FABLE OF THE SEASONS
DONALD G. MITCHELL
—— We are such stuff As dreams are made of; and our little life Is rounded with a sleep
SCRIBNER, ARMSTRONG, AND COMPANY
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1883, by Charles Scribner & Co.,
In the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York
RIVERSIDE, CAMBRIDGE: STEREOTYPED AND PRINTED BY H.O. HOUGHTON AND COMPANY
A NEW PREFACE.
Twelve years ago, this autumn, when I had finished the concluding chapters of this little book, I wrote a letter of Dedication to Washington Irving, and, forwarding it by mail to Sunnyside, begged his permission to print it. I think I shall gratify a rational curiosity of my readers (however much they may condemn my vanity) if I give his reply in full.
"My dear Sir,—
"Though I have a great disinclination in general to be the object of literary oblations and compliments, yet in the present instance I have enjoyed your writings with such peculiar relish, and been so drawn toward the author by the qualities of head and heart evinced in them, that I confess I feel gratified by a dedication, over-flattering as I may deem it, which may serve as an outward sign that we are cordially linked together in sympathies and friendship.
"I would only suggest that in your dedication you would omit the LL.D., a learned dignity urged upon me very much 'against the stomach of my sense,' and to which I have never laid claim.
"Ever, my dear sir, "Yours, very truly, "Washington Irving "Sunnyside, Nov. 1851."
I had been personally presented to Mr. Irving for the first time, only a year before, under the introduction of my good friend, Mr. Clark (the veteran Editor of the old Knickerbocker in its palmy days). Thereafter I had met him from time to time, and had paid a charming visit to his delightful home of Sunnyside. But it was after the date of the publication of this book and during the summer of 1852, that I saw Mr. Irving more familiarly, and came to appreciate more fully that charming bonhomie and geniality in his character which we all recognize so constantly in his writings. And if I set down here a few recollections of that pleasant intercourse, they will, I am sure, more than make good the place of the old letter of Dedication, and will serve to keep alive the association I wish to cherish between my little book and the name of the distinguished author who so kindly showed me his favor.
For the first time, after many years, Mr. Irving made a stay of a few weeks at Saratoga, in the summer of 1852. By good fortune, I chanced to occupy a room upon the same corridor of the hotel, within a few doors of his, and shared very many of his early morning walks to the "Spring." What at once struck me very forcibly in the course of these walks, was the rare alertness and minuteness of his observation: not a fair young face could dash past us in its drapery of muslin, but the eye of the old gentleman drank in all its freshness and beauty with the keen appetite and the grateful admiration of a boy; not a dowager brushed past us bedizened with finery, but he fastened the apparition in my memory with some piquant remark,—as the pin of an entomologist fastens a gaudy fly. No rheumatic old hero-invalid, battered in long wars with the doctors,—no droll marplot of a boy, could appear within range, but I could see in the changeful expression of my companion the admeasurement and quiet adjustment of the appeal which either made upon his sympathy or his humor. A flower, a tree, a burst of music, a country market-man hoisted upon his wagon of cabbages,—all these by turns caught and engaged his attention, however little they might interrupt the flow of his talk.
I ventured to ask on one occasion, if he had depended solely upon his memory for the thousand little descriptions of natural objects which occur in his books.
"Not wholly," he replied; and went on to tell me it had been his way, in the earlier days of his authorship, to carry little tablets with him into the country, and whenever he saw a scene specially picturesque,—a cottage of marked features, a noticeable tree, any picture, in short, which promised service to him,—to note down its distinguishing points, and hold it in reserve.
"This," said he, "is one among those small arts and industries which a person who writes much must avail himself of: they are equivalent to the little thumb-sketches from which a painter makes up his larger compositions."
On our way to the church on a certain Sunday morning, he tapped my shoulder as we entered the little gate, and called my attention to a lithe young Indian girl, who had strolled down from the campment on the plains, and was standing proudly erect upon the church-porch, with finger to her lips, scanning curiously the worshippers as they passed in.
"What a splendid figure of a woman!" said he, "she is puzzling over the extravagances and devotions of the white-faces."
The black, straight elf-locks, the swart face, the great wondering eye, with the gay blanket, short gown of woollen-stuff, and brilliant moccasins, made a striking picture to be sure; and I could not help thinking, that if the apparition had chanced upon him earlier, she might have figured in some story of Pokanoket or of the Prairies.
I took occasion one morning to ask if he was always able to control the "humors of writing," and to put himself resolutely to work, whatever might be the state of his feeling.
"No," he said, very decidedly,—"unfortunately I cannot: there are men who do, I believe. I always envied them; but there was a period of a month or more, after I had finally decided upon literary labors, and had declined a lucrative position under Government, when it seemed as if I was utterly bereft of all the fancies I ever had; for weeks I could do nothing; but at last the clouds lifted, and I wrote off the first numbers of the 'Sketch-Book,' and dispatched them to my good friends in this country, to make the most of. I feared it would not be much.
"And the worst of it is," continued he, "the good people do not allow for these periods of depression; if a man does a thing tolerably well in his happy moods, they see no reason why he should not be always in a happy mood."
I asked if he had never found relief, and a stimulant to work, in the reading aloud of some favorite old author.
"Often," said he; "and none are more effective with me for this service than the sacred writers; I think I have waked a good many sleeping fancies by the reading of a chapter in Isaiah."
In answer to inquiries of mine in regard to the incomplete state of several of the stories of "Wolfert's Roost," he said: "Yes, we do not get through all we lay out. Some of those sketches had lain in my mind for a great many years; they made a sort of garret-trumpery, of which I thought I would make a general clearance, leaving the odds and ends to take care of themselves.
"There was a novel too, I once laid out, in which an English lad, being a son of one of the old Regicide Judges, was to come over to New England in search of his father: he was to meet with a throng of adventures, and to arrive at length upon a Saturday night, in the midst of a terrible thunder-storm, at the house of a stern old Massachusetts Puritan, who comes out to answer to the rappings; and by a flash of lightning which gleams upon the harsh, iron visage of the old man, the son fancies he recognizes his father."
And as he told it, the old gentleman wrinkled his brow, and tried to put on the fierce look he would describe.
"It's all there is of it," said he. "If you want to make a story, you can furbish it up."
There were among other notable people at Saratoga, during the summer of which I speak, the well-known Mrs. Dr. R——, of Philadelphia, since deceased,—a woman of great eccentricities, but of a wonderfully masculine mind, and of great cultivation. It was a fancy of hers to give special, social patronage to foreign artists; and among those just then at Saratoga, and the recipients of her favor, were a distinguished violinist—whose name I do not now recall—and the newly married Mme. Alboni. Mr. Irving, in common with her other acquaintances, she was inclined to make contributory to her attentions. To this Mr. Irving was not averse, both from his extreme love of music, and his kindliness toward the artists themselves; yet, in his own quiet way, I think he fretted considerably at being pounced upon at odd hours to give them French talk.
"It's very awkward," said he to me one day; "I have had large occasion for practice to be sure; but I rather fancy, after all, our own language; it's heartier and easier."
He was utterly incapable of being lionized. Time and again, under the trees in the court of the hotel, did I hear him enter upon some pleasant story, lighted up with that rare turn of his eye, and by his deft expressions, when, as chance acquaintances grouped about him,—as is the way of watering-places,—and eager listeners multiplied, his hilarity and spirit took a chill from the increasing auditory, and drawing abruptly to a close, he would sidle away with a friend and be gone.
Among the visitors was a tall, interesting young girl—from Louisiana, if I mistake not—who had the reputation of being a great heiress, and who was, of course, beset by a host of admirers. There was something very attractive in her air, and Mr. Irving was never tired of gazing on her as she walked, with what he called a "faun-like step," across the lawn, or up and down the corridors. Her eyes too—"dove-like," he termed them—were his special admiration. He watched with an amused interest the varying fortunes of the rival lovers, and often met me with—"Well, who is in favor to-day?" And he discussed very freely the varying chances.
One brusque, heavy man, who thought to carry the matter through by a coup de main, he was sure could never succeed. A second, who was most assiduous, but whose brazen confidence was unyielding, he counted still less upon. But a quiet, somewhat older gentleman, whose look was ever full of tender appeal, and who bore himself with a modest dignity, he reckoned the probable winner. "He will feel a Nay grievously," said he; "but for the others, they will forget it in a supper."
I believe it eventually proved that no one of those present was the successful suitor. I know only that the fair girl was afterward a bride; and (what we all so little anticipated) her home is now a scene of desolation, her fortune very likely a wreck, her family scattered or slain, and herself, maybe, a fugitive.
I saw Mr. Irving afterward repeatedly in New York, and passed two delightful days at Sunnyside. I can never forget a drive with him upon a crisp autumn morning through Sleepy Hollow, and all the notable localities of his neighborhood, in the course of which he kindly called my attention, in the most unaffected and incidental way, to those which had been specially illustrated by his pen; and with a rare humor recounted to me some of his boyish adventures among the old Dutch farmers of this region. Most of all, it is impossible for me to forget the rare kindliness of his manner, his friendly suggestions, and the beaming expression of his eye.
I met it last at the little stile from which I strolled away to the station at Dearman; and when I saw the kind face again, it was in the coffin, at the little church where he attended service. But the eyes were closed, and the wonderful radiance of expression gone. It seemed to me that death never took away more from a living face; it was but a cold shadow lying there, of the man who had taught a nation to love him.
Edgewood, Sept. 1863.
