OVER THE TEACUPS
By Oliver W. Holmes
The kind way in which this series of papers has been received has been a pleasure greater than I dared to anticipate. I felt that I was a late comer in the midst of a crowd of ardent and eager candidates for public attention, that I had already had my day, and that if, like the unfortunate Frenchman we used read about, I had "come again," I ought not to surprised if I received the welcome of "Monsieur Tonson."
It has not proved so. My old readers have come forward in the pleasantest possible way and assured me that they were glad to see me again. There is no need, therefore, of apologies or explanations. I thought I had something left to say and I have found listeners. In writing these papers I have had occupation and kept myself in relation with my fellow-beings. New sympathies, new sources of encouragement, if not of inspiration, have opened themselves before me and cheated the least promising season of life of much that seemed to render it dreary and depressing. What particularly pleased me has been the freedom of criticisms which I have seen from disadvantageous comparisons of my later with my earlier writings.
I should like a little rest from literary work before the requiescat ensures my repose from earthly labors, but I will not be rash enough to promise that I will not even once again greet my old and new readers if the impulse becomes irresistible to renew a companionship which has been to me such a source of happiness.
BEVERLY FARM, Mass., August, 1891.
O. W. H.
OVER THE TEACUPS.
This series of papers was begun in March, 1888. A single number was printed, when it was interrupted the course of events, and not resumed until nearly years later, in January, 1890. The plan of the series was not formed in my mind when I wrote the number. In returning to my task I found that my original plan had shaped itself in the underground laboratory of my thought so that some changes had to be made in what I had written. As I proceeded, the slight story which formed a part of my programme eloped itself without any need of much contrivance on my part. Given certain characters in a writer's conception, if they are real to him, as they ought to be they will act in such or such a way, according to the law of their nature. It was pretty safe to assume that intimate relations would spring up between some members of our mixed company; and it was not rash conjecture that some of these intimacies might end in such attachment as would furnish us hints, at least, of a love-story.
As to the course of the conversations which would take place, very little could be guessed beforehand. Various subjects of interest would be likely to present themselves, without definite order, oftentimes abruptly and, as it would seem, capriciously. Conversation in such a mixed company as that of "The Teacups" is likely to be suggestive rather than exhaustive. Continuous discourse is better adapted to the lecture-room than to the tea-table. There is quite enough of it, I fear too much,—in these pages. But the reader must take the reports of our talks as they were jotted down. A patchwork quilt is not like a piece of Gobelin tapestry; but it has its place and its use.
Some will feel a temptation to compare these conversations with those earlier ones, and remark unamiably upon their difference. This is hardly fair, and is certainly not wise. They are produced under very different conditions, and betray that fact in every line. It is better to take them by themselves; and, if my reader finds anything to please or profit from, I shall be contented, and he, I feel sure, will not be ungrateful.
The readers who take up this volume may recollect a series of conversations held many years ago over the breakfast-table, and reported for their more or less profitable entertainment. Those were not very early breakfasts at which the talks took place, but at any rate the sun was rising, and the guests had not as yet tired themselves with the labors of the day. The morning cup of coffee has an exhilaration about it which the cheering influence of the afternoon or evening cup of tea cannot be expected to reproduce. The toils of the forenoon, the heats of midday, in the warm season, the slanting light of the descending sun, or the sobered translucency of twilight have subdued the vivacity of the early day. Yet under the influence of the benign stimulant many trains of thought which will bear recalling, may suggest themselves to some of our quiet circle and prove not uninteresting to a certain number of readers.
How early many of my old breakfast companions went off to bed! I am thinking not merely of those who sat round our table, but of that larger company of friends who listened to our conversations as reported. Dear girl with the silken ringlets, dear boy with the down-shadowed cheek, your grandfather, your grandmother, turned over the freshly printed leaves that told the story of those earlier meetings around the plain board where so many things were said and sung, not all of which have quite faded from memory of this overburdened and forgetful time. Your father, your mother, found the scattered leaves gathered in a volume, and smiled upon them as not uncompanionable acquaintances. My tea-table makes no promises. There is no programme of exercises to studied beforehand. What if I should content myself with a single report of what was said and done over our teacups? Perhaps my young reader would be glad to let me off, for there are talkers enough who have not yet left their breakfast-tables; and nobody can blame the young people for preferring the thoughts and the language of their own generation, with all its future before it, to those of their grandfathers contemporaries.
My reader, young or old, will please to observe that I have left myself entire freedom as to the sources of what may be said over the teacups. I have not told how many cups are commonly on the board, but by using the plural I have implied that there is at least one other talker or listener beside myself, and for all that appears there may be a dozen. There will be no regulation length to my reports,—no attempt to make out a certain number of pages. I have no contract to fill so many columns, no pledge to contribute so many numbers. I can stop on this first page if I do not care to say anything more, and let this article stand by itself if so minded. What a sense of freedom it gives not to write by the yard or the column!
When one writes for an English review or magazine at so many guineas a sheet, the temptation is very great to make one's contribution cover as many sheets as possible. We all know the metallic taste of articles written under this powerful stimulus. If Bacon's Essays had been furnished by a modern hand to the "Quarterly Review" at fifty guineas a sheet, what a great book it would have taken to hold them!
The first thing which suggests itself to me, as I contemplate my slight project, is the liability of repeating in the evening what I may have said in the morning in one form or another, and printed in these or other pages. When it suddenly flashes into the consciousness of a writer who had been long before the public, "Why, I have said all that once or oftener in my books or essays, and here it is again; the same old thought, the same old image, the same old story!" it irritates him, and is likely to stir up the monosyllables of his unsanctified vocabulary. He sees in imagination a thousand readers, smiling or yawning as they say to themselves, "We have had all that before," and turn to another writer's performance for something not quite so stale and superfluous. This is what the writer says to himself about the reader.
The idiot! Does the simpleton really think that everybody has read all he has written? Does he really believe that everybody remembers all of his, writer's, words he may happen to have read? At one of those famous dinners of the Phi Beta Kappa Society; where no reporter was ever admitted, and which nothing ever leaks out about what is said and done, Mr. Edward Everett, in his after-dinner speech, quoted these lines from the AEneid, giving a liberal English version of them, which he applied to the Oration just delivered by Mr. Emerson:
Tres imbris torti radios, tres nubis aquosae Addiderant, rutili tres ignis, et alitis Austri.
His nephew, the ingenious, inventive, and inexhaustible. Edward Everett Hale, tells the story of this quotation, and of the various uses to which it might plied in after-dinner speeches. How often he ventured to repeat it at the Phi Beta Kappa dinners I am not sure; but as he reproduced it with his lively embellishments and fresh versions and artful circumlocutions, not one person in ten remembered that he had listened to those same words in those same accents only a twelvemonth ago. The poor deluded creatures who take it for granted that all the world remembers what they have said, and laugh at them when they say it over again, may profit by this recollection. But what if one does say the same things,—of course in a little different form each time,—over her? If he has anything to say worth saying, that is just what he ought to do. Whether he ought to or not, it is very certain that this is what all who write much or speak much necessarily must and will do. Think of the clergyman who preaches fifty or a hundred or more sermons every year for fifty years! Think of the stump speaker who shouts before a hundred audiences during the same political campaign, always using the same arguments, illustrations, and catchwords! Think of the editor, as Carlyle has pictured him, threshing the same straw every morning, until we know what is coming when we see the first line, as we do when we read the large capitals at the head of a thrilling story, which ends in an advertisement of an all-cleansing soap or an all-curing remedy!
The latch-key which opens into the inner chambers of my consciousness fits, as I have sufficient reason to believe, the private apartments of a good many other people's thoughts. The longer we live, the more we find we are like other persons. When I meet with any facts in my own mental experience, I feel almost sure that I shall find them repeated or anticipated in the writings or the conversation of others. This feeling gives one a freedom in telling his own personal history he could not have enjoyed without it. My story belongs to you as much as to me. De te fabula narratur. Change the personal pronoun,—that is all. It gives many readers a singular pleasure to find a writer telling them something they have long known or felt, but which they have never before found any one to put in words for them. An author does not always know when he is doing the service of the angel who stirred the waters of the pool of Bethesda. Many a reader is delighted to find his solitary thought has a companion, and is grateful to the benefactor who has strengthened him. This is the advantage of the humble reader over the ambitious and self-worshipping writer. It is not with him pereant illi, but beati sunt illi qui pro nobis nostra dixerunt,-Blessed are those who have said our good things for us.
