I HOLD society responsible for a great deal.
I wondered once where all the disconsolate came from, —where all the human wrecks tossed up by the waves of misfortune received their injuries, and what became of those who sailed from port in early youth and were never heard of more. I marvelled, too, that there were so many unhappy bachelors, so many forlorn maids, so many neither wife nor maid ; but at all these things I wonder no longer. I have solved the problem I set myself. Society makes them all.
I am not going to analyze society to please any one. I make mine own. Hyacinth, I dare swear, makes his. Why shall I paint it ? It is you, it is I, it is both of us, and many more. Can I sketch the figures in a kaleidoscope ere they change ? If I could, I might say what society is or was. To-day members of circles marry, or are given in marriage. Disease comes and war decimates ; foul tongues asperse, and the unity that was perfect is so no longer. The whole world is society, and I believe there was not so much confusion at the Tower of Babel after all. Men speak in different tongues, but their motives are the same in all climes.
I love or I hate my Celtic friend. The sea rolls between us, but from afar the same sun warms us. If he does a good deed, I shall applaud it ; or, if he is mean, shall I not smite him ? The world looks on, and puts us all to the test alike. We love or we hate.
Are there no Procrustean couches in these days ? If my neighbor is too short, what shall I do but stretch him ? if he is too long, I am the one who shall hack off his superfluous inches.
Ah ! believe me, sceptic, there is a mote in thine eye, but in mine there is no beam. It is I who am immaculate. “ The king can do no wrong.” I am a king unto myself; but, whether king or commoner, how lenient I am to my own faults, — how intensely alive to my neighbor’s !
If Kubla Khan decide to build his pleasure dome, — nay, if he but hint at it, — I set myself to wonder where he can possibly have obtained the funds. Not in commerce surely. Not in that vulgar little furnishing-store in which he has toiled early and late for twenty years. He is doubtless a spy of the government, — a detective of some kind ; and, now that I recall it, he certainly was away some time during the Rebellion. In short, there are many ways by which he may have procured this money dishonestly. Rather than believe my neighbor quite honest and beyond reproach, I discuss the topic of his supposed fall from virtue with our mutual neighbors, until at last I bring them to the conclusion I have long ago arrived at, which is, if the truth were known, that Kubla Khan is no better than the law compels him to be.
I do this, of course, solely from a regard for virtue, from a sense of duty. The times, I say in my discussions, are such that one must know his associates thoroughly; and so I believe, or profess to believe, K. K. to be a rogue rather than an honest, upright man.
I have a right to my opinion, have I not ? Most unquestionably. While this tongue and beard can wag, I will assert the privilege of free speech. But have I a right to traduce my neighbor? What business is it of mine if he has money, and sees fit to build a house with it ? Am I his banker, that I give heed to his concerns ? Why cannot I look on with delight, and even help select the site of the future edifice ? All of his previous life has been blameless and without reproach ; but now I suddenly discover that my neighbor is not trustworthy. Is this charity ?
Perhaps I do not touch upon Kubla Khan and his prospective chateau at all. My neighbors in the house adjoining engross my attention. Come ! let us watch for the butcher and the baker, that we may see what our neighbors’ fare is. I will engage that I can fix to a shilling the amount of their weekly bills. Such meanness are some people guilty of, that they live upon a sum that would not keep my boy in tarts. I am certain that our neighbors take ice but every other day in the summer, and if the milk they buy is not swill-fed, then I am no judge. The steaks are not porter-house, but rumpsteaks. Last Saturday night I saw Pater-familias bring home a smoked shoulder,— not a ham, because that is much dearer ; and — will it be believed ? — the bonnets the girls wear are revamped from those of last year. Young Threadpaper dances attendance upon them, and I am sure of all low things a man milliner is the lowest. Two weeks ago Pater-familias rode down town with me, and I saw upon his shoe an immense patch, while his hat was so shiny, with frequent carcssings from a silk handkerchief, that it seemed to be varnished and polished.
His clothes are very unfashionable, too. He is invariably a year behind the style ; and how can one respect a person who does not wear garments of the prevalent cut ?
There must be something mysterious about this man. If there is, I am the one to ferret it out. Let me see. His manner is reticent. From this I deduce the fact that he has at some time been a convict. All men who have been incarcerated are just so quiet. I was once in a jail in Massachusetts, with other persons, and one poor fellow, taking advantage of our presence, whispered to his neighbor, whereat the jailer swore awfully, and punished him ; but the rest were very quiet, just like my neighbor. It is certainly suspicious.
He is economical, too. Ah ! that follows quite naturally. Remorse has seized him, and he is now endeavoring to pay off his indebtedness, or do something else which I cannot fathom just now; thus making his family suffer doubly for his misdeed.
O, I cry in the pride of my heart, truly “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children,” and I not only fix the nature of my neighbor’s transgression, but the very jail in which he was incarcerated.
