all, while Harriet plied him with food and talked to me of the most disarming commonplaces. I think it did her heart good to see the way he ate: as though he had had nothing before in days. As he buttered his muffin, not without some refinement, I could see that his hand was long, a curious, lean, ineffectual hand, with a curving little finger. With the drinking of the hot coffee colour began to steal up into his face, and when Harriet brought out a quarter of pie saved over from our dinner and placed it before him--a fine brown pie with small hieroglyphics in the top from whence rose sugary bubbles--he seemed almost to escape himself. And Harriet fairly purred with hospitality.

The more he ate the more of a man he became. His manners improved, his back straightened up, he acquired a not unimpressive poise of the head. Such is the miraculous power of hot muffins and pie!

"As you came down," I asked finally, "did you happen to see old man Masterson's threshing machine?"

"A big red one, with a yellow blow-off?"

"That's the one," I said.

"Well, it was just turning into a field about two miles above here," he replied.

"Big gray, banked barn?" I asked.

"Yes, and a little unpainted house," said our friend.

"That's Parsons'," put in Harriet, with a mellow laugh. "I wonder if he ever will paint that house. He builds bigger barns every year and doesn't touch the house. Poor Mrs. Parsons----"

And so we talked of barns and threshing machines in the way we farmers love to do and I lured our friend slowly into talking about himself. At first he was non-committal enough and what he said seemed curiously made to order; he used certain set phrases with which to explain simply what was not easy to explain--a device not uncommon to all of us. I was fearful of not getting within this outward armouring, but gradually as we talked and Harriet poured him a third cup of hot coffee he dropped into a more familiar tone. He told with some sprightliness of having seen threshings in Mexico, how the grain was beaten out with flails in the patios, and afterwards thrown up in the wind to winnow out.

"You must have seen a good deal of life," remarked Harriet sympathetically.

At this remark I saw one of our Ruin's long hands draw up and clinch. He turned his head toward Harriet. His face was partly in the shadow, but there was something striking and strange in the way he looked at her, and a deepness in his voice when he spoke:

"Too much! I've seen too much of life." He threw out one arm and brought it back with a shudder.

"You see what it has left me," he said, "I am an example of too much life."

In response to Harriet's melting compassion he had spoken with unfathomable bitterness. Suddenly he leaned forward toward me with a piercing gaze as though he would look into my soul. His face had changed completely; from the loose and vacant mask of the early evening it had taken on the utmost tensity of emotion.

"You do not know," he said, "what it is to live too much--and to be afraid."

"Live too much?" I asked.

"Yes, live too much, that is what I do--and I am afraid."

He paused a moment and then broke out in a higher key:

"You think I am a tramp. Yes--you do. I know--a worthless fellow, lying, begging, stealing when he can't beg. You have taken me in and fed me. You have said the first kind words I have heard, it seems to me, in years. I don't know who you are. I shall never see you again."

I cannot well describe the intensity of the passion with which he spoke, his face shaking with emotion, his hands trembling.

"Oh, yes," I said easily, "we are comfortable people here--and it is a good place to live."

"No no," he returned. "I know, I've got my call--" Then leaning forward he said in a lower, even more intense voice--"I live everything beforehand."

I was startled by the look of his eyes: the abject terror of it: and I thought to myself, "The man is not right in his mind." And yet I longed to know of the life within this strange husk of manhood.

"I know," he said, as if reading my thought, "you think"--and he tapped his forehead with one finger--"but I'm not. I'm as sane as you are."

It was a strange story he told. It seems almost unbelievable to me as I set it down here, until I reflect how little any one of us knows of the deep life within his nearest neighbour--what stories there are, what tragedies enacted under a calm exterior! What a drama there may be in this commonplace man buying ten pounds of sugar at the grocery store, or this other one driving his two old horses in the town road! We do not know. And how rarely are the men of inner adventure articulate! Therefore I treasure the curious story the tramp told me. I do not question its truth. It came as all truth does, through a clouded and unclean medium: and any judgment of the story itself must be based upon a knowledge of the personal equation of the Ruin who told it.

"I am no tramp," he said, "in reality, I am no tramp. I began as well as anyone--It doesn't matter now, only I won't have any of the sympathy that people give to the man who has seen better days. I hate sentiment. I hate it----"

I cannot attempt to set down the story in his own words. It was broken with exclamations and involved with wandering sophistries and diatribes of self-blame. His mind had trampled upon itself in throes of introspection until it was often difficult to say which way the paths of the narrative really led. He had thought so much and acted so little that he travelled in a veritable bog of indecision. And yet, withal, some ideas, by constant attrition, had acquired a really striking form. "I am afraid before life," he said. "It makes me dizzy with thought."

At another time he said, "If I am a tramp at all, I am a mental tramp. I have an unanchored mind."

It seems that he came to a realisation that there was something peculiar about him at a very early age. He said they would look at him and whisper to one another and that his sayings were much repeated, often in his hearing. He knew that he was considered an extraordinary child: they baited him with questions that they might laugh at his quaint replies. He said that as early as he could remember he used to plan situations so that he might say things that were strange and even shocking in a child. His father was a small professor in a small college--a "worm" he called him bitterly--"one of those worms that bores in books and finally dries up and blows off." But his mother--he said she was an angel. I recall his exact expression about her eyes that "when she looked at one it made him better." He spoke of her with a softening of the voice, looking often at Harriet. He talked a good deal about his mother, trying to account for himself through her. She was not strong, he said, and very sensitive to the contact of either friends or enemies--evidently a nervous, high-strung woman.

