An Argument With a Millionaire

by David Grayson

"Let the mighty and great
Roll in splendour and state,
I envy them not, I declare it.
I eat my own lamb,
My own chicken and ham,
I shear my own sheep and wear it.
I have lawns, I have bowers,
I have fruits, I have flowers,
The lark is my morning charmer;
So you jolly dogs now,
Here's God bless the plow—
Long life and content to the farmer."

—Rhyme on an old pitcher of English pottery.

I have been hearing of John Starkweather ever since I came here. He is a most important personage in this community. He is rich. Horace especially loves to talk about him. Give Horace half a chance, whether the subject be pigs or churches, and he will break in somewhere with the remark: "As I was saying to Mr. Starkweather—" or, "Mr. Starkweather says to me—" How we love to shine by reflected glory! Even Harriet has not gone by unscathed; she, too, has been affected by the bacillus of admiration. She has wanted to know several times if I saw John Starkweather drive by: "The finest span of horses in this country," she says, and "did you see his daughter?" Much other information concerning the Starkweather household, culinary and otherwise, is current among our hills. We know accurately the number of Mr. Starkweather's bedrooms, we can tell how much coal he uses in winter and how many tons of ice in summer, and upon such important premises we argue his riches.

Several times I have passed John Starkweather's home. It lies between my farm and the town, though not on the direct road, and it is really beautiful with the groomed and guided beauty possible to wealth. A stately old house with a huge end chimney of red bricks stands with dignity well back from the road; round about lie pleasant lawns that once were cornfields; and there are drives and walks and exotic shrubs. At first, loving my own hills so well, I was puzzled to understand why I should also enjoy Starkweather's groomed surroundings. But it came to me that after all, much as we may love wildness, we are not wild, nor our works. What more artificial than a house, or a barn, or a fence? And the greater and more formal the house, the more formal indeed must be the nearer natural environments. Perhaps the hand of man might well have been less evident in developing the surroundings of the Starkweather home—for art, dealing with nature, is so often too accomplished!

But I enjoy the Starkweather place and as I look in from the road, I sometimes think to myself with satisfaction: "Here is this rich man who has paid his thousands to make the beauty which I pass and take for nothing—and having taken, leave as much behind." And I wonder sometimes whether he, inside his fences, gets more joy of it than I, who walk the roads outside. Anyway, I am grateful to him for using his riches so much to my advantage.

On fine mornings John Starkweather sometimes comes out in his slippers, bare-headed, his white vest gleaming in the sunshine, and walks slowly around his garden. Charles Baxter says that on these occasions he is asking his gardener the names of the vegetables. However that may be, he has seemed to our community the very incarnation of contentment and prosperity—his position the acme of desirability.

What was my astonishment, then, the other morning to see John Starkweather coming down the pasture lane through my farm. I knew him afar off, though I had never met him. May I express the inexpressible when I say he had a rich look; he walked rich, there was richness in the confident crook of his elbow, and in the positive twitch of the stick he carried: a man accustomed to having doors opened before he knocked. I stood there a moment and looked up the hill at him, and I felt that profound curiosity which every one of us feels every day of his life to know something of the inner impulses which stir his nearest neighbor. I should have liked to know John Starkweather; but I thought to myself as I have thought so many times how surely one comes finally to imitate his surroundings. A farmer grows to be a part of his farm; the sawdust on his coat is not the most distinctive insignia of the carpenter; the poet writes his truest lines upon his own countenance. People passing in my road take me to be a part of this natural scene. I suppose I seem to them as a partridge squatting among dry grasses and leaves, so like the grass and leaves as to be invisible. We all come to be marked upon by nature and dismissed—how carelessly!—as genera or species. And is it not the primal struggle of man to escape classification, to form new differentiations?

Sometimes—I confess it—when I see one passing in my road, I feel like hailing him and saying:

"Friend, I am not all farmer. I, too, am a person, I am different and curious. I am full of red blood, I like people, all sorts of people; if you are not interested in me, at least I am intensely interested in you. Come over now and let's talk!"

So we are all of us calling and calling across the incalculable gulfs which separate us even from our nearest friends!

Once or twice this feeling has been so real to me that I've been near to the point of hailing utter strangers—only to be instantly overcome with a sense of the humorous absurdity of such an enterprise. So I laugh it off and I say to myself:

"Steady now: the man is going to town to sell a pig; he is coming back with ten pounds of sugar, five of salt pork, a can of coffee and some new blades for his mowing machine. He hasn't time for talk"—and so I come down with a bump to my digging, or hoeing, or chopping, or whatever it is.

