Timothy Shay Arthur, 1852
Always busy and always singing at your work; you are the happiest man I know." This was said by the customer of an industrious hatter named Parker, as he entered his shop.
"I would not call the world a very happy one, were I the happiest man it contains," replied the hatter, pausing in his work and turning his contented-looking face toward the individual who had addressed him. "I think I would gain something by an exchange with you."
"Why do you think so?"
"You have enough to live upon, and are not compelled to work early and late, as I am."
"I am not so very sure that you would be the gainer. One thing is certain, I never sing at my work."
"Your work? What work have you to do?"
"Oh, I'm always busy."
"Nothing — and I believe it is much harder work than making hats."
"I would be very willing to try my hand at that kind of work, if I could afford it. There would be no danger of my getting tired or complaining that I had too much to do."
"You may think so; but a few weeks' experience would be enough to drive you back to your shop, glad to find something for your hands to do, and to occupy your mind."
"If you have such a high opinion of labor, Mr. Steele, why don't you go to work?"
"I have no motive for doing so."
"Is not the desire for happiness a motive of sufficient power? You think working will make anyone happy."
"I am not so sure that it will make anyone happy, but I believe that all who are engaged in regular employments are much more contented than are those who have nothing to do. But no one can be regularly employed who has not some motive for exertion. A mere desire for happiness is not the right motive; for, notwithstanding a man, when reasoning on the subject, may be able to see that, unless he is employed in doing something useful for his fellows, he cannot be even contented, yet when he follows out the impulses of his nature, if not compelled to work, he will seek for relief from the uneasiness he feels in almost anything else: especially is he inclined to run into excitements, instead of turning to the quiet and more satisfying pursuits of ordinary life."
"If I believed as you do, I would go into business at once," said the hatter. "You have the means, and might conduct any business you chose to commence, with ease and comfort."
"I have often thought of doing so; but I have lived an idle life so long, that I am afraid I would soon get tired of business."
"No doubt you would, and if you will take my advice, you will let well enough alone. Enjoy your good fortune and be thankful for it. As for me, I hope to see the day when I can retire from business and live easy the remainder of my life."
This was, in fact, the hatter's highest wish, and he was working industriously with that end in view. He had already saved enough money to buy a couple of very good houses, the rent from which was five hundred dollars per annum. As soon as he could accumulate sufficient to give him a clear income of two thousand dollars, his intention was to quit business and live like a "gentleman" all the rest of his days. He was in a very fair way of accomplishing all he desired in a few years, and he did accomplish it.
Up to the time of his retiring from business, which he did at the age of forty-three, Parker has passed through his share of trial and affliction. One of his children did not do well, and one, his favorite boy, had died. These events weighed down his spirit for a time, but no very long period elapsed before he was again singing at his work — not, it is true, quite so gayly as before, but still with an expression of contentment. He had, likewise, his share of those minor crosses in life which fret the spirit, but the impression they made was soon effaced.
In the final act of giving up, he felt a much greater reluctance than he had supposed would be the case, and very unexpectedly began to ask himself what he would do all the day, after he had no longer a shop in which to employ himself. The feeling was but momentary, however. It was forced back by the idea of living at his ease; of being able to come and go just as it suited his fancy; to have no care of business, nor any of its perplexities and anxieties. This thought was delightful.
"If I were you, I would go into the country and employ myself on a little farm," said a friend to the hatter. "You will find it dull work in town, with nothing on your hands to do."
The hatter shook his head. "No, no," said he, "I have no taste for farming; it is too much trouble. I am tired of work, and want a little rest during the remainder of my life."
Freedom from labor was the golden idea in his mind, and nothing else could find an entrance. For a few days after he had fully and finally got clear from all business, and was, to use his own words, a free man, he drank of liberty almost to intoxication. Sometimes he would sit at his window, looking out upon the hurrying crowd, and marking with pity, the care written upon each face; and sometimes he would walk forth to breathe the free air and see everything to be seen that could delight the eye.
Much as the hatter gloried in this freedom and boasted of his enjoyments, after the first day or two, he began to grow weary long before evening closed in, and then he could not sit and quietly enjoy the newspaper, as before, for he had already gone over them two or three times, even to the advertising pages. Sometimes, for relief, he would walk out again, after tea, and sometimes lounge awhile on the sofa, and then go to bed an hour earlier than he had been in the habit of doing. In the morning he had no motive for rising with the sun; no effort was therefore made to overcome the heaviness felt on awaking; and he did not rise until the ringing of the breakfast-bell.
