The Right to Be Happy

I

ALTHOUGH the sun had long sunk behind the trees, and the last of the afterglow had faded from the sky, we sat on in the garden. The air was warm and motionless; the day’s heat had, as it were, dissolved in a faint low mist which now lay along the far rim of the lawn like a gauze, blurring without hiding the forms of the shrubs massed there and the trees beyond. Overhead the heaven, starless as yet, held an opaque and wondrous blue. It too seemed veiled, so still was the air. The birds which at sunset had sung vociferously had fallen silent. Except for a gurgle from the stream, invisible beyond the bushes, and the faint whirr of gnats and midges, there was no sound. Trails of smoke from cigars and cigarettes hung in faint purple curls, and gradually dissolved.

We sat on. No one said anything. We were rather drowsy and pleasantly tired. Our gregarious impulses were fatigued, for we had that afternoon endured collectively one of the incidental penalties of summer visits in the country: we had been convoyed en masse to the village fête — the usual bazaar with the usual side shows, the usual heat, noise, ennui. Now the dim languor of the summer night was breeding an appropriate melancholy.

The dreamy silence was broken, characteristically, by our hostess. Her social sense was keen; solitude in any form had become unnatural to her and irksome. She was a handsome woman, whose age it would have been impossible to guess. The answer anyhow would have been irrelevant, for she had all the attraction of youthfulness of complexion and hair, plus the subtleties of a practised charm. She was charming; she was also rich, both in her own right and as a result of the effective exertions of her husband; intelligent, too, without any hint of that irony that frightens men when they suspect brains in a woman. Having married off her children, she was also free, with that superior freedom that comes to one who can look back on duty done, That she was generally believed to have been the ‘inspiration’ of a distinguished diplomat added a touch of special quality.

‘ Do you know,’ she said, ‘ I went into that frowsty little tent where the fortune teller was and had my hand read. I never had it read before — I don’t know why.’ She had extended a pink palm and was now intently scrutinizing it in the dim light. ‘Funny that there should be any meaning in these silly little lines. If there is —'

She paused. After a moment a man took her up. Somebody, obviously, had to do that. Norton, the novelist, — a baddish novelist, but successful and a notably good-looking man, — performed the duty.

‘Did she tell you anything interesting?'

Lisa sighed and then, in the semidarkness, smiled. We could feel if not see her smile as she answered, ‘Oh, yes. She said there was a great happiness coming for me.'

‘They always say that,’ grunted another voice, that of an elderly lawyer.

‘Well, why not?’ asked Norton, sharply. ‘You believed her, did n’t you?’

‘Why not?’ she repeated. ‘It’s about time. I’ve never been really happy — not happy as I could be happy.’

Involuntarily our eyes turned in the direction of her husband. Ever since the coffee had been taken away, a longish time ago now, he had to all appearance been asleep. Certainly he gave no sign now of hearing a declaration that ought to have been wounding to his self-esteem. His large inert form did not quiver; there was no automatic reaction visible there. She might have been looking at him or she might not as she went on in a quicker, sharper tone: ‘I don’t see why I should not be happy.’

To take this up in quite the right way was not easy. Even Norton seemed to hesitate. There was a moment’s silence. Then, on a rather squeaky note, there piped up the young man, just down from Cambridge, in whom our hostess apparently ‘saw’ something, though so far it had not been revealed to us.

‘I wonder,’ he muttered, whether anyone is really happy.’

Plainly he had not said the right thing.

‘Jim is happy enough,’ said Jim’s wife tartly, glancing at the recumbent figure in the deck chair. He was not snoring, though her tone suggested that he was. ‘He always has gone to sleep after dinner if he’s at home.’

‘That’s an asset, certainly,’ murmured Norton. ‘ I begin to see additional reasons for envying Jim.

‘But on a night like this!’ A girl’s voice now, ecstatic, passionate. ’How can he?’