I. With my Aunt Tabithy 1
II. With my Reader 9
DREAMS OF BOYHOOD.
I. Rain in the Garret 26
II. School-Dreams 33
III. Boy Sentiment 43
IV. A Friend made and Friend lost 49
V. Boy Religion 60
VI. A New-England Squire 67
VII. The Country Church 78
VIII. A Home Scene 86
DREAMS OF YOUTH.
I. Cloister Life 104
II. First Ambition 115
III. College Romance 120
IV. First Look at the World 132
V. A Broken Home 142
VI. Family Confidence 151
VII. A Good Wife 159
VIII. A Broken Hope 167
DREAMS OF MANHOOD.
I. Pride of Manliness 184
II. Man of the World 191
III. Manly Hope 198
IV. Manly Love 207
V. Cheer and Children 213
VI. A Dream of Darkness 221
VII. Peace 229
DREAMS OF AGE.
I. What is Gone 243
II. What is Left 249
III. Grief and Joy of Age 255
IV. The End of Dreams 261
With my Aunt Tabithy.
"Pshaw!" said my Aunt Tabithy, "have you not done with dreaming?"
My Aunt Tabithy, though an excellent and most notable person, loves occasionally a quiet bit of satire. And when I told her that I was sharpening my pen for a new story of those dreamy fancies and half-experiences which lie grouped along the journeying hours of my solitary life, she smiled as if in derision.
——"Ah, Isaac," said she, "all that is exhausted; you have rung so many changes on your hopes and your dreams, that you have nothing left but to make them real—if you can."
It is very idle to get angry with a good-natured old lady. I did better than this,—I made her listen to me.
——Exhausted, do you say, Aunt Tabithy? Is life then exhausted; is hope gone out; is fancy dead?
No, no. Hope and the world are full; and he who drags into book-pages a phase or two of the great life of passion, of endurance, of love, of sorrow, is but wetting a feather in the sea that breaks ceaselessly along the great shore of the years. Every man's heart is a living drama; every death is a drop-scene; every book only a faint foot-light to throw a little flicker on the stage.
There is no need of wandering widely to catch incident or adventure; they are everywhere about us; each day is a succession of escapes and joys,—not perhaps clear to the world, but brooding in our thought, and living in our brain. From the very first, Angels and Devils are busy with us, and we are struggling against them and for them.
No, no, Aunt Tabithy; this life of musing does not exhaust so easily. It is like the springs on the farmland, that are fed with all the showers and the dews of the year, and that from the narrow fissures of the rock send up streams continually; or it is like the deep well in the meadow, where one may see stars at noon when no stars are shining.
What is Reverie, and what are these Day-dreams, but fleecy cloud-drifts that float eternally, and eternally change shapes, upon the great over-arching sky of thought? You may seize the strong outlines that the passion-breezes of to-day shall throw into their figures; but to-morrow may breed a whirlwind that will chase swift, gigantic shadows over the heaven of your thought, and change the whole landscape of your life.
Dream-land will never be exhausted, until we enter the land of dreams, and until, in "shuffling off this mortal coil," thought will become fact, and all facts will be only thought.
As it is, I can conceive no mood of mind more in keeping with what is to follow upon the grave, than those fancies which warp our frail hulks toward the ocean of the Infinite, and that so sublimate the realities of this being, that they seem to belong to that shadowy realm whither every day's journey is leading.
—It was warm weather, and my aunt was dozing. "What is this all to be about?" said she, recovering her knitting-needle.
"About love, and toil, and duty, and sorrow," said I.
My aunt laid down her knitting, looked at me over the rim of her spectacles, and—took snuff.
I said nothing.
"How many times have you been in love, Isaac?" said she.
It was now my turn to say, "Pshaw!"
Judging from her look of assurance, I could not possibly have made a more satisfactory reply.
My aunt finished the needle she was upon, smoothed the stocking-leg over her knee, and looking at me with a very comical expression, said, "Isaac, you are a sad fellow!"
I did not like the tone of this; it sounded very much as if it would have been in the mouth of any one else—"bad fellow."
And she went on to ask me, in a very bantering way, if my stock of youthful loves was not nearly exhausted; and she cited the episode of the fair-haired Enrica, as perhaps the most tempting that I could draw from my experience.
A better man than myself, if he had only a fair share of vanity, would have been nettled at this; and I replied somewhat tartly, that I had never professed to write my experiences. These might be more or less tempting; but certainly if they were of a kind which I have attempted to portray in the characters of Bella, or of Carry, neither my Aunt Tabithy nor any one else should have learned such truth from any book of mine. There are griefs too sacred to be babbled to the world; and there may be loves which one would forbear to whisper even to a friend.
No, no; imagination has been playing pranks with memory; and if I have made the feeling real, I am content that the facts should be false. Feeling, indeed, has a higher truth in it than circumstance. It appeals to a larger jury for acquittal; it is approved or condemned by a better judge. And if I can catch this bolder and richer truth of feeling, I will not mind if the types of it are all fabrications.
If I run over some sweet experience of love, (my Aunt Tabithy brightened a little,) must I make good the fact that the loved one lives, and expose her name and qualities to make your sympathy sound? Or shall I not rather be working upon higher and holier ground, if I take the passion for itself, and so weave it into words, that you and every willing sufferer may recognize the fervor, and forget the personality?
Life, after all, is but a bundle of hints, each suggesting actual and positive development, but rarely reaching it. And as I recall these hints, and in fancy trace them to their issues, I am as truly dealing with life as if my life had dealt them all to me.
This is what I would be doing in the present book. I would catch up here and there the shreds of feeling which the brambles and roughnesses of the world have left tangling on my heart, and weave them out into those soft and perfect tissues which, if the world had been only a little less rough, might now perhaps enclose my heart altogether.
"Ah," said my Aunt Tabithy, as she smoothed the stocking-leg again, with a sigh, "there is, after all, but one youth-time; and if you put down its memories once, you can find no second growth."
My Aunt Tabithy was wrong. There is as much growth in the thoughts and feelings that run behind us as in those that run before us. You may make a rich, full picture of your childhood to-day; but let the hour go by, and the darkness stoop to your pillow with its million shapes of the past, and my word for it, you shall have some flash of childhood lighten upon you, that was unknown to your busiest thought of the morning.
Let a week go by, and in some interval of care, as you recall the smile of a mother, or some pale sister who is dead, a new crowd of memories will rush upon your soul, and leave their traces in such tears as will make you kinder and better for days and weeks. Or you shall assist at some neighbor funeral, where the little dead one (like one you have seen before) shall hold in its tiny grasp (as you have taught little dead hands to do) fresh flowers, laughing flowers, lying lightly on the white robe of the dear child,—all pale, cold, silent—
I had touched my Aunt Tabithy: she had dropped a stitch in her knitting. I believe she was weeping.
—Aye, this brain of ours is a master-worker, whose appliances we do not one half know; and this heart of ours is a rare storehouse, furnishing the brain with new material every hour of our lives; and their limits we shall not know, until they shall end—together.
Nor is there, as many faint-hearts imagine, but one phase of earnestness in our life of feeling. One train of deep emotion cannot fill up the heart: it radiates like a star, God-ward and earth-ward. It spends and reflects all ways. Its force is to be reckoned not so much by token as by capacity. Facts are the poorest and most slumberous evidences of passion or of affection. True feeling is ranging everywhere; whereas your actual attachments are too apt to be tied to sense.
A single affection may indeed be true, earnest, and absorbing; but such an one, after all, is but a type—and if the object be worthy, a glorious type—of the great book of feeling: it is only the vapor from the caldron of the heart, and bears no deeper relation to its exhaustless sources than the letter, which my pen makes, bears to the thought that inspires it,—or than a single morning strain of your orioles and thrushes bears to that wide bird-chorus which is making every sunrise a worship, and every grove a temple!
My Aunt Tabithy nodded.
Nor is this a mere bachelor fling against constancy. I can believe, Heaven knows, in an unalterable and unflinching affection, which neither desires nor admits the prospect of any other. But when one is tasking his brain to talk for his heart,—when he is not writing positive history, but only making mention, as it were, of the heart's capacities,—who shall say that he has reached the fulness, that he has exhausted the stock of its feeling, or that he has touched its highest notes? It is true, there is but one heart in a man to be stirred; but every stir creates a new combination of feeling, that like the turn of a kaleidoscope will show some fresh color or form.
A bachelor, to be sure, has a marvellous advantage in this; and with the tenderest influences once anchored in the bay of marriage, there is little disposition to scud off under each pleasant breeze of feeling. Nay, I can even imagine—perhaps somewhat captiously—that after marriage, feeling would become a habit, a rich and holy habit certainly, but yet a habit, which weakens the omnivorous grasp of the affections, and schools one to a unity of emotion that doubts and ignores the promptness and variety of impulse which we bachelors possess.
My aunt nodded again.
Could it be that she approved what I had been saying? I hardly knew.
Poor old lady,—she did not know herself. She was asleep!
With my Reader.
Having silenced my Aunt Tabithy, I shall be generous enough, in my triumph, to offer an explanatory chat to my reader.
This is a history of Dreams; and there will be those who will sneer at such a history, as the work of a dreamer. So indeed it is; and you, my courteous reader, are a dreamer too!
You would perhaps like to find your speculations about wealth, marriage, or influence called by some better name than Dreams. You would like to see the history of them—if written at all—baptized at the font of your own vanity, with some such title as—life's cares, or life's work. If there had been a philosophic naming to my observations, you might have reckoned them good; as it is, you count them all bald and palpable fiction.
