A NEW ENGLAND GIRLHOOD
OUTLINED FROM MEMORY
I dedicated this sketch To my girlfriends in general; And in particular To my namesake-niece, Lucy Larcom Spaulding.
Happy those early days, when I Shined in my angel-infancy! —When on some gilded cloud or flower My gazing soul would dwell an hour, And in those weaker glories spy Some shadows of eternity:— Before I taught my tongue to wound My conscience by a sinful sound;— But felt through all this fleshy dress Bright shoots of everlastingness.
The thought of our past years in me doth breed Perpetual benediction.
THE following sketch was written for the young, at the suggestion of friends.
My audience is understood to be composed of girls of all ages, and of women who have not forgotten their girlhood. Such as have a friendly appreciation of girls—and of those who write for them—are also welcome to listen to as much of my narrative as they choose. All others are eavesdroppers, and, of course, have no right to criticise.
To many, the word "autobiography" implies nothing but conceit and egotism. But these are not necessarily its characteristics. If an apple blossom or a ripe apple could tell its own story, it would be, still more than its own, the story of the sunshine that smiled upon it, of the winds that whispered to it, of the birds that sang around it, of the storms that visited it, and of the motherly tree that held it and fed it until its petals were unfolded and its form developed.
A complete autobiography would indeed be a picture of the outer and inner universe photographed upon one little life's consciousness. For does not the whole world, seen and unseen go to the making up of every human being? The commonest personal history has its value when it is looked at as a part of the One Infinite Life. Our life—which is the very best thing we have—is ours only that we may share it with Our Father's family, at their need. If we have anything, within us worth giving away, to withhold it is ungenerous; and we cannot look honestly into ourselves without acknowledging with humility our debt to the lives around us for whatever of power or beauty has been poured into ours.
None of us can think of ourselves as entirely separate beings. Even an autobiographer has to say "we" much oftener than "I." Indeed, there may be more egotism in withdrawing mysteriously into one's self, than in frankly unfolding one's life—story, for better or worse. There may be more vanity in covering, one's face with a veil, to be wondered at and guessed about, than in drawing it aside, and saying by that act, "There! you see that I am nothing remarkable."
However, I do not know that I altogether approve of autobiography myself, when the subject is a person of so little importance as in the present instance. Still, it may have a reason for being, even in a case like this.
Every one whose name is before the public at all must be aware of a common annoyance in the frequent requests which are made for personal facts, data for biographical paragraphs, and the like. To answer such requests and furnish the material asked for, were it desirable, would interfere seriously with the necessary work of almost any writer. The first impulse is to pay no attention to them, putting them aside as mere signs of the ill-bred, idle curiosity of the age we live in about people and their private affairs. It does not seem to be supposed possible that authors can have any natural shrinking from publicity, like other mortals.
But while one would not willingly encourage an intrusive custom, there is another view of the matter. The most enjoyable thing about writing is that the relation between writer and reader may be and often does become that of mutual friendship; an friends naturally like to know each other in a neighborly way.
We are all willing to gossip about ourselves, sometimes, with those who are really interested in us. Girls especially are fond of exchanging confidences with those whom they think they can trust; it is one of the most charming traits of a simple, earnest-hearted girlhood, and they are the happiest women who never lose it entirely.
I should like far better to listen to my girl-readers' thoughts about life and themselves than to be writing out my own experiences. It is to my disadvantage that the confidences, in this case, must all be on one side. But I have known so many girls so well in my relation to them of schoolmate, workmate, and teacher, I feel sure of a fair share of their sympathy and attention.
It is hardly possible for an author to write anything sincerely without making it something of an autobiography. Friends can always read a personal history, or guess at it, between the lines. So I sometimes think I have already written mine, in my verses. In them, I have found the most natural and free expression of myself. They have seemed to set my life to music for me, a life that has always had to be occupied with many things besides writing. Not, however, that I claim to have written much poetry: only perhaps some true rhymes: I do not see how there could be any pleasure in writing insincere ones.
Whatever special interest this little narrative of mine may have is due to the social influences under which I was reared, and particularly to the prominent place held by both work and religion in New England half a century ago. The period of my growing-up had peculiarities which our future history can never repeat, although something far better is undoubtedly already resulting thence. Those peculiarities were the natural development of the seed sown by our sturdy Puritan ancestry. The religion of our fathers overhung us children like the shadow of a mighty tree against the trunk of which we rested, while we looked up in wonder through the great boughs that half hid and half revealed the sky. Some of the boughs were already decaying, so that perhaps we began to see a little more of the sky, than our elders; but the tree was sound at its heart. There was life in it that can never be lost to the world.
One thing we are at last beginning to understand, which our ancestors evidently had not learned; that it is far more needful for theologians to become as little children, than for little children to become theologians. They considered it a duty that they owed to the youngest of us, to teach us doctrines. And we believed in our instructors, if we could not always digest their instructions. We learned to reverence truth as they received it and lived it, and to feel that the search for truth was one chief end of our being.
It was a pity that we were expected to begin thinking upon hard subjects so soon, and it was also a pity that we were set to hard work while so young. Yet these were both inevitable results of circumstances then existing; and perhaps the two belong together. Perhaps habits of conscientious work induce thought. Certainly, right thinking naturally impels people to work.
We learned no theories about "the dignity of labor," but we were taught to work almost as if it were a religion; to keep at work, expecting nothing else. It was our inheritance, banded down from the outcasts of Eden. And for us, as for them, there was a blessing hidden in the curse. I am glad that I grew up under these wholesome Puritanic influences, as glad as I am that I was born a New Englander; and I surely should have chosen New England for my birthplace before any region under the sun.
Rich or poor, every child comes into the world with some imperative need of its own, which shapes its individuality. I believe it was Grotius who said, "Books are necessities of my life. Food and clothing I can do without, if I must."
My "must-have" was poetry. From the first, life meant that to me. And, fortunately, poetry is not purchasable material, but an atmosphere in which every life may expand. I found it everywhere about me. The children of old New England were always surrounded, it is true, with stubborn matter of fact,—the hand to hand struggle for existence. But that was no hindrance. Poetry must have prose to root itself in; the homelier its earth-spot, the lovelier, by contrast, its heaven-breathing flowers.
To different minds, poetry may present different phases. To me, the reverent faith of the people I lived among, and their faithful everyday living, was poetry; blossoms and trees and blue skies were poetry. God himself was poetry. As I grew up and lived on, friendship became to me the deepest and sweetest ideal of poetry. To live in other lives, to take their power and beauty into our own, that is poetry experienced, the most inspiring of all. Poetry embodied in persons, in lovely and lofty characters, more sacredly than all in the One Divine Person who has transfigured our human life with the glory of His sacrifice,—all the great lyrics and epics pale before that, and it is within the reach and comprehension of every human soul.
To care for poetry in this way does not make one a poet, but it does make one feel blessedly rich, and quite indifferent to many things which are usually looked upon as desirable possessions. I am sincerely grateful that it was given to me, from childhood, to see life from this point of view. And it seems to me that every young girl would be happier for beginning her earthly journey with the thankful consciousness that her life does not consist in the abundance of things that she possesses.
The highest possible poetic conception is that of a life consecrated to a noble ideal. It may be unable to find expression for itself except through humble, even menial services, or through unselfish devotion whose silent song is audible to God alone; yet such music as this might rise to heaven from every young girl's heart and character if she would set it free. In such ways it was meant that the world should be filled with the true poetry of womanhood.
It is one of the most beautiful facts in this human existence of ours, that we remember the earliest and freshest part of it most vividly. Doubtless it was meant that our childhood should live on in us forever. My childhood was by no means a cloudless one. It had its light and shade, each contributing a charm which makes it wholly delightful in the retrospect.
I can see very distinctly the child that I was, and I know how the world looked to her, far off as she is now. She seems to me like my little sister, at play in a garden where I can at any time return and find her. I have enjoyed bringing her back, and letting her tell her story, almost as if she were somebody else. I like her better than I did when I was really a child, and I hope never to part company with her.
I do not feel so much satisfaction in the older girl who comes between her and me, although she, too, is enough like me to be my sister, or even more like my young, undisciplined mother; for the girl is mother of the woman. But I have to acknowledge her faults and mistakes as my own, while I sometimes feel like reproving her severely for her carelessly performed tasks, her habit of lapsing into listless reveries, her cowardly shrinking from responsibility and vigorous endeavor, and many other faults that I have inherited from her. Still, she is myself, and I could not be quite happy without her comradeship.
Every phase of our life belongs to us. The moon does not, except in appearance, lose her first thin, luminous curve, nor her silvery crescent, in rounding to her full. The woman is still both child and girl, in the completeness of womanly character. We have a right to our entire selves, through all the changes of this mortal state, a claim which we shall doubtless carry along with us into the unfolding mysteries of our eternal being. Perhaps in this thought lies hidden the secret of immortal youth; for a seer has said that "to grow old in heaven is to grow young."
To take life as it is sent to us, to live it faithfully, looking and striving always towards better life, this was the lesson that came to me from my early teachers. It was not an easy lesson, but it was a healthful one; and I pass it on to younger pupils, trusting that they will learn it more thoroughly than I ever have.
