Nature has her coinage, and demands payment in her own currency. At Nature’s shop it is you yourself must pay. Your unearned increment, your inherited fortune, your luck, are not legal tenders across her counter.
You want a good appetite. Nature is quite willing to supply you. “Certainly, sir,” she replies, “I can do you a very excellent article indeed. I have here a real genuine hunger and thirst that will make your meal a delight to you. You shall eat heartily and with zest, and you shall rise from the table refreshed, invigorated, and cheerful.”
“Just the very thing I want,” exclaims the gourmet delightedly. “Tell me the price.”
“The price,” answers Mrs. Nature, “is one long day’s hard work.”
The customer’s face falls; he handles nervously his heavy purse.
“Cannot I pay for it in money?” he asks. “I don’t like work, but I am a rich man, I can afford to keep French cooks, to purchase old wines.”
Nature shakes her head.
“I cannot take your cheques, tissue and nerve are my charges. For these I can give you an appetite that will make a rump-steak and a tankard of ale more delicious to you than any dinner that the greatest chef in Europe could put before you. I can even promise you that a hunk of bread and cheese shall be a banquet to you; but you must pay my price in my money; I do not deal in yours.”
And next the Dilettante enters, demanding a taste for Art and Literature, and this also Nature is quite prepared to supply.
“I can give you true delight in all these things,” she answers. “Music shall be as wings to you, lifting you above the turmoil of the world. Through Art you shall catch a glimpse of Truth. Along the pleasant paths of Literature you shall walk as beside still waters.”
“And your charge?” cries the delighted customer.
“These things are somewhat expensive,” replies Nature. “I want from you a life lived simply, free from all desire of worldly success, a life from which passion has been lived out; a life to which appetite has been subdued.”
“But you mistake, my dear lady,” replies the Dilettante; “I have many friends, possessed of taste, and they are men who do not pay this price for it. Their houses are full of beautiful pictures, they rave about ‘nocturnes’ and ‘symphonies’, their shelves are packed with first editions. Yet they are men of luxury and wealth and fashion. They trouble much concerning the making of money, and Society is their heaven. Cannot I be as one of these?”
“I do not deal in the tricks of apes,” answers Nature coldly; “the culture of these friends of yours is a mere pose, a fashion of the hour, their talk mere parrot chatter. Yes, you can purchase such culture as this, and pretty cheaply, but a passion for skittles would be of more service to you, and bring you more genuine enjoyment. My goods are of a different class. I fear we waste each other’s time.”
And next comes the boy, asking with a blush for love, and Nature’s motherly old heart goes out to him, for it is an article she loves to sell, and she loves those who come to purchase it of her. So she leans across the counter, smiling, and tells him that she has the very thing he wants, and he, trembling with excitement, likewise asks the figure.
“It costs a good deal,” explains Nature, but in no discouraging tone; “it is the most expensive thing in all my shop.”
“I am rich,” replies the lad. “My father worked hard and saved, and he has left me all his wealth. I have stocks and shares, and lands and factories; and will pay any price in reason for this thing.”
But Nature, looking graver, lays her hand upon his arm.
“Put by your purse, boy,” she says, “my price is not a price in reason, nor is gold the metal that I deal in. There are many shops in various streets where your bank-notes will be accepted. But if you will take an old woman’s advice, you will not go to them. The thing they will sell you will bring sorrow and do evil to you. It is cheap enough, but, like all things cheap, it is not worth the buying. No man purchases it, only the fool.”
“And what is the cost of the thing you sell then?” asks the lad.
“Self-forgetfulness, tenderness, strength,” answers the old Dame; “the love of all things that are of good repute, the hate of all things evil — courage, sympathy, self-respect, these things purchase love. Put by your purse, lad, it will serve you in other ways, but it will not buy for you the goods upon my shelves.”
“Then am I no better off than the poor man?” demands the lad.
“I know not wealth or poverty as you understand it,” answers Nature. “Here I exchange realities only for realities. You ask for my treasures, I ask for your brain and heart in exchange — yours, boy, not your father’s, not another’s.”
“And this price,” he argues, “how shall I obtain it?”
“Go about the world,” replies the great Lady. “Labour, suffer, help. Come back to me when you have earned your wages, and according to how much you bring me so we will do business.”
Jerome Klapka Jerome. ¹)
¹)This story is a part of the essay “On the inadvisability of following advice” from the collected stories “Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow”.