But is it so? I care not how matter-of-fact you may be, you have in your own life at some time proved the very truth of what I have set down; and the chances are, that even now, gray as you may be, and economic as you may be, and devotional as you pretend to be, you light up your Sabbath reflections with just such dreams of wealth, of per centages, or of family, as you will find scattered over these pages.
I am not to be put aside with any talk about stocks, and duties, and respectability: all these, though very eminent matters, are but so many types in the volume of your thought; and your eager resolves about them are but so many ambitious waves breaking up from that great sea of dreamy speculation that has spread over your soul from its first start into the realm of Consciousness.
No man's brain is so dull, and no man's eye so blind, that they cannot catch food for dreams. Each little episode of life is full, had we but the perception of its fulness. There is no such thing as blank in the world of thought. Every action and emotion have their development growing and gaining on the soul. Every affection has its tears and smiles. Nay, the very material world is full of meaning, and by suggesting thought is making us what we are and what we will be.
The sparrow that is twittering on the edge of my balcony is calling up to me this moment a world of memories that reach over half my lifetime, and a world of hope that stretches farther than any flight of sparrows. The rose-tree which shades his mottled coat is full of buds and blossoms; and each bud and blossom is a token of promise that has issues covering life, and reaching beyond death. The quiet sunshine beyond the flower and beyond the sparrow,—glistening upon the leaves, and playing in delicious waves of warmth over the reeking earth,—is lighting both heart and hope, and quickening into activity a thousand thoughts of what has been and of what will be. The meadow stretching away under its golden flood,—waving with grain, and with the feathery blossoms of the grass, and golden buttercups, and white, nodding daisies,—comes to my eye like the lapse of fading childhood, studded here and there with the bright blossoms of joy, crimsoned all over with the flush of health, and enamelled with memories that perfume the soul. The blue hills beyond, with deep-blue shadows gathered in their bosom, lie before me like mountains of years, over which I shall climb through shadows to the slope of Age, and go down to the deeper shadows of Death.
Nor are dreams without their variety, whatever your character may be. I care not how much in the pride of your practical judgment, or in your learned fancies, you may sneer at any dream of love, and reckon it all a poet's fiction: there are times when such dreams come over you like a summer-cloud, and almost stifle you with their warmth.
Seek as you will for increase of lands or moneys, and there are moments when a spark of some giant mind will flash over your cravings, and wake your soul suddenly to a quick and yearning sense of that influence which is begotten of intellect; and you task your dreams—as I have copied them here—to build before you the pleasures of such a renown.
I care not how worldly you may be: there are times when all distinctions seem like dust, and when at the graves of the great you dream of a coming country, where your proudest hopes shall be dimmed forever.
Married or unmarried, young or old, poet or worker, you are still a dreamer, and will one time know, and feel, that your life is but a dream. Yet you call this fiction: you stave off the thoughts in print which come over you in reverie. You will not admit to the eye what is true to the heart. Poor weakling, and worldling, you are not strong enough to face yourself!
You will read perhaps with smiles; you will possibly praise the ingenuity; you will talk with a lip schooled against the slightest quiver of some bit of pathos, and say that it is—well done. Yet why is it well done?—only because it is stolen from your very life and heart. It is good, because it is so common; ingenious, because it is so honest; well-conceived, because it is not conceived at all.
There are thousands of mole-eyed people who count all passion in print a lie,—people who will grow into a rage at trifles, and weep in the dark, and love in secret, and hope without mention, and cover it all under the cloak of what they call—propriety. I can see before me now some gray-haired old gentleman, very money-getting, very correct, very cleanly, who reads the morning paper with unction, and his Bible with determination,—who listens to dull sermons with patience, and who prays with quiet self-applause; and yet there are moments belonging to his life, when his curdled affections yearn for something that they have not,—when his avarice oversteps all the commandments,—when his pride builds castles full of splendor; and yet put this before his eye, and he reads with the most careless air in the world, and condemns as arrant fiction, what cannot be proved to the elders.
We do not like to see our emotions unriddled: it is not agreeable to the proud man to find his weaknesses exposed; it is shocking to the disappointed lover to see his heart laid bare; it is a great grief to the pining maiden to witness the exposure of her loves. We do not like our fancies painted; we do not contrive them for rehearsal: our dreams are private, and when they are made public, we disown them.
I sometimes think that I must be a very honest fellow for writing down those fancies,—which every one else seems afraid to whisper. I shall at least come in for my share of the odium in entertaining such fancies: indeed I shall expect the charge of entertaining them exclusively, and shall scarce expect to find a single fellow-confessor, unless it be some pure and innocent-thoughted girl, who will say peccavi to—here and there—a single rainbow fancy.
Well, I can bear it; but in bearing it, I shall be consoled with the reflection that I have a great company of fellow-sufferers, who lack only the honesty to tell me of their sympathy. It will even relieve in no small degree my burden to watch the effort they will take to conceal what I have so boldly divulged.
Nature is very much the same thing in one man that it is in another; and, as I have already said, Feeling has a higher truth in it than circumstance. Let it only be touched fairly and honestly, and the heart of humanity answers; but if it be touched foully or one-sidedly, you may find here and there a lame-souled creature who will give response, but there is no heart-throb in it.
Of one thing I am sure:—if my pictures are fair, worthy, and hearty, you must see it in the reading; but if they are forced and hard, no amount of kindness can make you feel their truth, as I want them felt.
I make no self-praise out of this: if feeling has been honestly set down, it is only in virtue of a native impulse, over which I have altogether too little control, but if it is set down badly, I have wronged Nature, and (as Nature is kind) I have wronged myself.
A great many inquisitive people will, I do not doubt, be asking, after all this prelude, if my pictures are true pictures? The question—the courteous reader will allow me to say—is an impertinent one. It is but a shabby truth that wants an author's affidavit to make it trustworthy. I shall not help my story by any such poor support. If there are not enough elements of truth, honesty, and nature in my pictures to make them believed, they shall have no oath of mine to bolster them up.
I have been a sufferer in this way before now; and a little book that I had the whim to publish a year since, has been set down by many as an arrant piece of imposture. Claiming sympathy as a Bachelor, I have been recklessly set down as a cold, undeserving man of family! My story of troubles and loves has been sneered at as the sheerest gammon.
But among this crowd of cold-blooded critics, it was pleasant to hear of one or two pursy old fellows who railed at me for winning the affections of a sweet Italian girl, and then leaving her to pine in discontent! Yet in the face of this, an old companion of mine in Rome, with whom I accidentally met the other day, wondered how on earth I could have made so tempting a story out of the matronly and black-haired spinster with whom I happened to be quartered in the Eternal City!
I shall leave my critics to settle such differences between themselves; and consider it far better to bear with slanders from both sides of the house, than to bewray the pretty tenderness of the pursy old gentlemen, or to cast a doubt upon the practical testimony of my quondam companion. Both give me high and judicious compliment,—all the more grateful because only half deserved. For I never yet was conscious—alas, that the confession should be forced from me!—of winning the heart of any maiden, whether native or Italian; and as for such delicacy of imagination as to work up a lovely damsel out of the withered remnant that forty odd years of Italian life can spare, I can assure my middle-aged friends, (and it may serve as a caveat,) I can lay no claim to it whatever.
The trouble has been, that those who have believed one passage, have discredited another; and those who have sympathized with me in trifles, have deserted me when affairs grew earnest. I have had sympathy enough with my married griefs, but when it came to the perplexing torments of my single life—not a weeper could I find!
I would suggest to those who intend to believe only half of my present book, that they exercise a little discretion in their choice. I am not fastidious in the matter, and only ask them to believe what counts most toward the goodness of humanity, and to discredit—if they will persist in it—only what tells badly for our common nature. The man, or the woman, who believes well, is apt to work well; and Faith is as much the key to happiness here, as it is the key to happiness hereafter.
I have only one thing more to say before I get upon my story. A great many sharp-eyed people, who have a horror of light reading,—by which they mean whatever does not make mention of stocks, cottons, or moral homilies,—will find much fault with my book for its ephemeral character.
I am sorry that I cannot gratify such: homilies are not at all in my habit; and it does seem to me an exhausting way of disposing of a good moral, to hammer it down to a single point, so that there shall be only one chance of driving it home. For my own part, I count it a great deal better philosophy to fuse it, and rarefy it, so that it shall spread out into every crevice of a story, and give a color and a taste, as it were, to the whole mass.
I know there are very good people, who, if they cannot lay their finger on so much doctrine set down in old-fashioned phrase, will never get an inkling of it at all. With such people, goodness is a thing of understanding, more than of feeling, and all their morality has its action in the brain.
God forbid that I should sneer at this terrible infirmity, which Providence has seen fit to inflict; God forbid too, that I should not be grateful to the same kind Providence for bestowing upon others among his creatures a more genial apprehension of true goodness, and a hearty sympathy with every shade of human kindness.
But in all this I am not making out a case for my own correct teaching, or insinuating the propriety of my tone. I shall leave the book, in this regard, to speak for itself; and whoever feels himself growing worse for the reading, I advise to lay it down. It will be very harmless on the shelf, however it may be in the hand.
I shall lay no claim to the title of moralist, teacher, or romancist: my thoughts start pleasant pictures to my mind; and in a garrulous humor I put my finger in the button-hole of my indulgent friend, and tell him some of them,—giving him leave to quit me whenever he chooses.
