Procrastination

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851


Every person has some little defect of character, some easily-besetting sin that is always overtaking him, unless he is ever on the alert. My friend, Paul Burgess, was a man of considerable force of mind; whatever he undertook was carried through with much energy of purpose. But his leading defect was a tendency to inertia in small matters. It required an adequate motive to put the machinery of his mind in operation.

Some men never let a day pass without carefully seeing after everything, little or great, that ought to be done. They cannot rest until the day's work is fully completed. But it was very different with Paul. If the principal business transactions of the day were rightly performed, he was satisfied to let things of less consideration lie over until another time. From this cause it occurred that every few weeks there was an accumulation of things necessary to be done, so great that their aggregate calls upon his attention roused him to action, and then everything was reduced to order with an energy, promptness, and internal satisfaction that made him wonder at himself forever having neglected these minor interests so long. On these occasions, a firm resolution was always made never again to let a day come to its close without everything being done that the day called for. It usually happened that the first hour did not pass after the forming of this resolution without seeing its violation so strong was the power of habit growing out of an original defect in the mind.

Every consequence in life is the natural result of some cause; and upon the character of the cause, always depends the nature of the consequence. An orderly cause never produces a disorderly consequence, and the converse of this is equally true. Every defect of character that we have, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant it may be, if allowed to flow down into our actions, produces an evil result. The man who puts off the doing of a thing until tomorrow that ought to be done today, injures his own interest or the interest of others. This may not always clearly show itself, but the fact is nevertheless true. Sometimes the consequences of even the smallest neglect are felt most deeply.

My friend Paul had a very familiar saying when reminded by anyone of something that ought to have been previously done. "I was just going to do it," or "I am just going to do it," dropped from his tongue half-a-dozen times in a day.

"I wish you would have my bill ready by three o'clock," said a customer to him, dropping in one morning.

"Very well, it shall be made out," replied Paul.

The customer turned and walked hurriedly away. He evidently had a good deal of business to do, and but a small time to do it in.

Precisely at three, the man called, and found the merchant reading the afternoon paper.

"Is my bill made out?" he asked.

"I am just going to do it," answered Paul, handing the paper towards his customer. "Look over the news for a few moments while I draw it off; it won't take me long."

"I am sorry," replied the customer, "for I cannot wait. I have three or four more accounts to settle, and the boat leaves in an hour. Send me the bill by mail, and I will remit you the amount. Good-by" offering his hand "I hope to see you again in the fall."

Paul took the extended hand of his customer, and shook it warmly. In the next moment he was standing alone, his ledger open before him, and his eye resting upon an account, the payment of which was of some importance to him just at that time. Disappointed and dissatisfied with himself, he closed the ledger heavily and left the desk, instead of making out the account and mailing it. On the next day, the lack of just the amount of money he would have received from his customer kept him on the street two hours. It was three weeks before he made out the account and sent it on. A month elapsed, but no remittance came. He dropped his customer a line, and received for answer that when last in the city he had bought more goods than he intended, and consequently paid away all his cash; business had not yet begun to stir, and thus far what little he had sold had been for credit, but that he hoped soon to make him a remittance. The next news Paul had of his customer was that he had failed.

It was said of him that when a young man he became quite enamored of a reigning belle, who to great beauty added many far more essential prerequisites in a good wife, not the least of which in the eye of Paul was a handsome fortune left her by a distant relative. To this young lady he paid very marked attentions for some time, but he did not stand alone in the number of her admirers. Several others were as much interested in gaining her favorable regard as he was.

One day a friend said to him "Paul, have you heard the news?"

"What is it?"

"Sefton has offered himself to Miss Paulson."

"It isn't possible! Why, I was just going to do it myself! Has she accepted him?"

"So it is said."

"I don't believe it."

"I don't know how you will ascertain, certainly, unless you ask the lady herself," replied the friend.

"I will find out within an hour, if I have to do what you suggest. Sefton offered himself! I declare, I didn't dream that any particular intimacy existed between them. My own mind has been made up these two or three months in fact, long before Sefton knew her; but I have kept procrastinating the offer of marriage I determined to make, week after week, like a fool as I am, until I have allowed another to step in and carry off the prize, if what you say be true. But I can't believe it. I am sure Miss Paulson wouldn't accept any man on so short an acquaintance."

