A MORTAL ANTIPATHY
By Oliver Wendell Holmes
"A MORTAL ANTIPATHY" was a truly hazardous experiment. A very wise and very distinguished physician who is as much at home in literature as he is in science and the practice of medicine, wrote to me in referring to this story: "I should have been afraid of my subject." He did not explain himself, but I can easily understand that he felt the improbability of the physiological or pathological occurrence on which the story is founded to be so great that the narrative could hardly be rendered plausible. I felt the difficulty for myself as well as for my readers, and it was only by recalling for our consideration a series of extraordinary but well-authenticated facts of somewhat similar character that I could hope to gain any serious attention to so strange a narrative.
I need not recur to these wonderful stories. There is, however, one, not to be found on record elsewhere, to which I would especially call the reader's attention. It is that of the middle-aged man, who assured me that he could never pass a tall hall clock without an indefinable terror. While an infant in arms the heavy weight of one of these tall clocks had fallen with aloud crash and produced an impression on his nervous system which he had never got over.
The lasting effect of a shock received by the sense of sight or that of hearing is conceivable enough.
But there is another sense, the nerves of which are in close relation with the higher organs of consciousness. The strength of the associations connected with the function of the first pair of nerves, the olfactory, is familiar to most persons in their own experience and as related by others. Now we know that every human being, as well as every other living organism, carries its own distinguishing atmosphere. If a man's friend does not know it, his dog does, and can track him anywhere by it. This personal peculiarity varies with the age and conditions of the individual. It may be agreeable or otherwise, a source of attraction or repulsion, but its influence is not less real, though far less obvious and less dominant, than in the lower animals. It was an atmospheric impression of this nature which associated itself with a terrible shock experienced by the infant which became the subject of this story. The impression could not be outgrown, but it might possibly be broken up by some sudden change in the nervous system effected by a cause as potent as the one which had produced the disordered condition.
This is the best key that I can furnish to a story which must have puzzled some, repelled others, and failed to interest many who did not suspect the true cause of the mysterious antipathy.
BEVERLY FARMS, MASS., August, 1891. O. W. H.
A MORTAL ANTIPATHY.
FIRST OPENING OF THE NEW PORTFOLIO.
"And why the New Portfolio, I would ask?"
Pray, do you remember, when there was an accession to the nursery in which you have a special interest, whether the new-comer was commonly spoken of as a baby? Was it not, on the contrary, invariably, under all conditions, in all companies, by the whole household, spoken of as the baby? And was the small receptacle provided for it commonly spoken of as a cradle; or was it not always called the cradle, as if there were no other in existence?
Now this New Portfolio is the cradle in which I am to rock my new-born thoughts, and from which I am to lift them carefully and show them to callers, namely, to the whole family of readers belonging to my list of intimates, and such other friends as may drop in by accident. And so it shall have the definite article, and not be lost in the mob of its fellows as a portfolio.
There are a few personal and incidental matters of which I wish to say something before reaching the contents of the Portfolio, whatever these may be. I have had other portfolios before this,—two, more especially, and the first thing I beg leave to introduce relates to these.
Do not throw this volume down, or turn to another page, when I tell you that the earliest of them, that of which I now am about to speak, was opened more than fifty years ago. This is a very dangerous confession, for fifty years make everything hopelessly old-fashioned, without giving it the charm of real antiquity. If I could say a hundred years, now, my readers would accept all I had to tell them with a curious interest; but fifty years ago,—there are too many talkative old people who know all about that time, and at best half a century is a half-baked bit of ware. A coin-fancier would say that your fifty-year-old facts have just enough of antiquity to spot them with rust, and not enough to give them—the delicate and durable patina which is time's exquisite enamel.
When the first Portfolio was opened the coin of the realm bore for its legend,—or might have borne if the more devout hero-worshippers could have had their way,—Andreas Jackson, Populi Gratia, Imp. Caesar. Aug. Div., Max., etc., etc. I never happened to see any gold or silver with that legend, but the truth is I was not very familiarly acquainted with the precious metals at that period of my career, and, there might have been a good deal of such coin in circulation without my handling it, or knowing much about it.
Permit me to indulge in a few reminiscences of that far-off time.
In those days the Athenaeum Picture Gallery was a principal centre of attraction to young Boston people and their visitors. Many of us got our first ideas of art, to say nothing of our first lessons in the comparatively innocent flirtations of our city's primitive period, in that agreeable resort of amateurs and artists.
How the pictures on those walls in Pearl Street do keep their places in the mind's gallery! Trumbull's Sortie of Gibraltar, with red enough in it for one of our sunset after-glows; and Neagle's full-length portrait of the blacksmith in his shirt-sleeves; and Copley's long-waistcoated gentlemen and satin-clad ladies,—they looked like gentlemen and ladies, too; and Stuart's florid merchants and high-waisted matrons; and Allston's lovely Italian scenery and dreamy, unimpassioned women, not forgetting Florimel in full flight on her interminable rocking-horse,—you may still see her at the Art Museum; and the rival landscapes of Doughty and Fisher, much talked of and largely praised in those days; and the Murillo,—not from Marshal Soup's collection; and the portrait of Annibale Caracci by himself, which cost the Athenaeum a hundred dollars; and Cole's allegorical pictures, and his immense and dreary canvas, in which the prostrate shepherds and the angel in Joseph's coat of many colors look as if they must have been thrown in for nothing; and West's brawny Lear tearing his clothes to pieces. But why go on with the catalogue, when most of these pictures can be seen either at the Athenaeum building in Beacon Street or at the Art Gallery, and admired or criticised perhaps more justly, certainly not more generously, than in those earlier years when we looked at them through the japanned fish-horns?
If one happened to pass through Atkinson Street on his way to the Athenaeum, he would notice a large, square, painted, brick house, in which lived a leading representative of old-fashioned coleopterous Calvinism, and from which emerged one of the liveliest of literary butterflies. The father was editor of the "Boston Recorder," a very respectable, but very far from amusing paper, most largely patronized by that class of the community which spoke habitually of the first day of the week as "the Sahbuth." The son was the editor of several different periodicals in succession, none of them over severe or serious, and of many pleasant books, filled with lively descriptions of society, which he studied on the outside with a quick eye for form and color, and with a certain amount of sentiment, not very deep, but real, though somewhat frothed over by his worldly experiences.
Nathaniel Parker Willis was in full bloom when I opened my first Portfolio. He had made himself known by his religious poetry, published in his father's paper, I think, and signed "Roy." He had started the "American Magazine," afterwards merged in the "New York Mirror." He had then left off writing scripture pieces, and taken to lighter forms of verse. He had just written
"I'm twenty-two, I'm twenty-two, They idly give me joy, As if I should be glad to know That I was less a boy."
He was young, therefore, and already famous. He came very near being very handsome. He was tall; his hair, of light brown color, waved in luxuriant abundance; his cheek was as rosy as if it had been painted to show behind the footlights; he dressed with artistic elegance. He was something between a remembrance of Count D'Orsay and an anticipation of Oscar Wilde. There used to be in the gallery of the Luxembourg a picture of Hippolytus and Phxdra, in which the beautiful young man, who had kindled a passion in the heart of his wicked step-mother, always reminded me of Willis, in spite of the shortcomings of the living face as compared with the ideal. The painted youth is still blooming on the canvas, but the fresh-cheecked, jaunty young author of the year 1830 has long faded out of human sight. I took the leaves which lie before me at this moment, as I write, from his coffin, as it lay just outside the door of Saint Paul's Church, on a sad, overclouded winter's day, in the year 1867. At that earlier time, Willis was by far the most prominent young American author. Cooper, Irving, Bryant, Dana, Halleck, Drake, had all done their best work. Longfellow was not yet conspicuous. Lowell was a school-boy. Emerson was unheard of. Whittier was beginning to make his way against the writers with better educational advantages whom he was destined to outdo and to outlive. Not one of the great histories, which have done honor to our literature, had appeared. Our school-books depended, so far as American authors were concerned, on extracts from the orations and speeches of Webster and Everett; on Bryant's Thanatopsis, his lines To a Waterfowl, and the Death of the Flowers, Halleck's Marco Bozzaris, Red Jacket, and Burns; on Drake's American Flag, and Percival's Coral Grove, and his Genius Sleeping and Genius Waking,—and not getting very wide awake, either. These could be depended upon. A few other copies of verses might be found, but Dwight's "Columbia, Columbia," and Pierpont's Airs of Palestine, were already effaced, as many of the favorites of our own day and generation must soon be, by the great wave which the near future will pour over the sands in which they still are legible.
