My Neighbor's

THE tenth commandment has never greatly troubled me. My neighbor’s house, his lands, his children, his man-servants, his maidservants even, I can allow him with a quiet mind; his ox and his ass far be it from me to lure into less juicy pastures. There are many people, and my neighbor is one of them, whose satisfaction flourishes only in a soil of personal possession. They are always scheming to bring the widest possible acreage of things under the sway of one little two-lettered pronoun. I for pure and unalloyed pleasure go to that which is my neighbor’s. Against his nine points of the law I set up my ten of enjoyment. What is mine has never held for me the irresponsible thrill of delight my neighbor’s yields. My playhouse of a cottage with its quaint inconveniences within and its close-shorn fringe of green without — a poor thing but mine own — impels me to neither rampant independence nor couchant apology. My neighbor has ample elegance for his body-servant, and all outdoors for his playground, but so far as I am concerned he exists for my benefit. Why, then, should I make covetous comparisons? True, he may have aims of his own; he is not one to adopt readily the low estate of a means to my gratification, — who would not be an end in himself ? — and it is not in human nature to recognize an unwelcome destiny without spectacles. I do not pretend to know his views; he speaks a language to which I hold no key.

My neighbor’s grounds run far back from the road until, shaking off the lines of artful naturalness they have been forced into by the landscape gardener, they lose themselves in a delicious tangle of nonconformity. Their master is no freethinker. His mind is an intellectual Noah’s ark. Inherited in pairs from his fathers, culled in couples from the books he read in his youth, ideas have made entrance from time to time as into a lifeboat warranted to outfloat the flood of new thought, and once within they have found security. My neighbor permits no leakage. I have a fancy he gives them air and exercise twice a day, when morning and evening he strolls with his cigar, never very widely, through his grounds. The gardens suffice for his constitutionals. Other minds have planned the direction of their paths, other hands have laid them out, and between their trim borders my neighbor’s feet walk placidly. His climbing roses fling themselves over the fence in an ardor of new emprise; my neighbor calls his gardener’s attention to their need of pruning. His is an existence doubling upon itself with comfortable complacency. A paradox is this neighbor of mine: the physical law of inertia personified, yet a busy man; an owner of much wealth, yet fully possessed of nothing; blind and deaf and dumb, yet saying, “I see, I hear, I speak — who to more purpose ?”

Last year he put in hundreds of bulbs along the path that wanders sociably beside the brook: crocuses spreading a many-colored carpet over winter’s ravages; narcissuses, companies of gay heralds, catching the May sunshine in their golden trumpets; flocks of tall iris, lanes of lilies, rich in Oriental splendor; and I know he never got half the pleasure out of them that I did. Really my neighbor and I are joint proprietors. He holds the title-deeds, I enjoy; he labors, I enter into the fruit of his labors. His is the substance; the earth of the gardens and their products, the wood of the trees and their fruitage, the sticks and stones of the house, that which may be billed, crated, and catalogued; mine is the glory of sunshine on dew-drenched flowers, the still delight of ferny woods, the fine-lined contour of rocks and trees and noble architecture, the intimate beauty of it all. And mine, I take it, is the more profitable ownership. The birds do not sing for my neighbor, his roses do not bloom for him; the alchemy of sunshine is to him a locked science, with him the silversmith of night holds no dealings. His responsibilities impoverish him. But I am carefree as a denizen of Vagabondia, without the drawbacks of such citizenship. I am rich in the secrets of field and wood, of garden and lawn, in the sight of my eyes and the hearing of my ears, and the worries of wealth are far from me. I do not dream o’ nights that tramps are rifling my imported grapevines, or that thieves are making off with my silver plate; fire and flood and insurance have no terrors for me.

There is no miserliness possible to the possessor of my wealth. It grows by giving. I share my riches with every passerby, — if he be blessed with the use of his five senses, and of a sixth, appreciation, without which the five are but half-senses, — and am no poorer. I would share it with my neighbor, but he knows no sixth sense, and I am not surgeon enough to quicken his mental vision.

Every theory has its parasite of fallacy. I have no justification for those who hold that enjoyment carries with it the right to personal possession. I should as soon think of clambering over my neighbor’s spiked stone wall and helping myself to his pears as of opening his gate and picking a bunch of his Jacqueminot roses. His house is crowded with books and pictures and curios from all corners of the earth. I may be the intellectual owner of an Aldine, but I do not consider myself thereby vested with the title to its print and pages. Before I go into my neighbor’s house and take a Corot from his walls. I shall have decided to try a few months of first-hand research in the subject, How the criminal classes live in the workhouse. The law does not concern itself with appreciations. Nowhere is it written: To him that hath shall be given of that which he hath not. The currency of enjoyment is not quoted in tables of exchange. Material wealth buys no spiritual possessions: how, then, shall spiritual wealth give title to material possessions ?

