CONFESSIONS OF BOYHOOD
By JOHN ALBEE
BOSTON RICHARD G. BADGER THE GORHAM PRESS 1910
Copyright 1920 by John Albee All Rights Reserved The Gorham Press, Boston, U.S.A.
The Walls of the World
Shadows and Echoes
My Mother's Red Cloak
My Uncle Lyman
The Dorr War and Millerism
Woods and Pastures
Home and Homesickness
The Saw Mill
Love and Luxury
Ave Atgue Vale
For so many years Bellingham has had its abode in my fancy that I find it hard to associate the town with a definite geographical location. I connect it rather with the places of dreams and wonderland; the lost cities of the Oxus and Hydaspes, the Hesperian Gardens and those visionary realms visited and named by poets. My birthplace grows unfamiliar when I take down an atlas and run my finger over the parti-colored divisions of the Norfolk County of Massachusetts and trace the perimeter which confines Bellingham to its oblong precinct, surrounded by those mythical lands of Mendon, Milford and Medway. They wear an authoritative appearance on the map; but for me they occupied no such positions in my childhood and stand as stubborn realities hindering my feet when I wish to return to the Red House of my fathers. Once there, memory and fact are no longer conflicting. I find, as of old, the gently undulating hills, the gently loitering stream.
The legends concerning the founding of Bellingham are missing. I am sorry; for I could believe the most extravagant, feeling with Plutarch, that fortune, in the history of any town, often shows herself a poet. The Delphian Pythoness advised Theseus to found a city wherever in a strange land he was most sorrowful and afflicted. There at length he would find repose and happiness. Thus it happened when the wanderers from Braintree settled on the shores of the upper Charles. They brought their unhappy fortunes so far, and there, in due time, found comfort and contentment.
The traveller, journeying through the highways of Bellingham, would see nothing to attract his attention or interest. It has no monuments, ruins nor historic associations; no mountain, nor hill even. The Charles river has travelled so little way from its source as hardly yet to be a river. The soil is stony and pays back not much more than is put into it. The fine forests of white oak have been mostly reduced to ashes in the stoves of Milford, and their oracles have ceased. My father, who could cut as clean a scarf as any man of his day, helped to fell them. Scrub oak and gray birch have taken their places, but do not fill them. One great elm remains; it seemed to me the largest and oldest tree in the world. My mother nursed her children in its shade; under it my world began. In its top lived the wind and from the longest spray of its longest limb the oriole hung her artistic basket and brooded her golden babies. Like many another ancient dooryard tree it carried back its traditional origin to a staff stuck in the ground and left to its fate.
Bellingham was incorporated in 1719 by yeoman farmers, and later settled largely by Revolutionary soldiers from neighboring communities on the east, particularly from old Braintree. On the Mendon tablet placed in memory of the founders of the town appears the name of my earliest ancestor. He was a surveyor and plotted the land and built the first mill, being called from Braintree for that purpose. Permit me to take pride in my learned ancestor, especially in his talent for figures—the distress of my life. The most interesting periods in the annals of the New England people are when they began to organize themselves into communities for the promotion of law, learning and piety. Their efforts were primitive yet affecting. Their language halted, but they knew what they wanted and meant to have.
Such are the records of Bellingham. And other history it has little out of the common incidents of humanity. No eminent sons have as yet remembered it with noble benefactions. It has had no poet and no mention in literature. The reporters pass it by. It is not even a suburb, last sad fate of many towns and villages. This is one of the reasons for my attachment—its unchangeableness, its entire satisfaction of sentiment.
Yet such is the charm of one's native soil that he is able to find in it the most wonderful of all the beautiful things of the soul, namely, those which no one else can see or believe. After long years of absence, on returning to Bellingham, my memory sees more than my eyes. She who accompanies me in my rambles over the town often takes photographs of the places dearest to me; but her pictures show not what I behold, and she wonders what it can be that so infatuates me. I see a hand she cannot see—forms, faces, happenings not registered on the camera; places where linger the invisible spirits of joyful or painful experiences; playmates, companions, whole families now dust, a thousand events recalled only when time begins to obliterate those of the present moment.
Although the sun went down over venerable Mendon town, it lingered longer over Bellingham in summer days than in any place I have known. There was hardly any night; just a few attic stairs, a dream, and the sun and I were again at play. Nor elsewhere were ever the summer clouds so high, so near the blue, so impetuous in the constant west wind to follow each other into the unknown, mysterious east.
Fortunate is the town with a river flowing through its whole length and boys and girls to accompany its unhasting waters. It was made for them, also for the little fish and the white scented lilies. For a few hours of the day the great floats of the mill wheel drank of it, sending it onward in the only agitation it ever permitted itself. Then there was Bear Hill, though never a bear in the oldest memory, yet the name was ominous to children. I feared it and liked to visualize its terrors from a safe distance in the blackberry field behind the Red House. To kill a bear or an Indian was the very limit of imaginative prowess. It was too easy, and in an hour, tiresome, to kill birds, snakes and anything one chanced upon that had life. Only the grasshopper could escape with the ransom of some molasses from the jug he carries hidden, no one knows where. You never knew a grasshopper was provisioned with a molasses jug? Well then you have never studied the boy's traditional natural history. Therein are recorded things unknown to science; discoveries never divulged, secrets more deep than the Elusinian, passed on from initiate to initiate for countless generations. Nature has told them only to children, and when grown to manhood, seals their lips with that impious injunction to put away childish things.
It is not a river nor a landscape that gives to a town its real importance; it is the character of its men and women. That is the pinnacle from which to view its landscape. Before cities and factories had begun to stir the ambition and attract the young by opportunities for fortune and fame, Bellingham was the home of an intelligent, liberty-loving people; a community self-sufficing, sharing its abundance with those less abounding. It was thus the best place in the world to be born about the first third of the last century—to be explicit, in eighteen hundred and thirty-three. And I wish that I and the companions of my childhood could have imitated Plutarch who said "I live in a little town and choose to live there lest it should become smaller."
All that is dear remains as it was, and it is my delight to remember and magnify what it is to me. My friends laugh when I say it is better to be remembered in Bellingham than to be famous in ten cities. It has been my misfortune never to have lived in any other place that in a few years, did not change and forget itself. I cannot find anything in my later residences that continues to connect me with them. They have cut a street through me, they have torn down and rebuilt my old nests; and I know no more melancholy intimation of the small consequence of one's life and associations than this. Therefore I thank Heaven for a town removed from the track of progress, uninvaded by summer visitors and all business enterprises; land left sacred to its native inhabitants, a sluggish stream, unprofitable earth, huckleberry bushes and the imagination. Since this is so, and there is little fear of intrusion by the curious or the mercenary, I will confide to my readers the situation of the town with the understanding that they will never attempt to verify my description.
It lies in the southwestern corner of Norfolk county, is eight miles long from north to south, from three to four in width. The brooks and ponds in the southern part have their outlet into the Blackstone river; those of the north into the Charles, which is the natural but tortuous bound between eighteen towns and cities of the county. It was named for one of the Provincial governors of Massachusetts, Richard Bellingham—a fine name. Farming is the chief occupation of the inhabitants at present as it always has been. In former times there were two or three small cotton and woollen mills on the river. The oldest of them, on the banks of the Charles, is as picturesque a ruin as time, fire and neglect are able to achieve in a hundred years. The walls of heavy blocks of stone, roofless and broken in outline, are still standing. Great trees have grown up within them and now overtop them. Here and there a poplar leans forth from a broken window casement, leaving scant room for the ghosts of ancient spinners and weavers to peer into the outer world at midnight. From a distance it resembles a green, enclosed orchard. Decay may mantle itself in newest green but cannot obliterate memories of former generations. On these fallen floors the young women of Bellingham once labored and were merry on fifty cents a day, a working day never less than twelve hours long. They sang at their work, and when the loom was running in good order, they leaned out of the windows or gossiped with each other. On Sundays the roads and fields were gay with these respectable Yankee maidens, becurled and beribboned, philandering with their sweethearts or in bevies visiting each other's houses. Every girl had her album in which her friends wrote their names, and usually they were able to contribute an original stanza; or, if not, a line from the hymn-book, or a sentiment from the school reader or Bible. They dressed in calico in summer and in winter linsey-woolsey, and wore at their work ample aprons of osnaburg, a small checked blue and white cloth. Vice was unknown; at least the annals record no flagrant examples.