"You have known such people," he said, "everything hurt her."

He said she "starved to death." She starved for affection and understanding.

One of the first things he recalled of his boyhood was his passionate love for his mother.

"I can remember," he said, "lying awake in my bed and thinking how I would love her and serve her--and I could see myself in all sorts of impossible places saving her from danger. When she came to my room to bid me good night, I imagined how I should look--for I have always been able to see myself doing things--when I threw my arms around her neck to kiss her."

Here he reached a strange part of his story. I had been watching Harriet out of the corner of my eye. At first her face was tearful with compassion, but as the Ruin proceeded it became a study in wonder and finally in outright alarm. He said that when his mother came in to bid him good night he saw himself so plainly beforehand ("more vividly than I see you at this moment") and felt his emotion so keenly that when his mother actually stooped to kiss him, somehow he could not respond, he could not throw his arms around her neck. He said he often lay quiet, in waiting, trembling all over until she had gone, not only suffering himself but pitying her, because he understood how she must feel. Then he would follow her, he said, in imagination through the long hall, seeing himself stealing behind her, just touching her hand, wistfully hoping that she might turn to him again--and yet fearing. He said no one knew the agonies he suffered at seeing his mother's disappointment over his apparent coldness and unresponsiveness.

"I think," he said, "it hastened her death." He would not go to the funeral; he did not dare, he said. He cried and fought when they came to take him away, and when the house was silent he ran up to her room and buried his head in her pillows and ran in swift imagination to her funeral. He said he could see himself in the country road, hurrying in the cold rain--for it seemed raining--he said he could actually feel the stones and ruts, although he could not tell how it was possible that he should have seen himself at a distance and felt in his own feet the stones of the road. He said he saw the box taken from the wagon--saw it--and that he heard the sound of the clods thrown in, and it made him shriek until they came running and held him.

As he grew older he said he came to live everything beforehand, and that the event as imagined was so far more vivid and affecting that he had no heart for the reality itself.

"It seems strange to you," he said, "but I am telling you exactly what my experience was."

It was curious, he said, when his father told him he must not do a thing, how he went on and imagined in how many different ways he could do it--and how, afterward, he imagined he was punished by that "worm," his father, whom he seemed to hate bitterly. Of those early days, in which he suffered acutely--in idleness, apparently--and perhaps that was one of the causes of his disorder--he told us at length, but many of the incidents were so evidently worn by the constant handling of his mind that they gave no clear impression.

Finally, he ran away from home, he said. At first he found that a wholly new place and new people took him out of himself ("surprised me," he said, "so that I could not live everything beforehand"). Thus he fled. The slang he used, "chased himself all over the country," seemed peculiarly expressive. He had been in foreign countries; he had herded sheep in Australia (so he said), and certainly from his knowledge of the country he had wandered with the gamboleros of South America; he had gone for gold to Alaska, and worked in the lumber camps of the Pacific Northwest. But he could not escape, he said. In a short time he was no longer "surprised." His account of his travels, while fragmentary, had a peculiar vividness. He saw what he described, and he saw it so plainly that his mind ran off into curious details that made his words strike sometimes like flashes of lightning. A strange and wonderful mind--uncontrolled. How that man needed the discipline of common work!

I have rarely listened to a story with such rapt interest. It was not only what he said, nor how he said it, but how he let me see the strange workings of his mind. It was continuously a story of a story. When his voice finally died down I drew a long breath and was astonished to perceive that it was nearly midnight--and Harriet speechless with her emotions. For a moment he sat quiet and then burst out:

"I cannot get away: I cannot escape," and the veritable look of some trapped creature came into his eyes, fear so abject that I reached over and laid my hand on his arm:

"Friend," I said, "stop here. We have a good country. You have travelled far enough. I know from experience what a cornfield will do for a man."

"I have lived all sorts of life," he continued as if he had not heard a word I said, "and I have lived it all twice, and I am afraid."

"Face it," I said, gripping his arm, longing for some power to "blow grit into him."

"Face it!" he exclaimed, "don't you suppose I have tried. If I could do a thing--anything--a few times without thinking--once would be enough--I might be all right. I should be all right."

He brought his fist down on the table, and there was a note of resolution in his voice. I moved my chair nearer to him, feeling as though I were saving an immortal soul from destruction. I told him of our life, how the quiet and the work of it would solve his problems. I sketched with enthusiasm my own experience and I planned swiftly how he could live, absorbed in simple work--and in books.

"Try it," I said eagerly.

"I will," he said, rising from the table, and grasping my hand. "I'll stay here."

I had a peculiar thrill of exultation and triumph. I know how the priest must feel, having won a soul from torment!

He was trembling with excitement and pale with emotion and weariness. One must begin the quiet life with rest. So I got him off to bed, first pouring him a bathtub of warm water. I laid out clean clothes by his bedside and took away his old ones, talking to him cheerfully all the time about common things. When I finally left him and came downstairs I found Harriet standing with frightened eyes in the middle of the kitchen.

"I'm afraid to have him sleep in this house," she said.

But I reassured her. "You do not understand," I said.

Owing to the excitement of the evening I spent a restless night. Before daylight, while I was dreaming a strange dream of two men running, the one who pursued being the exact counterpart of the one who fled, I heard my name called aloud:

"David, David!"

I sprang out of bed.

"The tramp has gone," called Harriet.

He had not even slept in his bed. He had raised the window, dropped out on the ground and vanished.

(The end)
David Grayson's essay: Tramp

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