A Man of Habit


There were three of us in the smoke-room of the Alexandra—a very good friend of mine, myself, and, in the opposite corner, a shy-looking, unobtrusive man, the editor, as we subsequently learned, of a New York Sunday paper.

My friend and I were discussing habits, good and bad.

“After the first few months,” said my friend, “it is no more effort for a man to be a saint than to be a sinner; it becomes a mere matter of habit.”

“I know,” I interrupted, “it is every whit as easy to spring out of bed the instant you are called as to say ‘All Right,’ and turn over for just another five minutes’ snooze, when you have got into the way of it. It is no more trouble not to swear than to swear, if you make a custom of it. Toast and water is as delicious as champagne, when you have acquired the taste for it. Things are also just as easy the other way about. It is a mere question of making your choice and sticking to it.”

He agreed with me.

“Now take these cigars of mine,” he said, pushing his open case towards me.

“Thank you,” I replied hurriedly, “I’m not smoking this passage.”

“Don’t be alarmed,” he answered, “I meant merely as an argument. Now one of these would make you wretched for a week.”

I admitted his premise.

“Very well,” he continued. “Now I, as you know, smoke them all day long, and enjoy them. Why? Because I have got into the habit. Years ago, when I was a young man, I smoked expensive Havanas. I found that I was ruining myself. It was absolutely necessary that I should take a cheaper weed. I was living in Belgium at the time, and a friend showed me these. I don’t know what they are—probably cabbage leaves soaked in guano; they tasted to me like that at first—but they were cheap. Buying them by the five hundred, they cost me three a penny. I determined to like them, and started with one a day. It was terrible work, I admit, but as I said to myself, nothing could be worse than the Havanas themselves had been in the beginning. Smoking is an acquired taste, and it must be as easy to learn to like one flavour as another. I persevered and I conquered. Before the year was over I could think of them without loathing, at the end of two I could smoke them without positive discomfort. Now I prefer them to any other brand on the market. Indeed, a good cigar disagrees with me.”

I suggested it might have been less painful to have given up smoking altogether.

“I did think of it,” he replied, “but a man who doesn’t smoke always seems to me bad company. There is something very sociable about smoke.”

He leant back and puffed great clouds into the air, filling the small den with an odour suggestive of bilge water and cemeteries.

“Then again,” he resumed after a pause, “take my claret. No, you don’t like it.” (I had not spoken, but my face had evidently betrayed me.) “Nobody does, at least no one I have ever met. Three years ago, when I was living in Hammersmith, we caught two burglars with it. They broke open the sideboard, and swallowed five bottlefuls between them. A policeman found them afterwards, sitting on a doorstep a hundred yards off, the ‘swag’ beside them in a carpet bag. They were too ill to offer any resistance, and went to the station like lambs, he promising to send the doctor to them the moment they were safe in the cells. Ever since then I have left out a decanterful upon the table every night.

“Well, I like that claret, and it does me good. I come in sometimes dead beat. I drink a couple of glasses, and I’m a new man. I took to it in the first instance for the same reason that I took to the cigars—it was cheap. I have it sent over direct from Geneva, and it costs me six shillings a dozen. How they do it I don’t know. I don’t want to know. As you may remember, it’s fairly heady and there’s body in it.

“I knew one man,” he continued, “who had a regular Mrs. Caudle of a wife. All day long she talked to him, or at him, or of him, and at night he fell asleep to the rising and falling rhythm of what she thought about him. At last she died, and his friends congratulated him, telling him that now he would enjoy peace. But it was the peace of the desert, and the man did not enjoy it. For two-and-twenty years her voice had filled the house, penetrated through the conservatory, and floated in faint shrilly waves of sound round the garden, and out into the road beyond. The silence now pervading everywhere frightened and disturbed him. The place was no longer home to him. He missed the breezy morning insult, the long winter evening’s reproaches beside the flickering fire. At night he could not sleep. For hours he would lie tossing restlessly, his ears aching for the accustomed soothing flow of invective.

“‘Ah!’ he would cry bitterly to himself, ‘it is the old story, we never know the value of a thing until we have lost it.’

“He grew ill. The doctors dosed him with sleeping draughts in vain. At last they told him bluntly that his life depended upon his finding another wife, able and willing to nag him to sleep.

“There were plenty of wives of the type he wanted in the neighbourhood, but the unmarried women were, of necessity, inexperienced, and his health was such that he could not afford the time to train them.