I fear those who only know the cotton and woollen mills of this day cannot realize or believe what an immense blessing they were to New England when they first began to dot all the streams offering sufficient water power to operate their machinery. For the first time they opened a way for young women to earn money whereby they could assist their families and promote the improvement of their own condition. Work in these mills was sought as a temporary employment generally; or for the purpose of gaining money enough to attend an academy for a few terms, from whence they were graduated qualified to teach a district school. It is said, that formerly, when the factory girls were all American, five hundred could have been found at any time in the Lowell mills competent to teach school. What a contrast these girls were in health, beauty and intelligence to the pale, pinched faces and bedraggled dresses now seen hurrying to the Fall River and Manchester mills. The mill girls of 1840 were self-respecting, neat in their dress, religious, readers of good books, members of all kinds of clubs for study, and many of them could write excellent English. The Lowell Offering+, a magazine conducted by factory girls at the period I have mentioned, now seems very remarkable; not so much perhaps for its contributions, as that it should have existed at all. Yet the writing in the Operatives' Magazine+ and the Lowell Offering+ was as good as that now appearing in periodicals, in some respects superior, being the free, unpaid and spontaneous utterances of the human heart. It is mentioned with praise in Emerson's Dial+. One of our sweetest New England poets, Lucy Larcom, began her career as a writer in them. I write that name where I can see from my window a mountain named in her honor. Although her childhood was widely different from mine in outward circumstances, I find in her autobiography something of her inward experiences that reminds me of my own.
All the old-time life of farm and factory is gone. It is refreshing to know a single remnant of it left anywhere; and I was never more surprised and delighted than to find in Florence, Massachusetts, a few years ago, a large class of silk mill girls reading and studying Chaucer under the direction of a farmer's wife of the same place. Bellingham mill, may you continue to be filled with goodly trees until you can assemble a class in Chaucer!
Near this ruined mill stands a row of tenement houses fast falling to pieces and one large house where some of the operatives were boarded. In the neighboring hamlet nearly every house is standing that was there fifty years ago, and there are no new ones. There was an ancient law of Solon that houses in the country should be placed a bowshot apart, and this regulation seems to have been observed in Bellingham. You could see their lights in the evening, hear the dogs bark and the cock crow at dawn.
Over the Green Store is a hall where formerly Adin Ballou used to preach his various gospels of Universalism, temperance, peace and abolition on Sunday afternoons following the morning services in his neighboring parish, the Hopedale Community. As my family was attached to the Baptist and Methodist persuasions I cannot now imagine what drew them to hear this famous reformer of society and religion. They must have attended in this hall, for although I cannot recall anything else, I do remember going to sleep there in the hot summer afternoons in my sister's lap. But any kind of a meeting was a temptation not to be resisted in that little community. Adin Ballou was in full sympathy with all the other reformers and transcendentalists of the Commonwealth, and when I search myself for an explanation of my early and intuitive attraction to their ideals I sometimes fancy they must have visited me in my sleep in that old hall; or perhaps I heard something which lay like a seed in the unconscious, secret recesses of my being until time and favoring circumstances called it forth. For I find it recorded, that he fired his hearers with aspirations for "grand objects and noble ideas."
Regarding the topography of Bellingham, the most that can be said is, that it has none, none that distinguishes it either by lakes or hills. The best soil is in the northern and southern parts of the town and along the valley of the Charles river. The white oaks were once the most abundant of the deciduous trees. They seem to love a lean and stubborn soil. I have seen graves laid open to a considerable depth where oaks had once stood, and still uncovering nothing but coarse gravel. I have talked with ancient well-diggers who declared that the bottom of Bellingham was just like the top and only good for grey birch and beans. Yet they may not have dug after all to the veins which supply the floral and arboreal life of the earth. A poor soil is usually porous, admitting more wholesome air and sunshine, and it is through these vital forces that trees and men grow taller and hardier. Thus do I like to compensate the sterile fields of my native place by their stalwart, thin, straight-backed citizens, all bone and muscle, living with undimmed eyes and ears to ripe old age, mowing their meadows to the last summer of their lives and dying conveniently in some winter month when work was slack.
The dial of my childhood marked none but sunny days; the dry air and drier earth of Bellingham gave me health and strength. I never found any road in the town too long for my walking if only the summer afternoon were as long. I knew the roads and byways foot by foot, and could find my way, if need were, in the night as well as in the day. All the houses I knew and their occupants; all the good apple trees and whose was every cow grazing in the roadside pastures or resting beneath a tree. If I could have my will I would spend the remainder of my days rambling once more and every day those familiar roads and lanes, like Juno descending the Olympian path—
"Reflecting with rapid thoughts There was I, and there, remembering many things."
The most perfect picture of contentment is a cow lying in the green grass under a green tree chewing her cud; and this contentment I could realize, give me back the sandy highways and green meadows, my bare feet, idleness and long summer days.
I was even more familiar with the pastures and the woods than with the roads. The whole surface of my ambit was spread out like a miniature map in my eye, and continues to be. Especially I knew the convenient ways of reaching the river and Beaver pond and the brook which connects it with the river Charles. It grieves me that this stream has never been celebrated in verse or prose; while the Concord, which rises on the same water-shed with the Charles and almost from the same spring, has had several famous poets and is historic in Revolutionary annals. Longfellow sang one short song to our river, but he looked out only on the foul mudbanks of its Cambridge course, shut the door, went back to his study and composed his subjective Charles.
Slowly did I learn the actual extent and course of the river Charles which, in my childhood, rose as a shallow stream in the green depths of a wood lying to the north of Bellingham, flowing east, then south under the arched bridge near the school house, emptying somewhere in the southern sky; for, in my childish apprehension, I thought it must run up from where I was most familiar with it. Its youth and mine were coincident, and as years were added, the river broadened and lengthened until I found myself one day at its mouth, in reaching which, it had touched and watered eighteen towns. It is the father of no considerable stream, but innumerable rivulets add to its waters. It is about thirty miles from source to mouth in a direct course though it wanders a hundred miles in its efforts to find the ocean.
"There runs a shallow brook across our field For twenty miles where the black crow flies five."
It never has any headlong haste to arrive. It saunters like a schoolboy and stops to visit a thousand recesses and indentations of upland and meadow. It stays for a cow to drink, or an alder to root itself in the bank, or to explore a swamp, and it rather wriggles than runs through its eighteen townships. It is likely to stop at any one of them and give up the effort to reach the sea. For my part I wish it had, and actually, as in my memory and fancy, ended at the outermost shores of Bellingham.