Young or old, we may all win inspiration to do our best, from the needs of a world to which the humblest life may be permitted to bring immeasurable blessings:—
"For no one doth know What he can bestow, What light, strength, and beauty may after him go: Thus onward we move, And, save God above, None guesseth how wondrous the journey will prove."
L.L. BEVERLY, MASSACHUSETTS, October, 1889.
I. UP AND DOWN THE LANE II. SCHOOLROOM AND MEETING-HOUSE III. THE HYMN-BOOK IV. NAUGHTY CHILDREN AND FAIRY TALES V. OLD NEW ENGLAND VI. GLIMPSES OF POETRY VII. BEGINNING TO WORK VIII. BY THE RIVER IX. MOUNTAIN-FRIENDS X. MILL-GIRLS' MAGAZINES XI. READING AND STUDYING XII. FROM THE MERRIMACK TO THE MISSISSIPPI
A NEW ENGLAND GIRLHOOD
UP AND DOWN THE LANE.
IT is strange that the spot of earth where we were born should make such a difference to us. People can live and grow anywhere, but people as well as plants have their habitat,—the place where they belong, and where they find their happiest, because their most natural life. If I had opened my eyes upon this planet elsewhere than in this northeastern corner of Massachusetts, elsewhere than on this green, rocky strip of shore between Beverly Bridge and the Misery Islands, it seems to me as if I must have been somebody else, and not myself. These gray ledges hold me by the roots, as they do the bayberry bushes, the sweet-fern, and the rock-saxifrage.
When I look from my window over the tree-tops to the sea, I could almost fancy that from the deck of some one of those inward bound vessels the wistful eyes of the Lady Arbella might be turned towards this very hillside, and that mine were meeting hers in sympathy, across the graves of two hundred and fifty years. For Winthrop's fleet, led by the ship that bore her name, must have passed into harbor that way. Dear and gracious spirit! The memory of her brief sojourn here has left New England more truly consecrated ground. Sweetest of womanly pioneers! It is as if an angel in passing on to heaven just touched with her wings this rough coast of ours.
In those primitive years, before any town but Salem had been named, this whole region was known as Cape Ann Side; and about ten years after Winthrop's arrival, my first ancestor's name appears among those of other hardy settlers of the neighborhood. No record has been found of his coming, but emigration by that time had grown so rapid that ships' lists were no longer carefully preserved. And then he was but a simple yeoman, a tiller of the soil; one who must have loved the sea, however, for he moved nearer and nearer towards it from Agawam through Wenham woods, until the close of the seventeenth century found his descendants—my own great-great-grandfather's family—planted in a romantic homestead-nook on a hillside, overlooking wide gray spaces of the bay at the part of Beverly known as "The Farms." The situation was beautiful, and home attachments proved tenacious, the family claim to the farm having only been resigned within the last thirty or forty years.
I am proud of my unlettered forefathers, who were also too humbly proud to care whether their names would be remembered or not; for they were God-fearing men, and had been persecuted for their faith long before they found their way either to Old or New England.
The name is rather an unusual one, and has been traced back from Wales and the Isle of Wight through France to Languedoc and Piedmont; a little hamlet in the south of France still bearing it in what was probably the original spelling-La Combe. There is a family shield in existence, showing a hill surmounted by a tree, and a bird with spread wings above. It might symbolize flight in times of persecution, from the mountains to the forests, and thence to heaven, or to the free skies of this New World.
But it is certain that my own immediate ancestors were both indifferent and ignorant as to questions of pedigree, and accepted with sturdy dignity an inheritance of hard work and the privileges of poverty, leaving the same bequest to their descendants. And poverty has its privileges. When there is very little of the seen and temporal to intercept spiritual vision, unseen and eternal realities are, or may be, more clearly beheld.
To have been born of people of integrity and profound faith in God, is better than to have inherited material wealth of any kind. And to those serious-minded, reticent progenitors of mine, looking out from their lonely fields across the lonelier sea, their faith must have been everything.
My father's parents both died years before my birth. My grandmother had been left a widow with a large family in my father's boyhood, and he, with the rest, had to toil early for a livelihood. She was an earnest Christian woman, of keen intelligence and unusual spiritual perception. She was supposed by her neighbors to have the gift of "second sight"; and some remarkable stories are told of her knowledge of distant events while they were occurring, or just before they took place. Her dignity of presence and character must have been noticeable. A relative of mine, who as a very little child, was taken by her mother to visit my grandmother, told me that she had always remembered the aged woman's solemnity of voice and bearing, and her mother's deferential attitude towards her: and she was so profoundly impressed by it all at the time, that when they had left the house, and were on their homeward path through the woods, she looked up into her mother's face and asked in a whisper, "Mother, was that God?"
I used sometimes to feel a little resentment at my fate in not having been born at the old Beverly Farms home-place, as my father and uncles and aunts and some of my cousins had been. But perhaps I had more of the romantic and legendary charm of it than if I had been brought up there, for my father, in his communicative moods, never wearied of telling us about his childhood; and we felt that we still held a birthright claim upon that picturesque spot through him. Besides, it was only three or four miles away, and before the day of railroads, that was thought nothing of as a walk, by young or old.
But, in fact, I first saw the light in the very middle of Beverly, in full view of the town clock and the Old South steeple. (I believe there is an "Old South" in nearly all these first-settled cities and villages of Eastern Massachusetts.) The town wore a half-rustic air of antiquity then, with its old-fashioned people and weather-worn houses; for I was born while my mother-century was still in her youth, just rounding the first quarter of her hundred years.
Primitive ways of doing things had not wholly ceased during my childhood; they were kept up in these old towns longer than elsewhere. We used tallow candles and oil lamps, and sat by open fireplaces. There was always a tinder-box in some safe corner or other, and fire was kindled by striking flint and steel upon the tinder. What magic it seemed to me, when I was first allowed to strike that wonderful spark, and light the kitchen fire!
The fireplace was deep, and there was a "settle" in the chimney corner, where three of us youngest girls could sit together and toast our toes on the andirons (two Continental soldiers in full uniform, marching one after the other), while we looked up the chimney into a square of blue sky, and sometimes caught a snowflake on our foreheads; or sometimes smirched our clean aprons (high-necked and long sleeved ones, known as "tiers"), against the swinging crane with its sooty pot-hooks and trammels.
The coffee-pot was set for breakfast over hot coals, on a three-legged bit of iron called a "trivet." Potatoes were roasted in the ashes, and the Thanksgiving turkey in a "tin-kitchen," the business of turning the spit being usually delegate to some of us, small folk, who were only too willing to burn our faces in honor of the annual festival.
There were brick ovens in the chimney corner, where the great bakings were done; but there was also an iron article called a "Dutch oven," in which delicious bread could be baked over the coals at short notice. And there was never was anything that tasted better than my mother's "firecake,"—a short-cake spread on a smooth piece of board, and set up with a flat-iron before the blaze, browned on one side, and then turned over to be browned on the other. (It required some sleight of hand to do that.) If I could only be allowed to blow the bellows—the very old people called them "belluses"—when the fire began to get low, I was a happy girl.
Cooking-stoves were coming into fashion, but they were clumsy affairs, and our elders thought that no cooking could be quite so nice as that which was done by an open fire. We younger ones reveled in the warm, beautiful glow, that we look back to as to a remembered sunset. There is no such home-splendor now.
When supper was finished, and the tea-kettle was pushed back on the crane, and the backlog had been reduced to a heap of fiery embers, then was the time for listening to sailor yarns and ghost and witch legends. The wonder seems somehow to have faded out of those tales of eld since the gleam of red-hot coals died away from the hearthstone. The shutting up of the great fireplaces and the introduction of stoves marks an era; the abdication of shaggy Romance and the enthronement of elegant Commonplace—sometimes, alas! the opposite of elegant—at the New England fireside.
Have we indeed a fireside any longer in the old sense? It hardly seems as if the young people of to-day can really understand the poetry of English domestic life, reading it, as they must, by a reflected illumination from the past. What would "Cotter's Saturday Night" have been, if Burns had written it by the opaque heat of a stove instead of at his
"Wee bit ingle blinkin' bonnilie?"
New England as it used to be was so much like Scotland in many of its ways of doing and thinking, that it almost seems as if that tender poem of hearth-and-home life had been written for us too. I can see the features of my father, who died when I was a little child, whenever I read the familiar verse:—
"The cheerfu' supper done, wi' serious face They round the ingle form a circle wide: The sire turns o'er, wi' patriarchal grace, The big ha' Bible, ance his father's pride."
A grave, thoughtful face his was, lifted up so grandly amid that blooming semicircle of boys and girls, all gathered silently in the glow of the ruddy firelight! The great family Bible had the look upon its leathern covers of a book that bad never been new, and we honored it the more for its apparent age. Its companion was the Westminster Assembly's and Shorter Catechism, out of which my father asked us questions on Sabbath afternoons, when the tea-table had been cleared. He ended the exercise with a prayer, standing up with his face turned toward the wall. My most vivid recollection of his living face is as I saw it reflected in a mirror while he stood thus praying. His closed eyes, the paleness and seriousness of his countenance, awed me. I never forgot that look. I saw it but once again, when, a child of six or seven years, I was lifted to a footstool beside his coffin to gaze upon his face for the last time. It wore the same expression that it did in prayer; paler, but no longer care-worn; so peaceful, so noble! They left me standing there a long time, and I could not take my eyes away. I had never thought my father's face a beautiful one until then, but I believe it must have been so, always.
