An Enhancer of Time
ALWAYS have I wanted a clock for myself. By ‘always’ I mean since I first cast a desiring eye upon the possessions of maturity. Such a wish has root, I am sure, among moral instincts and is a credit to the wisher. It has enduring quality, also, proving its worth. My yearning went through successive stages, fixing itself in turn on cuckoo clock, grandfather’s clock, banjo clock, but in time recognizing each one as not the thing of ultimate desire. A finer clock must be waiting somewhere.
But all this time I conducted no search for it. So peculiar a possession cannot be attained by ordinary way of traffic. You must wait, in a sort, for your clock to come to you. You cannot step out and buy one, like a kitchen range or a dictionary. An object so intimate must seek you, as well as you it. With all my eagerness to find mine, I yet hesitated always, fearful of not having the vision to recognize it when I saw it. It was far better to be without one than to attempt life with the wrong one.
Recently, however, my longing has been redoubled. I have acquired a house. That is to say, I have acquired the exclusive right to occupy it by paying monthly what is technically known as rent, but what I regard as an offering to the god of contentment. At this point of my account I am obliged to exercise great self-control, to keep from changing my theme and lucubrating on my house instead of my clock. No other subject could be so engaging — nor, I fear, so pervasive, so ubiquitous. All conversational roads lead to it; even bypaths and scarcely seen sheep-tracks bring me gladly homing to my theme. I look with wonder and puzzled admiration on people who are householders, even house-owners, and who bear the glory both lightly and modestly. I realize that I must have known scores of persons who have houses, even houses beautiful in their eyes, but who allow the fact to pass as a matter of course. Such restraint is to be emulated, and at this moment bids me not pause on my other joys, sweet though they be, but pass on to my clock.
Even my house beautiful did not bring a timepiece with it, and my mantel above my fire was still empty when on a golden day not long ago I wandered into the second-hand-furniture store which stands next to the place where a householder may pay her monthly gasbills. There ought to be some term more beautiful or quainter or racier than second-hand-furniture store, every syllable of which is prosaic, for that place of expectation and discovery and tragedy and plaintive romance. Every time you enter one it is an adventure in possibilities. This time I was following the lure of a tip-top round table, of which my Neighbor had told me. The second - hand - furniture-storekeeper— you can easily see the desirability of another word — denied having it, as they always do, according to some mystery of the trade, and I had to find it myself, as I always do, according to no mystery at all. It proved to be a disappointment, as also frequently happens. The man, when he had been introduced to it, said it was walnut. And when I found a broken place on one of its rounds where it flaked up in white fibres when scraped, he said it had been jammed and would naturally do that way. He spoke as if it were a bruised apple.
I was unconvinced, but I could n’t contradict a man in his own profession. So I merely stood off and put my head on one side dubiously and said that I did n’t like the lines of it, which is always a convenient thing to say when all your other objections have been overruled. Lines is the only word I know that applies to furniture at any time. Having said it this time, I regarded the matter as settled and myself as excused from purchasing, and turned away in a brisk business-like manner.
And there, at my very elbow, was my clock. I knew it at once and recognized it as mine — I who had laughed at love at first sight and raised my eyebrows over affinities! No one is so accursed by fate, no one is so utterly desolate, but there is a clock waiting for him somewhere if he will just delay until he has formulated his last and best ideal. As proof of that, here was the incarnation of my dream, my last and best — no cackling cuckoo-clock or pompous grandfather’s clock, or anything else but a little old mahogany Seth Thomas, right-lined and mellowcolored, dignified but genial, gracious though austere, self-contained yet temperamental. In literary quality it combined a humanitarian classicism with reserved romanticism; in doctrine it was, I should say, liberal Presbyterian. Along with its sociable air, it wore also the slight gravity which a clock should have, marking the reverence it feels for the time it measures. For adornment it wore, not the customary crude Renaissance landscape, but a piece of illumination in wonderful red and blue and gold, undoubtedly a detail from some fine old rubrication. At least, it had the combined mellowness and freshness of an old manuscript, and the faint, very faint, ecclesiastical suggestion which rightfully belongs to a clock. All in all, in richness of personality, my clock was surpassing.
All this I saw at a glance. Nevertheless I stayed my haste and made delays. You can’t spend everything you have, even on an affinity. I jiggled the pendulum and flipped the hammer, I raised doubts as to the wood and skeptically questioned the works — though all the time with secret apology. In the end the man was glad to take fifty cents for it. He could n’t send it home, since he did n’t deliver; but he could put it into a neat box just the right size — a second-hand box stood ready — and tie it with a second-hand string in such a way as to form a handle, and I could carry it home myself. I did so, speculating on how I should have carried the table home, had I bought it.
