The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table
By Oliver Wendell Holmes
[ILLUSTRATION: Chapter 9 head-piece]
[Aquí está encerrada el alma del licenciado Pedro Garcias.
IF I should ever make a little book out of these papers, which I hope you are not getting tired of, I suppose I ought to save the above sentence for a motto on the title-page. But I want it now, and must use it. I need not say to you that the words are Spanish, nor that they are to be found in the short Introduction to "Gil Bias," nor that they mean, "Here lies buried the soul of the licentiate Pedro Garcias?"
I warned all young people off the premises when I began my notes referring to old age. I must be equally fair with old people now. They are earnestly requested to leave this paper to young persons from the age of twelve to that of four-score years and ten, at which latter period of life I am sure that I shall have at least one youthful reader. You know well enough what I mean by youth and age;--something in the soul, which has no more to do with the color of the hair than the vein of gold in a rock has to do with the grass a thousand feet above it.
I am growing bolder as I write. I think it requires not only youth, but genius, to read this paper. I don't mean to imply that it required any whatsoever to talk what I have here written down. It did demand a certain amount of memory, and such command of the English tongue as is given by a common school education. So much I do claim. But here I have related, at length, a string of trivialities. You must have the imagination of a poet to transfigure them. These little colored patches are stains upon the windows of a human soul; stand on the outside, they are but dull and meaningless spots of color; seen from within, they are glorified shapes with empurpled wings and sunbright aureoles.
My hand trembles when I offer you this. Many times I have come bearing flowers such as my garden grew; but now I offer you this poor, brown, homely growth, you may cast it away as worthless. And yet--and yet--it is something better than flowers; it is a seed-capsule. Many a gardener will cut you a bouquet of his choicest blossoms for small fee, but he does not love to let the seeds of his rarest varieties go out of his own hands.
It is by little things that we know ourselves; a soul would very probably mistake itself for another, when once disembodied, were it not for individual experiences which differ from those of others only in details seemingly trifling. All of us have been thirsty thousands of times, and felt, with Pindar, that water was the best of things. I alone, as I think, of all mankind, remember one particular pailful of water, flavored with the white-pine of which the pail was made, and the brown mug out of which one Edmund, a red-faced and curly-haired boy, was averred to have bitten a fragment in his haste to drink; it being then high summer, and little full-blooded boys feeling very warm and porous in the low-"studded" school-room where Dame Prentiss, dead and gone, ruled over young children, many of whom are old ghosts now, and have known Abraham for twenty or thirty years of our mortal time.
Thirst belongs to humanity, everywhere, in all ages; but that white-pine pail, and that brown mug belong to me in particular; and just so of my special relationships with other things and with my race. One could never remember himself in eternity by the mere fact of having loved or hated any more than by that of having thirsted; love and hate have no more individuality in them than single waves in the ocean;--but the accidents or trivial marks which distinguished those whom we loved or hated make their memory our own forever, and with it that of our own personality also.
Therefore, my aged friend of five-and-twenty, or thereabouts, pause at the threshold of this particular record, and ask yourself seriously whether you are fit to read such revelations as are to follow. For observe, you have here no splendid array of petals such as poets offer you,--nothing but a dry shell, containing, if you will get out what is in it, a few small seeds of poems. You may laugh at them, if you like. I shall never tell you what I think of you for so doing. But if you can read into the heart of these things, in the light of other memories as slight, yet as dear to your soul, then you are neither more nor less than a POET, and can afford to write no more verses during the rest of your natural life,--which abstinence I take to be one of the surest marks of your meriting the divine name I have just bestowed upon you.
May I beg of you who have begun this paper, nobly trusting to your own imagination and sensibilities to give it the significance which it does not lay claim to without your kind assistance,--nay I beg of you, I say, to pay particular attention to the brackets which enclose certain paragraphs? I want my "asides," you see, to whisper loud to you who read my notes, and sometimes I talk a page or two to you without pretending that I said a word of it to our boarders. You will find a very long "aside" to you almost as soon as you begin to read. And so, dear young friend, fall to at once, taking such things as I have provided for you; and if you turn them, by the aid of your powerful imagination, into a fair banquet, why, then, peace be with you, and a summer by the still waters of some quiet river, or by some yellow beach, where, as my friend the Professor, says, you can sit with Nature's wrist in your hand and count her ocean-pulses.]