The revolution of the earth can only account for the flow of the Charles for there is no perceptible descent of the land. I like to think it is ruled by the stars and not by the configuration of the earth's surface. It is vagrant and nomadic in its habits, moving on a little, returning, winding and doubling, uncertain of its own intentions, a brother of the English Wye, said to derive its name from Vaga, the wanderer, or vagabond. Since its waters sprang from their fountain head and learned that their destiny was to become a river, they have never been in haste to reach its turbid outlet, but go reluctantly from town to town with whole days before them, yes, perhaps, it was an age in making its first journey. It loses its way often, but cares not so there be a pleasant meadow to meander through or a contemplative fisherman to companion its course. The Charles has never gained force, as man is said to do, by having obstacles to overcome. It treats all the dams which intercept its current with a lenient benevolence, never having been known to carry one away. Meeting a dam, it turns the other cheek; in other words it patiently retires into its higher channels and fountains, filling and stilling the little babbling brooks by its backward impulse, contented to be a pond when it cannot be a river. It scarcely resisted the ancients of Dedham, when they attempted to steal it. Having no water-shed of its own, the Charles is not subject to those floods and frenzies which make so many other streams dangerous. Sedges and flags, the skunk cabbage and marsh marigold, grape vines, alders, willows and button bush abound along its shores. White and yellow lilies and the pickerel weed almost choke its course in many places. Under the leaves of these hides himself that fish which old anglers named the water-wolf, the pickerel, who preys upon his smaller brothers and sisters. All is fish that comes into his net. There was no more exciting moment in my boyhood than when a pickerel swallowed the frog's leg on my hook and began to retreat with it under the lily pads. In the stream also were horned pouts, perch, shiners and that silly little fish we called "kivers," for which my earliest fishing was done with a bent pin. I was naturally capacitated for fishing by my fondness for silence and solitude. The mystery of water drew me from one pool to another and a constant expectancy of a larger fish than had ever been caught. I was not aware that words could make him as big as one chose; but I had pictured him in my mind in all his immense and shining length. What I most wished to catch was a leviathan; my mother when reading the word in the Bible had told me it meant some kind of great fish, the largest in the world. Once indeed I thought I had him on my hook, but it proved only a sunken log. Of stillness and solitude I had my fill strolling along the banks of the river. It seemed like Sunday without the requirements imposed upon me by that day, stiff shoes and Sunday-school. I became as still as the nature around me, stepping softly and almost hushing my breath. If I might describe in one word the sensation which I commonly experienced in my earliest lonely intercourse with stream and forest it was a breathless expectation, made up in part of fear, in part of a vague hope of discovering something wonderful. This quest never wearied nor disheartened me; I only became more eager in its pursuit the more it evaded me; another search, another day and it would be revealed. What would be revealed? There are no words given to man in which he can clearly portray the striving of the spirit for that which shall resemble and satisfy its visions and aspirations. The child sees these visions and feels these aspirations and strives to put his finger upon them; they exist for him as physical objects which he wishes to capture and carry home to his mother with a proud consciousness of his valor. As soon as she had praised my handful of flowers, my pocketful of nuts, or little string of fish they palled upon me and I began immediately to feel an uneasy sense of disappointment, of disillusion, knowing I had miserably failed. The bombastic brag to my mother and her praise were a kind of mockery and falsehood. Illusion followed illusion, defeat followed defeat, yet the morrow was ever to be their healer and compensation. How often have I been soothed by the waveless waters of the Charles river, its whispering ripples scarcely reaching the shores and making no impression upon it. But on my ear they sounded like words interjected with soft laughter. There I made acquaintance with the earth, the waters, the shadows of the sky, trying often to sink my hook to the edge of a cloud. It was not in the heavens that I first noticed the stars, but their trembling images in water.
Thus by the humble and narrow environment of my childhood was it made doubly dear to me; the very limitations themselves enforcing and promoting the growth of wonder and healthy imagination. It is this which has kept alive my early memories and made them pleasant and suggestive throughout my life. Nor do I think my experiences peculiar. Sir Henry Wotton in the last years of his life happily expressed the feeling common to men. "Seeing that very place where I sat when I was a boy occasioned me to remember those very thoughts of my youth which then possessed me; sweet thoughts indeed, that promised my growing years numerous pleasures without mixture of cares; and those to be enjoyed when time, which I therefore thought slow-paced had changed my youth into manhood".
As I have already said unchangeableness is the characteristic of Bellingham, and I repeat it, that I may add that it is the counterpart of something in myself. I have been swept on with my race and my time and while sharing all their tendencies, at heart what I value most, that which is most native and dearest to me is the simple undisturbed life, full of friendliness, piety and humble amusements into which I was born. What this life was, as reflected in a happy childhood, a neglected youth and idealised by its irrecoverable loss the following pages attempt to portray.
THE WALLS OF THE WORLD
A one-storied house was lofty and convenient enough in a land where God had planted a community of his common people. That was the height of the temple of the Greeks, which was only the enlarged form of the hut or the house of their Pelasgian ancestors. It was built low in due reverence to its origin and to their gods. No other architecture has ever surpassed its beauty and sublimity. The earth is ours to build upon and over, nor much above. The early New England farmhouse was as beautiful in its place as the Greek temple. Sometimes it was set directly on the highway; sometimes in the middle of a field or on the side of rising ground, and not infrequently on the top of a hill, where it shared without deforming, the natural elevation of the earth. It was usually square, but sheds and outbuildings lengthened its appearance and these latter added a comfortable and homelike aspect and were a larger sort of window through which the wayfarer seemed to behold the life of the family more intimately. The pitch of the roof was flattened, the better to resist wind and storm, and through it arose the chimney stack. On either side of the front door were the parlor and living room; the former seldom opened, and the latter rarely occupied until afternoon and evening. The back door was the most in use at all times, and it was through it that one came nearest to the hearts and homelife of the inmates. The kitchen was where the meals were cooked and eaten, the Bible read at morning and evening and pipes lighted by a live coal from the hearth. This live coal was sometimes lost and the tinderbox missing; then the man of the family would travel to the nearest house for a spark with which to kindle his lost fire. The methods of carrying and keeping it alive were numerous and ingenious; a warming pan or iron pot would answer, if the distance was not too great. One of my forefathers awoke on a winter morning to find the ashes in the fireplace cold, and the nearest neighbor eight miles away. It was an impossible undertaking to keep a coal alive on a walk of eight miles. Wrapping a piece of cotton cloth tightly about a small stick he ignited one end at his neighbor's hearth, and like an humble Prometheus carried the smouldering gift to his little world and its belated breakfast.
The kitchen was the favorite gathering place of humble New England families and it was there they were best seen and understood; there the spinning wheel hummed while the pot was boiling or the bannock baking; there stockings and boots were dried by the open fire and the latter daily greased. With what pride did I see my first pair standing there shining in their coat of pig's scrotum, this being thought invulnerable to wet, especially snow water. Hardly could I go to bed for longing to look at them and to try them on for I know not how many times. By the wide hearth of stone or brick, one could whittle with impunity. Dirt is not common dirt in front of an open fire. Charles Lamb's clean hearth or that of the too fastidious modern house robs it of half its comfort and attractiveness. A little matter out of place, somebody's definition of dirt, is one of the most hospitable and cordial things I ever meet in the houses of my friends. A room with evidences of being lived in by the family invites me to share the intimacy of that life for the time being; but a too carefully garnished room, which my host occupies only while a guest is present, relegates me to my proper place—a stranger within the gates. It was with difficulty the family could be driven into the sitting room in the evening. The men preferred to stretch out on the settle and smoke another pipe; the boys had a little more whittling to do and loved to hear their elders talk. Rarely was an outer garment put on by men during the week days of winter except on Sundays when riding cloaks were the common wear for women, surtouts for men. These were hand woven, or if purchased, were of camlet. It was said of a certain family that a drop of its blood was as good as a great coat, so hardy and healthy were its sons.
Among such farmers and manners and customs was I born, in a red house under the great elm. In its shade the old doctor waited and talked with the expectant father until called into the house by the women who presided at such functions in the neighborhood. My memory does not reach back to the "trailing clouds of glory", but doubtless it was these which obscured the April sun that afternoon, so that the new baby could be carried out under the elm tree and there rocked to his first sleep. My next excursion, so the family traditions aver, was to Uncle Peter's, the nearest neighbor, the oracle of the community for all signs, omens and country folk-lore, who, taking me in his arms, carried me to the attic of his house and touched my head to the ridgepole: "What did you do that for?" my mother asked. "Oh, that's the way to make him a great man sometime. I does it to all the boy babies. There's luck in it." In those days there were great hopes, and prophecies had not ceased. Many a sweet sleep did I have under the elm tree's shade later on; and many a tiresome hour turning the grindstone for the long bladed sythes. In the trunk of the tree were stuck many worn out blades, their points imbedded by the tree's growth from year to year. Thus they became tallies marking the past seasons of haying. Under the tree was the afternoon parlor of the family throughout the summer; there all the feminine industries went on, braiding straw, knitting and mending, or a letter was added to the sampler. Often some neighbor came bringing her work, for nobody could be idle for a moment. I do not know what they talked about, but I can guess. However the picture is faithful and attractive, though for us, silent now. I find as few representatives of the ideal common people as of the nobility or of genius. So let them remain a picture, and do not ask for their conversation, neither for their grammar nor pronunciation. Cannot a Dorian speak Doric? Kindly and helpful neighbors can live together without the correctness and elegancies of either. To me it is hateful to see them caricatured and made literary merchandise. Not so were the classic idyls and pastorals of Theocritus, Virgil, Spenser and Saint Pierre composed. Is there nothing but bad grammar, mispronunciation and provincialisms in the heart of the rustic? Must he be forever misrepresented by his speech that he may be saved by his virtues? The closer a picture is drawn to the outward circumstance the more transient it will be. Ideals alone survive in art and literature. I should like to have the Theban law reenacted, which required the imitation in art of the beautiful and forbade the representation of the deformed and grotesque.
