My Whistling Neighbor
By Timothy Shay Arthur, 1861
We had moved into a new house, situated about the center in a row of ten, all run up together in hurried, mushroom fashion, and divided from each other by partitions of brick so thin that sound was only a little deadened in passing through. For the first three or four nights, I was unable to sleep, except in snatches, for so many noises came to my ears, originating, apparently, in my own domicile, that anxiety in regard to burglars was constantly excited. Both on the first and second nights I made a journey through the house in the small hours, but found no intruders on my premises. The sounds that disturbed me came from some of my neighbors, who kept later vigils than suited my habits.
"There it is again!" said I, looking up from my paper, as I sat reading on the second day after taking possession of my new home. "That fellow is a nuisance!"
"What fellow?" asked my wife, whose countenance showed surprise at the remark. She was either unconscious or unaffected by the circumstance that annoyed my sensitive ears.
"Don't you hear it?" said I.
"That eternal whistle."
"Oh!" A smile played over my wife's face. " Does it annoy you?"
"I can't say that I am particularly annoyed by it yet; but I shall be if it's to go on incessantly. A man whistles for lack of thought, and this very fact will--"
"I'm not so sure of that," remarked my wife, interrupting me, "the poet notwithstanding. I would say that he whistles from exuberant feelings. Our neighbor has a sunny temper, no doubt; what, I am afraid, cannot be said of our neighbor on the other side. I've never heard him whistle; but his scolding abilities are good, and, judging from two days' observation, he is not likely to permit them to grow feeble for lack of use."
I did not answer, but went on with my reading, silenced, if not reconciled to my whistling neighbor.
Business matters annoyed me through the day, and I felt moody and depressed as I took my course homeward at nightfall. I was not leaving my cares behind me. Before shutting my account-books, and locking my safe, I had made up a bundle of troubles to carry away with me, and my shoulders stooped beneath the burden.
I did not bring sunlight into my dwelling as I crossed, with dull, deliberate steps, its threshold. The flying feet which sprung along the hall, and the eager voices which filled, suddenly, the air in a sweet tumult of sound as I entered, were quiet and hushed in a little while. I did not repel my precious ones, for they were very dear to my heart; but birds do not sing joyously except in the sunshine, and my presence had cast a shadow. The songs of my home birds had died into fitful chirpings--they sat quiet among the branches. I saw this, and understood the reason. I condemned myself; I reasoned against the folly of bringing worldly cares into the home sanctuary. I endeavored to rise out of my gloomy state. But neither philosophy nor a self-compelling effort was of any avail.
I was sitting with my hand partly shading my face from the light, still in conflict with myself, when I became conscious of a lifting of the shadows that were around me, and of a freer respiration. The change was slight, but still very perceptible. I was beginning to question as to its cause, when my thought recognized an agency which had been operative through the sense of hearing, though not before externally perceived in consequence of my abstracted state. My neighbor was whistling, "Begone, Dull Care!"
Now, in my younger days, I had whistled and sung the air and words of this cheerful old song hundreds of times, and every line was familiar to memory. I listened with pleased interest, for a little while, and then, as my changing state gave power to resolutions quick born of better reason, I said, in my thought, emphatically, as if remanding an evil spirit, "Begone, dull care!" And the fiend left me.
Then I spoke cheerfully, and in a tone of interest to quiet little Mary, who had walked round me three or four times, wondering in her little heart, no doubt, what held her at a distance from her papa, and who was now seated by her mother, leaning her flaxen head, fluted all over with glossy curls, against her knee. She sprang at my voice, and was in my lap at a bound. What a thrill of pleasure the tight clasp of her arms sent to my heart! Oh my little darling, you are full of blessing!
From that moment, I felt kinder toward my neighbor. He had done me good--had played before me as David played before Saul, exorcizing the evil spirit of discontent. There was no longer a repellent sphere, and soon all my little ones were close around me, and happy as in other times with their father.