From this point on, I can best give the history of our relations, so far as they can be disentangled from my less important affairs, in the form of a journal. I never could keep a diary for myself, but there is a peculiar appropriateness in setting down in such methodical form the outline of one’s experiences with time.
Saturday, 16th. I brought the clock home. Perhaps I should say the clock came home, for I had as much a sense of being accompanied as of bringing. Without waiting for the polishing or adjusting which it obviously needed, I put it up on my mantel and it settled down with an air of satisfaction which gave sweet gratification to me. Even when we were coming home I had wondered how it would like my house. But it seemed to fit into place like an acorn in its cup or a flower in its calyx. It put, as I knew it would, the last and finest touch to my house, which I had thought almost perfect before. My Neighbor, who is a most sympathetic person, came in and rejoiced with me, as a neighbor should. It was with great reluctance that I left it and went out to pour at a tea. But my best thoughts and, I suspect, my finest conversation, were still with my new possession, and as the result of my eloquence a large part of the tea-guests came home with me when I came, to look at my prize. All the finernatured of them at once saw its qualities; I suppose there are always persons to whom a clock is simply a machine.
I sat up late to-night, merely enjoying it. It seemed like reëstablishing my house. For this is to be not simply a marker of time, but a marker of my time. No relation could be more intimate. It is to be interwoven in all my experience, to time my duties, and announce my joys, and limit my sufferings. Another self — if there is such a thing — could not be nearer. After all, our widest notion of existence includes only two eternities and a clock.
But I did not try to set it going; acquisition was enough for one day.
Sunday, 17th. My Neighbor came in early this morning — she never misses church — and we wound the clock and found that it will go. Unfortunately the pendulum-plate is missing — though I was sure it had one when I looked at it in the second-hand store — and the pendulum-wire waggles away nervously, with an erratic motion. There is an eager good-will about it, though, that goes to your heart, and shows what its fundamental disposition is.
Not long ago I took a short trip on a local motor train, which has a charming way of picking up and transporting the life of the people along its path. I have traveled all the way to California with less sociability than was condensed into those two hours. If I had time I should ride up and down on that road often, so pleasing is it. The chief interest was afforded by a large party who got on at Weston and got off at River Falls, where they were going to have a surprise dinner for old Mr. Daniel Bates — some of them called him uncle — who used to live at Weston and who now had ‘had locomotor ataxia for ten years, but was the cheerfulest thing you ever saw.’ They were carrying all the material for their dinner with them, even to the live rooster whom they were treating to a ride before putting him into the pot. ‘ Sister Aggie ’ sat with me chiefly, though they all changed places many times, and conversed agreeably about the symptoms of locomotor ataxia combined with cheerfulness.
My clock reminded me at first of old Mr. Bates. It certainly had the manner of locomotor ataxia, if I know what that is, but it was also the cheerfulest thing ever seen. It went five days before night, and even then indicated perfect willingness to go on if I would wind it again. But there was a pathos about its gay endeavor which I could not stand. The lovely lady who reincarnates Portia came in and said that it would not do; it must not be wearing its little heart out that way. So we went to bed in a silent house.
Monday, 18th. When I came in from a lecture this morning, my clock was ticking in regular rhythmic beats, with a serenity which showed it had returned happily to old-time habits. There was a complete at-homeness about it that was the most musical thing I had ever heard. I was willing to think that this was a natural happening, and sat down to listen to its systole and diastole, in perfect content. But my Neighbor came presently to show me that she had been in before and had tied two lead dress-weights to the end of the pendulum, with a pink ribbon. My Neighbor is both practical and æsthetic, as well as neighborly. She now had a proposal to make; she would put my clock in order for me and regulate it, for a consideration. A church society of some kind was requiring each member to bring to it a dollar which must not be part of her regular income, but earned by some abnormal form of usefulness. I don’t know whether the purpose was religious or purely economic — instituted to discover new industries. My Neighbor said that she had eighty cents already, and for twenty she would see that my clock went, and throw in the dress-weights and the pink ribbon. I am no bargain-driver and I accepted the offer, only stipulating for the usual guarantee of a year’s running.
Thursday, 21st. The clock is still going. I spent an hour this morning polishing it and bathing its face and hands. The very terminology of a clock shows how human it is. Its door-knob proves to be pewter. Its rubrication seems much finer since I cleaned the glass.
Even in all my yearnings for a clock I did not dream how romantic and subtle the relation with one would be. The sternest-faced one is not merely a monitor and a conscience. It is that, to be sure, when necessity calls, but it is also a companion, a sympathizer. It is your assurance of continuity and consistency of action, even of individuality. The very sight of its face gives guarantee that you are you and have been for some time, and that you will probably still be to-morrow.
