Enjoying contentment

“When I saw you this morning, Bateman,” he said then, “I seemed to see myself as I was two years ago. The same collar, and the same shoes, the same blue suit, the same energy. The same determination. By God, I was energetic. The sleepy methods of this place made my blood tingle. I went about and everywhere I saw possibilities for development and enterprise. There were fortunes to be made here. It seemed to me absurd that the copra should be taken away from here in sacks and the oil extracted in America. It would be far more economical to do all that on the spot, with cheap labour, and save freight, and I saw already the vast factories springing up on the island. Then the way they extracted it from the coconut seemed to me hopelessly inadequate, and I invented a machine which divided the nut and scooped out the meat at the rate of two hundred and forty an hour. The harbour was not large enough. I made plans to enlarge it, then to form a syndicate to buy land, put up two or three large hotels, and bungalows for occasional residents; I had a scheme for improving the steamer service in order to attract visitors from California. In twenty years, instead of this half French, lazy little town of Papeete I saw a great American city with ten-story buildings and street-cars, a theatre and an opera house, a stock exchange and a mayor.”

“But go ahead, Edward,” cried Bateman, springing up from the chair in excitement. “You’ve got the ideas and the capacity. Why, you’ll become the richest man between Australia and the States.”

Edward chuckled softly.

“But I don’t want to,” he said.

“Do you mean to say you don’t want money, big money, money running into millions? Do you know what you can do with it? Do you know the power it brings? And if you don’t care about it for yourself think what you can do, opening new channels for human enterprise, giving occupation to thousands. My brain reels at the visions your words have conjured up.”

“Sit down, then, my dear Bateman,” laughed Edward. “My machine for cutting the coconuts will always remain unused, and so far as I’m concerned street-cars shall never run in the idle streets of Papeete.”

Bateman sank heavily into his chair.

“I don’t understand you,” he said.

“It came upon me little by little. I came to like the life here, with its ease and its leisure, and the people, with their good-nature and their happy smiling faces. I began to think. I’d never had time to do that before. I began to read.”

“You always read.”

“I read for examinations. I read in order to be able to hold my own in conversation. I read for instruction. Here I learned to read for pleasure. I learned to talk. Do you know that conversation is one of the greatest pleasures in life? But it wants leisure. I’d always been too busy before. And gradually all the life that had seemed so important to me began to seem rather trivial and vulgar. What is the use of all this hustle and this constant striving? I think of Chicago now and I see a dark, grey city, all stone–it is like a prison–and a ceaseless turmoil. And what does all that activity amount to? Does one get there the best out of life? Is that what we come into the world for, to hurry to an office, and work hour after hour till night, then hurry home and dine and go to a theatre? Is that how I must spend my youth? Youth lasts so short a time, Bateman. And when I am old, what have I to look forward to? To hurry from my home in the morning to my office and work hour after hour till night, and then hurry home again, and dine and go to a theatre? That may be worth while if you make a fortune; I don’t know, it depends on your nature; but if you don’t, is it worth while then? I want to make more out of my life than that, Bateman.”

“What do you value in life then?”

“I’m afraid you’ll laugh at me. Beauty, truth, and goodness.”

“Don’t you think you can have those in Chicago?”

“Some men can, perhaps, but not I.” Edward sprang up now. “I tell you when I think of the life I led in the old days I am filled with horror,” he cried violently. “I tremble with fear when I think of the danger I have escaped. I never knew I had a soul till I found it here. If I had remained a rich man I might have lost it for good and all.”

“I don’t know how you can say that,” cried Bateman indignantly. “We often used to have discussions about it.”

“Yes, I know. They were about as effectual as the discussions of deaf mutes about harmony. I shall never come back to Chicago, Bateman.”

“I’m so bewildered, I don’t know what to say. I came here because I thought something was wrong. I thought you hadn’t succeeded in what you set out to do and were ashamed to come back when you’d failed. I never guessed I should be faced with this. I’m so desperately sorry, Edward. I’m so disappointed. I hoped you would do great things. It’s almost more than I can bear to think of you wasting your talents and your youth and your chance in this lamentable way.”

“Don’t be grieved, old friend,” said Edward. “I haven’t failed. I’ve succeeded. You can’t think with what zest I look forward to life, how full it seems to me and how significant. Sometimes, when you are married to Isabel, you will think of me. I shall build myself a house on my coral island and I shall live there, looking after my trees–getting the fruit out of the nuts in the same old way that they have done for unnumbered years–I shall grow all sorts of things in my garden, and I shall fish. There will be enough work to keep me busy and not enough to make me dull. I shall have my books and Eva, children, I hope, and above all, the infinite variety of the sea and the sky, the freshness of the dawn and the beauty of the sunset, and the rich magnificence of the night. I shall make a garden out of what so short a while ago was a wilderness. I shall have created something. The years will pass insensibly, and when I am an old man I hope that I shall be able to look back on a happy, simple, peaceful life. In my small way I too shall have lived in beauty. Do you think it is so little to have enjoyed contentment? We know that it will profit a man little if he gain the whole world and lose his soul. I think I have won mine.”
W. Somerset Maugham, The Fall of Edward Barnard


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