It was a bright day in early spring; large, fleecy clouds floated in a blue sky; the wind was cool, but the sun lay hot in sheltered places.
I was spending a few days with an old friend, at a little house he calls his Hermitage, in a Western valley; we had walked out, had passed the bridge, and had stood awhile to see the clear stream flowing, a vein of reflected sapphire, among the green water-meadows; we had climbed up among the beech-woods, through copses full of primroses, to a large heathery hill, where a clump of old pines stood inside an ancient earth-work. The forest lay at our feet, and the doves cooed lazily among the tree-tops; beyond lay the plain, with a long range of smooth downs behind, where the river broadened to the sea-pool, which narrowed again to the little harbour; and, across the clustered house-roofs and the lonely church tower of the port, we could see a glint of the sea.
We sat awhile in silence; then “Come,” I said, “I am going to be impertinent! I am in a mood to ask questions, and to have full answers.”
“And I,” said my host placidly, “am always in the mood to answer questions.”
I would call my friend a poet, because he is sealed of the tribe, if ever man was; yet he has never written verses to my knowledge. He is a big, burly, quiet man, gentle and meditative of aspect; shy before company, voluble in private. Half-humorous, half melancholy. He has been a man of affairs, prosperous, too, and shrewd. But nothing in his life was ever so poetical as the way in which, to the surprise and even consternation of all his friends, he announced one day, when he was turned of forty, that he had had enough of work, and that he would do no more. Well, he had no one to say him nay; he has but few relations, none in any way dependent on him; he has a modest competence; and, being fond of all leisurely things–books, music, the open air, the country, flowers, and the like–he has no need to fear that his time will be unoccupied.
He looked lazily at me, biting a straw. “Come,” said I again, “here is the time for a catechism. I have reason to think you are over forty?”
“Yes,” said he, “the more’s the pity!”
“And you have given up regular work,” I said, “for over a year; and how do you like that?”
“Like it?” he said. “Well, so much that I can never work again; and what is stranger still is that I never knew what it was to be really busy till I gave up work. Before, I was often bored; now, the day is never long enough for all I have to do.”
“But that is a dreadful confession,” I said; “and how do you justify yourself for this miserable indifference to all that is held to be of importance?”
“Listen!” he said, smiling and holding up his hand. There floated up out of the wood the soft crooning of a dove, like the over-brimming of a tide of content. “There’s the answer,” he added. “How does that dove justify his existence? and yet he has not much on his mind.”
“I have no answer ready,” I said, “though there is one, I am sure, if you will only give me time; but let that come later: more questions first, and then I will deliver judgment. Now, attend to this seriously,” I said. “How do you justify it that you are alone in the world, not mated, not a good husband and father? The dove has not got that on his conscience.”
“Ah!” said my friend, “I have often asked myself that. But for many years I had not the time to fall in love; if I had been an idle man it would have been different, and now that I am free–well, I regard it as, on the whole, a wise dispensation. I have no domestic virtues; I am a pretty commonplace person, and I think there is no reason why I should perpetuate my own feeble qualities, bind my dull qualities up closer with the life of the world. Besides, I have a theory that the world is made now very much as it was in the Middle Ages. There was but one choice then–a soldier or a monk. Now, I have no combative blood in me; I hate a row; I am a monk to the marrow of my bones, and the monks are the failures from the point of view of race. No monk should breed monks; there are enough of his kind in the hive already.”