Or, if a lady is my listener, let her fancy me only an honest, simple-hearted fellow, whose familiarities are so innocent that she can pardon them;—taking her hand in his, and talking on; sometimes looking in her eyes, and then looking into the sunshine for relief; sometimes prosy with narrative, and then sharpening up my matter with a few touches of honest pathos;—let her imagine this, I say, and we may become the most excellent friends in the world.
DREAMS OF BOYHOOD.
DREAMS OF BOYHOOD.
The old chroniclers made the year begin in the season of frosts; and they have launched us upon the current of the months from the snowy banks of January. I love better to count time from spring to spring; it seems to me far more cheerful to reckon the year by blossoms than by blight.
Bernardin de St. Pierre, in his sweet story of Virginia, makes the bloom of the cocoa-tree, or the growth of the banana, a yearly and a loved monitor of the passage of her life. How cold and cheerless in the comparison would be the icy chronology of the North;—So many years have I seen the lakes locked, and the foliage die!
The budding and blooming of spring seem to belong properly to the opening of the months. It is the season of the quickest expansion, of the warmest blood, of the readiest growth; it is the boy-age of the year. The birds sing in chorus in the spring—just as children prattle; the brooks run full—like the overflow of young hearts; the showers drop easily—as young tears flow; and the whole sky is as capricious as the mind of a boy.
Between tears and smiles, the year, like the child, struggles into the warmth of life. The old year—say what the chronologists will—lingers upon the very lap of spring, and is only fairly gone when the blossoms of April have strown their pall of glory upon his tomb, and the bluebirds have chanted his requiem.
It always seems to me as if an access of life came with the melting of the winter's snows, and as if every rootlet of grass, that lifted its first green blade from the matted debris of the old year's decay, bore my spirit upon it, nearer to the largess of Heaven.
I love to trace the break of spring step by step: I love even those long rain-storms, that sap the icy fortresses of the lingering winter,—that melt the snows upon the hills, and swell the mountain-brooks,—that make the pools heave up their glassy cerements of ice, and hurry down the crashing fragments into the wastes of ocean.
I love the gentle thaws that you can trace, day by day, by the stained snow-banks, shrinking from the grass; and by the gentle drip of the cottage-eaves. I love to search out the sunny slopes by a southern wall, where the reflected sun does double duty to the earth and where the frail anemone, or the faint blush of the arbutus, in the midst of the bleak March atmosphere, will touch your heart, like a hope of Heaven in a field of graves! Later come those soft, smoky days, when the patches of winter grain show green under the shelter of leafless woods, and the last snow-drifts, reduced to shrunken skeletons of ice, lie upon the slope of northern hills, leaking away their life.
Then the grass at your door grows into the color of the sprouting grain, and the buds upon the lilacs swell and burst. The peaches bloom upon the wall, and the plums wear bodices of white. The sparkling oriole picks string for his hammock on the sycamore, and the sparrows twitter in pairs. The old elms throw down their dingy flowers, and color their spray with green; and the brooks, where you throw your worm or the minnow, float down whole fleets of the crimson blossoms of the maple. Finally the oaks step into the opening quadrille of spring, with grayish tufts of a modest verdure, which by-and-by will be long and glossy leaves. The dogwood pitches his broad, white tent in the edge of the forest; the dandelions lie along the hillocks, like stars in a sky of green; and the wild cherry, growing in all the hedge-rows, without other culture than God's, lifts up to Him thankfully its tremulous white fingers.
Amid all this come the rich rains of spring. The affections of a boy grow up with tears to water them; and the year blooms with showers. But the clouds hover over an April sky timidly, like shadows upon innocence. The showers come gently, and drop daintily to the earth,—with now and then a glimpse of sunshine to make the drops bright—like so many tears of joy.
The rain of winter is cold, and it comes in bitter scuds that blind you; but the rain of April steals upon you coyly, half reluctantly,—yet lovingly—like the steps of a bride to the Altar.
It does not gather like the storm-clouds of winter, gray and heavy along the horizon, and creep with subtle and insensible approaches (like age) to the very zenith; but there are a score of white-winged swimmers afloat, that your eye has chased as you lay fatigued with the delicious languor of an April sun;—nor have you scarce noticed that a little bevy of those floating clouds had grouped together in a sombre company. But presently you see across the fields the dark gray streaks, stretching like lines of mists from the green bosom of the valley to that spot of sky where the company of clouds is loitering; and with an easy shifting of the helm the fleet of swimmers come drifting over you, and drop their burden into the dancing pools, and make the flowers glisten, and the eaves drip with their crystal bounty.
The cattle linger still, cropping the new-come grass; and childhood laughs joyously at the warm rain, or under the cottage-roof catches with eager ear the patter of its fall.
——And with that patter on the roof,—so like to the patter of childish feet,—my story of boyish dreams shall begin.
Rain in the Garret.
It is an old garret with big brown rafters; and the boards between are stained darkly with the rain-storms of fifty years. And as the sportive April shower quickens its flood, it seems as if its torrents would come dashing through the shingles upon you, and upon your play. But it will not; for you know that the old roof is strong, and that it has kept you, and all that love you, for long years from the rain and from the cold; you know that the hardest storms of winter will only make a little oozing leak, that trickles down the brown stains—like tears.
You love that old garret-roof; and you nestle down under its slope with a sense of its protecting power that no castle-walls can give to your maturer years. Aye, your heart clings in boyhood to the roof-tree of the old family garret with a grateful affection and an earnest confidence, that the after-years—whatever may be their successes, or their honors—can never re-create. Under the roof-tree of his home the boy feels SAFE: and where in the whole realm of life, with its bitter toils and its bitterer temptations, will he feel safe again?
But this you do not know. It seems only a grand old place; and it is capital fun to search in its corners, and drag out some bit of quaint old furniture, with a leg broken, and lay a cushion across it, and fix your reins upon the lion's claws of the feet, and then—gallop away! And you offer sister Nelly a chance, if she will be good; and throw out very patronizing words to little Charlie, who is mounted upon a much humbler horse,—to wit, a decrepit nursery-chair,—as he of right should be, since he is three years your junior.
I know no nobler forage-ground for a romantic, venturesome, mischievous boy, than the garret of an old family mansion on a day of storm. It is a perfect field of chivalry. The heavy rafters, the dashing rain, the piles of spare mattresses to carouse upon, the big trunks to hide in, the old white coats and hats hanging in obscure corners, like ghosts,—are great! And it is so far away from the old lady who keeps rule in the nursery, that there is no possible risk of a scolding for twisting off the fringe of the rug. There is no baby in the garret to wake up. There is no "company" in the garret to be disturbed by the noise. There is no crotchety old Uncle, or Grand-Ma, with their everlasting "Boys, boys!" and then a look of such horror!
There is great fun in groping through a tall barrel of books and pamphlets, on the look-out for startling pictures; and there are chestnuts in the garret drying, which you have discovered on a ledge of the chimney; and you slide a few into your pocket, and munch them quietly,—giving now and then one to Nelly, and begging her to keep silent,—for you have a great fear of its being forbidden fruit.
Old family garrets have their stock, as I said, of castaway clothes of twenty years gone by; and it is rare sport to put them on; buttoning in a pillow or two for the sake of good fulness; and then to trick out Nelly in some strange-shaped head-gear, and old-fashioned brocade petticoat caught up with pins; and in such guise to steal cautiously down-stairs, and creep slyly into the sitting-room,—half afraid of a scolding, and very sure of good fun,—trying to look very sober, and yet almost ready to die with the laugh that you know you will make. And your mother tries to look harshly at little Nelly for putting on her grandmother's best bonnet; but Nelly's laughing eyes forbid it utterly; and the mother spoils all her scolding with a perfect shower of kisses.
After this you go, marching very stately, into the nursery, and utterly amaze the old nurse; and make a deal of wonderment for the staring, half-frightened baby, who drops his rattle, and makes a bob at you as if he would jump into your waistcoat-pocket.
But you grow tired of this; you tire even of the swing, and of the pranks of Charlie; and you glide away into a corner with an old, dog's-eared copy of "Robinson Crusoe." And you grow heart and soul into the story, until you tremble for the poor fellow with his guns behind the palisade; and are yourself half dead with fright when you peep cautiously over the hill with your glass, and see the cannibals at their orgies around the fire.
Yet, after all, you think the old fellow must have had a capital time with a whole island to himself; and you think you would like such a time yourself, if only Nelly and Charlie could be there with you. But this thought does not come till afterward; for the time you are nothing but Crusoe; you are living in his cave with Poll the parrot, and are looking out for your goats and man Friday.
You dream what a nice thing it would be for you to slip away some pleasant morning,—not to York, as young Crusoe did, but to New York,—and take passage as a sailor; and how, if they knew you were going, there would be such a world of good-byes; and how, if they did not know it, there would be such a world of wonder!
And then the sailor's dress would be altogether such a jaunty affair; and it would be such rare sport to lie off upon the yards far aloft, as you have seen sailors in pictures, looking out upon the blue and tumbling sea. No thought now, in your boyish dreams, of sleety storms, and cables stiffened with ice, and crashing spars, and great icebergs towering fearfully around you!
You would have better luck than even Crusoe; you would save a compass, and a Bible, and stores of hatchets, and the captain's dog, and great puncheons of sweetmeats, (which Crusoe altogether overlooked;) and you would save a tent or two, which you could set up on the shore, and an American flag, and a small piece of cannon, which you could fire as often as you liked. At night you would sleep in a tree,—though you wonder how Crusoe did it,—and would say the prayers you had been taught to say at home, and fall to sleep, dreaming of Nelly and Charlie.