About this time, in the year 1832, came out a small volume entitled "Truth, a Gift for Scribblers," which made some talk for a while, and is now chiefly valuable as a kind of literary tombstone on which may be read the names of many whose renown has been buried with their bones. The "London Athenaeum" spoke of it as having been described as a "tomahawk sort of satire." As the author had been a trapper in Missouri, he was familiarly acquainted with that weapon and the warfare of its owners. Born in Boston, in 1804, the son of an army officer, educated at West Point, he came back to his native city about the year 1830. He wrote an article on Bryant's Poems for the "North American Review," and another on the famous Indian chief, Black Hawk. In this last-mentioned article he tells this story as the great warrior told it himself. It was an incident of a fight with the Osages.
"Standing by my father's side, I saw him kill his antagonist and tear the scalp from his head. Fired with valor and ambition, I rushed furiously upon another, smote him to the earth with my tomahawk, ran my lance through his body, took off his scalp, and returned in triumph to my father. He said nothing, but looked pleased."
This little red story describes very well Spelling's style of literary warfare. His handling of his most conspicuous victim, Willis, was very much like Black Hawk's way of dealing with the Osage. He tomahawked him in heroics, ran him through in prose, and scalped him in barbarous epigrams. Bryant and Halleck were abundantly praised; hardly any one else escaped.
If the reader wishes to see the bubbles of reputation that were floating, some of them gay with prismatic colors, half a century ago, he will find in the pages of "Truth" a long catalogue of celebrities he never heard of. I recognize only three names, of all which are mentioned in the little book, as belonging to persons still living; but as I have not read the obituaries of all the others, some of them may be still flourishing in spite of Mr. Spelling's exterminating onslaught. Time dealt as hardly with poor Spelling, who was not without talent and instruction, as he had dealt with our authors. I think he found shelter at last under a roof which held numerous inmates, some of whom had seen better and many of whom had known worse days than those which they were passing within its friendly and not exclusive precincts. Such, at least, was the story I heard after he disappeared from general observation.
That was the day of Souvenirs, Tokens, Forget-me-nots, Bijous, and all that class of showy annuals. Short stories, slender poems, steel engravings, on a level with the common fashion-plates of advertising establishments, gilt edges, resplendent binding,—to manifestations of this sort our lighter literature had very largely run for some years. The "Scarlet Letter" was an unhinted possibility. The "Voices of the Night" had not stirred the brooding silence; the Concord seer was still in the lonely desert; most of the contributors to those yearly volumes, which took up such pretentious positions on the centre table, have shrunk into entire oblivion, or, at best, hold their place in literature by a scrap or two in some omnivorous collection.
What dreadful work Spelling made among those slight reputations, floating in swollen tenuity on the surface of the stream, and mirroring each other in reciprocal reflections! Violent, abusive as he was, unjust to any against whom he happened to have a prejudice, his castigation of the small litterateurs of that day was not harmful, but rather of use. His attack on Willis very probably did him good; he needed a little discipline, and though he got it too unsparingly, some cautions came with it which were worth the stripes he had to smart under. One noble writer Spelling treated with rudeness, probably from some accidental pique, or equally insignificant reason. I myself, one of the three survivors before referred to, escaped with a love-pat, as the youngest son of the Muse. Longfellow gets a brief nod of acknowledgment. Bailey, an American writer, "who made long since a happy snatch at fame," which must have been snatched away from him by envious time, for I cannot identify him; Thatcher, who died early, leaving one poem, The Last Request, not wholly unremembered; Miss Hannah F. Gould, a very bright and agreeable writer of light verse,—all these are commended to the keeping of that venerable public carrier, who finds his scythe and hour-glass such a load that he generally drops the burdens committed to his charge, after making a show of paying every possible attention to them so long as he is kept in sight.
It was a good time to open a portfolio. But my old one had boyhood written on every page. A single passionate outcry when the old warship I had read about in the broadsides that were a part of our kitchen literature, and in the "Naval Monument," was threatened with demolition; a few verses suggested by the sight of old Major Melville in his cocked hat and breeches, were the best scraps that came out of that first Portfolio, which was soon closed that it should not interfere with the duties of a profession authorized to claim all the time and thought which would have been otherwise expended in filling it.
During a quarter of a century the first Portfolio remained closed for the greater part of the time. Only now and then it would be taken up and opened, and something drawn from it for a special occasion, more particularly for the annual reunions of a certain class of which I was a member.
In the year 1857, towards its close, the "Atlantic Monthly," which I had the honor of naming, was started by the enterprising firm of Phillips & Sampson, under the editorship of Mr. James Russell Lowell. He thought that I might bring something out of my old Portfolio which would be not unacceptable in the new magazine. I looked at the poor old receptacle, which, partly from use and partly from neglect, had lost its freshness, and seemed hardly presentable to the new company expected to welcome the new-comer in the literary world of Boston, the least provincial of American centres of learning and letters. The gilded covering where the emblems of hope and aspiration had looked so bright had faded; not wholly, perhaps, but how was the gold become dim!—-how was the most fine gold changed! Long devotion to other pursuits had left little time for literature, and the waifs and strays gathered from the old Portfolio had done little more than keep alive the memory that such a source of supply was still in existence. I looked at the old Portfolio, and said to myself, "Too late! too late. This tarnished gold will never brighten, these battered covers will stand no more wear and tear; close them, and leave them to the spider and the book-worm."
In the mean time the nebula of the first quarter of the century had condensed into the constellation of the middle of the same period. When, a little while after the establishment of the new magazine, the "Saturday Club" gathered about the long table at "Parker's," such a representation of all that was best in American literature had never been collected within so small a compass. Most of the Americans whom educated foreigners cared to see-leaving out of consideration official dignitaries, whose temporary importance makes them objects of curiosity—were seated at that board. But the club did not yet exist, and the "Atlantic Monthly" was an experiment. There had already been several monthly periodicals, more or less successful and permanent, among which "Putnam's Magazine" was conspicuous, owing its success largely to the contributions of that very accomplished and delightful writer, Mr. George William Curtis. That magazine, after a somewhat prolonged and very honorable existence, had gone where all periodicals go when they die, into the archives of the deaf, dumb, and blind recording angel whose name is Oblivion. It had so well deserved to live that its death was a surprise and a source of regret. Could another monthly take its place and keep it when that, with all its attractions and excellences, had died out, and left a blank in our periodical literature which it would be very hard to fill as well as that had filled it?
This was the experiment which the enterprising publishers ventured upon, and I, who felt myself outside of the charmed circle drawn around the scholars and poets of Cambridge and Concord, having given myself to other studies and duties, wondered somewhat when Mr. Lowell insisted upon my becoming a contributor. And so, yielding to a pressure which I could not understand, and yet found myself unable to resist, I promised to take a part in the new venture, as an occasional writer in the columns of the new magazine.
That was the way in which the second Portfolio found its way to my table, and was there opened in the autumn of the year 1857. I was already at least
'Nel mezzo del cammin di mia, vita,'
when I risked myself, with many misgivings, in little-tried paths of what looked at first like a wilderness, a selva oscura, where, if I did not meet the lion or the wolf, I should be sure to find the critic, the most dangerous of the carnivores, waiting to welcome me after his own fashion.
The second Portfolio is closed and laid away. Perhaps it was hardly worth while to provide and open a new one; but here it lies before me, and I hope I may find something between its covers which will justify me in coming once more before my old friends. But before I open it I want to claim a little further indulgence.
There is a subject of profound interest to almost every writer, I might say to almost every human being. No matter what his culture or ignorance, no matter what his pursuit, no matter what his character, the subject I refer to is one of which he rarely ceases to think, and, if opportunity is offered, to talk. On this he is eloquent, if on nothing else. The slow of speech becomes fluent; the torpid listener becomes electric with vivacity, and alive all over with interest.
The sagacious reader knows well what is coming after this prelude. He is accustomed to the phrases with which the plausible visitor, who has a subscription book in his pocket, prepares his victim for the depressing disclosure of his real errand. He is not unacquainted with the conversational amenities of the cordial and interesting stranger, who, having had the misfortune of leaving his carpet-bag in the cars, or of having his pocket picked at the station, finds himself without the means of reaching that distant home where affluence waits for him with its luxurious welcome, but to whom for the moment the loan of some five and twenty dollars would be a convenience and a favor for which his heart would ache with gratitude during the brief interval between the loan and its repayment.
I wish to say a few words in my own person relating to some passages in my own history, and more especially to some of the recent experiences through which I have been passing.