I know that he was a studious man, fond of what was called "solid reading." He delighted in problems of navigation (he was for many years the master of a merchant-vessel sailing to various European ports), in astronomical calculations and historical computations. A rhyming genius in the town, who undertook to hit off the peculiarities of well-known residents, characterized my father as
"Philosophic Ben, Who, pointing to the stars, cries, Land ahead!"
His reserved, abstracted manner,—though his gravity concealed a fund of rare humor,—kept us children somewhat aloof from him; but my mother's temperament formed a complete contrast to his. She was chatty and social, rosy-cheeked and dimpled, with bright blue eyes and soft, dark, curling hair, which she kept pinned up under her white lace cap-border. Not even the eldest child remembered her without her cap, and when some of us asked her why she never let her pretty curls be visible, she said,—
"Your father liked to see me in a cap. I put it on soon after we were married, to please him; I always have worn it, and I always shall wear it, for the same reason."
My mother had that sort of sunshiny nature which easily shifts to shadow, like the atmosphere of an April day. Cheerfulness held sway with her, except occasionally, when her domestic cares grew too overwhelming; but her spirits rebounded quickly from discouragement.
Her father was the only one of our grandparents who had survived to my time,—of French descent, piquant, merry, exceedingly polite, and very fond of us children, whom he was always treating to raisins and peppermints and rules for good behavior. He had been a soldier in the Revolutionary War,—the greatest distinction we could imagine. And he was also the sexton of the oldest church in town,—the Old South,—and had charge of the winding-up of the town clock, and the ringing of the bell on week-days and Sundays, and the tolling for funerals,—into which mysteries he sometimes allowed us youngsters a furtive glimpse. I did not believe that there was another grandfather so delightful as ours in all the world.
Uncles, aunts, and cousins were plentiful in the family, but they did not live near enough for us to see them very often, excepting one aunt, my father's sister, for whom I was named. She was fair, with large, clear eyes that seemed to look far into one's heart, with an expression at once penetrating and benignant. To my childish imagination she was an embodiment of serene and lofty goodness. I wished and hoped that by bearing her baptismal name I might become like her; and when I found out its signification (I learned that "Lucy" means "with light"), I wished it more earnestly still. For her beautiful character was just such an illumination to my young life as I should most desire mine to be to the lives of others.
My aunt, like my father, was always studying something. Some map or book always lay open before her, when I went to visit her, in her picturesque old house, with its sloping roof and tall well-sweep. And she always brought out some book or picture for me from her quaint old-fashioned chest of drawers. I still possess the "Children in the Wood," which she gave me, as a keepsake, when I was about ten years old.
Our relatives form the natural setting of our childhood. We understand ourselves best and are best understood by others through the persons who came nearest to us in our earliest years. Those larger planets held our little one to its orbit, and lent it their brightness. Happy indeed is the infancy which is surrounded only by the loving and the good!
Besides those who were of my kindred, I had several aunts by courtesy, or rather by the privilege of neighborhood, who seemed to belong to my babyhood. Indeed, the family hearthstone came near being the scene of a tragedy to me, through the blind fondness of one of these.
The adjective is literal. This dear old lady, almost sightless, sitting in a low chair far in the chimney corner, where she had been placed on her first call to see the new baby, took me upon her lap, and—so they say—unconsciously let me slip off into the coals. I was rescued unsinged, however, and it was one of the earliest accomplishments of my infancy to thread my poor, half-blind Aunt Stanley's needles for her. We were close neighbors and gossips until my fourth year. Many an hour I sat by her side drawing a needle and thread through a bit of calico, under the delusion that I was sewing, while she repeated all sorts of juvenile singsongs of which her memory seemed full, for my entertainment. There used to be a legend current among my brothers and sisters that this aunt unwittingly taught me to use a reprehensible word. One of her ditties began with the lines:—
"Miss Lucy was a charming child; She never said, 'I won't.'"
After bearing this once or twice, the willful negative was continually upon my lips; doubtless a symptom of what was dormant within—a will perhaps not quite so aggressive as it was obstinate. But she meant only to praise me and please me; and dearly I loved to stay with her in her cozy up-stairs room across the lane, that the sun looked into nearly all day.
Another adopted aunt lived down-stairs in the same house. This one was a sober woman; life meant business to her, and she taught me to sew in earnest, with a knot in the end of my thread, although it was only upon clothing for my ragchildren—absurd creatures of my own invention, limbless and destitute of features, except as now and then one of my older sisters would, upon my earnest petition, outline a face for one of them, with pen and ink. I loved them, nevertheless, far better than I did the London doll that lay in waxen state in an upper drawer at home,—the fine lady that did not wish to be played with, but only to be looked at and admired.
This latter aunt I regarded as a woman of great possessions. She owned the land beside us and opposite us. Her well was close to our door, a well of the coldest and clearest water I ever drank, and it abundantly supplied the whole neighborhood.
The hill behind her house was our general playground; and I supposed she owned that, too, since through her dooryard, and over her stone wall, was our permitted thoroughfare thither. I imagined that those were her buttercups that we gathered when we got over the wall, and held under each other's chin, to see, by the reflection, who was fond of butter; and surely the yellow toadflax (we called it "lady's slipper") that grew in the rock-crevices was hers, for we found it nowhere else.
The blue gill-over-the-ground unmistakably belonged to her, for it carpeted an unused triangular corner of her garden inclosed by a leaning fence gray and gold with sea-side lichens. Its blue was beautiful, but its pungent earthy odor—I can smell it now—repelled us from the damp corner where it grew. It made us think of graves and ghosts; and I think we were forbidden to go there. We much preferred to sit on the sunken curbstones, in the shade of the broad-leaved burdocks, and shape their spiny balls into chairs and cradles and sofas for our dollies, or to "play school" on the doorsteps, or to climb over the wall, and to feel the freedom of the hill.
We were a neighborhood of large families, and most of us enjoyed the privilege of "a little wholesome neglect." Our tether was a long one, and when, grown a little older, we occasionally asked to have it lengthened, a maternal "I don't care" amounted to almost unlimited liberty.
The hill itself was well-nigh boundless in its capacities for juvenile occupation. Besides its miniature precipices, that walled in some of the neighbors' gardens, and its slanting slides, worn smooth by the feet of many childish generations, there were partly quarried ledges, which had shaped themselves into rock-stairs, carpeted with lovely mosses, in various patterns. These were the winding ways up our castle-towers, with breakfast-rooms and boudoirs along the landings, where we set our tables for expected guests with bits of broken china, and left our numerous rag-children tucked in asleep under mullein blankets or plantain-coverlets, while we ascended to the topmost turret to watch for our ships coming in from sea.
For leagues of ocean were visible from the tiptop of the ledge, a tiny cleft peak that held always little rain-pool for thirsty birds that now and then stopped as they flew over, to dip their beaks and glance shyly at us, as if they wished to share our games. We could see the steeples and smokes of Salem in the distance, and the bill, as it descended, lost itself in mowing fields that slid again into the river. Beyond that was Rial Side and Folly Hill, and they looked so very far off!
They called it "over to Green's" across the river. I thought it was because of the thick growth of dark green junipers, that covered the cliff-side down to the water's edge; but they were only giving the name of the farmer who owned the land, Whenever there was an unusual barking of dogs in the distance, they said it was "over to Green's." That barking of dogs made the place seem very mysterious to me.
Our lane ran parallel with the hill and the mowing fields, and down our lane we were always free to go. It was a genuine lane, all ups and downs, and too narrow for a street, although at last they have leveled it and widened it, and made a commonplace thoroughfare of it. I am glad that my baby life knew it in all its queer, original irregularities, for it seemed to have a character of its own, like many of its inhabitants, all the more charming because it was unlike anything but itself. The hill, too, is lost now, buried under houses.
Our lane came to an end at some bars that let us into another lane,—or rather a footpath or cowpath, bordered with cornfields and orchards. We were still on home ground, for my father's vegetable garden and orchard were here. After a long straight stretch, the path suddenly took an abrupt turn, widening into a cart road, then to a tumble-down wharf, and there was the river!
An "arm of the sea" I was told that our river was, and it did seem to reach around the town and hold it in a liquid embrace. Twice a day the tide came in and filled its muddy bed with a sparkling flood. So it was a river only half the time, but at high tide it was a river indeed; all that a child could wish, with its boats and its sloops, and now and then that most available craft for a crew of children—a gundalow. We easily transformed the spelling into "gondola," and in fancy were afloat on Venetian waters, under some overhanging balcony, perhaps at the very Palace of the Doges,—willingly blind to the reality of a mudscow leaning against some rickety wharf posts, covered with barnacles.