At sunrise, or thereabouts, you would come down, feeling very much refreshed; and make a very nice breakfast off of smoked herring and sea-bread, with a little currant jam, and a few oranges. After this you would haul ashore a chest or two of the sailors' clothes, and putting a few large jackknives in your pocket, would take a stroll over the island, and dig a cave somewhere, and roll in a cask or two of sea-bread. And you fancy yourself growing after a time very tall and corpulent, and wearing a magnificent goat-skin cap trimmed with green ribbons, and set off with a plume. You think you would have put a few more guns in the palisade than Crusoe did, and charged them with a little more grape.
After a long while you fancy a ship would arrive which would carry you back; and you count upon very great surprise on the part of your father and little Nelly, as you march up to the door of the old family mansion, with plenty of gold in your pocket, and a small bag of cocoa-nuts for Charlie, and with a great deal of pleasant talk about your island far away in the South Seas.
——Or perhaps it is not Crusoe at all, that your eyes and your heart cling to, but only some little story about Paul and Virginia;—that dear little Virginia! how many tears have been shed over her—not in garrets only, or by boys only!
You would have liked Virginia, you know you would; but you perfectly hate the beldame aunt who sent for her to come to France; you think she must have been like the old schoolmistress, who occasionally boxes your ears with the cover of the spelling-book, or makes you wear one of the girls' bonnets, that smells strongly of pasteboard and calico.
As for black Domingue, you think he was a capital old fellow; and you think more of him and his bananas than you do of the bursting, throbbing heart of poor Paul. As yet Dream-life does not take hold on love. A little maturity of heart is wanted to make up what the poets call sensibility. If love should come to be a dangerous, chivalric matter, as in the case of Helen Mar and Wallace, you can very easily conceive of it, and can take hold of all the little accessories of male costume and embroidering of banners; but as for pure sentiment, such as lies in the sweet story of Bernardin de St. Pierre, it is quite beyond you.
The rich, soft nights, in which one might doze in his hammock, watching the play of the silvery moonbeams upon the orange-leaves and upon the waves, you can understand; and you fall to dreaming of that lovely Isle of France, and wondering if Virginia did not perhaps have some relations on the island, who raise pine-apples, and such sort of things, still?
——And so with your head upon your hand in your quiet garret-corner, over some such beguiling story, your thought leans away from the book into your own dreamy cruise over the sea of life.
It is a proud thing to go out from under the realm of a schoolmistress, and to be enrolled in a company of boys, who are under the guidance of a master. It is one of the earliest steps of worldly pride, which has before it a long and tedious ladder of ascent. Even the advice of the old mistress, and the ninepenny book that she thrusts into your hand as a parting gift, pass for nothing; and her kiss of adieu, if she tenders it in the sight of your fellows, will call up an angry rush of blood to the cheek, that for long years shall drown all sense of its kindness.
You have looked admiringly many a day upon the tall fellows who play at the door of Dr. Bidlow's school; you have looked with reverence—second only to that felt for the old village church—upon its dark-looking, heavy brick walls. It seemed to be redolent of learning; and stopping at times to gaze upon the gallipots and broken retorts at the second-story window, you have pondered in your boyish way upon the inscrutable wonders of Science, and the ineffable dignity of Dr. Bidlow's brick school!
Dr. Bidlow seems to you to belong to a race of giants; and yet he is a spare, thin man, with a hooked nose, a large, flat, gold watch-key, a crack in his voice, a wig, and very dirty wristbands. Still you stand in awe at the mere sight of him,—an awe that is very much encouraged by a report made to you by a small boy, that "Old Bid" keeps a large ebony ruler in his desk. You are amazed at the small boy's audacity; it astonishes you that any one who had ever smelt the strong fumes of sulphur and ether in the Doctor's room, and had seen him turn red vinegar blue, (as they say he does,) should call him "Old Bid!"
You however come very little under his control; you enter upon the proud life, in the small boy's department, under the dominion of the English master. He is a different personage from Dr. Bidlow: he is a dapper little man, who twinkles his eye in a peculiar fashion, and who has a way of marching about the schoolroom with his hands crossed behind him, giving a playful flirt to his coat-tails. He wears a pen tucked behind his ear; his hair is carefully set up at the sides and upon the top, to conceal (as you think later in life) his diminutive height; and he steps very springily around behind the benches, glancing now and then at the books,—cautioning one scholar about his dog's-ears, and startling another from a doze by a very loud and odious snap of his forefinger upon the boy's head.
At other times he sticks a hand in the armlet of his waistcoat; he brandishes in the other a thickish bit of smooth cherry-wood, sometimes dressing his hair withal; and again giving his head a slight scratch behind the ear, while he takes occasion at the same time for an oblique glance at a fat boy in the corner, who is reaching down from his seat after a little paper pellet that has just been discharged at him from some unknown quarter. The master steals very cautiously and quickly to the rear of the stooping boy, dreadfully exposed by his unfortunate position, and inflicts a stinging blow. A weak-eyed little scholar on the next bench ventures a modest titter, at which the assistant makes a significant motion with his ruler,—on the seat, as it were, of an imaginary pair of pantaloons,—which renders the weak-eyed boy on a sudden very insensible to the recent joke.
You meantime profess to be very much engrossed with your grammar—turned upside-down; you think it must have hurt, and are only sorry that it did not happen to a tall, dark-faced boy, who cheated you in a swop of jackknives. You innocently think that he must be a very bad boy, and fancy—aided by a suggestion of the old nurse at home on the same point—that he will one day come to the gallows.
There is a platform on one side of the schoolroom, where the teacher sits at a little red table; and they have a tradition among the boys, that a pin properly bent was one day put into the chair of the English master, and that he did not wear his hand in the armlet of his waistcoat for two whole days thereafter. Yet his air of dignity seems proper enough in a man of such erudition, and such grasp of imagination, as he must possess. For he can quote poetry,—some of the big scholars have heard him do it; he can parse the whole of "Paradise Lost," and he can cipher in Long Division, and the Rule of Three, as if it was all Simple Addition; and then, such a hand as he writes, and such a superb capital B! It is hard to understand how he does it.
Sometimes lifting the lid of your desk, where you pretend to be very busy with your papers, you steal the reading of some brief passage of "Lazy Lawrence," or of the "Hungarian Brothers," and muse about it for hours afterward to the great detriment of your ciphering; or, deeply lost in the story of the "Scottish Chiefs," you fall to comparing such villains as Menteith with the stout boys who tease you; and you only wish they could come within reach of the fierce Kirkpatrick's claymore.
But you are frighted out of this stolen reading by a circumstance that stirs your young blood very strangely. The master is looking very sourly on a certain morning, and has caught sight of the little weak-eyed boy over beyond you, reading "Roderick Random." He sends out for a long birch rod, and having trimmed off the leaves carefully,—with a glance or two in your direction,—he marches up behind the bench of the poor culprit,—who turns deathly pale,—grapples him by the collar, drags him out over the desks, his limbs dangling in a shocking way against the sharp angles, and having him fairly in the middle of the room, clinches his rod with a new, and, as it seems to you, a very sportive grip.
You shudder fearfully.
"Please don't whip me," says the boy, whimpering.
"Aha!" says the smirking pedagogue, bringing down the stick with a quick, sharp cut,—"you don't like it, eh?"
The poor fellow screams, and struggles to escape; but the blows come faster and thicker. The blood tingles in your finger-ends with indignation.
"Please don't strike me again," says the boy, sobbing, and taking breath, as he writhes about the legs of the master; "I won't read another time."
"Ah, you won't, sir,—won't you? I don't mean you shall, sir;" and the blows fall thick and fast, until the poor fellow crawls back, utterly crestfallen and heartsick, to sob over his books.
You grow into a sudden boldness; you wish you were only large enough to beat the master; you know such treatment would make you miserable; you shudder at the thought of it; you do not believe he would dare; you know the other boy has got no father. This seems to throw a new light upon the matter, but it only intensifies your indignation. You are sure that no father would suffer it; or, if you thought so, it would sadly weaken your love for him. You pray Heaven, that it may never be brought to such proof.
——Let a boy once distrust the love or the tenderness of his parents, and the last resort of his yearning affections—so far as the world goes—is utterly gone. He is in the sure road to a bitter fate. His heart will take on a hard, iron covering, that will flash out plenty of fire in his after contact with the world, but it will never—never melt!
There are some tall trees, that overshadow an angle of the schoolhouse; and the larger scholars play some very surprising gymnastic tricks upon their lower limbs: one boy, for instance, will hang for an incredible length of time by his feet with his head down; and when you tell Charlie of it at night, with such additions as your boyish imagination can contrive, the old nurse is shocked, and states very gravely that it is dangerous, and that the blood all runs to the head, and sometimes bursts out of the eyes and mouth. You look at that particular boy with astonishment afterward, and expect to see him some day burst into bleeding from the nose and ears, and flood the schoolroom benches.
In time however you get to performing some modest experiments yourself upon the very lowest limbs, taking care to avoid the observation of the larger boys, who else might laugh at you; you especially avoid the notice of one stout fellow in pea-green breeches, who is a sort of "bully" among the small boys, and who delights in kicking your marbles about very accidentally. He has a fashion too of twisting his handkerchief into what he calls a "snapper," with a knot at the end, and cracking at you with it, very much to the irritation of your spirits and of your legs.
Sometimes, when he has brought you to an angry burst of tears, he will very graciously force upon you the handkerchief, and insist upon your cracking him in return; which, as you know nothing about his effective method of making the knot bite, is a very harmless proposal on his part.
