“YES,” said the doctor, pressing the tips of his fingers with a tremulous firmness on my pulse, and looking straight forward into the pupils of my eyes, “yes, I see: the symptoms all point unmistakably toward one conclusion—Brain. My dear sir, you have been working too hard; you have been following the dangerous example of the rest of the world in this age of business and bustle. Your brain is overtaxed—that is your complaint. You must let it rest—there is your remedy.”

“You mean,” I said, “that I must keep quiet, and do Nothing?”

“Precisely so,” replied the doctor. “You must not read or write; you must abstain from allowing yourself to be excited by society; you must have no annoyances; you must feel no anxieties; you must not think; you must be neither elated nor depressed; you must keep early hours and take an occasional tonic, with moderate exercise, and a nourishing but not too full a diet—above all, as perfect repose is essential to your restoration, you must go away into the country, taking any direction you please, and living just as you like, so long as you are quiet and so long as you do Nothing.”

“I presume he is not to go away into the country without me?” said my wife, who was present at the interview.

“Certainly not,” rejoined the doctor with a gallant bow. “I look to your influence, my dear madam, to encourage our patient to follow my directions. It is unnecessary to repeat them, they are so extremely simple and easy to carry out. I will answer for your husband’s recovery, if he will but remember that he has now only two objects in life—to keep quiet, and to do Nothing.”

My wife is a woman of business habits. As soon as the doctor had taken his leave, she produced her pocket-book, and made a brief abstract of his directions for our future guidance. I looked over her shoulder and observed that the entry ran thus:—

“Rules for dear William’s restoration to health. No reading; no writing; no excitement; no annoyance; no anxiety; no thinking. Tonic. No elation of spirits. Nice dinners. No depression of spirits. Dear William to take little walks (with me). To go to bed early. To get up ditto. N.B.—Keep him quiet. Mem: Mind he does Nothing.”

Mind I do Nothing? No need to mind about that. I have not had a holiday since I was a boy. Oh, blessed Idleness, after the years and years of industry that have separated us, are you and I to be brought together again at last? Oh, my weary right hand, are you really to ache no longer with driving the ceaseless pen? May I, indeed, put you in my pocket, and let you rest there, indolently, for hours together? Yes! for I am now at last to begin—doing Nothing. Delightful task that performs itself. Welcome responsibility that carries its weight away smoothly on its own shoulders. Doing Nothing? What an ease there is in the mere sound of the words! what a luxurious conviction I feel that in this one object of my life at least, I am certain, before-hand, of achieving the completest success.

These thoughts shine in pleasantly on my mind after the doctor has taken his departure, and diffuse an easy gaiety over my spirits when my wife and I set forth, the next day, for the country. We are not going the round of the noisy watering-places, nor is it our intention to accept any invitations to join the gay circles assembled by festive country friends. My wife, guided solely by the abstract of the doctor’s directions in her pocket-book, has decided that the only way to keep me absolutely quiet, and to make sure of my doing Nothing, is to take me to some pretty, retired village, and to put me up at a little primitive, unsophisticated country-inn. I offer no objection to this project—not because I have no will of my own and am not master of all my movements, but only because I happen to agree with my wife. Considering what a very independent man I am, naturally, it has sometimes struck me, as a rather remarkable circumstance, that I always do agree with her.

We find the pretty, retired village. A charming place, full of thatched cottages with creepers at the doors, like the first easy lessons in drawing-masters’ copy-books. We find the unsophisticated inn—just the sort of house that the novelists are so fond of writing about, with the snowy curtains and the sheets perfumed by lavender, and the matronly landlady and the amusing sign-post. This Elysium is called the Nag’s Head. Can the Nag’s Head accommodate us? Yes, with a delightful bedroom and a sweet parlor. My wife takes off her bonnet and makes herself at home, directly. She nods her head at me with a look of triumph. Yes, dear, on this occasion also I quite agree with you. Here we have found perfect quiet; here we may make sure of obeying the doctor’s orders; here we have, at last, discovered Nothing.