‘Ah, but he’s wise; for nights like this’—the undergraduate took her up with the weary cynicism natural to his years — ‘are very disturbing.— Don’t you feel that, Jenny?’

Jenny was not the passionate girl. ‘I was puzzling over the color of that mist,’ she said dreamily. ‘It’s not green, nor gray, nor quite purple, though it is almost purple at the edges. ... I don’t know. I wish one could paint in the dark.’

He was not satisfied with this.

‘Does n’t it all make you long to be happy?’ he reiterated.

‘Happy?’ She looked up, as though surprised by his word. ‘But I am happy. Oh, yes, I am. As a rule. Without thinking about it. More often than not. And especially when I see something I think I can paint.’

He shrugged his shoulders and turned away from her to the eager girl on his other side.

‘You know what I mean, don’t you?’

‘Oh, yes.’ She was all there, at once. ‘Of course I do — only too well. It pulls at you — wakes all sorts of things in you. I don’t know what they are. They make me happy and miserable at the same time.’

‘Weltschmerz,’ Norton elucidated. ‘Yes, one feels it on a night like this. Nostalgia. The great artists give one that feeling always.’

She nodded. But Lisa was not to be put off with their vaguenesses.

‘Oh, no!’ she cried, candidly. ‘It’s my own happiness I want. The world is all right; it’s I who seem to be somehow left out. That fortune teller, and now this night—it’s all making me feel a kind of outsider. And I want to be inside; I belong inside. One has a right to that.’

The lawyer grunted. ‘It’s the common lot, you know. We either take the wrong ticket or get out, at the wrong station and can’t get back. The one we’ve missed looks nicer, but is it? Are any of us as unhappy as we’d like to make out? I doubt it.’

‘But happiness,’ cried the eager young woman, ‘is surely something more than just not being unhappy. That would n’t satisfy me. I want something positive — that’s what the night seems to know and to promise. That’s what your palmist meant, is n’t it?’

She rose to her feet, stretched her arms out, and with a quick glance in the direction of the young man from Cambridge walked across the lawn toward the bushes and the sunken fence between them and the trees. In another instant he had risen too and followed her. Together they disappeared.

‘Young woman of action, that,’ said the lawyer. ‘She’s going to make a bid for it.’

Jenny, a moment later, rose too. She moved toward the house, evidently intent on painting.

‘ Silly young ass,’ the elder man went on as she vanished.

‘How do you mean?’ asked Norton.

‘What? And you a novelist? Did n’t you see how he lost interest in her as soon as she said she was happy? As if that were not the one quality worth having in a wife! I’ve never married because I’ve never found a woman who would admit to it — to being happy, I mean. It may have been honesty on their part, but that did n’t help me.’

‘But surely,’ said Norton after a moment, ‘she ought not to be happy before He comes.’

‘Is she likely to be so after, if she isn’t; Rapture for five minutes, and then a life of boring recrimination — that’s what those two are heading for.’ He glanced down the garden.

‘Oh, not nowadays,’ Norton corrected him. ‘ There are no life sentences now. — Come and have a stroll?’ He had turned to our hostess.

She rose, slowly, and they too wandered off together.

II

For a moment or two silence resumed its sway. Then, with surprising feeling and precision, the lawyer began to whistle the love motif from Tristan. He whistled beautifully, and the notes floated out and seemed to hang suspended in the warm stillness of the night air.

‘Cunning old devil, Wagner,’ he muttered, more to himself, I thought, than to me. ‘He gets it all right. But they ’re all in it.’

‘Even nature isn’t innocent, you must admit. On such a night one can’t help having— funny feelings.’

‘No,’ he agreed. ‘No. You’re right there. Even I, hardened old sinner as I am, feel to-night as though I had a claim to — something or other. Dashed if I know what, though.’

‘What is odd,’ I went on, ‘is that one does n’t —at least I don’t — get them in the morning or in the afternoon or, often, when the moon is shining, in spite of all that poets have said about the moon. She, I suppose, has her own affairs. You don’t get them in the tropics, do you?’ He had spent some years in India.