What can justify one in addressing himself to the general public as if it were his private correspondent? There are at least three sufficient reasons: first, if he has a story to tell that everybody wants to hear,—if he has been shipwrecked, or has been in a battle, or has witnessed any interesting event, and can tell anything new about it; secondly, if he can put in fitting words any common experiences not already well told, so that readers will say, "Why, yes! I have had that sensation, thought, emotion, a hundred times, but I never heard it spoken of before, and I never saw any mention of it in print;" and thirdly, anything one likes, provided he can so tell it as to make it interesting.
I have no story to tell in this Introduction which can of itself claim any general attention. My first pages relate the effect of a certain literary experience upon myself,—a series of partial metempsychoses of which I have been the subject. Next follows a brief tribute to the memory of a very dear and renowned friend from whom I have recently been parted. The rest of the Introduction will be consecrated to the memory of my birthplace.
I have just finished a Memoir, which will appear soon after this page is written, and will have been the subject of criticism long before it is in the reader's hands. The experience of thinking another man's thoughts continuously for a long time; of living one's self into another man's life for a month, or a year, or more, is a very curious one. No matter how much superior to the biographer his subject may be, the man who writes the life feels himself, in a certain sense, on the level of the person whose life he is writing. One cannot fight over the battles of Marengo or Austerlitz with Napoleon without feeling as if he himself had a fractional claim to the victory, so real seems the transfer of his personality into that of the conqueror while he reads. Still more must this identification of "subject" and "object" take place when one is writing of a person whose studies or occupations are not unlike his own.
Here are some of my metempsychoses: Ten years ago I wrote what I called A Memorial Outline of a remarkable student of nature. He was a born observer, and such are far from common. He was also a man of great enthusiasm and unwearying industry. His quick eye detected what others passed by without notice: the Indian relic, where another would see only pebbles and fragments; the rare mollusk, or reptile, which his companion would poke with his cane, never suspecting that there was a prize at the end of it. Getting his single facts together with marvellous sagacity and long-breathed patience, he arranged them, classified them, described them, studied them in their relations, and before those around him were aware of it the collector was an accomplished naturalist. When—he died his collections remained, and they still remain, as his record in the hieratic language of science. In writing this memoir the spirit of his quiet pursuits, the even temper they bred in him, gained possession of my own mind, so that I seemed to look at nature through his gold-bowed spectacles, and to move about his beautifully ordered museum as if I had myself prepared and arranged its specimens. I felt wise with his wisdom, fair-minded with his calm impartiality; it seemed as if for the time his placid, observant, inquiring, keen-sighted nature "slid into my soul," and if I had looked at myself in the glass I should almost have expected to see the image of the Hersey professor whose life and character I was sketching.
A few years hater I lived over the life of another friend in writing a Memoir of which he was the subject. I saw him, the beautiful, bright-eyed boy, with dark, waving hair; the youthful scholar, first at Harvard, then at Gottingen and Berlin, the friend and companion of Bismarck; the young author, making a dash for renown as a novelist, and showing the elements which made his failures the promise of success in a larger field of literary labor; the delving historian, burying his fresh young manhood in the dusty alcoves of silent libraries, to come forth in the face of Europe and America as one of the leading historians of the time; the diplomatist, accomplished, of captivating presence and manners, an ardent American, and in the time of trial an impassioned and eloquent advocate of the cause of freedom; reaching at last the summit of his ambition as minister at the Court of Saint James. All this I seemed to share with him as I tracked his career from his birthplace in Dorchester, and the house in Walnut Street where he passed his boyhood, to the palaces of Vienna and London. And then the cruel blow which struck him from the place he adorned; the great sorrow that darkened his later years; the invasion of illness, a threat that warned of danger, and after a period of invalidism, during a part of which I shared his most intimate daily life, the sudden, hardly unwelcome, final summons. Did not my own consciousness migrate, or seem, at least, to transfer itself into this brilliant life history, as I traced its glowing record? I, too, seemed to feel the delight of carrying with me, as if they were my own, the charms of a presence which made its own welcome everywhere. I shared his heroic toils, I partook of his literary and social triumphs, I was honored by the marks of distinction which gathered about him, I was wronged by the indignity from which he suffered, mourned with him in his sorrow, and thus, after I had been living for months with his memory, I felt as if I should carry a part of his being with me so long as my self-consciousness might remain imprisoned in the ponderable elements.
The years passed away, and the influences derived from the companionships I have spoken of had blended intimately with my own current of being. Then there came to me a new experience in my relations with an eminent member of the medical profession, whom I met habitually for a long period, and to whose memory I consecrated a few pages as a prelude to a work of his own, written under very peculiar circumstances. He was the subject of a slow, torturing, malignant, and almost necessarily fatal disease. Knowing well that the mind would feed upon itself if it were not supplied with food from without, he determined to write a treatise on a subject which had greatly interested him, and which would oblige him to bestow much of his time and thought upon it, if indeed he could hold out to finish the work. During the period while he was engaged in writing it, his wife, who had seemed in perfect health, died suddenly of pneumonia. Physical suffering, mental distress, the prospect of death at a near, if uncertain, time always before him, it was hard to conceive a more terrible strain than that which he had to endure. When, in the hour of his greatest need, his faithful companion, the wife of many years of happy union, whose hand had smoothed his pillow, whose voice had consoled and cheered him, was torn from him after a few days of illness, I felt that my friend's trial was such that the cry of the man of many afflictions and temptations might well have escaped from his lips: "I was at ease, but he hath broken me asunder; he hath also taken me by my neck and shaken me to pieces, and set me up for his mark. His archers compass me round about, he cleaveth my reins asunder, and doth not spare; he poureth out my gall upon the ground."
I had dreaded meeting him for the first time after this crushing blow. What a lesson he gave me of patience under sufferings which the fearful description of the Eastern poet does not picture too vividly! We have been taught to admire the calm philosophy of Haller, watching his faltering pulse as he lay dying; we have heard the words of pious resignation said to have been uttered with his last breath by Addison: but here was a trial, not of hours, or days, or weeks, but of months, even years, of cruel pain, and in the midst of its thick darkness the light of love, which had burned steadily at his bedside, was suddenly extinguished.
There were times in which the thought would force itself upon my consciousness, How long is the universe to look upon this dreadful experiment of a malarious planet, with its unmeasurable freight of suffering, its poisonous atmosphere, so sweet to breathe, so sure to kill in a few scores of years at farthest, and its heart-breaking woes which make even that brief space of time an eternity? There can be but one answer that will meet this terrible question, which must arise in every thinking nature that would fain "justify the ways of God to men." So must it be until that
"one far-off divine event To which the whole creation moves"
has become a reality, and the anthem in which there is no discordant note shall be joined by a voice from every life made "perfect through sufferings."
Such was the lesson into which I lived in those sad yet placid years of companionship with my suffering and sorrowing friend, in retracing which I seemed to find another existence mingled with my own.
And now for many months I have been living in daily relations of intimacy with one who seems nearer to me since he has left us than while he was here in living form and feature. I did not know how difficult a task I had undertaken in venturing upon a memoir of a man whom all, or almost all, agree upon as one of the great lights of the New World, and whom very many regard as an unpredicted Messiah. Never before was I so forcibly reminded of Carlyle's description of the work of a newspaper editor,—that threshing of straw already thrice beaten by the flails of other laborers in the same field. What could be said that had not been said of "transcendentalism" and of him who was regarded as its prophet; of the poet whom some admired without understanding, a few understood, or thought they did, without admiring, and many both understood and admired,—among these there being not a small number who went far beyond admiration, and lost themselves in devout worship? While one exalted him as "the greatest man that ever lived," another, a friend, famous in the world of letters, wrote expressly to caution me against the danger of overrating a writer whom he is content to recognize as an American Montaigne, and nothing more.
After finishing this Memoir, which has but just left my hands, I would gladly have let my brain rest for a while. The wide range of thought which belonged to the subject of the Memoir, the occasional mysticism and the frequent tendency toward it, the sweep of imagination and the sparkle of wit which kept his reader's mind on the stretch, the union of prevailing good sense with exceptional extravagances, the modest audacity of a nature that showed itself in its naked truthfulness and was not ashamed, the feeling that I was in the company of a sibylline intelligence which was discounting the promises of the remote future long before they were due,—all this made the task a grave one. But when I found myself amidst the vortices of uncounted, various, bewildering judgments, Catholic and Protestant, orthodox and liberal, scholarly from under the tree of knowledge and instinctive from over the potato-hill; the passionate enthusiasm of young adorers and the cool, if not cynical, estimate of hardened critics, all intersecting each other as they whirled, each around its own centre, I felt that it was indeed very difficult to keep the faculties clear and the judgment unbiassed.
