The Rules of the Game by Stewart Edward White
This was on Tuesday. During the rest of the week Bob worked hard. Even a skilled man would have been kept busy by the multitude of details that poured in on the little office. Poor Bob was far from skilled. He felt as awkward amid all these swift and accurate activities as he had when at sixteen it became necessary to force his overgrown frame into a crowded drawing room. He tried very hard, as he always did with everything. When Collins succinctly called his attention to a discrepancy in his figurings, he smiled his slow, winning, troubled smile, thrust the hair back from his clear eyes, and bent his lean athlete's frame again to the labour. He soon discovered that this work demanded speed as well as accuracy. "And I need a ten-acre lot to turn around in," he told himself half humorously. "I'm a regular ice-wagon."
He now came to look back on his college triumphs with an exaggerated but wholesome reaction. His athletic prowess had given him great prominence in college circles. Girls had been flattered at his attention; his classmates had deferred to his skill and experience; his juniors had, in the manner of college boys, looked up to him as to a demi-god. Then for the few months of the football season the newspapers had made of him a national character. His picture appeared at least once a week; his opinions were recorded; his physical measurements carefully detailed. When he appeared on the streets and in hotel lobbies, people were apt to recognize him and whisper furtively to one another. Bob was naturally the most modest youth in the world, and he hated a "fuss" after the delightfully normal fashion of normal boys, but all this could not fail to have its subtle effect. He went out into the world without conceit, but confident of his ability to take his place with the best of them.
His first experience showed him wholly second in natural qualifications, in ability to learn, and in training to men subordinate in the business world.
"I'm just plain dub," he told himself. "I thought myself some pumpkins and got all swelled up inside because good' food and leisure and heredity gave me a husky build! Football! What good does that do me here? Four out of five of these rivermen are huskier than I am. Me a business man! Why I can't seem even to learn the first principles of the first job of the whole lot! I've got to!" he admonished; himself grimly. "I hate a fellow who doesn't make good!"' and with a very determined set to his handsome chin he hurled the whole force of his young energies at those elusive figures that somehow would lie.
The week slipped by in this struggle. It was much worse than in the Chicago office. There Bob was allowed all the time he thought he needed. Here one task followed close on the heels of another, without chance for a breathing space or room to take bearings. Bob had to do the best he could, commit the result to a merciful providence, and seize the next job by the throat.
One morning he awoke with a jump to find it was seven o'clock. He had heard neither whistle, and must have overslept! Hastily he leaped into his clothes, and rushed out into the dining room. There he found the chore-boy leisurely feeding a just-lighted kitchen fire. To Bob's exclamation of astonishment he looked up.
"Sunday," he grinned; "breakfus' at eight."
The week had gone without Bob's having realized the fact.
Mrs. Hallowell came in a moment later, smiling at the winning, handsome young man in her fat and good-humoured manner. Bob was seized with an inspiration.
"Mrs. Hallowell," he said persuasively, "just let me rummage around for five minutes, will you?"
"You that hungry?" she chuckled. "Law! I'll have breakfast in an hour."
"It isn't that," said Bob; "but I want to get some air to-day. I'm not used to being in an office. I want to steal a hunk of bread, and a few of your good doughnuts and a slice of cheese for breakfast and lunch."
"A cup of hot coffee would do you more good," objected Mrs. Hallowell.
"Please," begged Bob, "and I won't disturb a thing."
"Oh, land! Don't worry about that," said Mrs. Hallowell, "there's teamsters and such in here all times of the day and night. Help yourself."
Five minutes later, Bob, swinging a riverman's canvas lunch bag, was walking rapidly up the River Trail. He did not know whither he was bound; but here at last was a travelled way. It was a brilliant blue and gold morning, the air crisp, the sun warm. The trail led him first across a stretch of stump-dotted wet land with pools and rounded rises, green new grass, and trickling streamlets of recently melted snow. Then came a fringe of scrub growth woven into an almost impenetrable tangle--oaks, poplars, willows, cedar, tamarack--and through it all an abattis of old slashing--with its rotting, fallen stumps, its network of tops, its soggy root-holes, its fallen, uprooted trees. Along one of these strutted a partridge. It clucked at Bob, but refused to move faster, lifting its feet deliberately and spreading its fanlike tail. The River Trail here took to poles laid on rough horses. The poles were old and slippery, and none too large. Bob had to walk circumspectly to stay on them at all. Shortly, however, he stepped off into the higher country of the hardwoods. Here the spring had passed, scattering her fresh green. The tops of the trees were already in half-leaf; the lower branches just budding, so that it seemed the sowing must have been from above. Last year's leaves, softened and packed by the snow, covered the ground with an indescribably beautiful and noiseless carpet. Through it pushed the early blossoms of the hepatica. Grackles whistled clearly. Distant redwings gave their celebrated imitation of a great multitude. Bluebirds warbled on the wing. The busier chickadees and creepers searched the twigs and trunks, interpolating occasional remarks. The sun slanted through the forest.
