The Runner’s Folly

JB & BJ Grim

On two opposing hilltops two mansions stood.  A road connected the two hilltops as if it had been built solely to connect the two mansions, and so it had.  This road, joining the two mansions, was kept in excellent condition to fulfill an ancient agreement which bound them to equally share governance over the fertile valley that lay between them.

The populace of the fertile valley marveled at the ancient agreement, for it was apparent that they were treated more fairly and governed more equitably than other valleys.  Each mansion, in the hope of winning allegiances and keeping peace, lavished gifts upon the farmers of the valley.  Also, a grievance that did not receive a suitable hearing on one hilltop could be appealed to the opposing hilltop and the two mansions on the two hilltops usually found an agreeable solution.

The present generations that occupied the two mansions appeared to be remarkably good friends as well as complementary partners in governing.  The road connecting the two mansions saw much traffic as daily social visits were exchanged and face-to-face governing sessions were conducted.  On even numbered days the southern mansion hosted the northern mansion, and likewise, on odd numbered days the north hosted the south.  The ladies dressed in lace and satin and the masters donned their best apparel.  Beautiful horses were hitched to beautiful carriages to travel the road which twined through the valley.  The winding distance was covered at a stately and regal pace in order to shower the valley farmers with blessings and gifts.  Understandably, then, the farmers hurried to line the road each day when the gates of either one or the other of the mansions were flung open.

Coins, flowers, and sweets for the children were tossed from the carriages.  With an eagle eye, each mansion watched as the carriage of the other mansion traversed the valley between the hilltops, taking careful account of the trinkets that were rained upon the awaiting valley.  At the height of friendship and cooperation between the two mansions, the valley folk felt themselves to be blessed with security, understanding, and benefit.  Surely, the ancient agreement linking the two mansions on the two hilltops was marvelous and earned the valley’s full approval.

At this time Harry was but an athlete spending his days running through the hills, improving his speed, and making a reputation for himself as the running farm boy.  Occasionally, he too would line the road and accept the free fall of coins and flowers and candy, but only if he happened to pass there on one of his runs. 

He had already passed the age when a young man should decide how to make a living and give up play, but Harry’s indulgent parents agreed to support him until he discovered a way to turn his running into an occupation.  They had never heard of such a thing, but they adored their Harry and since they always lined the road at the coming out of the carriages and caught a pocketful of coins, they had no hardship in keeping him on room and board.  Besides, they knew he had a good head on his shoulders and an ambitious spirit in his heart, so they trusted that he would find something. 

It was on an even numbered day that Harry returned home from his morning run to find his parents in a gloomy state.  They should have been enjoying their lunch and counting the coins they caught from the passing carriage which had emerged from the northern mansion’s gates.  The opening of the gates had regulated their lives as punctually as a clock.  Just after daily lining the road, they always returned home to eat their noon meal.  But today, the gates hadn’t opened at the accustomed time, and when the time had well-passed that the gates should have disgorged the high stepping horses and glittering carriages, they dejectedly realized that they were not only hungry for their meal, but they also feared that something must be terribly wrong for the gates to stay shuttered.

Harry heard this news with none of the gloom of his parents.  Like a good son with a good head on his shoulders, he promised his parents to find something out and come back with tidings, be they good or be they ill.  But as no one in that valley could imagine what an ill tiding was, he only added that part with a wink to balance out his promise.  As soon as he departed at a sprint toward the northern hilltop, his parents returned to their fields, but not without going around first to their neighbors to say that their Harry was going to find out why the big gates hadn’t opened.  For the rest of the afternoon they were heroes as various friends and neighbors stopped by to ask what they knew.  They relished in retelling the story from the beginning to the end, and concluding with, “Our Harry will come back with tidings, be they good or be they ill,” and just like Harry had done, they winked when they said “ill.”

Harry used his run up the northern hill to think about what he knew regarding the two mansions.  He knew that in each was a beautiful and queenly woman.  They were similar in outside appearances, but his keen eye and ear had picked up that when one woman tossed out coins and candy and flowers, she didn’t look at the people lining the road.  The other one, however, looked out at the people and even greeted some of them individually and inquired after their health.

Some of the servants from each mansion were familiar to Harry.  With each stride he remembered what he had heard from them.  In the mansion on the northern hilltop, the servants performed their duties to a series of bells.  At each sounding of the bells, one task should be completed and the other begun.  In addition to these time-marking bells were other bells which either summoned a particular servant to the master’s or lady’s presence or summoned all the servants for special instructions.  For instance, at the birth of the first child, all the servants had been summoned with this last type of bell and were given instructions to take individual cakes to each house in the valley to commemorate the birth.  All in all, the bell system kept the northern mansion running smoothly, and none of the servants complained about the conditions, at least none that Harry had ever heard of.