“Fortunately, just as despair was about to take possession of him, a man died in the next parish, literally talked to death, the gossip said, by his wife. He obtained an introduction, and called upon her the day after the funeral. She was a cantankerous old woman, and the wooing was a harassing affair, but his heart was in his work, and before six months were gone he had won her for his own.

“She proved, however, but a poor substitute. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. She had neither that command of language nor of wind that had distinguished her rival. From his favourite seat at the bottom of the garden he could not hear her at all, so he had his chair brought up into the conservatory. It was all right for him there so long as she continued to abuse him; but every now and again, just as he was getting comfortably settled down with his pipe and his newspaper, she would suddenly stop.

“He would drop his paper and sit listening, with a troubled, anxious expression.

“‘Are you there, dear?’ he would call out after a while.

“‘Yes, I’m here. Where do you think I am you old fool?’ she would gasp back in an exhausted voice.

“His face would brighten at the sound of her words. ‘Go on, dear,’ he would answer. ‘I’m listening. I like to hear you talk.’

“But the poor woman was utterly pumped out, and had not so much as a snort left.

“Then he would shake his head sadly. ‘No, she hasn’t poor dear Susan’s flow,’ he would say. ‘Ah! what a woman that was!’

“At night she would do her best, but it was a lame and halting performance by comparison. After rating him for little over three-quarters of an hour, she would sink back on the pillow, and want to go to sleep. But he would shake her gently by the shoulder.

“‘Yes, dear,’ he would say, ‘you were speaking about Jane, and the way I kept looking at her during lunch.’

“It’s extraordinary,” concluded my friend, lighting a fresh cigar, “what creatures of habit we are.”

“Very,” I replied. “I knew a man who told tall stories till when he told a true one nobody believed it.”

“Ah, that was a very sad case,” said my friend.

“Speaking of habit,” said the unobtrusive man in the corner, “I can tell you a true story that I’ll bet my bottom dollar you won’t believe.”

“Haven’t got a bottom dollar, but I’ll bet you half a sovereign I do,” replied my friend, who was of a sporting turn. “Who shall be judge?”

“I’ll take your word for it,” said the unobtrusive man, and started straight away.

* * * * *

“He was a Jefferson man, this man I’m going to tell you of,” he begun. “He was born in the town, and for forty-seven years he never slept a night outside it. He was a most respectable man—a drysalter from nine to four, and a Presbyterian in his leisure moments. He said that a good life merely meant good habits. He rose at seven, had family prayer at seven-thirty, breakfasted at eight, got to his business at nine, had his horse brought round to the office at four, and rode for an hour, reached home at five, had a bath and a cup of tea, played with and read to the children (he was a domesticated man) till half-past six, dressed and dined at seven, went round to the club and played whist till quarter after ten, home again to evening prayer at ten-thirty, and bed at eleven. For five-and-twenty years he lived that life with never a variation. It worked into his system and became mechanical. The church clocks were set by him. He was used by the local astronomers to check the sun.

“One day a distant connection of his in London, an East Indian Merchant and an ex-Lord Mayor died, leaving him sole legatee and executor. The business was a complicated one and needed management. He determined to leave his son by his first wife, now a young man of twenty-four, in charge at Jefferson, and to establish himself with his second family in England, and look after the East Indian business.

“He set out from Jefferson City on October the fourth, and arrived in London on the seventeenth. He had been ill during the whole of the voyage, and he reached the furnished house he had hired in Bayswater somewhat of a wreck. A couple of days in bed, however, pulled him round, and on the Wednesday evening he announced his intention of going into the City the next day to see to his affairs.

“On the Thursday morning he awoke at one o’clock. His wife told him she had not disturbed him, thinking the sleep would do him good. He admitted that perhaps it had. Anyhow, he felt very well, and he got up and dressed himself. He said he did not like the idea of beginning his first day by neglecting a religious duty, and his wife agreeing with him, they assembled the servants and the children in the dining-room, and had family prayer at half-past one. After which he breakfasted and set off, reaching the City about three.

“His reputation for punctuality had preceded him, and surprise was everywhere expressed at his late arrival. He explained the circumstances, however, and made his appointments for the following day to commence from nine-thirty.