‘Oh, no, far too hot. The sun, when it is a sun, gives you the headache rather than the heartache.’ He paused; then, turning on me, asked suddenly, ‘Don’t you feel that you have a right to happiness? The others all seem sure of that and Jim here has temporarily achieved it, I presume. I thought,’ he went on, as I hesitated, ‘that women all felt that it was waiting round the corner for them, in some shape or other, generally masculine. I read a book the other day, called The Right to Be Happy. It seemed quite an old friend. I seem to remember a whole flock of such books when I was young, all written by women, like this one — and that was what it all seemed to come to. Not, of course, that we are any more sensible. Some woman has got to give it to most of us. Funny how altruistic we all are, even in our egotism! Our hostess has hitched her wagon on to Norton, and he, perhaps, — though I’m more doubtful, — has the same notion about her. They’ve heard the “lonely blackbird fluting to his mate” as he does on the last page of a novel. That’s what it comes to.

‘Oh, let the solid ground
Not fail beneath my feet
Before my life has found
What some have found so sweet!

‘There it is, in a nutshell. No one you know has found it— but “some” have, and so I have a right to it. Lord, what nonsense it all is. And yet you, though you sit there so mouselike, probably believe in your heart that you have a right to it, too. Don’t say you don’t, for it will upset all my theories; or, what is perhaps worse, prove that, appearances notwithstanding, you, like me, are middle-aged — have passed the grand climacteric, the only one that signifies.’

‘You don’t believe in it, then — the “right to be happy”?’ I prevaricated. Unusual as he seemed, it was unlikely that he carried peculiarity to the point of preferring to listen.

‘Me? Oh, Lord, no — never did. I was brought up under a sterner dispensation than this. I was born in Scotland and bred on old Thomas Carlyle. All that the “right to be happy” ever did for anyone was to make him miserable. As if the thing were n’t hard enough without that! Take life as it is — not as you expect it is going to be, but as it is, for others as well as for you — and then, when you are trying to stand up to it, let this dazzle cross your eyes — this infernal notion that you ought to be happy, that you are hardly used if you are not — and you are lost. If we’d been trying to invent a dodge for making bad worse, this would have been it—this fantastic idea that we are born for happiness and, somehow or other, are being done out of our birthright. But you have not answered my question.’

’I don’t think I was born for happiness, if that’s your question. I’m not good-tempered enough at breakfast. But there are people, not me, who seem to me to have a sort of right to it. Beautiful people, for example.’

‘I wonder why? They have got so much — why should they have more?’

’To him that hath,’ I murmured. ‘And children: you can’t look at children without feeling that they have a right to it.’

‘Were you happy as a child?’

I nodded.

‘You were unusually lucky, then. You weren’t happy as a girl, were you?’

I shook my head.

‘No!’ he cried triumphantly. ‘And why not? Because you wanted to be — perhaps felt you had a right to be. It’s amazing how few people remember their youth. They prate away about youth being a time of happiness, in complete apparent oblivion of their own youth. They are surprised that the young people of to-day do not seem happy—as though they ever did. When one’s young, this fool notion that one has a right to be happy obsesses one, and the result of that is always the same. The only thing that makes me more angry is the modern “duty to be happy,”—all this mumbo jumbo of higher thought and spiritual exercises and “helpful” attitudes,— because it’s all a sham. O Pragmatism, what sins are committed in thy name! But you look skeptical.’

I hastened to explain that I had no doubts as to the devastating boredom spread in widening circles by those who semiofficially professed happiness. ‘I am only rather afraid,’ I went on, ‘lest you should follow Carlyle into what he calls “the worship of sorrow.” I don’t think he really meant that; but Æ, for instance, does talk seriously about making a God of Pain. That seems to me an awful trap. I’m not sure that the God of Pain is not more destructive than the God of Pleasure. And I still think that some people are happy — perhaps those who don’t think or talk much about it.’