Only one of the servants from the mansion on the southern hill was known to Harry — the stable manager.  But from him, Harry had learned a very interesting bit of information: the master of the southern mansion was particular over the treatment of his horses.  After the horses had performed a valuable service and exerted a great deal of energy, they were each groomed and fed and given the thoughtful kind of treatment that his servants were also given.

Harry was just about to reach the service gate of the northern mansion with the bells, thinking that he could claim friendship with several of the servants and thereby squeeze some information out of them, when it struck him that if the news was not good but ill, he would rather learn it from the mansion on the southern hill where the master was known to be conscientious about his horses.  In a split second he judged that he might get a more sympathetic reception from the mansion where the master was concerned about those who served and exerted energy. 

As Harry was turning on his heels and heading down the hill toward the southern mansion, he also realized that the lady who greeted the farmers by name as she threw out her coins and sweets was the wife of the master who was principled in the treatment of his horses.

With his strides falling into an easy cadence, Harry paced himself for the distance between the northern and southern mansions, clipping along the road as it wound through the valley.  His presence did not go unnoticed.  People in the fields called to him and waved as he flew by.  But Harry was completely lost in thought, considering ways he might gain entrance to the mansion on the southern hilltop.  It never occurred to him that his running ability was being marked by both mansions. 

Going around to the side, Harry entered the rear courtyard.  A handful of servants could be seen moving about their tasks — a gardener pushing his wheelbarrow of mulch to a row of shrubbery, a girl in a white apron and cap shining the windows on the outside of the kitchen, a young man with carpentry tools building a table — and then Harry spied his acquaintance in the stable.  He sauntered over, not because he was winded, but because he wanted to act nonchalant.

“So, Paul, these horses haven’t had their run yet today.  I’ll bet they’re anxious to get harnessed and have their trot through the valley.”

“Hey, Harry, what are you doing here?  Did you get lost on your run?  It’s not their day to go out.  It’s the northern mansion that is supposed to be coming.”

“Is that it?  Well, I never keep track.  It must be a lot of work for you when they come.  When do you expect them?”

“To tell you the truth, Harry, I don’t.  There’s something stirring, but I don’t know what it is.  The master came out once or twice looking like he was going to hitch up the carriage or just saddle one and ride over himself, but he never quite got to it.  I’ve never seen him look so disturbed.”

“As long as I’m here, Paul, let me give you a hand.  You’ve got a lot of horses to feed.  Does the master feed his servants as well as he feeds his …”

“Young man!  You there, ducking behind that horse.  Come out, I want to speak to you.  Were you the one I just watched run up the valley road?”

Harry showed himself from behind the horse and instantly sized up the mood of the master.  He wasn’t angry.  He was troubled.  The master indicated that Harry should follow.  He led Harry inside through the kitchen (where Harry gave a nod to all the scullery maids and cooks) and down a long hallway, going past all kinds of rooms on either side, all of which Harry peeked into as he passed.  And finally, the master of the mansion opened a door to a quiet study where two basset hounds slept near to the fireplace. 

Conditioned by years of running over rugged ground and watching for pitfalls and small boulders that might trip him up, and at the same time carrying on in his mind a complex set of thoughts about how to make a living through running, not to mention thinking of more efficient ways his parents could run their small farm, Harry’s mind was taking in all the details of the mansion he had just passed through as well as attending to the mood of the person he had followed and bracing himself for whatever might come next. 

“I saw that you were helping my stable manager, Paul.”

Here Harry was ready to defend a long and secure friendship with Paul, providing enough justification for visiting while Paul was at work, but he said instead, “Paul has told me how you care for your horses, Sir, and I was curious to see the animals up close, as I usually only see them in passing, and I adore horses myself, though you wouldn’t know if from my occupation.”

“Which is?” asked the master.

“I am at present an athlete and I’m thinking of training others to be athletes.”

“Well, perhaps as you already have employment, you may not be available for the post I am looking to fill.”

“Not at all,” Harry interjected, realizing he had come close to missing an opportunity.  “I am still in the initial stages and have not enrolled any students yet, so at the moment I am free to consider your post.”

“Ah,” the master sighed, “it’s well that you are because your speed and your bearing make you the very person I am looking for.”

At that first interview, Harry received the first message he was to carry to the northern mansion.  It was simple enough to remember word for word, and yet Harry knew much had been left unsaid by the master of the southern mansion.  The master tried to say that there was no alarm that the customary visit hadn’t been paid, but then he had paused too long before finishing the message, looking sorrowfully out the window.  Harry accurately surmised that something had gone awry at the last visit. 

 The conditions for Harry’s employment were fixed.  If he could carry messages word for word, repeat them in the hearing of the master of the other mansion, and return with a message from him — with all due speed — then he could have a salary as well as eat the noon meal with the other servants.  Lodging was a problem since the servant quarters were full, but Harry was quick to assure his new employer that his dear parents would be sorry to see their only son sleeping under a different roof.  So it happened on that day when Harry had merely set off to find out why the carriages hadn’t rolled forth between the mansions that he was employed and could earn a living by his chosen occupation of running. 

When Harry announced himself at the servant’s door of the northern mansion, a series of bells sounded before he found himself admitted into a study similar to the one he had left.  He faced the master of the mansion on the north hilltop who was more imposing in height and girth than the one who was now his employer.  With all appropriate respect and poise, Harry gave off the message word for word.  While a response was being construed, he was sent to sit in the kitchen to drink whatever would aid his return journey. 

Upon calling him back, and before giving him the return message, the master of the northern mansion with the sounding bells remarked, “I happened to see you running today and I must tell you how impressed I am with your speed.  You recall to me my younger self.  I too was a passable athlete at one time, but of course, had to give it up in order to govern diligently.”

Harry nodded and took the compliment with grace and seemed to agree that running should be given up for more important work, but inside he was thinking how he would never have to give up running now.

 While Harry was running back to the southern mansion, he mused over the huge disagreement that had come about.  The initial messages were too bland to yield much fodder for gossip; despite this, Harry decided that he wouldn’t gossip the news even though the whole valley might expect him to.  He liked standing in front of the masters of the mansions and did not want to sully his good standing by being a gossip.

That evening in his parents’ farmhouse, Harry satisfied them with the tidings that all was well and that the mansions had merely decided to cut back on the daily use of the horses and carriages and preserve the strength of the ladies.  No one thought to question this as all attention was quickly focused on Harry’s new job as messenger. 

Harry appeared for work every morning and greeted his bosom buddy Paul in the stables and waved an arm to the gardener and carpenter and tipped his cap to all the girls in the kitchen.  He carried the messages back and forth with speed and accuracy, quite frequently making several trips in one day.  The northern mansion continued to seat him in the kitchen and provide him with a refreshing drink while a response was contrived, and therefore, he was able to cultivate a network of acquaintances among the servants in that mansion as well.

Now one day it happened when he arrived at work, instead of finding the master in the study, he found the lady.  He was still given a message to learn by memory, but with a special injunction to deliver that message to the lady of the northern mansion.  This Harry did.  Then he faithfully brought back the response from lady of the northern mansion to the lady of the southern mansion.  When the return message caused her to look downcast, Harry offered as congenially as he could, that surely the lady of the northern mansion really missed her but was reluctant to express it in words that he — the messenger — would have to repeat.  At this, the lady of the southern mansion brightened and asked him to go on.  Encouraged by her sudden brightening of countenance, Harry elaborated on what he noticed about the lady of the north.

In response, Harry received a sudden outpouring of the lady’s heart in regard to the relations as they now stood between the two mansions.  He listened with dropped jaw as details came forth in deep sighs from the lady about just where the main grievance lay.  But all at once, the lady of the southern mansion pulled herself up short for having been so open with a servant, begging him to understand that she had been overcome with sorrow and making him promise not to repeat any of it. 

Harry willingly promised because he now saw for the first time the enviable position he was in.  He alone, if he adroitly carried out his job, would be the only one in the valley to know all that there was to know about the relations between the two mansions.  He was glad that he had decided not to gossip what he knew because that would eventually have come back to the ears of the masters and ladies, and then he would have quickly found himself as an unemployed runner.  He also predicted that he could become much too invaluable to fire since he would know too much and perhaps he would know so much that he could begin to choose his own terms of employment.

In his time off, Harry jogged through the valley in close proximity to the farm plots because to him nothing felt better than for all hands to stop work and be raised in greeting.  When he was asked what he knew, he gave half-answers and filled them with good tidings.  He knew he was admired for his daily access to the mansions, but he planned to be admired even more when he was promoted to some sort of indispensable messenger, perhaps with younger runners to train in the art.