I should like to make a few intimate revelations relating especially to my early life, if I thought you would like to hear them.
[The schoolmistress turned a little in her chair, and sat with her face directed partly towards me.--Half-mourning now;--purple ribbon. That breastpin she wears has gray hair in it; her mother's, no doubt;--I remember our landlady's daughter telling me, soon after the schoolmistress came to board with us, that she had lately "buried a payrent." That's what made her look so pale,--kept the poor dying thing alive with her own blood. Ah! long illness is the real vampyrism; think of living a year or two after one is dead, by sucking the life-blood out of a frail young creature at one's bedside! Well, souls grow white, as well as cheeks, in these holy duties, one that goes in a nurse may come out an angel.--God bless all good women!--to their soft hands and pitying hearts we must all come at last!--The schoolmistress has a better color than when she came.---- Too late!---- "It might have been."----Amen! ----How many thoughts go to a dozen heart-beats, sometimes! There was no long pause after my remark addressed to the company, but in that time I had the train of ideas and feelings I have just given flash through my consciousness sudden and sharp as the crooked red streak that springs out of its black sheath like the creese of a Malay in his death-race, and stabs the earth right and left in its blind rage.
[ILLUSTRATION: "Souls grow white, as well as cheeks in these holy duties."]
I don't deny that there was a pang in it,--yes, a stab; but there was a prayer, too,--the "Amen" belonged to that.--Also, a vision of a four-story brick house, nicely furnished,--I actually saw many specific articles,--curtains, sofas, tables, and others, and could draw the patterns of them at this moment,--a brick house, I say, looking out on the water, with a fair parlor, and books and busts and pots of flowers and bird-cages, all complete; and at the window, looking on the water, two of us.--"Male and female created He them."--These two were standing at the window, when a smaller shape that was playing near them looked up at me with such a look that I ---- ---- poured out a glass of water, drank it all down, and then continued.]
I said I should like to tell you some things, such as people commonly never tell, about my early recollections. Should you like to hear them?
Should we like to hear them?--said the schoolmistress;--no, but we should love to.
[The voice was a sweet one, naturally, and had something very pleasant in its tone, just then.--The four-story brick house, which had gone out like a transparency when the light behind it is quenched, glimmered again for a moment; parlor, books, busts, flower-pots, bird-cages, all complete,--and the figures as before.]
We are waiting with eagerness, Sir,--said the divinity-student.
[The transparency went out as if a flash of black lightning had struck it.]
If you want to hear my confessions, the next thing--I said--is to know whether I can trust you with them. It is only fair to say that there are a great many people in the world that laugh at such things. I think they are fools, but perhaps you don't all agree with me.
Here are children of tender age talked to as if they were capable of understanding Calvin's "Institutes," and nobody has honesty or sense enough to tell the plain truth about the little wretches: that they are as superstitious as naked savages, and such miserable spiritual cowards--that is, if they have any imagination--that they will believe anything which is taught them, and a great deal more which they teach themselves.
I was born and bred, as I have told you twenty times, among books and those who knew what was in books. I was carefully instructed in things temporal and spiritual. But up to a considerable maturity of childhood I believed Raphael and Michael Angelo to have been superhuman beings. The central doctrine of the prevalent religious faith of Christendom was utterly confused and neutralized in my mind for years by one of those too common stories of actual life, which I overheard repeated in a whisper.--Why did I not ask? you will say.--You don't remember the rosy pudency of sensitive children. The first instinctive movement of the little creatures is to make a cache, and bury in it beliefs, doubts, dreams, hopes, and terrors. I am uncovering one of these caches. Do you think I was necessarily a greater fool and coward than another?