Here I've left John Starkweather in my pasture while I remark to the extent of a page or two that I didn't expect him to see me when he went by.

I assumed that he was out for a walk, perhaps to enliven a worn appetite (do you know, confidentially, I've had some pleasure in times past in reflecting upon the jaded appetites of millionaires!), and that he would pass out by my lane to the country road; but, instead of that, what should he do but climb the yard fence and walk over toward the barn where I was at work.

Perhaps I was not consumed with excitement: here was fresh adventure!

"A farmer," I said to myself with exultation, "has only to wait long enough and all the world comes his way."

I had just begun to grease my farm wagon and was experiencing some difficulty in lifting and steadying the heavy rear axle while I took off the wheel. I kept busily at work, pretending (such is the perversity of the human mind) that I did not see Mr. Starkweather. He stood for a moment watching me; then he said:

"Good morning, sir."

I looked up and said: "Oh, good morning!"

"Nice little farm you have here."

"It's enough for me," I replied. I did not especially like the "little." One is human.

Then I had an absurd inspiration: he stood there so trim and jaunty and prosperous. So rich! I had a good look at him. He was dressed in a woolen jacket coat, knee-trousers and leggings; on his head he wore a jaunty, cocky little Scotch cap; a man, I should judge, about fifty years old, well-fed and hearty in appearance, with grayish hair and a good-humored eye. I acted on my inspiration:

"You've arrived," I said, "at the psychological moment."

"How's that?"

"Take hold here and help me lift this axle and steady it. I'm having a hard time of it."

The look of astonishment in his countenance was beautiful to see.

For a moment failure stared me in the face. His expression said with emphasis: "Perhaps you don't know who I am." But I looked at him with the greatest good feeling and my expression said, or I meant it to say: "To be sure I don't: and what difference does it make, anyway!"

"You take hold here," I said, without waiting for him to catch his breath, "and I'll get hold here. Together we can easily get the wheel off."

Without a word he set his cane against the barn and bent his back; up came the axle and I propped it with a board.

"Now," I said, "you hang on there and steady it while I get the wheel off"—though, indeed, it didn't really need much steadying.

As I straightened up, whom should I see but Harriet standing stock still in the pathway half way down to the barn, transfixed with horror. She had recognized John Starkweather and had heard at least part of what I said to him, and the vision of that important man bending his back to help lift the axle of my old wagon was too terrible! She caught my eye and pointed and mouthed. When I smiled and nodded, John Starkweather straightened up and looked around.

"Don't, on your life," I warned, "let go of that axle."

He held on and Harriet turned and retreated ingloriously. John Starkweather's face was a study!

"Did you ever grease a wagon?" I asked him genially.

"Never," he said.

"There's more of an art in it than you think," I said, and, as I worked, I talked to him of the lore of axle-grease and showed him exactly how to put it on—neither too much nor too little, and so that it would distribute itself evenly when the wheel was replaced.

"There's a right way of doing everything," I observed.

"That's so," said John Starkweather, "if I could only get workmen that believed it."

By that time I could see that he was beginning to be interested. I put back the wheel, gave it a light turn and screwed on the nut. He helped me with the other end of the axle with all good humor.

"Perhaps," I said, as engagingly as I knew how, "you'd like to try the art yourself? You take the grease this time and I'll steady the wagon."

"All right," he said, laughing, "I'm in for anything."

He took the grease box and the paddle—less gingerly than I thought he would.

"Is that right?" he demanded, and so he put on the grease. And oh, it was good to see Harriet in the doorway!

"Steady there," I said, "not so much at the end; now put the box down on the reach."

And so together we greased the wagon, talking all the time in the friendliest way. I actually believe that he was having a pretty good time. At least it had the virtue of unexpectedness. He wasn't bored!

When he had finished, we both straightened our backs and looked at each other. There was a twinkle in his eye; then we both laughed. "He's all right," I said to myself. I held up my hands, then he held up his; it was hardly necessary to prove that wagon-greasing was not a delicate operation.

"It's a good, wholesome sign," I said, "but it'll come off. Do you happen to remember a story of Tolstoi's called, 'Ivan the Fool?'"

("What is a farmer doing quoting Tolstoi!" remarked his countenance—though he said not a word.)

"In the kingdom of Ivan, you remember," I said, "it was the rule that whoever had hard places on his hands came to table, but whoever had not must eat what the others left."

Thus I led him up the back steps and poured him a basin of hot water—which I brought myself from the kitchen, Harriet having marvelously and completely disappeared. We both washed our hands, talking with great good humor.

