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The Unoriginal Boy Post by :meaghert Category :Short Stories Author :Talbot Baines Reed Date :May 2011 Read :3577

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The Unoriginal Boy

It takes one a long time to discover that there is something wanting in the character of Ebenezer Ditto; and it takes a longer time still to make out exactly what that something is. He's an ordinary-looking and ordinarily-behaved boy. There's nothing amiss with the cut of his coat--it's neither extra grand nor extra shabby; there's nothing queer about his voice--he doesn't stammer and he doesn't squeak; there's nothing remarkable about his conversation or his actions--he's not a dunce, though he's not clever; he's not a scamp, though he's not goody; he never offends any one, though he never becomes great friends with any one. What is it makes us not take to Ebenezer? Why is it, on the whole, we rather despise him, and feel annoyed when in his society? For, it is the truth, we _don't_ much care about him.

Well, the answer to this question may be, as I have said, not very readily discovered; but if you watch Master Ditto carefully, and make up your mind, you will get at the bottom of the mystery, you will find that it is this very "ordinary" manner about him to which you object. The fellow is dull--he is unoriginal.

You feel sometimes as if you would give a sovereign to see Ebenezer stand on his head, by way of variety. It annoys you when he sits there with his eyes on you, smiling when you smile, frowning when you frown, talking about the weather when you talk about the weather, and when you whistle "Nancy Lee" whistling his everlasting "Grandfather's Clock." It is a relief, by the way, even to hear him whistle a different tune, for it is about the only thing in which he does take an independent course. But, if truth were known, it would come out he only knows this one tune, and that is the reason. He has not originality enough in him to learn a second.

It _is_ an annoying thing to be copied and imitated by any one, most of all by a fellow one's own age. We can understand the little child imitating its father, and we enjoy seeing what capers it sometimes cuts in the attempt, but there's nothing either interesting or amusing in the way Ebenezer goes on. When, for instance, by a sudden inspiration of genius, you take it into your head to shy a slice of apple across the room at Jack Sleepy just while he is in the act of yawning, with his mouth open wide enough to let a wheelbarrow down, it is not pleasant that immediately afterwards some one at your side should hurl a walnut at the same person and wound him seriously in the eye. Besides making a row, it takes away from the fun of your achievement, and makes the whole affair more than a joke. Or, being asked, let us suppose, to name your favourite hero in fiction, you are careful to select a somewhat out-of- the-way name, and reply, "Sidney Carton." You are rather pleased to think you have thereby not only named some one whom no one else is likely to hit upon, but also you have delicately let your master see you have lately read a very good book. It is rather vexing when Ebenezer replies to the same question, "Sidney Carton," in a knowing sort of manner, although you are positive he has never read the _Tale of Two Cities_, and doesn't even know that Dickens was its author. Of course, your distinction in the matter has gone, and if your answer is judged the best, you only get half the credit you deserve. Or, to take one more example, supposing one day, being utterly sick of Ebenezer's society, and longing to get a little time by yourself, you decline the tempting offer of a cricket match in which you know he also is likely to play. You mean to read this afternoon, you say. Well, isn't it too bad when next moment you hear that wretched Ebenezer saying, in answer to the same invitation, "Very sorry, but I mean to read this afternoon," and then have him come and sit down on a bench beside you with his book? And the worst of it is, you know if you now change your mind and go in for the match after all, he will change _his_ mind and do the same.

The most aggravating thing about unoriginal fellows is that you cannot well get in a rage with them, for if you find fault with them, you find fault with yourselves.

"What a young ass you are not to play in the match!" you say to Ebenezer, hardly able to contain yourself.

"Why aren't _you_ playing in it?" he replies.

"Oh! I've some particular reading I want to do," you say.

"So have I," replies he.

You cannot say, "You have no business to read when cricket is going on," nor can you say, "What do you mean by it?"

Clearly, if _you_ do it, you are not the person to say _he_ shall not.

