If the boy believed that the accumulation of wealth and the acquisition of power were what the old man says they are, the world would very soon be stagnant. If he believed that his chances of obtaining either were as poor as the majority of men find them to be, ambition would die within him. It is because he rejects the experience of those who have preceded him, that the world is kept in the topsy-turvy condition which we all rejoice in, and which we call progress.
And yet I confess I have a soft place in my heart for that rare character in our New England life who is content with the world as he finds it, and who does not attempt to appropriate any more of it to himself than he absolutely needs from day to day. He knows from the beginning that the world could get on without him, and he has never had any anxiety to leave any result behind him, any legacy for the world to quarrel over.
He is really an exotic in our New England climate and society, and his life is perpetually misunderstood by his neighbors, because he shares none of their uneasiness about getting on in life. He is even called lazy, good-for-nothing, and “shiftless,”—the final stigma that we put upon a person who has learned to wait without the exhausting process of laboring.
I made his acquaintance last summer in the country, and I have not in a long time been so well pleased with any of our species. He was a man past middle life, with a large family. He had always been from boyhood of a contented and placid mind, slow in his movements, slow in his speech. I think he never cherished a hard feeling toward anybody, nor envied any one, least of all the rich and prosperous about whom he liked to talk. Indeed, his talk was a good deal about wealth, especially about his cousin who had been down South and “got fore-handed” within a few years. He was genuinely pleased at his relation’s good luck, and pointed him out to me with some pride. But he had no envy of him, and he evinced no desire to imitate him. I inferred from all his conversation about “piling it up” (of which he spoke with a gleam of enthusiasm in his eye), that there were moments when he would like to be rich himself; but it was evident that he would never make the least effort to be so, and I doubt if he could even overcome that delicious inertia of mind and body called laziness, sufficiently to inherit.
Wealth seemed to have a far and peculiar fascination for him, and I suspect he was a visionary in the midst of his poverty. Yet I suppose he had—hardly the personal property which the law exempts from execution. He had lived in a great many towns, moving from one to another with his growing family, by easy stages, and was always the poorest man in the town, and lived on the most niggardly of its rocky and bramble-grown farms, the productiveness of which he reduced to zero in a couple of seasons by his careful neglect of culture. The fences of his hired domain always fell into ruins under him, perhaps because he sat on them so much, and the hovels he occupied rotted down during his placid residence in them. He moved from desolation to desolation, but carried always with him the equal mind of a philosopher. Not even the occasional tart remarks of his wife, about their nomadic life and his serenity in the midst of discomfort, could ruffle his smooth spirit.