Ocean Echoes - Benefit Of Clergy
( Originally Published 1922 )
FEELING now more alone than I had felt in Canada, I turned aimlessly and headed off into the country. Presently I came to a lane, and to a farm house, and to a man milking cows, chewing tobacco as he milked. His hairy head was buried in the cow's flank, and his boots were crusted with manure. As I approached him, asking if he were the farmer, a girl called from the back porch :
"Father, mother says that you are to be sure to leave enough milk for the calf."
He grunted. "Yes, Ellen." Then, looking at me out of the corners of his eyes : "Well, suppose I be the farmer here, what do you want?"
"A job," said I, brazenly.
"Young feller, I ain't got work enough for myself to do, let alone hiring a man."
"I must have work," said I, desperately. "I'm broke and I've got to earn some money. I know you have work for me to do as long as you have grapes to prune. I can milk cows, too, and I'll work cheap."
He looked me over from my shoes up. While I wasn't clean, I was respectable-looking. He handed me a tin bucket.
"Milk old Muley, there by the gate," he said, and I milked old Muley in a hurry. I stripped her clean, for having been raised on a farm, milking was second nature to me.
"Have you another one?" I asked eagerly, handing him the bucket.
' "No," he growled, picking up the buckets and starting for the house, "but stay here till I come back, I may have some work for you to do. I'll talk to Ma."
I waited, and hoped, and prayed, for a job. Then the farmer's voice sounded from the house : "Come on here, stranger."
His wife, a short fat woman, but rather neat in her gingham dress, greeted me with, "How did you come to be broke?" I told her the whole thing, as a boy would. It seemed ages since I had been in a home. The girl, about seventeen years old, and good-looking, was listening in the pantry.
Evidently the mother approved of me. At any rate she was the boss of that farm, as was plain to see. "I can give you a week's work," she said, "but mind you, I can't pay much. Fifty cents a day and board."
"I'll take it," I said, cheerfully.
We had supper together, I leading in the conversation. The food wasn't bad, considering the time. Potatoes and bread and tea there were, plenty, and a slice of fried bacon for each one. Then there were stewed pears for dessert.
The farmer made a bed for me in the barn with the cows and horses, and I went to sleep, but fitfully, for however pleasant the noises and stampings and barkings of farm animals may be to a farm-lad, they are very different from the voices of the sea, and the cobwebbed rafters of a barn, loomy and spaceful as they are, release one too suddenly from the oppression of the ship's forecastle ceiling.
At four o'clock he called to me : "Get up and milk the cows."
"Where's the pump?" I inquired, turning out. "What do you want the pump for, this time of the morning?"
"I want to wash my head and face."
"You'll find it on the porch," he mumbled. "I don't wash till breakfast time."
I doubted that he did then, as he was never etiher washing or washed when I saw him, and I'm quite sure that he couldn't have combed his hair even if he had tried.
One week I spent working around the barn and stables cleaning them out. It seemed that it had been many months since they had been touched by the hand of man. I afterwards found that some farmers prefer to move their barns, rather than cart the manure away. Then they buy fertilizer for the land.
The girl and I became fast friends, which I could see did not please the mother, who grew colder and colder at meals.
"Can you prune grapes?" asked the farmer one evening, after I had earned three dollars in the Land of the Golden Gate.
"Oh, yes," said I. "I can do anything."
This utterance proved my downfall. I had never pruned grape vines, but I had seen the Japs and others do it, and it seemed to me that all that was necessary was to clip off the long trailing vines.
Next morning he gave me the pruning shears, and with a wave of the hand started me in on the thirty or more acres he had to prune. I started in with a will, hoping to show my appreciation of his giving me work, and slashed right and left, pruning close to the vines without regard for bud or balance. Towards noon my master came to see how I was doing, and, to my dismay, swore he'd have me shot. So violent was his rage, and the anguish of his wife, who mourned the day that ever she had befriended me, that I was grateful for the three dollars I had earned and a drink from the pump.
This much better off than I had been a week ago, and with some knowledge of how not to prune, I waved my hat to the girl, and started up the main road, reflecting upon my fortune. To this day I laugh when I think of that adventure, and my utter meekness about it. Many years later I was invited to do pruning in the vineyard of a lady who ran her own ranch, and refused to allow me to stay there unless I would work for her. Tempted as I was, I ran no risks.
"Madam," I said, "ask me to dig for you, or carry wheat for you, or milk your cows or even die for you if necessary, but do not ask me to prune grape-vines."
"You are very firm," said she.
"I am," said I; "at any sacrifice."
My wife, reading over my shoulder, laughs aloud at this. "Why didn't you tell me then?" she asks. "You don't know how foolish I thought you were."
"There's pruning and pruning," I answer, "and I feared the worse evil." There is an answer from her, but not worth while to mention !