"Sefton is a bold fellow, and prompt in all his movements," returned the friend. "I rather think you will find the report true. I know that he has been paying her the closest attentions."

"I won't believe a word of it until I have undoubted evidence of the fact. It can't be!" said Paul, pacing the floor in considerable perturbation of mind.

But it was all so, as he very soon ascertained, to his deep regret and mortification at allowing another to carry off the prize he had thought his own. When next under the influence of the tender passion, my friend took good care to do in good time just what he was going to do.

Paul was perfectly aware of his defect, and often made the very best resolutions against it, but it generally happened that they were broken as soon as made. It was so easy to put off until the next hour, or until tomorrow, a little thing that might just as well be done now. Generally, the thing to be done was so trifling in itself, that the effort to do it appeared altogether disproportionate at the time. It was like exerting the strength of a giant to lift a pebble.

Sometimes the letters and papers would accumulate upon his desk for a week or ten days, simply because the effort to put away each letter as it was read and answered, and each paper as it was used, seemed so great when compared with the trifling matter to be accomplished, as to appear a waste of effort, notwithstanding time enough would be spent in reading the newspapers, conversation, or sitting idly about, to do all this three or four times over. When confusion reached its climax, then he would go to work most vigorously, and in a few hours reduce all to order. But usually some important paper was lost or mislaid, and could not be found at the time when most needed. It generally happened that this great effort was not made until he had been going to do it for three or four days, and not then until the call for some account or other commercial paper, which was nowhere to be found, made a thorough examination of what had been accumulating for some time in his drawers and on his desk necessary. He was not always fortunate in discovering the object of his search.

Notwithstanding this minor defect in Paul's character, his great shrewdness and thorough knowledge of business made him a successful merchant. In matters of primary interest, he was far-seeing, active, and prompt, and as these involved the main chance, his worldly affairs were prosperous. Whatever losses he encountered were generally to be traced to his neglect of little matters in the present, to his habit of "going to do," but never doing at the right time.

Not only in his business, but in his domestic affairs, and in everything that required his attention, did this disposition to put off the doing of little things show itself. The consequences of his neglect were always disturbing him in one way or another. So long as he alone suffered, no one had a right to complain; but it is not to be supposed that such a fault as he was chargeable with, could exist and not affect others.

One day while Paul was at his desk, a young lady, dressed in deep mourning, came into his store and asked to see him. The clerk took her back to where his principal was sitting, who bowed low to the stranger and offered her a chair. The young lady drew aside her veil as she seated herself, and showed a young and beautiful face that was overcast with a shade of sadness. Although Paul never remembered having seen the young lady before, he could not help remarking that there was something very familiar in her countenance.

"My name is Miss Ellison," said the stranger, in a low, tremulous voice. "I believe you know my mother, sir."

"Oh, very well," quickly returned Paul. "You are not Lucy Ellison, surely?"

"Yes, sir, my name is Lucy," returned the young lady.

"Can it be possible? Why, it seems but yesterday that you were a little girl. How rapidly time flies! How is your mother, Miss Ellison? She is one of my old friends."

"She is well, I thank you, sir," Lucy replied, casting her eyes timidly to the floor.

There was a pause. While Paul was turning over in his mind what next to say, and slightly wondering what could be the cause of this visit, the young lady said, "Mr. Burgess, my mother desired me to call upon you to ask your interest in procuring me the situation of French teacher in Mr. Cambridge's school. Since my father's death, our means of living have become so much reduced that it is necessary for me to do something to prevent absolute poverty from overtaking us."

Lucy's voice trembled very much, and once or twice a choking sensation in her throat prevented the utterance of a word; but she strove resolutely with herself, and was able to finish what she wished to say more calmly.

"I am perfectly ready," she continued, "to do anything that lies in my power. The French language I have studied thoroughly, and having enjoyed the friendship and been on terms of intimacy with two or three French ladies of education, I believe I can speak the language with great accuracy. Mother says she knows you to be on intimate terms with Mr. Cambridge, and that a word from you will secure me the situation."

"Mr. Cambridge is, then, in need of a French teacher?"

"Oh, yes," replied Lucy; "we learned the fact yesterday. The salary is five hundred dollars, which will give us a comfortable support if I can obtain the situation."