Four summers had passed before I knew of any world beyond the walls of the Red House, the dooryard and the shade of the elm tree. I did not feel their confinement. There seemed to be boundless liberty, and the delusion is complete when there is no sense of limitation. The goldfish in his glass prison no doubt supposes himself swimming in an infinite sea. When the boy's growth can be still measured by his mother's yardstick his outlook is restricted correspondingly. He climbs upon a chair with difficulty and cannot see over the table. This being, so lately from heaven, creeps upon the earth, and his first experiences are with the feet and under side of things. Ask the creeper how the human face, a room and its furniture appear to him. My father's face as I looked up to him seemed to be very narrow and a yard long. A face there was not. Nor had my mother's round table any top; but its two crossbars beneath, screws and catch and three feet belonged to my under world. I could explore the floor from corner to corner; the mantel-shelf, windows and ceiling were worlds and worlds above me. Lifted on some one's shoulder I touched the ceiling with my finger and knew no greater joy nor anything more wonderful.
At length the creeper raises himself to his feet. He walks, he can sit in a chair, but will not. If he only would, what care and trouble might be taken from his protectors. But he has found the door open and the alluring dangers beyond; he has found a new realm which he hears called in the homely country speech out-of-doors. There is where he now lives and finds his liveliest interests. As he is no longer a creeper but a being of importance to himself he deserves a name, and it shall be henceforth I—my own small, as yet uncapitalized i.
The walls of my newly extended world are the low enchanted hills of Mendon. There the sky seems to curve down, to rest and to end. It takes a long time to remove that horizon line; even when one is six feet, it often remains in its accustomed place. I shall pass beyond it, yet return again. My vision will be often contracted; I shall see what I once saw, become what I once was; shadowy memories become bright by the touch of hand and foot, and even the sense of smell shall guide me through many a path and restore many a room, many a threshing floor and corn crib. When thrust back upon myself, defeated, hopeless, I have retreated to the scenes of my childhood where I could be triumphant and happy in possessions, of which I cannot be deprived, and that are beyond my own power to alienate. But that time is far in the future and I am contented with the walls of my present world now expanded to the hills of Mendon. Between them and me flows the Charles stream. It is impassible as far as I can see, yet I have heard and been warned of a bridge full of peril. It is, however, an incredible distance to that bridge—as much as a quarter of a mile. When there, I dare not go forward lest I might be lost. I tremble with desire and apprehension. I return, slowly at first, then faster and faster, until, breaking into a run, I reach my mother's yard, where agitated but safe, I seem to have escaped some fearful thing. This risk gives me joy. So I go again, and this time I shall pass over the bridge and beyond into the unknown that eludes me. Adding to danger the temptation to disobedience, I go to the bridge oftener and oftener, sometimes leaning over the rail to watch for a while the chips and straws floating along the surface of the slow stream. They are moving in a direction of which I know nothing. The depth of the water at the bridge is not great, yet deep enough to be mysterious and it hypnotises me. It draws me into it and I lose myself. North and south, east and west, in the water and in the skies all is mystery which I am trying every moment to penetrate. As to myself I know nothing. Reflection, melancholy introspection, that sweet disease of youth, from which it is so difficult to escape, have not yet found me. There is as yet little consciousness of any thing beyond external and material things save a faint incommunicable magic which hangs like a veil over the bounds of a small farm. From those bounds my feet will not disengage me. On very still days I hear sounds far away and feel something within me that wishes to follow them, does indeed follow over a great space and leaves my body behind. As I hang far over the rail of the bridge I see my face in the water and become absorbed in its distorted reflections. I amuse myself exaggerating them by various grimaces, swelling out and drawing in my fat cheeks. I dare the image to battle with my little fists; it accepts the challenge and returns blow for blow.
The hither side of the bridge became more and more familiar, the farther side more and more desired. I knew the road to the school-house and to our three neighbors, all of whom I was accustomed to address as uncles and aunts. There was a fourth neighbor and nearer, yet there was a distance of some social kind. They were spoken of as Captain and Mistress Barber. To this house, a great Colonial mansion, with windows as large as those of the meeting-house, I was often sent on errands. No matter how often, I could not deliver my message, or note or borrowed salt without the greatest confusion. I felt my breath give way, something fill my throat. It was the words I was told to say over and over, repeated all the way until I was too full for utterance. Mistress Barber looked down upon me with her long white face and was able to guess the purpose of the boy's mission through his stammering and embarrassment. In her gentle, affable voice, as I now recall it, I recognise the tone of a lady. She would inquire when the errand was done if the little boy would like an apple or a cake. The question was too difficult; so she gave him both. As I turned away I passed under the great pine tree standing a little way from the mansion. It stood alone and it still stands two centuries old, in ample space and in consequence has grown symmetrical in form and luxuriant with foliage. It had realised the promise of its youth, a fate which happens to few trees in a forest. From its first majestic upward sweeping limbs to its tufted top reigned solemn and perpetual night. The wind scarcely swayed its dense and plumy branches. It merely turned up the silvery sides of the five-fingered clusters of needles which responded with a low melancholy voice like an aeolian harp, or those minor chords composed under its shade by my friend the Flute Player of Bellingham. In the woods when the pines sing it is not these I hear but the lone tree by the Barber mansion. It was the only tree in my reach I had never climbed. I was afraid of its dark mysterious recesses—also of Captain Barber.
I grew old enough to do errands at longer and longer distances. It was in doing them that I at length crossed the bridge, an event as important to the child as the Rubicon to Caesar. I began the conquest of new worlds and to beat down the Mendon ramparts. I was despatched to a more distant neighbor, the great and wealthy house of the Pennimans. In a clean frock and Sunday shoes, my face freshly washed, and with the largess of one cent with which to buy candy at the Green Store I departed full of anticipation, fear and excitement. To the bridge it was a familiar way; beyond that half a mile, never before travelled by me. I crossed the bridge with three skips and a jump; never had it seemed so narrow; but once beyond I was assailed with a thousand frights. The stone walls rose up to an intolerable height; behind them lurked innumerable wicked men and bears. There was terror in everything, and I looked back continually to see if the way of retreat remained open. When at last I lost sight of my mother's cottage my heart almost stopped beating. Should I ever find my way back? Should I ever see my home again? I hurried forward without turning my head as if the only safety now was in reaching my journey's end. Soon I climbed the eminence on which stood the Penniman mansion. Its vast size astonished me. It was two storied with a high gambrel roof making in effect a third story. Through the gambrel peaks rose two great chimneys, and I wondered what two chimneys could be for. Elaborate cornices surmounted the doors and windows; the doors were all closed, the windows draped; there was no sign of life anywhere. High shrubbery in bloom surrounded the house on three sides. There was not even a wood pile in sight, that most common accompaniment of every door yard I had ever seen. The barn and other out buildings were at some distance from the house—another strange thing. From the eminence of the Penniman mansion I could overlook the Mendon hills and to my surprise there was something beyond, indistinct, a greater distance than I had ever looked into, and there vague forms rose up, whether clouds or other hills I could not tell. My errand called me away. I lifted the heavy brass knocker of the green double door and let it fall once. It was opened and I acquitted myself very well as I did not have to speak; I had only to deliver a parcel with a note. Whether it was a lordly Penniman or only a servant who met me I knew not, as I feared to raise my eyes from under my wide brimmed straw hat, I held out the parcel, felt it taken and rushed away. Then my own important business began, the spending of my cent. The doors of the Green Store were wide open; a dog lay stretched on the platform in front; the sun poured his full rays over everything and an aspect of sleepy quiet pervaded the outside and inside of the building. There were no customers to be seen, nor sound to be heard save the buzzing of flies about the molasses measures at the farther end of the room. The store-keeper himself was fast asleep in a chair tilted against the counter. I stepped softly half fearing to awaken him. My Sunday shoes squeaked a little and the sound aroused him, though not entirely. He slowly opened his eyes, looking at me fixedly as if uncertain of any presence. Then, at length, he tilted his chair forward with a bang, put a hand on each knee, raised himself, stretched, yawned and scowled upon me as a disturber of his peace. However the trader also awoke in him and he went behind his counter. I had not yet spoken a word. Words were not necessary, for the country store-keeper knows without being told what the small urchin with one hand clutched tightly wants of him. He took down a glass jar with a bright brass cover full of sticks of candy. There was only one short question to be asked and answered, "what color"? The boy, savage that he is, knows and delights in but one, and he said "red", a word he can spell also; blue has a twist he cannot yet master. Sometime Launa's eyes are going to teach him. In the shop, as he hurried out, his eyes saw many things never seen before. He coveted them all, especially such as shone in steel or brass or bright new wood. He hardly knew their names; but what beautiful playthings they would make. All movable objects are potential playthings to him. He makes them also, like the Creator, out of nothing; if he wants a horse he has it on the instant by straddling a stick or tying a string to a companion. He has epic uses for his father's tools, his mother's knitting needles; they can slay a thousand foes at one stroke and the button bag contains them alive and dead. Six marching clothes-pins are his army and conquer the world in an afternoon.