After they were all in bed, and I sat alone with my wife, when the cares that "infest the day" made a new assault upon me, and vigorously strove to regain their lost empire in my mind. I felt their approaches, and the gradual receding of cheerful thoughts with every advancing step they made. In my struggle to maintain that tranquility which so strengthens the soul for work and duty, I arose and walked the floor. My wife looked up to me with inquiry on her face. Then she let her eyes fall upon her needle-work, and as I glanced toward her at every turn in my walk, I saw an expression of tender concern on her lips. She understood that I was not at ease in my mind, and the knowledge troubled her.
"How wrong in me," I said, in self-rebuke, "thus to let idle brooding over mere outside things, which such brooding can in no way effect--trouble the peace of home;" and I made a new effort to rise again into a sunnier region. But the fiend had me in his clutches again, and I could not release myself. Now it was that my David came anew to my relief. Suddenly his clear notes rang out in the air, "Away with Melancholy."
I cannot tell which worked the instant revulsion of feeling that came--the cheerful air, the words of the song which were called to remembrance by the air, or the associations of by-gone years that were revived. But the spell was potent and complete. I was myself again.
During the evening the voice of my wife broke out several times into snatches of song--a thing quite unusual of late, for life's sober realities had taken the music from her as well as from her husband. We were growing graver every day. It was pleasant to hear her flute-tones again, very pleasant, and my ear hearkened lovingly. The cause of this fitful warbling I recognized each time as the notes died away. They were responsive to our neighbor's whistling!
I did not then remark upon the circumstance. One reason of this lay in the fact that I had spoken lightly of our neighbor's whistling propensity, which struck me in the beginning as vulgar; and I did not care to acknowledge myself so largely his debtor as I really was.
We were in our bedroom, and about to retire for the night, when loud voices, as if in strife, came discordantly through the thin walls, from our neighbors on the other side. Something had gone wrong there, and angry passions were rising!
"How very disagreeable!" I remarked.
"The man's a brute!" said my wife emphatically. "He does nothing, it seems to me, but wrangle in his family. Pity he hadn't something of the pleasant temper of our neighbor on the other side."
"That is a more agreeable sound, I must confess," was my answer as the sweet notes of his whistling arose sweetly on the air.
"Far more agreeable," returned my wife.
"He plays well on his instrument," I said, smiling. My ear was following the notes in pleased recognition. We stood listening until our neighbor passed to another pleasant tune, then to a slow, soft, tender measure the notes fell, yet still we heard them with singular distinctness through the intervening wall, just a little muffled, but sweeter for the obstruction.
"The day is past and gone,
The woodman's axe lies free,
And the reaper's work is done."
My wife recalled these lines from her memory, repeating them in a subdued, tranquilizing tone. The air was still sounding in our ears, but we no longer recognized its impression on the external senses. It had done its work of recalling the beautiful "Evening Hymn of the Switzer," and we repeated to each other, verse after verse.
"Sweet is the hour of rest,
Pleasant the wood's low sigh,
And the gleaming of the west,
And the turf whereon we lie.
When the burden and the heat
Of labor's task are o'er,
And kindly voices greet
The loved one at the door."
To which I added:
"But rest, more sweet and still
Than ever nightfall gave,
Our longing hearts shall fill
In the world beyond the grave.
There shall no tempest blow,
No scorching noontide beat;
There shall be no more snow,
No weary, wandering feet.
And we lift our trusting eyes
From the hills our fathers trod,
To the quiet of the skies--
To the Sabbath of our God."
All was now still on both sides. The harsh discord of our scolding neighbor had ceased, and our whistling neighbor had warbled his good-night melody, which, like a pleasant flower growing near an unsightly object, and interposing a veil of beauty, had removed it from our consciousness.
It was a long time since I had felt so peaceful on retiring as when my head went down upon its pillow--thanks to my light-hearted neighbor, at whose whistling propensities I was inclined in the beginning to be annoyed. But for him I should have gone to rest with the harsh discord of my scolding neighbor's voice in my ears, and been ill at ease with myself and the world. On what apparent trifles hang our states of mind! A word, a look, a tone of music, a discordant jar--will bring light or shadow, smiles or tears.