What I have been saying of repetitions leads me into a train of reflections like which I think many readers will find something in their own mental history. The area of consciousness is covered by layers of habitual thoughts, as a sea-beach is covered with wave-worn, rounded pebbles, shaped, smoothed, and polished by long attrition against each other. These thoughts remain very much the same from day to day, from week to week; and as we grow older, from month to month, and from year to year. The tides of wakening consciousness roll in upon them daily as we unclose our eyelids, and keep up the gentle movement and murmur of ordinary mental respiration until we close them again in slumber. When we think we are thinking, we are for the most part only listening to sound of attrition between these inert elements of intelligence. They shift their places a little, they change their relations to each other, they roll over and turn up new surfaces. Now and then a new fragment is cast in among them, to be worn and rounded and takes its place with the others, but the pebbled floor of consciousness is almost as stationary as the pavement of a city thoroughfare.
It so happens that at this particular tine I have something to tell which I am quite sure is not one of rolled pebbles which my reader has seen before in any of my pages, or, as I feel confident, in those of any other writer.
If my reader asks why I do not send the statement I am going to make to some one of the special periodicals that deal with such subjects, my answer is, that I like to tell my own stories at my own time, in own chosen columns, where they will be read by a class of readers with whom I like to talk.
All men of letters or of science, all writers well known to the public, are constantly tampered with, in these days, by a class of predaceous and hungry fellow-laborers who may be collectively spoken of as the brain-tappers. They want an author's ideas on the subjects which interest them, the inquirers, from the gravest religious and moral questions to the most trivial matters of his habits and his whims and fancies. Some of their questions he cannot answer; some he does not choose to answer; some he is not yet ready to answer, and when he is ready he prefers to select his own organ of publication. I do not find fault with all the brain-tappers. Some of them are doing excellent service by accumulating facts which could not otherwise be attained. Rut one gets tired of the strings of questions sent him, to which he is expected to return an answer, plucked, ripe or unripe, from his private tree of knowledge. The brain-tappers are like the owner of the goose that laid the golden eggs. They would have the embryos and germs of one's thoughts out of the mental oviducts, and cannot wait for their spontaneous evolution and extrusion.
The story I have promised is, on the whole, the most remarkable of a series which I may have told in part at some previous date, but which, if I have not told, may be worth recalling at a future time.
Some few of my readers may remember that in a former paper I suggested the possibility of the existence of an idiotic area in the human mind, corresponding to the blind spot in the human retina. I trust that I shall not be thought to have let my wits go wandering in that region of my own intellectual domain, when I relate a singular coincidence which very lately occurred in my experience, and add a few remarks made by one of our company on the delicate and difficult but fascinating subject which it forces upon our attention. I will first copy the memorandum made at the time:
"Remarkable coincidence. On Monday, April 18th, being at table from 6.30 P. M. to 7.30, with and the two ladies of my household, I told them of the case of 'trial by battel' offered by Abraham Thornton in 1817. I mentioned his throwing down his glove, which was not taken up by the brother of his victim, and so he had to be let off, for the old law was still in force. I mentioned that Abraham Thornton was said to have come to this country, 'and [I added] he may be living near us, for aught that I know." I rose from the table, and found an English letter waiting for me, left while I sat at dinner. A copy the first portion of this letter:
'20 ALFRED PLACE, West (near Museum) South Kensington, LONDON, S. W. April 7, 1887. DR. O. W. HOLMES:
DEAR SIR,—In travelling, the other day, I met with a reprint of the very interesting case of Thornton for murder, 1817. The prisoner pleaded successfully the old Wager of Battel. I thought you would like to read the account, and send it with this....
Yours faithfully, FRED. RATHBONE.'
Mr. Rathbone is a well-known dealer in old Wedgwood and eighteenth-century art. As a friend of my hospitable entertainer, Mr. Willett, he had shown me many attentions in England, but I was not expecting any communication from him; and when, fresh from my conversation, I found this letter just arrived by mail, and left while I was at table, and on breaking the seal read what I had a few moments before been; telling, I was greatly surprised, and immediately made a note of the occurrence, as given above.
I had long been familiar with all the details of this celebrated case, but had not referred to it, so far as I can remember, for months or years. I know of no train of thought which led me to speak of it on that particular day. I had never alluded to it before in that company, nor had I ever spoken of it with Mr. Rathbone.
I told this story over our teacups. Among the company at the table is a young English girl. She seemed to be amused by the story. "Fancy!" she said,—"how very very odd!" "It was a striking and curious coincidence," said the professor who was with us at the table. "As remarkable as two teaspoons in one saucer," was the comment of a college youth who happened to be one of the company. But the member of our circle whom the reader will hereafter know as Number Seven, began stirring his tea in a nervous sort of way, and I knew that he was getting ready to say something about the case. An ingenious man he is, with a brain like a tinder-box, its contents catching at any spark that is flying about. I always like to hear what he says when his tinder brain has a spark fall into it. It does not follow that because he is often wrong he may not sometimes be right, for he is no fool. He treated my narrative very seriously.
The reader need not be startled at the new terms he introduces. Indeed, I am not quite sure that some thinking people will not adopt his view of the matter, which seems to have a degree of plausibility as he states and illustrates it.
"The impulse which led you to tell that story passed directly from the letter, which came charged from the cells of the cerebral battery of your correspondent. The distance at which the action took place [the letter was left on a shelf twenty-four feet from the place where I was sitting] shows this charge to have been of notable intensity.
"Brain action through space without material symbolism, such as speech, expression, etc., is analogous to electrical induction. Charge the prime conductor of an electrical machine, and a gold-leaf electrometer, far off from it, will at once be disturbed. Electricity, as we all know, can be stored and transported as if it were a measurable fluid.
"Your incident is a typical example of cerebral induction from a source containing stored cerebricity. I use this word, not to be found in my dictionaries, as expressing the brain-cell power corresponding to electricity. Think how long it was before we had attained any real conception of the laws that govern the wonderful agent, which now works in harness with the other trained and subdued forces! It is natural that cerebricity should be the last of the unweighable agencies to be understood. The human eye had seen heaven and earth and all that in them is before it saw itself as our instruments enable us to see it. This fact of yours, which seems so strange to you, belongs to a great series of similar facts familiarly known now to many persons, and before long to be recognized as generally as those relating to the electric telegraph and the slaving 'dynamo.'
"What! you cannot conceive of a charge of cerebricity fastening itself on a letter-sheet and clinging to it for weeks, while it was shuffling about in mail-bags, rolling over the ocean, and shaken up in railroad cars? And yet the odor of a grain of musk will hang round a note or a dress for a lifetime. Do you not remember what Professor Silliman says, in that pleasant journal of his, about the little ebony cabinet which Mary, Queen of Scots, brought with her from France,—how 'its drawers still exhale the sweetest perfumes'? If they could hold their sweetness for more than two hundred years, why should not a written page retain for a week or a month the equally mysterious effluence poured over it from the thinking marrow, and diffuse its vibrations to another excitable nervous centre?"
I have said that although our imaginative friend is given to wild speculations, he is not always necessarily wrong. We know too little about the laws of brain-force to be dogmatic with reference to it. I am, myself, therefore, fully in sympathy with the psychological investigators. When it comes to the various pretended sciences by which men and women make large profits, attempts at investigation are very apt to be used as lucrative advertisements for the charlatans. But a series of investigations of the significance of certain popular beliefs and superstitions, a careful study of the relations of certain facts to each other,—whether that of cause and effect, or merely of coincidence,—is a task not unworthy of sober-minded and well-trained students of nature. Such a series of investigations has been recently instituted, and was reported at a late meeting held in the rooms of the Boston Natural History Society. The results were, mostly negative, and in one sense a disappointment. A single case, related by Professor Royce, attracted a good deal of attention. It was reported in the next morning's newspapers, and will be given at full length, doubtless, in the next number of the Psychological Journal. The leading facts were, briefly, these: A lady in Hamburg, Germany, wrote, on the 22d of June last, that she had what she supposed to be nightmare on the night of the 17th, five days before. "It seemed," she wrote, "to belong to you; to be a horrid pain in your head, as if it were being forcibly jammed into an iron casque, or some such pleasant instrument of torture." It proved that on that same 17th of June her sister was undergoing a painful operation at the hands of a dentist. "No single case," adds Professor Royce, "proves, or even makes probable, the existence of telepathic toothaches; but if there are any more cases of this sort, we want to hear of them, and that all the more because no folk-lore and no supernatural horrors have as yet mingled with the natural and well-known impressions that people associate with the dentist's chair."
