6. The Plumber Appreciated
'DID you ever,' said he, 'know a plumber who had grown rich?'
We stood in the kitchen. Outdoors it was a wonderful winter morning, snow-white and sparkling, felt rather than seen through frosted windows, for the mercury last night had dropped below zero, and, although reported on the way up, was not climbing with real enthusiasm. On the floor was a little sea of water, in shape something like the Mediterranean, with Gibraltar out of sight under the kitchen sink. The stove (unfortunately) had been lighted; and a strange, impassive boy stood beside it, holding in pendant hands various tools of the plumber's craft. The plumber stood in the Mediterranean. And I, in my slippers and bath-robe,--a foolish costume, for the sea was not deep enough to bathe in,--hovered, so to speak, on the edge of the beach.
I suppose I wished to impress this plumber with my imperturbable calm. Upset as I was, I must have realized the impossibility of impressing the boy. Swaggering a little in my bath-robe, I had said something jocular, I do not remember just what, about the rapid accretion of wealth by plumbers. He lit his pipe. 'Did you ever,' said he, 'know a plumber who had grown rich?'
Now until that winter I had never thought of the plumber as a man in many respects like myself. One may winter for years in a city apartment without meeting a plumber, but hardly without reading a good many humorous trifles about them in current literature; and my idea of this craftsman had been insidiously formed by the minor humorists. Summer, in my experience, had been a plumberless period, in which water flowed freely through the pipes of my house, and gushed obligingly from faucets at the touch of a finger. It was like an invisible brook; and, like a brook, I thought of it (if I thought of it at all) as going on forever. Nothing worse happened than a leak at the faucet. And when that happens I can fix it myself. All it needs is a new washer.
I run down cellar and turn off the water. I run up from the cellar and take off the faucet. I put in the new washer, which is like a very fat leather ring for a very thin finger, and screw on the faucet. I run down cellar, turn on the water, run up from the cellar, and look at the faucet. It still leaks. So I run down cellar, turn off the water, run up from the cellar, take off the faucet, make some slight alteration in the size, shape, or position of the washer, put on the faucet, run down cellar, turn on the water, run up from the cellar, and look at the faucet. If it still leaks (as is rather to be expected), I repeat as before; and if it then leaks (as is more than likely), I run down cellar, turn off the water, run up from the cellar, take off the faucet, make some slight alteration in the size, shape, or position of the washer, put on the faucet, run down cellar, turn on the water, run up from the cellar, and look at the faucet. Perhaps it leaks more. Perhaps it leaks less. So I run down cellar--and turn off the water--and run up from the cellar--and take off the faucet. Then, talking aloud to myself, I take out the new washer, throw it on the floor, stamp on it, kick it out of the way, put in a newer washer, put on the faucet, run down cellar, turn on the water, run up from the cellar, and look at the faucet. If (and this may happen) it still leaks, I make queer, inarticulate, animal noises; but I run down cellar, turn off the water, run up from the cellar, and take off the faucet. Then I monkey a little with the washer (still making those queer animal noises), put on the faucet, run down cellar, turn on the water, run up from the cellar, and look at the faucet. Sooner or later the faucet always stops leaking. It is a mere matter of adjusting the washer; any handy man can do it with a little patience.
Winter in the country is the time and place to get acquainted with the plumber. And I would have you remember, even in that morning hour when the ordinary life of your home has stopped in dismay, and then gone limping toward breakfast with the help of buckets of water generously loaned you by your nearest neighbor,--rarely, if ever, does he carry his generosity so far as to help carry the buckets,--that because of this honest soul in overalls, winter has lost the terrors which it held for your great-grandfather.
Revisit your library, and note what the chroniclers of the past thought about winter--'this cousin to Death, father to sickness, and brother to old age' (as Thomas Dekker bitterly called it; and well would your great-grandfather have agreed with him), when 'the first word that a wench speaks on your coming into a room in the morning is, "Prithee send for some faggots."' It is bad enough when--to adapt Dekker's sixteenth-century phraseology--the first word that a wench speaks on your coming into a room in the morning is, 'Prithee send for a plumber'; but how seldom it happens! And because we can send for a plumber, our attitude toward winter is joyfully changed for the better: lovely autumn is no longer regarded as melancholy because winter is coming, nor is backward spring esteemed beyond criticism because winter is over.