The dog still slept as I left the store, the merchant returned to his chair, the sun shone on in noontide splendor. No shadow fell from the Penniman mansion; it looked more lifeless and larger than ever. It seemed too large to me to live in and like a meeting-house. Not a leaf stirred on the great elm; the trim spires of the Lombardy poplars had folded their limbs upward to rest, as sometimes one does his arms. The grasshopper began with a sudden shrill note which grew drowsy toward the close as if he were too lazy and hot to complete it. Over the sunburnt fields shimmered the heated air. I seemed to be the only living, moving thing; the intense hush, the high noon of the midsummer day interfused my whole being so that I hardly dared to step for fear of disturbing the universal repose. It oppressed me with a sense of loneliness. A wagon coming along the road broke the spell and all things were restored to life.
Before returning homeward I gazed once more over the Mendon hills and I wonder where and what that new looming world is. It is not many years before I know. My legs grow longer, the heart braver. I cross the bridge fearless and careless. Stone walls conceal neither friend nor foe. The forests contain only trees. I look down upon small boys; they are now my natural prey. I throw stones at them and make them cry, which gives me unspeakable delight. I am proud, restless, agitated by nameless longings. The walls of my world oppress me. Destiny has determined that I shall not be disenchanted before that world is entirely exhausted so that after many years I may recover its earliest charm. Nothing interests me more than a moment. I have become acquainted with Mistress Barber, the aristocratic Pennimans and Dr. Thurber, the poet—for Bellingham has a small poet, though I was like to forget it. He nods to me from his sulky. They say he writes his prescriptions in rhyme. He also composes epitaphs for his patients when his boluses fail to save them, and divides the glory with the local Fourth of July orators with a suitable poem. His magnum opus is an elementary chemistry in verse for use in schools. He had a chubby, rubicund face and a head of iron grey curls which shook as he laughed.
The Barbers and Pennimans are kind to me, but they no longer offer me an apple and a cake. Perhaps they like me and think they can make something of me. Or it may be on my mother's account, whose kind heart and sweet, winning face every body knows except herself, for she is as humble and modest as she is good. Admitted to their houses I discover new manners; their clothing is different and their rooms have unfamiliar furnishings that show no sign of usage. I sit very straight in a soft-seated chair as I have been instructed, but do not know what to do with my hands and can hardly keep them out of my pockets. My heels secretly feel for the rung of the chair; it has none, which seems curious, and it is a puzzle I take home with me. These superior neighbors of ours speak of books, of music and persons and places unknown to me. They have been as far as Mendon, beyond I imagine, for I hear the names Boston and Providence. It incites me to know all that they know, and I begin to make comparisons, to find that one house differs from another, that one person differs from another and to choose between them. All things draw or repel me. I have glimmerings of an ideal, of something less or more than is present and actual. A cent, that formerly made me rich, now makes me poor. I am not so eager for playmates; there are moments when they seem mere babies, and our sports dull and trivial. The sweet child whose frock falls only to her knees, whose wide white pantalets almost touch her red shoes, with whom I have romped for three summers alternately teasing and caressing, yet always with the lofty port of protection and superiority, no longer satisfies my heart or gratifies my pride. I try to avoid her. She follows me about meekly, confused by my coldness. Her long-lashed eyes look at me distrustfully and are suffused with tears when I decline to play. What do I care? My heart is harder than a stone. Moreover, I have transferred my affections; I am in love with a woman of twenty-three, seventeen years older than myself. To be with her makes me perfectly happy; I am transformed, I am humble to slavishness and my manner toward this enchanting being is precisely like that of my discarded maid toward me. Thus is she avenged, for I too have to suffer when unnoticed. My new love's smile, (for she only deigns to smile upon me and seldom speaks), enthralls me, I cannot express myself; I follow her about like a dog.
There is a plant called Boy Love because it never comes to fruition, seldom blooms. It is almost extinct save in old neglected house-yards. My gardener allows me to cultivate it in an uncherished corner of one of her beds. I can never pass it without plucking a spray of its fragrant leaves. Its very smell is of other days and ancient gardens. The fashionable rose cannot endure it. I mean sometime to disprove its impotence and entice it into flowering for the encouragement of little boy lovers that they be not ashamed of their infantile, ardent attachments but bravely confess them as I do.
This phase of young life passes like so many others. How swiftly they pass! and must, since we have in ten years to rehearse all the parts for the next fifty. In due time my girl playmate and also the young woman were married, and meeting long afterward we found nothing in common, not even a memory. One had forgotten that we ever played together; the other laughed incredulously at the boyish attachment. At length I too forget these mere matrons; I remember only the little maid and the coquette of twenty-three.
As one climbs the sides of a mountain it lowers its crest, but the view becomes extended. The hills of Mendon diminished as often as I climbed other hills or succeeded in reaching the topmost spires of taller trees. They were no longer so lofty, so distant, so infatuating. The walls of my world were expanded on two sides, the south and the west. All unknown lands were on the north. China was there, which to me was a place where they did nothing but fly kites; so much I remembered from my geography book; there too was Boston, merely a place where we sold our huckleberries in summer. I had been as far as Mendon and found that the world did not end there, nor were there any hills even. They had moved themselves to the next horizon whitherto my fancies had flown. Disillusions increased with my height. A yardstick no longer measured to the top of my head; the score is now marked upon the jambs of the cellar door, and sometimes I cheat with yarn balls in the heels of my boots. I cannot grow fast enough to keep pace with my ambition. When I am larger, when I am a man, then I shall—could one but recover the predicate of those phrases! There is a cell in my brain as yet filled with nothing; but there is commotion, an eddy, like that of the vorticel which is drawing thither its destined deposits. The things that draw me are also themselves moving toward me. The cell is in time filled, emptied and filled again and again. Particles of this and that remain. Who can predict what will be the permanent deposit?
The Mendon hills and those, rising continually beyond, caused me many a heart break, many disillusions, journeyings, pathless and lampless, many apprenticeships to unprofitable masters. I explored the unknown because it was unknown and because I knew not what I wanted. There was disappointment wherever the pursuit ended. I would go on—never arriving. "Stay, thou art so fair", is not the wish of boys. The mountains were not so high, the ocean not so vast, the cities not so immense, no good so good as anticipated. My heart hungered for the impossible before it had attained the possible; for the fruitage of things before the plough and the hardened hand; in fine, before reckoning with those forces which determine the happiness and miseries of life. But there is compensation for every disappointment and mistaken dream of childhood and youth. I cherish them fondly as the early drama of my life, in which, now a spectator, I see the small actor performing his mimic part with mingled feelings of amusement, censure or sympathy. When the curtain rises I am once more on my own side of the Mendon hills; the walls of that first world enclose and protect me. Here I again recover my first sense of nature and the existence of other beings; here I discern the inward foreshadowings of what was to attract and mould me through life.
