Like a number of 19th-century writers, the author of “A Quiet Study” expresses concerns about the books young readers were enjoying. Here, the contrast is between “nonsensical romances” and books that would help readers make “spare hours profitable.” While discouraging the reading of over-exciting books, Robert Merry’s Museum encourages a sense that readers should take their lives seriously, learning and working hard. That 15-year-old Mark is no longer in school isn’t unusual: high school wasn’t made compulsory until the 20th century. That he’s working also isn’t unusual; Youth’s Companion expected boys to have a job by their mid-teens.
“A Quiet Study” (from Robert Merry’s Museum, May 1872, pp. 215-217)

“Well, Mr. Hardy, how are you this morning?”

“Better in body than mind, thank you, sir.”

“How’s that?”

“Our son Mark, sir, troubles us a good deal. We can’t get him to settle down to anything good or useful.”

“Why don’t you put him to a trade?”

“O, as for that, he’s all well enough. I got Mr. Briggs, the builder, to bind him ’prentice some months ago, and he takes very well to the bench, but—but it’s his mind that we’re most afraid of.”

“Poor fellow! Subject to some disease, I suppose?”

“Ay, that he is,” was the energetic reply; “and yet his complaint is very common among boys and girls.”

“Tell me what it is, Mr. Hardy; perhaps I may be able to advise a remedy.”

“I was thinking aobut that, sir, when I saw you coming.”

“Well, if I can be of service to you, I shall be most happy, I’m sure.”

“We can’t say that our Mark is a bad lad, though I’ve many a time felt tempted to thrash him.”

“Yet that is hardly the right sort of medicine for a sick boy.”

“Perhaps not, sir; but you’ll be able to judge better when I tell you his ailment.”

“Precisely, Mr. Hardy.”

“Every evening,” continued the anxious father, “as soon as he’s swallowed his tea, he either sits down to read nonsensical romances, or joins a troop of idle, care-for-nothing youths, who neither do him nor themselves any good; and whenever I speak of learning or improvement, he laughs and says there’ll be plenty of time for that when he grows up.”

“A mistake, Mr. Hardy, and a very serious one.”

“So I think, sir, and that’s why I want him to change his habits. He’s got a fine ‘head-piece,’ though I say it, and it would be a comfort to us if you could coax him into filling it with proper furniture.”

“Ha, ha! just so. I must drop in and have some talk with Master Mark. At what time does he usually leave work?”

“Six o’clock, sir.”

“Very well. Good morning. Say nothing to him till I call;” and the two men separated, one to pursue his daily labor, and the other to visit several members of his congregation.

Mr. Hardy was a plain, sensible working man, who had spent most of his life in the little town of Halston, and Mark—a clear, sharp-witted lad of fifteen—was his only son. Blessed with an industrious and thrifty wife, Mr. Hardy had been able to keep Mark at school till he was quite old and strong ehough to go to work. But when he found that his boy, after leaving school, devoted his spare time to reading silly books, and scampering all over the town, the discovery made him

p. 216

uneasy. And this was the subject of his thoughts when he met the Rev. Mr. Ratcliffe.

Now, Mr. Ratcliffe was one of those ministers who, wherever they go, make many friends and few enemies. He worked as hard as any of his neighbors, talked so that everybody could understand him, and thought just as much of the poor as of the rich. Besides, he was a particular favorite with the scholars in the Sunday school, because he loved boys and girls, and they knew that he did.

Well, nearly a week having elapsed before the kind pastor found an opportunity of visiting the Hardys, neither Mark’s father nor mother was expecting him, when he knocked at the door.

Seeing only the workman and his wife, “Is your son out?” he asked.

“Yes, but he promised to be in again at eight.”

It wanted hardly five minutes to the hour; so Mr. Ratcliffe sat down and began talking. Presently the door opened, and Mark came into the room.

“Good evening, Mark. I am glad to see you,” said the minister, unwrapping a small parcel. “I want you to do me a favor, if you will,” he added; “and should your work prove satisfactory, I’ll pay you well.”

