He was beautifully dressed in a dark suit with a well-pressed shirt and tie. His shoes were polished, his nails were clean, his hat was well brushed, and a white handkerchief adorned his breast pocket. But his expression was somewhat blank. In fact, it was completely blank, for he had neither eyes, nose, nor mouth.
“Hello, little boy,” he said, amiably shaking Milo by the hand. “And how’s the faithful dog?” he inquired, giving Tock three or four strong and friendly pats. “And who is this handsome creature?” he asked, tipping his hat to the very pleased Humbug. “I’m so happy to see you all.”
“What a pleasant surprise to meet someone so nice,” they all thought, “and especially here.”
“I wonder if you could spare me a little of your time,” he inquired politely, “and help with a few small jobs?”
“Why, of course,” said the Humbug cheerfully.
“Gladly,” added Tock.
“Yes, indeed,” said Milo, who wondered for just a moment how it was possible for someone so agreeable to have a face with no features at all.
“Splendid,” he said happily, “for there are just three tasks. Firstly, I would like to move this pile from here to there,” he explained, pointing to an enormous mound of fine sand; “but I’m afraid that all I have is this tiny tweezers.” And he gave them to Milo, who immediately began transporting one grain at a time.
“Secondly, I would like to empty this well and fill the other; but I have no bucket, so you’ll have to use this eye dropper.” And he handed it to Tock, who undertook at once to carry one drop at a time from well to well.
“And, lastly, I must have a hole through this cliff, and here is a needle to dig it.” The eager Humbug quickly set to work picking at the solid granite wall.
When they had all been safely started, the very pleasant man returned to the tree and, leaning against it once more, continued to stare vacantly down the trail, while Milo, Tock, and the Humbug worked hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour—
The Humbug whistled gaily at his work, for he was never as happy as when he had a job which required no thinking at all. After what seemed like days, he had dug a hole scarcely large enough for his thumb. Tock shuffled steadily back and forth with the dropper in his teeth, but the full well was still almost as full as when he began, and Milo’s new pile of sand was hardly a pile at all.
“How very strange,” said Milo, without stopping for a moment. “I’ve been working steadily all this time, and I don’t feel the slightest bit tired or hungry. I could go right on the same way forever.”
“Perhaps you will,” the man agreed with a yawn (at least it sounded like a yawn).
“Well, I wish I knew how long it was going to take,” Milo whispered as the dog went by again.
“Why not use your magic staff and find out?” replied Tock as clearly as anyone could with an eye dropper in his mouth.
Milo took the shiny pencil from his pocket and quickly calculated that, at the rate they were working, it would take each of them eight hundred and thirty-seven years to finish.
“Pardon me,” he said, tugging at the man’s sleeve and holding the sheet of figures up for him to see, “but it’s going to take eight hundred and thirty-seven years to do these jobs.”
“Is that so?” replied the man, without even turning around. “Well, you’d better get on with it then.”
“But it hardly seems worth while,” said Milo softly.
“WORTH WHILE!” the man roared indignantly.
“All I meant was that perhaps it isn’t too important,” Milo repeated, trying not to be impolite.
“Of course it’s not important,” he snarled angrily. “I wouldn’t have asked you to do it if I thought it was important.” And now, as he turned to face them, he didn’t seem quite so pleasant.
“Then why bother?” asked Tock, whose alarm suddenly began to ring.
“Because, my young friends,” he muttered sourly, “what could be more important than doing unimportant things? If you stop to do enough of them, you’ll never get to where you’re going.” He punctuated his last remark with a villainous laugh.
“Then you must—” gasped Milo.
“Quite correct!” he shrieked triumphantly. “I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.”
The Humbug dropped his needle and stared in disbelief while Milo and Tock began to back away slowly.
“Don’t try to leave,” he ordered, with a menacing sweep of his arm, “for there’s so very much to do, and you still have over eight hundred years to go on the first job.”
“But why do only unimportant things?” asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them.
“Think of all the trouble it saves,” the man explained, and his face looked as if he’d be grinning an evil grin—if he could grin at all. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing, and if it weren’t for that dreadful magic staff, you’d never know how much time you were wasting.”
As he spoke, he tiptoed slowly toward them with his arms outstretched and continued to whisper in a soft, deceitful voice, “Now do come and stay with me. We’ll have so much fun together. There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why, if you stay here, you’ll never have to think again—and with a little practice you can become a monster of habit, too.”
– Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth