It is rash business scuttling your own ship. Now as I am in a way a practical person, which is, I take it, a diminutive state of hard-headedness, any detraction against hard-headedness must appear as leveled against myself. Gimlet in hand, deep down amidships, it would look as if I were squatted and set on my own destruction.
But by hard-headed persons I mean those beyond the ordinary, those so far gone that a pin-prick through the skull would yield not so much as a drop of ooze; persons whose brain convolutions did they appear in fright at the aperture on the insertion of the pin–like a head at a window when there is a fire on the street–would betray themselves as but a kind of cordage. Such hard-headedness, you will admit, is of a tougher substance than that which may beset any of us on an occasion at the price of meat, or on the recurrent obligations of the too-constant moon.
I am reasonably free from colds. I do not fret myself into a congestion if a breath comes at me from an open window; or if a swirl of wind puts its cold fingers down my neck do I lift my collar. Yet the presence of a thoroughly hard-headed person provokes a sneeze. There is a chilly vapor off him–a swampish miasma–that puts me in a snuffling state, beyond poultice and mustard footbaths. No matter how I huddle to the fire, my thoughts will congeal and my purpose cramp and stiffen. My conceit too will be but a shriveled bladder.
Several years ago I knew a man of extreme hard-headedness. As I recall, I was afflicted at the time–indeed, the malady co-existed with his acquaintance–with a sorry catarrh of the nasal passages. I can remember still the clearings and snufflings that obtruded in my conversation. For two winters my complaint was beyond the cunning of the doctors. Despite local applications and such pills as they thought fit to administer, still did the snuffling continue. Then on a sudden my friend left town. Consequent to which and to the amazement of the profession, the springs of my disease dried up. As this happened at the beginning of the warm days of summer, I am loath to lay my cure entirely to his withdrawal, yet there was a nice jointry of time. My acquaintance thereafter dropped to an infrequent, statistical letter, against which I have in time proofed myself. But the catarrh has ceased except when some faint thought echoes from the past, at which again, as in the older days, I am forced to blow a passage in the channel for verbal navigation.
This man’s interest in life was oil. It oozed from the ventages of his talk. If he looked on the map of this fair world, with its mountains like caterpillars dozing on the page–for so do maps present themselves to my fancy–he would see merely the blueprint and huge specification of oil production and consumption. The dotted cities would suggest no more than agencies in its distribution, and they would be pegged in many colors–as is the custom of our business efficiency–by way of base symbolism of their rank and pretense; the wide oceans themselves would be merely courses for his tank ships to bustle on and leave a greasy trail. Really, contrary to my own experience and sudden cure, one might think that such an oleaginous stream of talk, if directed in atomizer fashion against the nostrils of the listener, would serve as a healing emulsion for the complaint I then suffered with.
Be these things as they may, what I can actually vouch for is that when this fellow had set himself and opened a volley of facts on me, I was shamed to silence. There was a spaciousness, a planetary sweep and glittering breadth that shriveled me. The commodity which I dispensed was but used around the corner, with a key turned upon it at the shadowy end of day against its intrusion on the night. But his oil, all day long and all night too, was swishing in its tanks on the course to Zanzibar. And all the fretted activity of the earth was tributary to his purpose. How like an untrimmed smoky night-candle did my ambition burn! If I chanced to think in thousands it was a strain upon me. My cerebrum must have throbbed itself to pieces upon the addition of another cypher. But he marshaled his legions and led them up and down, until it dazed me. I was no better than some cobbler with a fiddle, crooked and intent to the twanging of his E string, while the great Napoleon thundered by.