The "laziness" of her husband, as Mrs. Parker did not hesitate so call it, annoyed his good wife. She did not find things any easier — she could not retire from business. In fact, the new order of things made her a great deal more trouble. One-half of her time, as she alleged, Mr. Parker was under her feet and making her just double work. He had grown vastly particular, too, about his clothes, and very often grumbled about the way his food come on the table, what she had never before known him to do. The hatter's good lady was not very choice of her words, and, when she chose to speak out, generally did so with remarkable plainness of speech. The scheme of retiring from business in the very prime of life, she never approved, but as her husband had set his heart on it for years, she did not say much in opposition. Her remark to a neighbor showed her passive state of mind: "He has earned his money honestly, and if he thinks he can enjoy it better in this way, I suppose it is nobody's business."
This was just the ground she stood upon. It was a kind of neutral ground, but she was not the woman to allow its invasion. Just so long as her husband came and went without complaint or interference with her — all would be allowed to go on smoothly enough; but if he trespassed upon her old established rights and privileges, he would hear it.
"I never saw a meal cooked so badly as this!" said Mr. Parker, knitting his brow one rainy day, at the dinner-table.
He had been confined to the house since morning, and had tried in vain to find some means of passing his time pleasantly.
The color flew instantly to his wife's face. "Perhaps, if you had a better appetite, you would see no fault in the cooking," she said rather tartly.
"Perhaps not," he replied. "A good appetite helps bad cooking wonderfully."
There was nothing in this to soothe his wife's temper. She retorted instantly —
"And honest employment alone will give a good appetite. I wonder how you could expect to relish your food, after lounging about doing nothing all the morning! I'll be bound that if you had been in your shop ironing hats or waiting on your customers since breakfast-time, there would have been no complaint about the dinner."
Mr. Parker was taken all aback. This was speaking out plainly "with a vengeance." Since his retirement from business, his self-estimation had arisen very high, compared with what it had previously been; he was, of course, more easily offended. To leave the dinner-table was the first impulse of offended dignity.
So broad a rupture as this had not occurred between the husband and wife since the day of their marriage — not that causes equally potent had not existed, for Mrs. Parker, when anything excited her, was not over-choice of her words, and had frequently said more cutting things; but then her husband was not so easily disturbed — he had not so high an opinion of himself.
It was still raining heavily, but rain could no longer keep the latter at home. He went forth and walked aimlessly the streets for an hour, thinking bitter things against his wife all the while. But this was very unhappy work, and he was glad to seek relief from it by calling in upon a brother craftsman, whose shop happened to be in his way. The hatter was singing at his work as he had used to sing — he never sang at his work now.
"This is a very dull day," was the natural remark of Mr. Parker, after first salutations were over.
"Why, yes, it is a little dull," replied the tradesman, speaking in a tone that said, "But it didn't occur to me before."
"How is business now?" asked Mr. Parker.
"Very brisk; I am so busy that, rain or shine, it never seems dull to me."
"You haven't as many customers in."
"No; but then I get a little ahead in my work, and that is something gained. Rain or shine, friend Parker, it's all the same to me."
"That is, certainly, a very comfortable state of mind to be in. I find a rainy day hard to get through."
"I don't think I would, if I were in your place," said the old acquaintance. "If I could do no better, I would lie down and sleep away the time."
"And remain awake half the night in return for it. No; that won't do. To lie half-asleep and half-awake for three or four hours makes one feel miserable."
The hatter thought this a very strange admission. He did not believe that, if he could afford to live without work, he would find even rainy days hang heavy upon his hands.
"Why don't you read?"
"I do read all the newspapers — that is, two or three that I take," replied Parker; "but there is not enough in them for a whole day."
"There are plenty of books."
"Books! I never read books; I can't get interested in them. They are too long; it would take me a week to get through even a moderate-sized book. I would rather go back to the shop again. I understand making a hat, but as to books, I never did fancy them much."
Parker lounged for a couple of hours in the shop of his friend, and then turned his face homeward, feeling very uncomfortable.
The dark day was sinking into darker night when he entered his house. There was no light in the passage nor any in the parlor. As he groped his way in, he struck against a chair that was out of place, and hurt himself. The momentary pain caused the fretfulness he felt, on finding all dark within, to rise into anger. He went back to the kitchen, grumbling sadly, and there gave the cook a sound scolding for not having lit the lamps earlier. Mrs. Parker heard all, but said nothing. The cook brought a lamp into the parlor and placed it upon the table with an indignant air; she then flitted off upstairs, and complained to Mrs. Parker that she had never been treated so badly in her life by any person, and notified her that she should leave the moment her week was up; that, anyhow, she had nothing to do with the lamps — lighting them was the chambermaid's work.
