IT is not the arguments and persuasions of the well-meaning that most often send the prodigal on his way back to the fatted calf and the robe and the ring of civilized life. It is much more frequently the haphazard vision of a stranger’s lamp-lit hall, the glow of a kitchen fire seen through an area railing, that wakes the unbearable homesickness, and suddenly renders the swine and the husks detestable.
Those who have experienced great sorrow or great pain know that the sharpness of the first hideous impression soon blurs, gradually becomes vaguer and vaguer, and, when time has passed, it is one of the hardest sensations possible to re-create in the memory. Great sorrow and great joy transcend the ordinary events of life too much to have an abiding place in a thing so small as a brain, — unless, of course, they obsess it to the exclusion of everything else. More often, however, the large experiences become anchored to the brain — or the heart, or the soul, or wherever the individual prefers to locate his emotions — by means of the small details attendant upon them. A man does not remember exactly how he felt when the news of a disaster came and overwhelmed him; but he is not likely to forget the gesture and expression of the messenger who came to tell him about it, or the first terrible words with which the news was broken; and whenever he hears and sees them repeated in other circumstances, he will feel the same sick dread creep over him which he felt for the first time when the news was fresh.
It is in such cases as this that one feels the peculiar significance of the remark — ‘little things are the devil,’ though the truth of it is not a whole truth, for there are some little things which are very far removed from the devil, indeed. The things that are dear to us, for instance, — we nearly always call them ‘little,’ however unsuitable the epithet. One of the broadest and most unproportionately broad Airedale terriers of my acquaintance is frequently addressed as ‘little dog,’ while the gaunt and not altogether prepossessing lady of the Charlie’s Aunt type is the ‘dear child ’ of the man whose bride she was some forty years ago.
We love little things, we hate little things, we fear little things; our lives are knit up with little things from the time we are born to the day we die.
Big things draw us up to Heaven or crush us down to Hell. Little things live beside us on the earth, eat and sleep with us, laugh and grumble with us, catch the early train with us, or make us miss it, irritate and appease us, — never let us alone for a minute.
That is why they are so much more important than the big things — the things that come only once in a way, at long intervals, and even then are nearly always the result of a hundred and one little things combined.
To be crushed by a large misadventure is natural, but to fall a victim to a series of petty misfortunes is humiliating. There are many who would prefer to break their necks once for all by falling off a mountain, rather than bruise their whole bodies and dislocate their tempers by the daily stumbling over a mole-hill. It is the little things that count, — the satisfaction of climbing Mount Olympus is a poor sort of attainment if the scores and scores of pleasant details which wait upon success be absent.
It is the fringe of a foam-flecked wave rippling through the edge of a sea-fog that sets us longing for the open sea. It is the sharp scent of azalea, sold in the street, that makes us wild for a game of pirates in the garden where we were children. It is the big things that blur and fade. It is the little things that bite their way into the memory as a red-hot needle bites its way into wood.
And that, perhaps, is the whole secret of the love and the hate we bear them, — these same insidious little things which so often pretend to hide themselves away in the background, when in reality they are the most important part of the whole picture.