III

’But of course they are.’ Jenny had rejoined us. She had come out from the house, through the verandah, so softly and swiftly that I had not heard her coming. ‘I am.’ We looked at her questioningly, and she went on: ‘Yes, I am. I know that it sounds uninteresting, but I like being alive. There’s so much to see — such a fascinating pattern weaving all the time. I’m only afraid of not having time enough, or not looking hard enough, to take it in. Such millions of things to draw, never twice the same. Those trees, now — they’re utterly different from what they were half an hour ago; and look at the way that white bit of cloud is drifting across and taking up the white of Nora’s frock, there among the bushes, so as to make a repeat of the design. Too marvelous!’ She sighed. ‘It’s a sort of warm glow inside one; and when you see how to draw something it leaps into a flame; or when you see the drawing done by someone else. The Sargent exhibition made me want to live forever.’

‘But,’ I said, after a moment, ‘happiness is n’t what you are looking for, is it?’

’Oh, no. It’s there.’

It was so much there that it seemed, as she spoke, to enwrap us. The very silence into which the lawyer had subsided showed that he too felt itfelt it indeed so directly that he had no impulse to break it . We sat and took it in, and it did strange things to us — or at least to me. I wondered whether our answer were not here: that happiness was after all not a thing in itself, but a by-product — an uncalculated and incalculable aroma that belonged to other things; that came when you were not looking for it and eluded you when you were. As I let my mind drift back into the past, following that thought of Francis Thompson’s, — ‘Happiness is the shadow of things past, which fools still take for that which is to be,’ — it seemed to me that it was so. An odd, disorderly series of sensations came to me. A sensation of leaves rustling all round me— silvery leaves, the leaves of the aspen trees into which as a small child I used to clamber and thence look down upon the garden from behind a moving screen. It was the leaves that came back now: the way they shifted and played in the light and the pattern of bright blue one saw through them. I could feel the sun as it filtered on to my face and on to my bare legs, curled round a branch of the tree — feel too the soft warm fur of the old yellow cat who used to climb up and sit beside me. Yes, I was happy in that old tree.

The next picture had even less ‘meaning’: the smooth shiny parquet of the floor of the great hall at college as I walked across it, my feet making a sharp clicking sound on its hard polished surface and giving me, at the time and now, a sense of the neatness and precise efficiency of those feet which did not seem to be mine, but did seem, as feet, to be good. A silly recollection, this, and yet curiously vivid and definitely happy. I recalled nothing of where I was going, across that shining parquet; but the pleasantness that it had filled me with at the time came back now.

Then waves of heavenly sound: the second movement of the Seventh Symphony, with the music turning and curling round me, marvelous white and blue and green like the water left by the wake of a great ocean liner; so heard and seen on one particular occasion — heard so fully, with such an entire oblivion of everything else, such a divine possession of the whole of me by it, that with no conscious effort the whole experience came down on me again and I relived its bliss.

Acuter moments of feeling I could call up. These came of themselves, with all their irrelevance and all their indestructible atmosphere. They came again, as they had come at the time, as things given, not planned or asked for.

The voice of the lawyer broke across my musings.

‘The fact is,’ he was saying, ‘that although people talk about happiness and bleat of a “right to be happy,” that is not what they really mean. Lisa — or the palmist for her—was more honest when she spoke of “ a great happiness.” Accent on the “great.”What they want is not happiness, but ecstasy. If they talked about a “right to ecstasy” they’d see what fools they are, and stop. Ecstasy at the best is a paper bag. When you squeeze it, it bursts. Wagner, there, was candid. His bags always burst. Look at Tristan or any of them.’

‘Is n’t there,’ said Jenny, ‘something about a right to happiness in the Declaration of Independence;

IV

At this point Jim suddenly and quietly woke up.

‘What on earth are you folks talking about?’ he asked.

