The Far Horizons
Another "honorable mention" story from MacLean's Second Canadian Short Story Contest
TROUBLE with the young folks nowadays, they won’t listen to their elders, Think they know it all. It stands to reason that a man forty years old knows more than a young calf of eighteen, for he has his own experience and his own mistakes behind him, but somehow you can’t tell the young whippersnappers anything.
It isn’t exactly a surprise to me that Sandy has run away from home. He always did have notions to go travelling and seeing the world, although I never did think he’d have enough nerve to clear out. Still, it isn’t exactly a surprise. No matter how much I ever talked to that boy and warned him and gave him the benefit of my own experience, it all went in one ear and out the other. He’s just like all the rest.
Thinks the old man doesn’t know beans. Thinks his dad is a regular stick-in-the-mud. I’ll bet Sandy thinks he’s the only one that ever got the bright idea of running away.
Still, I guess it’s the only way to learn. He’ll be back. He’ll come slinkin’ in the door some of these fine days, mighty glad of a warm bed and a good meal, and he’ll maybe be ready to listen to me. Funny thing, his ma says he won’t be back—at least not for a long while. She says he’ll never come back and go to work in the grocery shop the way I want him to. But I’m betting he will. He’ll have a little more common sense about things.
Mind you, I’m not narrowminded about the boy. If there’s one thing people got to admit about me, it’s that I’m broadminded. And about Sandy, I am broad-minded because I’ve been through the very same thing myself and I know how it works out. So when I wouldn’t let him go away to sea and told him he’d better stay at home and learn the grocery business,, it wasn’t through being narrowminded; it was simply because I know what’s best for him.
I’ve been through it myself, that’s why. Here I am, going on forty-two, with a wife and family, a house of my own, and one of the finest little grocery businesses in the province for a town of this size. Not bad, eh?
And yet it’s just by chance that I’m not a tramp or a hobo instead. If I had done as I wanted when I was Sandy’s age, that’s very probably how I’d have ended up.
And yet Sandy thinks I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Why a fellow of that age doesn’t know his own mind. When I was eighteen I had just as many fool notions as Sandy—but look at me today. I’ve got some sense.
T WAS born and brought up here, you know, and my father founded this grocery business. It was always his idea that I’d come into the store with him when I got through school, and carry on the business when he retired or died. It never entered his head that I might be thinking of anything else. He just took it for granted that I’d be glad of the chance. And, of course, I should have been. But when I was about eighteen I got just the same sort of fool notions that Sandy has now.
The old home town wasn’t good enough for me. No, sir! And the grocery business—pooh! I didn’t see myself settling down here for thé rest of my life, dishing out sugar and prunes and oatmeal. No; I wanted to be a sailor.
Now that just shows how I can’t be narrow-minded about Sandy and why I have all the sympathy in the world for him. Because I understand just how he feels. He. wants to be a sailor. So did I. Not a cowboy or a fireman or a policeman, like most lads, but a sailor. It sort of runs in the family. My mother’s people were all sea-faring folk and I guess there’s a little of it in the blood yet. I inherited that hankering to travel from mother, I guess, but about the only thing I inherited from my father was a big appetite; we were always hearty eaters, both of us.
I should have seen the signs when I caught Sandy reading so much when he was a youngster. It was the same way with me. I used to read an awful lot.
Now, reading is all right but you can overdo it.
“You’ll fill your head up with a lot of truck,” my father used to tell me. But, of course, I wouldn’t listen to him. He was right, although I didn’t think so at the time. Before I knew it I was getting discontented and restless. It was the reading did it.
Travel books they were, mostly. I used to read all about Japan and Arabia and the South Sea Islands and all those places, and I’d get to thinking about how grand it would be to go all over the world some day.
Mother didn’t mind, but dad thought it was foolishness.
“If you’d do a ittle more work in the store you’d be better off, instead of reading about foreigners all the time,” he said.
“Let him alone,” mother would say. “It comes natural. It’s in the blood.” There was a bit of poetry she had, something about the far horizons and the lure of the setting sun. She used to quote that and dad would go away cussing to himself.
I guess mother shouldn’t have stuck up for me. I get awful moody and restless. Once I even went up to the railway station and got a lot of folders and pamphlets from the agent and mapped out a trip I was going to .take when I grew up. That trip sure took in a lot of territory. Makes me laugh when I think of it. I figured on working my way, getting jobs on boats, and the like.