The case I have given is, I am confident, absolutely free from every source of error. I do not remember that Mr. Rathbone had communicated with me since he sent me a plentiful supply of mistletoe a year ago last Christmas. The account I received from him was cut out of "The Sporting Times" of March 5, 1887. My own knowledge of the case came from "Kirby's Wonderful Museum," a work presented to me at least thirty years ago. I had not looked at the account, spoken of it, nor thought of it for a long time, when it came to me by a kind of spontaneous generation, as it seemed, having no connection with any previous train of thought that I was aware of. I consider the evidence of entire independence, apart from possible "telepathic" causation, completely water-proof, airtight, incombustible, and unassailable.
I referred, when first reporting this curious case of coincidence, with suggestive circumstances, to two others, one of which I said was the most picturesque and the other the most unlikely, as it would seem, to happen. This is the first of those two cases:—
Grenville Tudor Phillips was a younger brother of George Phillips, my college classmate, and of Wendell Phillips, the great orator. He lived in Europe a large part of his life, but at last returned, and, in the year 1863, died at the house of his brother George. I read his death in the paper; but, having seen and heard very little of him during his life, should not have been much impressed by the fact, but for the following occurrence: between the time of Grenville Phillips's death and his burial, I was looking in upon my brother, then living in the house in which we were both born. Some books which had been my father's were stored in shelves in the room I used to occupy when at Cambridge. Passing my eye over them, an old dark quarto attracted my attention. It must be a Bible, I said to myself, perhaps a rare one,—the "Breeches" Bible or some other interesting specimen. I took it from the shelves, and, as I did so, an old slip of paper fell out and fluttered to the floor. On lifting it I read these words:
The name is Grenville Tudor.
What was the meaning of this slip of paper coming to light at this time, after reposing undisturbed so long? There was only one way of explaining its presence in my father's old Bible;—a copy of the Scriptures which I did not remember ever having handled or looked into before. In christening a child the minister is liable to forget the name, just at the moment when he ought to remember it. My father preached occasionally at the Brattle Street Church. I take this for granted, for I remember going with him on one occasion when he did so. Nothing was more likely than that he should be asked to officiate at the baptism of the younger son of his wife's first cousin, Judge Phillips. This slip was handed him to remind him of the name: He brought it home, put it in that old Bible, and there it lay quietly for nearly half a century, when, as if it had just heard of Mr. Phillips's decease, it flew from its hiding-place and startled the eyes of those who had just read his name in the daily column of deaths. It would be hard to find anything more than a mere coincidence here; but it seems curious enough to be worth telling.
The second of these two last stories must be told in prosaic detail to show its whole value as a coincidence.
One evening while I was living in Charles Street, I received a call from Dr. S., a well-known and highly respected Boston physician, a particular friend of the late Alexander H. Stephens, vice-president of the Southern Confederacy. It was with reference to a work which Mr. Stephens was about to publish that Dr. S. called upon me. After talking that matter over we got conversing on other subjects, among the rest a family relationship existing between us,—not a very near one, but one which I think I had seen mentioned in genealogical accounts. Mary S. (the last name being the same as that of my visitant), it appeared, was the great-great-grandmother of Mrs. H. and myself. After cordially recognizing our forgotten relationship, now for the first time called to mind, we parted, my guest leaving me for his own home. We had been sitting in my library on the lower floor. On going up-stairs where Mrs. H. was sitting alone, just as I entered the room she pushed a paper across the table towards me, saying that perhaps it might interest me. It was one of a number of old family papers which she had brought from the house of her mother, recently deceased.
I opened the paper, which was an old-looking document, and found that it was a copy, perhaps made in this century, of the will of that same Mary S. about whom we had been talking down-stairs.
If there is such a thing as a purely accidental coincidence this must be considered an instance of it.
All one can say about it is that it seems very unlikely that such a coincidence should occur, but it did.
I have not tried to keep my own personality out of these stories. But after all, how little difference it makes whether or not a writer appears with a mask on which everybody can take off,—whether he bolts his door or not, when everybody can look in at his windows, and all his entrances are at the mercy of the critic's skeleton key and the jimmy of any ill-disposed assailant!
The company have been silent listeners for the most part; but the reader will have a chance to become better acquainted with some cf them by and by.
TO THE READER.
I know that it is a hazardous experiment to address myself again to a public which in days long past has given me a generous welcome. But my readers have been, and are, a very faithful constituency. I think there are many among them who would rather listen to an old voice they are used to than to a new one of better quality, even if the "childish treble" should betray itself now and then in the tones of the overtired organ. But there must be others,—I am afraid many others,—who will exclaim: "He has had his day, and why can't he be content? We don't want literary revenants, superfluous veterans, writers who have worn out their welcome and still insist on being attended to. Give us something fresh, something that belongs to our day and generation. Your morning draught was well enough, but we don't care for your evening slip-slop. You are not in relation with us, with our time, our ideas, our aims, our aspirations."
Alas, alas! my friend,—my young friend, for your hair is not yet whitened,—I am afraid you are too nearly right. No doubt,—no doubt. Teacups are not coffee-cups. They do not hold so much. Their pallid infusion is but a feeble stimulant compared with the black decoction served at the morning board. And so, perhaps, if wisdom like yours were compatible with years like mine, I should drop my pen and make no further attempts upon your patience.
But suppose that a writer who has reached and passed the natural limit of serviceable years feels that he has some things which he would like to say, and which may have an interest for a limited class of readers,—is he not right in trying his powers and calmly taking the risk of failure? Does it not seem rather lazy and cowardly, because he cannot "beat his record," or even come up to the level of what he has done in his prime, to shrink from exerting his talent, such as it is, now that he has outlived the period of his greatest vigor? A singer who is no longer equal to the trials of opera on the stage may yet please at a chamber concert or in the drawing-room. There is one gratification an old author can afford a certain class of critics: that, namely, of comparing him as he is with what he was. It is a pleasure to mediocrity to have its superiors brought within range, so to speak; and if the ablest of them will only live long enough, and keep on writing, there is no pop-gun that cannot reach him. But I fear that this is an unamiable reflection, and I am at this time in a very amiable mood.
I confess that there is something agreeable to me in renewing my relations with the reading public. Were it but a single appearance, it would give me a pleasant glimpse of the time when I was known as a frequent literary visitor. Many of my readers—if I can lure any from the pages of younger writers will prove to be the children, or the grandchildren, of those whose acquaintance I made something more than a whole generation ago. I could depend on a kind welcome from my contemporaries,—my coevals. But where are those contemporaries? Ay de mi! as Carlyle used to exclaim,—Ah, dear me! as our old women say,—I look round for them, and see only their vacant places. The old vine cannot unwind its tendrils. The branch falls with the decay of its support, and must cling to the new growths around it, if it would not lie helpless in the dust. This paper is a new tendril, feeling its way, as it best may, to whatever it can wind around. The thought of finding here and there an old friend, and making, it may be, once in a while a new one, is very grateful to me. The chief drawback to the pleasure is the feeling that I am submitting to that inevitable exposure which is the penalty of authorship in every form. A writer must make up his mind to the possible rough treatment of the critics, who swarm like bacteria whenever there is any literary material on which they can feed. I have had as little to complain of as most writers, yet I think it is always with reluctance that one encounters the promiscuous handling which the products of the mind have to put up with, as much as the fruit and provisions in the market-stalls. I had rather be criticised, however, than criticise; that is, express my opinions in the public prints of other writers' work, if they are living, and can suffer, as I should often have to make them. There are enough, thank Heaven, without me. We are literary cannibals, and our writers live on each other and each other's productions to a fearful extent. What the mulberry leaf is to the silk-worm, the author's book, treatise, essay, poem, is to the critical larva; that feed upon it. It furnishes them with food and clothing. The process may not be agreeable to the mulberry leaf or to the printed page; but without it the leaf would not have become the silk that covers the empress's shoulders, and but for the critic the author's book might never have reached the scholar's table. Scribblers will feed on each other, and if we insist on being scribblers we must consent to be fed on. We must try to endure philosophically what we cannot help, and ought not, I suppose, to wish to help.
It is the custom at our table to vary the usual talk, by the reading of short papers, in prose or verse, by one or more of The Teacups, as we are in the habit of calling those who make up our company. Thirty years ago, one of our present circle—"Teacup Number Two," The Professor,—read a paper on Old Age, at a certain Breakfast-table, where he was in the habit of appearing. That paper was published at the time, and has since seen the light in other forms. He did not know so much about old age then as he does now, and would doubtless write somewhat differently if he took the subject up again. But I found that it was the general wish that another of our company should let us hear what he had to say about it. I received a polite note, requesting me to discourse about old age, inasmuch as I was particularly well qualified by my experience to write in an authoritative way concerning it. The fact is that I,—for it is myself who am speaking,—have recently arrived at the age of threescore years and twenty,—fourscore years we may otherwise call it. In the arrangement of our table, I am Teacup Number One, and I may as well say that I am often spoken of as The Dictator. There is nothing invidious in this, as I am the oldest of the company, and no claim is less likely to excite jealousy than that of priority of birth.
