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The Art Of Leaving Off
by [?]

“That is what is meant by the saying that ‘brevity is the soul of wit,’–the thing that keeps it alive. A good joke prolonged degenerates into teasing; and a merry jest with explanations becomes funereal. When a man repeats the point of his story it is already broken off. Somebody said of Mr. Gladstone’s oratory that it was ‘good, but copious.’ Canaries sing well, but the defect of their music is its abundance. I prefer the hermit-thrush to the nightingale, not because the thrush’s notes are sweeter, but because he knows when to leave off, and let his song vanish, at the exquisite moment, into the silence of mysterious twilight.”

“You seem to be proving,” I said, “what most men will admit without argument, that ‘enough is as good as a feast.'”

“On the contrary,” he replied, “I am arguing against that proverb. Enough is not as good as a feast. It is far better. There is something magical and satisfying in the art of leaving off. Good advice is infinitely more potent when it is brief and earnest than when it dribbles into vague exhortations. Many a man has been worried into vice by well-meant but wearisome admonitions to be virtuous. A single word of true friendly warning or encouragement is more eloquent than volumes of nagging pertinacity, and may safely be spoken and left to do its work. After all when we are anxious to help a friend into the right path, there is not much more or better that we can say than what Sir Walter Scott said, when he was a-dying, to his son-in-law Lockhart: ‘Be a good man, my dear, be a good man.’ The life must say the rest.”

“You are talking as seriously,” said I, “as if you were a preacher and we were in a church.”

“Are we not?” said he, very quietly. “When we are thinking and talking of the real meaning of life it seems to me that we are in the Temple. Let me go on a moment longer with my talk. We often fancy, in this world, that beautiful and pleasant things would satisfy us better if they could be continued, without change, forever. We regret the ending of a good ‘day off.’ We are sorry to be ‘coming out of the woods’ instead of ‘going in.’ And that regret is perfectly natural and all right. It is part of the condition on which we receive our happiness. The mistake lies in wishing to escape from it by a petrification of our joys. The stone forest in Arizona will never decay, but it is no place for a man to set up his tents forever.

“The other day, a friend was admiring the old-fashioned house where I live. ”Tis a good camp,’ said I, ‘plenty of wood and water, and I hope it’s on the right trail.’

“Many of our best friends have gone ahead of us on that trail. Why should we hold back? The fairest things in the world and the finest are always in transition: the bloom of tender Spring disappearing in the dark verdure of Summer; the week of meadow-rue and nodding lilies passing as silently as it came; the splendid hues of the autumnal hills fading like the colours on a bubble; the dear child, whose innocence and simplicity are a daily joy to you, growing up into a woman. Would you keep her a child forever, her head always a little lower than your heart? Would you stand where you are to-day, always doing the same things, always repeating the same experiences, never leaving off? Then be thankful that the Wisdom and Goodness by which this passing show is ordered will not suffer you to indulge your foolish wish. The wisest men and women are not those who cling tenaciously to one point of life, with desperate aversion to all change, but those who travel cheerfully through its mutations, finding in every season, in every duty, in every pleasure, a time to begin and a time to cease, and moving on with willing adaptation through the conclusion of each chapter to the end of the book.

“And concerning that Finis of the volume, which is printed in such sober, black, italic type, I remember a good saying of old Michel de Montaigne in one of his essays,–not the exact words, but the soul of his remarks. He says that we cannot judge whether a man has been truly fortunate in life until we have seen him act with tranquillity and contentment in the last scene of his comedy, which is undoubtedly the most difficult. For himself, he adds, his chief study and desire is that he may well behave himself at his last gasp, that is quietly and constantly. It is a good saying; for life has no finer lesson to teach us than how to leave off.”

“I wish you would promise me one thing,” said I to my Uncle Peter: “that you will not leave off before I do.”

“Ah,” he answered, “that is the one thing that no man can promise another. We can promise not to break friendship, not to cut loose, not to cease loving, not to forget. Isn’t that enough?”

He stood up reverently and bared his head. The music of the long-metre doxology was floating through the open windows.

“Listen,” he said. “If that is true, what more do we need? We are all in His hand.”