‘The Declaration of Independence,’ replied the lawyer, truthfully if not very luminously. Jim and he were old friends and business associates.

Jim certainly was quick at the uptake. He glanced about him, took in the vacant seats, smelled the night air, and smiled.

‘Is Lisa instructing Norton in its implications? I should not have thought he needed any assistance there. He made his declaration long ago — to Minnie Norton’s considerable relief, I have always fancied.’

‘I see,’said the lawyer, ‘that you know your Declaration better than most of us do. Better than they do, I have no doubt. I was just about to point out to these young ladies that it by no means asserts the right to happiness, as seems to be assumed nowadays, but only the right to pursue it. The difference between a right to pursuit and a right to possession I need not labor. The Declaration is at best a Charter of Utilitarianism, the wisdom of our ancestors having perceived that it is actually less fatuous to pursue the happiness of all than the happiness of one — and most of all if that one is one’s self.’

Jim laughed. ‘Anyone can pursue just what he chooses. And,’ he added after a pause, ‘most people get what they want; that’s how you know what it is. You can always get what you want, provided your want has a shape and an outline and provided you will pay the price for it. You can’t expect to have the purchase money given back to you as a bonus. That does n’t happen in business; why should it happen in life? If I’m not happy, I can see that’s my own fault — I aimed at something else, and I’ve got it. I wanted to be rich, and I am rich. It would be pretty cheap of me to sing hymns of praise now to lovely poverty. That was open to me from the start, and I looked the other way. I leave that sort of facing both ways to Brother Norton. He can talk about a cot beside a rill if it amuses him; he can’t expect me to listen, when I know he could go and live in it tomorrow and that he won’t do any such thing in donkeys’ years.’

‘Yes,’I said, since the lawyer seemed to have fallen silent and Jenny was lost, in her own thoughts, which were probably entirely about color relations and values of another kind from that which we were discussing, ‘I agree with you about getting the things one wants enough to pay for them. But my difficulty is this: Is happiness in that sense a thing? That’s where I’m not clear. The other day I was at a children’s party — rather a nice children’s party. At tea one of the grown-ups asked the children what they would like to be when they grew up. The first little boy said he wanted to be an airman, another said a millionaire, another an engine driver, and so on. The last was a little fluffy-headed girl with very round brown eyes. She rather hung back, but at last she whispered that she wanted to be happy. Thereupon the boy who wanted to fly cried out, “But ‘happy’ — that’s not a thing to be!” And, thinking it over, I can’t help feeling that he was right. Is happiness a thing you can aim at direct — either for yourself or for others ? It seems to occur when you are thinking least about it. If that is true, it rather upsets your theory.’

Jim looked thoughtful. As he did not speak, the lawyer took up the word again: —

You said, just now, that you were not happy. What, precisely, did you mean by that?’

Jim laughed. ‘Oh, precisely, just nothing at all. Form of words. ’

‘You mean that one feels that it is distingué to be unhappy?’

‘Something in that. I dare say,’ said Jim. ‘But mainly habit, I fancy.’

’Hm, hm.’ The lawyer nodded. ’I think, though, you partly illustrate the view I ’ve been trying to put — that everyone consciously or unconsciously thinks that it’s the duty of someone else to make him or her happy. In your case the assumption would be that you don’t hit it off with your wife — I’m being brutal, but I know you won’t mind.’

‘Lord, no,’ said Jim. ‘That isn’t near the bone with me, you know. That’s what I’m trying to say. Why should I “hit it off,” as you call it? I’ve never made that my first object. Not even when I was what used to be called “courting” her. It’s never been more than a poor second with me. I know it. Unfortunately she does not know that exactly the same is true of her. Although, in her heart of hearts, she no longer expects happiness through me, she hoards a sort of grudge against me for not making her happy. And that even while she’s trying to get it through other people! Not that I blame her for the others; what I do blame her for is not seeing that flitting about is obviously fatal; if you shift your aim you cannot hit the bull’s-eye, and she is intelligent enough to see that. Poor Lisa. I think that she really is rather unhappy, largely because, for her, happiness is still a fruit on a tree — and a fruit somehow just out of her reach. And she has too much time to think about it.’