I received congratulations on reaching my eightieth birthday, not only from our circle of Teacups, but from friends, near and distant, in large numbers. I tried to acknowledge these kindly missives with the aid of a most intelligent secretary; but I fear that there were gifts not thanked for, and tokens of good-will not recognized. Let any neglected correspondent be assured that it was not intentionally that he or she was slighted. I was grateful for every such mark of esteem; even for the telegram from an unknown friend in a distant land, for which I cheerfully paid the considerable charge which the sender doubtless knew it would give me pleasure to disburse for such an expression of friendly feeling.
I will not detain the reader any longer from the essay I have promised.
This is the paper read to The Teacups.
It is in A Song of Moses that we find the words, made very familiar to us by the Episcopal Burial Service, which place the natural limit on life at threescore years and ten, with an extra ten years for some of a stronger constitution than the average. Yet we are told that Moses himself lived to be a hundred and twenty years old, and that his eye was not dim nor his natural strength abated. This is hard to accept literally, but we need not doubt that he was very old, and in remarkably good condition for a man of his age. Among his followers was a stout old captain, Caleb, the son of Jephunneh. This ancient warrior speaks of himself in these brave terms: "Lo, I am this day fourscore and five years old. As yet, I am as strong this day as I was in the day that Moses sent me; as my strength was then, even so is my strength now, for war, both to go out and to come in." It is not likely that anybody believed his brag about his being as good a man for active service at eighty-five as he was at forty, when Moses sent him out to spy the land of Canaan. But he was, no doubt, lusty and vigorous for his years, and ready to smite the Canaanites hip and thigh, and drive them out, and take possession of their land, as he did forthwith, when Moses gave him leave.
Grand old men there were, three thousand years ago! But not all octogenarians were like Caleb, the son of Jephunneh. Listen to poor old Barzillai, and hear him piping: "I am this day fourscore years old; and can I discern between good and evil? Can thy servant taste what I eat or what I drink? Can I hear any more the voice of singing men and singing women? Wherefore, then, should thy servant be yet a burden unto my lord the king?" And poor King David was worse off than this, as you all remember, at the early age of seventy.
Thirty centuries do not seem to have made any very great difference in the extreme limits of life. Without pretending to rival the alleged cases of life prolonged beyond the middle of its second century, such as those of Henry Jenkins and Thomas Parr, we can make a good showing of centenarians and nonagenarians. I myself remember Dr. Holyoke, of Salem, son of a president of Harvard College, who answered a toast proposed in his honor at a dinner given to him on his hundredth birthday.
"Father Cleveland," our venerated city missionary, was born June 21, 1772, and died June 5, 1872, within a little more than a fortnight of his hundredth birthday. Colonel Perkins, of Connecticut, died recently after celebrating his centennial anniversary.
Among nonagenarians, three whose names are well known to Bostonians, Lord Lyndhurst, Josiah Quincy, and Sidney Bartlett, were remarkable for retaining their faculties in their extreme age. That patriarch of our American literature, the illustrious historian of his country, is still with us, his birth dating in 1800.
Ranke, the great German historian, died at the age of ninety-one, and Chevreul, the eminent chemist, at that of a hundred and two.
Some English sporting characters have furnished striking examples of robust longevity. In Gilpin's "Forest Scenery" there is the story of one of these horseback heroes. Henry Hastings was the name of this old gentleman, who lived in the time of Charles the First. It would be hard to find a better portrait of a hunting squire than that which the Earl of Shaftesbury has the credit of having drawn of this very peculiar personage. His description ends by saying, "He lived to be an hundred, and never lost his eyesight nor used spectacles. He got on horseback without help, and rode to the death of the stag till he was past fourscore."
Everything depends on habit. Old people can do, of course, more or less well, what they have been doing all their lives; but try to teach them any new tricks, and the truth of the old adage will very soon show itself. Mr. Henry Hastings had done nothing but hunt all his days, and his record would seem to have been a good deal like that of Philippus Zaehdarm in that untranslatable epitaph which may be found in "Sartor Resartus." Judged by its products, it was a very short life of a hundred useless twelve months.
It is something to have climbed the white summit, the Mont Blanc of fourscore. A small number only of mankind ever see their eightieth anniversary. I might go to the statistical tables of the annuity and life insurance offices for extended and exact information, but I prefer to take the facts which have impressed themselves upon me in my own career.
The class of 1829 at Harvard College, of which I am a member, graduated, according to the triennial, fifty-nine in number. It is sixty years, then, since that time; and as they were, on an average, about twenty years old, those who survive must have reached fourscore years. Of the fifty-nine graduates ten only are living, or were at the last accounts; one in six, very nearly. In the first ten years after graduation, our third decade, when we were between twenty and thirty years old, we lost three members,—about one in twenty; between the ages of thirty and forty, eight died,—one in seven of those the decade began with; from forty to fifty, only two,—or one in twenty-four; from fifty to sixty, eight,—or one in six; from sixty to seventy, fifteen,—or two out of every five; from seventy to eighty, twelve,—or one in two. The greatly increased mortality which began with our seventh decade went on steadily increasing. At sixty we come "within range of the rifle-pits," to borrow an expression from my friend Weir Mitchell.
Our eminent classmate, the late Professor Benjamin Peirce, showed by numerical comparison that the men of superior ability outlasted the average of their fellow-graduates. He himself lived a little beyond his threescore and ten years. James Freeman Clarke almost reached the age of eighty. The eighth decade brought the fatal year for Benjamin Robbins Curtis, the great lawyer, who was one of the judges of the Supreme Court of the United States; for the very able chief justice of Massachusetts, George Tyler Bigelow; and for that famous wit and electric centre of social life, George T. Davis. At the last annual dinner every effort was made to bring all the survivors of the class together. Six of the ten living members were there, six old men in the place of the thirty or forty classmates who surrounded the long, oval table in 1859, when I asked, "Has there any old fellow got mixed with the boys?"—11 boys whose tongues were as the vibrating leaves of the forest; whose talk was like the voice of many waters; whose laugh was as the breaking of mighty waves upon the seashore. Among the six at our late dinner was our first scholar, the thorough-bred and accomplished engineer who held the city of Lawrence in his brain before it spread itself out along the banks of the Merrimac. There, too, was the poet whose National Hymn, "My Country, 't is of thee," is known to more millions, and dearer to many of them, than all the other songs written since the Psalms of David. Four of our six were clergymen; the engineer and the present writer completed the list. Were we melancholy? Did we talk of graveyards and epitaphs? No,—we remembered our dead tenderly, serenely, feeling deeply what we had lost in those who but a little while ago were with us. How could we forget James Freeman Clarke, that man of noble thought and vigorous action, who pervaded this community with his spirit, and was felt through all its channels as are the light and the strength that radiate through the wires which stretch above us? It was a pride and a happiness to have such classmates as he was to remember. We were not the moping, complaining graybeards that many might suppose we must have been. We had been favored with the blessing of long life. We had seen the drama well into its fifth act. The sun still warmed us, the air was still grateful and life-giving. But there was another underlying source of our cheerful equanimity, which we could not conceal from ourselves if we had wished to do it. Nature's kindly anodyne is telling upon us more and more with every year. Our old doctors used to give an opiate which they called "the black drop." It was stronger than laudanum, and, in fact, a dangerously powerful narcotic. Something like this is that potent drug in Nature's pharmacopoeia which she reserves for the time of need,—the later stages of life. She commonly begins administering it at about the time of the "grand climacteric," the ninth septennial period, the sixty-third year. More and more freely she gives it, as the years go on, to her grey-haired children, until, if they last long enough, every faculty is benumbed, and they drop off quietly into sleep under its benign influence.
Do you say that old age is unfeeling? It has not vital energy enough to supply the waste of the more exhausting emotions. Old Men's Tears, which furnished the mournful title to Joshua Scottow's Lamentations, do not suggest the deepest grief conceivable. A little breath of wind brings down the raindrops which have gathered on the leaves of the tremulous poplars. A very slight suggestion brings the tears from Marlborough's eyes, but they are soon over, and he is smiling again as an allusion carries him back to the days of Blenheim and Malplaquet. Envy not the old man the tranquillity of his existence, nor yet blame him if it sometimes looks like apathy. Time, the inexorable, does not threaten him with the scythe so often as with the sand-bag. He does not cut, but he stuns and stupefies. One's fellow-mortals can afford to be as considerate and tender with him as Time and Nature.