Being a woman, I realize that I am putting in jeopardy my reputation for truthtelling when I say that I do not envy my neighbor’s wife. I write it with trepidation. The words stare up at me with an air of stern Hebraic virtue. Yet there are hundreds like me, with whom it is not a question of morals at all, but of compensations. I have known women of indifferent character to be strict keepers of the law because of a complacent assurance that other women looked on them with longing. I have no such supposition as this in regard to my neighbor’s wife. I am convinced the idea of coveting anything of mine has never entered her pretty head. But I prop my moral scaffolding with the theory that if she were wise she would envy me. Perhaps it is as well she is not wise. The woman who would change her identity for another’s has said good-by to happiness. I can imagine but one fate worse than to be my neighbor’s wife, and that is to be his wife and understand the haplessness of it. So we two make interchange of wasted pity over a fence of neighborly civility.

I own there are times when the thought of her maidservants would go far toward reconciling me to her lot. The average servant is a will-o’-the-wisp. Now you see her, and now you see the week’s wash heaped in the middle of the kitchen floor, the unscraped dishes dumped in the sink, the little gray kittens of dirt frolicking under the tables and chairs. She belongs to that questionable order of small evils tolerated for the sake of ultimate good, plants which have always flourished on the shady side of the tree of ethical discussion. Expressed in ratio the formula for a model servant is evil Perhaps my mathematics are at fault, but I have never yet succeeded in getting one I could write above zero. Here, I confess, is the vulnerable point in my armor ; only circumstance — saint in cramped cloisters — saves me from sorry overthrow. My playhouse is, as I have remarked, small, almost painfully small; furthermore it is in the last stages of congestion. Already I am contemplating moving the piano out on the piazza and reversing the excellent advice of the Lady from Philadelphia. Otherwise even I might indulge in a little harmless wishing for a maid like those that swarm at my neighbor’s. My neighbor’s wife is a past mistress of the dexterous art of making and keeping servants. I sometimes fancy she must develop them by rule, the results are so irreproachable. Give her the rawest material, and in a month she has a cook from Arcady, a Utopian parlor maid, a waitress fit for the gods. And they stay, —how they stay! Only death or a man can drag them off.

But when I get a bit blue thinking of my neighbor’s maidservants, I look around, and laugh. The proverbial bull in the china closet would be a Lilliputian beast beside a maid in my playhouse. Verily I think she would have to sleep on the roof, or I might, sling a hammock for her beside the piano on the front piazza, — the refrigerator lives on the back porch, — but I doubt whether she would take kindly to such a camper’s arrangement, especially in winter. After all, the treasure of greatest price slips an iron hand into her velvet glove. Would I exchange my easy, undragoned solitude for the lightest rule of the most model servant ? On second thoughts, let my neighbor keep the clockwork machinery of his domestic establishment; for me the old sundial with nothing but the slipping shadow of my unstudied desires is still the best.

Another of my neighbor’s holdings from which I clear a clean-conscienced enjovment is one of his children. Your own children are either a rebuke to pride or a cause of vainglory, but how much solid comfort or discomfort you can take in your neighbor’s children! There is no prejudice of possession to deflect the eyesight, no cringing for their manners, no magnifying their brightnesses. They are a torment and a tease, food for reflection and matter for gossip, a terror by day and a relief by night, a diversion in free hours and a distraction in busy, a long way removed from angels, and sometimes not far from imps.

This child of my neighbor is a healthy little girl. She looks clean, until she begins to play, and kissable — when she is clean. She wears her hair in the prevailing fashion, cut short off in her neck and tied on one side of her head with a big bow. Her clothes are sturdy and plain, — my neighbor’s wife is, after all, a sensible woman. Should a stranger chance to speak to her at play, he would not think her an unusual child, yet to me she is the most delightful of my neighbor’s possessions.