I was afraid of ships. Why, I could never tell. The masts looked frightfully tall,--but they were not so tall as the steeple of our old yellow meeting-house. At any rate I used to hide my eyes from the sloops and schooners that were wont to lie at the end of the bridge, and I confess that traces of this undefined terror lasted very long.--One other source of alarm had a still more fearful significance. There was a great wooden HAND,--a glove-maker's sign, which used to swing and creak in the blast, as it hung from a pillar before a certain shop a mile or two outside of the city. Oh, the dreadful hand! Always hanging there ready to catch up a little boy, who would come home to supper no more, nor yet to bed,--whose porringer would be laid away empty thenceforth, and his half-worn shoes wait until his small brother grew to fit them.
As for all manner of superstitious observances, I used once to think I must have been peculiar in having such a list of them, but I now believe that half the children of the same age go through the same experiences. No Roman soothsayer ever had such a catalogue of omens as I found in the Sibylline leaves of my childhood. That trick of throwing a stone at a tree and attaching some mighty issue to hitting or missing, which you will find mentioned in one or more biographies, I well remember. Stepping on or over certain particular things or spots--Dr. Johnson's especial weakness--I got the habit of at a very early age.-I won't swear that I have not some tendency to these not wise practices even at this present date. [How many of you that read these notes can say the same thing!]
With these follies mingled sweet delusions, which I loved so well I would not outgrow them, even when it required a voluntary effort to put a momentary trust in them. Here is one which I cannot help telling you.
The firing of the great guns at the Navy-yard is easily heard at the place where I was born and lived. "There is a ship of war come in," they used to say, when they heard them. Of course, I supposed that such vessels came in unexpectedly, after indefinite years of absence,--suddenly as falling stones; and that the great guns roared in their astonishment and delight at the sight of the old war-ship splitting the bay with her cutwater. Now, the sloop-of-war the Wasp, Captain Blakely, after gloriously capturing the Reindeer and the Avon, had disappeared from the face of the ocean, and was supposed to be lost. But there was no proof of it, and, of course, for a time, hopes were entertained that she might be heard from. Long after the last real chance had utterly vanished, I pleased myself with the fond illusion that somewhere on the waste of waters she was still floating, and there were years during which I never heard the sound of the great guns booming inland from the Navy-yard without saying to myself, "The Wasp has come!" and almost thinking I could see her, as she rolled in, crumpling the water before her, weather-beaten, barnacled, with shattered spars and threadbare canvas, welcomed by the shouts and tears of thousands. This was one of those dreams that I nursed and never told. Let me make a clean breast of it now, and say, that, so late as to have outgrown childhood, perhaps to have got far on towards manhood, when the roar of the cannon has struck suddenly on my ear, I have started with a thrill of vague expectation and tremulous delight; and the long-unspoken words have articulated themselves in the mind's dumb whisper, The Wasp has come!
----Yes, children believe plenty of queer things. I suppose all of you have had the pocket-book fever when you were little?--What do I mean? Why, ripping up old pocket-books in the firm belief that bank-bills to an immense amount were hidden in them.--So, too, you must all remember some splendid unfulfilled promise of somebody or other, which fed you with hopes perhaps for years, and which left a blank in your life which nothing has ever filled up. O. T. quitted our household carrying with him the passionate regrets of the more youthful members. He was an ingenious youngster; wrote wonderful copies, and carved the two initials given above with great skill on all available surfaces. I thought, by the way, they were all gone; but the other day I found them on a certain door which I will show you some time. How it surprised me to find them so near the ground! I had thought the boy of no trivial dimensions. Well, O. T., when he went, made a solemn promise to two of us. I was to have a ship, and the other a martin-house (last syllable pronounced as in the word tin). Neither ever came; but, oh, how many and many a time I have stolen to the corner,--the cars pass close by it at this time,--and looked up that long avenue, thinking that he must be coming now, almost sure, as I turned to look northward, that there he would be, trudging toward me, the ship in one hand and the martin-house in the other!
