Too Much Vinegar — and Too Little Honey!
By Timothy Shay Arthur, 1861
"He shall not get away with this, Mr. Jackson! I'll let him see who is strongest. I'll take the conceit out of him. No man shall ride over me after this fashion."
The speaker, a farmer named Milwood, was in a state of considerable excitement, as may be inferred from his language. There was trouble between him and a neighboring farmer named Bland, about a pair of steers which Milwood had bought from the latter, but which, on a trial, proved unsound. He had sent them back by one of his men, who delivered an irritating message, in a very irritating way. In consequence, the steers were returned to Mr. Milwood, with a stinging response — an intimation, that if he did not wish to get himself into trouble, he'd better keep the animals.
Post haste, Mr. Milwood started for the office of Mr. Jackson, a lawyer of the better class, who never encouraged fruitless litigation among his neighbors for the sake of simply making money; stated his case under a strong head of excitement, and desired the immediate initiation of compulsory measures.
"Take a little time for thought, Mr. Milwood," said the lawyer, after getting a confused and voluble statement of the case. "Bland is as stubborn as a mule, if you attempt to drive him."
"I don't care if he's as stubborn as forty mules; he shall take back that pair of steers. Jack Milwood is not the man to be juggled after this fashion."
"He'll never do it, if you attempt to drive him, Mr. Milwood. I've had one or two bouts with him; and he is the hardest kind of a customer. If you go to law, it will cost you both the price of half a dozen steers, twice told, before you are through!"
"I don't care, Mr. Jackson," answered Mr. Milwood, "I'll let him see who is strongest. I'll take the conceit out of him. No man shall ride over me after this fashion!"
"There are always two sides to a question," said the lawyer, "and one sounds very well — until the other is stated. Judges and juries understand this, as well as most people. Plaintiff and defendant, each looking only at his own side of a case, are generally confident of winning; but no result is to be calculated on with certainty. We can't always make judges and juries see with our eyes. Take my advice, and arrange this matter privately with Bland. Don't let it find its way into court. I think he's a reasonable man, when not blind and stubborn through excited feeling."
"He's a cheat!" ejaculated Milwood, with indignant anger. "He knew the steers were unsound, when he sold them. Fortunately, I've not paid for them yet; and I'll spend every dollar I'm worth, before he shall collect their price from me!"
"If that is the case," said the lawyer, "let me counsel a 'masterly inactivity' on your part, rather than offensive demonstrations. Wait until he attempts to force a collection. But, I trust, sober second thought will lead you to seek a compromise of the matter with Mr. Bland."
"A compromise! Never, sir!" And Mr. Milwood retired from Mr. Jackson's office in no better state of mind than when he entered. On his way home, he met Mr. Bland.
"Look here, sir!" he said angrily, "that was a swindle. You knew — "
But Mr. Bland turned from his assailant, and without a word of reply, walked away. His face was pale from suppressed feeling; his hands clenched so tightly that the nails almost cut into the flesh; his teeth set into a kind of vehement determination to punish the outrage which he had just suffered. To be charged with swindling his neighbor — this was beyond forgiveness!
"He'll be sorry for that, until the day of doom," he muttered, almost savagely, as he strode homeward. "A swindle, indeed! And I a swindler, of course — a rogue — a cheat! That's talking plainly. By all that's good and bad, he shall eat his words if it cost me every dollar I'm worth!"
On his way home, farmer Bland met his neighbor, named Jenkins, to whom, under considerable excitement, he told the story of his trouble with Milwood.
"Oh he's a cranky sort of a man, and always was; one of the kind that rides rough shod over the people, if they're fool enough to let him. He tried his game of bluster with me once upon a time, but you may take my word for it, he came off second best."
"As he will again," retorted the farmer. "There never was a sounder pair of steers, than those he bought from me; he's got to keep them. If he'd behaved like a decent man about it, he might have had his way. If he'd come to me as one neighbor ought always to come to another, and said, 'Mr. Bland, I'm afraid the steers won't suit me,' or 'I don't think they're sound,' and asked me in the right way to receive them back again, there would never been a word between us. But, to send them home, with an impudent message, wasn't the way to deal with Silas Bland!"
Now this Jenkins, to whom Mr. Bland was venting his indignation, was not a prudent neighbor, but a meddler in strifes. He took an evil kind of pleasure in fanning the flames of discord, instead of seeking to extinguish them. After parting with Mr. Bland, he fell in with Milwood.
"Hallo, old fellow! What's up with you and Bland?"