There was not much boasting among us of our present or our past, as we sat together in the little room at the great hotel. A certain amount of self-deception is quite possible at threescore years and ten, but at three score years and twenty Nature has shown most of those who live to that age that she is earnest, and means to dismantle and have done with them in a very little while. As for boasting of our past, the laudator temporis acti makes but a poor figure in our time. Old people used to talk of their youth as if there were giants in those days. We knew some tall men when we were young, but we can see a man taller than any one among them at the nearest dime museum. We had handsome women among us, of high local reputation, but nowadays we have professional beauties who challenge the world to criticise them as boldly as Phryne ever challenged her Athenian admirers. We had fast horses,—did not "Old Blue" trot a mile in three minutes? True, but there is a three-year-old colt just put on the track who has done it in a little more than two thirds of that time. It seems as if the material world had been made over again since we were boys. It is but a short time since we were counting up the miracles we had lived to witness. The list is familiar enough: the railroad, the ocean steamer, photography, the spectroscope, the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, anesthetics, electric illumination,—with such lesser wonders as the friction match, the sewing machine, and the bicycle. And now, we said, we must have come to the end of these unparalleled developments of the forces of nature. We must rest on our achievements. The nineteenth century is not likely to add to them; we must wait for the twentieth century. Many of us, perhaps most of us, felt in that way. We had seen our planet furnished by the art of man with a complete nervous system: a spinal cord beneath the ocean, secondary centres,—ganglions,—in all the chief places where men are gathered together, and ramifications extending throughout civilization. All at once, by the side of this talking and light-giving apparatus, we see another wire stretched over our heads, carrying force to a vast metallic muscular system,—a slender cord conveying the strength of a hundred men, of a score of horses, of a team of elephants. The lightning is tamed and harnessed, the thunderbolt has become a common carrier. No more surprises in this century! A voice whispers, What next?
It will not do for us to boast about our young days and what they had to show. It is a great deal better to boast of what they could not show, and, strange as it may seem, there is a certain satisfaction in it. In these days of electric lighting, when you have only to touch a button and your parlor or bedroom is instantly flooded with light, it is a pleasure to revert to the era of the tinder-box, the flint and steel, and the brimstone match. It gives me an almost proud satisfaction to tell how we used, when those implements were not at hand or not employed, to light our whale-oil lamp by blowing a live coal held against the wick, often swelling our cheeks and reddening our faces until we were on the verge of apoplexy. I love to tell of our stage-coach experiences, of our sailing-packet voyages, of the semi-barbarous destitution of all modern comforts and conveniences through which we bravely lived and came out the estimable personages you find us.
Think of it! All my boyish shooting was done with a flint-lock gun; the percussion lock came to me as one of those new-fangled notions people had just got hold of. We ancients can make a grand display of minus quantities in our reminiscences, and the figures look almost as well as if they had the plus sign before them.
I am afraid that old people found life rather a dull business in the time of King David and his rich old subject and friend, Barzillai, who, poor man, could not have read a wicked novel, nor enjoyed a symphony concert, if they had had those luxuries in his day. There were no pleasant firesides, for there were no chimneys. There were no daily newspapers for the old man to read, and he could not read them if there were, with his dimmed eyes, nor hear them read, very probably, with his dulled ears. There was no tobacco, a soothing drug, which in its various forms is a great solace to many old men and to some old women, Carlyle and his mother used to smoke their pipes together, you remember.
Old age is infinitely more cheerful, for intelligent people at least, than it was two or three thousand years ago. It is our duty, so far as we can, to keep it so. There will always be enough about it that is solemn, and more than enough, alas! that is saddening. But how much there is in our times to lighten its burdens! If they that look out at the windows be darkened, the optician is happy to supply them with eye-glasses for use before the public, and spectacles for their hours of privacy. If the grinders cease because they are few, they can be made many again by a third dentition, which brings no toothache in its train. By temperance and good Habits of life, proper clothing, well-warmed, well-drained, and well-ventilated dwellings, and sufficient, not too much exercise, the old man of our time may keep his muscular strength in very good condition. I doubt if Mr. Gladstone, who is fast nearing his eightieth birthday, would boast, in the style of Caleb, that he was as good a man with his axe as he was when he was forty, but I would back him,—if the match were possible, for a hundred shekels, against that over-confident old Israelite, to cut down and chop up a cedar of Lebanon. I know a most excellent clergyman, not far from my own time of life, whom I would pit against any old Hebrew rabbi or Greek philosopher of his years and weight, if they could return to the flesh, to run a quarter of a mile on a good, level track.
We must not make too much of such exceptional cases of prolonged activity. I often reproached my dear friend and classmate, Tames Freeman Clarke, that his ceaseless labors made it impossible for his coevals to enjoy the luxury of that repose which their years demanded. A wise old man, the late Dr. James Walker, president of Harvard University, said that the great privilege of old age was the getting rid of responsibilities. These hard-working veterans will not let one get rid of them until he drops in his harness, and so gets rid of them and his life together. How often has many a tired old man envied the superannuated family cat, stretched upon the rug before the fire, letting the genial warmth tranquilly diffuse itself through all her internal arrangements! No more watching for mice in dark, damp cellars, no more awaiting the savage gray rat at the mouth of his den, no more scurrying up trees and lamp-posts to avoid the neighbor's cur who wishes to make her acquaintance! It is very grand to "die in harness," but it is very pleasant to have the tight straps unbuckled and the heavy collar lifted from the neck and shoulders.
It is natural enough to cling to life. We are used to atmospheric existence, and can hardly conceive of ourselves except as breathing creatures. We have never tried any other mode of being, or, if we have, we have forgotten all about it, whatever Wordsworth's grand ode may tell us we remember. Heaven itself must be an experiment to every human soul which shall find itself there. It may take time for an earthborn saint to become acclimated to the celestial ether,—that is, if time can be said to exist for a disembodied spirit. We are all sentenced to capital punishment for the crime of living, and though the condemned cell of our earthly existence is but a narrow and bare dwelling-place, we have adjusted ourselves to it, and made it tolerably comfortable for the little while we are to be confined in it. The prisoner of Chillon
"regained [his] freedom with a sigh,"
and a tender-hearted mortal might be pardoned for looking back, like the poor lady who was driven from her dwelling-place by fire and brimstone, at the home he was leaving for the "undiscovered country."
On the other hand, a good many persons, not suicidal in their tendencies, get more of life than they want. One of our wealthy citizens said, on hearing that a friend had dropped off from apoplexy, that it made his mouth water to hear of such a case. It was an odd expression, but I have no doubt that the fine old gentleman to whom it was attributed made use of it. He had had enough of his gout and other infirmities. Swift's account of the Struldbrugs is not very amusing reading for old people, but some may find it a consolation to reflect on the probable miseries they escape in not being doomed to an undying earthly existence.
There are strange diversities in the way in which different old persons look upon their prospects. A millionaire whom I well remember confessed that he should like to live long enough to learn how much a certain fellow-citizen, a multimillionaire, was worth. One of the three nonagenarians before referred to expressed himself as having a great curiosity about the new sphere of existence to which he was looking forward.
The feeling must of necessity come to many aged persons that they have outlived their usefulness; that they are no longer wanted, but rather in the way, drags on the wheels rather than helping them forward. But let them remember the often-quoted line of Milton,
"They also serve who only stand and wait."
This is peculiarly true of them. They are helping others without always being aware of it. They are the shields, the breakwaters, of those who come after them. Every decade is a defence of the one next behind it. At thirty the youth has sobered into manhood, but the strong men of forty rise in almost unbroken rank between him and the approaches of old age as they show in the men of fifty. At forty he looks with a sense of security at the strong men of fifty, and sees behind them the row of sturdy sexagenarians. When fifty is reached, somehow sixty does not look so old as it once used to, and seventy is still afar off. After sixty the stern sentence of the burial service seems to have a meaning that one did not notice in former years. There begins to be something personal about it. But if one lives to seventy he soon gets used to the text with the threescore years and ten in it, and begins to count himself among those who by reason of strength are destined to reach fourscore, of whom he can see a number still in reasonably good condition. The octogenarian loves to read about people of ninety and over. He peers among the asterisks of the triennial catalogue of the University for the names of graduates who have been seventy years out of college and remain still unstarred. He is curious about the biographies of centenarians. Such escapades as those of that terrible old sinner and ancestor of great men, the Reverend Stephen Bachelder, interest him as they never did before. But he cannot deceive himself much longer. See him walking on a level surface, and he steps off almost as well as ever; but watch him coming down a flight of stairs, and the family record could not tell his years more faithfully. He cut you dead, you say? Did it occur to you that he could not see you clearly enough to know you from any other son or daughter of Adam? He said he was very glad to hear it, did he, when you told him that your beloved grandmother had just deceased? Did you happen to remember that though he does not allow that he is deaf, he will not deny that he does not hear quite so well as he used to? No matter about his failings; the longer he holds on to life, the longer he makes life seem to all the living who follow him, and thus he is their constant benefactor.