"Of which there can be no doubt, Miss Ellison," returned Paul, "if your qualifications are such as to meet the approval of Mr. Cambridge, which I presume they are. I will certainly call upon him and secure you the place, if possible. Tell your mother that if in this or in any other way I can serve either you or her, I will do it with sincere pleasure. Please take to her my kind regards."

Lucy warmly expressed her thanks. On rising to depart, she said, "When shall I call in, Mr. Burgess, to hear the result of your interview with Mr. Cambridge?"

"You needn't give yourself the trouble of calling at all, Miss Ellison," replied Mr. Burgess. "The moment I have seen the person of whom we were speaking, I will either call upon your mother or send her a note."

"You are very kind," dropped almost involuntarily from Lucy's lips, as, with a graceful inclination of her body, she drew her veil over her face, and, turning from the merchant, walked quickly away.

When Paul went home at dinner-time, he said to his wife, "I am sure you couldn't guess who I had for a visitor this morning."

"Then of course it would be useless for me to try," replied the wife, smiling. "Who was it?"

"You know the Ellisons?"

"Yes."

"Mr. Ellison, you remember, died about a year ago."

"Yes."

"At the time of his death it was rumored that his estate was involved, but never having had any business transactions with him, I had no occasion to investigate the matter, and did not really know what had been the result of its settlement. This morning I was greatly surprised to receive a visit from Lucy Ellison, who had grown up into a beautiful young woman."

"Indeed!" ejaculated the wife. "And what did she want?"

"She came at her mother's request to solicit my influence with Mr. Cambridge, who is in need of a French teacher. She said that their circumstances were very much changed since her father's death and that it had become necessary for her to do something as a means of supporting the family. The salary given by Mr. Cambridge to his French teacher is five hundred dollars. I really pitied the young thing from my heart. Think of our Mary, in two or three years from this, when, if ever, a cloudless sky should bend over her, going to some old friend of her father's, and almost tearfully soliciting him to beg for her, of another, the privilege of toiling for bread. It made my heart ache."

"She must be very young," remarked Mrs. Burgess.

"Not over eighteen or nineteen."

"Poor thing! What a sad, sad change she must feel it to be! But did you call upon Mr. Cambridge?"

A slight shadow passed over the countenance of Paul.

"Not yet," he replied.

"Oh, you ought to have gone at once."

"I know. I was going as soon as Lucy left, but I thought I would attend to a little business down town first, and go to Mr. Cambridge's immediately on my return. When I came back, I thought I would look over the newspaper a little; I wanted to see what had been said in Congress on the tariff question, which is now the all-absorbing topic. I became so much interested in the remarks of one of the members, that I forgot all about Lucy Ellison until I was called off by a customer, who occupied me until dinner-time. But I will certainly attend to it this afternoon."

"Do, by all means. There should not be a moment's delay, for Mr. Cambridge may supply himself with a teacher."

"Very true. If that were to happen through my neglect, I would never forgive myself."

"Hadn't you better call as you go to the store? It will be just in your way."

"So it will. Yes, I will call and put the matter in effect at once," replied the husband.

With this good intention in his mind, Paul left his dwelling after dinner. He had only gone a couple of squares, however, before it occurred to him that as Mr. Cambridge had only one session of his school, which let out at two or half-past two, he didn't know which, he of course did not dine before three o'clock, and as it was then just a quarter past three, it would not do to call upon him then; so he kept on to his store, fixing in his mind four o'clock as the hour at which he would call. Four o'clock found Paul deeply buried in a long series of calculations that were not completed for some time afterwards. On leaving his desk, he sat leisurely down in an arm-chair for the purpose of thinking about business. He had not thought long, before the image of Lucy Ellison came up before his mind. He drew out his watch.

"Nearly half-past four, I declare! I'm afraid Mr. Cambridge is out now; but as it is so late, I will defer calling until I go home; it is just in my way. If I see him, I can drop in upon Mrs. Ellison after tea."

On his way home, Paul fell in with a friend whose conversation was very agreeable. He did not forget Lucy, but he thought a visit to Mr. Cambridge would accomplish just as much after supper as before. So the call was deferred without a twinge of conscience.