SHADOWS AND ECHOES
Two things in nature impressed me more than any others in my childhood. One was the apparent motion of the moon, when I tried to walk or run away from it. To see it keep an equal pace with me, moving when I moved, stopping when I stopped, sometimes vexed me and more often amused me. The heavens are young when we are, close and companionable; they come down to the earth not more than two miles from where we stand. I tried many experiments with the moon, when it was full, to see if I could not outrun the bright and tricksy traveller. My efforts were vain and only increased my wonder. I never spoke of it nor required an explanation from my elders. Children ask no questions regarding those simple operations of nature which they first observe. They remain deep in their silent consciousness. Such as they do ask are superficial, and are either a passing impulse of a dawning social nature or are inspired by parents and teachers. I have observed that when they ask these questions they care nothing and remember naught of the answers. What is deepest in them is growing in silence; it is not yet formed into conceptions, and has no language. The difference between the spoken questions of children and their impressions, as yet so undefined, is like that between pictures of the snapshot camera and the astronomer's plates which, for hours, gather and develop the figure of some distant, unseen star.
My other childish observation was of shadows, especially my own, cast upon the ground by a low afternoon sun. This never vexed or puzzled me as did the outfooting moon. An old play says that the shadows of things are better than the things themselves; and Pindar places man at two removes from them. But indeed shadows pleased me before I knew of the humiliating comparisons poets and prophets had made; and sometimes more than the real substances with which I was familiar—trees, brooks and pastures. In the shadow of myself were the flattering length and size which I coveted, the huge man; for I wished above all other things to become a man as fast as possible that I might do and have the things which men do and have. These as I remember were trousers, long-legged boots, two pieces of pie, to sit up in the evening and never to go to school again; for I was always driven to bed and went unwillingly to my books. Many were the subterfuges by which I escaped my lessons, a lost book or a headache; and how I rejoiced in the storms which made it impossible to send me the long mile through snow or rain. I remember only one evening when I was allowed to sit up as long as I wished, my parents, having gone to see a man hung in Dedham, one of the festive occasions in old Norfolk County, the boy was left in charge of a sister. I remember it chiefly because my sister read to me that evening John Gilpin's Ride. It was the first, and for a long time, the only poem in which I took any interest. Gilpin on his horse, his cloak and bottles twain visualized themselves before me so clearly that they still remain more vivid than what I read yesterday.
But my shadow, ah, that was quite enough to satisfy my most ardent longings. Moreover I seemed able to step on it, to lengthen or shorten it, to make it assume strange grotesque shapes; in a word I could play with it. This I could not do with such objects as trees, house, barn and fences; or rather there was no such response from them as from the shadow.
Echo was the only other direct responsive thing I found in nature as yet. Echo is the shadow of sound. Echo and shadow are brother and sister; irresponsible children of nature who love to sport and play pranks with matter and make men doubt their own senses. I knew several of the dwelling places of echo; one in chief was between a large barn and a deep wood, and others at different points on Beaver Pond. Never would they return the individual voice; all came reflected back as echo's own, neither mine nor that of my companions; only now louder or less, more distinct or faint. It had a lonely, plaintive, even melancholy tone, which the Greeks explained was in consequence of an unfortunate love affair with the beautiful Narcissus. It sulked, and hiding in a cave, never spoke again unless first spoken to. I could hardly believe that echo was not the voice of a human being. To satisfy myself I examined the barn and forest for some mocking man or boy. Was not this better than the explanations which never explain to children? And who can expound a shadow? When I once heard a minister exclaim that man is but a shadow I understood him literally and was glad in my little heart thinking only of its size and nimble movements.
Echo and shadow hint of other things in nature besides solid matter and that which can be appropriated by any machinery or resolved by any chemical yet discovered. These and sounds and perfumes also remind us that the world was made for admiration and amusement as well as for use. I believe that the Creator was thinking, when He planned it, as much of little boys and girls and poets as of the husbandman and craftsman. Echo loves to imitate our voice as much as we love to hear it; and shadows love to caricature our forms that we may laugh and even assist them; for if you stretch an arm between the sun and a snowbank shadow aids you with its comic pencil. It is no wonder the sad ghosts throw no shadow; there must be sunshine, life and joy or you cannot even living cast a pleasant one. I sometimes more admire the shadows in a painting than the figures or the scene. The imperfect landscape of the Greeks excused itself from observing none in the sacred enclosures of the temples of Zeus. The light must find no impediment in the unsubstantial matter of divine beings.
It was pleasant in my afternoon rambles to see my form projected over places where I could not follow; on the other shore of a stream and along stony fields good for nothing but a crop of shadows. Thus by my shadow I triumphed over space, and when it came to a vanishing point, I imagined it still extending itself to some neighbor's door or into the next town. My eyes could not follow it nor my feet; yet something in me accompanied it and gave me a sense of magic power. An unconscious feeling for beauty in things of earth began to draw me away from houses and children and to make me lonely. I found playthings I could not carry in my pocket. These have remained with me all my life. The path we leave behind us is the one we oftenest tread. One little brook still flows through my heart. I feel it, I hear its smothered ripple, not meant for hearing, and I smell its meadowy fragrance.
I treated matter with the perfect frankness and credulity which passes away with childhood; and she rewarded me with visions and illusions that are withheld from self-guarded and discreet manhood. I knew not then that shadows were the scoffing synonym for all unsubstantial vanities and day-dreams, or that other mystic conception that substance itself is but the shadow and reflection of the power which created it, or that light itself is but the adumbration of God. How good it is that the child is ignorant of so many things. It leaves room for the existence and growth of a mind, of an imagination which, in time, shall lead rather than follow the processes of reason; which shall leap before it looks, conscious of prescience before proof, arriving on wings while the shoestrings are being tied. Blessed are the ignorance, the beliefs and the innocency of the country boy. For if he can maintain a remnant of these into maturity the world will be more beautiful; he will idealize his friends and lovers, and never be conquered by the untoward circumstances and events of his life. The child is a plant that blossoms first at the root underground, like the fringed polygala, and only after a free and natural nurture, again blossoms at the top with the same color, the same modest beauty. Let the child pursue shadows and believe them real; let him discover their unreality and suffer defeats; but he shall not know when he is defeated, for still other shadows shall allure him to the end of his days. The pursuit, not the attainment, is the true joy of living. Perilous are the conditions of attainment. The goal is seldom in sight. We are driven on from dream to dream, and to awake is to lose the charm of existence. No pearl grows in the shell without the pressure of some irritating substance; and no boy becomes a man until he has felt the sting of opposition, discouragement, defeat, and has pursued shadows with an unfaltering faith.
Phantom of being, Protean face, Parasite of rock, of towers and man Since sun and matter erst began, Fleet vanisher from our embrace, Thy fairy forms the faithful ape Of substance; all the landscape In thy mimic loom mere woven air Where naught is real yet all is fair; Taunting us with bold mockeries And willing cheats and splendid lies, Deceiving all sense save the eyes. Flying without wings Gigantic o'er the mountain's knees; Or of tiniest things Etching their wavy images; Or playing some fantastic trick To please the fancy of a child; Or tireless watcher of the sick When others are by sleep beguiled. Thou follower of sun and moon, Gatherer of the undulating mass Through which no light may pass, Over the whole world darkening soon, Or standing steadfast all an afternoon Behind some oak tree's ancient crown Until the lingered sun goes down— Give to the weary traveller repose In thy cool umbrageous tent, And to the husbandman, who goes To thee by heat and toil forespent, Give sleep, and let thy veil his limbs enclose.
Echo is mate of shadow and of shade, Saying only what is given it to say; Hiding in wall or cave or wooded glade, Without ideas, sound with sound at play.
But thou, sweet echo, art my faithful friend; For when my simple songs on all ears die Thou art responsive to the very end, And answerest them with perfect flattery.
