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From my upper field, when I look across the countryside, I can see in the distance a short stretch of the gray town road. It winds out of a little wood, crosses a knoll, and loses itself again beyond the trees of an old orchard. I love that spot in my upper field, and the view of the road beyond. When I am at work there I have only to look up to see the world go by—part of it going down to the town, and part of it coming up again. And I never see a traveller on the hill, especially if he be afoot, without feeling that if I met him I should like him, and that whatever he had to say I should like to hear.

At first I could not make out what the man was doing. Most of the travellers I see from my field are like the people I commonly meet—so intent upon their destination that they take no joy of the road they travel. They do not even see me here in the fields; and if they did, they would probably think me a slow and unprofitable person. I have nothing that they can carry away and store up in barns, or reduce to percentages, or calculate as profit and loss; they do not perceive what a wonderful place this is; they do not know that here, too, we gather a crop of contentment.

But apparently this man was the pattern of a loiterer. I saw him stop on the knoll and look widely about him. Then he stooped down as though searching for something, then moved slowly forward for a few steps. Just at that point in the road lies a great smooth boulder which road-makers long since dead had rolled out upon the wayside. Here to my astonishment I saw him kneel upon the ground. He had something in one hand with which he seemed intently occupied. After a time he stood up, and retreating a few steps down the road, he scanned the boulder narrowly.

“This,” I said to myself, “may be something for me.”

So I crossed the fence and walked down the neighbouring field. It was an Indian summer day with hazy hillsides, and still sunshine, and slumbering brown fields—the sort of a day I love. I leaped the little brook in the valley and strode hastily up the opposite slope. I cannot describe what a sense I had of new worlds to be found here in old fields. So I came to the fence on the other side and looked over. My man was kneeling again at the rock. I was scarcely twenty paces from him, but so earnestly was he engaged that he never once saw me. I had a good look at him. He was a small, thin man with straight gray hair; above his collar I could see the weather-brown wrinkles of his neck. His coat was of black, of a noticeably neat appearance, and I observed, as a further evidence of fastidiousness rare upon the Road, that he was saving his trousers by kneeling on a bit of carpet. What he could be doing there so intently by the roadside I could not imagine. So I climbed the fence, making some little intentional noise as I did so. He arose immediately. Then I saw at his side on the ground two small tin cans, and in his hands a pair of paint brushes. As he stepped aside I saw the words he had been painting on the boulder:


A meek figure, indeed, he looked, and when he saw me advancing he said, with a deference that was almost timidity:

“Good morning, sir.”

“Good morning, brother,” I returned heartily.

His face brightened perceptibly.

“Don’t stop on my account,” I said; “finish off your work.”

He knelt again on his bit of carpet and proceeded busily with his brushes. I stood and watched him. The lettering was somewhat crude, but he had the swift deftness of long practice.

“How long,” I inquired, “have you been at this sort of work?”

“Ten years,” he replied, looking up at me with a pale smile. “Off and on for ten years. Winters I work at my trade—I am a journeyman painter—but when spring comes, and again in the fall, I follow the road.”

He paused a moment and then said, dropping his voice, in words of the utmost seriousness:

“I live by the Word.”

“By the Word?” I asked.

“Yes, by the Word,” and putting down his brushes he took from an inner pocket a small package of papers, one of which he handed to me. It bore at the top this sentence in large type:

“Is not my word like fire, saith the Lord: and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?”

I stood and looked at him a moment. I suppose no one man is stranger than any other, but at that moment it seemed to me I had never met a more curious person. And I was consumed with a desire to know why he was what he was.

“Do you always paint the same sign?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” he answered. “I have a feeling about what I should paint. When I came up the road here this morning I stopped a minute, and it all seemed so calm and nice”—he swept his arm in the direction of the fields—”that I says to myself, ‘I will paint “God is Love.”’”

“An appropriate text,” I said, “for this very spot.”

He seemed much gratified.

“Oh, you can follow your feelings!” he exclaimed. “Sometimes near towns I can’t paint anything but ‘Hell yawns,’ and ‘Prepare to meet thy God.’ I don’t like ‘em as well as ‘God is Love,’ but it seems like I had to paint ‘em. Now, when I was in Arizona——”

He paused a moment, wiping his brushes.

“When I was in Arizona,” he was saying, “mostly I painted ‘Repent ye.’ It seemed like I couldn’t paint anything else, and in some places I felt moved to put ‘Repent ye’ twice on the same rock.”

I began to ask him questions about Arizona, but I soon found how little he, too, had taken toll of the road he travelled: for he seemed to have brought back memories only of the texts he painted and the fact that in some places good stones were scarce, and that he had to carry extra turpentine to thin his paint, the weather being dry. I don’t know that he is a lone representative of this trait. I have known farmers who, in travelling, saw only plows and butter-tubs and corn-cribs, and preachers who, looking across such autumn fields as these would carry away only a musty text or two. I pity some of those who expect to go to heaven: they will find so little to surprise them in the golden streets.

But I persevered with my painter, and it was not long before we were talking with the greatest friendliness. Having now finished his work, he shook out his bit of carpet, screwed the tops on his paint cans, wrapped up his brushes, and disposed of them all with the deftness of long experience in his small black bag. Then he stood up and looked critically at his work.

“It’s all right,” I said; “a great many people coming this way in the next hundred years will see it.”

“That’s what I want,” he said eagerly; “that’s what I want. Most people never hear the Word at all.”