The first words of Mrs. Burgess, on her husband's entrance, were, "Well, dear, what did Mr. Cambridge say?"

"I haven't been able to see him yet, but I am going around after supper," Paul replied, quickly.

"Indeed! I am sorry. Did you call?"

"No; it occurred to me that Cambridge dined at three o'clock, so I put it off until four."

"And didn't go then?"

"No; I was going to "

"Yes, that is just like you, Paul!" spoke up his wife with some spirit, for she felt really provoked with her husband; "you are always going to do!"

"There, there," returned Paul, "don't say a word more. A few hours, one way or the other, can make no great difference. I will go around after tea and have the matter settled. I shall be much more likely to find Cambridge in a state to talk about the matter than I would through the day."

As soon as tea was over, urged on by his wife, Paul put on his hat and started for the residence of Mr. Cambridge. Unfortunately, that gentleman had gone out, and Paul turned away from his door much disappointed.

"I will call the first thing in the morning," he consoled himself by saying. "I will be sure to find him in then."

I am sorry to say that Paul was just going to do what he had promised Lucy he would do immediately, at least half-a-dozen times on the next day, but still failed in accomplishing his intended visit to Mr. Cambridge. Mrs. Burgess scolded vigorously every time he came home, and he joined her in condemning himself, but still the thing had not been done when Paul laid his head that night rather uneasily upon his pillow.

When Lucy returned and related to her mother how kindly Mr. Burgess had received her, promising to call immediately upon Mr. Cambridge and secure the situation, if possible, the widow's heart felt warm with a grateful emotion. Light broke in upon her mind, that had been for a long time under a cloud.

"He was always a kind-hearted man," she said, "and ever ready to do a good deed. If he should be so fortunate as to obtain this place for you, we shall do very well; if not, Heaven only knows what is to become of us."

"Do not give way to desponding thoughts, mother," returned Lucy; "all will yet be well. The vacancy has just occurred, and mine, I feel sure, will be the first application. Mr. Burgess' interest with Mr. Cambridge, if he can be satisfied of my qualifications, must secure me the place."

"We ought to hear from him today," said Mrs. Ellison.

"Yes, I would think so. Mr. Burgess, of course, understands the necessity that always exists in a case of this kind for immediate application."

"Oh, yes, he'll do it all right. I feel perfectly willing to trust the matter in his hands."

As the reader has very naturally inferred, the circumstances of Mrs. Ellison were of rather a pressing nature. Her family consisted of three children, of whom Lucy was the eldest. Up to the time of her husband's death, she had been surrounded with every comfort she could desire; but Mr. Ellison's estate proving bankrupt, his family was left with but a small, and that a very uncertain income. Upon this, by the practice of great economy, they had managed to live. The final settlement of the estate took away this resource, and the widow found herself with only a small sum of money in hand, and all income cut off. This had occurred about a month before the period of Lucy's introduction to the reader. During this time, their gradually diminishing store, and the anxiety they felt in regard to the future, destroyed all the remains of former pride or regard for appearances, and made both Lucy and her mother willing to do anything that would yield them an income, provided it were honorable. Nothing offered until nearly all their money was exhausted, and the minds of the mother and eldest daughter were in a state of great uncertainty and distress. Just at this darkest hour, news of the vacancy in Mr. Cambridge's school reached their ears.

Such being their circumstances, it may well be supposed that Lucy and her mother felt deeply anxious to hear from Mr. Burgess, and counted not only the hours as they passed, but the minutes that made up the hours. Neither of them remarked on the fact that the day had nearly come to its close without any communication having been received, although both had expected to have heard much earlier from Mr. Burgess. As the twilight began to fall, its gloom making their hearts feel sadder, Mrs. Ellison said, "Don't you think we ought to have heard from Mr. Burgess by this time, Lucy?"

"I hoped to have received some news before this," replied the daughter. "But perhaps we are impatient; it takes time to do everything."

"Yes; but it wouldn't take Mr. Burgess long to call upon Mr. Cambridge. He might have done it in half an hour from the time you saw him."

"If he could have left his business to do so; but you know men in business cannot always command their time."

"I know; but still "

"He has no doubt called," continued Lucy, interrupting her mother, for she could not bear to hear even an implied censure passed upon Mr. Burgess; "but he may not have obtained an interview with Mr. Cambridge, or he may be waiting for a definite answer. I think during the evening we shall certainly hear from him."