“He remained at the office until late, and then went home. For dinner, usually the chief meal of the day, he could manage to eat only a biscuit and some fruit. He attributed his loss of appetite to want of his customary ride. He was strangely unsettled all the evening. He said he supposed he missed his game of whist, and determined to look about him without loss of time for some quiet, respectable club. At eleven he retired with his wife to bed, but could not sleep. He tossed and turned, and turned and tossed, but grew only more and more wakeful and energetic. A little after midnight an overpowering desire seized him to go and wish the children good-night. He slipped on a dressing-gown and stole into the nursery. He did not intend it, but the opening of the door awoke them, and he was glad. He wrapped them up in the quilt, and, sitting on the edge of the bed, told them moral stories till one o’clock.

“Then he kissed them, bidding them be good and go to sleep; and finding himself painfully hungry, crept downstairs, where in the back kitchen he made a hearty meal off cold game pie and cucumber.

“He retired to bed feeling more peaceful, yet still could not sleep, so lay thinking about his business affairs till five, when he dropped off.

“At one o’clock to the minute he awoke. His wife told him she had made every endeavour to rouse him, but in vain. The man was vexed and irritated. If he had not been a very good man indeed, I believe he would have sworn. The same programme was repeated as on the Thursday, and again he reached the City at three.

“This state of things went on for a month. The man fought against himself, but was unable to alter himself. Every morning, or rather every afternoon at one he awoke. Every night at one he crept down into the kitchen and foraged for food. Every morning at five he fell asleep.

“He could not understand it, nobody could understand it. The doctor treated him for water on the brain, hypnotic irresponsibility and hereditary lunacy. Meanwhile his business suffered, and his health grew worse. He seemed to be living upside down. His days seemed to have neither beginning nor end, but to be all middle. There was no time for exercise or recreation. When he began to feel cheerful and sociable everybody else was asleep.

“One day by chance the explanation came. His eldest daughter was preparing her home studies after dinner.

“‘What time is it now in New York?’ she asked, looking up from her geography book.

“‘New York,’ said her father, glancing at his watch, ‘let me see. It’s just ten now, and there’s a little over four and a half hours’ difference. Oh, about half-past five in the afternoon.’

“‘Then in Jefferson,’ said the mother, ‘it would be still earlier, wouldn’t it?’

“‘Yes,’ replied the girl, examining the map, ‘Jefferson is nearly two degrees further west.’

“‘Two degrees,’ mused the father, ‘and there’s forty minutes to a degree. That would make it now, at the present moment in Jefferson—’

He leaped to his feet with a cry:

“‘I’ve got it!’ he shouted, ‘I see it.’

“‘See what?’ asked his wife, alarmed.

“‘Why, it’s four o’clock in Jefferson, and just time for my ride. That’s what I’m wanting.’

“There could be no doubt about it. For five-and-twenty years he had lived by clockwork. But it was by Jefferson clockwork, not London clockwork. He had changed his longitude, but not himself. The habits of a quarter of a century were not to be shifted at the bidding of the sun.

“He examined the problem in all its bearings, and decided that the only solution was for him to return to the order of his old life. He saw the difficulties in his way, but they were less than those he was at present encountering. He was too formed by habit to adapt himself to circumstances. Circumstances must adapt themselves to him.

“He fixed his office hours from three till ten, leaving himself at half-past nine. At ten he mounted his horse and went for a canter in the Row, and on very dark nights he carried a lantern. News of it got abroad, and crowds would assemble to see him ride past.

“He dined at one o’clock in the morning, and afterwards strolled down to his club. He had tried to discover a quiet, respectable club where the members were willing to play whist till four in the morning, but failing, had been compelled to join a small Soho gambling-hell, where they taught him poker. The place was occasionally raided by the police, but thanks to his respectable appearance, he generally managed to escape.

“At half-past four he returned home, and woke up the family for evening prayers. At five he went to bed and slept like a top.

“The City chaffed him, and Bayswater shook its head over him, but that he did not mind. The only thing that really troubled him was loss of spiritual communion. At five o’clock on Sunday afternoons he felt he wanted chapel, but had to do without it. At seven he ate his simple mid-day meal. At eleven he had tea and muffins, and at midnight he began to crave again for hymns and sermons. At three he had a bread-and-cheese supper, and retired early at four a.m., feeling sad and unsatisfied.

“He was essentially a man of habit.”

* * * * *

The unobtrusive stranger ceased, and we sat gazing in silence at the ceiling.

At length my friend rose, and taking half-a-sovereign from his pocket, laid it upon the table, and linking his arm in mine went out with me upon the deck.


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