He paused a moment and then continued:

“It’s a curious thing, Mister—perhaps you’ve noticed it yourself—that the best things of all in the world people won’t have as a gift.”

“I’ve noticed it,” I said.

“It’s strange, isn’t it?” he again remarked.

“Very strange,” I said.

“I don’t know’s I can blame them,” he continued. “I was that way myself for a good many years: all around me gold and diamonds and precious jewels, and me never once seeing them. All I had to do was to stoop and take them—but I didn’t do it.”

I saw that I had met a philosopher, and I decided that I would stop and wrestle with him and not let him go without his story—something like Jacob, wasn’t it, with the angel?

“Do you do all this without payment?”

He looked at me in an injured way.

“Who’d pay me?” he asked. “Mostly people think me a sort of fool. Oh, I know, but I don’t mind. I live by the Word. No, nobody pays me: I am paying myself.”

By this time he was ready to start. So I said, “Friend, I’m going your way, and I’ll walk with you.”

So we set off together down the hill.

“You see, sir,” he said, “when a man has got the best thing in the world, and finds it’s free, he naturally wants to let other people know about it.”

He walked with the unmistakable step of those who knew the long road—an easy, swinging, steady step—carrying his small black bag. So I gradually drew him out, and when I had his whole story it was as simple and common, but as wonderful, as daylight: as fundamental as a tree or a rock.

“You see, Mister,” he said, “I was a wild sort when I was young. The drink, and worse. I hear folks say sometimes that if they’d known what was right they’d have done it. But I think that conscience never stops ringing little bells in the back of a man’s head; and that if he doesn’t do what is right, it’s because he wants to do what is wrong. He thinks it’s more amusing and interesting. I went through all that, Mister, and plenty more besides. I got pretty nearly as low as a man ever gets. Oh, I was down and out: no home, no family, not a friend that wanted to see me. If you never got down that low, Mister, you don’t know what it is. You are just as much dead as if you were in your grave. I’m telling you.

“I thought there was no help for me, and I don’t know’s I wanted to be helped. I said to myself, ‘You’re just naturally born weak and it isn’t your fault,’ It makes a lot of men easier in their minds to lay up their troubles to the way they are born. I made all sorts of excuses for myself, but all the time I knew I was wrong; a man can’t fool himself.

“So it went along for years. I got married and we had a little girl.”

He paused for a long moment.

“I thought that was going to help me. I thought the world and all of that little girl——” He paused again.

“Well, she died. Then I broke my wife’s heart and went on down to hell. When a man lets go that way he kills everything he loves and everything that loves him. He’s on the road to loneliness and despair, that man. I’m telling you.

“One day, ten years ago this fall, I was going along the main street in Quinceyville. I was near the end of my rope. Not even money enough to buy drink with, and yet I was then more’n half drunk, I happened to look up on the end of that stone wall near the bridge— were you ever there, Mister?—and I saw the words ‘God is Love’ painted there. It somehow hit me hard. I couldn’t anyways get it out of my mind. ‘God is Love.’ Well, says I to myself if God is Love, he’s the only one that is Love for a chap like me. And there’s no one else big enough to save me—I says. So I stopped right there in the street, and you may believe it or explain it anyhow you like, Mister, but it seemed to me a kind of light came all around me, and I said, solemn-like, ‘I will try God.’”

He stopped a moment. We were walking down the hill: all about us on either side spread the quiet fields. In the high air above a few lacy clouds were drifting eastward. Upon this story of tragic human life crept in pleasantly the calm of the countryside.

“And I did try Him,” my companion was saying, “and I found that the words on the wall were true. They were true back there and they’ve been true ever since. When I began to be decent again and got back my health and my job, I figured that I owed a lot to God. I wa’n’t no orator, and no writer and I had no money to give, ‘but,’ says I to myself, I’m a painter. I’ll help God with paint.’ So here I am a-travelling up and down the roads and mostly painting ‘God is Love,’ but sometimes ‘Repent ye’ and ‘Hell yawns.’ I don’t know much about religion—but I do know that His Word is like a fire, and that a man can live by it, and if once a man has it he has everything else he wants.”

He paused: I looked around at him again. His face was set steadily ahead—a plain face showing the marks of his hard earlier life, and yet marked with a sort of high beauty.

“The trouble with people who are unhappy, Mister,” he said, “is that they won’t try God.”

I could not answer my companion. There seemed, indeed, nothing more to be said. All my own speculative incomings and outgoings—how futile they seemed compared with this!

Near the foot of the hill there is a little-bridge. It is a pleasant, quiet spot. My companion stopped and put down his bag.

“What do you think,” said he, “I should paint here?”

“Well,” I said, “you know better than I do. What would you paint?”

He looked around at me and then smiled as though he had a quiet little joke with himself.

“When in doubt,” he said, “I always paint ‘God is Love,’ I’m sure of that. Of course ‘Hell yawns’ and ‘Repent ye’ have to be painted—near towns—but I much rather paint ‘God is Love.’”

I left him kneeling there on the bridge, the bit of carpet under his knees, his two little cans at his side. Half way up the hill I turned to look back. He lifted his hand with the paint brush in it, and I waved mine in return. I have never seen him since, though it will be a long, long time before the sign of him disappears from our roadsides.

At the top of the hill, near the painted boulder, I climbed the fence, pausing a moment on the top rail to look off across the hazy countryside, warm with the still sweetness of autumn. In the distance, above the crown of a little hill, I could see the roof of my own home—and the barn near it—and the cows feeding quietly in the pastures.


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