Bob strode on vigorously. His consciousness received these things gratefully, and yet he was more occupied with a sense of physical joy and harmony with the world of out-of-doors than with an analysis of its components. At one point, however, he paused. The hardwoods had risen over a low hill. Now they opened to show a framed picture of the river, distant and below. In contrast to the modulated browns of the tree-trunks, the new green and lilac of the undergrowth and the far-off hills across the way, it showed like a patch of burnished blue steel. Logs floated across the vista, singly, in scattered groups, in masses. Again, the river was clear. While Bob watched, a man floated into view. He was standing bolt upright and at ease on a log so small that the water lapped over its top. From this distance Bob could but just make it out. The man leaned carelessly on his peavy. Across the vista he floated, graceful and motionless, on his way from the driving camp to the mill.
Bob gave a whistle of admiration, and walked on.
"I wish some of our oarsmen could see that," he said to himself. "They're always guying the fellows that tip over their cranky little shells."
He stopped short.
"I couldn't do it," he cried aloud; "nor I couldn't learn to do it. I sure am a dub!"
He trudged on, his spirits again at the ebb. The brightness of the day had dimmed. Indeed, physically, a change had taken place. Over the sun banked clouds had drawn. With the disappearance of the sunlight a little breeze, before but a pleasant and wandering companion to the birds, became cold and draughty. The leaf carpet proved to be soggy; and as for the birds themselves, their whistles suddenly grew plaintive as though with the portent of late autumn.
This sudden transformation, usual enough with every passing cloud in the childhood of the spring, reacted still further on Bob's spirits. He trudged doggedly on. After a time a gleam of water caught his attention to the left. He deserted the River Trail, descended a slope, pushed his way through a thicket of tamaracks growing out from wire grass and puddles, and found himself on the shores of a round lake.
It was a small body of water, completely surrounded by tall, dead brown grasses. These were in turn fringed by melancholy tamaracks. The water was dark slate colour, and ruffled angrily by the breeze which here in the open developed some slight strength. It reminded Bob of a "bottomless" lake pointed out many years before to his childish credulity. A lonesome hell diver flipped down out of sight as Bob appeared.
The wet ground swayed and bent alarmingly under his tread. A stub attracted him. He perched on the end of it, his feet suspended above the wet, and abandoned himself to reflection. The lonesome diver reappeared. The breeze rustled the dead grasses and the tamaracks until they seemed to be shivering in the cold.
Bob was facing himself squarely. This was his first grapple with the world outside. To his direct American mind the problem was simplicity in the extreme. An idler is a contemptible being. A rich idler is almost beneath contempt. A man's life lies in activity. Activity, outside the artistic and professional, means the world of business. All teaching at home and through the homiletic magazines, fashionable at that period, pointed out but one road to success in this world--the beginning at the bottom, as Bob was doing; close application; accuracy; frugality; honesty; fair dealing. The homiletic magazines omitted idealism and imagination; but perhaps those qualities are so common in what some people are pleased to call our humdrum modern business life that they were taken for granted. If a young man could not succeed in this world, something was wrong with him. Can Bob be blamed that in this baffling and unsuspected incapacity he found a great humility of spirit? In his fashion he began to remember trifling significances which at the time had meant little to him. Thus, a girl had once told him, half seriously:
"Yes, you're a nice boy, just as everybody tells you; a nice, big, blundering, stupid, Newfoundland-dog boy."
He had laughed good-humouredly, and had forgotten. Now he caught at one word of it. That might explain it; he was just plain stupid! And stupid boys either played polo or drove fancy horses or ran yachts--or occupied ornamental--too ornamental--desks for an hour or so a day. Bob remembered how, as a small boy, he used to hold the ends of the reins under the delighted belief that he was driving his father's spirited pair.
"I've outgrown holding the reins, thank you," he said aloud in disgust. At the sound of his voice the diver disappeared. Bob laughed and felt a trifle better.
He reviewed himself dispassionately. He could not but admit that he had tried hard enough, and that he had courage. It was just a case of limitation. Bob, for the first time, bumped against the stone wall that hems us in on all sides--save toward the sky.
He fell into a profound discouragement; a discouragement that somehow found its prototype in the mournful little lake with its leaden water, its cold breeze, its whispering, dried marsh grasses, its funereal tamaracks, and its lonesome diver.