Nothing! Did I say Nothing? We arrive at the Nag’s Head late in the evening, have our tea, go to bed tired with our journey, sleep delightfully till about three o’clock in the morning, and, at that hour begin to discover that there are actually noises even in this remote country seclusion. They keep fowls at the Nag’s Head, and at three o’clock, the cock begins to crow and the hens to cluck under our window. Pastoral, my dear, and suggestive of eggs for breakfast whose reputation is above suspicion; but I wish these cheerful fowls did not wake quite so early. Are there, likewise, dogs, love, at the Nag’s Head, and are they trying to bark down the crowing and clucking of the cheerful fowls? I should wish to guard myself against the possibility of making a mistake, but I think I heard three dogs. A small, shrill dog who barks rapidly; a melancholy dog of uncertain size who howls monotonously; and a large hoarse dog who emits barks at intervals like minute-guns. Is this going on long? Apparently it is. My dear, if you will refer to your pocket-book, I think you will find that the doctor recommended early hours. We will not be fretful and complain of having our morning sleep disturbed: we will be contented, and will only say that it is time to get up.

Breakfast. Delicious meal, let us linger over it as long as we can,—let us linger, if possible, till the drowsy midday tranquillity begins to sink over this secluded village.

Strange! but now I think of it again, do I, or do I not, hear an incessant hammering over the way? No manufacture is carried on in this peaceful place, no new houses are being built; and yet there is such a hammering that, if I shut my eyes, I can almost fancy myself in the neighbourhood of a dock-yard. Waggons, too. Why does a waggon which makes so little noise in London, make so much noise here? Is the dust on the road detonating powder, that goes off with a report at every turn of the heavy wheels? Does the waggoner crack his whip or fire a pistol to encourage his horses? Children, next. Only five of them, and they have not been able to settle for the last half-hour what game they shall play at. On two points alone do they appear to be unanimous—they are all agreed on making a noise, and on stopping to make it under our window. I think I am in some danger of forgetting one of the doctor’s directions; I rather fancy I am actually allowing myself to be annoyed. Let us take a turn in the garden, at the back of the house. Dogs again. The yard is on one side of the garden. Every time our walk takes us near it, the small shrill dog barks and the large hoarse dog growls. The doctor tells me to have no anxieties. I am suffering devouring anxieties. These dogs may break loose and fly at us, for anything I know to the contrary, at a moment’s notice. What shall I do? Give myself a drop of tonic? or escape for a few hours from the perpetual noises of this retired spot by taking a drive? My wife says, take a drive. I think I have already mentioned that I invariably agree with my wife.

The drive is successful in procuring us a little quiet. My directions to the coachman are to take us where he pleases, so long as he keeps away from secluded villages. We suffer much jolting in by-lanes, and encounter a great variety of bad smells. But a bad smell is a quiet nuisance, and I am ready to put up with it patiently. Towards dinner-time we return to our inn. Meat, vegetables, pudding, all excellent, clean and perfectly cooked. As good a dinner as I wish ever to eat;—shall I get a little nap after it? The fowls, the dogs, the hammer, the children, the waggons, are quiet at last. Is there anything else left to make a noise? Yes: there is the working population of the place. It is getting on towards evening, and the sons of labour are assembling on the benches placed outside the inn to drink. What a delightful scene they would make of this homely every-day event on the stage! How the simple creatures would clink their tin mugs, and drink each other’s healths and laugh joyously in chorus! How the peasant maidens would come tripping on the scene and lure the men tenderly to the dance! Where are the pipe and tabour that I have seen in so many pictures; where the simple songs that I have read about in so many poems? What do I hear as I listen, prone on the sofa, to the evening gathering of the rustic throng? Oaths,—nothing, on my word of honour, but oaths! I look out, and see gangs of cadaverous savages, drinking gloomily from brown mugs, and swearing at each other every time they open their lips. Never in any large town, at home or abroad, have I been exposed to such an incessant fire of unprintable words as now assail my ears in this primitive village. No man can drink to another without swearing at him first. No man can ask a question without adding a mark of interrogation at the end in the shape of an oath. Whether they quarrel (which they do for the most part), or whether they agree; whether they talk of weather or wages, of their troubles in this place or their good luck in that; whether they are telling a story, or proposing a toast, or giving an order, or finding fault with the beer, these men seem to be positively incapable of speaking without an allowance of at least five foul words for every one fair word that issues from their lips. English is reduced in their mouths to a brief vocabulary of all the vilest expressions in the language. This is an age of civilization; this is a Christian country; opposite me I see a building with a spire, which is called, I believe, a church; past my window, not an hour since, there rattled a neat pony-chaise with a gentleman inside, clad in glossy black broad cloth, and popularly known by the style and title of clergyman—and yet, under all these good influences, here sit twenty or thirty men whose ordinary table-talk is so outrageously beastly, and blasphemous that not one single sentence of it, though it lasted the whole evening, could be printed, as a specimen, for public inspection, in the pages of this journal. When the intelligent foreigner comes to England, and when I tell him (as I am sure to do) that we are the most moral people in the universe, I will take good care that he does not set his foot in secluded British village when the rural population is reposing over its mug of small-beer after the labours of the day.

