Isaac and Archibald were two old men. I knew them, and I may have laughed at them A little; but I must have honored them For they were old, and they were good to me.
I do not think of either of them now, Without remembering, infallibly, A journey that I made one afternoon With Isaac to find out what Archibald Was doing with his oats. It was high time Those oats were cut, said Isaac; and he feared That Archibald—well, he could never feel Quite sure of Archibald. Accordingly The good old man invited me—that is, Permitted me—to go along with him; And I, with a small boy’s adhesiveness To competent old age, got up and went.
I do not know that I cared overmuch For Archibald’s or anybody’s oats, But Archibald was quite another thing, And Isaac yet another; and the world Was wide, and there was gladness everywhere. We walked together down the River Road With all the warmth and wonder of the land Around us, and the wayside flash of leaves,— And Isaac said the day was glorious; But somewhere at the end of the first mile I found that I was figuring to find How long those ancient legs of his would keep The pace that he had set for them. The sun Was hot, and I was ready to sweat blood; But Isaac, for aught I could make of him, Was cool to his hat-band. So I said then With a dry gasp of affable despair, Something about the scorching days we have In August without knowing it sometimes; But Isaac said the day was like a dream, And praised the Lord, and talked about the breeze. I made a fair confession of the breeze, And crowded casually on his thought The nearness of a profitable nook That I could see. First I was half inclined To caution him that he was growing old, But something that was not compassion soon Made plain the folly of all subterfuge. Isaac was old, but not so old as that.
So I proposed, without an overture, That we be seated in the shade a while, And Isaac made no murmur. Soon the talk Was turned on Archibald, and I began To feel some premonitions of a kind That only childhood knows; for the old man Had looked at me and clutched me with his eye, And asked if I had ever noticed things. I told him that I could not think of them, And I knew then, by the frown that left his face Unsatisfied, that I had injured him. “My good young friend,” he said, “you cannot feel What I have seen so long. You have the eyes— Oh, yes—but you have not the other things: The sight within that never will deceive, You do not know—you have no right to know; The twilight warning of experience, The singular idea of loneliness,— These are not yours. But they have long been mine, And they have shown me now for seven years That Archibald is changing. It is not So much that he should come to his last hand, And leave the game, and go the old way down; But I have known him in and out so long, And I have seen so much of good in him That other men have shared and have not seen, And I have gone so far through thick and thin, Through cold and fire with him, that now it brings To this old heart of mine an ache that you Have not yet lived enough to know about. But even unto you, and your boy’s faith, Your freedom, and your untried confidence, A time will come to find out what it means To know that you are losing what was yours, To know that you are being left behind; And then the long contempt of innocence— God bless you, boy!—don’t think the worse of it Because an old man chatters in the shade— Will all be like a story you have read In childhood and remembered for the pictures.
And when the best friend of your life goes down, When first you know in him the slackening That comes, and coming always tells the end,— Now in a common word that would have passed Uncaught from any other lips than his, Now in some trivial act of every day, Done as he might have done it all along But for a twinging little difference That nips you like a squirrel’s teeth—oh, yes, Then you will understand it well enough. But oftener it comes in other ways; It comes without your knowing when it comes; You know that he is changing, and you know That he is going—just as I know now That Archibald is going, and that I Am staying.… Look at me, my boy, And when the time shall come for you to see That I must follow after him, try then To think of me, to bring me back again, Just as I was to-day. Think of the place Where we are sitting now, and think of me— Think of old Isaac as you knew him then, When you set out with him in August once To see old Archibald.”—The words come back Almost as Isaac must have uttered them, And there comes with them a dry memory Of something in my throat that would not move.
If you had asked me then to tell just why I made so much of Isaac and the things He said, I should have gone far for an answer; For I knew it was not sorrow that I felt, Whatever I may have wished it, or tried then To make myself believe. My mouth was full Of words, and they would have been comforting To Isaac, spite of my twelve years, I think; But there was not in me the willingness To speak them out. Therefore I watched the ground; And I was wondering what made the Lord Create a thing so nervous as an ant, When Isaac, with commendable unrest, Ordained that we should take the road again— For it was yet three miles to Archibald’s, And one to the first pump. I felt relieved All over when the old man told me that; I felt that he had stilled a fear of mine That those extremities of heat and cold Which he had long gone through with Archibald Had made the man impervious to both; But Isaac had a desert somewhere in him, And at the pump he thanked God for all things That He had put on earth for men to drink, And he drank well,—so well that I proposed That we go slowly lest I learn too soon The bitterness of being left behind, And all those other things. That was a joke To Isaac, and it pleased him very much; And that pleased me—for I was twelve years old.