It is a great privilege to have lived so long in the society of such a man. "He nothing common" said, "or mean." He was always the same pure and high-souled companion. After being with him virtue seemed as natural to man as its opposite did according to the old theologies. But how to let one's self down from the high level of such a character to one's own poor standard? I trust that the influence of this long intellectual and spiritual companionship never absolutely leaves one who has lived in it. It may come to him in the form of self-reproach that he falls so far short of the superior being who has been so long the object of his contemplation. But it also carries him at times into the other's personality, so that he finds himself thinking thoughts that are not his own, using phrases which he has unconsciously borrowed, writing, it may be, as nearly like his long-studied original as Julio Romano's painting was like Raphael's; and all this with the unquestioning conviction that he is talking from his own consciousness in his own natural way. So far as tones and expressions and habits which belonged to the idiosyncrasy of the original are borrowed by the student of his life, it is a misfortune for the borrower. But to share the inmost consciousness of a noble thinker, to scan one's self in the white light of a pure and radiant soul,—this is indeed the highest form of teaching and discipline.
I have written these few memoirs, and I am grateful for all that they have taught me. But let me write no more. There are but two biographers who can tell the story of a man's or a woman's life. One is the person himself or herself; the other is the Recording Angel. The autobiographer cannot be trusted to tell the whole truth, though he may tell nothing but the truth, and the Recording Angel never lets his book go out of his own hands. As for myself, I would say to my friends, in the Oriental phrase, "Live forever!" Yes, live forever, and I, at least, shall not have to wrong your memories by my imperfect record and unsatisfying commentary.
In connection with these biographies, or memoirs, more properly, in which I have written of my departed friends, I hope my readers will indulge me in another personal reminiscence. I have just lost my dear and honored contemporary of the last century. A hundred years ago this day, December 13, 1784, died the admirable and ever to be remembered Dr. Samuel Johnson. The year 1709 was made ponderous and illustrious in English biography by his birth. My own humble advent to the world of protoplasm was in the year 1809 of the present century. Summer was just ending when those four letters, "son b." were written under the date of my birth, August 29th. Autumn had just begun when my great pre-contemporary entered this un-Christian universe and was made a member of the Christian church on the same day, for he was born and baptized on the 18th of September.
Thus there was established a close bond of relationship between the great English scholar and writer and myself. Year by year, and almost month by month, my life has kept pace in this century with his life in the last century. I had only to open my Boswell at any time, and I knew just what Johnson at my age, twenty or fifty or seventy, was thinking and doing; what were his feelings about life; what changes the years had wrought in his body, his mind, his feelings, his companionships, his reputation. It was for me a kind of unison between two instruments, both playing that old familiar air, "Life,"—one a bassoon, if you will, and the other an oaten pipe, if you care to find an image for it, but still keeping pace with each other until the players both grew old and gray. At last the thinner thread of sound is heard by itself, and its deep accompaniment rolls out its thunder no more.
I feel lonely now that my great companion and friend of so many years has left me. I felt more intimately acquainted with him than I do with many of my living friends. I can hardly remember when I did not know him. I can see him in his bushy wig, exactly like that of the Reverend Dr. Samuel Cooper (who died in December, 1783) as Copley painted him,—he hangs there on my wall, over the revolving bookcase. His ample coat, too, I see, with its broad flaps and many buttons and generous cuffs, and beneath it the long, still more copiously buttoned waistcoat, arching in front of the fine crescentic, almost semi-lunar Falstaffian prominence, involving no less than a dozen of the above-mentioned buttons, and the strong legs with their sturdy calves, fitting columns of support to the massive body and solid, capacious brain enthroned over it. I can hear him with his heavy tread as he comes in to the Club, and a gap is widened to make room for his portly figure. "A fine day," says Sir Joshua. "Sir," he answers, "it seems propitious, but the atmosphere is humid and the skies are nebulous," at which the great painter smiles, shifts his trumpet, and takes a pinch of snuff.
Dear old massive, deep-voiced dogmatist and hypochondriac of the eighteenth century, how one would like to sit at some ghastly Club, between you and the bony, "mighty-mouthed," harsh-toned termagant and dyspeptic of the nineteenth! The growl of the English mastiff and the snarl of the Scotch terrier would make a duet which would enliven the shores of Lethe. I wish I could find our "spiritualist's" paper in the Portfolio, in which the two are brought together, but I hardly know what I shall find when it is opened.
Yes, my life is a little less precious to me since I have lost that dear old friend; and when the funeral train moves to Westminster Abbey next Saturday, for I feel as if this were 1784, and not 1884,—I seem to find myself following the hearse, one of the silent mourners.
Among the events which have rendered the past year memorable to me has been the demolition of that venerable and interesting old dwelling-house, precious for its intimate association with the earliest stages of the war of the Revolution, and sacred to me as my birthplace and the home of my boyhood.
The "Old Gambrel-roofed House" exists no longer. I remember saying something, in one of a series of papers published long ago, about the experience of dying out of a house,—of leaving it forever, as the soul dies out of the body. We may die out of many houses, but the house itself can die but once; and so real is the life of a house to one who has dwelt in it, more especially the life of the house which held him in dreamy infancy, in restless boyhood, in passionate youth,—so real, I say, is its life, that it seems as if something like a soul of it must outlast its perishing frame.
The slaughter of the Old Gambrel-roofed House was, I am ready to admit, a case of justifiable domicide. Not the less was it to be deplored by all who love the memories of the past. With its destruction are obliterated some of the footprints of the heroes and martyrs who took the first steps in the long and bloody march which led us through the wilderness to the promised land of independent nationality. Personally, I have a right to mourn for it as a part of my life gone from me. My private grief for its loss would be a matter for my solitary digestion, were it not that the experience through which I have just passed is one so familiar to my fellow-countrymen that, in telling my own reflections and feelings, I am repeating those of great numbers of men and women who have had the misfortune to outlive their birthplace.
It is a great blessing to be born surrounded by a natural horizon. The Old Gambrel-roofed House could not boast an unbroken ring of natural objects encircling it. Northerly it looked upon its own outbuildings and some unpretending two-story houses which had been its neighbors for a century and more. To the south of it the square brick dormitories and the bellfried hall of the university helped to shut out the distant view. But the west windows gave a broad outlook across the common, beyond which the historical "Washington elm" and two companions in line with it, spread their leaves in summer and their networks in winter. And far away rose the hills that bounded the view, with the glimmer here and there of the white walls or the illuminated casements of some embowered, half-hidden villa. Eastwardly also, the prospect was, in my earlier remembrance, widely open, and I have frequently seen the sunlit sails gliding along as if through the level fields, for no water was visible. So there were broad expanses on two sides at least, for my imagination to wander over.
I cannot help thinking that we carry our childhood's horizon with us all our days. Among these western wooded hills my day-dreams built their fairy palaces, and even now, as I look at them from my library window, across the estuary of the Charles, I find myself in the familiar home of my early visions. The "clouds of glory" which we trail with us in after life need not be traced to a pre-natal state. There is enough to account for them in that unconsciously remembered period of existence before we have learned the hard limitations of real life. Those earliest months in which we lived in sensations without words, and ideas not fettered in sentences, have all the freshness of proofs of an engraving "before the letter." I am very thankful that the first part of my life was not passed shut in between high walls and treading the unimpressible and unsympathetic pavement.