Sometimes a neighbor boy who was the fortunate owner of a boat would row us down the river a fearful, because a forbidden, joy. The widening waters made us tremble with dread and longing for what might be beyond; for when we had passed under the piers of the bridge, the estuary broadened into the harbor and the open sea. Then somebody on board would tell a story of children who had drifted away beyond the harbor-bar and the light-house, and were drowned; and our boyish helmsman would begin to look grave and anxious, and would turn his boat and row us back swiftly to the safe gundalow and tumbledown wharf.
The cars rush into the station now, right over our riverside playground. I can often hear the mirthful shout of boys and girls under the shriek of the steam whistle. No dream of a railroad had then come to the quiet old town, but it was a wild train of children that ran homeward in the twilight up the narrow lane, with wind-shod feet, and hair flying like the manes of young colts, and light hearts bounding to their own footsteps. How good and dear our plain, two-story dwelling-house looked to us as we came in sight of it, and what sweet odors stole out to meet us from the white-fenced inclosure of our small garden,—from peach-trees and lilac-bushes in bloom, from bergamot and balm and beds of camomile!
Sometimes we would find the pathetic figure of white-haired Larkin Moore, the insane preacher, his two canes lain aside, waiting, in our dooryard for any audience that he could gather: boys and girls were as welcome as anybody. He would seat us in a row on the green slope, and give us a half hour or so of incoherent exhortation, to which we attended respectfully, if not reverently; for his whole manner showed that, though demented, he was deeply in earnest. He seemed there in the twilight like a dazed angel who had lost his way, and had half forgotten his errand, which yet he must try to tell to anybody who would listen.
I have heard my mother say that sometimes he would ask if he might take her baby in his arms and sing to it; and that though she was half afraid herself, the baby—I like to fancy I was that baby—seemed to enjoy it, and played gleefully with the old man's flowing gray locks.
Good Larkin Moore was well known through the two neighboring counties, Essex and Middlesex. We saw him afterward on the banks of the Merrimack. He always wore a loose calico tunic over his trousers; and, when the mood came upon him, he started off with two canes,—seeming to think he could travel faster as a quadruped than as a biped. He was entirely harmless; his only wish was to preach or to sing.
A characteristic anecdote used to be told of him: that once, as a stage-coach containing, only a few passengers passed him on the road, he asked the favor of a seat on the top, and was refused. There were many miles between him and his destination. But he did not upbraid the ungracious driver; he only swung his two canes a little more briskly, and kept breast of the horses all the way, entering the town side by side with the inhospitable vehicles—a running reproach to the churl on the box.
There was another wanderer, a blind woman, whom my mother treated with great respect on her annual pilgrimages. She brought with her some printed rhymes to sell, purporting to be composed by herself, and beginning with the verse:—
"I, Nancy Welsh, was born and bred In Essex County, Marblehead. And when I was an infant quite The Lord deprived me of my sight."
I labored under the delusion that blindness was a sort of insanity, and I used to run away when this pilgrim came, for she was not talkative like Larkin Moore. I fancied she disliked children, and so I shrank from her.
There were other odd estrays going about, who were either well known, or could account for them selves. The one human phenomenon that filled us little ones with mortal terror was an unknown "man with a pack on his back." I do not know what we thought he would do with us, but the sight of one always sent us breathless with fright to the shelter of the maternal wing. I did not at all like the picture of Christian on his way to the wicket-gate, in "Pilgrim's Progress," before I had read the book, because he had "a pack on his back." But there was really nothing to be afraid of in those simple, honest old times. I suppose we children would not have known how happy and safe we were, in our secluded lane, if we had not conjured up a few imaginary fears.
Long as it is since the rural features of our lane were entirely obliterated, my feet often go back and press, in memory, its grass-grown borders, and in delight and liberty I am a child again. Its narrow limits were once my whole known world. Even then it seemed to me as if it might lead everywhere; and it was indeed but the beginning of a road which must lengthen and widen beneath my feet forever.
SCHOOLROOM AND MEETING-HOUSE.
THERE were only two or three houses between ours and the main street, and then our lane came out directly opposite the finest house in town, a three-story edifice of brick, painted white, the "Colonel's" residence. There was a spacious garden behind it, from which we caught glimpses and perfumes of unknown flowers. Over its high walls hung boughs of splendid great yellow sweet apples, which, when they fell on the outside, we children considered as our perquisites. When I first read about the apples of the Hesperides, my idea of them was that they were like the Colonel's "pumpkin-sweetings."
Beyond the garden were wide green fields which reached eastward down to the beach. It was one of those large old estates which used to give to the very heart of our New England coast towns a delightful breeziness and roominess.
A coach-and-pair was one of the appurtenances of this estate, with a coachman on the box; and when he took the family out for an airing we small children thought it was a sort of Cinderella spectacle, prepared expressly for us.
It was not, however, quite so interesting as the Boston stage-coach, that rolled regularly every day past the head of our lane into and out of its headquarters, a big, unpainted stable close at hand. This stage-coach, in our minds, meant the city,—twenty miles off; an immeasurable distance to us then. Even our elders did not go there very often.
In those early days, towns used to give each other nicknames, like schoolboys. Ours was called "Bean-town" not because it was especially devoted to the cultivation of this leguminous edible, but probably because it adhered a long time to the Puritanic custom of saving Sunday-work by baking beans on Saturday evening, leaving them in the oven over night. After a while, as families left off heating their ovens, the bean-pots were taken by the village baker on Saturday afternoon, who returned them to each house early on Sunday morning with the pan of brown bread that went with them. The jingling of the baker's bells made the matter a public one.
The towns through which our stage-coach passed sometimes called it the "bean-pot." The Jehn who drove it was something of a wag. Once, coming through Charlestown, while waiting in the street for a resident passenger, he was hailed by another resident who thought him obstructing the passage, with the shout,—
"Halloo there! Get your old bean-pot out of the way!"
"I will, when I have got my pork in," was the ready reply. What the sobriquet of Charlestown was, need not be explained.
We had a good opportunity to watch both coaches, as my father's shop was just at the head of the lane, and we went to school upstairs in the same building. After he left off going to sea,—before my birth,—my father took a store for the sale of what used to be called "West India goods," and various other domestic commodities.
The school was kept by a neighbor whom everybody called "Aunt Hannah." It took in all the little ones about us, no matter how young they were, provided they could walk and talk, and were considered capable of learning their letters.
A ladder-like flight of stairs on the outside of the house led up to the schoolroom, and another flight, also outside, took us down into a bit of a garden, where grew tansy and spearmint and southernwood and wormwood, and, among other old-fashioned flowers, an abundance of many-tinted four o'clocks, whose regular afternoon-opening just at the close of school, was a daily wonder to us babies. From the schoolroom window we could watch the slow hands of the town clock and get a peep at what was going on in the street, although there was seldom anybody in sight except the Colonel's gardener or coachman, going into or out of the driveway directly opposite. It was a very still street; the front windows of the houses were generally closed, and a few military-looking Lombardy poplars stood like sentinels on guard before them.
Another shop—a very small one—joined my father's, where three shoemakers, all of the same name—the name our lane went by—sat at their benches and plied their "waxed ends." One of them, an elderly man, tall and erect, used to come out regularly every day, and stand for a long time at the corner, motionless as a post, with his nose and chin pointing skyward, usually to the northeast. I watched his face with wonder, for it was said that "Uncle John" was "weatherwise," and knew all the secrets of the heavens.
Aunt Hannah's schoolroom and "our shop" are a blended memory to me. As I was only a baby when I began to go to school, I was often sent down-stairs for a half hour's recreation not permitted to the older ones. I think I looked upon both school and shop entirely as places of entertainment for little children.
The front shop-window was especially interesting to us children, for there were in it a few glass jars containing sticks of striped barley-candy, and red and white peppermint-drops, and that delectable achievement of the ancient confectioner's art, the "Salem gibraltar." One of my first recollections of my father is connected with that window. He had taken me into the shop with him after dinner,—I was perhaps two years old,—and I was playing beside him on the counter when one of his old sea-comrades came in, whom we knew as "Captain Cross." The Captain tried to make friends with me, and, to seal the bond, asked my father to take down from its place of exhibition a strip of red peppermints dropped on white paper, in a style I particularly admired, which he twisted around my neck, saying, "Now I've bought you! Now you are my girl. Come, go home with me!"
His words sounded as if he meant them. I took it all in earnest, and ran, scared and screaming, to my father, dashing down the sugar-plums I wanted so much, and refusing even to bestow a glance upon my amused purchaser. My father pacified me by taking me on his shoulders and carrying me "pickaback" up and down the shop, and I clung to him in the happy consciousness that I belonged to him, and that he would not let anybody else have me; though I did not feel quite easy until Captain Cross disappeared. I suppose that this little incident has always remained in my memory because it then for the first time became a fact in my consciousness that my father really loved me as I loved him. He was not at all a demonstrative man, and any petting that he gave us children could not fail to make a permanent impression.
I think that must have been also the last special attention I received from him, for a little sister appeared soon after, whose coming was announced to me with the accompaniment of certain mysterious hints about my nose being out of joint. I examined that feature carefully in the looking glass, but could not discover anything usual about it. It was quite beyond me to imagine that our innocent little baby could have anything to do with the possible disfigurement of my face, but she did absorb the fondness of the whole family, myself included, and she became my father's playmate and darling, the very apple of his eye. I used sometimes to wish I were a baby too, so that he would notice me, but gradually I accepted the situation.