"Who said anything was up with us?" replied Milwood, who was already beginning to feel, since his meeting with Bland, a little regret for the rough way in which he had assailed him. Though hasty and passionate, and given to unreasonable bluster in the outset of an unpleasant matter, in cooler moments he was a right thinking and a right feeling man.
"I met Bland himself, just now," replied Jenkins, "and he's as mad as a hornet! He'll give you a rough time of it!"
"I'll give him a rough time of it!" said Milwood, his mind growing turbulent again.
"What's the trouble?" asked Jenkins.
"Oh, he tried to swindle me on a pair of miserable steers! A downright swindle!"
"He'll take them back, if not sound, of course."
"Then make him," said Jenkins.
"That's just what I'm going to do."
"I always thought him tricky and unscrupulous," added Jenkins, by way of inciting his neighbor to as antagonistic a state of mind as possible; "and I hope he'll get a lesson this time, that he'll remember for half a dozen years at least."
"He will, you may depend on it, if he doesn't get out of my way. I'm all riled up from the base attempt to cheat me; and when I'm riled up, I'm a sort of ugly customer, as Silas Bland will find to his cost!"
So the breach was widened by one indiscreet and meddlesome neighbor after another, until farmer Bland was induced to enter suit against Milwood for recovery of the price of the steers. They, in the mean time, were standing idle, in Mr. Milwood's stable, enjoying good feed and leisure; the price of their board being regularly charged, every week, by Mr. Milwood, against Mr. Bland, and it was his intention to sue him for the bill, after the case was decided against his neighbor, as he doubted not it would be.
Bland had called first on lawyer Jackson; but that right-minded gentleman having discouraged litigation in the case — another, and less scrupulous attorney was found; and by him proceedings were begun. He saw a charming entanglement ahead; and one likely to afford a year or two of pleasant and profitable service for himself. Mr. Bland was a farmer in easy circumstances, and could afford to pay costs and fees. So he made him believe that he was a shamefully injured man; and read him decisions from the law books which showed his case to be of the clearest kind and certain to end favorably.
"I am sorry about this matter, neighbor Milwood," said lawyer Jackson, when he was called upon to defend the suit. "I think it might have been arranged without going to law, and making more bad blood between you."
"But what can I do, Mr. Jackson? The animals are not sound."
"Have you seen Mr. Bland?"
"No, sir, of course not! After all that has passed, I can't go to see him."
"It would be best, I think, Mr. Milwood."
"Why should I see him?"
"In order to settle the matter between yourselves, like sensible men and good neighbors."
"Why didn't he call on me before commencing this suit? I'm the party aggrieved. He knows why I refused to pay for the steers. It isn't my place to go to him."
"I think differently, Mr. Milwood."
"And I am surprised to hear you say so, Mr. Jackson."
"The first provocation was on your side."
"On my side! I'm astonished to hear you say that."
Mr. Milwood really looked surprised.
"When you discovered that the animals were unsound, what did you do?"
"I sent them back."
"Before seeing Mr. Bland on the subject?"
"And with the animals you sent a message?"
"What was it?"
"I don't just remember now."
"Not a very pleasant one, I presume?"
"Perhaps not. I wasn't in the most agreeable humor in the world. The attempt to foist upon me a pair of poor steers annoyed me."
"You sent word that you wouldn't take them for their hide and tallow."
"That and other irritating things were said by your hired man."
"If so, they were said on his own responsibility."
"But, remember, they were received as coming from you, through your messenger. Now, I don't wonder that Mr. Bland was annoyed. You would have been made angry and resistant, under similar circumstances. These sharp sayings between neighbors are not good, and lead to a great deal of unnecessary trouble, as in the present case. Had you, on finding the steers not satisfactory, gone to Mr. Bland, and in a right spirit, stated the case, there would have been no trouble. He would have said: "Very well, neighbor Milwood; if you are not entirely satisfied, then send them back to me."
"No, sir; I don't believe a word of it! He got a bad bargain off his hands, and meant to stick to it through thick and thin. I've heard all about those steers. He only bought them a week before they were sold to me; and finding them good for nothing, deliberately swindled me."
"Now, don't permit yourself to use such hard language against your neighbor," said the lawyer. "I don't believe Mr. Bland had any intention to swindle you. All this trouble, is of your own brewing. There is too much acid about you, Mr. Milwood; pardon me for saying so. Too much vinegar — and too little honey. Now, it's a proverb as old as the hills, that honey catches more flies than vinegar; and you'll find it true in the present case. You've tried vinegar on Mr. Bland, and it hasn't worked well; try the honey, and my word for it, you'll find it acting like a charm."