But notwithstanding Lucy and her mother lingered up until past eleven o'clock, the so-anxiously looked for communication was not received.

All the next day they passed in a state of nervous solicitude and anxious expectation, but night found them still ignorant as to what Mr. Burgess had done.

On the next day, unable to bear the suspense any longer, Lucy went to the store of Mr. Burgess about ten o'clock.

"Have you called upon Mr. Cambridge yet?" she asked, before he had time to more than bid her a good-morning.

"I was going to do it this moment," replied Mr. Burgess, looking confused, yet trying to assume a kind and cordial manner.

In spite of her efforts to appear indifferent, the countenance of Lucy fell and assumed a look of painful disappointment.

"You shall hear from me in an hour," said Mr. Burgess, feeling strongly condemned for his neglect. "I have had a great many things on my mind for these two days past, and have been much occupied with business. I regret exceedingly the delay, but you may rely upon my attending to it at once. As I said, I was just going out for the very purpose when you called. Excuse me to your mother, and tell her that she will certainly hear from me within the next hour. Tell her that I have already made one or two efforts to see Mr. Cambridge, but without succeeding in my object. He happened not to be at home when I called."

Lucy stammered out a reply, bade Mr. Burgess good-day, and returned home with a heavy heart. She had little doubt but that the vacancy was already supplied. Scarcely half an hour elapsed, when a note was left. It was briefly as follows

"Mr. Burgess's compliments to Mrs. Ellison. He is very sorry to say that the vacancy in Mr. Cambridge's school has already been filled. If in anything else Mr. Burgess can be of any service, Mrs. Ellison will please feel at perfect liberty in calling upon him. He exceedingly regrets that his application to Mr. Cambridge was not more successful."

The note dropped from the hands of Mrs. Ellison, and she groaned audibly. Lucy snatched it up, and took in its contents at a single glance. She made no remark, but clasped her hands together and drew them tightly across her bosom, while her eyes glanced involuntarily upward.

About an hour afterwards, a lady who felt a good deal of interest in Mrs. Ellison, and who knew of the application that was to be made through Mr. Burgess to Mr. Cambridge, called in to express her sincere regret at Lucy's having failed to secure the situation, a knowledge of which had just reached her ears.

"Nothing but the neglect of Mr. Burgess to call upon Mr. Cambridge at once, as he promised to do, has prevented Lucy from getting the place!" she said, with the warmth of a just indignation. "A person who was present when Mr. Burgess called this morning, told me, that after he left, Mr. Cambridge remarked to her that he was perfectly aware of Lucy's high qualifications for teaching French, and would have been glad of her services, had he known her wish to engage as an instructor, but that it was now too late, as he had on the day before employed a competent person to fill the situation."

Lucy covered her face with her hands on hearing this, and gave way to a passionate burst of tears.

When Mr. Burgess came home at dinner-time, his wife said, immediately on his entrance, "Have you secured that place for Lucy Ellison, my dear? I hope you haven't neglected it again."

"I called upon Mr. Cambridge this morning," replied the husband, "but found the vacancy already filled."

"Oh, I am so sorry!" said Mrs. Burgess, speaking in a tone of deep regret. "When was it filled?"

"I didn't inquire. Mr. Cambridge said that Lucy would have suited him exactly, but that her application came too late."

"Poor thing! She will be terribly disappointed," said the wife.

"No doubt she will be disappointed, but I don't know why it should be so very terrible to her. She had no right to be positively certain of obtaining the situation."

"Have you heard any particulars of her mother's situation?" inquired Mrs. Burgess.

"Nothing very particular. Have you?"

"Yes. Mrs. Lemmon called to see me this morning; she is an intimate friend of Mrs. Ellison. She told me that the small income which Mrs. Ellison has enjoyed since her husband's death has, at the final settlement of his estate, been cut off, the estate proving to be utterly insolvent. A month has elapsed since she has been deprived of all means of living beyond the small sum of money that happened to be in her hands, an amount not over thirty or forty dollars. Since that time Lucy has been anxiously looking about for some kind of employment that would yield enough for the support of the family, to obtain which she was willing to devote every energy of body and mind. The vacancy in Mr. Cambridge's school is the first opening of any kind that has yet presented itself. For this she was fully competent, and the salary would have supported the family quite comfortably. It is too bad that she should not have obtained it. I am almost sure, if you had gone at once to see about it, that you might have obtained it for her."