When we had finished I said: "Sit down, friend, if you've time, and let's talk."

So he sat down on one of the logs of my woodpile: a solid sort of man, rather warm after his recent activities. He looked me over with some interest and, I thought, friendliness.

"Why does a man like you," he asked finally, "waste himself on a little farm back here in the country?"

For a single instant I came nearer to being angry than I have been for a long time. Waste myself! So we are judged without knowledge. I had a sudden impulse to demolish him (if I could) with the nearest sarcasms I could lay hand to. He was so sure of himself! "Oh, well," I thought, with vainglorious superiority, "he doesn't know." So I said:

"What would you have me be—a millionaire?"

He smiled, but with a sort of sincerity.

"You might be," he said; "who can tell!"

I laughed outright; the humor of it struck me as delicious. Here I had been, ever since I first heard of John Starkweather, rather gloating over him as a poor suffering millionaire (of course millionaires are unhappy), and there he sat, ruddy of face and hearty of body, pitying me for a poor unfortunate farmer back here in the country! Curious, this human nature of ours, isn't it? But how infinitely beguiling!

So I sat down beside Mr. Starkweather on the log and crossed my legs. I felt as though I had set foot in a new country.

"Would you really advise me," I asked, "to start in to be a millionaire?"

He chuckled: "Well, that's one way of putting it. Hitch your wagon to a star; but begin by making a few dollars more a year than you spend. When I began—"

He stopped short with an amused smile, remembering that I did not know who he was.

"Of course," I said, "I understand that."

"A man must begin small"—he was on pleasant ground—"and anywhere he likes, a few dollars here, a few there. He must work hard, he must save, he must be both bold and cautious. I know a man who began when he was about your age with total assets of ten dollars and a good digestion. He's now considered a fairly wealthy man. He has a home in the city, a place in the country, and he goes to Europe when he likes. He has so arranged his affairs that young men do most of the work and he draws the dividends—and all in a little more than twenty years. I made every single cent—but, as I said, it's a penny business to start with. The point is, I like to see young men ambitious."

"Ambitious," I asked, "for what?"

"Why, to rise in the world; to get ahead."

"I know you'll pardon me," I said, "for appearing to cross-examine you, but I'm tremendously interested in these things. What do you mean by rising? And who am I to get ahead of?"

He looked at me in astonishment, and with evident impatience at my consummate stupidity.

"I am serious," I said. "I really want to make the best I can of my life. It's the only one I've got."

"See here," he said, "let us say you clear up five hundred a year from this farm—"

"You exaggerate—" I interrupted.

"Do I?" he laughed; "that makes my case all the better. Now, isn't it possible to rise from that? Couldn't you make a thousand or five thousand or even fifty thousand a year?"

It seems an unanswerable argument: fifty thousand dollars!

"I suppose I might," I said, "but do you think I'd be any better off or happier with fifty thousand a year than I am now? You see, I like all these surroundings better than any other place I ever knew. That old green hill over there with the oak on it is an intimate friend of mine. I have a good corn-field in which every year I work miracles. I've a cow and a horse and a few pigs. I have a comfortable home. My appetite is perfect, and I have plenty of food to gratify it. I sleep every night like a boy, for I haven't a trouble in this world to disturb me. I enjoy the mornings here in the country; and the evenings are pleasant. Some of my neighbors have come to be my good friends. I like them and I am pretty sure they like me. Inside the house there I have the best books ever written and I have time in the evenings to read them—I mean really read them. Now the question is, would I be any better off, or any happier, if I had fifty thousand a year?"

John Starkweather laughed.

"Well, sir," he said, "I see I've made the acquaintance of a philosopher."

"Let us say," I continued, "that you are willing to invest twenty years of your life in a million dollars." ("Merely an illustration," said John Starkweather.) "You have it where you can put it in the bank and take it out again, or you can give it form in houses, yachts, and other things. Now twenty years of my life—to me—is worth more than a million dollars. I simply can't afford to sell it for that. I prefer to invest it, as somebody or other has said, unearned in life. I've always had a liking for intangible properties."

"See here," said John Starkweather, "you are taking a narrow view of life. You are making your own pleasure the only standard. Shouldn't a man make the most of the talents given him? Hasn't he a duty to society?"

"Now you are shifting your ground," I said, "from the question of personal satisfaction to that of duty. That concerns me, too. Let me ask you: Isn't it important to society that this piece of earth be plowed and cultivated?"

"Yes, but—"

"Isn't it honest and useful work?"

"Of course."

"Isn't it important that it shall not only be done, but well done?"

