There were three neighbours who lived side by side in a certain village. They were bound together by the contiguousness of their back yards and front porches, and by a community of interest in taxes and water-rates and the high cost of living. They were separated by their religious opinions; for one of them was a Mystic, and the second was a Sceptic, and the other was a suppressed Dyspeptic who called himself an Asthmatic.
These differences were very dear to them, and laid the foundations of a lasting friendship in a nervous habit of interminable argument on all possible subjects. Their wives did not share in these disputations because they were resolved to be neighbourly, and they could not conceive a difference of opinion without a personal application. So they called one another Clara and Caroline and Katharine, and kissed audibly whenever they met, but they were careful to confine their conversation to topics upon which they had only one mind, such as the ingratitude of domestic servants.
The husbands, however, as often as they could get together without the mollifying influence of the feminine presence, continued their debates with delightful ferocity, finding matter in each event of life, though clear, and especially in those which had not yet occurred. So they had a very happy time, and their friendship deepened from day to day.
"I can see your point of view," one of them would say, after an apparently harmless proposition had been advanced. "Perhaps so," the other would reply, clinging desperately to the advantage of the first service in definitions, "but you certainly do not understand it."
Whereupon the third had the pleasure of showing that neither of the others knew what he was talking about. This invariably resulted in their combining against him, and usually to his gain, because he was able to profit by the inconsistencies of their double play.
But of all earthly pleasures, as Sancho Panza said, there cometh in the end satiety. The neighbours, after several years of refreshing colloquial combat, felt an alarming decline of virility and the approach of an anaemic peace. Their arguments grew monotonous, remote, repetitious, amounting to little more than a bald statement of position: "Here I stand"--"There you stand"--"There he stands,"--"What is the use of talking about it?" The salt and pepper had vanished from their table of conversation, and as each man silently chewed his own favourite cereal, they all felt as if the banqueting-days were ended and each must say to the others:
"Grow old apart from me,
The worst is yet to be."
One night as they were about to separate, long before midnight, without a single spirited controversy, they looked at one another sadly, as men who felt the approach of a common misfortune.
"The trouble is," said the Mystic, who disliked nothing so much as solitude, "we do not meditate enough, and so the springs of our inspiration from the Oversoul are running dry."
"The trouble is," said the Sceptic, whose doubts were more dogmatic than dogmas, "that our fixed ideas are choking the feed-pipes of our minds."
"The trouble is," wheezed the Asthmatic, whose suppressed dyspepsia gave him an enormous appetite, "modern life is demoralised, especially in domestic service. In the last month my wife has had five cooks, and she whom she now has is not a cook. Hygiene is the basis of sound thinking."
This sudden and unexpected renewal of the joy of disputation cheered them greatly, and they discussed it for several hours, arriving, as usual, at the same practical conclusions from the most diverse premises.
They all agreed that the trouble _was_.
To cure it nothing could be better than a change of air. So they resolved to make a little journey together.
They went first to New York, and the size of it impressed them immensely. The Sceptic was delighted with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, because, as he said, it was so unmistakably human. The Mystic was delighted with the theatres, because, as he said, most of the plays seemed so super-human. The Asthmatic was delighted with the subway, because, as he said, the ventilation was so satisfactory. It was like eating bread-pudding on a steam-boat; you knew exactly what you were getting; all the microbes were blended, and they neutralised each other.
Their next point of visitation was Chicago, where they had heard that a new Literary School was arising with a noise like thunder out of the lake. They attended many club-meetings, and revolved rapidly in the highest literary circles, coming around invariably to the point from which they had started.
"This is tiresome," said the Mystic; "the Oversoul is not in it."
"It is narrowing," said the Sceptic; "these people are the most bigoted unbelievers I ever saw."
"It is unwholesome," said the Asthmatic, "but I think I could digest the stuff if I could only breathe more easily. This wind is too strong for me."
So they agreed to go to Philadelphia for a rest. The clerk in the colonial hotel to which they repaired assured them that the house was crowded--he had only one room, a parlour, which he could fit up with three beds if they would accept it.
The room was large and old-fashioned. A tall bookcase with glass doors stood against the wall. The three beds were arranged, side by side, in the middle of the room. "This is like home," cried the neighbours, and they lay until midnight in a sweet ferocity of dispute over the moral character of Benjamin Franklin.
A couple of hours later the Asthmatic was awakened from a sound sleep by a terrible attack of short breathing.
"Open the window," he gasped; "I am choking to death."
The Mystic sprang from bed and groped along the wall for the electric-light button, but could not find it. Then he groped for the window and his hand touched the glass.
"It is fastened," he cried; "I can't find the catch. It will not move up or down."
"I shall die," groaned the Asthmatic, "unless I have air. Break the window-pane!"
So the Mystic felt for the footstool, over which he had just stubbed his toes, and used the corner of it to smash the glass.
"Ah," said the Asthmatic, with a long sigh of relief, "I am better. There is nothing like fresh air."
Then they all went to sleep again.
The morning roused them slowly, and they lay on their backs looking around the room. The windows were closed and the shades drawn.
But the glass door of the bookcase had a great hole in it!
"You see!" said the Mystic. "It was the faith cure. The Oversoul cured you."
"Not at all," said the Sceptic. "It was the doubt cure. The way to get rid of a thing is to doubt it."
"I think," said the Asthmatic, "that it was the nightmare, and that miscellaneous cooking is the cause of human misery. We have travelled enough, and yet we have found no better air than we left at home."
So they went back to the certain village and continued their disputations very happily for the rest of their lives.
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