Our university town was very much like the real country, in those days of which I am thinking. There were plenty of huckleberries and blueberries within half a mile of the house. Blackberries ripened in the fields, acorns and shagbarks dropped from the trees, squirrels ran among the branches, and not rarely the hen-hawk might be seen circling over the barnyard. Still another rural element was not wanting, in the form of that far-diffused, infragrant effluvium, which, diluted by a good half mile of pure atmosphere, is no longer odious, nay is positively agreeable, to many who have long known it, though its source and centre has an unenviable reputation. I need not name the animal whose Parthian warfare terrifies and puts to flight the mightiest hunter that ever roused the tiger from his jungle or faced the lion of the desert. Strange as it may seem, an aerial hint of his personality in the far distance always awakens in my mind pleasant remembrances and tender reflections. A whole neighborhood rises up before me: the barn, with its haymow, where the hens laid their eggs to hatch, and we boys hid our apples to ripen, both occasionally illustrating the sic vos non vobis; the shed, where the annual Tragedy of the Pig was acted with a realism that made Salvini's Othello seem but a pale counterfeit; the rickety old outhouse, with the "corn-chamber" which the mice knew so well; the paved yard, with its open gutter,—these and how much else come up at the hint of my far-off friend, who is my very near enemy. Nothing is more familiar than the power of smell in reviving old memories. There was that quite different fragrance of the wood-house, the smell of fresh sawdust. It comes back to me now, and with it the hiss of the saw; the tumble of the divorced logs which God put together and man has just put asunder; the coming down of the axe and the hah! that helped it,—the straight-grained stick opening at the first appeal of the implement as if it were a pleasure, and the stick with a knot in the middle of it that mocked the blows and the hahs! until the beetle and wedge made it listen to reason,—there are just such straight-grained and just such knotty men and women. All this passes through my mind while Biddy, whose parlor-name is Angela, contents herself with exclaiming "egh!*******!"
How different distances were in those young days of which I am thinking! From the old house to the old yellow meeting-house, where the head of the family preached and the limbs of the family listened, was not much more than two or three times the width of Commonwealth Avenue. But of a hot summer's afternoon, after having already heard one sermon, which could not in the nature of things have the charm of novelty of presentation to the members of the home circle, and the theology of which was not too clear to tender apprehensions; with three hymns more or less lugubrious, rendered by a village-choir, got into voice by many preliminary snuffles and other expiratory efforts, and accompanied by the snort of a huge bassviol which wallowed through the tune like a hippopotamus, with other exercises of the customary character,—after all this in the forenoon, the afternoon walk to the meeting-house in the hot sun counted for as much, in my childish dead-reckoning, as from old Israel Porter's in Cambridge to the Exchange Coffeehouse in Boston did in after years. It takes a good while to measure the radius of the circle that is about us, for the moon seems at first as near as the watchface. Who knows but that, after a certain number of ages, the planet we live on may seem to us no bigger than our neighbor Venus appeared when she passed before the sun a few months ago, looking as if we could take her between our thumb and finger, like a bullet or a marble? And time, too; how long was it from the serious sunrise to the joyous "sun-down" of an old-fashioned, puritanical, judaical first day of the week, which a pious fraud christened "the Sabbath"? Was it a fortnight, as we now reckon duration, or only a week? Curious entities, or non-entities, space and tithe? When you see a metaphysician trying to wash his hands of them and get rid of these accidents, so as to lay his dry, clean palm on the absolute, does it not remind you of the hopeless task of changing the color of the blackamoor by a similar proceeding? For space is the fluid in which he is washing, and time is the soap which he is using up in the process, and he cannot get free from them until he can wash himself in a mental vacuum.
In my reference to the old house in a former paper, published years ago, I said,
"By and by the stony foot of the great University will plant itself on this whole territory, and the private recollections which clung so tenaciously to the place and its habitations will have died with those who cherished them."
What strides the great University has taken since those words were written! During all my early years our old Harvard Alma Mater sat still and lifeless as the colossi in the Egyptian desert. Then all at once, like the statue in Don Giovanni, she moved from her pedestal. The fall of that "stony foot" has effected a miracle like the harp that Orpheus played, like the teeth which Cadmus sowed. The plain where the moose and the bear were wandering while Shakespeare was writing Hamlet, where a few plain dormitories and other needed buildings were scattered about in my school-boy days, groans under the weight of the massive edifices which have sprung up all around them, crowned by the tower of that noble structure which stands in full view before me as I lift my eyes from the portfolio on the back of which I am now writing.
For I must be permitted to remind you that I have not yet opened it. I have told you that I have just finished a long memoir, and that it has cost me no little labor to overcome some of its difficulties,—if I have overcome them, which others must decide. And I feel exactly as honest Dobbin feels when his harness is slipped off after a long journey with a good deal of up-hill work. He wants to rest a little, then to feed a little; then, if you will turn him loose in the pasture, he wants to roll. I have left my starry and ethereal companionship,—not for a long time, I hope, for it has lifted me above my common self, but for a while. And now I want, so to speak, to roll in the grass and among the dandelions with the other pachyderms. So I have kept to the outside of the portfolio as yet, and am disporting myself in reminiscences, and fancies, and vagaries, and parentheses.
How well I understand the feeling which led the Pisans to load their vessels with earth from the Holy Land, and fill the area of the Campo Santo with that sacred soil! The old house stood upon about as perverse a little patch of the planet as ever harbored a half-starved earth-worm. It was as sandy as Sahara and as thirsty as Tantalus. The rustic aid-de-camps of the household used to aver that all fertilizing matters "leached" through it. I tried to disprove their assertion by gorging it with the best of terrestrial nourishment, until I became convinced that I was feeding the tea-plants of China, and then I gave over the attempt. And yet I did love, and do love, that arid patch of ground. I wonder if a single flower could not be made to grow in a pot of earth from that Campo Santo of my childhood! One noble product of nature did not refuse to flourish there,—the tall, stately, beautiful, soft-haired, many-jointed, generous maize or Indian corn, which thrives on sand and defies the blaze of our shrivelling summer. What child but loves to wander in its forest-like depths, amidst the rustling leaves and with the lofty tassels tossing their heads high above him! There are two aspects of the cornfield which always impress my imagination: the first when it has reached its full growth, and its ordered ranks look like an army on the march with its plumed and bannered battalions; the second when, after the battle of the harvest, the girdled stacks stand on the field of slaughter like so many ragged Niobes,—say rather like the crazy widows and daughters of the dead soldiery.
Once more let us come back to the old house. It was far along in its second century when the edict went forth that it must stand no longer.
The natural death of a house is very much like that of one of its human tenants. The roof is the first part to show the distinct signs of age. Slates and tiles loosen and at last slide off, and leave bald the boards that supported them; shingles darken and decay, and soon the garret or the attic lets in the rain and the snow; by and by the beams sag, the floors warp, the walls crack, the paper peels away, the ceilings scale off and fall, the windows are crusted with clinging dust, the doors drop from their rusted hinges, the winds come in without knocking and howl their cruel death-songs through the empty rooms and passages, and at last there comes a crash, a great cloud of dust rises, and the home that had been the shelter of generation after generation finds its grave in its own cellar. Only the chimney remains as its monument. Slowly, little by little, the patient solvents that find nothing too hard for their chemistry pick out the mortar from between the bricks; at last a mighty wind roars around it and rushes against it, and the monumental relic crashes down among the wrecks it has long survived. So dies a human habitation left to natural decay, all that was seen above the surface of the soil sinking gradually below it,
Till naught remains the saddening tale to tell Save home's last wrecks, the cellar and the well.
But if this sight is saddening, what is it to see a human dwelling fall by the hand of violence! The ripping off of the shelter that has kept out a thousand storms, the tearing off of the once ornamental woodwork, the wrench of the inexorable crowbar, the murderous blows of the axe, the progressive ruin, which ends by rending all the joints asunder and flinging the tenoned and mortised timbers into heaps that will be sawed and split to warm some new habitation as firewood,—what a brutal act of destruction it seems!
Why should I go over the old house again, having already described it more than ten years ago? Alas! how many remember anything they read but once, and so long ago as that? How many would find it out if one should say over in the same words that which he said in the last decade? But there is really no need of telling the story a second time, for it can be found by those who are curious enough to look it up in a volume of which it occupies the opening chapter.
In order, however, to save any inquisitive reader that trouble, let me remind him that the old house was General Ward's headquarters at the breaking out of the Revolution; that the plan for fortifying Bunker's Hill was laid, as commonly believed, in the southeast lower room, the floor of which was covered with dents, made, it was alleged, by the butts of the soldiers' muskets. In that house, too, General Warren probably passed the night before the Bunker Hill battle, and over its threshold must the stately figure of Washington have often cast its shadow.
But the house in which one drew his first breath, and where he one day came into the consciousness that he was a personality, an ego, a little universe with a sky over him all his own, with a persistent identity, with the terrible responsibility of a separate, independent, inalienable existence,—that house does not ask for any historical associations to make it the centre of the earth for him.