Aunt Hannah used her kitchen or her sitting room for a schoolroom, as best suited her convenience. We were delighted observers of her culinary operations and other employments. If a baby's head nodded, a little bed was made for it on a soft "comforter" in the corner, where it had its nap out undisturbed. But this did not often happen; there were so many interesting things going on that we seldom became sleepy.
Aunt Hannah was very kind and motherly, but she kept us in fear of her ferule, which indicated to us a possibility of smarting palms. This ferule was shaped much like the stick with which she stirred her hasty pudding for dinner,—I thought it was the same,—and I found myself caught in a whirlwind of family laughter by reporting at home that "Aunt Hannah punished the scholars with the pudding-stick."
There was one colored boy in school, who did not sit on a bench, like the rest, but on a block of wood that looked like a backlog turned endwise. Aunt Hannah often called him a "blockhead," and I supposed it was because he sat on that block. Sometimes, in his absence, a boy was made to sit in his place for punishment, for being a "blockhead" too, as I imagined. I hoped I should never be put there. Stupid little girls received a different treatment,—an occasional rap on the head with the teacher's thimble; accompanied with a half-whispered, impatient ejaculation, which sounded very much like "Numskull!" I think this was a rare occurrence, however, for she was a good-natured, much-enduring woman.
One of our greatest school pleasures was to watch Aunt Hannah spinning on her flax-wheel, wetting her thumb and forefinger at her lips to twist the thread, keeping time, meanwhile, to some quaint old tune with her foot upon the treadle.
A verse of one of her hymns, which I never heard anybody else sing, resounds in the farthest corner of my memory yet:"—
"Whither goest thou, pilgrim stranger, Wandering through this lowly vale? Knowest thou not 't is full of danger? And will not thy courage fail?"
Then a little pause, and the refrain of the answer broke in with a change, quick and jubilant, the treadle moving more rapidly, also:—
"No, I'm bound for the kingdom! Will you go to glory with me? Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!"
I began to go to school when I was about two years old, as other children about us did. The mothers of those large families had to resort to some means of keeping their little ones out of mischief, while they attended to their domestic duties. Not much more than that sort of temporary guardianship was expected of the good dame who had us in charge.
But I learned my letters in a few days, standing at Aunt Hannah's knee while she pointed them out in the spelling-book with a pin, skipping over the "a b abs" into words of one and two syllables, thence taking a flying leap into the New Testament, in which there is concurrent family testimony that I was reading at the age of two years and a half. Certain it is that a few passages in the Bible, whenever I read them now, do not fail to bring before me a vision of Aunt Hannah's somewhat sternly smiling lips, with her spectacles just above them, far down on her nose, encouraging me to pronounce the hard words. I think she tried to choose for me the least difficult verses, or perhaps those of which she was herself especially fond. Those which I distinctly recall are the Beatitudes, the Twenty-third Psalm, parts of the first and fourteenth chapters of the Gospel of St. John, and the thirteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians.
I liked to say over the "Blesseds,"—the shortest ones best,—about the meek and the pure in heart; and the two "In the beginnings," both in Genesis and John. Every child's earliest and proudest Scriptural conquest in school was, almost as a matter of course, the first verse in the Bible.
But the passage which I learned first, and most delighted to repeat after Aunt Hannah,—I think it must have been her favorite too,—was, "Let not your heart be troubled. In my Father's house are many mansions."
The Voice in the Book seemed so tender! Somebody was speaking who had a heart, and who knew that even a little child's heart was sometimes troubled. And it was a Voice that called us somewhere; to the Father's house, with its many mansions, so sunshiny and so large.
It was a beautiful vision that came to me with the words,—I could see it best with my eyes shut,-a great, dim Door standing ajar, opening out of rosy morning mists, overhung with swaying vines and arching boughs that were full of birds; and from beyond the Door, the ripple of running waters, and the sound of many happy voices, and above them all the One Voice that was saying, "I go to prepare a place for you." The vision gave me a sense of freedom, fearless and infinite. What was there to be afraid of anywhere? Even we little children could see the open door of our Father's house. We were playing around its threshold now, and we need never wander out of sight of it. The feeling was a vague one, but it was like a remembrance. The spacious mansions were not far away. They were my home. I had known them, and should return to them again.
This dim half-memory, which perhaps comes to all children, I had felt when younger still, almost before I could walk. Sitting on the floor in a square of sunshine made by an open window, the leaf-shadows from great boughs outside dancing and wavering around me, I seemed to be talking to them and they to me in unknown tongues, that left within me an ecstasy yet unforgotten. These shadows had brought a message to me from an unseen Somewhere, which my baby heart was to keep forever. The wonder of that moment often returns. Shadow-traceries of bough and leaf still seem to me like the hieroglyphics of a lost language.
The stars brought me the same feeling. I remember the surprise they were to me, seen for the first time. One evening, just before I was put to bed, I was taken in somebody's arms—my sister's, I think—outside the door, and lifted up under the dark, still, clear sky, splendid with stars, thicker and nearer earth than they have ever seemed since. All my little being shaped itself into a subdued delighted "Oh!" And then the exultant thought flitted through the mind of the reluctant child, as she was carried in, "Why, that is the roof of the house I live in." After that I always went to sleep happier for the feeling that the stars were outside there in the dark, though I could not see them.
I did firmly believe that I came from some other country to this; I had a vague notion that we were all here on a journey,—that this was not the place where we really belonged. Some of the family have told me that before I could talk plainly, I used to run about humming the sentence—
"My father and mother Shall come unto the land,"
sometimes varying it with,
"My brothers and sisters Shall come unto the land;"
Nobody knew where I had caught the words, but I chanted them so constantly that my brother wrote them down, with chalk, on the under side of a table, where they remained for years. My thought about that other land may have been only a baby's dream; but the dream was very real to me. I used to talk, in sober earnest, about what happened "before I was a little girl, and came here to live"; and it did seem to me as if I remembered.
But I was hearty and robust, full of frolicsome health, and very fond of the matter-of-fact world I lived in. My sturdy little feet felt the solid earth beneath them. I grew with the sprouting grass, and enjoyed my life as the buds and birds seemed to enjoy theirs. It was only as if the bud and the bird and the dear warm earth knew, in the same dumb way that I did, that all their joy and sweetness came to them out of the sky.
These recollections, that so distinctly belong the baby Myself, before she could speak her thoughts, though clear and vivid, are difficult to put into shape. But other grown-up children, in looking back, will doubtless see many a trailing cloud of glory, that lighted their unconscious infancy from within and from beyond.
I was quite as literal as I was visionary in my mental renderings of the New Testament, read at Aunt Hannah's knee. I was much taken with the sound of words, without any thought of their meaning—a habit not always outgrown with childhood. The "sounding brass and tinkling cymbals," for instance, in the Epistle to the Corinthians, seemed to me things to be greatly desired. "Charity" was an abstract idea. I did not know what it meant. But "tinkling cymbals" one could make music with. I wished I could get hold of them. It never occurred to me that the Apostle meant to speak of their melody slightingly.
At meeting, where I began to go also at two years of age, I made my own private interpretations of the Bible readings. They were absurd enough, but after getting laughed at a few times at home for making them public, I escaped mortification by forming a habit of great reserve as to my Sabbath-day thoughts.
When the minister read, "Cut it down: why cumbereth it the ground?"? I thought he meant to say "cu-cumbereth." These vegetables grew on the ground, and I had heard that they were not very good for people to eat. I honestly supposed that the New Testament forbade the cultivation of cucumbers.
And "Galilee" I understood as a mispronunciation of "gallery." "Going up into Galilee" I interpreted into clattering up the uncarpeted stairs in the meeting-house porch, as the boys did, with their squeaking brogans, looking as restless as imprisoned monkeys after they had got into those conspicuous seats, where they behaved as if they thought nobody could see their pranks. I did not think it could be at all nice to "go up into Galilee."
I had an "Aunt Nancy," an uncle's wife, to whom I was sometimes sent for safe-keeping when house-cleaning or anything unusual was going on at home. She was a large-featured woman, with a very deep masculine voice, and she conducted family worship herself, kneeling at prayer, which was not the Orthodox custom.
She always began by saying,—
"Oh Lord, Thou knowest that we are all groveling worms of the dust." I thought she meant that we all looked like wriggling red earthworms, and tried to make out the resemblance in my mind, but could not. I unburdened my difficulty at home, telling the family that "Aunt Nancy got down on the floor and said we were all grubbelin' worms," begging to know whether everybody did sometimes have to crawl about in the dust.
