How to be a HERMIT
or, A BATCHELOR Keeps House
THAN WHOM THERE IS NO——WELL, THAN
WHOM THERE JUST ISN’T, THAT’S ALL.
The author wishes to thank the new york herald tribune, mc call’s magazineand morrow’s almanack for permission to reprint the articles in this book. They are not responsible for the second thoughts—some of them highly inflammable—strewn recklessly through the original pieces, nor for the several added starters.
I DISCOVER MY ISLAND
BE IT EVER SO HUMBLE
LIVING FROM CAN TO MOUTH
MY KITCHEN BEAUTIFUL
CONFESSIONS OF A SARDINE FIEND
THE HOME IN BUM TASTE
DIOGENES, OR THE FUTURE OF HOUSEKEEPING
THE SECRET OF FREDERICK BARBAROSSA
THE HERMIT’S EMERGENCY SHELF
THE DUKE’S DILEMMA
A FEW HINTS ON ETIQUETTE
SPINACH AND THE GOOD LIFE
LITERATURE AND OTHER SPINACH
WATCH YOUR BUDGET
BEDROOMS ARE WHAT YOU MAKE THEM
CONSIDER THE LETTUCE
A PLEA FOR BETTER BATTER
PERILS OF THE HOME
DOWN WITH BRILLAT-SAVARIN!
HOW TO ENTERTAIN
SO WHY BE PRESIDENT?
WHAT CABBAGE HAS MEANT TO ME
NEXT TO GODLINESS
IF CHRISTMAS COMES
THE FEAST OF THE BEAN
IF YOU HAVE TEARS
All was excitement that June morning among the clams of Jones’s Island (pronounced, by your leave, in two good healthy syllables, thus: Jone’-zez). Softies by the bushel dug themselves deeper into the shoreward mud, and whimpering little quahogs out in their watery beds clung closer to their mothers as they heard the dread news relayed by their kinsfolk of Seaman’s Neck, Black Banks Channel, Johnson’s Flats and High Hill Crick. To say that uneasiness pervaded the community would be putting it far too mildly. Those clams were scared plumb out of a week’s growth; which, as the clam flies, is a lot of growth. In a word, panic reigned, if not pandemonium.
And well it might, for the scouts along the meadows, the deep water observers and the liaison officers on the sandbars had forwarded marine intelligence of no mean importance. As one clam they reported the swift approach by rowboat across Great South Bay of a sinister stranger, by every sign a very devil for chowder, raging and roaring in the throes of starvation and flying the strange device, “Jones’s Island or Bust!” Yes, downright terror gripped even the hardest of the clams. “He ought to be here at any moment!” shuddered a visiting cherry-stone.
And see! Even now the hellish bark rounds Hawkins’s Point, splashes its desperate way through the shallows and crashes into Savage’s Dock with a sickening thud, hurling the oarsman from his position amidships to a point which may be defined as galley-west. Dizzily the skipper regains his feet, and as he rises to the general view his singular and touching appearance sends thrills of relief up and down the calcareous shells of the bivalves still on watch. Dame Rumor is wrong again! Here is no demon with murder in his heart. Here is no devil incarnate. For there in the full sunshine, the cynosure of every clam, he weeps, the stranger weeps. Anon, he sneezes, and again his eyes drip blinding tears. ‘Tis plain some nobler grief than the want of a square meal is bothering this chap. All told, it was pretty pathetic.
The sorrowful newcomer seemed, truly, a man distrait, as he stood there sniffling and snorting into his red bandanna, uttering violent and wicked words, shaking his free fist at nothing in particular and behaving generally as one bereft of all earthly solace and the greater part of the cerebellum. (But don’t get too much worked up about this, dear reader; it turns out in a minute that it was only me, arriving at Jones’s Island with my rose cold.) Ever and again he moved as though to cast himself and his afflictions into a low tide puddle, always he drew back in time. Then, extracting a small compass from his pocket, he made a few rapid calculations and, tossing a stray lock from a thoughtful brow, began running due South. And as he ran, he wept; and weeping, sneezed.