[You must not suppose that all I am going to say, as well as all I have said, was told to the whole company. The young fellow whom they call John was in the yard, sitting on a barrel and smoking a cheroot, the fumes of which came in, not ungrateful, through the open window. The divinity-student disappeared in the midst of our talk. The poor relation in black bombazine, who looked and moved as if all her articulations were elbow-joints, had gone off to her chamber, after waiting with a look of soul-subduing decorum at the foot of the stairs until one of the male sort had passed her and ascended into the upper regions. This is a famous point of etiquette in our boarding-house; in fact, between ourselves, they make such an awful fuss about it, that I, for one, had a great deal rather have them simple enough not to think of such matters at all. Our landlady's daughter said, the other evening, that she was going to "retire "; whereupon the young fellow called John took up a lamp and insisted on lighting her to the foot of the staircase. Nothing would induce her to pass by him, until the schoolmistress, saying in good plain English that it was her bed-time, walked straight by them both, not seeming to trouble herself about either of them.
[ILLUSTRATION: "Nothing would induce her to pass by him."]
I have been led away from what I meant the portion included in these brackets to inform my readers about. I say, then, most of the boarders had left the table about the time when I began telling some of these secrets of mine,--all of them, in fact, but the old gentleman opposite and the schoolmistress. I understand why a young woman should like to hear these simple but genuine experiences of early life, which are, as I have said, the little brown seeds of what may yet grow to be poems with leaves of azure and gold; but when the old gentleman pushed up his chair nearer to me, and slanted round his best ear, and once, when I was speaking of some trifling, tender reminiscence, drew a long breath, with such a tremor in it that a little more and it would have been a sob, why, then I felt there must be something of nature in them which redeemed their seeming insignificance. Tell me, man or woman with whom I am whispering, have you not a small store of recollections, such as these I am uncovering, buried beneath the dead leaves of many summers, perhaps under the unmelting snows of fast-returning winters,--a few such recollections, which, if you should write them all out, would be swept into some careless editor's drawer, and might cost a scanty half-hour's lazy reading to his subscribers,--and yet, if Death should cheat you of them, you would not know yourself in eternity?]
----I made three acquaintances at a very early period of life, my introduction to whom was never forgotten. The first unequivocal act of wrong that has left its trace in my memory was this: refusing a small favor asked of me,--nothing more than telling what had happened at school one morning. No matter who asked it; but there were circumstances which saddened and awed me. I had no heart to speak;--I faltered some miserable, perhaps petulant excuse, stole away, and the first battle of life was lost. What remorse followed I need not tell.--Then and there, to the best of my knowledge, I first consciously took Sin by the hand and turned my back on Duty. Time has led me to look upon my offence more leniently; I do not believe it or any other childish wrong is infinite, as some have pretended, but infinitely finite. Yet, oh if I had but won that battle!
The great Destroyer, whose awful shadow it was that had silenced me, came near me,--but never, so as to be distinctly seen and remembered, during my tender years. There flits dimly before me the image of a little girl, whose name even I have forgotten, a schoolmate, whom we missed one day, and were told that she had died. But what death was I never had any very distinct idea, until one day I climbed the low stone wall of the old burial-ground and mingled with a group that were looking into a very deep, long, narrow hole, dug down through the green sod, down through the brown loam, down through the yellow gravel, and there at the bottom was an oblong red box, and a still, sharp, white face of a young man seen through an opening at one end of it. When the lid was closed, and the gravel and stones rattled down pell-mell, and the woman in black, who was crying and wringing her hands, went off with the other mourners, and left him, then I felt that I had seen Death, and should never forget him.
One other acquaintance I made at an earlier period of life than the habit of romancers authorizes.--Love, of course.--She was a famous beauty afterwards.--I am satisfied that many children rehearse their parts in the drama of life before they have shed all their milk-teeth.--I think I won't tell the story of the golden blonde.--I suppose everybody has had his childish fancies; but sometimes they are passionate impulses, which anticipate all the tremulous emotions belonging to a later period. Most children remember seeing and adoring an angel before they were a dozen years old.
