The Workman

by Lord Dunsany

I SAW A workman fall with his scaffolding right from the summit of some vast hotel. And as he came down I saw him holding a knife and trying to cut his name on the scaffolding. He had time to try and do this for he must have had nearly three hundred feet to fall. And I could think of nothing but his folly in doing this futile thing, for not only would the man be unrecognizably dead in three seconds, but the very pole on which he tried to scratch whatever of his name he had time for was certain to be burnt in a few weeks for firewood.

Then I went home for I had work to do. And all that evening I thought of the man’s folly, till the thought hindered me from serious work.

And late that night while I was still at work, the ghost of the workman floated through my wall and stood before me laughing.

I heard no sound until after I spoke to it; but I could see the grey diaphanous form standing before me shuddering with laughter.

I spoke at last and asked what it was laughing at, and then the ghost spoke. It said: “I’m a laughin’ at you sittin’ and workin’ there.”

“And why,” I asked, “do you laugh at serious work?”

“Why, yer bloomin’ life ’ull go by like a wind,” he said, “and yer ’ole silly civilization ’ull be tidied up in a few centuries.”

Then he fell to laughing again and this time audibly; and, laughing still, faded back through the wall again and into the eternity from which he had come.

* * *

Source: Fifty-One Tales

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Arvin N. Prebost
Arvin N. Prebost
25 October, 2019 10:09 am

This viewpoint is all well and good, but it must needs be balanced by an awareness of the importance of our short lives on earth, else we will all become like John Lennon (“I read the news today, oh boy . . . “) or just become yogis sitting around in a trance while our country falls to ruin.

I want to imprint my name of the things I am involved with. A healthy motive! Very prideful!!

Kevin Alfred Strom
Kevin Alfred Strom
Reply to  Arvin N. Prebost
25 October, 2019 11:18 am

True. And, despite everything, the workman did carve his name in the falling scaffolding.

I like this Dunsany piece not because I think the workman is right about the futility of all things, but because it made me think of the shortness of our lives and the futility of most (not all, mind you!) of what is touted as “important work.”