"A day off" said my Uncle Peter, settling down in his chair before the open wood-fire, with that air of complacent obstinacy which spreads over him when he is about to confess and expound his philosophy of life,--"a day off is a day that a man takes to himself."
"You mean a day of luxurious solitude," I said, "a stolen sweet of time, which he carries away into some hidden corner to enjoy alone,--a little-Jack-Horner kind of a day?"
"Not at all," said my Uncle Peter; "solitude is a thing which a man hardly ever enjoys by himself. He may practise it from a sense of duty. Or he may take refuge in it from other things that are less tolerable. But nine times out of ten he will find that he can't get a really good day to himself unless he shares it with some one else; if he takes it alone, it will be a heavy day, a chain-and-ball day,--anything but a day off."
"Just what do you mean, then?" I asked, knowing that nothing would please him better than the chance to discover his own meaning against a little background of apparent misunderstanding and opposition.
"I mean," said my Uncle Peter, in that deliberate manner which lends a flavour of deep wisdom to the most obvious remarks, "I mean that every man owes it to himself to have some days in his life when he escapes from bondage, gets away from routine, and does something which seems to have no purpose in the world, just because he wants to do it."
"Plays truant," I interjected.
"Yes, if you like to put it in that objectionable way," he answered; "but I should rather compare it to bringing flowers into the school-room, or keeping white mice in your desk, or inventing a new game for the recess. You see we are all scholars, boarding scholars, in the House of Life, from the moment when birth matriculates us to the moment when death graduates us. We never really leave the big school, no matter what we do. But my point is this: the lessons that we learn when we do not know that we are studying are often the pleasantest, and not always the least important. There is a benefit as well as a joy in finding out that you can lay down your task for a proper while without being disloyal to your duty. Play-time is a part of school-time, not a break in it. You remember what Aristotle says: '_ascholoumetha gar hina scholazomen_.'"
"My dear uncle," said I, "there is nothing out of the common in your remarks, except of course your extraordinary habit of decorating them with a Greek quotation, like an ancient coin set as a scarf-pin and stuck carelessly into a modern neck-tie. But apart from this eccentricity, everybody admits the propriety of what you have been saying. Why, all the expensive, up-to-date schools are arranged on your principle: play-hours, exercise-hours, silent-hours, social-hours, all marked in the schedule: scholars compelled and carefully guided to amuse themselves at set times and in approved fashions: athletics, dramatics, school-politics and social ethics, all organized and co-ordinated. What you flatter yourself by putting forward as an amiable heresy has become a commonplace of orthodoxy, and your liberal theory of education and life is now one of the marks of fashionable conservatism."
My Uncle Peter's face assumed the beatific expression of a man who knows that he has been completely and inexcusably misunderstood, and is therefore justified in taking as much time as he wants to make the subtlety and superiority of his ideas perfectly clear and to show how dense you have been in failing to apprehend them.
"My dear boy," said he, "it is very singular that you should miss my point so entirely. All these things that you have been saying about your modern schools illustrate precisely the opposite view from mine. They are signs of that idolatry of organization, of system, of the time-table and the schedule, which is making our modern life so tedious and exhausting. Those unfortunate school-boys and school-girls who have their amusements planned out for them and cultivate their social instincts according to rule, never know the joy of a real day off, unless they do as I say, and take it to themselves. The right kind of a school will leave room and liberty for them to do this. It will be a miniature of what life is for all of us,--a place where law reigns and independence is rewarded,--a stream of work and duty diversified by islands of freedom and repose,--a pilgrimage in which it is permitted to follow a side-path, a mountain trail, a footway through the meadow, provided the end of the journey is not forgotten and the day's march brings one a little nearer to that end."
"But will it do that," I asked, "unless one is careful to follow the straight line of the highway and march as fast as one can?"
"That depends," said my Uncle Peter, nodding his head gravely, "upon what you consider the end of the journey. If it is something entirely outside of yourself, a certain stint of work which you were created to perform; or if it is something altogether beyond yourself, a certain place or office at which you are aiming to arrive; then, of course, you must stick to the highway and hurry along.