A little later, I was much puzzled as to whether I was a Jew or Gentile. The Bible seemed to divide people into these two classes only. The Gentiles were not well spoken of: I did not want to be one of them. The talked about Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and the rest, away back to Adam, as if they were our forefathers (there was a time when I thought that Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were our four fathers); and yet I was very sure that I was not a Jew. When I ventured to ask, I was told that we were all Christians or heathen now. That did not help me for I thought that only grown-up persons could be Christians, from which it followed that all children must be heathen. Must I think of Myself as a heathen, then, until I should be old enough to be a Christian? It was a shocking conclusion, but I could see no other answer to my question, and I felt ashamed to ask again. My self-invented theory about the human race was that Adam and Eve were very tall people, taller than the tallest trees in the Garden of Eden, before they were sent out of it; but that they then began to dwindle; that their children had ever since been getting smaller and smaller, and that by and by the inhabitants of the world would be no bigger than babies. I was afraid I should stop growing while I was a child, and I used to stand on the footstool in the pew, and try to stretch myself up to my mother's height, to imagine how it would seem to be a woman. I hoped I should be a tall one. I did not wish to be a diminishing specimen of the race;—an anxiety which proved to be entirely groundless.
The Sabbath mornings in those old times had a peculiar charm. They seemed so much cleaner than other mornings! The roads and the grassy footpaths seemed fresher, and the air itself purer and more wholesome than on week-days. Saturday afternoon and evening were regarded as part of the Sabbath (we were taught that it was heathenish to call the day Sunday); work and playthings were laid aside, and every body, as well as every thing, was subjected to a rigid renovation. Sabbath morning would not have seemed like itself without a clean house, a clean skin, and tidy and spotless clothing.
The Saturday's baking was a great event, the brick oven being heated to receive the flour bread, the flour-and-Indian, and the rye-and-Indian bread, the traditional pot of beans, the Indian pudding, and the pies; for no further cooking was to be done until Monday. We smaller girls thought it a great privilege to be allowed to watch the oven till the roof of it should be "white-hot," so that the coals could be shoveled out.
Then it was so still, both out of doors and within! We were not allowed to walk anywhere except in the yard or garden. I remember wondering whether it was never Sabbath-day over the fence, in the next field; whether the field was not a kind of heathen field, since we could only go into it on week-days. The wild flowers over there were perhaps Gentile blossoms. Only the flowers in the garden were well-behaved Christians. It was Sabbath in the house, and possibly even on the doorstep; but not much farther. The town itself was so quiet that it scarcely seemed to breathe. The sound of wheels was seldom heard in the streets on that day; if we heard it, we expected some unusual explanation.
I liked to go to meeting,—not wholly oblivious to the fact that going there sometimes implied wearing a new bonnet and my best white dress and muslin "vandyke," of which adornments, if very new, I vainly supposed the whole congregation to be as admiringly aware as I was myself.
But my Sabbath-day enjoyment was not wholly without drawbacks. It was so hard, sometimes, to stand up through the "long prayer," and to sit still through the "ninthlies," and "tenthlies," and "finallys" of the sermon! It was impressed upon me that good children were never restless in meeting, and never laughed or smiled, however their big brothers tempted them with winks or grimaces. And I did want to be good.
I was not tall enough to see very far over the top of the pew. I think there were only three persons that came within range of my eyes. One was a dark man with black curly hair brushed down in "bangs" over his eyebrows, who sat behind a green baize curtain near the outside door, peeping out at me, as I thought. I had an impression that he was the "tidy-man," though that personage had become mythical long before my day. He had a dragonish look, to me; and I tried never to meet his glance.
But I did sometimes gaze more earnestly than was polite at a dear, demure little lady who sat in the corner of the pew next ours, her downcast eyes shaded by a green calash, and her hidden right hand gently swaying a long-handled Chinese fan. She was the deacon's wife, and I felt greatly interested in her movements and in the expression of her face, because I thought she represented the people they called "saints," who were, as I supposed, about the same as first cousins to the angels.
The third figure in sight was the minister. I did not think he ever saw me; he was talking to the older people,—usually telling them how wicked they were. He often said to them that there was not one good person among them; but I supposed he excepted himself. He seemed to me so very good that I was very much afraid of him. I was a little afraid of my father, but then he sometimes played with us children: and besides, my father was only a man. I thought the minister belonged to some different order of beings. Up there in the pulpit he seemed to me so far off—oh! a great deal farther off than God did. His distance made my reverence for him take the form of idolatry. The pulpit was his pedestal. If any one had told me that the minister ever did or thought anything that was wrong, I should have felt as if the foundations of the earth under me were shaken. I wondered if he ever did laugh. Perhaps it was wicked for a minister even to smile.
One day, when I was very little, I met the minister in the street; and he, probably recognizing me as the child of one of his parishioners, actually bowed to me! His bows were always ministerially profound, and I was so overwhelmed with surprise and awe that I forgot to make the proper response of a "curtsey," but ran home as fast as I could go to proclaim the wonder. It would not have astonished me any more, if one of the tall Lombardy poplars that stood along the sidewalk had laid itself down at my feet.
I do not remember anything that the preacher ever said, except some words which I thought sounded well,—such as "dispensations," "decrees," "ordinances," "covenants,"—although I attached no meaning to them. He seemed to be trying to explain the Bible by putting it into long words. I did not understand them at all. It was from Aunt Hannah that I received my first real glimpses of the beautiful New Testament revelation. In her unconscious wisdom she chose for me passages and chapters that were like openings into heaven. They contained the great, deep truths which are simple because they are great. It was not explanations of those grand words that I required, or that anybody requires. In reading them we are all children together, and need only to be led to the banks of the river of God, which is full of water, that we may look down into its pellucid depths for ourselves.
Our minister was not unlike other ministers of the time, and his seeming distance from his congregation was doubtless owing to the deep reverence in which the ministerial office was universally held among our predecessors. My own graven-image worship of him was only a childish exaggeration of the general feeling of grown people around me. He seemed to us an inhabitant of a Sabbath-day sphere, while we belonged to the every-day world. I distinctly remember the day of my christening, when I was between three and four years old. My parents did not make a public profession of their faith until after the birth of all their children, eight of whom—I being my father's ninth child and seventh daughter—were baptized at one time. My two half-sisters were then grown-up young women. My mother had told us that the minister would be speaking directly to us, and that we must pay close attention to what he said. I felt that it was an important event, and I wished to do exactly what the minister desired of me. I listened eagerly while he read the chapter and the hymn. The latter was one of my favorites:—
"See Israel's gentle Shepherd stands;"
and the chapter was the third of St. Matthew, containing the story of our Lord's baptism. I could not make out any special message for us, until he came to the words, "Whose fan is in his hand."
That must be it! I looked anxiously at my sisters, to see if they had brought their fans. It was warm weather, and I had taken a little one of my own to meeting. Believing that I was following a direct instruction, I clasped my fan to my bosom and held it there as we walked up the aisle, and during the ceremony, wondering why the others did not do so, too. The baby in my mother's arms—Octavia, the eighth daughter—shocked me by crying a little, but I tried to behave the better on that account.
It all seemed very solemn and mysterious to me. I knew from my father's and mother's absorbed manner then, and when we returned from church, that it was something exceedingly important to Them—something that they wished us neither to talk about nor to forget.
I never did forget it. There remained within me a sweet, haunting feeling of having come near the "gentle Shepherd" of the hymn, who was calling the lambs to his side. The chapter had ended with the echo of a voice from heaven, and with the glimpse of a descending Dove. And the water-drops on my forehead, were they not from that "pure river of water of life, clear as crystal," that made music through those lovely verses in the last chapter of the good Book?
I am glad that I have always remembered that day of family consecration. As I look back, it seems as if the horizons of heaven and earth met and were blended then. And who can tell whether the fragrance of that day's atmosphere may not enter into the freshness of some new childhood in the life which is to come?
ALMOST the first decided taste in my life was the love of hymns. Committing them to memory was as natural to me as breathing. I followed my mother about with the hymn-book ("Watts' and Select"), reading or repeating them to her, while she was busy with her baking or ironing, and she was always a willing listener. She was fond of devotional reading, but had little time for it, and it pleased her to know that so small a child as I really cared for the hymns she loved.
I learned most of them at meeting. I was told to listen to the minister; but as I did not understand a word he was saying, I gave it up, and took refuge in the hymn-book, with the conscientious purpose of trying to sit still. I turned the leaves over as noiselessly as possible, to avoid the dreaded reproof of my mother's keen blue eyes; and sometimes I learned two or three hymns in a forenoon or an afternoon. Finding it so easy, I thought I would begin at the beginning, and learn the whole. There were about a thousand of them included in the Psalms, the First, Second, and Third Books, and the Select Hymns. But I had learned to read before I had any knowledge of counting up numbers, and so was blissfully ignorant of the magnitude of my undertaking. I did not, I think, change my resolution because there were so many, but because, little as I was, I discovered that there were hymns and hymns. Some of them were so prosy that the words would not stay in my memory at all, so I concluded that I would learn only those I liked.
I had various reasons for my preferences. With some, I was caught by a melodious echo, or a sonorous ring; with others by the hint of a picture, or a story, or by some sacred suggestion that attracted me, I knew not why. Of some I was fond just because I misunderstood them; and of these I made a free version in my mind, as I murmured them over. One of my first favorites was certainly rather a singular choice for a child of three or four years. I had no idea of its meaning, but made up a little story out of it, with myself as the heroine. It began with the words—
"Come, humble sinner, in whose breast A thousand thoughts revolve."
The second stanza read thus:—
"I'll go to Jesus, though my sin Hath like a mountain rose."