Some furlongs on his way, about where he would catch sight of something blue and wonderful between the beach hills, he was heard to shout, “Thalassa! Thalassa!” which is as much as to say in plain English, “The sea!” and repeat. “Eureka!” he cried next—”Excelsior!“—”Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres!” So, naturally, the clams, after thinking it over, decided that he was perfectly harmless. Each happy shellfish, according to his individual lights, sank back into a sort of nervous lethargy or went about his own or his neighbor’s business, forgetting as best he could the horrid threat of a clambake. “I told you there was not the slightest danger,” squizzed the visiting cherry-stone. “He’s only another goof come to look at the ocean—probably a typical New Yorker,” he added, tapping his forehead significantly. Whereupon he and the other clams, like the solitary horseman in novels, only rather more clammily, disappeared from the picture. I’m afraid I had ruined their day.
It was thus, or near enough, that I began my long and extremely pleasant relations with the Atlantic, an association which neither of us, I trust, has had cause to regret. You must forgive me for yelling “Thalassa!” and “E Pluribus Unum!“—especially “Thalassa!” since I have no Greek, and just got it out of a book. But I was all excited. I had waited so long! My early yearning for the sea had never been completely satisfied during my boyhood in the Middle West. Later I found Lake Michigan marvelous, but fresh; and seeing my ocean at long last, it struck me all of a heap, like. I hope my readers will permit me to skip what I saw that morning as I stood on the southern shore of Jones’s and peered horizonward. I’m not so good in purely descriptive passages, and I believe the Atlantic has quite a number of sterling qualities which we need not argue about. Suffice it that stout Cortez hadn’t a thing on me when with eagle eye he got into the wrong poem—it was really a couple of other explorers.
I, too, was silent and just stared. Strangely silent, it occurred to me, after letting my Viking spirit run wild for an hour or two. Mark you well—for here the plot thickens—I had not sneezed once in all that time, nor sniffed, nor sniveled, nor wished that I had ne’er been born, nor any of the things one does when one is subject to rose cold. I had arrived at Jones’s Island a human wreck, if that; just one more poor, underpaid book reviewer harried and hunted by hay fever’s hideous little cousin. And here I stood, my vision clear, my smeller busy with salt fragrance, whole in mind and nose, thinking in terms of high romance, all of a glorious June day; convinced for the mad moment, I confess it, that Pippa was not a half-wit at all. For a nickel I’d have burst into song. Some subtle seaside virus was coursing through my system, sweeping out dusty clouds of landlubberly notions and raising merry hell with my logical faculties—I always hated them. “It would be sheer foolishness ever to leave this sneezeless island with its own private ocean,” I told myself. “And it is our bounden duty as reasonable creatures to shun and turn from folly, at least once in a while, especially when the avoidance is so pleasant as this.” So I philosophized. Already I was half a hermit.
That afternoon I wandered back of the beach hills, seeking among the swamps and meadows of the interior some aspect of animate or inanimate Nature that might bring on a return of my tragedy, for as yet I could not believe that this Fortunate Isle contained no germs of rose cold. Though rose cold is mostly caused by the machinations of evil spirits, flowers are part of it, too, and the victim must watch them like so many wild animals. Flowers are very pretty, yes; and don’t they know it? But the best of them are full of pollen, a substance used by Mother Nature to produce rose cold and hay fever when she might be in better business. In a world where Ambrosia artemistæfolia turns out to be common ragweed, you can’t be too careful.
Proceeding, then, upon my usual assumption that every leaf and bud that blows is my deadly enemy until it can prove that it isn’t, I adventured boldly into the unknown hinterland. Each humble, nameless sprout of green I firmly challenged and encountered, sniffing to windward and leeward, reconnoitering stealthily from ambush, doubling in my tracks and charging suddenly to prevent trickery. I found no actual flowers, if memory serves; but one homely creeper, apparently some low and depraved form of sweet pea, showed a dangerous tendency to bloom. I walked straight up to it, looked it in the eye and gave it glare for glare. Nothing happened. I passed on, spasmless. Well, well!