Those good old days, after the sun had entered Capricorn, were cold and inconvenient old days. Observe great-grandfather: all his plumbing was a pump, which often froze beyond his simple skill in plumbery; and then he drew water from the well in a dear old oaken bucket (as we like to think of it), emptied it into other buckets, and carried it by hand, even as a man now carries the water loaned him by his generous neighbor, wherever the useful, unintoxicating fluid was needed. No invisible brook flowed through his house, and gushed obligingly at faucets, hot or cold according to great-grandfather's whim; no hot-water pipes suffused his dwelling with grateful warmth. These are our blessings--and it is the plumber, with only a boy to help him, who contends manfully against the forces of nature, and keeps them going. For the life of the house depends nowadays on its healthy circulation of water; and when the house suffers from arteriosclerosis, the plumber is the doctor, and the strange, impassive boy is the trained nurse.
Sometimes in an emergency he arrives without this little companion: I have myself, rising to the same occasion, taken the boy's place. I was a good boy. The plumber admitted it. 'Fill th' kettle again with hot water off th' stove,' said he, over his arched back, as he peered shrewdly down a pipe to see how far away it was frozen, 'there's th' good boy.' Thus I know that the boy is not, as our minor humorists would have us believe, a mere flourish and gaudy appanage to the plumber's autocratically assumed grandeur. His strange, impassive manner is probably nothing more or less than concentrated attention; it is as if he said, with Hamlet, 'Yea, from the table of my memory I'll wipe away all foolish, fond regards, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, that youth and observation copied there; and thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain, unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by Heaven!'
Even in putting in a new washer, I should do better with a boy.
The most nervous and conscientious plumber, I tell you, must at intervals appear, to an observer unacquainted with the art and mystery of plumbery, to be proceeding in a leisurely and perhaps idle fashion. The most methodical and conscientious man, plumber or not, will occasionally forget something, and have to go back for it. The most self-respecting and conscientious minor humorist, after he has exhausted his witty invention making a joke on a plumber, will try to sell it for the highest possible price. And if I, for example, am a little proud of my ability, greater than the plumber's, to write an essay, how shall I accuse him of arrogance if he is a little proud of his ability, greater than mine, to accomplish the more necessary feat of thawing a frozen water-pipe?
He has a heart.
When I was a plumber's boy myself, I walked with my boss to his office in the village to get a tool. It was a Sunday afternoon: I remember that a rooster crowed afar off, and how his lonely clarion enhanced and made more gravely quiet the peace of the Sabbath. And the plumber said, 'I wouldn't have felt right, sitting at home by the fire reading the paper, when I knew you was in trouble and I could pull you out.' He had come, mark you, in his Sunday clothes; he had come in his best, not pausing even for his overalls, so that, in our distressed, waterless home, the lady of the house had herself encircled his honest waist with a gingham apron before he began plumbing. And in all the world there was nobody else whom we would have been so glad to see.
And so, bowing, with my left hand over what I take to be the region of a grateful heart, I extend him this praise of plumber. No plumber came over in the Mayflower; but think not, for that reason, that he is a parvenu. He is of ancient lineage--this good fairy in overalls of our invisible brooks. The Romans knew him as the artifex plumbareus. Cæsar may have interrupted the revision of the Commentaries to send for him. He disappeared, with civilization and water-pipes, in the Dark Ages; he came back, with civilization and water-pipes, when the darkness lifted. Neglected by Art, disregarded by Romance, and unconsidered by the drama, these rich and entertaining expressions of life are as nothing when his presence is called for.
We may live without painters
Or writers or mummers,
But civilized man cannot
Live without plumbers.
He, too, should have his statue, not of bronze, marble, or granite, but of honest lead, with two figures--the Plumber, holding aloft his torch, and the Plumber's Boy, strange, impassive, and holding in his pendant hands a monkey wrench and the coil of flexible tubing with which his master cunningly directs hot water into the hardened arteries of a suffering house. And on his pedestal I would carve the motto,--
'Did You Ever Know a Plumber Who Had Grown Rich?'