It so happened that Mrs. Parker had sent the chambermaid out, and this the cook knew very well; but cook was in a bad humor about something, and didn't choose to do anything not in the original contract. She was a good servant, and had lived with Mrs. Parker for some years. She had her humours, as everyone has, but these had always been borne with by her mistress. Too many fretting incidents had just occurred, however, and Mrs. Parker's mind was not so evenly balanced as usual. Nancy's words and manner provoked her too far, and she replied, "Very well; you are welcome to leave."
Here was a state of affairs tending in no degree to increase the happiness of the retired tradesman. His wife met him at the supper-table with knit brows and tightly compressed lips. Not a word passed during the meal.
After supper, Mr. Parker looked around him for some means of passing the time. The newspapers were read through; it still rained heavily outside; he could not ask his wife to play a game at backgammon.
"Oh dear!" he sighed, reclining back upon the sofa, and there he lay for half an hour, feeling as he had never felt in his life. At nine o'clock he went to bed, and remained awake for half the night.
Much to his satisfaction, when he opened his eyes on the next morning, the sun was shining into his window brightly. He would not be confined to the house so closely for another day.
A few weeks sufficed to exhaust all of Mr. Parker's time-killing resources. The newspapers, he complained, did not contain anything of interest now. Having retired on his money, and set up for something of a gentleman, he, after a little while, gave up visiting at the shops of his old fellow-tradesmen. He did not like to be seen on terms of intimacy with working people! Street-walking did very well at first, but he tired of that; it was going over and over the same ground. He would have ridden out and seen the country, but he had never been twice on horseback in his life, and felt rather afraid to hurt himself. In fact, nothing was left to him, but to lounge about the house the greater portion of his time, and grumble at everything; this only made matters worse, for Mrs. Parker would not submit to grumbling without a few words back, which cut like razors.
From a contented man, Mr. Parker became, at the end of six months, a burden to himself. Little things that did not in the least disturb him before, now fretted him beyond measure. He had lost the quiet, even temper of mind which made life so pleasant.
A year after he had given up business, he met Mr. Steele for the first time since his retirement from the shop.
"Well, my old friend," said that gentleman to him familiarly, "how is it with you now? I understand you have retired from business."
"Oh yes — a year ago."
"So long? I only heard of it a few weeks ago. I have been absent from the city. Well, do you find doing nothing any easier than manufacturing good hats and serving the community like an honest man, as you did for years? What is your experience worth?"
"I don't know that it is worth anything, except to myself; and it is doubtful whether it isn't too late for even me to profit by it."
"How so, my friend? Isn't living on your money, so pleasant a way of getting through the world as you had supposed it to be?"
"I presume there cannot be a pleasanter way; but we are so constituted that we are never happy in any position."
"Perhaps not positively happy, but we may be content."
"I doubt it."
"You were once contented."
"I beg you pardon; if I had been, I would have remained in business."
"And been a much more contented man than you are now."
"I am not sure of that."
"I am, then. Why, Parker, when I met you last you had a cheerful air about you. Whenever I came into your shop, I found you singing as cheerfully as a bird. But now you do not even smile; your brows have fallen half an inch lower than they were then. In fact, the whole expression of your face has changed. I will lay a wager that you have grown faultfinding, fretful, and disposed to take trouble on interest. Everything about you declares this. A year has changed you for the worse — and me for the better."
"How are you changed for the better, Mr. Steele!"
"I have gone into business."
"I hope no misfortune has overtaken you?"
"I have lost more than half my property, but I trust this will not prove in the end a misfortune."
"Really, Mr. Steele, I am pained to hear that reverses have driven you to the necessity of going into business."
"While I am more than half inclined to say that I am glad of it. I led for years a useless life, most of the time a burden to myself. I was a drone in the social hive; I added nothing to the common stock; I was of no use to anyone. But now my labors not only benefit myself, but the community at large. My mind is interested all the day; I no longer feel listlessness; the time never hangs heavy upon my hands. I have, as a German writer has said, 'fire-proof perennial enjoyments, called employments.'"
"You speak warmly, Mr. Steele."