But you have still stronger reason to remember that boy. There are trees, as I said, near the school; and you get the reputation, after a time, of a good climber. One day you are well in the tops of the trees, and being dared by the boys below, you venture higher—higher than any boy has ever gone before. You feel very proudly, but just then catch sight of the sneering face of your old enemy of the snapper; and he dares you to go upon a limb that he points out.
The rest say,—for you hear them plainly,—"It won't bear him." And Frank, a great friend of yours, shouts loudly to you not to try.
"Pho," says your tormentor,—"the little coward!"
If you could whip him, you would go down the tree, and do it willingly; as it is, you cannot let him triumph; so you advance cautiously out upon the limb; it bends and sways fearfully with your weight; presently it cracks; you try to return, but it is too late; you feel yourself going; your mind flashes home—over your life, your hope, your fate—like lightning; then comes a sense of dizziness, a succession of quick blows, and a dull, heavy crash!
You are conscious of nothing again, until you find yourself in the great hall of the school, covered with blood, the old Doctor standing over you with a phial, and Frank kneeling by you, and holding your shattered arm, which has been broken by the fall.
After this come those long, weary days of confinement, when you lie still through all the hours of noon, looking out upon the cheerful sunshine only through the windows of your little room. Yet it seems a grand thing to have the whole household attendant upon you. The doors are opened and shut softly, and they all step noiselessly about your chamber; and when you groan with pain, you are sure of meeting sad, sympathizing looks. Your mother will step gently to your side and lay her cool, white hand upon your forehead; and little Nelly will gaze at you from the foot of your bed with a sad earnestness, and with tears of pity in her soft hazel eyes. And afterward, as your pain passes away, she will bring you her prettiest books, and fresh flowers, and whatever she knows you will love.
But it is dreadful when you wake at night from your feverish slumber, and see nothing but the spectral shadows that the sick-lamp upon the hearth throws aslant the walls; and hear nothing but the heavy breathing of the old nurse in the easy-chair, and the ticking of the clock upon the mantel! Then silence and the night crowd upon your soul drearily. But your thought is active. It shapes at your bedside the loved figure of your mother, or it calls up the whole company of Dr. Bidlow's boys and weeks of study or of play group like magic on your quickened vision; then a twinge of pain will call again the dreariness, and your head tosses upon the pillow, and your eye searches the gloom vainly for pleasant faces; and your fears brood on that drearier, coming night of Death—far longer, and far more cheerless than this.
But even here the memory of some little prayer you have been taught, which promises a Morning after the Night, comes to your throbbing brain; and its murmur on your fevered lips, as you breathe it, soothes like a caress of angels, and woos you to smiles and sleep.
As the days pass, you grow stronger; and Frank comes in to tell you of the school, and that your old tormentor has been expelled; and you grow into a strong friendship with Frank, and you think of yourselves as a new Damon and Pythias, and that you will some day live together in a fine house, with plenty of horses, and plenty of chestnut-trees. Alas, the boy counts little on those later and bitter fates of life, which sever his early friendships like wisps of straw!
At other times, with your eye upon the sleek, trim figure of the Doctor, and upon his huge bunch of watch-seals, you think you will some day be a Doctor; and that with a wife and children, and a respectable gig, and gold watch, with seals to match, you would needs be a very happy fellow.
And with such fancies drifting on your thought, you count for the hundredth time the figures upon the curtains of your bed; you trace out the flower-wreaths upon the paper-hangings of your room; your eyes rest idly on the cat playing with the fringe of the curtain; you see your mother sitting with her needle-work beside the fire; you watch the sunbeams, as they drift along the carpet, from morning until noon; and from noon till night you watch them playing on the leaves, and dropping spangles on the lawn; and as you watch—you dream.
Weeks and even years of your boyhood roll on, in the which your dreams are growing wider and grander,—even as the Spring, which I have made the type of the boy-age, is stretching its foliage farther and farther, and dropping longer and heavier shadows on the land.
Nelly, that sweet sister, has grown into your heart strangely; and you think that all they write in their books about love cannot equal your fondness for little Nelly. She is pretty, they say; but what do you care for her prettiness? She is so good, so kind, so watchful of all your wants, so willing to yield to your haughty claims!
But, alas! it is only when this sisterly love is lost forever,—only when the inexorable world separates a family, and tosses it upon the waves of fate to wide-lying distances, perhaps to graves,—that a man feels, what a boy can never know,—the disinterested and abiding affection of a sister.
All this that I have set down comes back to you long afterward, when you recall with tears of regret your reproachful words, or some swift outbreak of passion.
Little Madge is a friend of Nelly's,—a mischievous, blue-eyed hoiden. They tease you about Madge. You do not of course care one straw for her, but yet it is rather pleasant to be teased thus. Nelly never does this; oh no, not she. I do not know but in the age of childhood the sister is jealous of the affections of a brother, and would keep his heart wholly at home, until, suddenly and strangely, she finds her own wandering.
But after all Madge is pretty, and there is something taking in her name. Old people, and very precise people, call her Margaret Boyne. But you do not: it is only plain Madge; it sounds like her, very rapid and mischievous. It would be the most absurd thing in the world for you to like her, for she teases you in innumerable ways: she laughs at your big shoes, (such a sweet little foot as she has!) and she pins strips of paper on your coat-collar; and time and again she has worn off your hat in triumph, very well knowing that you—such a quiet body, and so much afraid of her—will never venture upon any liberties with her gypsy bonnet.
You sometimes wish in your vexation, as you see her running, that she would fall and hurt herself badly; but the next moment it seems a very wicked wish, and you renounce it. Once she did come very near it. You were all playing together by the big swing; (how plainly it swings in your memory now!) Madge had the seat, and you were famous for running under with a long push, which Madge liked better than anything else;—well, you have half run over the ground when, crash! comes the swing, and poor Madge with it! You fairly scream as you catch her up. But she is not hurt,—only a cry of fright, and a little sprain of that fairy ankle; and as she brushes away the tears and those flaxen curls, and breaks into a merry laugh,—half at your woe-worn face, and half in vexation at herself,—and leans her hand (such a hand!) upon your shoulder, to limp away into the shade, you dream your first dream of love.
But it is only a dream, not at all acknowledged by you; she is three or four years your junior,—too young altogether. It is very absurd to talk about it. There is nothing to be said of Madge, only—Madge! The name does it.
It is rather a pretty name to write. You are fond of making capital M's; and sometimes you follow it with a capital A. Then you practise a little upon a D, and perhaps back it up with a G. Of course it is the merest accident that these letters come together. It seems funny to you—very. And as a proof that they are made at random, you make a T or an R before them, and some other quite irrelevant letters after it.
Finally, as a sort of security against all suspicion, you cross it out,—cross it a great many ways, even holding it up to the light to see that there should be no air of intention about it.
——You need have no fear, Clarence, that your hieroglyphics will be studied so closely. Accidental as they are, you are very much more interested in them than any one else.
——It is a common fallacy of this dream in most stages of life, that a vast number of persons employ their time chiefly in spying out its operations.
Yet Madge cares nothing about you, that you know of. Perhaps it is the very reason, though you do not suspect it then, why you care so much for her. At any rate she is a friend of Nelly's, and it is your duty not to dislike her. Nelly too, sweet Nelly, gets an inkling of matters,—for sisters are very shrewd in suspicions of this sort, shrewder than brothers or fathers,—and, like the good, kind girl that she is, she wishes to humor even your weakness.
Madge drops in to tea quite often: Nelly has something in particular to show her, two or three times a week. Good Nelly! perhaps she is making your troubles all the greater. You gather large bunches of grapes for Madge—because she is a friend of Nelly's—which she doesn't want at all, and very pretty bouquets, which she either drops or pulls to pieces.
In the presence of your father one day you drop some hint about Madge in a very careless way,—a way shrewdly calculated to lay all suspicion,—at which your father laughs. This is odd; it makes you wonder if your father was ever in love himself.
You rather think that he has been.
Madge's father is dead, and her mother is poor; and you sometimes dream how—whatever your father may think or feel—you will some day make a large fortune, in some very easy way, and build a snug cottage, and have one horse for your carriage and one for your wife, (not Madge, of course—that is absurd,) and a turtleshell cat for your wife's mother, and a pretty gate to the front yard, and plenty of shrubbery; and how your wife will come dancing down the path to meet you,—as the Wife does in Mr. Irving's "Sketch-Book,"—and how she will have a harp in the parlor, and will wear white dresses with a blue sash.
——Poor Clarence, it never occurs to you that even Madge may grow fat, and wear check aprons, and snuffy-brown dresses of woollen stuff, and twist her hair in yellow papers! Oh, no, boyhood has no such dreams as that!
I shall leave you here in the middle of your first foray into the world of sentiment, with those wicked blue eyes chasing rainbows over your heart, and those little feet walking every day into your affections. I shall leave you, before the affair has ripened into any overtures, and while there is only a sixpence split in halves, and tied about your neck and Maggie's neck, to bind your destinies together.
If I even hinted at any probability of your marrying her, or of your not marrying her, you would be very likely to dispute me. One knows his own feelings, or thinks he does, so much better than any one can tell him.
A Friend made and Friend lost.
To visit, is a great thing in the boy calendar;—not to visit this or that neighbor,—to drink tea, or eat strawberries, or play at draughts,—but to go away on a visit in a coach, with a trunk, and a great-coat, and an umbrella—this is large!