I am not a squeamish person, neither is my wife; but the social intercourse of the villagers drives us out of our room, and sends us to take refuge at the back of the house. We gain nothing, however, by the change. The back parlour, to which we have now retreated, looks out on a bowling-green; and there are more benches, more mugs of beer, more foul-mouthed villagers on the bowling-green. Immediately under our window is a bench and table for two, and on it are seated a drunken old man and a drunken old woman. The aged sot in trousers is offering marriage to the aged sot in petticoats, with frightful oaths of endearment. Never before did I imagine that swearing could be twisted to the purposes of courtship. Never before did I suppose that a man could make an offer of his hand by bellowing imprecations on his eyes, or that all the powers of the infernal regions could be appropriately summoned to bear witness to the beating of a lover’s heart under the influence of the tender passion. I know it now, and I derive so little satisfaction from gaining the knowledge of it, that I determine on having the two intolerable old drunkards removed from the window, and sent to continue their cursing courtship elsewhere. The ostler is lounging about the bowling-green, scratching his bare, brawny arms, and yawning grimly in the mellow evening sunlight. I beckon to him, and ask him if he does not think those two old people have had beer enough? Yes, the ostler thinks they have. I inquire next if they can be removed from the premises, before their language gets worse, without the risk of making any great disturbance. The ostler says, Yes, they can, and calls to the potboy. When the potboy comes, he says, “Now then, Jack!” and snatches the table away from the two ribald old people without another word. The old man’s pipe is on the table; he rises and staggers forward to possess himself of it; the old woman rises, too, to hold him by the arm for fear he should fall flat on his face. The moment they are off the bench, the potboy snatches their seat away from behind them, and quietly joins the ostler, who is carrying their table into the inn. None of the other drinkers laugh at this proceeding, or pay any attention to it; and the two intoxicated old people, left helpless on their legs, stagger away feebly without attracting the slightest notice. The neat stratagem which the ostler and the potboy have just performed, is evidently the customary and only possible mode of letting drinkers know when they have had enough, at the Nag’s Head. Where did those savage islanders live whose manners a certain sea-captain once upon a time described as no manners at all, and some of whose customs he reprobated as being very nasty? If I did not know that we are many miles distant from the coast, I should be almost disposed to suspect that the seafaring traveller whose opinion I have just quoted had been touching at the Nag’s Head.