Every stage of existence has its special trials and its special consolations. Habits are the crutches of old age; by the aid of these we manage to hobble along after the mental joints are stiff and the muscles rheumatic, to speak metaphorically,—that is to say, when every act of self-determination costs an effort and a pang. We become more and more automatic as we grow older, and if we lived long enough we should come to be pieces of creaking machinery like Maelzel's chess player,—or what that seemed to be.
Emerson was sixty-three years old, the year I have referred to as that of the grand climacteric, when he read to his son the poem he called "Terminus," beginning:
"It is time to be old, To take in sail. The God of bounds, Who sets to seas a shore, Came to me in his fatal rounds And said, 'No more!'"
It was early in life to feel that the productive stage was over, but he had received warning from within, and did not wish to wait for outside advices. There is all the difference in the world in the mental as in the bodily constitution of different individuals. Some must "take in sail" sooner, some later. We can get a useful lesson from the American and the English elms on our Common. The American elms are quite bare, and have been so for weeks. They know very well that they are going to have storms to wrestle with; they have not forgotten the gales of September and the tempests of the late autumn and early winter. It is a hard fight they are going to have, and they strip their coats off and roll up their shirt-sleeves, and show themselves bare-armed and ready for the contest. The English elms are of a more robust build, and stand defiant, with all their summer clothing about their sturdy frames. They may yet have to learn a lesson of their American cousins, for notwithstanding their compact and solid structure they go to pieces in the great winds just as ours do. We must drop much of our foliage before winter is upon us. We must take in sail and throw over cargo, if that is necessary, to keep us afloat. We have to decide between our duties and our instinctive demand of rest. I can believe that some have welcomed the decay of their active powers because it furnished them with peremptory reasons for sparing themselves during the few years that were left them.
Age brings other obvious changes besides the loss of active power. The sensibilities are less keen, the intelligence is less lively, as we might expect under the influence of that narcotic which Nature administers. But there is another effect of her "black drop" which is not so commonly recognized. Old age is like an opium-dream. Nothing seems real except what is unreal. I am sure that the pictures painted by the imagination,—the faded frescos on the walls of memory,—come out in clearer and brighter colors than belonged to them many years earlier. Nature has her special favors for her children of every age, and this is one which she reserves for our second childhood.
No man can reach an advanced age without thinking of that great change to which, in the course of nature, he must be so near. It has been remarked that the sterner beliefs of rigid theologians are apt to soften in their later years. All reflecting persons, even those whose minds have been half palsied by the deadly dogmas which have done all they could to disorganize their thinking powers,—all reflecting persons, I say, must recognize, in looking back over a long life, how largely their creeds, their course of life, their wisdom and unwisdom, their whole characters, were shaped by the conditions which surrounded them. Little children they came from the hands of the Father of all; little children in their helplessness, their ignorance, they are going back to Him. They cannot help feeling that they are to be transferred from the rude embrace of the boisterous elements to arms that will receive them tenderly. Poor planetary foundlings, they have known hard treatment at the hands of the brute forces of nature, from the control of which they are soon to be set free. There are some old pessimists, it is true, who believe that they and a few others are on a raft, and that the ship which they have quitted, holding the rest of mankind, is going down with all on board. It is no wonder that there should be such when we remember what have been the teachings of the priesthood through long series of ignorant centuries. Every age has to shape the Divine image it worships over again,—the present age and our own country are busily engaged in the task at this time. We unmake Presidents and make new ones. This is an apprenticeship for a higher task. Our doctrinal teachers are unmaking the Deity of the Westminster Catechism and trying to model a new one, with more of modern humanity and less of ancient barbarism in his composition. If Jonathan Edwards had lived long enough, I have no doubt his creed would have softened into a kindly, humanized belief.
Some twenty or thirty years ago, I said to Longfellow that certain statistical tables I had seen went to show that poets were not a long-lived race. He doubted whether there was anything to prove they were particularly short-lived. Soon after this, he handed me a list he had drawn up. I cannot lay my hand upon it at this moment, but I remember that Metastasio was the oldest of them all. He died at the age of eighty-four. I have had some tables made out, which I have every reason to believe are correct so far as they go. From these, it appears that twenty English poets lived to the average age of fifty-six years and a little over. The eight American poets on the list averaged seventy-three and a half, nearly, and they are not all dead yet. The list including Greek, Latin, Italian, and German poets, with American and English, gave an average of a little over sixty-two years. Our young poets need not be alarmed. They can remember that Bryant lived to be eighty-three years old, that Longfellow reached seventy-five and Halleck seventy-seven, while Whittier is living at the age of nearly eighty-two. Tennyson is still writing at eighty, and Browning reached the age of seventy-seven.
Shall a man who in his younger days has written poetry, or what passed for it, continue to attempt it in his later years? Certainly, if it amuses or interests him, no one would object to his writing in verse as much as he likes. Whether he should continue to write for the public is another question. Poetry is a good deal a matter of heart-beats, and the circulation is more languid in the later period of life. The joints are less supple; the arteries are more or less "ossified." Something like these changes has taken place in the mind. It has lost the flexibility, the plastic docility, which it had in youth and early manhood, when the gristle had but just become hardened into bone. It is the nature of poetry to writhe itself along through the tangled growths of the vocabulary, as a snake winds through the grass, in sinuous, complex, and unexpected curves, which crack every joint that is not supple as india-rubber.
I had a poem that I wanted to print just here. But after what I have this moment said, I hesitated, thinking that I might provoke the obvious remark that I exemplified the unfitness of which I had been speaking. I remembered the advice I had given to a poetical aspirant not long since, which I think deserves a paragraph to itself.
My friend, I said, I hope you will not write in verse. When you write in prose you say what you mean. When you write in rhyme you say what you must.
Should I send this poem to the publishers, or not?
"Some said, 'John, print it;' others said, 'Not so.'"
I did not ask "some" or "others." Perhaps I should have thought it best to keep my poem to myself and the few friends for whom it was written. All at once, my daimon—that other Me over whom I button my waistcoat when I button it over my own person—put it into my head to look up the story of Madame Saqui. She was a famous danseuse, who danced Napoleon in and out, and several other dynasties besides. Her last appearance was at the age of seventy-six, which is rather late in life for the tight rope, one of her specialties. Jules Janin mummified her when she died in 1866, at the age of eighty. He spiced her up in his eulogy as if she had been the queen of a modern Pharaoh. His foamy and flowery rhetoric put me into such a state of good-nature that I said, I will print my poem, and let the critical Gil Blas handle it as he did the archbishop's sermon, or would have done, if he had been a writer for the "Salamanca Weekly."
It must be premised that a very beautiful loving cup was presented to me on my recent birthday, by eleven ladies of my acquaintance. This was the most costly and notable of all the many tributes I received, and for which in different forms I expressed my gratitude.
TO THE ELEVEN LADIES
WHO PRESENTED ME WITH A SILVER LOVING CUP ON THE TWENTY-NINTH OF AUGUST, M DCCC LXXXIX.
"Who gave this cup?" The secret thou wouldst steal Its brimming flood forbids it to reveal: No mortal's eye shall read it till he first Cool the red throat of thirst.
If on the golden floor one draught remain, Trust me, thy careful search will be in vain; Not till the bowl is emptied shalt thou know The names enrolled below.
Deeper than Truth lies buried in her well Those modest names the graven letters spell Hide from the sight; but, wait, and thou shalt see Who the good angels be
Whose bounty glistens in the beauteous gift That friendly hands to loving lips shall lift: Turn the fair goblet when its floor is dry, Their names shall meet thine eye.
Count thou their number on the beads of Heaven, Alas! the clustered Pleiads are but seven; Nay, the nine sister Muses are too few, —The Graces must add two.
"For whom this gift?" For one who all too long Clings to his bough among the groves of song; Autumn's last leaf, that spreads its faded wing To greet a second spring.
Dear friends, kind friends, whate'er the cup may hold, Bathing its burnished depths, will change to gold Its last bright drop let thirsty Maenads drain, Its fragrance will remain.
Better love's perfume in the empty bowl Than wine's nepenthe for the aching soul Sweeter than song that ever poet sung, It makes an old heart young!
After the reading of the paper which was reported in the preceding number of this record, the company fell into talk upon the subject with which it dealt.