"Certainly."

"It takes all there is in a good man," I said, "to be a good farmer."

"But the point is," he argued, "might not the same faculties applied to other things yield better and bigger results?"

"That is a problem, of course," I said. "I tried money-making once—in a city—and I was unsuccessful and unhappy; here I am both successful and happy. I suppose I was one of the young men who did the work while some millionaire drew the dividends." (I was cutting close, and I didn't venture to look at him.) "No doubt he had his houses and yachts and went to Europe when he liked. I know I lived upstairs—back—where there wasn't a tree to be seen, or a spear of green grass, or a hill, or a brook; only smoke and chimneys and littered roofs. Lord be thanked for my escape! Sometimes I think that Success has formed a silent conspiracy against Youth. Success holds up a single glittering apple and bids Youth strip and run for it; and Youth runs and Success still holds the apple."

John Starkweather said nothing.

"Yes," I said, "there are duties. We realize, we farmers, that we must produce more than we ourselves can eat or wear or burn. We realize that we are the foundation; we connect human life with the earth. We dig and plant and produce, and, having eaten at the first table ourselves, we pass what is left to the bakers and millionaires. Did you ever think, stranger, that most of the wars of the world have been fought for the control of this farmer's second table? Have you thought that the surplus of wheat and corn and cotton is what the railroads are struggling to carry? Upon our surplus run all the factories and mills; a little of it gathered in cash makes a millionaire. But we farmers, we sit back comfortably after dinner, and joke with our wives and play with our babies, and let the rest of you fight for the crumbs that fall from our abundant tables. If once we really cared and got up and shook ourselves, and said to the maid: 'Here, child, don't waste the crusts; gather 'em up and tomorrow we'll have a cottage pudding,' where in the world would all the millionaires be?"

Oh, I tell you, I waxed eloquent. I couldn't let John Starkweather, or any other man, get away with the conviction that a millionaire is better than a farmer. "Moreover," I said, "think of the position of the millionaire. He spends his time playing not with life, but with the symbols of life, whether cash or houses. Any day the symbols may change; a little war may happen along, there may be a defective flue or a western breeze, or even a panic because the farmers aren't scattering as many crumbs as usual (they call it crop failure, but I've noticed that the farmers still continue to have plenty to eat) and then what happens to your millionaire? Not knowing how to produce anything himself, he would starve to death if there were not always, somewhere, a farmer to take him up to the table."

"You're making a strong case," laughed John Starkweather.

"Strong!" I said. "It is simply wonderful what a leverage upon society a few acres of land, a cow, a pig or two, and a span of horses gives a man. I'm ridiculously independent. I'd be the hardest sort of a man to dislodge or crush. I tell you, my friend, a farmer is like an oak, his roots strike deep in the soil, he draws a sufficiency of food from the earth itself, he breathes the free air around him, his thirst is quenched by heaven itself—and there's no tax on sunshine."

I paused for very lack of breath. John Starkweather was laughing.

"When you commiserate me, therefore" ("I'm sure I shall never do it again," said John Starkweather), "when you commiserate me, therefore, and advise me to rise, you must give me really good reasons for changing my occupation and becoming a millionaire. You must prove to me that I can be more independent, more honest, more useful as a millionaire, and that I shall have better and truer friends!"

John Starkweather looked around at me (I knew I had been absurdly eager and I was rather ashamed of myself) and put his hand on my knee (he has a wonderfully fine eye!).

"I don't believe," he said, "you'd have any truer friends."

"Anyway," I said repentantly, "I'll admit that millionaires have their place—at present I wouldn't do entirely away with them, though I do think they'd enjoy farming better. And if I were to select a millionaire for all the best things I know, I should certainly choose you, Mr. Starkweather."

He jumped up.

"You know who I am?" he asked.

I nodded.

"And you knew all the time?"

I nodded.

"Well, you're a good one!"

We both laughed and fell to talking with the greatest friendliness. I led him down my garden to show him my prize pie-plant, of which I am enormously proud, and I pulled for him some of the finest stalks I could find.

"Take it home," I said, "it makes the best pies of any pie-plant in this country."

He took it under his arm.

"I want you to come over and see me the first chance you get," he said. "I'm going to prove to you by physical demonstration that it's better sport to be a millionaire than a farmer—not that I am a millionaire; I'm only accepting the reputation you give me."

So I walked with him down to the lane.

"Let me know when you grease up again," he said, "and I'll come over."

So we shook hands; and he set off sturdily down the road with the pie-plant leaves waving cheerfully over his shoulder.