If there is any person in the world to be envied, it is the one who is born to an ancient estate, with a long line of family traditions and the means in his hands of shaping his mansion and his domain to his own taste, without losing sight of all the characteristic features which surrounded his earliest years. The American is, for the most part, a nomad, who pulls down his house as the Tartar pulls up his tent-poles. If I had an ideal life to plan for him it would be something like this:
His grandfather should be a wise, scholarly, large-brained, large-hearted country minister, from whom he should inherit the temperament that predisposes to cheerfulness and enjoyment, with the finer instincts which direct life to noble aims and make it rich with the gratification of pure and elevated tastes and the carrying out of plans for the good of his neighbors and his fellow-creatures. He should, if possible, have been born, at any rate have passed some of his early years, or a large part of them, under the roof of the good old minister. His father should be, we will say, a business man in one of our great cities,—a generous manipulator of millions, some of which have adhered to his private fortunes, in spite of his liberal use of his means. His heir, our ideally placed American, shall take possession of the old house, the home of his earliest memories, and preserve it sacredly, not exactly like the Santa Casa, but, as nearly as may be, just as he remembers it. He can add as many acres as he will to the narrow house-lot. He can build a grand mansion for himself, if he chooses, in the not distant neighborhood. But the old house, and all immediately round it, shall be as he recollects it when he had to stretch his little arm up to reach the door-handles. Then, having well provided for his own household, himself included, let him become the providence of the village or the town where he finds himself during at least a portion of every year. Its schools, its library, its poor,—and perhaps the new clergyman who has succeeded his grandfather's successor may be one of them,—all its interests, he shall make his own. And from this centre his beneficence shall radiate so far that all who hear of his wealth shall also hear of him as a friend to his race.
Is not this a pleasing programme? Wealth is a steep hill, which the father climbs slowly and the son often tumbles down precipitately; but there is a table-land on a level with it, which may be found by those who do not lose their head in looking down from its sharply cloven summit.—-Our dangerously rich men can make themselves hated, held as enemies of the race, or beloved and recognized as its benefactors. The clouds of discontent are threatening, but if the gold-pointed lightning-rods are rightly distributed the destructive element may be drawn off silently and harmlessly. For it cannot be repeated too often that the safety of great wealth with us lies in obedience to the new version of the Old World axiom, RICHESS oblige.
THE NEW PORTFOLIO: FIRST OPENING.
A MORTAL ANTIPATHY.
I. GETTING READY.
It is impossible to begin a story which must of necessity tax the powers of belief of readers unacquainted with the class of facts to which its central point of interest belongs without some words in the nature of preparation. Readers of Charles Lamb remember that Sarah Battle insisted on a clean-swept hearth before sitting down to her favorite game of whist.
The narrator wishes to sweep the hearth, as it were, in these opening pages, before sitting down to tell his story. He does not intend to frighten the reader away by prolix explanation, but he does mean to warn him against hasty judgments when facts are related which are not within the range of every-day experience. Did he ever see the Siamese twins, or any pair like them? Probably not, yet he feels sure that Chang and Eng really existed; and if he has taken the trouble to inquire, he has satisfied himself that similar cases have been recorded by credible witnesses, though at long intervals and in countries far apart from each other.
This is the first sweep of the brush, to clear the hearth of the skepticism and incredulity which must be got out of the way before we can begin to tell and to listen in peace with ourselves and each other.
One more stroke of the brush is needed before the stage will be ready for the chief characters and the leading circumstances to which the reader's attention is invited. If the principal personages made their entrance at once, the reader would have to create for himself the whole scenery of their surrounding conditions. In point of fact, no matter how a story is begun, many of its readers have already shaped its chief actors out of any hint the author may have dropped, and provided from their own resources a locality and a set of outward conditions to environ these imagined personalities. These are all to be brushed away, and the actual surroundings of the subject of the narrative represented as they were, at the risk of detaining the reader a little while from the events most likely to interest him. The choicest egg that ever was laid was not so big as the nest that held it. If a story were so interesting that a maiden would rather hear it than listen to the praise of her own beauty, or a poet would rather read it than recite his own verses, still it would have to be wrapped in some tissue of circumstance, or it would lose half its effectiveness.
It may not be easy to find the exact locality referred to in this narrative by looking into the first gazetteer that is at hand. Recent experiences have shown that it is unsafe to be too exact in designating places and the people who live in them. There are, it may be added, so many advertisements disguised under the form of stories and other literary productions that one naturally desires to avoid the suspicion of being employed by the enterprising proprietors of this or that celebrated resort to use his gifts for their especial benefit. There are no doubt many persons who remember the old sign and the old tavern and its four chief personages presently to be mentioned. It is to be hoped that they will not furnish the public with a key to this narrative, and perhaps bring trouble to the writer of it, as has happened to other authors. If the real names are a little altered, it need not interfere with the important facts relating to those who bear them. It might not be safe to tell a damaging story about John or James Smythe; but if the slight change is made of spelling the name Smith, the Smythes would never think of bringing an action, as if the allusion related to any of them. The same gulf of family distinction separates the Thompsons with a p from the Thomsons without that letter.
There are few pleasanter places in the Northern States for a summer residence than that known from the first period of its settlement by the name of Arrowhead Village. The Indians had found it out, as the relics they left behind them abundantly testified. The commonest of these were those chipped stones which are the medals of barbarism, and from Which the place took its name,—the heads of arrows, of various sizes, material, and patterns: some small enough for killing fish and little birds, some large enough for such game as the moose and the bear, to say nothing of the hostile Indian and the white settler; some of flint, now and then one of white quartz, and others of variously colored jasper. The Indians must have lived here for many generations, and it must have been a kind of factory village of the stone age,—which lasted up to near the present time, if we may judge from the fact that many of these relics are met with close to the surface of the ground.
No wonder they found this a pleasant residence, for it is to-day one of the most attractive of all summer resorts; so inviting, indeed, that those who know it do not like to say too much about it, lest the swarms of tourists should make it unendurable to those who love it for itself, and not as a centre of fashionable display and extramural cockneyism.
There is the lake, in the first place,—Cedar Lake,—about five miles long, and from half a mile to a mile and a half wide, stretching from north to south. Near the northern extremity are the buildings of Stoughton University, a flourishing young college with an ambitious name, but well equipped and promising, the grounds of which reach the water. At the southern end of the lake are the edifices of the Corinna Institute, a favorite school for young ladies, where large numbers of the daughters of America are fitted, so far as education can do it, for all stations in life, from camping out with a husband at the mines in Nevada to acting the part of chief lady of the land in the White House at Washington.
Midway between the two extremities, on the eastern shore of the lake, is a valley between two hills, which come down to the very edge of the lake, leaving only room enough for a road between their base and the water. This valley, half a mile in width, has been long settled, and here for a century or more has stood the old Anchor Tavern. A famous place it was so long as its sign swung at the side of the road: famous for its landlord, portly, paternal, whose welcome to a guest that looked worthy of the attention was like that of a parent to a returning prodigal, and whose parting words were almost as good as a marriage benediction; famous for its landlady, ample in person, motherly, seeing to the whole household with her own eyes, mistress of all culinary secrets that Northern kitchens are most proud of; famous also for its ancient servant, as city people would call her,—help, as she was called in the tavern and would have called herself,—the unchanging, seemingly immortal Miranda, who cared for the guests as if she were their nursing mother, and pressed the specially favorite delicacies on their attention as a connoisseur calls the wandering eyes of an amateur to the beauties of a picture. Who that has ever been at the old Anchor Tavern forgets Miranda's
"A little of this fricassee?-it is ver-y nice;"
"Some of these cakes? You will find them ver-y good."
Nor would it be just to memory to forget that other notable and noted member of the household,—the unsleeping, unresting, omnipresent Pushee, ready for everybody and everything, everywhere within the limits of the establishment at all hours of the day and night. He fed, nobody could say accurately when or where. There were rumors of a "bunk," in which he lay down with his clothes on, but he seemed to be always wide awake, and at the service of as many guest, at once as if there had been half a dozen of him.
So much for old reminiscences.
The landlord of the Anchor Tavern had taken down his sign. He had had the house thoroughly renovated and furnished it anew, and kept it open in summer for a few boarders. It happened more than once that the summer boarders were so much pleased with the place that they stayed on through the autumn, and some of them through the winter. The attractions of the village were really remarkable. Boating in summer, and skating in winter; ice-boats, too, which the wild ducks could hardly keep up with; fishing, for which the lake was renowned; varied and beautiful walks through the valley and up the hillsides; houses sheltered from the north and northeasterly winds, and refreshed in the hot summer days by the breeze which came over the water,—all this made the frame for a pleasing picture of rest and happiness. But there was a great deal more than this. There was a fine library in the little village, presented and richly endowed by a wealthy native of the place. There was a small permanent population of a superior character to that of an everyday country town; there was a pretty little Episcopal church, with a good-hearted rector, broad enough for the Bishop of the diocese to be a little afraid of, and hospitable to all outsiders, of whom, in the summer season, there were always some who wanted a place of worship to keep their religion from dying out during the heathen months, while the shepherds of the flocks to which they belonged were away from their empty folds.