It just goes to show. There I was, always thinking about these grand places so far away, and I couldn’t see any good in the things right under my nose. I even got to feeling superior about my home town. The finest little place on God’s green earth, with the finest folks, and there I was getting uppish and sneery about it; every time the old man would have some work for me to do in the shop I’d grumble about it, as if I was above the grocery business.
It used to make him mad. “You’re getting too big for your boots !” he’d say. “You’ve got a good home and good prospects and you don’t appreciate anything.”
I don’t blame him, now that I’ve heard Sandy going on the same way I used to. It was enough to make anybody mad. He was giving me a chance that most young fellows would jump at, and there I was trying to turn it down.
But I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that I wanted to travel. Most of all, I wanted to go to sea.
Funny part of it is, I’ve never seen the ocean. Never in my life. We’re mighty well inland in Ontario and it’s a long way to salt water. And yet I always had that hankering for the ocean. I guess there was something in what my mother said. It was in the blood.
There was a big sea-shell on the table in the parlor at home—we have it yet—and I used to put it up to my ear, and mother said the hollow sound was just like the booming of the surf. I used to listen to it often, and I’d close my eyes and could almost see the waves rolling up on the beach, and sailing ships away off against the sky. All that sort of foolishness. I caught Sandy with that shell up to his ear one day last week, so I took it away from him and hid it, but I guess that didn’t do much good.
I always thought it would be grand to work my way to the coast and get a job on a ship of some kind. Maybe not a big ocean liner, but a real rough-and-ready ship like you read about in books, where there’s maybe a tough old skipper and a hardboiled crew, and we’d go around Cape Horn—or Cape Stiff, I think the sailors call it. I wanted a taste of that sort of life and I kept thinking and thinking about it until the day I left school.
Then I came right out with it and told dad I wasn’t going in the store with him.
Well, sir, you could have knocked him over with a feather.
He thought I had gone crazy.
“That’s what comes of reading!” he said. “You’re a fool. Just a young fool. I’m giving you a chance most boys would jump at, a chance to learn the business and have it for yourself some day. Your future is all laid out for you safe and sound and secure and you want to throw it all overboard and go gallivanting around the world like a tramp.”
I told Sandy the same thing last week, but you see all the good it did. But then, I was the same way. Couldn’t see farther than the end of my nose. I didn’t pay much attention to dad.
I had just got a book from the library about a fellow who had explored all up the west coast of Africa, and dad took that book and flung it into the garbage pail.
“Cluttering your mind up with junk!” he said.
I fished the book out later, but the cover was kind of spoiled and the library made me pay for it.
There were ructions for a while. Dad harped at me for being so ungrateful after all the trouble he’d taken to see that I got a good schooling, and then wanting to go away just when I could be of some use around the store. So I figured I’d better give in for a while just to keep peace in the family. Anyway, I didn’t have any money, and I couldn’t start out on nothing, although sometimes I had a good mind to.
The funny part of it was that mother wasn’t as pleased as I was thinking she’d be. When I told them I’d stay home for a while, she said:
“I guess you’re a natural born grocer.”
And dad said:
“He'll take to the business like a duck takes to water, once he gets those nonsensical ideas out of his head. It runs in the family.”
Mother started to laugh, queer-like.
“Yes, I guess he’s a natural born grocer,” she said again. Somehow, you know, I’ve often wondered if she would have minded very much if I had run away to sea. She never seemed as set against it as dad. Anyway, I started to work in the store.
T DIDN’T like it very much at first. I’ll admit that.
I had to work a lot harder than I did in school, and the town seemed more tiresome than ever. If it hadn’t been for Jean, I guess I would have packed up and sneaked away after the first week or so.
Jean was my girl. Quiet and shy, with big brown eyes and curly hair. There was never anyone like Jean. You know how it is; no one can ever be quite as sweet and lovely as your first girl. She cared for me a lot and whenever I would talk of going away, her lips would begin to tremble and there would be tears in her eyes and I’d begin to think different. I hated to hurt her.
Well, I stayed along for three or four months and I was getting sort of settled down. What with Jean and one thing and another I was getting out of my travel ideas. Dad and I were getting along better. He was a big, fat, easy-going fellow; looked just about the same as I do now. We got to understand each other better.
And then the nigger came to town.
If it hadn’t been for him, I guess I’d never have done what I did. But when he came along he stirred up all my ideas again.
He was a character, that fellow !
The happiest man you ever did see. He was always laughing, and he had a comical answer for anything you could say to him. He was a fat, black man with a shiny face, and more gold teeth in his head than you could shake a stick at. Why that fellow just simply glittered when he smiled, which was mostly. His clothes were all patched and worn and life had a battered old plug hat on his head that looked as if he’d found it in somebody’s ash can. And he had a banjo slung over his shoulder in a ragged case.
We never see many niggers up in this part of the country, except porters on the through trains. I guess it’s different farther south, but up here they’re more or less of a curiosity. This chap came to town off a freight train; he was a hobo, pure and simple. One of the boys told me about him and I went down to the pool room that night, where this nigger had collected quite a crowd.
Quite a bunch of us young chaps and a few of the older ones were sitting around, and the nigger was sitting in one of the high chairs, joking and laughing so much you couldn’t help but like him. He told some of the funniest stories, in that way of his, better’n any coon you ever heard on the stage, and after a while he hauled off v/ith the banjo and started to piay.
I guess that fellow knew every song anybody ever wrote.
You couldn’t stick him on any of them. He’d play you anything you asked. And he certainly could get grand music out of that banjo.
He sat there in a corner, beyond the green pool table, with his head thrown back and his eyes rolling and his face just shining under the light from the hanging lamp, and his black fingers strumming the strings, and his whole body swaying ba.ck and forth. He sang in a deep, deep voice that sounded sometimes just like a bell. ’
He would sing some of the queerest, funniest coon songs you ever listened to, until we’d all be laughing so hard you could scarcely hear the banjo, and then he’d sing something sad and mournful until there wouldn’t be a sound from anyone. He was mighty good, that nigger, and we kept him playing, singing and talking to us until almost eleven o’clock.
He told us he’d been nearly all over the world but he was just about ready to go home and settle down. He said it was à good thing for every young fellow to get out and roam for a while, but he’d been wandering for a long time and he was satisfied. Said he was trying to get back to his old home in Dixie and he didn’t have any railway fare, so he passed around the plug hat and between us all I’ll bet he got three or four dollars in silver.
So then he chuckled and thanked us and he sang a sea chantey he sáid he had heard when he worked on a sailing ship once, and the way he roared it out was simply grand. You could almost smell the waves. It left me all sort of tingly and stirred up. And after that the nigger sang a comical song with about nineteen verses to it, and every verse was so crazy we almost died laughing. Then he went away. But I couldn’t get the sea chantey out of my head.
That was the last we ever saw of the nigger, so I guess he must have caught the northbound freight at midnight. I’ve always thought that was mighty queer, for if he was trying to get back to his old home in Dixie he should have been going south. Anyway, he gave us our money’s worth and he was the most cheerful, happy-go-lucky fellow you could imagine, so it was nobody’s business whether he went home or not. He’d be welcome any place as long as he had that banjo with him.
After he was gone, I went home. But I couldn’t sleep.
I kept thinking about that nigger,
imagined nobody could have a better life than he had. For one thing, he seemed so happy. He was lots happier than any one of us that had been listening to him in the pool room. And more interesting. I don’t know how to explain it, but there was something about him, something that made him different from all of us— outside the fact that he was black— something that he had got from being all over the world and from being so free and his own boss.
He went where he pleased and he had travelled all over. It just showed how easy it was; why that fellow never even worked and he got along fine.
Of course, now that I’m older I can see that the poor heathen was worse off than any of us, for I guess he was mighty poor most of the time and often didn’t have enough to eat. ' There’s nothing to that kind of a life, wandering around without a home and no responsibilities. It looked attractive to me when I was a youngster but I can see now that he was just a shiftless black tramp.
However, I didn’t see things that way just then. The nigger had stirred me all up again. A lot of his songs had been about tramps and wanderers and sailors and cowboys, all about the open road and the open sea and the free life and that sort of stuff. My mind was just full of it all. The more I thought of that nigger and his songs, the more I got to thinking I couldn’t stand the town or. the grocery store any more and I wanted to go away.
It didn’t matter where. I just wanted to go away.
I lay awake almost all night, figuring out what I should do. And gradually the room got lighter and I could see the trees outside the window and a rooster crowed and it was near dawn, all cool and gray and still. It came over me that there was no use waiting any longer; if I was going to go at all I’d better go right away.
So I got up out of bed and got dressed.
That’s the sort of young fool I was at eighteen. -No common sense or reason about it at all; I just got up and dressed, and made up my mind I’d go away then and there.