[ILLUSTRATION: "Love, of course."]
[The old gentleman had left his chair opposite and taken a seat by the schoolmistress and myself, a little way from the table.--It's true, it's true,--said the old gentleman.--He took hold of a steel watch-chain, which carried a large, square gold key at one end and was supposed to have some kind of time-keeper at the other. With some trouble he dragged up an ancient-looking, thick, silver, bull's-eye watch. He looked at it for a moment,--hesitated,--touched the inner corner of his right eye with the pulp of his middle flnger,--looked at the face of the watch,--said it was getting into the forenoon,--then opened the watch and handed me the loose outside case without a word.--The watch-paper had been pink once, and had a faint tinge still, as if all its tender life had not yet quite faded out. Two little birds, a flower, and, in small school-girl letters, a date,--17. . --no matter.--Before I was thirteen years old,--said the old gentleman.----I don't know what was in that young schoolmistress's head, nor why she should have done it; but she took out the watch-paper and put it softly to her lips, as if she were kissing the poor thing that made it so long ago. The old gentleman took the watch-paper carefully from her, replaced it, turned away and walked out, holding the watch in his hand. I saw him pass the window a moment after with that foolish white hat on his head; he couldn't have been thinking what he was about when he put it on. So the schoolmistress and I were left alone. I drew my chair a shade nearer to her, and continued.]
And since I am talking of early recollections, I don't know why I shouldn't mention some others that still cling to me,--not that you will attach any very particular meaning to these same images so full of significance to me, but that you will find something parallel to them in your own memory. You remember, perhaps, what I said one day about smells. There were certain sounds also which had a mysterious suggestiveness to me,--not so intense, perhaps, as that connected with the other sense, but yet peculiar, and never to be forgotten.
The first was the creaking of the wood-sleds, bringing their loads of oak and walnut from the country, as the slow-swinging oxen trailed them along over the complaining snow, in the cold, brown light of early morning. Lying in bed and listening to their dreary music had a pleasure in it akin to the Lucretian luxury, or that which Byron speaks of as to be enjoyed in looking on at a battle by one "who hath no friend, no brother there."
There was another sound, in itself so sweet, and so connected with one of those simple and curious superstitions of childhood of which I have spoken, that I can never cease to cherish a sad sort of love for it.--Let me tell the superstitious fancy first. The Puritan "Sabbath," as everybody knows, began at "sundown" on Saturday evening. To such observance of it I was born and bred. As the large, round disk of day declined, a stillness, a solemnity, a somewhat melancholy hush came over us all. It was time for work to cease, and for playthings to be put away. The world of active life passed into the shadow of an eclipse, not to emerge until the sun should sink again beneath the horizon.
It was in this stillness of the world without and of the soul within that the pulsating lullaby of the evening crickets used to make itself most distinctly heard,--so that I well remember I used to think that the purring of these little creatures, which mingled with the batrachian hymns from the neighboring swamp, was peculiar to Saturday evenings. I don't know that anything could give a clearer idea of the quieting and subduing effect of the old habit of observance of what was considered holy time, than this strange, childish fancy.
Yes, and there was still another sound which mingled its solemn cadences with the waking and sleeping dreams of my boyhood. It was heard only at times,--a deep, muffled roar, which rose and fell, not loud, but vast,--a whistling boy would have drowned it for his next neighbor, but it must have been heard over the space of a hundred square miles. I used to wonder what this might be. Could it be the roar of the thousand wheels and the ten thousand footsteps jarring and trampling along the stones of the neighboring city? That would be continuous; but this, as I have said, rose and fell in regular rhythm. I remember being told, and I suppose this to have been the true solution, that it was the sound of the waves, after a high wind, breaking on the long beaches many miles distant. I should really like to know whether any observing people living ten miles, more or less, inland from long beaches,--in such a town, for instance, as Cantabridge, in the eastern part of the Territory of the Massachusetts,--have ever observed any such sound, and whether it was rightly accounted for as above.
Mingling with these inarticulate sounds in the low murmur of memory, are the echoes of certain voices I have heard at rare intervals. I grieve to say it, but our people, I think, have not generally agreeable voices. The marrowy organisms, with skins that shed water like the backs of ducks, with smooth surfaces neatly padded beneath, and velvet linings to their singing-pipes, are not so common among us as that other pattern of humanity with angular outlines and plane surfaces, and integuments, hair like the fibrous covering of a cocoa-nut in gloss and suppleness as well as color, and voices at once thin and strenuous,--acidulous enough to produce effervescence with alkalis, and stridulous enough to sing duets with the katydids. I think our conversational soprano, as sometimes overheard in the cars, arising from a group of young persons, who may have taken the train at one of our great industrial centres, for instance,--young persons of the female sex, we will say, who have bustled in full-dressed, engaged in loud strident speech, and who, after free discussion, have fixed on two or more double seats, which having secured, they proceed to eat apples and hand round daguerreotypes,--I say, I think the conversational soprano, heard under these circumstances, would not be among the allurements the old Enemy would put in requisition, were he getting up a new temptation of St. Anthony.
There are sweet voices among us, we all know, and voices not musical, it may be, to those who hear them for the first time, yet sweeter to us than any we shall hear until we listen to some warbling angel in the overture to that eternity of blissful harmonies we hope to enjoy.--But why should I tell lies? If my friends love me, it is because I try to tell the truth. I never heard but two voices in my life that frightened me by their sweetness.
Frightened you?--said the schoolmistress.--Yes, frightened me. They made me feel as if there might be constituted a creature with such a chord in her voice to some string in another's soul, that, if she but spoke, he would leave all and follow her, though it were into the jaws of Erebus. Our only chance to keep our wits is, that there are so few natural chords between others' voices and this string in our souls, and that those which at first may have jarred a little by and by come into harmony with it.--But I tell you this is no fiction. You may call the story of Ulysses and the Sirens a fable, but what will you say to Mario and the poor lady who followed him?
----Whose were those two voices that bewitched me so?--They both belonged to German women. One was a chambermaid, not otherwise fascinating. The key of my room at a certain great hotel was missing, and this Teutonic maiden was summoned to give information respecting it. The simple soul was evidently not long from her mother-land, and spoke with sweet uncertainty of dialect. But to hear her wonder and lament and suggest, with soft, liquid infiexions, and low, sad murmurs, in tones as full of serious tenderness for the fate of the lost key as if it had been a child that had strayed from its mother, was so winning, that, had her features and figure been as delicious as her accents,--if she had looked like the marble Clytie, for instance,--why, all I can say is----
[The schoolmistress opened her eyes so wide, that I stopped short.]
I was only going to say that I should have drowned myself. For Lake Erie was close by, and it is so much better to accept asphyxia, which takes only three minutes by the watch, than a mésalliance, that lasts fifty years to begin with, and then passes along down the line of descent, (breaking out in all manner of boorish manifestations of feature and manner, which, if men were only as short-lived as horses, could be readily traced back through the square-roots and the cube-roots of the family stem on which you have hung the armorial bearings of the De Champignons or the De la Mornes, until one came to beings that ate with knives, and said "Haow?") that no person of right feeling could have hesitated for a single moment.
The second of the ravishing voices I have heard was, as I have said, that of another German woman.--I suppose I shall ruin myself by saying that such a voice could not have come from any Americanized human being.
----What was there in it?--said the schoolmistress,--and, upon my word, her tones were so very musical, that I almost wished I had said three voices instead of two, and not made the unpatriotic remark above reported.--Oh, I said, it had so much woman in it,--muliebrity, as well as femineity;--no self-assertion, such as free suffrage introduces into every word and movement; large, vigorous nature, running back to those huge-limbed Germans of Tacitus, but subdued by the reverential training and tuned by the kind[y culture of fifty generations. Sharp business habits, a lean soil, independence, enterprise, and east winds, are not the best things for the larynx. Still, you hear noble voices among us,--I have known families famous for them,--but ask the first person you meet a question, and ten to one there is a hard, sharp, metallic, matter-of-business clink in the accents of the answer, that produces the effect of one of those bells which small trades-people connect with their shop-doors, and which spring upon your ear with such vivacity, as you enter, that your first impulse is to retire at once from the precincts.
---Ah, but I must not forget that dear little child I saw and heard in a French hospital. Between two and three years old. Fell out of her chair and snapped both thigh-bones. Lying in bed, patient, gentle. Rough students round her, some in white aprons, looking fearfully business-like; but the child placid, perfectly still. I spoke to her, and the blessed little creature answered me in a voice of such heavenly sweetness, with that reedy thrill in it which you have heard in the thrush's even-song, that I hear it at this moment, while I am writing, so many, many years afterwards.--C'est tout comme un serin, said the French student at my side.
These are the voices which struck the key-note of my conceptions as to what the sounds we are to hear in heaven will be, if we shall enter through one of the twelve gates of pearl. There must be other things besides aërolites that wander from their own spheres to ours; and when we speak of celestial sweetness or beauty, we may be nearer the literal truth than we dream. If mankind generally are the shipwrecked survivors of some pre-Adamitic cataclysm, set adrift in these little open boats of humanity to make one more trial to reach the shore,--as some grave theologians have maintained,--if, in plain English, men are the ghosts of dead devils who have "died into life," (to borrow an expression from Keats,) and walk the earth in a suit of living rags which lasts three or four score summers,--why, there must have been a few good spirits sent to keep them company, and these sweet voices I speak of must belong to them.
----I wish you could once hear my sister's voice,--said the schoolmistress.
If it is like yours, it must be a pleasant one,--said I.
I never thought mine was anything,--said the schoolmistress.
How should you know?--said I.--People never hear their own voices,--any more than they see their own faces. There is not even a looking-glass for the voice. Of course, there is something audible to us when we speak; but that something is not our own voice as it is known to all our acquaintances. I think, if an image spoke to us in our own tones, we should not know them in the least.--How pleasant it would be, if in another state of being we could have shapes like our former selves for playthings,--we standing outside or inside of them, as we liked, and they being to us just what we used to be to others!
I wonder if there will he nothing like what we call "play," after our earthly toys are broken,--said the schoolmistress.
Hush,--said I,--what will the divinity-student say?
[I thought she was hit, that time;--but the shot must have gone over her, or on one side of her; she did not flinch.]
Oh,--said the schoolmistress,--he must look out for my sister's heresies; I am afraid he will be too busy with them to take care of mine.
Do you mean to say,--said I,--that it is your sister whom that student ----
[The young fellow commonly known as John, who had been sitting on the barrel, smoking, jumped off just then, kicked over the barrel, gave it a push with his foot that set it rolling, and stuck his saucy-looking face in at the window so as to cut my question off in the middle; and the schoolmistress leaving the room a few minutes afterwards, I did not have a chance to finish it.
The young fellow came in and sat down in a chair, putting his heels on the top of another.
Pooty girl,--said he.
A fine young lady,--I replied.
Keeps a fust-rate school, according to accounts,--said he,--teaches all sorts of things,--Latin and Italian and music. Folks rich once,--smashed up. She went right ahead as smart as if she'd been born to work. That's the kind o' girl I go for. I'd marry her, only two or three other girls would drown themselves, if I did.
I think the above is the longest speech of this young fellow's which I have put on record. I do not like to change his peculiar expressions, for this is one of those cases in which the style is the man, as M. de Buffon says. The fact is, the young fellow is a good-hearted creature enough, only too fond of his jokes,--and if it were not for those heat-lightning winks on one side of his face, I should not mind his fun much.]
[Some days after this, when the company were together again, I talked a little.]