What most helped to keep the place alive all through the year was the frequent coming together of the members of a certain literary association. Some time before the tavern took down its sign the landlord had built a hall, where many a ball had been held, to which the young folks of all the country round had resorted. It was still sometimes used for similar occasions, but it was especially notable as being the place of meeting of the famous PANSOPHIAN SOCIETY.
This association, the name of which might be invidiously interpreted as signifying that its members knew everything, had no such pretensions, but, as its Constitution said very plainly and modestly, held itself open to accept knowledge on any and all subjects from such as had knowledge to impart. Its President was the rector of the little chapel, a man who, in spite of the Thirty-Nine Articles, could stand fire from the widest-mouthed heretical blunderbuss without flinching or losing his temper. The hall of the old Anchor Tavern was a convenient place of meeting for the students and instructors of the University and the Institute. Sometimes in boat-loads, sometimes in carriage-loads, sometimes in processions of skaters, they came to the meetings in Pansophian Hall, as it was now commonly called.
These meetings had grown to be occasions of great interest. It was customary to have papers written by members of the Society, for the most part, but now and then by friends of the members, sometimes by the students of the College or the Institute, and in rarer instances by anonymous personages, whose papers, having been looked over and discussed by the Committee appointed for that purpose, were thought worth listening to. The variety of topics considered was very great. The young ladies of the village and the Institute had their favorite subjects, the young gentlemen a different set of topics, and the occasional outside contributors their own; so that one who happened to be admitted to a meeting never knew whether he was going to hear an account of recent arctic discoveries, or an essay on the freedom of the will, or a psychological experience, or a story, or even a poem.
Of late there had been a tendency to discuss the questions relating to the true status and the legitimate social functions of woman. The most conflicting views were held on the subject. Many of the young ladies and some of the University students were strong in defence of all the "woman's rights" doctrines. Some of these young people were extreme in their views. They had read about Semiramis and Boadicea and Queen Elizabeth, until they were ready, if they could get the chance, to vote for a woman as President of the United States or as General of the United States Army. They were even disposed to assert the physical equality of woman to man, on the strength of the rather questionable history of the Amazons, and especially of the story, believed to be authentic, of the female body-guard of the King of Dahomey,—females frightful enough to need no other weapon than their looks to scare off an army of Cossacks.
Miss Lurida Vincent, gold medallist of her year at the Corinna Institute, was the leader of these advocates of virile womanhood. It was rather singular that she should have elected to be the apostle of this extreme doctrine, for she was herself far better equipped with brain than muscles. In fact, she was a large-headed, large-eyed, long-eyelashed, slender-necked, slightly developed young woman; looking almost like a child at an age when many of the girls had reached their full stature and proportions. In her studies she was so far in advance of her different classes that there was always a wide gap between her and the second scholar. So fatal to all rivalry had she proved herself that she passed under the school name of The Terror. She learned so easily that she undervalued her own extraordinary gifts, and felt the deepest admiration for those of her friends endowed with faculties of an entirely different and almost opposite nature. After sitting at her desk until her head was hot and her feet were like ice, she would go and look at the blooming young girls exercising in the gymnasium of the school, and feel as if she would give all her knowledge, all her mathematics and strange tongues and history, all those accomplishments that made her the encyclopaedia of every class she belonged to, if she could go through the series of difficult and graceful exercises in which she saw her schoolmates delighting.
One among them, especially, was the object of her admiration, as she was of all who knew her exceptional powers in the line for which nature had specially organized her. All the physical perfections which Miss Lurida had missed had been united in Miss Euthymia Tower, whose school name was The Wonder. Though of full womanly stature, there were several taller girls of her age. While all her contours and all her movements betrayed a fine muscular development, there was no lack of proportion, and her finely shaped hands and feet showed that her organization was one of those carefully finished masterpieces of nature which sculptors are always in search of, and find it hard to detect among the imperfect products of the living laboratory.
This girl of eighteen was more famous than she cared to be for her performances in the gymnasium. She commonly contented herself with the same exercises that her companions were accustomed to. Only her dumb-bells, with which she exercised easily and gracefully, were too heavy for most of the girls to do more with than lift them from the floor. She was fond of daring feats on the trapeze, and had to be checked in her indulgence in them. The Professor of gymnastics at the University came over to the Institute now and then, and it was a source of great excitement to watch some of the athletic exercises in which the young lady showed her remarkable muscular strength and skill in managing herself in the accomplishment of feats which looked impossible at first sight. How often The Terror had thought to herself that she would gladly give up all her knowledge of Greek and the differential and integral calculus if she could only perform the least of those feats which were mere play to The Wonder! Miss Euthymia was not behind the rest in her attainments in classical or mathematical knowledge, and she was one of the very best students in the out-door branches,—botany, mineralogy, sketching from nature,—to be found among the scholars of the Institute.
There was an eight-oared boat rowed by a crew of the young ladies, of which Miss Euthymia was the captain and pulled the bow oar. Poor little Lurida could not pull an oar, but on great occasions, when there were many boats out, she was wanted as coxswain, being a mere feather-weight, and quick-witted enough to serve well in the important office where brains are more needed than muscle.
There was also an eight-oared boat belonging to the University, and rowed by a picked crew of stalwart young fellows. The bow oar and captain of the University crew was a powerful young man, who, like the captain of the girls' boat, was a noted gymnast. He had had one or two quiet trials with Miss Euthymia, in which, according to the ultras of the woman's rights party, he had not vindicated the superiority of his sex in the way which might have been expected. Indeed, it was claimed that he let a cannon-ball drop when he ought to have caught it, and it was not disputed that he had been ingloriously knocked over by a sand-bag projected by the strong arms of the young maiden. This was of course a story that was widely told and laughingly listened to, and the captain of the University crew had become a little sensitive on the subject. When there was a talk, therefore, about a race between the champion boats of the two institutions there was immense excitement in both of them, as well as among the members of the Pansophian Society and all the good people of the village.
There were many objections to be overcome. Some thought it unladylike for the young maidens to take part in a competition which must attract many lookers-on, and which it seemed to them very hoidenish to venture upon. Some said it was a shame to let a crew of girls try their strength against an equal number of powerful young men. These objections were offset by the advocates of the race by the following arguments. They maintained that it was no more hoidenish to row a boat than it was to take a part in the calisthenic exercises, and that the girls had nothing to do with the young men's boat, except to keep as much ahead of it as possible. As to strength, the woman's righters believed that, weight for weight, their crew was as strong as the other, and of course due allowance would be made for the difference of weight and all other accidental hindrances. It was time to test the boasted superiority of masculine muscle. Here was a chance. If the girls beat, the whole country would know it, and after that female suffrage would be only a question of time. Such was the conclusion, from rather insufficient premises, it must be confessed; but if nature does nothing per saltum,—by jumps,—as the old adage has it, youth is very apt to take long leaps from a fact to a possible sequel or consequence. So it had come about that a contest between the two boat-crews was looked forward to with an interest almost equal to that with which the combat between the Horatii and Curiatii was regarded.
The terms had been at last arranged between the two crews, after cautious protocols and many diplomatic discussions. It was so novel in its character that it naturally took a good deal of time to adjust it in such a way as to be fair to both parties. The course must not be too long for the lighter and weaker crew, for the staying power of the young persons who made it up could not be safely reckoned upon. A certain advantage must be allowed them at the start, and this was a delicate matter to settle. The weather was another important consideration. June would be early enough, in all probability, and if the lake should be tolerably smooth the grand affair might come off some time in that month. Any roughness of the water would be unfavorable to the weaker crew. The rowing-course was on the eastern side of the lake, the starting-point being opposite the Anchor Tavern; from that three quarters of a mile to the south, where the turning-stake was fixed, so that the whole course of one mile and a half would bring the boats back to their starting-point.
The race was to be between the Algonquin, eight-oared boat with outriggers, rowed by young men, students of Stoughton University, and the Atalanta, also eight-oared and outrigger boat, by young ladies from the Corinna Institute. Their boat was three inches wider than the other, for various sufficient reasons, one of which was to make it a little less likely to go over and throw its crew into the water, which was a sound precaution, though all the girls could swim, and one at least, the bow oar, was a famous swimmer, who had pulled a drowning man out of the water after a hard struggle to keep him from carrying her down with him.