The next day when he appeared for his first message of the day, he ventured to tell the master of the southern mansion that when he had been at home in the evening, he noticed that there seemed to be some restlessness and unease due to the absence of the daily visits between the mansions.  Without saying the people missed the coins and the sweets and the fragrance of the flowers, he said the people missed seeing the stately figures of the ladies and the majestic grace of the horses.  When Harry bore the southern master’s message verbatim to the master of the northern mansion, he added on the same observations about the people of the valley. 

To Harry’s delight, that very afternoon both mansions’ gates were flung open and horses and carriages emerged.  The flare and aplomb of the northern carriage as it wound its way through the valley was matched by the openness and dignity of the southern carriage.  However, when they reached the halfway point along the meandering road where the regional road intersected it, one carriage turned off and followed it to the west and the other turned off to the east.  From both carriages were flung coins, flowers, and sweets, while from only one carriage came also greetings and salutations.

For the next period of time, the messages that were sent back and forth between the southern hilltop and the northern hilltop were dedicated to the affairs of governing.  It’s true that in the beginning the messages had borne a more personal flavor and the southern mansion begged the northern for reconciliation.  But even when such pleas seemed to fall upon deaf ears, the southern mansion continued in the silent hope of harmony being restored.

 On a busy day Harry might make five or six trips between the two mansions conveying the various negotiating stances for a certain decision that needed to be reached.  Both parties were stubborn along certain lines.  For example, the master of the northern mansion insisted that all resources of the valley be used to make a profit and at the end of the year, if there had been a profit, the general populace could benefit by receiving an extra bonus, such as a goose for the holidays.  However, the master of the southern mansion where Harry was employed insisted that the resources of the valley be used in such a way to enhance the lives of the people in the valley throughout the year including passing along regular bonuses. 

So as Harry’s legs and feet carried him along the road that connected the mansions, his mind worked back and forth between the two opposing positions regarding resources.  Usually he would deliver his message word for word, and then bow his head a bit and say:

“But if you will not take it amiss, Sir, I might add that the master of the other mansion seemed to hesitate as he dictated that part of the message, and so perhaps he would be flexible upon that point.”

These intrusions of Harry’s were never taken amiss because he took the utmost care in judging the mood of each master before he spoke.  And as he saw that there was a dearth of other counselors present, his third opinion was usually accepted.  Occasionally, he also had great success offering the feelings of the general populace toward the problem at hand, and since he still lodged in his parents’ farmhouse, he was considered a credible source of valley information.

Harry became quite comfortable in his role of messenger, counselor, and representative of the valley.  The ladies of the mansions had nearly forgotten the way they used to visit daily, and the carriages, when they did go out, went in opposite directions.  The masters of the mansions found that governing was somehow getting done, and so all discussion about returning to the former way of meeting face-to-face to fulfill the ancient agreement ceased.

Harry’s dream of earning a living by running was accomplished, but Harry had been adding to that dream.  Now he set his sights upon being named an under-governor.  He felt he had discovered his talent for arbitrating and he longed to be recognized.  He also had represented the valley to the two mansions and he desired to be credited for the resulting improvements.  He especially thought he deserved such a promotion since he had never gossiped about the goings-on in the two mansions to the valley folk.  Of course, he would take the liberty of passing on gossip between the servants of the two mansions.  It seemed to please them greatly, and it assured him of a good welcome by both.  He loved being admired by every one he met and could only imagine how good it would feel for the admiration to grow.

Perhaps if he hadn’t been desirous for more admiration, he might not have fallen into the trap.  But as it was, he was impatient to advance in his position.  The master of the northern mansion boldly let the hint drop one day that if Harry would work for him, his salary would be doubled in an instant and he would be lodged in a premium room with his own fireplace.  Harry cared little for money and was content to live with his parents, but in his mind this offer sounded like the chance he was looking for to break out into the under-governor position he imagined.

Without much concern for the master of the southern mansion, he gave sudden notice that he was changing mansions, quoting higher salary and lodgings on the premises as his main reasons.  If Harry had sincerely thanked the southern mansion’s master for the fine working conditions and acknowledged how much he enjoyed his work, the southern master would not have suspected Harry of any wrongdoing.  But, as Harry was leaving much unspoken about his own ambitions, he also left unspoken appropriate words of gratitude.