How to get to a seaport was my next problem, for I had made up my mind that the sea was the place for me. I was about as close to San Francisco as I was to San Diego. I walked to the village, and sat down upon a pile of railroad ties to ponder the past and speculate upon the future. For Youth, out of a job, pondering the past has prickles and thorns of thought; the future is refuge. For Age, doing the same thing, bygones are apt to be bygones, but the thought of the future in the light of history is a curse to failing muscles.
I was beginning to believe that I had made a fatal mistake. I should never have left home. My mother was the truest friend that I'd ever know. I couldn't have her here, and I doubted if in this strange country of barking dogs and selfish people, I could ever make a go of it. I resolved then and there to follow Liverpool Jack to San Diego, and there to try to ship for England. A comforting thought, but by no means to be borne out in the event.
Suddenly there was a shout from behind me. Turning quickly, I saw five men coming towards me.
"Where are you going, Bo?" one of them cried. They were unshaven, dirty, and ragged, and their shoes were worn soleless.
"I am bound for San Diego," I said, glad of their cheerfulness.
"Keep away from there," said the tallest of the men. "We've just come from there. I'm here to tell you it's the hungriest part of the state." Then he told me their story, while the others pulled themselves up to the pile of ties, or stood around commenting. They couldn't find work anywhere, and little of anything to eat. One had a wife and children back east. For the sake of a sick little one he had come west to find a home for them all, and he hadn't the nerve to write how dismally he had failed, Had names meant anything to me then, I should have been interested in that man's name, for it was well known. So it is in the west, one cannot judge from appearances at all. A longshoreman I knew afterwards became one of the most influential of United States senators, and a woman who took in washing in my day became one of what used to be called New York's Four Hundred.
The narrow waists and long cheek-bones of these five men lent corroboration to their statement that they were half-starved, and I could not sit there with money in my pocket and see men hungry to vagueness. I invited them to go to the China Restaurant, and then and there got the worth of my three dollars. If I were never to eat a meal again the smile of soul-appreciation that came into their emaciated faces was reward enough. Besides, to-morrow was another day, and it was well to approach it in good condition.
They declined to accept the invitation to the China Restaurant as being an imposition, but took two of my three dollars to buy food to cook. The tall one ran to the village store. The others rustled cans in which to cook, and started a fire. In less than an hour they were eating, and what a meal they had ! Potatoes, bread, steak, and coffee. They invited me to eat with them. I watched them eat, for I wasn't hungry. My stomach wasn't empty, and I got pleasure out of watching them fill theirs a pleasure that more thrifty people cannot feel, for they have no last dollar.
With their waist-lines filled, the talk of my guests became more optimistic. The tall one spoke:
"Do you see that church over there?"
"Yes," I replied.
"Men like ourselves are always sure of a dollar from the priest who lives there. But here's the trouble," and he licked his lips,, "you've got to put on the gloves and box with him or you don't get anything. He's mighty handy with the mitts."
"Did you try him out?" I asked, with interest. "Nothing doing. I met a man down the road a piece who said he took the beating of his life for a silver dollar, and he sure looked it."
Towards evening a north-bound freight pulled in, and stopped. The five men said good-by, and as she started to move, like the professionals they were, grabbed hold of the gunwales and slid under the train as if they were going to bed. They were off, and I was alone again alone with one silver dollar.
I thought of the priest and the possibility of getting another dollar. I certainly could use one. I walked over to the church, and there, sitting on the steps, was the priest, a very burly priest indeed. He could see, I suppose, what I was after, for he jumped to his feet, stretched, and felt his muscles. I took this for a warning destined to inspire anyone with terror, automatically sorting out the sheep from the goats, so to speak.
I wished him a good evening, and he asked me what I wanted.
"I want to earn a dollar."
"Come right in here, my boy," and he led me into a small house that adjoined the church.
In a room that was not much larger than eight by ten, he stopped. I pulled off my coat without a word, while he ostentatiously juggled some dumb-bells.
Then, "You are sure that you want to tackle me?" he inquired.
I should have liked to say no, but I wanted his dollar so badly that it was worth a beating to me. I assured him that I was ready.
He handed me the gloves, and put his on without comment or question. We squared away. He caught me a wallop on the ear and I went down. When I got upon my feet again I forgot all about the dollar I was earning and the man who wore the broadcloth. I felt that I was back on a ship, and I wasn't going to lose a fight.
I caught him on the jaw and staggered him, following it up with an uppercut that knocked him down. When he got up he was bleeding freely, and science lost its art. He started slugging. Here was where I shone. I whipped him, and whipped him well, and until he cried enough.
As if nothing had happened, he took me to a sink where I washed my blood and his blood off me. Then he wished me good-by and Godspeed with apostolic dignity, and my reward was not one dollar but live !