I went out into the hall and I passed the room where my father and mother were sleeping, and when I saw them I mighty near weakened.
My mother’s face was so frail and calm, and my father’s face looked so tired, and they were sleeping away there, not knowing that I was going to clear out without even saying good-by to them. But I had made up my mind 1 wasn’t going to do that. I was afraid if I waited until morning they’d get around me some way and talk me out of it.
Well, I stood there in the hall, kind of uncertain, with half a mind to go back to bed, and just then my mother stirred in her sleep and sighed, so I quickly went away down the hall and downstairs. The house seemed quiet and still and friendly; it seemed mighty queer to think I mightn’t see it again for years and years. You see, I’d lived right in that very house since the day I was born, and I guess I must have got a bit sentimental as I stood looking around at all the familiar things. I was afraid if I stayed around I’d get to feeling sorry, so I grabbed my hat and let myself out the back door.
I didn’t even leave a note sayin’ what I’d done. I thought it would be better for me to write to them later when I was a good distance away.
Outside, the east was all pink and blue and gold where the sun was rising, and the grass was wet and glistening with dew. The moon was still in the sky, all pale and cold, and there was a hush over •everything except for a little bird chirping in a bush down by the back fence. '
All the houses seemed asleep. The windows had that dead look, for the sun hadn’t come up to shine on the glass and make them seem awake. The air was cool and fresh. When I looked down to the lake I saw that there was a light mist like cotton wool hanging over the water.
I cut across the back lots up through the lane toward the railway tracks. And on the way I passed back of Jean’s house.
I had sort of forgotten about her. I had been thinking so much about the nigger and his songs and about seeing the world and getting away from the town and the grocery shop that I had clean forgotten my girl. Just goes to show that calf love isn’t as important as we think it is at the time. But there I was, right back of the house, and I could see Jean’s window, and the white curtains rustling a little.
Well, even for Jean, I wasn’t going to turn back. I felt the same way about her as I did about my parents. I hated to leave them and I didn’t want to hurt them, but I wanted to see the world so badly that nothing else mattered. There was nothing else for it. If I stayed around and let them argue with me and try to talk me out of it I’d be a goner, and I knew it. So my only chance was to clear out.
The house was still as the grave. Out on the clothesline I could see a couple of Jean’s aprons. They looked pretty and they reminded me of her. I turned away so I wouldn’t see them. I was getting a bit sentimental and I was afraid it would make me want to turn back.
I went on up the lane, crossed the fence into the field and then climbed the embankment up to the tracks. I didn’t look behind, and when I saw the railway tracks stretching away out ahead of me to the south I began to feel better. Even now, when I can see what a foolish and senseless thing I was doing, I must admit that I felt absolutely free, just then, for the first time in my life. It was like coming out into the fresh air after being shut up in a cellar for years. The railway tracks sloped away off in the distance as though they would never end, and the steel rails were shining.
I felt so light-hearted and gay that I wanted to sing.
When I thought that I wouldn’t have to work in the store that day, or any other day, and that I was really going away from the town at last, nothing else seemed to matter.
I scarcely gave a thought to Jean and my father and mother. It was mighty selfish of me. All I could think of was that I was clearing out and that I was starting off to see the world and be my own boss.
The bush seemed heavy and still and friendly, and once in a while a bird would twitter and chirp. The air was cool and sweet and the sky was flaring, for the sun was just coming up. I looked back only once, but I had walked fast and I couldn’t see much of the town, just the roofs of a few houses above the trees.
Did you ever try to walk on a railway track? The ties aren’t close enough together that you can take two of them at a step and they’re too close to take one at a time, without making little short steps. It’s hard work unless you’re used to it. There was a path by the tracks once in a while, but a lot of the way it was just a sandy embankment that you couldn’t walk oil.
After I had been walking quite a while and the sun got higher, I had to take off my coat because I was mighty warm. I could see that it was going to be a mighty hot day. And then, pebbles and cinders kept getting in my shoes and no matter how many times I stopped and shook them out there would be others. I found out that trampin’ wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. You forget about pebbles and hot weather and being tired and hungry, when you’re planning to run away.
That’s what I’m getting at.
Sandy hasn’t figured on all these things. He’ll find out. I found out, and it didn’t take me long either.
I guess if it had just been the walking, I wouldn’t have minded so much. But I got hungry. Y ou see, I had been in such a hurry to clear out that I forgot to get something to eat, and I didn’t bring anything with me.