"Well, I was going to see about it at once, but something or other prevented me. If I really thought it was my fault, I would feel very bad."

That afternoon accident made him fully acquainted with the fact that he, and he alone, was to blame in the matter, and then he felt bad enough.

"That dreadful habit of procrastination," he murmured to himself, "is always getting me into trouble. If I alone were made to suffer, it would be no matter; but when it involves other people as it now does, it becomes a crime. In the present case I must make reparation in some way; but I must think how this is to be done."

When any matter serious enough to call for the undivided attention of Mr. Burgess presented itself, that thing was generally done, and well done. He had great energy of character, and mental resources beyond what were ordinarily possessed. It was only when he felt the lack of an adequate purpose, that neglect became apparent.

On the morning after the day upon which Lucy and her mother had been so bitterly disappointed, the former, while looking over the newspaper, called the attention of the latter to an advertisement of a young lady who was desirous of obtaining a situation as a French teacher in some private family or school. The advertiser represented herself as being thoroughly versed in the principles of the language, and able to speak it as well as a native of Paris. The highest testimonials as to character, education, social standing, etc. would be given.

"I think I had better do the same," Lucy said.

"It won't be of any use," replied the mother, in a tone of despondency.

"We don't know that, mother," said Lucy. "We must use the best means that offer themselves for the accomplishment of what we desire."

"There is already one advertisement for a situation such as you desire some disappointed applicant for the place at Mr. Cambridge's, no doubt. It is hardly to be supposed that two more French teachers are wanted in the city."

"Let us try, mother," returned Lucy to this.

"If you feel disposed to do it, child, I have no objection," said Mrs. Ellison; "but I shall count nothing on it."

"It is the only method that now presents itself, and I think it will be right at least to make the trial. It can do no harm."

The more Lucy thought about an advertisement, the more hopeful did she feel about the result. During the day she prepared one and sent it down to a newspaper office. Her messenger had not been long gone before the servant came up to the room where she sat with her mother, and said that a gentleman was in the parlor and wished to see them. He had sent up his card.

"Mr. Burgess!" ejaculated Lucy, on taking the card from the servant's hand.

"I do not wish to see him," said Mrs. Ellison, as soon as the servant had withdrawn. "You will have to go down alone, Lucy."

Lucy descended to the parlor with reluctant steps, for she had little desire to see the man whose thoughtlessness and neglect had so cruelly wronged them. The moment she entered the parlor, Mr. Burgess stepped forward to meet her with a cheerful expression of countenance.

"Yesterday," he began immediately, "I had discouraging news for you, but I am happy to bring you a better story today. I have obtained a situation for you as a French teacher, in a new school which has just been opened, at a salary of six hundred dollars a year. If you will go with me immediately, I will introduce you to the principal, and settle all matters preliminary to your entering upon the duties of your station."

"I will be with you in a few minutes," was all that Lucy could say in reply, turning quickly away from Mr. Burgess and gliding from the room. Her heart was too full for her to trust herself to say more. In a moment after she was sobbing upon her mother's bosom. It was some minutes before she could command her feelings enough to tell the good news she had just heard. When she did find utterance, and briefly communicated the news she had heard, her mother's tears of joy were mingled with her own.

Lucy accompanied Mr. Burgess to the residence of the principal of the new school, and there entered into a contract for one year to teach the French language, at a salary of six hundred dollars, her duties to commence at once, and her salary to be drawn weekly if she desired it. She did not attempt an expression of the gratitude that oppressed her bosom. Words would have been inadequate to convey her real feelings. But this was not needed. Mr. Burgess saw how deeply grateful she was, and wished for no utterance of what she felt.

That night both Mr. Burgess, as well as those he had benefitted, had sweeter dreams than visited their pillows on the night preceding. The latter never knew how much they stood his debtor. He put in the advertisement which Lucy had read, and she was the person it described. Five hundred dollars was all the principal of the school paid; the other hundred was placed in his hands by Mr. Burgess, that the salary might be six hundred.