"But suppose that the real end of your journey is something of which you yourself are a part. Suppose it is not merely to get to a certain place, but to get there in a certain condition, with the light of a sane joy in your eyes and the peace of a grateful content in your heart. Suppose it is not merely to do a certain piece of work, but to do it in a certain spirit, cheerfully and bravely and modestly, without overrating its importance or overlooking its necessity. Then, I fancy, you may find that the winding foot-path among the hills often helps you on your way as much as the high road, the day off among the islands of repose gives you a steadier hand and a braver heart to make your voyage along the stream of duty."
"You may skip the moralizing, if you please, Uncle Peter," said I, "and concentrate your mind upon giving me a reasonable account of the peculiar happiness of what you call a day off."
"Nothing could be simpler," he answered. "It is the joy of getting out of the harness that makes a horse fling up his heels, and gallop around the field, and roll over and over in the grass, when he is turned loose in the pasture. It is the impulse of pure play that makes a little bunch of wild ducks chase one another round and round on the water, and follow their leader in circles and figures of eight; there is no possible use in it, but it gratifies their instinct of freedom and makes them feel that they are not mere animal automata, whatever the natural history men may say to the contrary. It is the sense of release that a man experiences when he unbuckles the straps of his knapsack, and lays it down under a tree, and says 'You stay there till I come back for you! I'm going to rest myself by climbing this hill, just because it is not on the road-map, and because there is nothing at the top of it except the view.'
"It is this feeling of escape," he continued, in the tone of a man who has shaken off the harness of polite conversation and let himself go for a gallop around the field of monologue, "it is just this exhilarating sense of liberation that is lacking in most of our social amusements and recreations. They are dictated by fashion and directed by routine. Men get into the so-called 'round of pleasure,' and they are driven into a trot to keep up with it, just as if it were a treadmill. The only difference is that the pleasure-mill grinds no corn. Harry Bellairs was complaining to me, the other day, that after an exhausting season of cotillons in New York, he had been running his motor-car through immense fatigues in France and Italy, and had returned barely in time to do his duty by his salmon-river in Canada, work his new boat through the annual cruise of the yacht club, finish up a round of house-parties at Bar Harbor and Lenox, and get ready for the partridge-shooting in England with his friend the Duke of Bangham,--it was a dog's life, he said, and he had no time to himself at all. I rather pitied him; he looked so frayed. It seems to me that the best way for a man or a woman of pleasure to get a day off would be to do a little honest work.
"You see it is the change that makes the charm of a day off. The real joy of leisure is known only to the people who have contracted the habit of work without becoming enslaved to the vice of overwork.
"A hobby is the best thing in the world for a man with a serious vocation. It keeps him from getting muscle-bound in his own task. It helps to save him from the mistake of supposing that it is his little tick-tack that keeps the universe a-going. It leads him out, on off days, away from his own garden corner into curious and interesting regions of this wide and various earth, of which, after all, he is a citizen.
"Do you happen to know the Reverend Doctor McHook? He is a learned preacher, a devoted churchman, a faithful minister; and in addition to this he has an extra-parochial affection for ants and spiders. He can spend a happy day in watching the busy affairs of a formicary, and to observe the progress of a bit of spider-web architecture gives him a peculiar joy. There are some severe and sour-complexioned theologians who would call this devotion to objects so far outside of his parish an illicit passion. But to me it seems a blessing conferred by heavenly wisdom upon a good man, and I doubt not he escapes from many an insoluble theological puzzle, and perhaps from many an unprofitable religious wrangle, to find refreshment and invigoration in the society of his many-legged friends."
"You are moralizing again, Uncle Peter," I objected; "or at least you are getting ready to do so. Stop it; and give me a working definition of the difference between a hobby and a fad."
"Let me give you an anecdote," said he, "instead of a definition. There was a friend of mine who went to visit a famous asylum for the insane. Among the patients who were amusing themselves in the great hall, he saw an old gentleman with a long white beard, who was sitting astride of a chair, spurring its legs with his heels, holding both ends of his handkerchief which he had knotted around the back, and crying 'Get up, get up! G'long boy, steady!' with the utmost animation. 'You seem to be having a fine ride, sir,' said my friend. 'Capital,' said the old gentleman, 'this is a first-rate mount that I am riding.' 'Permit me to inquire,' asked my friend, 'whether it is a fad or a hobby?' 'Why, certainly!' replied the old gentleman, with a quizzical look. 'It is a hobby, you see, for I can get off whenever I have a mind to.' And with that he dismounted and walked into the garden.
"It is just this liberty of getting off that marks the superiority of a hobby to a fad. The game that you feel obliged to play every day at the same hour ceases to amuse you as soon as you realize that it is a diurnal duty. Regular exercise is good for the muscles, but there must be a bit of pure fun mixed with the sport that is to refresh your heart.
"A tour in Europe, carefully mapped out with an elaborate itinerary and a carefully connected timetable, may be full of instruction, but it often becomes a tax upon the spirit and a weariness to the flesh. Compulsory castles and mandatory museums and required ruins pall upon you, as you hurry from one to another, vaguely agitated by the fear that you may miss something that is marked with a star in the guide-book, and so be compelled to confess to your neighbour at the _table-d'hote_ that you have failed to see what he promptly and joyfully assures you is 'the best thing in the whole trip,' Delicate and sensitive people have been killed by taking a vacation in that way.
"I remember meeting, several years ago, a party of personally conducted tourists in Venice, at the hour which their itinerary consecrated to the enjoyment of the fine arts in the gallery of the Academy. Their personal conductor led them into one of the great rooms, and they gathered close around him, with an air of determination on their tired faces, listening to his brief, dry patter about the famous pictures that the room contained. He stood in the centre of the room holding his watch in his hand while they dispersed themselves around the walls, looking for the paintings which they ought to see, like chickens searching for scattered grains of corn. At the expiration of five minutes he clapped his hands sharply; his flock scurried back to him; and they moved on to 'do' the next room.
"I suppose that was one way of seeing Venice: but I would much rather sit at a little table on the _Riva degli Schiavoni_, with a plate of bread and cheese and a _mezzo_ of Chianti before me, watching the motley crowd in the street and the many-coloured sails in the harbour; or spend a lazy afternoon in a gondola, floating through watery alley-ways that lead nowhere, and under the facades of beautiful palaces whose names I did not even care to know. Of course I should like to see a fine picture or a noble church, now and then; but only one at a time, if you please; and that one I should wish to look at as long as it said anything to me, and to revisit as often as it called me."
"That is because you have no idea of the educational uses of a vacation, Uncle Peter," said I. "You are an unsystematic person, an incorrigible idler."
"I am," he answered, without a sign of penitence, "that is precisely what I am,--in my days off. Otherwise I should not get the good of them. Even a hobby, on such days, is to be used chiefly for its lateral advantages,--the open doors of the sideshows to which it brings you, the unexpected opportunities of dismounting and tying your hobby to a tree, while you follow the trail of something strange and attractive, as Moses did when he turned aside from his shepherding on Mount Horeb and climbed up among the rocks to see the burning bush.
"The value of a favourite pursuit lies not only in its calculated results but also in its by-products. You may become a collector of almost anything in the world,--orchids, postage-stamps, flint arrowheads, cook-books, varieties of the game of cat's cradle,--and if you chase your trifle in the right spirit it will lead you into pleasant surprises and bring you acquainted with delightful or amusing people. You remember when you went with Professor Rinascimento on a Della Robbia hunt among the hill towns of Italy, and how you came by accident into that deep green valley where there are more nightingales with sweeter voices than anywhere else on earth? Your best _trouvaille_ on that expedition was hidden in those undreamed-of nights of moonlight and music. And it was when you were chasing first editions of Tennyson, was it not, that you discovered your little head of a marble faun, which you vow is by Donatello, or one of his pupils? And what was it that you told me about the rare friend you found when you took a couple of days off in an ancient French town, on a flying journey from Rome to London? Believe me, dear boy, all that we win by effort and intention is sometimes overtopped by a gift that is conferred upon us out of a secret and mysterious generosity. Wordsworth was right:
"'Think you, 'mid all this mighty sum
Of things forever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?'"