Here, obviously, were none of my vegetable enemies, and a man might be at peace. A body might live here without an utterly ruinous supply of red bandannas. Later there might be goldenrod, but let it come. I am not affected by goldenrod, a fact which accounts for my cocky leers whenever I meet a mess of that flaunting, cruel plant; the joke is on the goldenrod, and so far as I’m concerned it may flaunt its head off. At that I am not one of those happy, carefree picnickers who carry heaping armfuls of goldenrod into railway trains and subways on the off chance of finding some poor hay fever addict and ending a perfect day with a good laugh. It might do these excursionists a great deal of good if they sat down in a clump of poison ivy some time. Speaking of hot Sitz baths, I had my troubles that first day with the Jones’s Island beach grass, a species of improved hatpin, but that thrill was as nothing compared to my epic discovery of the Zachs Inlet Coast Guard Station.
That’s where I met Portygee Pete and Comanche and Pokamoke Benny and Buttercup and Uncle John and, in the ways of seven or eight years, some dozens of others who became my friends and privy counselors, financial advisers, pump fixers, putters-on of typewriter ribbons and bulwarks against melancholia. ‘Twas there I first sampled the most excellent cuisine of Hot Biscuit Slim, the second of that honored name. Slim plied us all with stew, and afterwards stayed us with pancakes, his own special brew, compounded of main strength, a fertile imagination and a ladle of soda. Boy, that was food, and not merely something to titillate a jaded palate. If your palate is jaded at Jones’s, you better move.
It was doubtless fate that drew me there; we cannot, the wisest among us, prove the contrary. And fate, as a great writer has put it, kept right on working. For towards evening, having dined at five, I came by a crooked little path to a crooked little house about three hundred yards from the station. I saw that it was my house, and had been mine from the dim beginnings. Somewhere it was written. In a kind of joyful amazement I opened my mouth and spoke, saying, “I have been here before”; and I care not if the alienists have a long, insulting name for that particular feeling. I added, for the benefit of the small black kitten following close at my heels, “This is my ancient home, from which I strayed long since. But now I am back from my faring, and here I shall live and abide.”
“Well, I’m glad you have come to your senses at last,” said the kitten. “I picked you for a hermit all the time.”
“Come on inside,” said I to the kitten, who leaped ahead into the crooked little kitchen and settled politely on the stove.
“Do you like it?” demanded my inky familiar.
“I love it, all four rooms, furniture and all,” I shouted from the parlor. “But just what do you mean,” I inquired, returning from my hasty inspection, “you picked me for a hermit?”
“You’ll have to take my word for things,” smiled my companion. “You were born in Auburn, Indiana, on August 23, 1894, making you a Virgo character, with strong leanings towards Leo. Right?”
“The year’s not quite right,” said I; “but I can see you’re a mighty smart kitten. What’s your name, anyway?”
“Well, Mr. Finnegan—”
“Just Finnegan to you,” said the kitten.
“But it is Mister, I suppose?”
“Yes, if you must know,” said Finnegan. “Well, Mr.—”
“Call me Bill,” said I.
“Well, Bill,” resumed Finnegan, “I only meant that you are obviously the island type, not the ordinary, crude oaf one meets ashore in this darned old Riveting Age.”
“You got out of that pretty nicely, you flatterer,” said I. “What else?”
“You hate noise? I thought so. You have a slight touch of auditory hyperæsthesia, which might easily develop into schizophrenia. In the quiet of Jones’s Island you would probably write much better book reviews. Don’t you want to?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “I have a passionate, flamelike, all-consuming desire to do that very thing, so as to have my wages raised.”
“You’ll get over that,” said Finnegan, “once you’re a hermit.”
“I’m not sure that I can be one,” said I. “There’s civilization to consider.”
“I doubt it,” said Finnegan. “Anyway, if you will pardon an epigram, a hermit is simply a person to whom civilization has failed to adjust itself.”
“Did you think that up all by yourself?” I demanded, with mounting admiration.
“I may have seen it in the National Geographic,” said Finnegan. “The Coast Guards saved a millionaire and his yacht from drowning here lately, and he sent us a few back numbers as a reward—wonderful reading, so broadening. As I was saying, let somebody else worry about civilization.”
“But I hate to be called a misfit!” said I. “Even now science is hard at work on the cause and cure of hermits, and what with psycho-analysis and all, the poor hermits soon won’t have a pillar to stand on.”