"You don't mean that I shall go and humble myself to Mr. Bland!"
"Nonsense! Humbling! No man humbles himself in doing right. If you have made a mistake — then correct it; that is manly. You are very angry at Mr. Bland for not correcting his mistake in selling you a pair of steers, not up to the representation. Set him the good example of correcting your own error, and my word for it, he will follow suit, instantly, and your stormy sky will be clear again. Go to him now, in a kind, neighborly, Christian spirit, as you should have done in the beginning. Let him see the gentle and reasonable side of your character. Talk with him as a man to his brother. Use honey instead of vinegar, and then, if he will not do what is right and just, come to me, and I will undertake to defend your case."
Mr. Milwood retired from the lawyer's office in a better state of mind than any that had ruled him since the beginning of the trouble. He saw, as he had never seen before, his own wrong position. Mentally, he placed himself on the other side: and then it was clear to him, that if Mr. Bland had sent him back the steers with a rough and insulting message, such as his man had delivered — he would have revolted at it in a similar way. Most men can be led — and few driven.
But, it was a hard thing for Mr. Milwood to make up his mind to call on farmer Bland. There was something in this, very galling to his pride — something that, in spite of his better reason, he felt to be humiliating. Mr. Bland would think he was frightened by a suit, and feel that he had humbled him. On leaving Mr. Jackson's office, Mr. Milwood had done so with more than a half formed purpose to call on his neighbor; but suggestions of this kind threw him into another state of mind. He felt that he could not do it. That any consequence which might come, would be preferable to that humiliation.
He was walking along with his eyes bent on the ground, still in mental doubt, and with better arguments gaining influence in his mind, when he heard the sound of feet, and glancing up, saw Mr. Bland only a few yards ahead of him. It was the first time they had looked fairly into each other's faces since the beginning of this trouble. Mr. Milwood's feet were checked instantly. He stood still, and looked calmly — -what an effort it cost him! — at his neighbor, whose countenance was hard, defiant, angry. Mr. Bland paused also.
"There is one thing I wish to say to you, and am glad of this opportunity," said Mr. Milwood. His tone was serious.
"Say on, sir!" The farmer was as cold and repellant as an iceberg.
"There is only one right way to atone for errors, and that is to undo them if you can."
"Well, sir!" The farmer did not relax in the smallest degree.
"In the beginning of the unfortunate trouble, I was wrong in one thing."
"Ah!" A sudden change in the hard exterior of Mr. Bland was visible.
"I should have called to talk the matter over with you, in a neighborly way, before sending home the steers. I acted from a first impulse — and have been sorry for it since."
"If you had done that, Mr. Milwood," replied the other, in a frank, earnest way, "there would have been no trouble between us. I believe myself to be an honest man; and am always ready to do right when I am shown to be in error."
By an involuntary movement, the two men's right hands commenced approaching each other, and were clasped before either had recalled the thought of a present reconciliation — clasped and held tightly, in a mutual pressure. As they stood, thus, looking at each other — the hardness and anger went out of their faces; and the old softness and neighborly interest came back.
"Anger is a bad counselor," said Mr. Milwood, in a kind, yet serious voice.
"A very bad counselor, friend Milwood," replied the neighbor; "and if you are agreed, we will dismiss him now, and take Good Will in his place. Under his better guidance, I am sure we can settle this matter to our mutual satisfaction. The failure to do so, shall be no fault of mine."
"Nor mine," answered Mr. Milwood.
"I sold you those steers," said the farmer, "in good faith. I was not aware of anything being wrong with them. But if it is as you allege, send them home, and let the affair end here. I am glad to have met you."
"Ah, neighbor Bland; I see, now, in what a foolish way I acted," replied Mr. Milwood. "This taking it for granted that another means to do wrong, is neither just nor generous. We'll look at the steers together. Perhaps they aren't as bad as I've imagined."
"You shall have it just as you will," said Mr. Bland — "only let us be friends as of old."
And the matter was settled between them in less than an hour, to mutual satisfaction. Both were right at heart — both honest, and willing to concede under mild influences; but quick-tempered, proud and stubborn under provocation. There are thousands like them, who are enemies today, yet should be friends — enemies, because anger, instead of neighborly good will, has been taken into the heart as a counselor. If any such are readers of this simple story, let them act at once from the better impulses we may hope it has quickened in their hearts.