Mark looked at his parents and then at their visitor, but nobody seemed disposed to help him.

“I’ll do anything I can, sir,” he said, “only I have to work in the daytime.”

“But you’ve some leisure at night—haven’t you?”

“Yes, sir, after tea.”

“Well, you can do my little job, then, and it will be a bit of overtime for you—some extra pocket-money, you know.”

Mark’s eyes brightened at the prospect of earning something for himself.

“I’ve got a book here about building and carpentering,” continued Mr. Ratcliffe, “which was written for youths engaged in that business; and I want you to read it carefully through, and then tell me whether the writer deserves blame or praise for what he has done.”

“Yes, sir,” answered Mark; and soon afterwards the minister bade his parents good night.

Full of his new task, the young apprentice began to examine Mr. Ratcliffe’s book with a good deal of curiosity. It contained a number of small wood engravings or “cuts,” but he hardly looked at the reading.

“You’ll finish your other book before you tackle that one—won’t you, Mark?” asked his father.

“I can’t tell; perhaps not;” and he went on turning the leaves over.

Neither of his parents again disturbed him till bed-time, and next evening he began to read what he expected to find “dry stuff.” But in this he was mistaken; so he put the book under his arm and went out, taking care to avoid being seen by his playmates.

“It’ll be light a long while yet; so I’ll go to the ‘Old Park,’ ” he said to himself; and after a sharp walk, he turned out of the lane, and looked round for a spot where he could read and think without being interrupted. Selecting the foot of a large tree, against which a rude seat or bench had been placed, he sat down, opened his book, and went to work. In the distance could be seen the plain, square tower of the little country church, near which he had spent many a happy and thoughtless play-day; but there was nothing to interfere with his reflections beyond the rustling of leaves and the chirping of birds. And to this secluded spot did Mark, evening after evening, bring his book and sit reading as long as the light would let him. Instead of proving “dry” and uninteresting, his new book told him of things he ought to know, think

p. 217

about, and remember, and instead of rising from his task excited and wondering what the next “adventure” would be, he got up with the feeling that he had learned something worth learning. Then each chapter was accompanied with short anecdotes and hints about the value of time, steadiness, perseverance, and energy, and nearly all the words were plain and simple. In short, the more Mark Hardy read and reflected upon Mr. Ratcliffe’s book, the more he liked it, because it showed him how he could make his spare hours profitable, both to himself and others. Hitherto his reading had done him more harm than good, for many a time, while at work, wild scenes from the idle tales he had perused so eagerly would come into his mind and make him absent or careless. But now he began to see the difference between the world of fiction and the world of fact, and to feel sorry for the many precious hours he had foolishly thrown away.

“How have you been spending your time lately, Mark?” asked his father, one evening, with an earnest look. “I thought you were going to read what the minister left you.”

“It’s all right, father; I’ve been having a quiet study.”

“And what have you been studying?”

“This book; I’ve read it through twice, and if Mr. Ratcliffe were here now I wouldn’t be long in telling him what I think of the gentleman who wrote it.”

Greatly to Mark’s surprise, the good minister—who had been waiting for him—stepped into the room.

“Well, what do you think of him?” asked he, with a smile; and after a pause Mark made answer,—

“He’s a man, sir, that knows how to make boys think about what they read.”

“Then he deserves praise?”

“Yes, because he tries to make people better and wiser at the same time.”

“Very good; now what am I to pay you for your trouble?”

This question rather puzzled Mark, but he found an answer at last.

“It’s been a pleasure to me, sir,” said Mark; “and I thank you very much for bringing the book.”

“Well, suppose I make you a present of it on the understanding that you get all the useful knowledge out of it you can, and strive to become thoroughly master of your business.”

After expressing his thanks, Mark promising to do as Mr. Ratcliffe wished him; and when he got to be a man he started in business for himself. Now, every lad may not be able to do as Mark Hardy did; yet that is no reason why the youth who reads this should not “do his duty” by making a wise and proper use of his spare time.

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