I did not know that this last line was bad grammar, but thought that the sin in question was something pretty, that looked "like a mountain rose." Mountains I had never seen; they were a glorious dream to me. And a rose that grew on a mountain must surely be prettier than any of our red wild roses on the hill, sweet as they were. I would pluck that rose, and carry it up the mountain-side into the temple where the King sat, and would give it to Him; and then He would touch me with his sceptre, and let me through into a garden full of flowers. There was no garden in the hymn; I suppose the "rose" made me invent one. But it did read—
"I know his courts; I'll enter in, Whatever may oppose;"
and so I fancied there would be lions in the way, as there were in the Pilgrim's, at the "House Beautiful"; but I should not be afraid of them; they would no doubt be chained. The last verse began with the lines,—
"I can but perish if I go: I am resolved to try:"
and my heart beat a brave echo to the words, as I started off in fancy on a "Pilgrim's Progress" of my own, a happy little dreamer, telling nobody the secret of my imaginary journey, taken in sermon-time.
Usually, the hymns for which I cared most suggested Nature in some way,—flowers, trees, skies, and stars. When I repeated,—
"There everlasting spring abides, And never-withering flowers,"—
I thought of the faintly flushed anemones and white and blue violets, the dear little short-lived children of our shivering spring. They also would surely be found in that heavenly land, blooming on through the cloudless, endless year. And I seemed to smell the spiciness of bay berry and sweet-fern and wild roses and meadow-sweet that grew in fragrant jungles up and down the hillside back of the meeting-house, in another verse which I dearly loved:—
"The hill of Zion yields A thousand sacred sweet, Before we reach the heavenly fields, Or walk the golden streets."
We were allowed to take a little nosegay to meeting sometimes: a pink or two (pinks were pink then, not red, nor white, nor even double) and a sprig of camomile; and their blended perfume still seems to be a part of the June Sabbath mornings long passed away.
When the choir sang of "Seas of heavenly rest,"
a breath of salt wind came in with the words through the open door, from the sheltered waters of the bay, so softly blue and so lovely, I always wondered how a world could be beautiful where "there was no more sea." I concluded that the hymn and the text could not really contradict other; that there must be something like the sea in heaven, after all. One stanza that I used to croon over, gave me the feeling of being rocked in a boat on a strange and beautiful ocean, from whose far-off shores the sunrise beckoned:—
"At anchor laid, remote from home, Toiling I cry, Sweet Spirit, come! Celestial breeze, no longer stay! But spread my sails, and speed my way!"
Some of the chosen hymns of my infancy the world recognizes among its noblest treasures of sacred song. That one of Doddridge's, beginning with
"Ye golden lamps of heaven, farewell!"
made me feel as if I had just been gazing in at some window of the "many mansions" above:—
"Ye stars are but the shining dust Of my divine abode-"
Had I not known that, ever since I was a baby? But the light does not stream down even into a baby's soul with equal brightness all the time. Earth draws her dark curtains too soon over the windows of heaven, and the little children fall asleep in her dim rooms, and forget their visions.
That majestic hymn of Cowper's,—
"God moves in a mysterious way,"
was one of my first and dearest. It reminded me of the rolling of thunder through the sky; and, understood as little as the thunder itself, which my mother told me was God's voice, so that I bent my ear and listened, expecting to hear it shaped into words, it still did give me an idea of the presence of One Infinite Being, that thrilled me with reverent awe. And this was one of the best lessons taught in the Puritan school,—the lesson of reverence, the certainty that life meant looking up to something, to Some One greater than ourselves, to a Life far above us, which yet enfolded ours.
The thought of God, when He was first spoken of to me, seemed as natural as the thought of my father and mother. That He should be invisible did not seem strange, for I could not with my eyes see through the sky, beyond which I supposed he lived. But it was easy to believe that He could look down and see me, and that He knew all about me. We were taught very early to say "Thou, God, seest me"; and it was one of my favorite texts. Heaven seemed nearer, because somebody I loved was up there looking at me. A baby is not afraid of its father's eyes.
The first real unhappiness I remember to have felt was when some one told me, one day, that I did not love God. I insisted, almost tearfully, that I did; but I was told that if I did truly love Him I should always be good. I knew I was not that, and the feeling of sudden orphanage came over me like a bewildering cloud. Yet I was sure that I loved my father and mother, even when I was naughty, Was He harder to please than they?
Then I heard of a dreadful dark Somewhere, the horror of which was that it was away from Him. What if I should wake some morning, and find myself there? Sometimes I did not dare to go to sleep for that dread. And the thought was too awful to speak of to anybody. Baby that I was, I shut my lips in a sort of reckless despair, and thought that if I could not be good, I might as well be naughty, and enjoy it. But somehow I could not enjoy it. I felt sorry and ashamed and degraded whenever I knew that I had been cross or selfish.
I heard them talk about Jesus as if He were a dead man, one who died a great while ago, whose death made a great difference to us, I could not understand how. It seemed like a lovely story, the loveliest in the world, but it sounded as if it were only a story, even to those who repeated it to me; something that had happened far away in the past.
But one day a strange minister came into the Sabbath-school in our little chapel, and spoke to us children about Him, oh! so differently!
"Children," he said, "Jesus is not dead. He is alive: He loves you, and wants you to love Him! He is your best Friend, and He will show you how to be good."
My heart beat fast. I could hardly keep back the tears. The New Testament, then, did really mean what it said! Jesus said He would come back again, and would always be with those who loved Him.
"He is alive! He loves me! He will tell me how to be good!" I said it over to myself, but not to anybody else. I was sure that I loved Him. It was like a beautiful secret between us two. I felt Him so alive and so near! He wanted me to be good, and I could be, I would be, for his sake.
That stranger never knew how his loving word had touched a child's heart. The doors of the Father's house were opened wide again, by the only hand that holds the key. The world was all bright and fresh once more. It was as if the May sun had suddenly wakened the flowers in an overshadowed wayside nook.
I tried long afterward, thinking that it was my duty, to build up a wall of difficult doctrines over my spring blossoms, as if they needed protection. But the sweet light was never wholly stifled out, though I did not always keep my face turned towards it: and I know now, that just to let his lifegiving smile shine into the soul is better than any of the theories we can invent about Him; and that only so can young or old receive the kingdom of God as a little child.
I believe that one great reason for a child's love of hymns, such as mine was, is that they are either addressed to a Person, to the Divine Person,—or they bring Him before the mind in some distinct way, instead of being written upon a subject, like a sermon. To make Him real is the only way to make our own spirits real to ourselves.
I think more gratefully now of the verses I learned from the Bible and the Hymn-Book than of almost anything that came to me in that time of beginnings. The whole Hymn-Book was not for me then, any more than the whole Bible. I took from both only what really belonged to me. To be among those who found in the true sources of faith and adoration, was like breathing in my native air, though I could not tell anything about the land from which I had come. Much that was put in the way of us children to climb by, we could only stumble over; but around and above the roughnesses of the road, the pure atmosphere of worship was felt everywhere, the healthiest atmosphere for a child's soul to breathe in.
I had learned a great many hymns before the family took any notice of it. When it came to the knowledge of my most motherly sister Emilie,—I like to call her that, for she was as fond of early rising as Chaucer's heroine:—
"Up rose the sun, and up rose Emilie;"
and it is her own name, with a very slight change,—she undertook to see how many my small memory would contain. She promised me a new book, when I should have learned fifty; and that when I could repeat any one of a hundred hymns, she would teach me to write. I earned the book when I was about four years old. I think it was a collection of some of Jane Taylor's verses. "For Infant Minds," was part of the title. I did not care for it, however, nearly so much as I did for the old, thumb-worn "Watts' and Select Hymns." Before I was five I bad gone beyond the stipulated hundred.
A proud and happy child I was, when I was permitted to dip a goose quill into an inkstand, and make written letters, instead of printing them with a pencil on a slate.
My sister prepared a neat little writing-book for me, and told me not to make a mark in it except when she was near to tell me what to do. In my self-sufficient impatience to get out of "pothooks and trammels" into real letters and words I disobeyed her injunction, and disfigured the pages with numerous tell-tale blots. Then I hid the book away under the garret eaves, and refused to bring it to light again. I was not allowed to resume my studies in penmanship for some months, in consequence. But when I did learn to write, Emilie was my teacher, and she made me take great pains with my p's and q's.
It is always a mistake to cram a juvenile mind. A precocious child is certainly as far as possible from being an interesting one. Children ought to be children, and nothing else. But I am not sorry that I learned to read when so young, because there were years of my childhood that came after, when I had very little time for reading anything.
To learn hymns was not only a pastime, but a pleasure which it would have been almost cruel to deprive me of. It did not seem to me as if I learned them, but as if they just gave themselves to me while I read them over; as if they, and the unseen things they sang about, became a part of me.
Some of the old hymns did seem to lend us wings, so full were they of aspiration and hope and courage. To a little child, reading them or hearing them sung was like being caught up in a strong man's arms, to gaze upon some wonderful landscape. These climbing and flying hymns,—how well I remember them, although they were among the first I learned! They are of the kind that can never wear out. We all know them by their first lines,—
"Awake, our souls! away, our fears!"