As it is impossible to snatch away all the tables and all the benches of all the company drinking and swearing in front of the house and behind it, I inquire of the ostler, the next time he comes near the window, at what time the tap closes? He tells me at eleven o’clock. It is hardly necessary to say that we put off going to bed until that time, when we retire for the night, drenched from head to foot, if I may so speak, in floods of bad language. I cautiously put my head out of window, and see that the lights of the tap-room are really extinguished at the appointed time. I hear the drinkers oozing out grossly into the pure freshness of the summer night. They all growl together; they all go together. All? Sinner and sufferer that I am, I have been premature in arriving at that happy conclusion! Six choice spirits, with a social horror in their souls of going home to bed, prop themselves against the wall of the inn, and continue the evening’s conversazione in the darkness. I hear them cursing at each other by name. We have Tom, Dick, and Sam, Jem, Bill, and Bob to enliven us under our window, after we are in bed. They begin improving each other’s minds, as a matter of course, by quarrelling. Music follows and soothes the strife, in the shape of a local duet, sung by voices of vast compass, which soar in one note from howling bass to cracked treble. Yawning follows the duet; long, loud, weary yawning of all the company in chorus. Then Tom asks Dick for “baccer,” and Dick denies that he has got any, and Tom tells him he lies, and Sam strikes in and says, “No, he doan’t,” and Jem tells Sam he lies, and Bill tells him that if he was Sam he would punch Jem’s head; and Bob, apparently snuffing the battle from afar off and not liking the scent of it, shouts suddenly a pacific good-night in the distance. The farewell salutation seems to quiet the gathering storm. They all roar responsive to the good-night roar of Bob. A moment of silence, actually a moment, follows—then a repetition of the long, loud, weary yawning in chorus—then another moment of silence—then Jem suddenly shouts to the retiring Bob to come back—Bob refuses, softened by distance—Jem insists, and his four friends join him—Bob relents, and returns. A shriek of indignation, far down the village—Bob’s wife has her window open, and has heard him consent to go back to his friends. Hearty laughter from Bob’s five friends; screams from Bob’s wife; articulate screams, informing Bob that she will “cut his liver out,” if he does not come home directly. Answering curses from Bob; he will “mash” his wife, if she does not hold her tongue. A song in chorus from Bob’s five friends. Outraged by this time past all endurance, I spring out of bed and seize the water-jug. My wife, having the doctor’s directions ever present to her mind, implores me in heart-rending tones to remember that I am under strict medical orders not to excite myself. I pay no heed to her remonstrances, and advance to the window with the jug. I pause before I empty the water on the heads of the assembly beneath; I pause, and hear—O! most melodious, most welcome of sounds!—the sudden fall of rain. The merciful, bountiful sky has anticipated me; the “clerk of the weather” has been struck by my idea of dispersing the Nag’s Head Night Club by water. By the time I have put down the jug and got back to bed, silence—primeval silence, the first, the foremost of all earthly influences—falls sweetly over our tavern at last. That night, before sinking wearily to rest, I have once more the satisfaction of agreeing with my wife. Dear and admirable woman! she proposes to leave this secluded village the first thing to-morrow morning. Never did I share her opinion more cordially than I share it now. Instead of keeping myself composed, I have been living in a region of perpetual disturbance; and, as for doing nothing, my mind has been so agitated and perturbed that I have not even had time to think about it. We will go, love—as you so sensibly suggest—we will go the first thing in the morning to any place you like, so long as it is large enough to swallow up small sounds. Where, over all the surface of this noisy earth, the blessing of tranquillity may be found, I know not; but this I do know; the present secluded English village is the very last place towards which any man should think of turning his steps, if the main object of his walk through life is to discover quiet.



The next morning we continue our journey in the direction of the coast, and arrive at a large watering-place. Observing that it is, in every respect, as unlike the secluded village as possible, we resolve to take up our abode in this populous and perfectly tranquil town. We get a lodging fronting the sea. There are noises about us—various and loud noises, as I should have thought, if I had not just come from a village; but everything is comparative, and, after the past experience I have gone through, I find our new place of abode quiet enough to suit the moderate expectations which I have now learnt to form on the subject of getting peace in this world. Here I can at least think almost uninterruptedly of the doctor’s orders. Here I may surely begin my new life, and enjoy the luxury of Nothing.

I suppose it is a luxury; and yet so perverse is man, I hardly know whether I am not beginning to find it something more like a hardship at the very outset. Perhaps my busy and active life has unfitted me for a due appreciation of the happiness of being idle. Perhaps I am naturally of a restless, feverish constitution. However that may be, it is certain that on the first day when I seriously determine to do nothing, I fail to find in the execution of my resolution such supreme comfort and such easy enjoyment as I had anticipated. I try hard to fight against the conviction (which will steal on me, nevertheless) that I have only changed one kind of hard work for another that is harder. I try to persuade myself that time does not hang at all heavily on my hands, and that I am happier with nothing to do than ever I was with a long day’s work before me. Do I succeed or do I fail in this meritorious attempt? Let me write down the results of my first day’s experience of Nothing, and let the reader settle the question for me.