The Mistress. "I could have wished you had said more about the religious attitude of old age as such. Surely the thoughts of aged persons must be very much taken up with the question of what is to become of them. I should like to have The Dictator explain himself a little more fully on this point."
My dear madam, I said, it is a delicate matter to talk about. You remember Mr. Calhoun's response to the advances of an over-zealous young clergyman who wished to examine him as to his outfit for the long journey. I think the relations between man and his Maker grow more intimate, more confidential, if I may say so, with advancing years. The old man is less disposed to argue about special matters of belief, and more ready to sympathize with spiritually minded persons without anxious questioning as to the fold to which they belong. That kindly judgment which he exercises with regard to others he will, naturally enough, apply to himself. The caressing tone in which the Emperor Hadrian addresses his soul is very much like that of an old person talking with a grandchild or some other pet:
"Animula, vagula, blandula, Hospes comesque corporis."
"Dear little, flitting, pleasing sprite, The body's comrade and its guest."
How like the language of Catullus to Lesbia's sparrow!
More and more the old man finds his pleasures in memory, as the present becomes unreal and dreamlike, and the vista of his earthly future narrows and closes in upon him. At last, if he live long enough, life comes to be little more than a gentle and peaceful delirium of pleasing recollections. To say, as Dante says, that there is no greater grief than to remember past happiness in the hour of misery is not giving the whole truth. In the midst of the misery, as many would call it, of extreme old age, there is often a divine consolation in recalling the happy moments and days and years of times long past. So beautiful are the visions of bygone delight that one could hardly wish them to become real, lest they should lose their ineffable charm. I can almost conceive of a dozing and dreamy centenarian saying to one he loves, "Go, darling, go! Spread your wings and leave me. So shall you enter that world of memory where all is lovely. I shall not hear the sound of your footsteps any more, but you will float before me, an aerial presence. I shall not hear any word from your lips, but I shall have a deeper sense of your nearness to me than speech can give. I shall feel, in my still solitude, as the Ancient Mariner felt when the seraph band gathered before him:
"'No voice did they impart No voice; but oh! the silence sank Like music on my heart.'"
I said that the lenient way in which the old look at the failings of others naturally leads them to judge themselves more charitably. They find an apology for their short-comings and wrong-doings in another consideration. They know very well that they are not the same persons as the middle-aged individuals, the young men, the boys, the children, that bore their names, and whose lives were continuous with theirs. Here is an old man who can remember the first time he was allowed to go shooting. What a remorseless young destroyer he was, to be sure! Wherever he saw a feather, wherever a poor little squirrel showed his bushy tail, bang! went the old "king's arm," and the feathers or the fur were set flying like so much chaff. Now that same old man,—the mortal that was called by his name and has passed for the same person for some scores of years,—is considered absurdly sentimental by kind-hearted women, because he opens the fly-trap and sets all its captives free,—out-of-doors, of course, but the dear souls all insisting, meanwhile, that the flies will, every one of them, be back again in the house before the day is over. Do you suppose that venerable sinner expects to be rigorously called to account for the want of feeling he showed in those early years, when the instinct of destruction, derived from his forest-roaming ancestors, led him to acts which he now looks upon with pain and aversion?
"Senex" has seen three generations grow up, the son repeating the virtues and the failings of the father, the grandson showing the same characteristics as the father and grandfather. He knows that if such or such a young fellow had lived to the next stage of life he would very probably have caught up with his mother's virtues, which, like a graft of a late fruit on an early apple or pear tree, do not ripen in her children until late in the season. He has seen the successive ripening of one quality after another on the boughs of his own life, and he finds it hard to condemn himself for faults which only needed time to fall off and be succeeded by better fruitage. I cannot help thinking that the recording angel not only drops a tear upon many a human failing, which blots it out forever, but that he hands many an old record-book to the imp that does his bidding, and orders him to throw that into the fire instead of the sinner for whom the little wretch had kindled it.
"And pitched him in after it, I hope," said Number Seven, who is in some points as much of an optimist as any one among us, in spite of the squint in his brain,—or in virtue of it, if you choose to have it so.
"I like Wordsworth's 'Matthew,'" said Number Five, "as well as any picture of old age I remember."
"Can you repeat it to us?" asked one of The Teacups.
"I can recall two verses of it," said Number Five, and she recited the two following ones. Number Five has a very sweet voice. The moment she speaks all the faces turn toward her. I don't know what its secret is, but it is a voice that makes friends of everybody.
"'The sighs which Matthew heaved were sighs Of one tired out with fun and madness; The tears which came to Matthew's eyes Were tears of light, the dew of gladness.
"'Yet, sometimes, when the secret cup Of still and serious thought went round, It seemed as if he drank it up, He felt with spirit so profound:'
"This was the way in which Wordsworth paid his tribute to a
"'Soul of God's best earthly mould.'"
The sweet voice left a trance-like silence after it, which may have lasted twenty heart-beats. Then I said, We all thank you for your charming quotation. How much more wholesome a picture of humanity than such stuff as the author of the "Night Thoughts" has left us:
"Heaven's Sovereign saves all beings but Himself That hideous sight, a naked human heart."
Or the author of "Don Juan," telling us to look into
"Man's heart, and view the hell that's there!"
I hope I am quoting correctly, but I am more of a scholar in Wordsworth than in Byron. Was Parson Young's own heart such a hideous spectacle to himself?
If it was, he had better have stripped off his surplice. No,—it was nothing but the cant of his calling. In Byron it was a mood, and he might have said just the opposite thing the next day, as he did in his two descriptions of the Venus de' Medici. That picture of old Matthew abides in the memory, and makes one think better of his kind. What nobler tasks has the poet than to exalt the idea of manhood, and to make the world we live in more beautiful?
We have two or three young people with us who stand a fair chance of furnishing us the element without which life and tea-tables alike are wanting in interest. We are all, of course, watching them, and curious to know whether we are to have a romance or not. Here is one of them; others will show themselves presently.
I cannot say just how old the Tutor is, but I do not detect a gray hair in his head. My sight is not so good as it was, however, and he may have turned the sharp corner of thirty, and even have left it a year or two behind him. More probably he is still in the twenties,—say twenty-eight or twenty-nine. He seems young, at any rate, excitable, enthusiastic, imaginative, but at the same time reserved. I am afraid that he is a poet. When I say "I am afraid," you wonder what I mean by the expression. I may take another opportunity to explain and justify it; I will only say now that I consider the Muse the most dangerous of sirens to a young man who has his way to make in the world. Now this young man, the Tutor, has, I believe, a future before him. He was born for a philosopher,—so I read his horoscope,—but he has a great liking for poetry and can write well in verse. We have had a number of poems offered for our entertainment, which I have commonly been requested to read. There has been some little mystery about their authorship, but it is evident that they are not all from the same hand. Poetry is as contagious as measles, and if a single case of it break out in any social circle, or in a school, there are certain to be a number of similar cases, some slight, some serious, and now and then one so malignant that the subject of it should be put on a spare diet of stationery, say from two to three penfuls of ink and a half sheet of notepaper per diem. If any of our poetical contributions are presentable, the reader shall have a chance to see them.
It must be understood that our company is not invariably made up of the same persons. The Mistress, as we call her, is expected to be always in her place. I make it a rule to be present. The Professor is almost as sure to be at the table as I am. We should hardly know what to do without Number Five. It takes a good deal of tact to handle such a little assembly as ours, which is a republic on a small scale, for all that they give me the title of Dictator, and Number Five is a great help in every social emergency. She sees when a discussion tends to become personal, and heads off the threatening antagonists. She knows when a subject has been knocking about long enough and dexterously shifts the talk to another track. It is true that I am the one most frequently appealed to as the highest tribunal in doubtful cases, but I often care more for Number Five's opinion than I do for my own. Who is this Number Five, so fascinating, so wise, so full of knowledge, and so ready to learn? She is suspected of being the anonymous author of a book which produced a sensation when published, not very long ago, and which those who read are very apt to read a second time, and to leave on their tables for frequent reference. But we have never asked her. I do not think she wants to be famous. How she comes to be unmarried is a mystery to me; it must be that she has found nobody worth caring enough for. I wish she would furnish us with the romance which, as I said, our tea-table needs to make it interesting. Perhaps the new-comer will make love to her,—I should think it possible she might fancy him.
And who is the new-comer? He is a Counsellor and a Politician. Has a good war record. Is about forty-five years old, I conjecture. Is engaged in a great law case just now. Said to be very eloquent. Has an intellectual head, and the bearing of one who has commanded a regiment or perhaps a brigade. Altogether an attractive person, scholarly, refined has some accomplishments not so common as they might be in the class we call gentlemen, with an accent on the word.