On the next morning, while dressing myself, thought reached forward over the day's anxieties, and worry began drawing her somber curtains around me. My neighbor was stirring also, and, like the awaking bird, tuneful in sweet matins. "Day on the Mountains" rang out cheerily, followed by "Dear Summer Morn;" winding off with "Begone, Dull Care!" and the merry laughter of a happy child which had sprung into his arms, and was being smothered with kisses.
The cloud that was gathering on my brow passed away, and I met my wife and children at the breakfast table with pleasant smiles.
In a few days I ceased to notice the whistling of my neighbor. It continued as usual; but had grown to be such a thing of course as not to be an object of thought. But the effect remained, showing itself in a gradual restoration of that cheerfulness which care, and work, and brooding anxiety about worldly things are so apt to produce. The "voice of music," which had been almost silent in my wife for a long period, was gradually restored. Old familiar ditties would break suddenly from her throat as she sat sewing, and I would often hear her singing again, from room to room, as in the sunnier days of our spring-time. As for myself, scarcely an evening passed in which I was not betrayed into beating time with my foot to "Happy Land," or some other sweet melody, in response to my neighbor's cheery whistling. Our children also caught the infection, and would commence singing on the instant our neighbor tuned his pipes. Truly he was our benefactor--the harping David to our Saul!
"You live at number 510, I think," said a gentleman whose face was familiar, though I was not able to call his name. We were sitting side by side in the cars.
I answered in the affirmative. "So I thought," he replied. "I live at 514--second door east."
"Yes, Sir; that is my name. Pleasant houses, but mere shells," said he. Then, with a look of disgust on his face, "Doesn't that whistling fellow between us annoy you terribly? I've got so out of all patience that I shall either move or silence him. Whistle, whistle, whistle, from morning until night. Bah! I always detested whistling. It's a sign of no brains. I've written him a note twice, but failed to send either time; it isn't well to quarrel with a neighbor if you can help it."
"It doesn't annoy me at all," I answered. "Indeed, I rather like it."
"You do? Well, that is singular! Just what my wife says."
"First-rate remedy for sullen people like myself, I find. I'm indebted to our whistling friend for sundry favors in this direction."
My new acquaintance looked at me curiously.
"You're not in earnest," said he, a half-amused smile breaking through the unamiable expression which his face had assumed.
"Altogether in earnest; and I beg of you not to send him that note. So your wife is not annoyed?"
"Is she musical?" I inquired.
"She was; but of late years life has been rather a serious matter with us, and her singing birds have died, or lost the heart for music."
"The same history of many other lives," said I.
The man sighed faintly.
"Has there been any recent change?" I ventured to inquire.
"In what respect?" he asked.
"Has there been no voice from the singing birds in your wife's bosom?"
A new expression came suddenly into the man's face.
"Why, yes," he answered, "now that I think of it. There have been some low, fitful warblings. Only last evening the voice of my wife stole out, as if half afraid, and trembled a little while on the words of an old song."
"The same tune which our neighbor was whistling at the time," said I.
"Right, as I live!" was my companion's exclamation, after a pause, slapping his hand on his knee. I could hardly help smiling at the look of wonder, amusement, and conviction that blended on his face.
"I wouldn't send that note," said I meaningly.
"No, hang me if I do! I must study this case. I'm something of a philosopher, you must know. If our neighbor can awaken the singing birds in the heart of my wife, he may whistle until the crack of doom without hindrance from me. I'm obliged to you for the suggestion."
A week afterward I met him again.
"What about the singing birds?" I asked, smiling.
"All alive again, thank God!" He answered with a heartiness of manner that caused me to look narrowly into his face. It wore a better expression than when I observed it last.
"Then you didn't send that note?"
"No, Sir. Why, since I saw you, I've actually taken to whistling and humming old tunes again, and you can't tell how much better it makes me feel. And the children are becoming as merry and musical as crickets. Our friend's whistle sets them all agoing, like the first signal-warble of a bird at day-dawn that awakens the woods to melody!"
We were on our way homeward, and parted at my own door. As I entered, "Home, Sweet Home" was pulsing in tender harmonies on the air. I stood still and listened until tears fell over my cheeks. The singing birds were alive again in the heart of my wife also, and I said "Thank God!" as warmly as my neighbor had uttered the words a little while before.