Breakfast at nine o’clock, so as not to make too long a day of it. Among the other things on the table are shrimps. I find myself liking shrimps for an entirely new reason—they take such a long time to eat. Well, breakfast is over at last: I have had quite enough, and yet I am gluttonously sorry when the table is cleared. If I were in health I should now go to my desk, or take up a book. But I am out of health, and I must do Nothing. Suppose I look out of window? I hope that is idle enough to begin with.

Sea, Ha! sea! Very large, very grey, very calm; very calm, very grey, very large. Ha!

Ships! One big ship in front, two little ships behind. (What time shall we have dinner, my dear? At five? Certainly at five!) One big ship in front, two little ships behind. Nothing more to see? No, Nothing.

Let me look back into the room, and study the subjects of these prints on the walls. First, Death of the Earl of Chatham in the House of Lords, after Copley, R. A. Just so. Curious idea this picture suggests of the uniformity of personal appearance which must have distinguished the Peers in the last century. Here is a house full of noble lords, and each one of them is exactly like the other. Every noble lord is tall, every noble lord is portly, every noble lord has a long, receding forehead, and a majestic Roman nose. Odd; and leading to reflections on the physical changes that must have passed over the peerage of the present day, in which I might respectfully indulge, if the doctor had not ordered me to abstain from thinking.

Circumstanced as I am, I must mournfully dismiss the death of the Earl of Chatham, and pass from the work of Copley, R. A., to the other prints on the walls. Dear, dear me! Now I look again, there is nothing to pass to. There are only two other prints, and they are both classical landscapes. Sadly deteriorated as the present condition of my faculties may be, my mind has not sunk down yet to the level of Classical Landscape. I have still sense enough left to disbelieve in Claude and Poussin as painters of Italian scenery. Let me turn from the classical counterfeit to the modern reality. Let me look again at the sea.

Just as large, just as grey, just as calm as ever. Any more ships? No; still the one big ship in front; still the two little ships behind. They have not altered their relative positions the least in the world. How long is it to dinner-time? Six hours and a quarter. What on earth am I to do? Nothing.

Suppose I go and take a little walk? (No, dear, I will not tire myself; I will come back quite fresh to take you out in the afternoon.) Well, which way shall I go, now I am on the door-step? There are two walks in this place: first walk, along the cliff westward; second walk, along the cliff eastward. Which direction shall I take? I am naturally one of the most decided men in the world; but doing Nothing seems to have deprived me already of my usual resolute strength of will. I will toss up for it. Heads, westward; tails, eastward. Heads! Ought this to be considered conclusive? or shall I begin again, and try the best of three? I will try the best of three, because it takes up more time. Heads, tails, heads! Westward still. Surely this is destiny. Or can it be that doing Nothing has made me superstitious as well as irresolute? Never mind; I will go westward, and see what happens.

Along the path by the iron railings; then down a little dip, at the bottom of which there is a seat overlooking a ship-builder’s yard. Close under me is a small coasting vessel on the slips for repair. Nobody on board, but one old man at work. At work, did I say? Oh, happy chance! This aged repairer of ships is the very man, of all others, whom I had most need of meeting, the very man to help me in my present emergency. Before I have looked at him two minutes, I feel that I am in the presence of a great professor of the art of doing nothing. Towards this sage, to listen to his precepts and profit by his example, did destiny gently urge me, when I tossed up to decide between eastward and westward. Let me watch his proceedings; let me learn how to idle systematically, by observing the actions of this venerable man.