“Nonsense!” laughed Finnegan. “Of course there are some hermits who haven’t all their buttons, but we are speaking of the other kind. There have been some grand ones. It is, I assure you, in no idle vein that I mention such names as Theodosius of Cappadocia, James of Mesopotamia, Epiphanius of Salamis, Hospitius of Villafranca and Claudius Apollinaris of Hierapolis, not forgetting Robinson Crusoe. There was also the Abbot Paphnutius—”
“The friend of Thaïs?” I interrupted.
“I didn’t mean to mention him,” said Finnegan. “It just slipped out. Too bad about him—a mere matter of glands, and no good doctors.”
“Do you mean he had too many glands, or not enough, or what?” I inquired.
“We needn’t go into that,” said Finnegan.
“Well,” said I, “I’m not so sure about the place of asceticism in modern life. Morality, you know, is essentially social. Life—”
“A lot you know about life,” said Finnegan. “Life is within and no man hath seen it. I guess I read that somewhere, too. Anyway, you’re not going to be so damned ascetic!”
“Right,” I agreed. “I really don’t want to be a cenobite or an eremite just at present. I want to be good, in moderation, but you’ll have to let me go to literary teas in New York every few weeks. I suppose I must live in a cave?”
“Cave, nothing!” said Finnegan with some show of emotion. “You’ll live right here in this house. That’s exactly where so many hermits make their big mistake—living in caves. Caves are damp, dark and full of bats; it costs a small fortune to fix one of them so it’s at all habitable. All thinking hermits to-day deplore the cave habit. Besides, I always say what is home without a house? It doesn’t have to be steam-het, either.”
“Steam-het,” said Finnegan. “It doesn’t have to be. You’ll be perfectly comfortable with this kitchen range, and you can write your book reviews on that table, and if any visitors come to disturb you, I’ll bite them. I know the man who owns this shack, and I’ll arrange the business end of it; just leave it all to me. You’ll find after a few weeks that your auditory hyperæsthesia will clear up and you’ll lose that pale onshore look; in no time we’ll have you a mem sana in corpore sano, or near enough to it for all practical purposes.”
“Maybe all I need,” I replied, “is a good eye, ear, nose, throat and brain specialist.”
“What is to be will be,” said Finnegan. “And if you want any more cats, I have thirty-nine brothers and sisters—”
“The die is cast!” I exclaimed, and groped my way to the tattered blanket in the bedroom.
Soon we fell into a dreamless sleep, from which Finnegan was to wake a speechless but no less sapient cat. At dawn I struck for the mainland, returning at sunset with all that was mine or that my friends would spare. And the evening of that day was the morning of my hermiting. By and large, that was about how the fit took me. Some think it passing strange that I should change my way of life so completely because of a silly rose cold, a mere ocean, more or less, the twilight look of a little crooked house in the sand and the ravings of a temporarily enchanted cat. They say it doesn’t stand to reason. I reply, what does? But how can you argue with people who have never loved at sight?
Sure, it’s only Jones’s where I live; just good old homely Jones’s. It isn’t the Balearics, though it has often occurred to me that there is something decidedly Balearic about the place—there are ways of looking at islands. We have no slingers, and maybe that’s just as well; book reviewers have enough on their minds without Balearic slingers and Gaditanian dancers and such. Life can’t be all slinging and dancing.
Time was when I planned to cast anchor not nearly so close to the mainland. I started for some unsuspected isle in far-off seas; the Cyclades, perhaps, if not the Hyades, and why not even Atlantis, if I had to fish it up myself? Then the wind shifted, as the wind will, and I’d have compromised on the Greater and Lesser Antilles. Anyway, I got to Jones’s, and that’s something. Hermits cannot be choosers, as Singapore Sam, just up from Hatteras, brought home to me as I was writing this very piece.
“Have you ever been to Coney Island, Bill?” he inquired—he’s saving up for the trip.
“Yes,” I told him, truthfully; “but only once, and that was years ago.”
“Well,” said he, “I suppose that’s more for the upper classes.”
Let’s leave it at that.