"Up to the hills I lift mine eyes."
"There is a land of pure delight."
"Rise, my soul, and stretch thy wings, Thy better portion trace!"
How the meeting-house rafters used to ring to that last hymn, sung to the tune of "Amsterdam!" Sometimes it seemed as if the very roof was lifted off,—nay, the roof of the sky itself—as if the music had burst an entrance for our souls into the heaven of heavens.
I loved to learn the glad hymns, and there were scores of them. They come flocking back through the years, like birds that are full of the music of an immortal spring!
"Come, let us join our cheerful songs With angels round the throne."
"Love divine, all love excelling; Joy of heaven, to earth come down."
"Joy to the world! the Lord is come!"
"Hark! the song of jubilee, Loud as mighty thunders' roar, Or the fullness of the sea When it breaks upon the shore!
"Hallelujah! for the Lord God Omnipotent shall reign! Hallelujah! let the word Echo round the earth and main."
Ah, that word "Hallelujah!" It seemed to express all the joy of spring mornings and clear sunshine and bursting blossoms, blended with all that I guessed of the songs of angels, and with all that I had heard and believed, in my fledgling soul, of the glorious One who was born in a manger and died on a cross, that He might reign in human hearts as a king. I wondered why the people did not sing "Hallelujah" more. It seemed like a word sent straight down to us out of heaven.
I did not like to learn the sorrowful hymns, though I did it when they were given to me as a task, such as—
"Hark, from the tombs," and
"Lord, what a wretched land is this, That yields us no supply."
I suppose that these mournful strains had their place, but sometimes the transition was too sudden, from the outside of the meeting-house to the inside; from the sunshine and bobolinks and buttercups of the merry May-day world, to the sad strains that chanted of "this barren land," this "vale of tears," this "wilderness" of distress and woe. It let us light-hearted children too quickly down from the higher key of mirth to which our careless thoughts were pitched. We knew that we were happy, and sorrow to us was unreal. But somehow we did often get the impression that it was our duty to try to be sorrowful; and that we could not be entirely good, without being rather miserable.
And I am afraid that in my critical little mind I looked upon it as an affectation on the part of the older people to speak of life in this doleful way. I thought that they really knew better. It seemed to me that it must be delightful to grow up, and learn things, and do things, and be very good indeed,—better than children could possibly know how to be. I knew afterwards that my elders were sometimes, at least, sincere in their sadness; for with many of them life must have been a hard struggle. But when they shook their heads and said,—"Child, you will not be so happy by and by; you are seeing your best days now," I still doubted. I was born with the blessing of a cheerful temperament; and while that is not enough to sustain any of us through the inevitable sorrows that all must share, it would have been most unnatural and ungrateful in me to think of earth as a dismal place, when everything without and within was trying to tell me that this good and beautiful world belongs to God.
I took exception to some verses in many of the hymns that I loved the most. I had my own mental reservations with regard even to that glorious chant of the ages,—
"Jerusalem, my happy home, Name ever dear to me."
I always wanted to skip one half of the third stanza, as it stood in our Hymn-Book:
"Where congregations ne'er break up, And Sabbaths have no end."
I did not want it to be Sabbath-day always. I was conscious of a pleasure in the thought of games and frolics and coming week-day delights that would flit across my mind even when I was studying my hymns, or trying to listen to the minister. And I did want the congregation to break up some time. Indeed, in those bright spring days, the last hymn in the afternoon always sounded best, because with it came the opening of doors into the outside air, and the pouring in of a mingled scent of sea winds and apple blossoms, like an invitation out into the freedom of the beach, the hillsides, the fields and gardens and orchards. In all this I felt as if I were very wicked. I was afraid that I loved earth better than I did heaven.
Nevertheless I always did welcome that last hymn, announced to be sung "with the Doxology," usually in "long metre," to the tune of "Old Hundred." There were certain mysterious preliminaries,—the rustling of singing-book leaves, the sliding of the short screen-curtains before the singers along by their clinking rings, and now and then a premonitory groan or squeak from bass-viol or violin, as if the instruments were clearing their throats; and finally the sudden uprising of that long row of heads in the "singing-seats."
My tallest and prettiest grown-up sister, Louise, stood there among them, and of all those girlish, blooming faces I thought hers the very handsomest. But she did not open her lips wide enough to satisfy me. I could not see that she was singing at all.
To stand up there and be one of the choir, seemed to me very little short of promotion to the ranks of cherubim and seraphim. I quite envied that tall, pretty sister of mine. I was sure that I should open my mouth wide, if I could only be in her place. Alas! the years proved that, much as I loved the hymns, there was no music in me to give them voice, except to very indulgent ears.
Some of us must wait for the best human gifts until we come to heavenly places. Our natural desire for musical utterance is perhaps a prophecy that in a perfect world we shall all know how to sing. But it is something to feel music, if we cannot make it. That, in itself, is a kind of unconscious singing.
As I think back to my childhood, it seems to me as if the air was full of hymns, as it was of the fragrance of clover-blossoms, and the songs of bluebirds and robins, and the deep undertone of the sea. And the purity, the calmness, and the coolness of the dear old Sabbath days seems lingering yet in the words of those familiar hymns, whenever I bear them sung. Their melody penetrates deep into my life, assuming me that I have not left the green pastures and the still waters of my childhood very far behind me.
There is something at the heart of a true song or hymn which keeps the heart young that listens. It is like a breeze from the eternal hills; like the west wind of spring, never by a breath less balmy and clear for having poured life into the old generations of earth for thousands of years; a spiritual freshness, which has nothing to do with time or decay.
NAUGHTY CHILDREN AND FAIRY TALES.
ALTHOUGH the children of an earlier time heard a great deal of theological discussion which meant little or nothing to them, there was one thing that was made clear and emphatic in all the Puritan training: that the heavens and earth stood upon firm foundations—upon the Moral Law as taught in the Old Testament and confirmed by the New. Whatever else we did not understand, we believed that to disobey our parents, to lie or steal, had been forbidden by a Voice which was not to be gainsaid. People who broke or evaded these commands did so willfully, and without excusing themselves, or being excused by others. I think most of us expected the fate of Ananias and Sapphira, if we told what we knew was a falsehood.
There were reckless exceptions, however. A playmate, of whom I was quite fond, was once asked, in my presence, whether she had done something forbidden, which I knew she had been about only a little while before. She answered "No," and without any apparent hesitation. After the person who made the inquiry had gone, I exclaimed, with horrified wonder, "How could you?"
Her reply was, "Oh, I only kind of said no." What a real lie was to her, if she understood a distinct denial of the truth as only "kind-of" lying, it perplexed me to imagine. The years proved that this lack of moral perception was characteristic, and nearly spoiled a nature full of beautiful gifts.
I could not deliberately lie, but I had my own temptations, which I did not always successfully resist. I remember the very spot—in a footpath through a green field—where I first met the Eighth Commandment, and felt it looking me full in the face.
I suppose I was five or six years old. I had begun to be trusted with errands; one of them was to go to a farmhouse for a quart of milk every morning, to purchase which I went always to the money-drawer in the shop and took out four cents. We were allowed to take a "small brown" biscuit, or a date, or a fig, or a "gibraltar," sometimes; but we well understood that we could not help ourselves to money.
Now there was a little painted sugar equestrian in a shop-window down town, which I had seen and set my heart upon. I had learned that its price was two cents; and one morning as I passed around the counter with my tin pail I made up my mind to possess myself of that amount. My father's back was turned; he was busy at his desk with account-books and ledgers. I counted out four cents aloud, but took six, and started on my errand with a fascinating picture before me of that pink and green horseback rider as my very own.
I cannot imagine what I meant to do with him. I knew that his paint was poisonous, and I could not have intended to eat him; there were much better candies in my father's window; he would not sell these dangerous painted toys to children. But the little man was pretty to look at, and I wanted him, and meant to have him. It was just a child's first temptation to get possession of what was not her own,—the same ugly temptation that produces the defaulter, the burglar, and the highway robber, and that made it necessary to declare to every human being the law, "Thou shalt not covet."
As I left the shop, I was conscious of a certain pleasure in the success of my attempt, as any thief might be; and I walked off very fast, clattering the coppers in the tin pail.
When I was fairly through the bars that led into the farmer's field, and nobody was in sight, I took out my purloined pennies, and looked at them as they lay in my palm.
Then a strange thing happened. It was a bright morning, but it seemed to me as if the sky grew suddenly dark; and those two pennies began to burn through my hand, to scorch me, as if they were red hot, to my very soul. It was agony to hold them. I laid them down under a tuft of grass in the footpath, and ran as if I had left a demon behind me. I did my errand, and returning, I looked about in the grass for the two cents, wondering whether they could make me feel so badly again. But my good angel hid them from me; I never found them.
I was too much of a coward to confess my fault to my father; I had already begun to think of him as "an austere man," like him in the parable of the talents. I should have been a much happier child if I bad confessed, for I had to carry about with me for weeks and months a heavy burden of shame. I thought of myself as a thief, and used to dream of being carried off to jail and condemned to the gallows for my offense: one of my story-books told about a boy who was hanged at Tyburn for stealing, and how was I better than he?