He is sitting on the left side of the vessel when I first look at him. In one hand he holds a crooked nail; in the other, a hammer. He coughs slowly, and looks out to sea; he sighs slowly, and looks back towards the land; he rises slowly, and surveys the deck of the vessel; he stoops slowly, and picks up a flat bit of iron, and puts it on the bulwark, and places the crooked nail upon it, and then sits down and looks at the effect of the arrangement so far. When he has had enough of the arrangement, he gives the sea a turn again, then the land. After that, he steps back a little and looks at the hammer, weighs it gently in his hand, moistens his hand, advances to the crooked nail on the bit of iron, groans softly to himself and shakes his head as he looks at it, administers three delicate taps with the hammer, to straighten it, finds that he does not succeed to his mind; again groans softly, again shakes his head, again sits down and rests himself on the left side of the vessel. Since I first looked at him I have timed him by my watch; he has killed a quarter of an hour over that one crooked nail, and he has not straightened it yet! Wonderful man, can I ever hope to rival him? Will he condescend to talk to me? Stay! I am not free to try him; the doctor has told me not to excite myself with society; all communion of mind between me and this finished and perfect idler is, I fear, prohibited. Better to walk on, and come back, and look at him again.

I walk on and sit down; walk on a little farther and sit down again; walk on for the third time, sit down for the third time, and still there is always the down on one side of me, and the one big ship and the two little ships on the other. I retrace my steps, occupying as much time as I possibly can in getting back to the seat above the coasting-vessel. Where is my old friend, my esteemed professor, my bright and shining example in the difficult art of doing nothing? Sitting on the right side of the vessel this time, with the bit of flat iron on the right side also, with the hammer still in his hand, and, as I live, with the crooked nail not straightened yet! I observe this, and turn away quickly with despair in my heart. How can I, a tyro Do Nothing, who has had no practice in the mystery of idleness until to-day, expect to imitate that consummate old man? It is vain to hope for success here—vain to hope for anything but dinner-time. How many hours more? Four. If I return home now, how shall I go on doing nothing? Lunch, perhaps, will help me a little. Quite so! Let us say a glass of old ale and a biscuit. I should like to add shrimps—if I were not afraid of my wife’s disapprobation—merely for the purpose of trying if I could not treat them, in my small imperfect way, as my old friend of the coasting-vessel treated the crooked nail.

Three hours and a half to dinner-time. I have had my biscuit and my glass of old ale. Not being accustomed to malt liquor in the middle of the day, my lunch has more than supported me,—it has fuddled me. There is a faint singing in my ears, an intense sleepishness in my eyelids, a genial warmth about my stomach, and a sensation in my head as if the brains had oozed out of me, and the cavity of my skull was stuffed with cotton-wool steeped in laudanum. Not an unpleasant feeling altogether. I am not anxious; I think of nothing. I have a stolid power of staring, immovably, out of window at the one big ship and the two little ships, which I had not hitherto given myself credit for possessing. If my wife would only push an easy-chair up close behind me, I could sink back in it and go to sleep; but she will do nothing of the sort. She is putting on her bonnet: it is the hour of the afternoon at which we are to take each other out fondly, for our little walk.

The company at the watering-place is taking its little walk also at this time. But for the genial influence of the strong ale, I should now be making my observations and flying in the face of the doctor’s orders by allowing my mind to be occupied. As it is, I march along, slowly, lost in a solemn trance of beer. One circumstance only, during our walk, is prominent enough to attract my sleepy attention. I just contrive to observe, with as much surprise and regret as I am capable of feeling at the present moment, that my wife apparently hates all the women we meet, and that all the women we meet, seem, judging by their looks, to return the compliment by hating my wife. We pass an infinite number of girls, all more or less plump, all more or less healthy, all more or less overshadowed by eccentric sea-side hats; and my wife will not allow that any one of these young creatures is even tolerably pretty. The young creatures on their side look so disparagingly at my wife’s bonnet and gown, that I should feel uneasy about the propriety of her costume, if I were not under the comforting influence of the strong ale. What is the meaning of this unpleasant want of harmony among the members of the fair sex? Does one woman hate another woman for being a woman—is that it? How shocking if it is! I have no inclination to disparage other men whom I meet on my walk. Other men cast no disdainful looks on me. We lords of the creation are quite content to be handsome and attractive in our various styles, without snappishly contesting the palm of beauty with one another. Why cannot the women follow our meritorious example? Will any one solve that curious problem in social morals? Doctor’s orders forbid me from attempting the intellectual feat. The dire necessity of doing nothing narrows me to one subject of mental contemplation—the dinner-hour. How long is it—now we have returned from our walk—to that time? Two hours and a quarter. I can’t look out of window again, for I know by instinct that the three ships and the calm, grey sea are still lying in wait for me. I can’t heave a patriot’s sigh once more over the “Death of the Earl of Chatham.” I am too tired to go out and see how the old man of the coasting-vessel is getting on with the crooked nail. In short, I am driven to my last refuge. I must take a nap.