In the small towns of Norfolk County, even as late as the middle of the nineteenth century, Christmas was not kept as a holiday. The people adhered mainly to the Congregational and Baptist faiths. Christmas was in some way associated with Popish superstitions. The Woman in Scarlet was still preached against and feared as became the sons and daughters of the Puritans. I have never forgotten my childish vision of this wonderful creature, a vision that connected itself with a neighbor's daughter who dressed in bright red mousseline-delaine and wore an immense hoop, played the fiddle and scandalized the community by her manners, music and muslin. But the young men were all in love with her and she held a nightly court in a little brown house in that part of the town called Hard Scrabble. She took the pick of her admirers, was married at eighteen, bore what Aeschylus calls the "divine load" in fifteen travails, fourteen sons and one daughter, and lived to play her fiddle to more than thirty grandchildren. The community at length became reconciled to her, although she continued to wear to the end of her life red gowns and a bulging hoop—the women gossips now said to conceal her usual condition. To me she was and is the Scarlet Woman, an inhabitant not of Rome or Babylon, but of a town where I am the supreme pontiff, a town not made of galvanized iron nor stone nor brick, but weather-stained boards with sometimes a touch of red paint.
Doubtless many people sigh for the days when Christmas was not, for it has become a burden in its secular observances, a game of give and take. I never heard of the day in my childhood. Scarcely will this be believed, so difficult is it to realise that a present universal custom, and one so linked with religious sentiment, has not always existed; nevertheless it is true. If I were relating something that happened yesterday, or the day before, I should not be much chagrined to be disputed and to find myself in error; but the memory of the events of childhood is authentic and indisputable. There was no Christmas for children in Bellingham, or I should remember it as vividly as I do Fast Day, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July and Town Meeting Day. The last named was the first holiday of the year for the male population, occurring on the first Tuesday in March. It was a day when the solid men of the town came to the front and sat in high seats, dignified and important; when the less solid or more gay got drunk, and the boys played games about the town-house, and ate as many buns as they had cents to buy. The town-house of Bellingham was an old Universalist church whose society had been uprooted and driven away by the sermons, prayers and persecutions of the Baptist brethren and sisters. It must have been an ancient building as it had a high pulpit, a sounding board still higher and square pews. I used to go in when hungry to buy the buns, which were on sale in one of these square pews fitted up as a small shop, boards being laid on the top rail, and the high seats forming shelves for the display of eatables. I recall only the buns with distinctness, buns with three large plums sticking out of their shiny red tops, which afforded the greatest return to a hungry boy for the trifling sum he had to expend. These plums deceived me into the belief that there were more inside and sometimes I did find one lost in the air holes of the sponge-like cake. But the bun was sweet and that was enough, sweetened with white sugar too, a rare flavor in those days. I write white sugar but its current name was loaf sugar. It came in cone-shaped packages wrapped in heavy chocolate colored paper, and this paper was used by women for dyeing. These packages were hung up over the counters of all country stores. The sale was small as it was expensive and limited in use, chiefly to the sick room, wedding and funeral feasts. A trader would buy enough to last him for a long time; consequently the packages hung in their places year after year, becoming dirty and fly specked. But the inside was well protected with soft white paper, and, when opened, revealed its dazzling crystals. I liked it almost as much as candy and I rarely had a bit of the precious article. Brown sugar and molasses were the common household sweets; bread and molasses an excellent lunch for hungry boys always crying for something to eat and never filled.
The town meeting bun is a thing of the past. When I ventured into the town house I stepped very softly and felt an exceeding awe. It was a strange sensation to be moving about among men whose legs were as long as I was tall, and, generally, as unnoticed as if I did not exist. Sometimes a kindly old man would look down, put his hand on my head and say: "You'll be a man before you know it;" or another would vary the expression with, "you'll be a man before your mother." Both meant the boy had grown since the last town meeting. I have, since those days, known town meetings from the standpoint of a man and voter and have even taken part in their counsels; yet I have had always more interest in them as an observer than as an active participant. Perhaps this was because I was not an office seeker. I have revolved schemes for town improvements a whole year and taken them into the March meeting only to have them smashed in a moment. In general at the meetings in rural districts, where there is little business to transact and the day is before them, the citizens like to hear discussion, especially if the disputants get into a passion or interject a little fun. Then everybody takes a hand and the main question is so confused and lost that even the moderator cannot restate it. Party spirit rages, old feuds come to life and men remember all the ugly doings and sayings of their neighbors and are hot to pay off old scores and get even, as they say. Suddenly, at the height of the wrangle, the whole matter is dropped, peace reigns and the regular business is resumed as if nothing had happened. These tempests clear the air for a year, and everybody is in better humor having discharged his accumulation of grudges and animosities. I have heard closer speech, more sententious, more convincing and in more direct and forcible language in town meeting than from any other forum. Men are not so much ambitious of eloquence as they are to carry their point. There is often more fun, wit and sarcasm as well as logic than goes with more pretentious and popular rostrums. When the town-meeting is abolished freedom will have lost her humble but most powerful ally. When the town grows to a city all is lost; for our freedom and individual rights depend on direct and individual participation in public affairs. Otherwise, all is compromise, averages, irresponsibility and mere chance how affairs turn out. The larger the city, the easier it is for rascals to rule.
The town meeting was succeeded in April by Fast Day, appointed always for a Thursday. For some unknown reason Thursday in New England was an almost sacred day, a sort of secular Sabbath. Thanksgiving was invariably on that day of the week; also evening prayer meetings and usually religious conventions, quarterly meetings, Sunday-school conferences and weddings. There is an ancient proverb which says "Thursday come, the week is gone;" for farmers and laboring people it was uphill to that day, and an easy and quick descent to the end of the week. By Friday, or, at least, Saturday we could go a-fishing or visiting; or to the store for some Sunday snuff, tobacco or "West Injy" goods. Work relaxed a little, the strain to finish a job was less, we went to bed and arose somewhat later. Boys were not generally compelled to attend the Fast Day religious service. It had ceased to be as strictly kept as formerly. In villages and centers of towns there was customarily a match game of ball, very unlike the present base ball. Boys played with boys and men with men. The New England bootmakers, of whom there were some in most villages, were the leaders in these games. Fast Day was above all days the established one for shooting and burning powder. Why, it would be hard to discover, as it was too late for winter game and too early for any other. However, it was fun and made men and boys jolly and important to roam through the woods and fields with a gun over the shoulder, for that was still the soldiery way of carrying it. It was more often fired at a mark than at bird or beast. Powder had to be exploded to give expression to the holiday exuberance and a noise made, game or no game. I suffered dreadfully for several years in not being able to have a gun, and my misery grew acute at the approach of Fast Day. I had to content myself with percussion caps, powder and lead cannon. The latter I made myself and when I had no lead I made them of wood. These I fired as long as the ammunition held out and then with one mighty charge I would burst them into fragments, and Fast Day was over for me.
As Fourth of July approached, my chief concern was to get possession of twenty-five cents. This was the traditional limit of a boy's spending money for that day. He must save or earn it, or expect a miracle. How to save on nothing a year was an early problem of mine; and as to earning, my services, even then, were not in demand, and I cannot remember ever to have been hired to be a good boy. My mother had a cheaper way and a more effectual. Such is the miserable history of poor boys and poor mothers. Thus it was that I rarely had the twenty-five cents; it was oftener a dime. Even that seemed large enough to fill one pocket and buy a world of things. To think over all the single articles that it would purchase was to possess them for that moment, and I never had a truer ownership in my life than that which was enjoyed in these imaginary possessions. Strangely enough, I could so feel my own what I knew the dime or the quarter would purchase, that I was content not to spend it at all. Yet a day would come when some sudden impulse or appetite would snatch it away from me; then with what penitence was I overcome; for, as soon as I had a thing in my hand it ceased to have the least value; if eaten, it did not fill me; if a plaything, I soon tired and then hated it; and only its destruction gave me one passing moment of joy.
Occasionally Fourth of July was celebrated in military fashion; the train-band marched to the music of drum and fife accompanied by a procession of urchins. The crowning exercise was the firing of a salute by the whole company. It made every boy wish to be a soldier as soon as possible. Then the muskets were stacked under a great elm tree from a limb of which swung the sign, "E. Thayer, Inn" and we all took a free drink, in consideration of the dinner which was to follow at a shilling a head.