Friday, 22nd. This is my birthday and my Neighbor brought me a brass pendulum-plate which she had wheedled out of a second-handed man. She took back the dress-weights and the ribbon. As this is a screw-up plate she thinks she will now be able to regulate the works better. I don’t greatly mind having them unregulated; for if the clock is fast, it seems to me to be so because it has an ardent disposition and an eager heart; and if it is slow it seems to me to be serene and quiet-hearted, and I like it both ways. I don’t care to have my clock keep exactly the time that every clock is supposed to keep. However, my Neighbor wants to regulate it.
Monday, 25th. I made a very annoying mistake to-day. In the midst of a call I suddenly remembered that the clock was slow, and I absent-mindedly rose and turned it ahead fifteen minutes. It was very tactless, and I was immediately embarrassed. However, my caller did not leave, but only used the occasion to remind me that last week when several agreeable persons were pleasantly drinking tea with me, I suddenly and quite irrelevantly exclaimed, ‘Listen! the clock is going to strike six!’ I was only wishing to call attention to the tone of the stroke. But I must be more careful, for they all went home very soon, and I remember that the last time they came to tea before that, they stayed until half-past seven, and everybody’s dinner had to be put back.
Wednesday, 27th. The clock has stopped.
Thursday, 28th. My Neighbor, who has not yet received her twenty cents, came and got the clock and took it home, uttering her intention of taking it to pieces and cleaning it. My Neighbor secretly wishes she were a tinker instead of a lady, and would like to have me buy a dozen clocks and let her take them all to pieces.
I let it go with trepidation, for it is, and can be, my only one, and there are clockmakers; but my Neighbor is a ‘magerful’ person and has me a good deal under her thumb, where she keeps me for the purpose of dispensing favors to me.
Saturday, 30th. My Neighbor brought back the clock, going briskly, and apologetic for its lapse. She found the lost pendulum-plate up among the works.
It was a rare union of heart and head, I must say. My Neighbor took home the pendulum she gave me for my birthday — for the nucleus of a new clock, I suppose. She now has both the dressweights and the pendulum. She also raised her price to a quarter, because her eighty cents have shrunk to seventyfive.
Tuesday, 3d. I have known clocks that, when you sat down before them, in front of the fire, would bid you not stay there too long — not more than twenty minutes at most, and they will tell you when they are up — but be off and about those duties. Mine is different. It beams at me sympathetically or joyously, according to my needs, and takes up our intercourse at exactly the point where we dropped it, and is always urging me to stay a little longer.
But there are people who are willing to know the time from just any clock.
Wednesday, 4th. Since its return, the clock has settled down again on the mantel with an air of renewed satisfaction, as if even its brief absence had added to its joy in being here. As for me, I find courage grow under its protection. I should find the face-to-face prospect of unmeasured time too appalling without it as an intermediary. It ekes time out to me by degrees and makes it a serviceable instead of an awful thing.
Still, it has its whims. When I try to write verse I find I must be iambic. I can’t get a dactyl or an anapest into the room. There are times when it insists on ticking off heroic couplets — a form I detest — to me, to a length that is annoying.
Saturday, 7th. I had to spend a large part of the morning rearranging my walls. It began when the clock, now thoroughly at home, said that, if it was to be on the mantel, it must be in the exact middle; and the lady who is Portia abetted it. So it literally threw out my magnificent Annunciation Angel, who had been supposing himself the greatest thing in the room. It also refused in turn Savonarola, and Michael Angelo’s notions of creation and an innocent etching — the last, because it looked too new. I spent more than an hour offering it pictures and having them rejected; and in the end it had its pick of my few humble treasures. I noticed that it finally chose the meekest and most gently orthodox of them all, ones which were quite willing to be subordinate to it. And yet through the whole performance its manner was so engaging and so whimsically deprecatory that I was rather charmed than impatient, although it spoiled my morning’s work. At the end it seemed to say quaintly, ‘Now wo are all perfectly comfortable’; and I was really as well pleased as it was.
Sunday, 8th. My Neighbor collected her quarter. I wanted to charge her for the artistic joy she had had, coming up here three times a day to tinker with a clock like this; but she said that a subtle pleasure of that kind could not be paid for in material form, and she would not try.
I am glad that the clock cannot indulge in reminiscence. I may be only a step-owner, but it is simply the mere accident of missing my rightful generation that kept me from being the original one. In all those sealed-up experiences of which I shall never hear, my clock must have had relations with people, even emotional relations, but I don’t wish to know of them. Anyway, I am sure it never felt for anyone else what it now feels for me.
Saturday, 14th. When I came in very late to-night from unprofitable occupations, my clock said very distinctly, ‘Wherever have you been all this long time? I have been looking for you for hours. Now light the fire and take that chair and let’s sit up late and think about things and have a good time.’