Fool and blind that I am ! If I had but a tithe of that intuition I boast, I might have discerned that my neighbor was one of those rare individuals we sometimes read of in tracts, but seldom meet in the flesh, — one of those heroes who fight daily battles with trial, temptation, suffering, and privation in many shapes, that he may live honorably before men, and leave a heritage of honor to his children when he goeth to his long home. I might have seen that this man worked early and late without complaint, that he might pay debts his dead father incurred for his education, and that the poor decrepit old lady whom no physician can cure is his mother. She costs him a pretty penny for her support, I warrant me, and accuses him in her dotage with harboring a desire to get rid of her. What wonder if he is reticent to the world ? Look in his eye. It is the eye of an honest man. Take his hand. ’T is a true palm, and many a beggar shall be refused at Dives’s door, but not at his.
But he is poor ; he looks downcast. Come, let us beslime him with the breath of suspicion. Let us gossip about him. Let us look askance at him, and direct our children to avoid his, — when they play their little hour, to run swiftly past that wretched abode of silence.
Silence ! said I. Ah ! that is a queer silence which reigns in my neighbor's dwelling. When he comes to his family there are shouts and laughter, and rosy-mouthed roisterers stand ready to pillage the plethoric pockets laden to the flaps with bananas and oranges he has starved himself to procure. I do not hear that he discusses his neighbor’s affairs, or that he distils into his oolong one drop of bitter scandal by way of flavor. Nay, I am certain that I might lose five hundred dollars per diem, and the world would be none the wiser through him.
So much for externals.
How sharply we see things which have no existence ! How quickly we discern faults in our neighbors, but how slow we are to find out our own !
Now I look at it, there is a grievous rent in my neighbor's doublet; but look at mine own. How it fits ! Is it not immaculate? I have a suit of character in which I am triply armed,—a coat of mail of reputation which I defy slander to pierce. The man who wrote
He that is up no pride,
He that is humble ever shall
Have God to be his guide,’’
knew nothing about human nature. I fancy I could teach that genius a thing or two. The springs of human action are not concealed to me. Ah, no ! I see them all, in my own conceit, and no mean motive of other people escapes me.
But how shall my neighbor fare at my hands in argument ? Well, I trust, if he agree with me. That is, provided he sees things as I do. If he sees the shield to be gold, and I see it so also, what sagacity he has ! what judgment 1 “ A man of fine talents,” I say to my son. “ See that you emulate him. Mark how quickly he grasps the same points that I did, — with what nice discrimination he avoids irrelevant matters, and treats only the main idea.” Next to myself, I say in my heart, there is no one but my neighbor who could have solved this riddle so quickly.
But let him dare to disagree with me,—let him say the shield is gold when I say it is silver, or brass if I like, - and what depth of stultification is too deep for him, —what pit of error too dark for him to stumble in ? He is a sophisticator, a casuist; he chases every paltry side-issue until his brains are so muddled that he cannot tell what he does think ; he is a mole, an owl, a bat; he is a blockhead, to boot.
What! differ from me? — the idiot! I say the shield is silver ; how can it be gold ? Is it not white ? doth it not glisten ? hath it not lustre ? what else can it be ?
My neighbor suggests sportively that it is tin ; whereupon I impugn my neighbor’s good-sense; and that is a logical conclusion of the controversy. It does not occur to me that a man may differ in opinion from his fellows, and yet not be a convicted felon or a disturber of the peace. His views are his ; foolish, perhaps, from my standpoint ; yet, because he is not so wise as I, is he any the less entitled to courtesy, to consideration and charity, — is he the less a fond father, a patriot, or an honorable man ? Why insist that of all the world I am sagest and always right ?
Why shall I break the images men set up ? Iconoclast that I am, reflection would show me what long years ago my copy-book told me, Humanum est errare, - and that violence, intolerance, and discourtesy are poor weapons to fight prejudice and bigotry with. Come ! let us throw them aside hereafter ; let none be persecuted or derided in social circles for their opin ions’ sake. There are more forcible arguments than vituperation and personality, and if we cannot convince, let us be content.
The world is made for all. When my Uncle Toby took the fly and let him out, he did as men should to others who differ in opinion. Go ! I say to the sceptic, the world is wide enough for thee and me.
At the commencement of this paper, I said it was no mystery where the disconsolate came from, — society made them ; and I reassert it as my conviction that the supply is far ahead of the demand. I say too many in society are hollow and false, and not true to themselves, nor to the instinct planted in every human breast.
By .word or deed I convey to my vis-à-vis in the crowded salon my opinion that our host’s daughter is a failure ; the money spent upon her education is thrown away. She has no air, no manner. no tone. My vis-à-vis understands me, and, taking her cue, goes to the cherished of her heart, and straightway repeats the slander, and we smile and smile and are villains.
“ Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, saith the Preacher,” and I say after him, Is there nothing but nettles in the world’s garden. — nothing but noxious weeds ? Have we no traits and sentiments which are lofty and ennobling ? Why cannot we see these and talk about them ? But whoever went to a party where the guests talked of virtue ?