I doubt if Ebenezer knows to what an extent he carries this trick of his. It is so natural for him to do as he sees others do that he fails to see how his actions appear in the same light as that in which others see them. Sometimes, indeed, he appears to be conscious of following his copy pretty closely, for we catch him trying to make some slight variation which will prevent it being said he does exactly the same. For instance, if you give a little select supper party in your study to two friends off roast potatoes and sardines, he will probably have three friends to breakfast off eggs and bread and jam; or if you hang up the portraits of your father and sister over your mantelpiece, he will suspend the likenesses of his mother and brother on his wall. He generally, you will find, tries to improve on you--which, of course, is not always hard to do. But sometimes he comes to grief in the attempt, as happened in the case of his wonderful "hanging shelves." Ted Hammer, quite a mechanical genius, had made to himself a set of these shelves, which for neatness, simplicity, and usefulness were the marvel of the school. Of course Ebby got to know of it, and was unhappy till he could cap it with something finer still. So he made all sorts of excuses for coming constantly into Ted's room and inspecting his work of art, till at last he felt quite sure he could make a set for himself. So he started to manufacture a set, twice the size, and with double the number of shelves. In due time he had it done and suspended on his wall, and it seemed as if Ted's nose was completely out of joint, for Ebby's shelves held not only his books, but his jam-pots and tumblers, and all sorts of odds and ends besides. But that very night there was a crash in his room, the like of which had never been heard before. We all rushed to the place. There were books, jam pots, ink pots, tumblers, in one glorious state of smash on the floor, and the unlucky shelves on the top of them; for Ebenezer had driven the small nail that supported the structure into nothing better than ordinary loose plaster. The only wonder was how the thing stayed up two minutes. So Ted Hammer's nose was not out of joint after all.

This reminds us of the story of the two rival shoemakers, who lived opposite one another, and always strove each to outdo the other in every branch of their trade. One day, one of the two painted over his door the highly appropriate Latin motto, "Mens conscia recti." His neighbour gnashed his teeth, of course, and vowed to improve on the inscription. And next day, when cobbler Number 1 and the world awoke, they beheld painted in huge characters over the fellow's shop-front the startling announcement, "_Men's and Women's_ conscia recti."

It is the easiest thing possible (where the operator is not quite such a fool as this shoemaker) to improve on another's production. When some genius brings out a machine over the plans of which he has spent half an anxious lifetime, a dozen copyists will in a year have out a dozen "improved machines," each of them better than the first one, and therefore each helping to ruin the inventor. He had all the labour and all the knowledge. All the others did was to add a few slight improvements, for which they get all the credit due to the man without whom they would not have had an idea. This is, alas! very common, and cannot be avoided.

You can't make a law against one boy imitating another, or even against his stepping into the credit due to you.

It is as easy to be unoriginal as it is hard at times to be original. Everybody falls into the fault more or less. Why is it we can never find anything to begin a conversation with except the weather? Somebody, I suppose, began on that topic once. Why is it we always wear the shaped coats that everybody else does? Somebody must have astonished the world by setting the fashion in the first instance.

There is a touch of envy in Ebenezer, I'm afraid; but the kindest way of accounting for his annoying ways is to believe he is not clever. No more he is. If he were, he would at least see how ridiculous he sometimes makes himself. The original boys, on the other hand, _are_ clever, and they are quick in their ideas, which Ebenezer is not. The great thing in originality is to have your idea out before any one else. As long as it's in your head and no one knows of it, you are no better off than the unoriginal many; but give your idea a shape and a name, and you are one of the original few. And the glory of being one of them is that you are sure to have one or two of Ebenezer's sort at your tail!

Unoriginality is more a failing than a crime. Sometimes it may lead to actions which do real injury to another, but injury is rarely intended. It is stupidity more than anything else. But there is a point at which unoriginality may become a sin. Every boy has in him the power to say "Yes" or "No," and he has also the conscience in him which tells him when he ought to say the one or the other. Now, when every one is saying "Yes" to a thing about which your conscience demands that you shall say "No," it becomes your positive duty for once in your life to be original, and say it.

After all, most of us are medium sort of fellows. We are not geniuses, and we trust we are not dolts. The best thing we can do is to look out that we don't lose all our originality while knocking through this world. The more we can keep of it, the more good we shall do; and if we find we have enough of it to entitle us to some "followers," let us see to it we turn them out, if anything, better fellows than they were when first they "jumped up behind."


(The end)
Talbot Baines Reed's short story: The Unoriginal Boy

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