It makes no difference that they wish to be rid of your noise, now that Charlie is sick of a fever: the reason is not at all in the way of your pride of visiting. You are to have a long ride in a coach, and eat a dinner at a tavern, and to see a new town almost as large as the one you live in; and you are to make new acquaintances. In short, you are to see the world: a very proud thing it is to see the world!
As you journey on, after bidding your friends adieu, and as you see fences and houses to which you have not been used, you think them very odd indeed: but it occurs to you that the geographies speak of very various national characteristics, and you are greatly gratified with this opportunity of verifying your study. You see new crops too, perhaps a broad-leaved tobacco-field, which reminds you pleasantly of the luxuriant vegetation of the tropics, spoken of by Peter Parley, and others.
As for the houses and barns in the new town, they quite startle you with their strangeness: you observe that some of the latter, instead of having one stable-door have five or six,—a fact which puzzles you very much indeed. You observe further that the houses many of them have balustrades upon the top, which seems to you a very wonderful adaptation to the wants of boys who wish to fly kites, or to play upon the roof. You notice with special favor one very low roof, which you might climb upon by a mere plank, and you think the boys whose father lives in that house are very fortunate boys.
Your old aunt, whom you visit, you think, wears a very queer cap, being altogether different from that of the old nurse, or of Mrs. Boyne,—Madge's mother. As for the house she lives in, it is quite wonderful. There are such an immense number of closets, and closets within closets, reminding you of the mysteries of "Rinaldo Rinaldini." Beside which there are immensely curious bits of old furniture—so black and heavy, and with such curious carving!—and you think of the old wainscot in the "Children of the Abbey". You think you will never tire of rambling about in its odd corners, and of what glorious stories you will have to tell of it when you go back to Nelly and Charlie.
As for acquaintances, you fall in the very first day with a tall boy next door, called Nat, which seems an extraordinary name. Besides, he has travelled; and as he sits with you on the summer nights under the linden-trees, he tells you gorgeous stories of the things he has seen. He has made the voyage to London; and he talks about the ship (a real ship) and starboard and larboard, and the spanker, in a way quite surprising; and he takes the stern-oar in the little skiff, when you row off in the cove abreast of the town, in a most seaman-like way.
He bewilders you, too, with his talk about the great bridges of London,—London Bridge specially, where they sell kids for a penny; which story your new acquaintance unfortunately does not confirm. You have read of these bridges, and seen pictures of them in the "Wonders of the World"; but then Nat has seen them with his own eyes: he has literally walked over London Bridge, on his own feet! You look at his very shoes in wonderment, and are surprised you do not find some startling difference between those shoes and your shoes. But there is none,—only yours are a trifle stouter in the welt. You think Nat one of the fortunate boys of this world,—born, as your old nurse used to say, with a gold spoon in his mouth.
Beside Nat there is a girl lives over the opposite side of the way, named Jenny,—with an eye as black as a coal, and a half a year older than you, but about your height,—whom you fancy amazingly.
She has any quantity of toys, that she lets you play with as if they were your own. And she has an odd old uncle, who sometimes makes you stand up together, and then marries you after his fashion,—much to the amusement of a grown-up house-maid, whenever she gets a peep at the performance. And it makes you somewhat proud to hear her called your wife; and you wonder to yourself, dreamily, if it won't be true some day or other.
——Fie, Clarence, where is your split sixpence, and your blue ribbon!
Jenny is romantic, and talks of "Thaddeus of Warsaw" in a very touching manner, and promises to lend you the book. She folds billets in a lover's fashion, and practises love-knots upon her bonnet-strings. She looks out of the corners of her eyes very often, and sighs. She is frequently by herself, and pulls flowers to pieces. She has great pity for middle-aged bachelors, and thinks them all disappointed men.
After a time she writes notes to you, begging you would answer them at the earliest possible moment, and signs herself—"your attached Jenny." She takes the marriage farce of her uncle in a cold way, as trifling with a very serious subject, and looks tenderly at you. She is very much shocked when her uncle offers to kiss her; and when he proposes it to you, she is equally indignant, but—with a great change of color.
Nat says one day in a confidential conversation that it won't do to marry a woman six months older than yourself; and this, coming from Nat who has been to London, rather staggers you. You sometimes think that you would like to marry Madge and Jenny both, if the thing were possible, for Nat says they sometimes do so the other side of the ocean, though he has never seen it himself.
——Ah, Clarence, you will have no such weakness as you grow older; you will find that Providence has charitably so tempered our affections, that every man of only ordinary nerve will be amply satisfied with a single wife.
All this time—for you are making your visit a very long one, so that autumn has come, and the nights are growing cool, and Jenny and yourself are transferring your little coquetries to the chimney-corner—poor Charlie lies sick at home. Boyhood, thank Heaven! does not suffer severely from sympathy when the object is remote. And those letters from the mother, telling you that Charlie cannot play,—cannot talk even as he used to do,—and that perhaps his "Heavenly Father will take him away to be with him in the better world," disturb you for a time only. Sometimes however they come back to your thought on a wakeful night, and you dream about his suffering, and think—why it is not you, but Charlie, who is sick? The thought puzzles you; and well it may, for in it lies the whole mystery of our fate.
Those letters grow more and more discouraging, and the kind admonitions of your mother grow more earnest, as if (though the thought does not come to you until years afterward) she was preparing herself to fasten upon you that surplus of affection which she fears may soon be withdrawn forever from the sick child.
It is on a frosty, bleak evening, when you are playing with Nat, that the letter reaches you which says Charlie is growing worse, and that you must come to your home. It makes a dreamy night for you—fancying how Charlie will look, and if sickness has altered him much, and if he will not be well by Christmas. From this you fall away in your reverie to the odd old house and its secret cupboards, and your aunt's queer caps; then come up those black eyes of "your attached Jenny," and you think it a pity that she is six month's older than you; and again—as you recall one of her sighs—you think that six months are not much after all!
You bid her good-bye, with a little sentiment swelling in your throat, and are mortally afraid Nat will see your lip tremble. Of course you promise to write, and squeeze her hand with an honesty you do not think of doubting—for weeks.
It is a dull, cold ride, that day, for you. The winds sweep over the withered cornfields with a harsh, chilly whistle, and the surfaces of the little pools by the roadside are tossed up into cold blue wrinkles of water. Here and there a flock of quail, with their feathers ruffled in the autumn gusts, tread through the hard, dry stubble of an oatfield; or, startled by the snap of the driver's whip, they stare a moment at the coach, then whir away down the cold current of the wind. The blue jays scream from the roadside oaks, and the last of the blue and purple asters shiver along the wall. And as the sun sinks, reddening all the western clouds to the color of the frosted maples, light lines of the Aurora gush up from the northern hills, and trail their splintered fingers far over the autumn sky.
It is quite dark when you reach home, but you see the bright reflection of a fire within, and presently at the open door Nelly clapping her hands for welcome. But there are sad faces when you enter. Your mother folds you to her heart; but at your first noisy outburst of joy puts her finger on her lip, and whispers poor Charlie's name. The Doctor you see too, slipping softly out of the bedroom-door, with glasses in his hand; and—you hardly know how—your spirits grow sad, and your heart gravitates to the heavy air of all about you.
You cannot see Charlie, Nelly says;—and you cannot in the quiet parlor tell Nelly a single one of the many things, which you had hoped to tell her. She says,—"Charlie has grown so thin and so pale, you would never know him." You listen to her, but you cannot talk: she asks you what you have seen, and you begin, for a moment joyously; but when they open the door of the sick-room, and you hear a faint sigh, you cannot go on. You sit still, with your hand in Nelly's, and look thoughtfully into the blaze.
You drop to sleep after that day's fatigue, with singular and perplexed fancies haunting you; and when you wake up with a shudder in the middle of the night, you have a fancy that Charlie is really dead: you dream of seeing him pale and thin, as Nelly described him, and with the starched grave-clothes on him. You toss over in your bed, and grow hot and feverish. You cannot sleep; and you get up stealthily, and creep down-stairs. A light is burning in the hall: the bedroom-door stands half open, and you listen—fancying you hear a whisper. You steal on through the hall, and edge around the side of the door. A little lamp is flickering on the hearth, and the gaunt shadow of the bedstead lies dark upon the ceiling. Your mother is in her chair with her head upon her hand—though it is long after midnight. The Doctor is standing with his back toward you, and with Charlie's little wrist in his fingers; and you hear hard breathing, and now and then a low sigh from your mother's chair.
An occasional gleam of firelight makes the gaunt shadows stagger on the wall, like something spectral. You look wildly at them, and at the bed where your own brother—your laughing, gay-hearted brother—is lying. You long to see him, and sidle up softly a step or two; but your mother's ear has caught the sound, and she beckons you to her, and folds you again in her embrace. You whisper to her what you wish. She rises, and takes you by the hand, to lead you to the bedside.
The Doctor looks very solemnly as we approach. He takes out his watch. He is not counting Charlie's pulse, for he has dropped his hand, and it lies carelessly, but oh, how thin! over the edge of the bed.
He shakes his head mournfully at your mother; and she springs forward, dropping your hand, and lays her fingers upon the forehead of the boy, and passes her hand over his mouth.
"Is he asleep, Doctor?" she says in a tone you do not know.
"Be calm, madam." The Doctor is very calm.
"I am calm," says your mother; but you do not think it, for you see her tremble very plainly.
"Dear madam, he will never waken in this world!"