"You talk," said I, "as if you thought it was a man's duty to be happy."
"I do," he answered firmly, "that is precisely and definitely what I think. It is not his chief duty, nor his only duty, nor his duty all the time. But the normal man is not intended to go through this world without learning what happiness means. If he does so he misses something that he needs to complete his nature and perfect his experience. 'Tis a poor, frail plant that can not endure the wind and the rain and the winter's cold. But is it a good plant that will not respond to the quickening touch of spring and send out its sweet odours in the embracing warmth of the summer night? Suppose that you had made a house for a child, and given him a corner of the garden to keep, and set him lessons and tasks, and provided him with teachers and masters. Would you be satisfied with that child, however diligent and obedient, if you found that he was never happy, never enjoyed a holiday, never said to himself and to you, 'What a good place this is, and how glad I am to live here'?"
"Probably not," I answered, "but that is because I should be selfish enough to find a pleasure of my own in his happiness. I should like to take a day off with him, now and then, and his gladness would increase my enjoyment. There is no morality in that. It is simply natural. We are all made that way."
"Well," said my Uncle Peter, "if we are made that way we must take it into account in our philosophy of life. The fact that it is natural is not a sufficient reason for concluding that it is bad. There is an old and wonderful book which describes the creation of the world in poetic language; and when I read that description it makes me feel sure that something like this was purposely woven into the very web of life. After the six mystical days of making things and putting things in order, says this beautiful old book, the Person who had been doing it all took a day to Himself, in which He 'rested from all the things that He had created and made,' and looked at them, and saw how good they were. His work was not ended, of course, for it has been going on ever since, and will go on for ages of ages. But in the midst of it all it seemed right to Him to take a divine day off. And His example is commended to us for imitation because we are made in His likeness and have the same desire to enjoy as well as to create.
"Do you remember what the Wisest of all Masters said to his disciples when they were outworn by the weight of their work and the pressure of the crowd upon them? 'Come ye yourselves apart into a lonely place, and rest awhile.' He would never have bidden them do that, unless it had been a part of their duty to get away from their task for a little. He knew what was in man, more deeply than any one else had ever known; and so he invited his friends out among the green hills and beside the quiet waters of Galilee to the strengthening repose and the restoring joy which are only to be found in real days off."
My Uncle Peter's voice had grown very deep and gentle while he was saying these things. He sat looking far away into the rosy heart of the fire, where the bright blaze had burned itself out, and the delicate flamelets of blue and violet were playing over the glowing, crumbling logs. It seemed as if he had forgotten where we were, and gone a-wandering into some distant region of memories and dreams. I almost doubted whether to call him back; the silence was so full of comfortable and friendly intercourse.
"Well," said I, after a while, "you are an incorrigible moralist, but certainly a most unconventional one. The orthodox would never accept your philosophy. They would call you a hedonist, or something equally dreadful."
"Let them," he said, placidly.
"But tell me": I asked, "you and I have many pleasant and grateful memories, little pictures and stories, which seem like chapters in the history of this doubtful idea of yours: suppose that I should write some of them down, purely in a descriptive and narrative way, without committing myself to any opinion as to their morality; and suppose that a few of your opinions and prejudices, briefly expressed, were interspersed in the form of chapters to be skipped: would a book like that symbolize and illustrate the true inwardness of the day off? How would it do to make such a book?"
"It would do," he answered, "provided you wanted to do it, and provided you did not try to prove anything, or convince anybody, or convey any profitable instruction."
"But would any one read it?" I asked. "What do you think?"
"I think," said he, stretching his arms over his head as he rose and turned towards his den to plunge into a long evening's work, "I reckon, and calculate, and fancy, and guess that a few people, a very few, might browse through such a book in their days off."
Return to the Henry van Dyke library , or . . . Read the next short story; Diana And The Lions