Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The old stone mason

The Old Stone Mason by David Grayson

Of well-flavoured men, I know none better than those who live close to the soil or work in common things. Men are like roses and lilacs, which, too carefully cultivated to please the eye, lose something of their native fragrance. One of the best-flavoured men I know is my friend, the old stone mason.

To-day I rode over with the old stone mason to select some wide stones for steps in my new building. The old man loves stones. All his life long--he is now beyond seventy years old--he has lived among stones, lifted stones, fitted stones. He knows all the various kinds, shapes, sizes, and where they will go best in a wall. He can tell at a glance where to strike a stone to make it fit a particular place, and out of a great pile he can select with a shrewd eye the stone for the exact opening he has to fill. He will run his stubby rough hand over a stone and remark:

"Fine face that. Ye don't see many such stones these days," as though he were speaking of the countenance of a friend.

I veritably believe there are stones that smile at him, stones that frown at him, stones that appear good or ill-humoured to him as he bends his stocky strong body to lift or lay them. He is a slow man, a slow, steady, geologic man, as befits one who works with the elemental stuff of nature. His arms are short and his hands powerful. He has been a servant of stones in this neighbourhood alone for upward of fifty years.

He loves stones and can no more resist a good stone than I a good book. When going about the country, if he sees comely stones in a wayside pile, or in a fine-featured old fence he will have them, whether or no, and dickers for them with all the eagerness, sly pride, and half-concealed cunning with which a lover of old prints chaffers for a Seymour Haden in a second-hand book shop. And when he has bought them he takes the first idle day he has, and with his team of old horses goes into the hills, or wherever it may be, and brings them down. He has them piled about his barn and even in his yard, as another man might have flower beds. And he can tell you, as he told me to-day, just where a stone of such a size and such a face can be found, though it be at the bottom of a pile. No book lover with a feeling sense for the place in his cases where each of his books may be found has a sharper instinct than he. In his pocket he carries a lump of red chalk, and when we had made our selections he marked each stone with a broad red cross.

I think it good fortune that I secured the old stone mason to do my work, and take to myself some credit for skill in enticing him. He is past seventy years old, though of a ruddy fresh countenance and a clear bright eye, and takes no more contracts, and is even reluctantly persuaded to do the ordinary stone work of the neighbourhood. He is "well enough off," as the saying goes, to rest during the remainder of his years, for he has lived a temperate and frugal life, owns his own home with the little garden behind it, and has money in the bank. But he can be prevailed upon, like an old artist who has reached the time of life when it seems as important to enjoy as to create, he can sometimes be prevailed upon to lay a wall for the joy of doing it.

So I had the stone hauled onto the ground, the best old field stone I could find, and I had a clean, straight foundation dug, and when all was ready I brought the old man over to look at it. I said I wanted his advice. No sooner did his glance light upon the stone, no sooner did he see the open and ready earth than a new light came in his eye. His step quickened and as he went about he began to hum an old tune under his breath. I knew then that I had him! He had taken fire. I could see that his eye was already selecting the stones that should "go down," the fine square stones to make the corners or cap the wall, and measuring with a true eye the number of little stones for the fillers. In no time at all he had agreed to do my work; indeed, would have felt aggrieved if I had not employed him.

I enjoyed the building of the wall, I think, as much as he did, and helped him what I could by rolling the larger stones close down to the edge of the wall. As the old man works he talks, if any one cares to listen, or if one does not care to listen he is well content to remain silent among his stones. But I enjoyed listening, for nothing in this world is so fascinating to me as the story of how a man has come to be what he is. When we think of it there are no abstract adventures in this world, but only your adventure and my adventure, and it is only as we come to know a man that we can see how wonderful his life has been.

He told me all about the great walls and the little walls--miles and miles of them--he has built in the course of fifty years. He told of crude boyhood walls when he was a worker for wages only, he told of proud manhood walls when he took contracts for foundations, retaining walls, and even for whole buildings, such as churches, where the work was mostly of stone; he told me of thrilling gains and profits, and of depressing losses; and he told me of his calm later work, again on wages, for which he is chosen as a master of his craft. A whole long lifetime of it--and the last years the best of all!

As we drove up yesterday to select the steps from his piles of old field stone, riding behind his great, slow, hairy-hoofed horse, in the battered and ancient wagon, he pointed with his stubby whip to this or that foundation, the work of his hands.

"Fine job, that," said he, and I looked for the first time in my life at the beautiful stonework beneath the familiar home of a friend. I had seen the house a thousand times, and knew well the people in it, but my unobservant eye had never before rested consciously upon that bit of basement wall. How we go through life, losing most of the beauties of it from sheer inability to see! But the old man, as he drives about, rarely sees houses at all, especially wooden houses, and for all modern stucco and cement work he entertains a kind of lofty contempt. Sham work of a hasty and unskilled age! He never, I think, put in a shovelful of cement except in the place where it belongs, as a mortar for good walls, and never will do so as long as he lives. So long as he lives the standards of high art will never be debased!