Here is Straitlace. His wife is in the country ; he will therefore bear watching. Come ! let us invent and suppose, let us pry and peek. Ah, ha ! I see a letter, — a billet-doux, a delicately scented one, and he is so close to me in the cars that, by the merest accident I assure you, I am able to read the beginning, — “Dearest of my soul.”
There, that is quite enough. Dearest of her soul, indeed ! Do wives begin letters in that way ? Not many. Shocking ! Dreadful! And then my comrades and I roll the sweet morsel under our tongues, when, after all, the model husband was only reading his model wife’s letter.
Or look at this phase of uncharitableness. What a happy faculty my countrymen have for finding out each other’s business. I move into some country village, where a small but select community meet and agitate various topics for the moral regeneration of all. I am from the city, and therefore have some ways easily noticed. I am unquestionably “ stuck up,” and am hardly settled in my place before a tea-party is held, not to do me honor, but to sit in inquest upon me and my family.
Are our virtues discussed at the inquest ? Have we any good qualities ? Are we not almost outcasts ? How we drawl our words, for example. We wear white skirts, when balmorals are good enough for most folks. We starve our children, too, because they get only bread and milk for tea, and no pies or cakes. In short, how very far below our neighbors we are in social standing!
Go to, ye shallow dissemblers, retailers of scandal, disturbers of the peace ! Leave us in peace, and possess your souls in patience. We are human, and frail even as you are. We have faults and virtues. Why not extend the hand of friendship to us ? Why not be courteous, instead of making us detest your presence, — instead of souring our tempers, and making us feel as though every one’s hand was against us ?
There is that Abigail, whom I have often seen lounging at the next door below. She snutfeth scandal from afar. She heareth the whisperings and innuendoes of them that traffic in reputations, and she loseth little time ere she adorns the secret meetings of the conspirators with her presence. Away with her to the scaffold! she is chiefest among the malefactors. Offer her up a sacrifice to charity, and let none say nay!
Suppose I stand by when the talebearer begins his monotonous song, what am I to lose by keeping silent, as he tears my neighbor to pieces?
There were two maidens, saith the fable, one of whom was lovely to look upon, while the other was plain ; but when the former spake, toads and serpents fell from her lips, while from the unlovely lips came diamonds and pearls. I know which I should have wooed, and I hope won, for I value more a quiet life than false lips and a tongue that speaketh lies,
“ Speech is silvern, but silence is golden.” I shall be silent when the detractor begins his tale.
And feel for others’ woe,”
saith the poet, and, though he may be accused of uttering a platitude, I subscribe to it. I am willing to forgive and forget, instead of enlarging upon all the flaws, all the weaknesses, of human nature. I shall not thunder on the roor of some hapless wretch who has stumbled, fallen by the wayside, and cry, “ Come out! come out! thou villain, and do penance for thy sin.” I will rather give him my hand and help him arise. I will set him up again, and I will back him against all takers that he never slips again.
“ One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” saith another poet; but he meant good, not bad nature, for he knew full well how to set communities by the ears with his sharp sayings.
To-day it is the sister against her brother, the son against his father, and the world is so full of evil, if we might believe the scandal-mongers, that no good will ever exist again in it.
“Let those who dance pay the piper,” says Wordly-mindedness, and he chuckles as he says it for a sharp thing. But there are some who like dancing that have not the wherewithal, and to those I offer my purse. If a man fall down, I am not going to jump upon his back and jeer him. He has danced, and cannot pay now ; but what of that? Some day he will.
Here is one hand and one heart that shall never betray. Come to me, ye scandal-torn and society-ridden. Come to me. ye whom venomous tongues have harried, and ye whose characters hang in shreds about you, come also. Ye have faults, and so have I. Somewhere ye have good traits, and these are what I respect.
Let us defy the “ they-says,” and as for those whose shibboleth is, “ I have it upon good authority,” we will give them the go-by.
We will laugh to see the tribulation of them that sit in council, and hold foul revelry over their neighbors’ shortcomings ; they shall read of our resolutions, and there shall be no comfort in the cup of tea any more which Tabbies sip delectably, while they tear Miss Bright-eyes to pieces. There shall lurk a maggot in the shreds of dried beef which these modern ghouls rend, as they rend my fair name ; and may the biscuits be as heavy upon their stomachs as tale-bearing shall one day be upon their consciences.
Thou shalt not bear false witness.
If I am unlike you, gentle reader, guiltless of this crying sin. I know you will not condemn me, will not decry me, make little of me, or seek to poison men’s minds against me. You will have that charity for me which is not puffed up ; and where I err, or you are ignorant of my motive, hold your peace.
To-day there are dear ones in exile, or in the bonds of sin, for this very practice. There are lives hopelessly lost to virtue, and others imbittered forever. Families are separated, and high hopes and aspirations crushed, while the fountains of affection which should be filled to the brim afford only a trickling stream, or, worse still, foul lees which never will subside. There are shadows in many homes, and empty chairs that never will be filled. The child on the floor misses its playfellow, the wife her husband, the mother her son, the betrothed her lover, and still the tale-bearers go upon their rounds, and their feet never, never rest.