Though the coming trial had not been advertised in the papers, so as to draw together a rabble of betting men and ill-conditioned lookers-on, there was a considerable gathering, made up chiefly of the villagers and the students of the two institutions. Among them were a few who were disposed to add to their interest in the trial by small wagers. The bets were rather in favor of the "Quins," as the University boat was commonly called, except where the natural sympathy of the young ladies or the gallantry of some of the young men led them to risk their gloves or cigars, or whatever it might be, on the Atalantas. The elements of judgment were these: average weight of the Algonquins one hundred and sixty-five pounds; average weight of the Atalantas, one hundred and forty-eight pounds; skill in practice about equal; advantage of the narrow boat equal to three lengths; whole distance allowed the Atalantas eight lengths,—a long stretch to be made up in a mile and a half. And so both crews began practising for the grand trial.
II. THE BOAT-RACE.
The 10th of June was a delicious summer day, rather warm, but still and bright. The water was smooth, and the crews were in the best possible condition. All was expectation, and for some time nothing but expectation. No boat-race or regatta ever began at the time appointed for the start. Somebody breaks an oar, or somebody fails to appear in season, or something is the matter with a seat or an outrigger; or if there is no such excuse, the crew of one or both or all the boats to take part in the race must paddle about to get themselves ready for work, to the infinite weariness of all the spectators, who naturally ask why all this getting ready is not attended to beforehand. The Algonquins wore plain gray flannel suits and white caps. The young ladies were all in dark blue dresses, touched up with a red ribbon here and there, and wore light straw hats. The little coxswain of the Atalanta was the last to step on board. As she took her place she carefully deposited at her feet a white handkerchief wrapped about something or other, perhaps a sponge, in case the boat should take in water.
At last the Algonquin shot out from the little nook where she lay, —long, narrow, shining, swift as a pickerel when he darts from the reedy shore. It was a beautiful sight to see the eight young fellows in their close-fitting suits, their brown muscular arms bare, bending their backs for the stroke and recovering, as if they were parts of a single machine.
"The gals can't stan' it agin them fellers," said the old blacksmith from the village.
"You wait till the gals get a-goin'," said the carpenter, who had often worked in the gymnasium of the Corinna Institute, and knew something of their muscular accomplishments. "Y' ought to see 'em climb ropes, and swing dumb-bells, and pull in them rowin'-machines. Ask Jake there whether they can't row a mild in double-quick time,—he knows all abaout it."
Jake was by profession a fisherman, and a freshwater fisherman in a country village is inspector-general of all that goes on out-of-doors, being a lazy, wandering sort of fellow, whose study of the habits and habitats of fishes gives him a kind of shrewdness of observation, just as dealing in horses is an education of certain faculties, and breeds a race of men peculiarly cunning, suspicious, wary, and wide awake, with a rhetoric of appreciation and depreciation all its own.
Jake made his usual preliminary signal, and delivered himself to the following effect:
"Wahl, I don' know jest what to say. I've seed 'em both often enough when they was practisin', an' I tell ye the' wa'n't no slouch abaout neither on 'em. But them bats is all-fired long, 'n' eight on 'em stretched in a straight line eendways makes a consid'able piece aout 'f a mile 'n' a haaf. I'd bate on them gals if it wa'n't that them fellers is naterally longer winded, as the gals 'll find aout by the time they git raound the stake 'n' over agin the big ellum. I'll go ye a quarter on the pahnts agin the petticoats."
The fresh-water fisherman had expressed the prevailing belief that the young ladies were overmatched. Still there were not wanting those who thought the advantage allowed the "Lantas," as they called the Corinna boatcrew, was too great, and that it would be impossible for the "Quins" to make it up and go by them.
The Algonquins rowed up and down a few times before the spectators. They appeared in perfect training, neither too fat nor too fine, mettlesome as colts, steady as draught-horses, deep-breathed as oxen, disciplined to work together as symmetrically as a single sculler pulls his pair of oars. The fisherman offered to make his quarter fifty cents. No takers.
Five minutes passed, and all eyes were strained to the south, looking for the Atalanta. A clump of trees hid the edge of the lake along which the Corinna's boat was stealing towards the starting-point. Presently the long shell swept into view, with its blooming rowers, who, with their ample dresses, seemed to fill it almost as full as Raphael fills his skiff on the edge of the Lake of Galilee. But how steadily the Atalanta came on!—-no rocking, no splashing, no apparent strain; the bow oar turning to look ahead every now and then, and watching her course, which seemed to be straight as an arrow, the beat of the strokes as true and regular as the pulse of the healthiest rower among them all. And if the sight of the other boat and its crew was beautiful, how lovely was the look of this! Eight young girls,—young ladies, for those who prefer that more dignified and less attractive expression,—all in the flush of youth, all in vigorous health; every muscle taught its duty; each rower alert, not to be a tenth of a second out of time, or let her oar dally with the water so as to lose an ounce of its propelling virtue; every eye kindling with the hope of victory. Each of the boats was cheered as it came in sight, but the cheers for the Atalanta were naturally the loudest, as the gallantry of one sex and the clear, high voices of the other gave it life and vigor.
"Take your places!" shouted the umpire, five minutes before the half hour. The two boats felt their way slowly and cautiously to their positions, which had been determined by careful measurement. After a little backing and filling they got into line, at the proper distance from each other, and sat motionless, their bodies bent forward, their arms outstretched, their oars in the water, waiting for the word.
"Go!" shouted the umpire.
Away sprang the Atalanta, and far behind her leaped the Algonquin, her oars bending like so many long Indian bows as their blades flashed through the water.
"A stern chase is a long chase," especially when one craft is a great distance behind the other. It looked as if it would be impossible for the rear boat to overcome the odds against it. Of course the Algonquin kept gaining, but could it possibly gain enough? That was the question. As the boats got farther and farther away, it became more and more difficult to determine what change there was in the interval between them. But when they came to rounding the stake it was easier to guess at the amount of space which had been gained. It was clear that something like half the distance, four lengths, as nearly as could be estimated, had been made up in rowing the first three quarters of a mile. Could the Algonquins do a little better than this in the second half of the race-course, they would be sure of winning.
The boats had turned the stake, and were coming in rapidly. Every minute the University boat was getting nearer the other.
"Go it, Quins!" shouted the students.
"Pull away, Lantas!" screamed the girls, who were crowding down to the edge of the water.
Nearer,—nearer,—the rear boat is pressing the other more and more closely,—a few more strokes, and they will be even, for there is but one length between them, and thirty rods will carry them to the line. It looks desperate for the Atalantas. The bow oar of the Algonquin turns his head. He sees the little coxswain leaning forward at every stroke, as if her trivial weight were of such mighty consequence,—but a few ounces might turn the scale of victory. As he turned he got a glimpse of the stroke oar of the Atalanta. What a flash of loveliness it was! Her face was like the reddest of June roses, with the heat and the strain and the passion of expected triumph. The upper button of her close-fitting flannel suit had strangled her as her bosom heaved with exertion, and it had given way before the fierce clutch she made at it. The bow oar was a staunch and steady rower, but he was human. The blade of his oar lingered in the water; a little more and he would have caught a crab, and perhaps lost the race by his momentary bewilderment.
The boat, which seemed as if it had all the life and nervousness of a Derby three-year-old, felt the slight check, and all her men bent more vigorously to their oars. The Atalantas saw the movement, and made a spurt to keep their lead and gain upon it if they could. It was of no use. The strong arms of the young men were too much for the young maidens; only a few lengths remained to be rowed, and they would certainly pass the Atalanta before she could reach the line.
The little coxswain saw that it was all up with the girls' crew if she could not save them by some strategic device.
"Dolus an virtus quis in hoste requirat?"
she whispered to herself,—for The Terror remembered her Virgil as she did everything else she ever studied. As she stooped, she lifted the handkerchief at her feet, and took from it a flaming bouquet. "Look!" she cried, and flung it just forward of the track of the Algonquin. The captain of the University boat turned his head, and there was the lovely vision which had a moment before bewitched him. The owner of all that loveliness must, he thought, have flung the bouquet. It was a challenge: how could he be such a coward as to decline accepting it.
He was sure he could win the race now, and he would sweep past the line in triumph with the great bunch of flowers at the stem of his boat, proud as Van Tromp in the British channel with the broom at his mast-head.
He turned the boat's head a little by backing water. He came up with the floating flowers, and near enough to reach them. He stooped and snatched them up, with the loss perhaps of a second in all,—no more. He felt sure of his victory.