At the end of an hour’s walking after that The cottage of old Archibald appeared. Little and white and high on a smooth round hill It stood, with hackmatacks and apple-trees Before it, and a big barn-roof beyond; And over the place—trees, house, fields and all— Hovered an air of still simplicity And a fragrance of old summers—the old style That lives the while it passes. I dare say That I was lightly conscious of all this When Isaac, of a sudden, stopped himself, And for the long first quarter of a minute Gazed with incredulous eyes, forgetful quite Of breezes and of me and of all else Under the scorching sun but a smooth-cut field, Faint yellow in the distance. I was young, But there were a few things that I could see, And this was one of them.—“Well, well!” said he; And “Archibald will be surprised, I think,” Said I. But all my childhood subtlety Was lost on Isaac, for he strode along Like something out of Homer—powerful And awful on the wayside, so I thought. Also I thought how good it was to be So near the end of my short-legged endeavor To keep the pace with Isaac for five miles.
Hardly had we turned in from the main road When Archibald, with one hand on his back And the other clutching his huge-headed cane, Came limping down to meet us.—“Well! well! well!” Said he; and then he looked at my red face, All streaked with dust and sweat, and shook my hand, And said it must have been a right smart walk That we had had that day from Tilbury Town.— “Magnificent,” said Isaac; and he told About the beautiful west wind there was Which cooled and clarified the atmosphere. “You must have made it with your legs, I guess,” Said Archibald; and Isaac humored him With one of those infrequent smiles of his Which he kept in reserve, apparently, For Archibald alone. “But why,” said he, “Should Providence have cider in the world If not for such an afternoon as this?” And Archibald, with a soft light in his eyes, Replied that if he chose to go down cellar, There he would find eight barrels—one of which Was newly tapped, he said, and to his taste An honor to the fruit. Isaac approved Most heartily of that, and guided us Forthwith, as if his venerable feet Were measuring the turf in his own door-yard, Straight to the open rollway. Down we went, Out of the fiery sunshine to the gloom, Grateful and half sepulchral, where we found The barrels, like eight potent sentinels, Close ranged along the wall. From one of them A bright pine spile stuck out alluringly, And on the black flat stone, just under it, Glimmered a late-spilled proof that Archibald Had spoken from unfeigned experience. There was a fluted antique water-glass Close by, and in it, prisoned, or at rest, There was a cricket, of the brown soft sort That feeds on darkness. Isaac turned him out, And touched him with his thumb to make him jump, And then composedly pulled out the plug With such a practised hand that scarce a drop Did even touch his fingers. Then he drank And smacked his lips with a slow patronage And looked along the line of barrels there With a pride that may have been forgetfulness That they were Archibald’s and not his own. “I never twist a spigot nowadays,” He said, and raised the glass up to the light, “But I thank God for orchards.” And that glass Was filled repeatedly for the same hand Before I thought it worth while to discern Again that I was young, and that old age, With all his woes, had some advantages. “Now, Archibald,” said Isaac, when we stood Outside again, “I have it in my mind That I shall take a sort of little walk— To stretch my legs and see what you are doing. You stay and rest your back and tell the boy A story: Tell him all about the time In Stafford’s cabin forty years ago, When four of us were snowed up for ten days With only one dried haddock. Tell him all About it, and be wary of your back. Now I will go along.”—I looked up then At Archibald, and as I looked I saw Just how his nostrils widened once or twice And then grew narrow. I can hear today The way the old man chuckled to himself— Not wholesomely, not wholly to convince Another of his mirth,—as I can hear The lonely sigh that followed.—But at length He said: “The orchard now’s the place for us; We may find something like an apple there, And we shall have the shade, at any rate.” So there we went and there we laid ourselves Where the sun could not reach us; and I champed A dozen of worm-blighted astrakhans While Archibald said nothing—merely told The tale of Stafford’s cabin, which was good, Though “master chilly”—after his own phrase— Even for a day like that. But other thoughts Were moving in his mind, imperative, And writhing to be spoken: I could see The glimmer of them in a glance or two, Cautious, or else unconscious, that he gave Over his shoulder: … “Stafford and the rest— But that’s an old song now, and Archibald And Isaac are old men. Remember, boy, That we are old. Whatever we have gained, Or lost, or thrown away, we are old men. You look before you and we look behind, And we are playing life out in the shadow— But that’s not all of it. The sunshine lights A good road yet before us if we look, And we are doing that when least we know it; For both of us are children of the sun, Like you, and like the weed there at your feet. The shadow calls us, and it frightens us— We think; but there’s a light behind the stars And we old fellows who have dared to live, We see it—and we see the other things, The other things … Yes, I have seen it come These eight years, and these ten years, and I know Now that it cannot be for very long That Isaac will be Isaac. You have seen— Young as you are, you must have seen the strange Uncomfortable habit of the man? He’ll take my nerves and tie them in a knot Sometimes, and that’s not Isaac. I know that— And I know what it is: I get it here A little, in my knees, and Isaac—here.” The old man shook his head regretfully And laid his knuckles three times on his forehead. “That’s what it is: Isaac is not quite right. You see it, but you don’t know what it means: The thousand little differences—no, You do not know them, and it’s well you don’t; You’ll know them soon enough—God bless you, boy!— You’ll know them, but not all of them—not all. So think of them as little as you can: There’s nothing in them for you, or for me— But I am old and I must think of them; I’m in the shadow, but I don’t forget The light, my boy,—the light behind the stars. Remember that: remember that I said it; And when the time that you think far away Shall come for you to say it—say it, boy; Let there be no confusion or distrust In you, no snarling of a life half lived, Nor any cursing over broken things That your complaint has been the ruin of. Live to see clearly and the light will come To you, and as you need it.—But there, there, I’m going it again, as Isaac says, And I’ll stop now before you go to sleep.— Only be sure that you growl cautiously, And always where the shadow may not reach you.”