There is no cry,—only a bowing down of your mother's head upon the body of poor dead Charlie!—and only when you see her form shake and quiver with the deep, smothered sobs, your crying bursts forth loud and strong.
The Doctor lifts you in his arms, that you may see that pale head,—those blue eyes all sunken,—that flaxen hair gone,—those white lips pinched and hard!—Never, never will the boy forget his first terrible sight of Death!
In your silent chamber, after the storm of sobs has wearied you, the boy-dreams are strange and earnest. They take hold on that awful Visitant,—that strange slipping away from life, of which we know so little, and yet know, alas, so much! Charlie that was your brother, is now only a name: perhaps he is an angel; perhaps (for the old nurse has said it when he was ugly—and now you hate her for it) he is with Satan!
But you are sure this cannot be: you are sure that God, who made him suffer, would not now quicken and multiply his suffering. It agrees with your religion to think so; and just now you want your religion to help you all it can.
You toss in your bed, thinking over and over of that strange thing—Death; and that perhaps it may overtake you before you are a man; and you sob out those prayers (you scarce know why) which ask God to keep life in you. You think the involuntary fear, that makes your little prayer full of sobs, is a holy feeling;—and so it is a holy feeling,—the same feeling which makes a stricken child yearn for the embrace and the protection of a Parent. But you will find there are those canting ones trying to persuade you, at a later day, that it is a mere animal fear, and not to be cherished.
You feel an access of goodness growing out of your boyish grief; you feel right-minded; it seems as if your little brother in going to Heaven had opened a path-way thither, down which goodness comes streaming over your soul.
You think how good a life you will lead; and you map out great purposes, spreading themselves over the school-weeks of your remaining boyhood; and you love your friends, or seem to, far more dearly than you ever loved them before; and you forgive the boy who provoked you to that sad fall from the oak, and you forgive him all his wearisome teasings. But you cannot forgive yourself for some harsh words that you have once spoken to Charlie; still less can you forgive yourself for having once struck him in passion with your fist. You cannot forget his sobs then;—if he were only alive one little instant to let you say,—"Charlie, will you forgive me?"
Yourself you cannot forgive; and sobbing over it, and murmuring "Dear, dear Charlie!" you drop into a troubled sleep.
Is any weak soul frightened, that I should write of the Religion of the boy? How indeed could I cover the field of his moral or intellectual growth, if I left unnoticed those dreams of futurity and of goodness, which come sometimes to his quieter moments, and oftener to his hours of vexation and trouble? It would be as wise to describe the season of Spring with no note of the silent influences of that burning Day-god which is melting day by day the shattered ice-drifts of Winter,—which is filling every bud with succulence, and painting one flower with crimson, and another with white.
I know there is a feeling—by much too general as it seems to me—that the subject may not be approached except through the dicta of certain ecclesiastic bodies, and that the language which touches it must not be that every-day language which mirrors the vitality of our thought, but should have some twist of that theologic mannerism, which is as cold to the boy as to the busy man of the world.
I know very well that a great many good souls will call levity what I call honesty, and will abjure that familiar handling of the boy's lien upon Eternity which my story will show. But I shall feel sure, that, in keeping true to Nature with word and with thought, I shall in no way offend against those highest truths to which all truthfulness is kindred.
You have Christian teachers, who speak always reverently of the Bible; you grow up in the hearing of daily prayers; nay, you are perhaps taught to say them.
Sometimes they have a meaning, and sometimes they have none. They have a meaning when your heart is troubled, when a grief or a wrong weighs upon you: then the keeping of the Father, which you implore, seems to come from the bottom of your soul; and your eye suffuses with such tears of feeling as you count holy, and as you love to cherish in your memory.
But they have no meaning when some trifling vexation angers you, and a distaste for all about you breeds a distaste for all above you. In the long hours of toilsome days little thought comes over you of the morning prayer; and only when evening deepens its shadows, and your boyish vexations fatigue you to thoughtfulness, do you dream of that coming and endless night, to which—they tell you—prayers soften the way.
Sometimes upon a Summer Sunday, when you are wakeful upon your seat in church, with some strong-worded preacher who says things that half fright you it occurs to you to consider how much goodness you are made of; and whether there be enough of it after all to carry you safely away from the clutch of Evil? And straightway you reckon up those friendships where your heart lies; you know you are a true and honest friend to Frank; and you love your mother, and your father; as for Nelly, Heaven knows, you could not contrive a way to love her better than you do.
You dare not take much credit to yourself for the love of little Madge,—partly because you have sometimes caught yourself trying—not to love her; and partly because the black-eyed Jenny comes in the way. Yet you can find no command in the Catechism to love one girl to the exclusion of all other girls. It is somewhat doubtful if you ever do find it. But as for loving some half-dozen you could name, whose images drift through your thought, in dirty, salmon-colored frocks, and slovenly shoes, it is quite impossible; and suddenly this thought, coupled with a lingering remembrance of the pea-green pantaloons, utterly breaks down your hopes.
Yet you muse again,—there are plenty of good people, as the times go, who have their dislikes, and who speak them too. Even the sharp-talking clergyman you have heard say some very sour things about his landlord, who raised his rent the last year. And you know that he did not talk as mildly as he does in the church, when he found Frank and yourself quietly filching a few of his peaches through the orchard fence.
But your clergyman will say perhaps, with what seems to you quite unnecessary coldness, that goodness is not to be reckoned in your chances of safety; that there is a Higher Goodness, whose merit is All-Sufficient. This puzzles you sadly; nor will you escape the puzzle, until, in the presence of the Home altar, which seems to guard you, as the Lares guarded Roman children, you feel—you cannot tell how—that good actions must spring from good sources; and that those sources must lie in that Heaven toward which your boyish spirit yearns, as you kneel at your mother's side.
Conscience too is all the while approving you for deeds well done; and—wicked as you fear the preacher might judge it—you cannot but found on those deeds a hope that your prayer at night flows more easily, more freely, and more holily toward "Our Father in Heaven." Nor indeed later in life—whatever may be the ill-advised expressions of human teachers—will you ever find that Duty performed, and generous endeavor will stand one whit in the way either of Faith or of Love. Striving to be good is a very direct road toward Goodness and if life be so tempered by high motive as to make actions always good, Faith is unconsciously won.
Another notion that disturbs you very much, is your positive dislike of long sermons, and of such singing as they have when the organist is away. You cannot get the force of that verse of Dr. Watts which likens heaven to a never-ending Sabbath; you do hope—though it seems a half wicked hope—that old Dr. —— will not be the preacher. You think that your heart in its best moments craves for something more lovable. You suggest this perhaps to some Sunday teacher, who only shakes his head sourly, and tells you it is a thought that the Devil is putting in your brain. It strikes you oddly that the Devil should be using a verse of Dr. Watts to puzzle you! But if it be so, he keeps it sticking by your thought very pertinaciously, until some simple utterance of your mother about the Love that reigns in the other world seems on a sudden to widen Heaven, and to waft away your doubts like a cloud.
It excites your wonder not a little to find people, who talk gravely and heartily of the excellence of sermons and of church-going, sometimes fall asleep under it all. And you wonder—if they really like preaching so well—why they do not buy some of the minister's old manuscripts, and read them over on week-days, or invite the clergyman to preach to them in a quiet way in private.
——Ah, Clarence, you do not yet know the poor weakness of even maturest manhood, and the feeble gropings of the soul toward a soul's paradise in the best of the world! You do not yet know either, that ignorance and fear will be thrusting their untruth and false show into the very essentials of Religion.
Again you wonder, if the clergymen are all such very good men as you are taught to believe, why it is that every little while people will be trying to send them off, and very anxious to prove that, instead of being so good, they are in fact very stupid and bad men. At that day you have no clear conceptions of the distinction between stupidity and vice, and think that a good man must necessarily say very eloquent things. You will find yourself sadly mistaken on this point, before you get on very far in life.
Heaven, when your mother peoples it with friends gone, and little Charlie, and that better Friend who, she says, took Charlie in his arms, and is now his Father above the skies, seems a place to be loved and longed for. But to think that Mr. Such-an-one, who is only good on Sundays, will be there too,—and to think of his talking as he does of a place which you are sure he would spoil if he were there,—puzzles you again; and you relapse into wonder, doubt, and yearning.
—And there, Clarence, for the present, I shall leave you. A wide, rich heaven hangs above you, but it hangs very high. A wide, rough world is around you, and it lies very low!
I am assuming in these sketches no office of a teacher. I am seeking only to make a truthful analysis of the boyish thought and feeling. But having ventured thus far into what may seem sacred ground, I shall venture still farther, and clinch my matter with a moral.
There is very much religious teaching, even in so good a country as New England, which is far too harsh, too dry, too cold for the heart of a boy. Long sermons, doctrinal precepts, and such tediously-worded dogmas as were uttered by those honest but hard-spoken men, the Westminster Divines, fatigue, and puzzle, and dispirit him.
They may be well enough for those strong souls which strengthen by task-work, or for those mature people whose iron habit of self-denial has made patience a cardinal virtue; but they fall (experto crede) upon the unfledged faculties of the boy like a winter's rain upon spring flowers,—like hammers of iron upon lithe timber. They may make deep impression upon his moral nature, but there is great danger of a sad rebound.
Is it absurd to suppose that some adaptation is desirable? And might not the teachings of that Religion, which is the aegis of our moral being, be inwrought with some of those finer harmonies of speech and form which were given to wise ends,—and lure the boyish soul by something akin to that gentleness which belonged to the Nazarene Teacher, and which provided not only meat for men, but "milk for babes"?