"It is because I feel warmly on this subject. Long before a large failure in the city deprived me of at least half of my fortune, I saw clearly enough that there was but one way to find happiness in this life, and that was to engage diligently in some useful employment, from right ends. I shut my eyes to this conviction over and over again, and acted in accordance with it only when necessity compelled me to do so. I would have found much more pleasure in the pursuit of business, had I acted from the higher motive of use to my fellows, which was presented so clearly to my mind, than I do now — having entered its walks from something like compulsion."
"And you really think yourself happier than you were before, Mr. Steele?"
"I know it, friend Parker."
"And you think I would be happier than I am now, if I were to open my shop again?"
"I do — much happier. Don't you think the same?"
"I hardly know what to think. The way I live now is not very satisfactory. I cannot find enough to keep my mind employed."
"And never will, except in some useful business, depend upon it. So take my advice, and re-open your shop before you are compelled to do it."
"Why do you think I will be compelled to do it?"
"Because, it is very strongly impressed upon my mind that the laws of Divine Providence are so arranged that every man's ability to serve the general good is brought into activity in some way or other, no matter how selfish he may be, nor how much he may seek to withdraw himself from the common uses of society. Misfortunes are some of the means by which many people are compelled to become usefully employed. Poverty is another means."
"Then you think if I do not go into business again, I am in danger of losing my property?"
"I would think you were; but I may be mistaken. Man can never foresee what will be the operations of Providence. If you should ever recommence business, however, it ought not to be from this fear. You should act from a higher and better motive. You should reflect that it is every man's duty to engage in some business or calling by which the whole community will be benefitted, and, for this reason, and this alone, resolve that while you have the ability, you will be a working bee, and not a drone in the hive. It is not only wrong, but a disgrace for any man to be idle when there is so much to do."
Mr. Parker was surprised to hear his old customer talk in this way: but surprise was not his only feeling — he was deeply impressed with the truth of what he had said.
"I believe, after all, that you are right, and I am wrong. Certainly, there is no disguising the fact that my life has become a real burden to me, and that business would be far preferable to a state of idleness."
This admission seemed made with some reluctance. It was the first time he had confessed, even to himself, that he had committed an error in giving up his shop. The effect of what Mr. Steele had said was a resolution, after debating the pros and cons for nearly a month, to recommence business; but before this could take place, the kind of business must be determined. Since Mr. Parker had ceased to be a hatter and set up for a gentleman of fortune, his ideas of his own importance had considerably increased. To come back into his old position, therefore, could not be thought of. His wife argued for the shop, but he would not listen to her arguments. His final determination was to become a grocer, and a grocer he became. No doubt he thought it more worthy of his dignity to sell rice, sugar, soap, candles, etc., than hats. Why one should be more honorable or dignified than the other, we do not understand. Perhaps there is a difference, but we must leave others to define it — we cannot.
So Mr. Parker became a grocer instead of a hatter. Of the former business he was entirely ignorant; of the latter he was perfect master. But he would be a grocer — a merchant. He commenced in the retail line, with the determination, after he got pretty well acquainted with the business, to become a wholesale dealer. That idea pleased his fancy. For two years he kept a retail grocery-store, and then sold out, glad to get rid of it. The loss was about one-third of all he was worth. To make things worse, there was a great depression in trade, and real estate fell almost one-half in value. In consequence of this, Mr. Parker's income from rents, after being forced to sacrifice a very handsome piece of property to make up the deficit that was called for in winding up his grocery business, did not give him sufficient to meet his current family expenses.
There was now no alternative left. The retired hatter was glad to open a shop once more, and look out for some of his old customers. Mr. Steele saw his announcement, that he had resumed business at his old stand and asked for a share of public patronage. About two weeks after the shop was re-opened, that gentleman called in and ordered a hat. As he came to the door and was about reaching his hand out to open it, he heard the hatter's voice singing an old familiar air. A smile was on the face of Mr. Steele as he entered.
"All right again," he said, coming up to the counter and offering his hand. "Singing at your work, as of old! This is better than playing the gentleman, or even keeping a grocery-store."
"Oh, yes, a thousand times better," the hatter replied warmly. "I am now in my right place."
"Performing your true use to the community, and happier in doing so."
"I shall be happier, I am sure. I am happier already. My hat-blocks and irons, and indeed, everything around me, look like familiar friends, and give me a smiling welcome. When health fails or old age prevents my working any longer, I will give up my shop, but not a day sooner. I am cured of retiring from business."