For a few minutes we all sat silent.

Of course, I thought to myself, we are all laying far too much stress on this. Happy or unhappy. Most people at any given moment are neither. The pulse beats normally until you stop to feel it. When you stop to ask yourself the question, the act brings dreams about your head. Variable as is human disposition, happiness surely can only be defined as the dictionaries define it — as ’a state of being content with one’s lot ’; and contentment obviously depends not only on the lot but on the temper — and the digestion — of the individual in it. Our lawyer friend would have added, ‘And on the degree to which he has learned not to ask others to give him what he cannot give them.’ Human variation means that, happiness cannot be a constant; means that Tolstoi was wrong when he declared, in words put most specifically in the opening sentence of the French version of Anna Karenina, ‘Tous les bonheurs se ressemblent.’ Externally viewed, it would seem that some of the incidents of mortality are happy, others not. Yet it was not on any calculus of incidents that I could classify the people I knew. Past joys made some bitter; past sufferings left others with a curious serenity — a detachment from themselves that rose above troubles under which others fretted and fumed. And, looking at it, I seemed to see this internal variability as independent of station, class, or ’lot’ in life. To the wellto-do, the poor may seem sunk in a drab wretchedness; to the poor, the rich lapped in happy comfort. Acquaintance with either dissipates such uniformities.

I looked around me, across the dim spaces of the garden. Then my eyes came back to our group and rested upon Jenny. She sat, her chin on her hand, staring out in front of her. Her expression did not suggest that she had heard what we had been saying; she was looking out, not in. As I watched her I seemed to see in that absorbed abstraction of hers the answer, or what was as near to the answer as I was likely to get, to the puzzle that teased me. Jenny was happy. She had said so, and I knew her well enough to know that it was true. Judging by extrinsic standards, there seemed no particular reason why she should be so; her life, for a girl of her age, was none too amusing. She was the youngest of a large and poor family; there were several girls in it, all attractive, none of them very successful, none of them quite in tune with their ‘period.’ She herself was not in tune; her work was good, but not in the fashionable modern way. That hardly seemed to perturb her. She was invincibly honest, and nothing could induce her, I knew, to paint anything but what she saw, and as she saw it. All her interest was in doing that. Her honesty in this and other respects, again, made her angular; she could not adjust her standards to what was expected. But there it was, for her, in its absoluteness and security. Her standard, her centre, was firmly fixed outside herself. Outside herself, but not, I thought, in someone else. There might be ‘someone else’ in her life, but she was not, in the last resort, dependent on that. She was disinterested; the pattern, of which she had spoken to us, weaving before her eyes had for her a beauty and a concern that were independent of her own part in it. And in her disinterestedness she found happiness — a kind of happiness, too, that in its degree, and with its necessary variations, was open to all.

Yes, I felt that Jenny gave me the key. It might be hard to fit it into the lock, but, as the Greeks knew and told us, all beautiful things are hard. So long as the question we put to life is ‘What are you giving to us?’ the soul will get but a dusty answer. So soon as it is transformed into an effort after understanding, the motes assemble into a beam of light.

‘Here are the others coming back.’

Lisa and Mr. Norton were in fact drifting toward us over the lawn. Lisa was a few steps ahead of her companion. Jim inspected them as they approached. He was very longsighted, and anyhow the result of long sitting in the dark is to give one something of the cat’s vision.

‘That, apparently, has not worked,’ he murmured. ‘Lisa’s fur is all stroked the wrong way.’

She was by now near enough to us to speak. ‘What have you been doing, all this time?’ she asked.

‘We have been discussing happiness,’ replied the lawyer.

‘Oh, happiness!’ she exclaimed. ‘I am sure there is no such thing!’