Her name ? No matter. I did not wish to know it myself. I am distrustful of names; they are smiling villains, innocent-looking cheats, not what they seem. They look to be mere harmless bits of word-economy; they are really emotional shortcuts, and many travel therein. Because I happen to have been born very long after Adam, I rebel against being therefore cheated out of the freshness of my impressions. Habitual borrowers do not please me. If I would do a little independent thinking, if I would sound mv own possibilities of feeling, let me not be dogged by the thought and feeling of all the past crystallized in five letters, or in a dozen. My friends are too hot for knowing the names of things. Sometimes I think this is a children’s age, only the children are not young in years. These friends of mine have countless clubs, curiosity shops, where for a moderate expenditure of their curious coin they pick up glib phrases, pat combinations of words, which they fling around indiscriminately in their walks. It gives them such child-like pleasure to display their little learning! And when they have named a thing, they rest satisfied, not knowing that its subtlest quality has escaped them.

My neighbor’s wife has often urged me to join her club for bird study. “ Why, you don’t know the names of even the commonest birds,” she cries. And I do not. I have been at some pains not to be sure about them. A little ignorance is so much more comfortable to live with than a little knowledge. “A bird is as beautiful by one name as another,” I answer her. “ His flight is as swift, his song is as sweet, his life is as shy. Literary allusions to him are not the bird, they are poetry, essay, story. When I stand in your woods, and one flutters noiselessly to the branch over my head and flits again, I have no wish to squander my precious moment craning my neck to see if he has a spot on his tail, running through a catalogue of names, or ecstatically murmuring something that Shakespeare or Wordsworth or neither has said of him. I want no literature, no word with its definite associations to blot out from me that unlettered poetry of the woods which the first poet read untrammeled in the morning of the world.”

Of course she does not understand, but I can forgive her anxiety to supply me with a full list of birds’ names. What I do not like is her forcing the child’s upon me. We had become acquainted without my making the stereotyped bid for a child’s acquaintance, “ What is your name, little girl?” That has always seemed to me close cousin to the highwayman’s method. A child has as much right to the unlooted possession of its name as have I to my watch and pocketbook, and at the muzzle of the question it is no better defended. If my neighbor’s wife had not insisted on calling her small daughter by name in my presence, I might have had my choice of Margaret or Mary Ann. Better still, I should have brought to her acquaintance none of those preconceived notions, those shreds of remembered qualities and tatters of crisscrossed associations, that cling about a name.

It was five years ago when I first spoke to the child. She has bothered me a good deal since, but I do not haggle over the price of her friendship. We tramp and talk together, we explore the unfrequented corners of her father’s acres, and the odd nooks in our own thoughts. I air my prejudices, and she hers. Outwardly she is much the same little girl I first met, distinguished only in that she plays harder than the other children. But I can see she is growing up in more than stature (her brown head has crept to the level of my shoulder). I have a fancy that before long I shall be called on to share my subtlest claims to the joint ownership of my neighbor’s lands. Already his library is his daughter’s. Not as she will be some day, but still in a very real sense, she is rich in books. Long lines of calf and morocco bindings throng my neighbor’s shelves. On the margins of some he jotted notes years ago, with many he has never been on speaking terms, with none has his acquaintance passed beyond an impersonal intercourse. Not to my neighbor do the book people send their cards of invitation. But many a time in passing the gate I have hesitated, seeing the child at play, as I first thought, alone upon the lawn, — hesitated and dared not enter where so gay a company was gathered. It is not for a plain American, just home from a tramp, to mingle with King Arthur’s court, to feast with Robin Hood on the king’s deer, to jest with Rosalind, to laugh with gay Prince Hal, to bandy quips with Puck the irresponsible, to hear Sinbad the Sailor spin his yarns, and Old World minstrels sing their lays.

Where does the child get her appreciations. I sometimes wonder. What ancestor of hers loved the beauty of the world, and the wholesome sweetness of books ? Sensitiveness to these things is not in my neighbor or in his wife. Did they have its possibility once, and have they starved it to death ? You can kill a liking and a love. Neglect, starvation, the will power to drown the little blind kittens of a nature groping for light, — these are deadly weapons. Or may it be that this responsiveness has been developed in the child in answer to the impelling beauty of her surroundings ? has the outward moulded the inward ? Who shall tell ? Perhaps each surmise holds a kernel of truth. The child is a dreamer, and there is no sure rule whereby to account for such.

I did not know till lately that she was also a bit of a magician. Knights and ladies, monsters and children, a motley company now fall under her spells. Should she grow up to capture life as vividly as she has mastered fairyland, to weave in a many-colored web of words the warp of things that are with the woof of fancy, my neighbor will be very proud of her. With his blind old eyes that think they see he will look at her work, and will not understand. He will say “my daughter,” but he will never know a kinship closer than the physical, a possession higher than the material.