He built that foundation, and this chimney, he worked on the tower of the Baptist church in the town, "and never yet has there been a crack in her, winter or summer"; and more than forty years ago he laid the cornerstone of the old schoolhouse, the foundation walls of which stand to-day as sound and strong as they were when they were put down.

In dry walls I think the old stone mason takes the greatest pride of all: for it is in the dry wall--I mean by that a wall laid without mortar--that the sheer art of the mason comes most into play. Any one can throw a wall together if he has mortar to make it stick, but a dry wall must stand out for what it is, built solid from the bottom up, each stone resting securely upon those below it, and braced and nested in by the sheer skill of the mason. The art of the dry wall is the ancient heritage of New England and speaks not only of the sincerity and the conscientiousness of the old Puritan spirit but strikes the higher note of beauty. Many of the older walls I know are worth going far to see, for they exhibit a rare sense of form and proportion, and are sometimes set in the landscape with a skill that only the Master-Artist himself could exceed. Those old, hard-wrought stone fences of the Burnham Hills and Crewsbury, the best of them, were honestly built, and built to last a thousand years. A beautiful art--and one that is passing away! It is the dry wall that stands of itself that the old stone mason loves best of all.

As we drove along the road the old man pointed out to me with his stubby whip so many examples of his work that it seemed finally as if he had borne a hand in nearly everything done in this neighbourhood in the last half-century. He has literally built himself into the country and into the town, and at seventy years of age he can look back upon it all with honest pride. It stands. No jerry-work anywhere. No cracks. It stands.

I never realized before how completely the neighbourhood rests upon the work of this simple old man. He founded most of the homes here, and upon his secure walls rest many of the stores, the churches, and the schools of the countryside. I see again how important each man is to the complete fabric of civilization and know that we are to leave no one out, despise no one, look down upon no one.

He told me stories of this ancient settler and of that.

He was a powerful queer man--he wanted the moss left on his stones when I put 'em in; never a hammer touched the facings of his wall...

"That is properly a woman's wall. She was the boss, you might call it, and wanted stone, but he wanted brick. So you see the front, where people can see it, is of stone, but the sides is all brick."

Thus like the true artist that he is, he has not only built himself his own honesty, truth, skill, into the town, but he has built in the inexhaustible peculiarities, the radiant charm, the hates and the loves, of the people of this place. He has mirrored his own little age in stone. He knows the town, indeed, better than most of us, having a kind of stone-age knowledge of it--the fundamental things men build in when they set about building permanently.

"And that is what you might call a spite-wall," said he, showing me a long wall leading between two shady homes, making one of them a prison on the south, and the other a prison on the north. He told me the story of an ancient and bitter quarrel between two old friends, a story which sounded to-day among spring blossoms like the account of some ancient baronial feud.

But if the old stone mason has built walls to keep enemies apart how many more walls has he built to keep friends together? How many times has he been consulted by shy lovers seeking a foundation for a new home, a new family, how many times by Darby and Joan planning a resting place for the sunny closing years of their lives! He could point, indeed, to one wall that symbolized hatred; all the others meant homes, roof-trees, families, or they were the foundations for the working places of men, or else, like the tower of the church, they pointed heavenward and were built to the glory of God.

The old stone mason has not the slightest idea that he has done anything unusual or wonderful. He is as simple and honest a man as ever I knew; and if he has pride, simple and honest also in that. He was anxious not to charge me too much for the stone I bought--in an age like this! I have never talked with him about God, or about religion: I had no need to.

He has done his duty in other ways by his time and his place. He has brought up a large family of children; and has known sorrow and loss, as well as happiness and contentment. Two of his children were taken in one day with pneumonia. He told me about it with a quaver in his old voice.

"How long ago was it?" I asked.

"Twenty-seven years."

He has sons and daughters left, and two of the sons he has well trained as stone masons after him. They are good as young men go in a degenerate age. They insist on working in cement! He has grandchildren in school, and spoils them.

He is also a man of public interests and upon town-meeting day puts on his good clothes and sits modestly toward the back of the hall. Though he rarely says anything he always has a strong opinion, an opinion as sound and hard as stones and as simple, upon most of the questions that come up. And he votes as he thinks, though the only man in meeting who votes that way. For when a man works in the open, laying walls true to lines and measurements, being honest with natural things, he comes clear, sane, strong, upon many things. I would sooner trust his judgment upon matters that are really important as between man and man, and man and God, than I would trust the town lawyer. And if he has grown a little testy with some of the innovations of modern life, and thinks they did everything better forty years ago--and says so--he speaks, at least, his honest conviction.

If I can lay my walls as true as he does, if I can build myself a third part as firmly into any neighbourhood as he has into this, if at seventy years of age--if ever I live to lay walls with joy at that time of life--if I can look back uponmy foundations, my heaven-pointing towers, and find no cracks or strains in them, I shall feel that I have made a great success of my life....

I went out just now: the old man was stooping to lift a heavy stone. His hat was off and the full spring sunshine struck down warmly upon the ruddy bald spot on the top of his head, the white hair around about it looking silvery in that light. As he placed the stone in the wall, he straightened up and rubbed his stubby hand along it.

"A fine stone that!" said he.

David Grayson's essay: Old Stone Mason