As I said before, about the only thing I inherited from my old man was a good appetite, but it was a real one. I’m considered a mighty hearty eater today, but I never could get away with the amount of food my dad could eat. Even at that, though, I ate more than most boys my age. I guess if I’d cut' down on grub a bit when I was young I wouldn’t be such a weight today, but there’s worse things than being fat, and it isn’t as if I make a hog of myself.
Just the same, when I was eighteen I could polish off quite a lot of grub at one sitting and I was used to having my meals big and regular. And this morning, after I’d been hoofing it along the tracks in the hot sun, with the walking giving me even more of an appetite than usual, I began to get hungry.
Not just wanting something to eat, like when dinner is five or ten minutes late— but hungry, real hungry. It was the first time in my life I had ever felt that way. I couldn’t help thinking of the big breakfast they’d be having at home, with toast and bacon and eggs and mother’s coffee. I could almost smell that coffee.
I kept on walking and getting hungrier and thinking more and more about breakfast. There didn’t seem to be much chance of getting anything to eat for quite a while. This country wasn’t quite as well settled in those days and the nearest village was about twenty miles down the line. There were farmhouses and camps and places in back of the railway, but there was no place beside the track where I could drop in and ask for some grub.
It’s funny how when you get hungry your brain works better.
I began to realize how foolish I had been to give up a good home, with a comfortable bed and regular meals. It became as plain, as daylight to me that I had been thoughtless and selfish in running away and hurting everybody’s feelings. No matter how much I wanted to go, I saw that it wasn’t right of me and I began to feel sorry for what I’d done.
Then I began to think about Jean and how much I would miss her and how hurt she would be. I had been mighty mean.
I sat down on a pile of ties beside the track. My feet were sore, and anyway I wanted to think things over. To be honest about it, I’ve always thought that if I hadn’t been so awful hungry I mightn’t have got to thinking sensibly about what I’d done. I’ve always said that if I hadn’t inherited a big appetite from my father I mightn’t be where I am today.
At any rate, I was sitting there and figuring out how foolish I was to go gallivanting away and leaving my parents and Jean and a good future, when I might as well be at home having my breakfast, when just then along came a hand-car, with a couple of section hands. The car was going north and it stopped right near me.
“Which way you going, son?” asks one of the section men. “Want a ride?”
Well, I had to think quick. If I went with them, I could be back home pretty soon. If I said I was going south I’d have to keep on walking.
And just then my stomach gave another twinge, so I said:
“I’m headin’ north.”
I got on to the hand-ear and they took me clean to the station in my own home town.
It wasn’t very late. Not as late as I thought. I got back a little after eight o’clock. I had started out around four in the morning, and although it seemed I’d been gone for days, nobody seemed to notice anything wrong.
When I walked into the house, breakfast was over but mother had put my bacon and eggs and toast in the oven.
“You were up early,” she said. “Where have you been?”
“Out for a walk.”
And that’s all I told them and they didn’t think nothing of it. And right to the day my father died I never told him how near I’d come to running away for good. There was no sense letting him know that I’d been a fool, even if I did come to my senses in time. I stayed on in the store, and after a while he pretty well let me manage things, and after he died I took over the business.
As for Jean—well, I guess you don’t always marry your first girl. She went away to the city about a year later and although we said we’d never forget each other and all that sort of slush, we kind of drifted apart and then I met my wife and got settled down. Jean got married to somebody in Vancouver, last I heard of her.
But the whole thing just goes to show how a young chap doesn’t know his own mind. Here’s Sandy has up and run away and thinks I didn’t know what I was talking about when I told him he’d be sorry and he’d be lots better off staying at home. I know, because I was through the same thing myself.
I tell you, it makes a man wild, the way youngsters think they know it all.
And what makes me maddest of all is that Sandy’s grandma—my own mother, mind you—thinks it’s a good joke. Confidentially, of course, she’s getting kind of old. But when we found out that Sandy had run away, I told her all about the time I ran away myself—just what I’ve told you—to prove I wasn’t narrowminded about the boy.
It was the first time I’d ever told her about it.
And what did she do?
She laughed and laughed.
“I hope he stays away,” she said. Can you imagine that? “I hope he stays away. But if he has inherited more appetite than wanderlust it will serve him right to be a grocer for the rest of his life.”
Personally, I can’t see anything to laugh at.'