The nap lasts more than an hour. Its results may be all summed up in one significant and dreadful word—Fidgets. I start from the sofa convulsively, and vainly try to walk off this scourge of humanity. I sit down bolt upright in a chair. My wife is opposite to me, calmly engaged over her work. It is an hour and five minutes to dinner-time. What am I to do? Shall I soothe the fidgets and soften my rugged nature by looking at my wife, to see how she gets on with her work?

She has got a strip of calico, or something of that sort, punched all over with little holes, and she is sewing round each little hole with her needle and thread. Monotonous, to a masculine mind. Surely the punching of the holes must be the pleasantest part of this style of work? And that is done at the shop, is it, dear? Ha!

Does my wife lace too tight? I have never had leisure before to look at her so long and so attentively as I am looking now; I have been uncritically contented hitherto, to take her waist for granted. Now I have my doubts about it. I think the wife of my bosom is a little too much like an hour-glass. Does she digest? Good heavens! How do I know whether she digests? Then, as to her hair: I do not object to the dressing of it, but I think—strangely enough, for the first time since our marriage—that she uses too much bear’s grease and bandoline. I see a thin rim of bandoline shining just outside the line of hair against her temples, like varnish on a picture. This won’t do—oh dear no—this won’t do at all. Will her hands do? certainly not! I discover, for the first time, that her hands won’t do, either. I am mercifully ready to put up with their not being quite white enough, but what does the woman mean by having such round tips to her fingers? Why don’t they taper? I always thought they did taper until this moment. I begin to be dissatisfied with her; I begin to think my wife is not the genuine article I took her for. What is the matter with me? Am I looking at her with perceptions made morbid already by excessive idleness? Is this dreadful necessity of doing nothing to end by sapping the foundations of my matrimonial tranquillity, and letting down my whole connubial edifice into the bottomless abyss of Doctors’ Commons? Horrible!

The door of the room opens, and wakes me, as it were, from the hideous dream in which my wife’s individuality has been entirely altered to my eyes. It is only half an hour to dinner; and the servant has come in to lay the cloth. In the presence of the great event of the day I feel myself again. Once more I believe in the natural slimness of my wife’s waist; once more I am contented with the tops of her fingers. Now at last I see my way to bed-time. Assuming that we can make the dinner last two hours; assuming that I can get another nap after it; assuming—

No! I can assume nothing more, for I am really ashamed to complete the degrading picture of myself which my pen has been painting up to this time. Enough has been written—more than enough, I fear—to show how completely I have failed in my first day’s attempt at Nothing. The hardest labour I ever had to get through, was not so difficult to contend with as this enforced idleness. Never again will I murmur under the wholesome necessities of work. Never again—if I can only succeed in getting well—will a day of doing nothing be counted as pleasant holiday-time by me. I have stolen away at the dead of the night, in flat defiance of the doctor’s directions, to relieve my unspeakable weariness by writing these lines. I cast them on the world as the brief personal narrative of a most unfortunate man. If I systematically disregard medical orders I shall make myself ill. If I conscientiously obey them, how am I to get through to-morrow? Will any kind reader, who possesses a recipe for the killing of time, benevolently send me a copy of the document? I am known and pitied at the office of this Journal; and any letters addressed to me under the name of Nobody, and endorsed on the outside of the envelope Nothing, would be sure to reach the watering-place in which I am now vainly trying to vegetate.

Taken from Household Words 5 September 1857 XVI 217-223

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