There is also a young Doctor, waiting for his bald spot to come, so that he may get into practice.
We have two young ladies at the table,—the English girl referred to in a former number, and an American girl of about her own age. Both of them are students in one of those institutions—I am not sure whether they call it an "annex" or not; but at any rate one of those schools where they teach the incomprehensible sort of mathematics and other bewildering branches of knowledge above the common level of high-school education. They seem to be good friends, and form a very pleasing pair when they walk in arm in arm; nearly enough alike to seem to belong together, different enough to form an agreeable contrast.
Of course we were bound to have a Musician at our table, and we have one who sings admirably, and accompanies himself, or one or more of our ladies, very frequently.
Such is our company when the table is full. But sometimes only half a dozen, or it may be only three or four, are present. At other times we have a visitor or two, either in the place of one of our habitual number, or in addition to it. We have the elements, we think, of a pleasant social gathering,—different sexes, ages, pursuits, and tastes,—all that is required for a "symphony concert" of conversation. One of the curious questions which might well be asked by those who had been with us on different occasions would be, "How many poets are there among you?" Nobody can answer this question. It is a point of etiquette with us not to press our inquiries about these anonymous poems too sharply, especially if any of them betray sentiments which would not bear rough handling.
I don't doubt that the different personalities at our table will get mixed up in the reader's mind if he is not particularly clear-headed. That happens very often, much oftener than all would be willing to confess, in reading novels and plays. I am afraid we should get a good deal confused even in reading our Shakespeare if we did not look back now and then at the dramatis personae. I am sure that I am very apt to confound the characters in a moderately interesting novel; indeed, I suspect that the writer is often no better off than the reader in the dreary middle of the story, when his characters have all made their appearance, and before they have reached near enough to the denoument to have fixed their individuality by the position they have arrived at in the chain of the narrative.
My reader might be a little puzzled when he read that Number Five did or said such or such a thing, and ask, "Whom do you mean by that title? I am not quite sure that I remember." Just associate her with that line of Emerson,
"Why nature loves the number five,"
and that will remind you that she is the favorite of our table.
You cannot forget who Number Seven is if I inform you that he specially prides himself on being a seventh son of a seventh son. The fact of such a descent is supposed to carry wonderful endowments with it. Number Seven passes for a natural healer. He is looked upon as a kind of wizard, and is lucky in living in the nineteenth century instead of the sixteenth or earlier. How much confidence he feels in himself as the possessor of half-supernatural gifts I cannot say. I think his peculiar birthright gives him a certain confidence in his whims and fancies which but for that he would hardly feel. After this explanation, when I speak of Number Five or Number Seven, you will know to whom I refer.
The company are very frank in their criticisms of each other. "I did not like that expression of yours, planetary foundlings," said the Mistress. "It seems to me that it is too like atheism for a good Christian like you to use."
Ah, my dear madam, I answered, I was thinking of the elements and the natural forces to which man was born an almost helpless subject in the rudimentary stages of his existence, and from which he has only partially got free after ages upon ages of warfare with their tyranny. Think what hunger forced the caveman to do! Think of the surly indifference of the storms that swept the forest and the waters, the earthquake chasms that engulfed him, the inundations that drowned him out of his miserable hiding-places, the pestilences that lay in wait for him, the unequal strife with ferocious animals! I need not sum up all the wretchedness that goes to constitute the "martyrdom of man." When our forefathers came to this wilderness as it then was, and found everywhere the bones of the poor natives who had perished in the great plague (which our Doctor there thinks was probably the small-pox), they considered this destructive malady as a special mark of providential favor for them. How about the miserable Indians? Were they anything but planetary foundlings? No! Civilization is a great foundling hospital, and fortunate are all those who get safely into the creche before the frost or the malaria has killed them, the wild beasts or the venomous reptiles worked out their deadly appetites and instincts upon them. The very idea of humanity seems to be that it shall take care of itself and develop its powers in the "struggle for life." Whether we approve it or not, if we can judge by the material record, man was born a foundling, and fought his way as he best might to that kind of existence which we call civilized,—one which a considerable part of the inhabitants of our planet have reached.
If you do not like the expression planetary foundlings, I have no objection to your considering the race as put out to nurse. And what a nurse Nature is! She gives her charge a hole in the rocks to live in, ice for his pillow and snow for his blanket, in one part of the world; the jungle for his bedroom in another, with the tiger for his watch-dog, and the cobra as his playfellow.
Well, I said, there may be other parts of the universe where there are no tigers and no cobras. It is not quite certain that such realms of creation are better off, on the whole, than this earthly residence of ours, which has fought its way up to the development of such centres of civilization as Athens and Rome, to such personalities as Socrates, as Washington.
"One of our company has been on an excursion among the celestial bodies of our system, I understand," said the Professor.
Number Five colored. "Nothing but a dream," she said. "The truth is, I had taken ether in the evening for a touch of neuralgia, and it set my imagination at work in a way quite unusual with me. I had been reading a number of books about an ideal condition of society,—Sir Thomas Mores 'Utopia,' Lord Bacon's 'New Atlantis,' and another of more recent date. I went to bed with my brain a good deal excited, and fell into a deep slumber, in which I passed through some experiences so singular that, on awaking, I put them down on paper. I don't know that there is anything very original about the experiences I have recorded, but I thought them worth preserving. Perhaps you would not agree with me in that belief."
"If Number Five will give us a chance to form our own judgment about her dream or vision, I think we shall enjoy it," said the Mistress. "She knows what will please The Teacups in the way of reading as well as I do how many lumps of sugar the Professor wants in his tea and how many I want in mine."
The company was so urgent that Number Five sent up-stairs for her paper.
Number Five reads the story of her dream.
It cost me a great effort to set down the words of the manuscript from which I am reading. My dreams for the most part fade away so soon after their occurrence that I cannot recall them at all. But in this case my ideas held together with remarkable tenacity. By keeping my mind steadily upon the work, I gradually unfolded the narrative which follows, as the famous Italian antiquary opened one of those fragile carbonized manuscripts found in the ruins of Herculaneum or Pompeii.
The first thing I remember about it is that I was floating upward, without any sense of effort on my part. The feeling was that of flying, which I have often had in dreams, as have many other persons. It was the most natural thing in the world,—a semi-materialized volition, if I may use such an expression.
At the first moment of my new consciousness,—for I seemed to have just emerged from a deep slumber, I was aware that there was a companion at my side. Nothing could be more gracious than the way in which this being accosted me. I will speak of it as she, because there was a delicacy, a sweetness, a divine purity, about its aspect that recalled my ideal of the loveliest womanhood.
"I am your companion and your guide," this being made me understand, as she looked at me. Some faculty of which I had never before been conscious had awakened in me, and I needed no interpreter to explain the unspoken language of my celestial attendant.
"You are not yet outside of space and time," she said, "and I am going with you through some parts of the phenomenal or apparent universe,—what you call the material world. We have plenty of what you call time before us, and we will take our voyage leisurely, looking at such objects of interest as may attract our attention as we pass. The first thing you will naturally wish to look at will be the earth you have just left. This is about the right distance," she said, and we paused in our flight.
The great globe we had left was rolling beneath us. No eye of one in the flesh could see it as I saw or seemed to see it. No ear of any mortal being could bear the sounds that came from it as I heard or seemed to hear them. The broad oceans unrolled themselves before me. I could recognize the calm Pacific and the stormy Atlantic,—the ships that dotted them, the white lines where the waves broke on the shore,—frills on the robes of the continents,—so they looked to my woman's perception; the—vast South American forests; the glittering icebergs about the poles; the snowy mountain ranges, here and there a summit sending up fire and smoke; mighty rivers, dividing provinces within sight of each other, and making neighbors of realms thousands of miles apart; cities; light-houses to insure the safety of sea-going vessels, and war-ships to knock them to pieces and sink them. All this, and infinitely more, showed itself to me during a single revolution of the sphere: twenty-four hours it would have been, if reckoned by earthly measurements of time. I have not spoken of the sounds I heard while the earth was revolving under us. The howl of storms, the roar and clash of waves, the crack and crash of the falling thunderbolt,—these of course made themselves heard as they do to mortal ears. But there were other sounds which enchained my attention more than these voices of nature. As the skilled leader of an orchestra hears every single sound from each member of the mob of stringed and wind instruments, and above all the screech of the straining soprano, so my sharpened perceptions made what would have been for common mortals a confused murmur audible to me as compounded of innumerable easily distinguished sounds. Above them all arose one continued, unbroken, agonizing cry. It was the voice of suffering womanhood, a sound that goes up day and night, one long chorus of tortured victims.