It had never occurred to Harry that he would be under the management of the bell system.  Once lodged at the northern mansion, Harry first noticed how much less freedom there was to move about and gossip with the kitchen girls.  Whereas he used to be seated in the kitchen for a refreshment, now he had to respond to a certain sequence of bells to call him out of his quarters to the study of the master.  The master and lady of the northern mansion did not tolerate any servant who chose to ignore this very tried and true method of household management. 

As well as moving according to the bells, he was no longer free to visit his parents daily in the valley and jog along the lanes and greet the neighbors and find out their hardships.  The first time he tried to insert how the valley folk felt about a certain decision, the master of the northern mansion cut him off, reminding him that he no longer lived there and was not an expert any longer on the conditions and feelings of the valley.

To add to this surprise, Harry was rebuffed the first time he stood before his old employer at the southern mansion and tried to add his observations to the message.  His old master immediately suspected him of conniving to alter the content and threatened to send back a message that he was interfering with the governance of the valley.  This brought Harry to the full realization that he was now a simple, two-legged message boy, and that all avenues for assisting in the governing of the valley were closed to him.  His old employer didn’t trust him anymore, his new employer treated him like a piece of property, and he deplored his haste in bringing all this to pass.

Without his add-on arbitration, matters began to get worse between the two mansions.  His hands were tied and only his feet and mouth were wanted to carry messages that often were met on both sides with explosions of anger.  The quoted words became more and more acerbic as each mansion tried to force its way, and Harry had to be the one to repeat these words and receive the violence of the response.  Too soon, Harry began to be associated with the messages themselves, and it deepened his growing sense of failure to be chastised for the words he only quoted.

He gave some thought to admitting to both mansions how he had operated before — adding information to their messages — and thought perhaps they would both desire peace enough to allow him to do it again.  But he knew it wasn’t a thing they would allow now that one mansion distrusted him and the other mansion owned him, even assigning a certain bell signal to his movements.  He played out the possible array of messages it would take to convince both mansions that he should be allowed to take on the role he had before.  It would be endless, and since he would be giving all the messages, his truthfulness would be suspect and all the words out of his mouth questioned.  Furthermore, his new employer, he was sure, would not agree to any enhancements on any message, although without knowing it he had received them many a time.  Besides, he would demand unwavering loyalty to his interests and not give a care to what was best for anyone else. 

This current state of mistrust and of being owned was disquieting to Harry.  He found that it acted as weights to his legs and a block to his mind.  Unknown to himself, as he covered the distance between the two mansions, he was being clocked, and it was noted that he didn’t run as fast as he used to, and it was also noted that his bearing as he stood and gave the messages was not what it used to be.

Harry returned to his quarters after delivering a particularly devastating message to his former employer at the southern mansion wherein the master of the northern mansion had declared the ancient agreement a roadblock to progress and a new mode of government was being put into effect.  The master of the southern mansion had been too upset to dictate a return message and sent Harry off with a flustered hand.  While Harry waited in his own room, sitting in front of his cold fireplace, he heard his individual bell sounding, so he went to stand before the master of the northern mansion without a return message to give.  The master declared:

“I only agreed to take you on as a messenger on a trial basis, as I do all my servants.  I am disappointed to say that your performance does not measure up to my standards.  Besides, the absence of a response from my partner in governing must mean he concurs with my plan, or else you are still in league with him and are keeping something back.  Well, whatever …, I don’t want to be a detective where matters of disloyalty will be exposed.  I advise you to move back to your old master or return to farming.”

In this way, the master of the northern mansion severed relations and communication with the southern mansion.  Harry’s place as runner was quickly filled by the master of the northern mansion.  He recruited twenty runners, none as good as Harry but all able to repeat a simple message.  He sent them throughout the valley to declare that he was now the sole governor.

Back on that first day when the carriages had not traveled the road, the master of the northern mansion had seen Harry almost enter his servant’s entrance, and he had never forgotten the look of sudden calculation that had come across Harry’s face.  He had already decided that there would be no reconciliation with the southern mansion, but when Harry appeared later in the day with a message, he immediately saw how he could make use of such a runner who seemed to have a good head on his shoulders and an ambitious spirit in his heart. 

All the while that Harry was carrying message after message between the mansions, the master of the northern mansion was putting the pieces in place for his complete takeover of the valley.  While the master of the southern mansion was kept distracted by the false hope of restoring the ancient agreement, the northern master had been holding secret meetings with all the valley’s key residents, promising them positions of influence in the new order.  So, Harry never really had a chance to become an under-governor after all; and from that point onward, he was never to find the same enjoyment in running as he had known before.