Never shall I forget, long as I live, The quaint thin crack in Archibald’s voice, The lonely twinkle in his little eyes, Or the way it made me feel to be with him. I know I lay and looked for a long time Down through the orchard and across the road, Across the river and the sun-scorched hills That ceased in a blue forest, where the world Ceased with it. Now and then my fancy caught A flying glimpse of a good life beyond— Something of ships and sunlight, streets and singing, Troy falling, and the ages coming back, And ages coming forward: Archibald And Isaac were good fellows in old clothes, And Agamemnon was a friend of mine; Ulysses coming home again to shoot With bows and feathered arrows made another, And all was as it should be. I was young.
So I lay dreaming of what things I would, Calm and incorrigibly satisfied With apples and romance and ignorance, And the still smoke from Archibald’s clay pipe. There was a stillness over everything, As if the spirit of heat had laid its hand Upon the world and hushed it; and I felt Within the mightiness of the white sun That smote the land around us and wrought out A fragrance from the trees, a vital warmth And fullness for the time that was to come, And a glory for the world beyond the forest. The present and the future and the past, Isaac and Archibald, the burning bush, The Trojans and the walls of Jericho, Were beautifully fused; and all went well Till Archibald began to fret for Isaac And said it was a master day for sunstroke. That was enough to make a mummy smile, I thought; and I remained hilarious, In face of all precedence and respect, Till Isaac (who had come to us unheard) Found he had no tobacco, looked at me Peculiarly, and asked of Archibald What ailed the boy to make him chirrup so. From that he told us what a blessed world The Lord had given us.—“But, Archibald,” He added, with a sweet severity That made me think of peach-skins and goose-flesh, “I’m half afraid you cut those oats of yours A day or two before they were well set.” “They were set well enough,” said Archibald,— And I remarked the process of his nose Before the words came out. “But never mind Your neighbor’s oats: you stay here in the shade And rest yourself while I go find the cards. We’ll have a little game of seven-up And let the boy keep count.”—“We’ll have the game, Assuredly,” said Isaac; “and I think That I will have a drop of cider, also.”
They marched away together towards the house And left me to my childish ruminations Upon the ways of men. I followed them Down cellar with my fancy, and then left them For a fairer vision of all things at once That was anon to be destroyed again By the sound of voices and of heavy feet— One of the sounds of life that I remember, Though I forget so many that rang first As if they were thrown down to me from Sinai.
So I remember, even to this day, Just how they sounded, how they placed themselves, And how the game went on while I made marks And crossed them out, and meanwhile made some Trojans. Likewise I made Ulysses, after Isaac, And a little after Flaxman. Archibald Was injured when he found himself left out, But he had no heroics, and I said so: I told him that his white beard was too long And too straight down to be like things in Homer. “Quite so,” said Isaac.—“Low,” said Archibald; And he threw down a deuce with a deep grin That showed his yellow teeth and made me happy. So they played on till a bell rang from the door, And Archibald said, “Supper.”—After that The old men smoked while I sat watching them And wondered with all comfort what might come To me, and what might never come to me; And when the time came for the long walk home With Isaac in the twilight, I could see The forest and the sunset and the sky-line, No matter where it was that I was looking: The flame beyond the boundary, the music, The foam and the white ships, and two old men Were things that would not leave me.—And that night There came to me a dream—a shining one, With two old angels in it. They had wings, And they were sitting where a silver light Suffused them, face to face. The wings of one Began to palpitate as I approached, But I was yet unseen when a dry voice Cried thinly, with unpatronizing triumph, “I’ve got you, Isaac; high, low, jack, and the game.”
Isaac and Archibald have gone their way To the silence of the loved and well-forgotten. I knew them, and I may have laughed at them; But there’s a laughing that has honor in it, And I have no regret for light words now. Rather I think sometimes they may have made Their sport of me;—but they would not do that, They were too old for that. They were old men, And I may laugh at them because I knew them.