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.