The Discontented Engine

I was sitting on the hillside, scribbling useless and beautiful things on pieces of paper. Above me the ancient elm who is the guardian of that lonely hillside spread his broad limbs to bake pleasantly in the summer sun. Sometimes we would talk together, the elm and I, of the things that I set down on my paper, and he would tell me that they were beautiful but useless — and why; and I was sensible of his praise, as of his blame, for I am not so old as the elm, nor have I stood guard for generations over a lonely hillside. And sometimes a cool little April breeze, who had lost himself in July and still knew not in what quarter lay his home, would stop for a time and play by himself among the steep branches. And then the elm would sing softly to himself, and I would lay aside my scribbling and listen, for his thoughts are greater than his words, just as the songs and thoughts of men are greater than their everyday speech. And some day I will put on paper those things that the elm sang.

Now, as I sat scribbling, an engine came in sight around the haunch of a distant hill, and with much puffing and panting began to climb slantwise up from the floor of the valley below me, dragging behind him a large number of wooden boxes on wheels. He followed with great care and exactitude a double line of shining silver rails, which were laid, evidently, for his guidance; and I understood that he must pass close to me, for the gleaming rails flowed by not more than a long stone’s throw below the elm.

He came up slowly, rolling out great masses of smoke, dense as granite, more beautiful than clouds. There was majesty and great power in his slow approach, and the hillside shook beneath his ponderous tread. The useless and beautiful things were driven from my mind, and I rose and went down the hill to where, beside the rails, there stood on stilts one of those huge tanks from which none but engines may drink. For, I thought, he will stop to refresh himself after his climb. And so it happened.

I stood beside him and watched the air rise quivering and scorched from the heat of his steel flanks, and heard his long deep breaths of satisfaction as he drank. And my admiration broke from me in words. I have forgotten what I said, but I believe I praised his steadfastness and power, and the ease with which he followed those thin shining rails wherever they led; and I spoke of the beauty of strength controlled, and of the deep satisfaction that must lie in the bringing of these many wooden boxes of precious things safe to their destination.

He crouched beside the tank, and as I talked I heard strange rumblings of discontent in his interior; and when I had finished, he gave an impatient snort and a thin plume of steam faced the warm sun rays.

‘All very fine!’ he growled in his iron throat. ‘But you have n’t trudged the same road day after day, year after year, rain or shine, sleet or snow. You have n’t dragged across leagues of country hundreds and hundreds of wooden boxes containing who knows what, for goodness knows whom! I ’m tired of following these silly rails. I’m sick of doing everything that tiresome engineer tells me to. I want to be free! untrammeled! I want to go roaring over the hills in search of adventure. I want to see what’s at the back of the horizon. I want to whistle when I please, and see the people of strange distant cities gape with amazement and admiration when I come rocketing down toward them from the mountains; and sleep at night under the stars, lulled by the lisp and murmur of far, mysterious seas.’

I turned in consternation to the engineer, who was leaning from his cab. But he only winked, grinning widely.

‘They all talk that way,’ he said. ‘ Hop on front if you want a ride. We ’re going to start.’

I did as he bade, and as we got slowly under way, I continued my conversation with the engine. I pointed out to him that, while his desires were perhaps natural, they were impossible of achievement. ‘It would not be right,’ said I. ‘Your duty — ’

‘Right!’ he interrupted rudely. ‘If you have a right to these things, why have n’t I, I should like to know? Why can’t I sit under an elm all day and scribble useless and beautiful things on pieces of paper?’

’That’s different,’ I said.

’Bah! ’ said the engine; and a shower of sparks flew from his nostrils.

‘It is different,’ I repeated. And I told him of the laws of nature and of the laws of man, and how the latter follow the former, and how one transgresses them at his peril. But I saw that he was not convinced.

We were passing a cottage. About the cottage was a garden, gay with flowers, and in the garden a child was chasing butterflies. The engine sighed wistfully.

‘I would like to chase butterflies,’ he murmured. And, ‘I have passed this cottage many times, but I do not know what is inside. Some day I shall go down and look in the windows and see for myself.’

‘You would frighten the little boy,’ I said.

‘ I would like,’ replied the engine with sudden and terrifying vindictiveness, ‘to frighten that little boy into fits!’

Ahead gleamed water, and presently I saw where the rails led across a trestle spanning a stream in which boys were bathing. As I looked, one boy climbed up on the trestle, stood for a moment slender and gleaming in the sunlight, then dove swiftly and cleanly into the water below. The engine sighed again and the hot steam of his breath made a cloud about us.

‘ I should like to do that, too,’ he said.

There was something in his hoarse whisper that filled me with dread. If, midway of the trestle, the desire to leap should overpower him — With great swiftness I left that engine as he moved ponderously forward toward the gleaming water. The engineer called something after me, but I could not hear the words. I picked myself from the bush into which I had descended, and turning my back so that I should not see that terrible plunge, hurried unhappily homeward. But presently I glanced fearfully over my shoulder. The trestle lay empty in the warm sun. The engine had not jumped.

Many weeks later I again visited that lonely hillside. As I approached the elm, who waved pontifical arms in benediction or greeting, I saw below me in the valley something that had not been there before. A huge mass of red and rusty metal lay in the cool embrace of the green fields. Swiftly I hurried down the hillside, and as I came nearer I saw that it was indeed, as I had thought, the engine. Tarnished and twisted, he lay there, all his might and beauty departed from him. His iron flanks were streaked with rust; his great wheels, which had thundered so mightily across the hills, hurling him, a fierce black comet, down into the plains where the great cities lie, were turned impotently to the empty blue. And I saw that a butterfly had alighted on the rim of the rusty smokestack, and was lazily opening and shutting his purple wings — graceful, unconscious, and indifferent.

Slowly I climbed the hillside, meditating the unhappy fate of the engine.

‘He is free now,’ said the elm. ‘He is untrammeled.’

I looked from the narrow track to the wide field where he now lay. ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘he is untrammeled. There is a butterfly there,’ I said after a time. ‘He is the kind known as a Mourning Cloak. Perhaps — ’

‘Purely fortuitous,’ rejoined the elm. ‘But,’ he added presently, ‘he has one satisfaction.’

‘What is that?’ I asked.

‘He did frighten the little boy into fits,’ said the elm.