The more common observance of the day was of a much milder character, Sunday-school picnics, in which the churches of towns near each other united. We went to Mendon, and next year Mendon came to us. These picnics consisted of a little religion, much lemonade and cake, followed next day by headache. The day ended with a thunderstorm when the picnic was in Mendon; such was the common saying. Thunder storms in the night were the dread of my mother's household, especially on the Fourth of July when already excited by the day's events. We invariably expected the end of the world so much prophesied by neighbor White. If the storm came on in the daytime the whole family went to bed and covered up their heads. For my part, I longed to be out of doors in the rain, and enjoyed nothing so much as the drops falling on my bare head, and in splashing about through the puddles with bare feet. I was exhilarated by the sound of thunder, but lightning terrified me and seemed to throw me down. It was in an August thunderstorm that my father lost his life in an attempt to save his shocks of rye from ruin, which was indeed the end of the world for his family. It was no wonder that my mother and sisters were alarmed when the black clouds and sultry air came over the Mendon hills. I was too young to heed the menace or to be reminded of the domestic catastrophe and sorrow. Nature, rain or shine, winter or summer, river, pasture, clouds, woods, flowers, berries, apples, birds, were my playthings from which I was learning to find the images and equivalents in myself. Lying on my back and watching the summer clouds race across the sky gave me my first comparison and attachment of a natural object to a conscious mental conception. I arrested those clouds in their flight across the blue, and whether they went sailing on or sank below the horizon I still saw them, and their images remained firmly fixed in my mind.
It was a rare chance when I was allowed to spend Fourth of July in Milford, the little metropolis of our region. There the celebrations were on a grander scale; the local militia company gathered to itself others from the border towns, and besides fife and drum, a whole band of music marched at the head of the companies, and a cannon on the town common saluted the Fourth of July rising and setting sun and the noon of the day. There was probably an oration in the church but I had no ear for speech when my eyes were filled with seeing; for there were shows of various kinds in booths about the common and in the town hall. How to make twenty-five cents take me into all was beyond my arithmetic; so I contented myself with spending ten cents on an exhibition of Albino children, white-haired, ivory-skinned and pink-eyed. Another ten cents admitted me to a collection of dwarfs and giants, the dwarfs mounted on the shoulders or heads of the giants. The remaining five cents let me into the best show of all, a learned pig that played cards and performed amusing tricks. For a good while I wished for nothing so much as a learned pig. But now my money was gone, and I was hungry as only a boy on a holiday can be. I had walked three miles to the town, and there were three miles now between me and my mother's cupboard. When I arrived there I feasted for the remainder of the day and went to bed still hungry. The next few days were flat and languid. In all my boyhood pleasures and excitements I suffered intensely from these reactions. I tormented the family by persistent teasings to go somewhere, or to do something. "Go play, go read your book, go see what Aunt Chloe is doing," they would say. How could I fill the void with such trivial pastimes with a Fourth of July cannon ringing in my ears and the learned pig's red eyes following me? I wanted all days to be Fourth of July, and for a while I made them so with a wooden gun, a General Washington paper chapeau and a tin pan for a brass band. At length the days gradually fell into their usual tenor and I became reconciled to such amusements and mischiefs as my two playmates, George Jennison and Harry Thurber, and myself could invent.
We now began to look forward to the time of ice and snow. Meanwhile Thanksgiving day is near. Little as it meant to me, it was nevertheless a break in the usual order of the days. I have read many cheerful accounts of the Thanksgiving home gatherings—the feastings and the frolic in which the turkey and plum pudding appeared to be treated almost like divinities. But never did I know, in boyhood, the family reunion, the turkey or the pudding, so that these gatherings and dinners are to me pictures and I regard them as I do the feasts of Homer's heroes, pleasant to read of and to imagine. Some of our neighbors celebrated the day in the customary manner and no doubt acknowledged the goodness of the Divine Providence as enjoined by the Governor's proclamation. But the bounty of the Divine Providence never travelled by our lonely road, nor left a turkey or pudding at the door of the little Red House. Saddest of all her sad days I think my mother felt it to be, seeing the bounties and friends at the tables of others and unable to make her own worthy of the occasion. She sometimes spared an aged and unprofitable hen from her scanty flock and made us each a custard in an earthen cup. For that day she brought out her only silver, six tea spoons, and spread on her round table her only table cloth, hand-woven and white as snow. In the evening we parched corn over the hearth fire. My mother sat at one corner of the fireplace and by her side a tall light stand, her candle, her Bible and her knitting. At bedtime she read a chapter aloud, and kneeling, made a low, plaintive prayer, the burden of which was always thankfulness and trust. I remember not the words, but the tone still sounds in my ear. Thus returned from year to year my four holidays until I was old enough to find the road that led from the town and on which I now love to travel back and indulge a holiday of memories.
Aside from the formal and appointed holidays, the events and days that a country community most enjoyed were not numerous; yet their infrequency and unexpectedness added a certain amount of zest to its monotonous annals. A fire, an accident, a death, a raising, an engagement, a fight, a new minister, even Miss Penniman's new style of gown from Boston were not unwelcome excitements. They furnished food for talk, for wonder, discussion and scandal.
Although there was a certain terror connected with the unusual event I am about to describe, yet this did not deter me from looking forward to it as a kind of holiday.
For a long time it had been rumored that our neighbor, Amos Partridge, would have to lose his leg. He had what was called a white swelling on his knee. Besides his house, Amos Partridge had a large barn and a shop, where, in winter, he bottomed boots. The bottomer of boots sat on a low bench and did most of his work on his lap and knee. It was thought that the primary cause of Amos' trouble arose from a slight blow upon his knee as he sat at his work, increased by subsequent constant pressure upon the spot by the strap which held the boot in place. He worked as long as he was able, and for some time before the operation, he was obliged to use a crutch in passing from his shop to his house. The swelling grew steadily in size, and became more and more troublesome although every remedy then known to New England therapeutics had been tried, including all the nostrums of the neighborhood, plasters, poultices, washes and prayers; for Amos was much beloved by his neighbors, mostly Methodists, to which sect he himself belonged. He was about thirty-five years old, tall and large-framed, light-haired, full-bearded and with blue eyes, a pure Saxon type of a man. His forehead was high and narrow and much work and suffering had ploughed untimely furrows upon it. His house stood close by the roadside, in a field between two pieces of woodland. It was small, one-storied, the only unusual thing about it being that it was painted white, as was also the neat fence which enclosed a tiny space in front almost touching the road. This enclosure was in summer a tangle of cinnamon roses, lilacs, sweet-william, bouncing-Bet and other common flowers which propagate and harvest themselves. A narrow gravelled walk, upon which the flowers constantly encroached, led to the front door—a useless door, generally, as no one ever thought of entering it. There were two rooms on either side of this door; one, the family sitting room, the other, the sacred country parlor with the usual hair-cloth covered furniture and home-made rugs in bright colors and quaint patterns. There was a gilt mirror too, the upper third of which was opaque, and upon it was painted a one-masted vessel with impossible sails set straight from stem to stern, which helps me to recall the room and much of the interior of the house. I had never seen so fine a picture; nor had I ever seen a vessel of any kind. It was wonderful. I never tired of looking at it although I had seen it many times as the room was opened for prayer meetings, which my mother attended regularly, taking me with her. How well I recall those meetings, which sobered me for life. Not that any spoken words impressed me, for I understood nothing of what was said or sung; but there was a sadness, a suppression in the air, as of the valley of Jehosaphat. The stillness too, that intense hush which often occurred between the remarks and prayers of the brethren and sisters, filled me with a nameless, shrinking fear. Had I been old enough, conversion would have been easy as the only means of escape from those terrible silences. My usual relief was in clinging to my mother's hand which gave me a sense of protection from I knew not what; or in looking at the vessel in the mirror and sailing away to other worlds. Under that sail I visited all the neighboring inland towns whose names and nothing more I knew—Milford, Medway, Mendon and Hopkinton, the utmost bound of my little world—beyond Hopkinton, nothing.