I don't think I have a genuine hatred for anybody. I am well aware that I differ herein from the sturdy English moralist and the stout American tragedian. I don't deny that I hate the sight of certain people; but the qualities which make me tend to hate the man himself are such as I am so much disposed to pity, that, except under immediate aggravation, I feel kindly enough to the worst of them. It is such a sad thing to be born a sneaking fellow, so much worse than to inherit a hump-back or a couple of club-feet, that I sometimes feel as if we ought to love the crippled souls, if I. may use this expression, with a certain tenderness which we need not waste on noble natures. One who is born with such congenital incapacity that nothing can make a gentle- man of him is entitled, not to our wrath, but to our profoundest sympathy. But as we cannot help hating the sight of these people, just as we do that of physical deformities, we gradually eliminate them from our society,--we love them, but open the window and let them go. By the time decent people reach middle age they have weeded their circle pretty well of these unfortunates, unless they have a taste for such animals; in which case, no matter what their position may be, there is something, you may be sure, in their natures akin to that of their wretched parasites.
----The divinity-student wished to know what I thought of affinities, as well as of antipathies; did I believe in love at first sight?
Sir,--said I,--all men love all women. That is the primâ-facie aspect of the case. The Court of Nature assumes the law to be, that all men do so; and the individual man is bound to show cause why he does not love any particular woman. A man, says one of my old black-letter law-books, may show divers good reasons, as thus: He hath not seen the person named in the indictment; she is of tender age, or the reverse of that; she hath certain personal disqualificaiions,--as, for instance, she is a blackamoor, or hath an ill-favored countenance; or, his capacity of loving being limited, his affections are engrossed by a previous comer; and so of other conditions. Not the less is it true that he is bound by duty and inclined by nature to love each and every woman. Therefore it is that each woman virtually summons every man to show cause why he doth not love her. This is not by written document, or direct speech, for the most part, but by certain signs of silk, gold, and other materials, which say to all men,--Look on me and love, as in duty bound. Then the man pleadeth his special incapacity, whatsoever that may be,--as, for instance, impecuniosity, or that he hath one or many wives in his household, or that he is of mean figure, or small capacity; of which reasons it may be noted, that the first is, according to late decisions, of chiefest authority.-So far the old law-book. But there is a note from an older authority, saying that every woman doth also love each and every man, except there be some good reason to the contrary; and a very observing friend of mine, a young unmarried clergyman, tells me, that, so far as his experience goes, he has reason to think the ancient author had fact to justify his statement.
I'll tell you how it is with the pictures of women we fall in love with at first sight.
----We a'n't talking about pictures,--said the landlady's daughter,--we're talking about women.
I understood that we were speaking of love at sight,--I remarked, mlldly.--Now, as all a man knows about a woman whom he looks at is just what a picture as big as a copper, or a rather, at the bottom of his eye can teach him, I think I am right in saying we are talking about the pictures of women.--Well, now, the reason why a man is not desperately in love with ten thousand women at once is just that which prevents all our portraits being distinctly seen upon that wall. They all are painted there by reflection from our faces, but because all of them are painted on each spot, and each on the same surface, and many other objects at the same time, no one is seen as a picture. But darken a chamber and let a single pencil of rays in through a key-hole, then you have a picture on the wall. We never fall in love with a woman in distinction from women, until we can get an image of her through a pin-hole; and then we can see nothing else, and nobody but ourselves can see the image in our mental camera-obscura.
----My friend, the Poet, tells me he has to leave town whenever the anniversaries come round.
What's the difficulty?--Why, they all want him to get up and make speeches, or songs, or toasts; which is just the very thing he doesn't want to do. He is an old story, he says, and hates to show on these occasions. But they tease him, and coax him, and can't do without him, and feel all over his poor weak head until they get their fingers on the fontanelle, (the Professor will tell you what this means,--he says the one at the top of the head always remains open in poets,) until, by gentle pressure on that soft pulsating spot, they stupefy him to the point of acquiescence.
There are times, though, he says, when it is a pleasure, before going to some agreeable meeting, to rush out into one's garden and clutch up a handful of what grows there,--weeds and violets together,--not cutting them off, but pulling them up by the roots with the brown earth they grow in sticking to them. That's his idea of a post-prandial performance. Look here, now. These verses I am going to read you, he tells me, were pulled up by the roots just in that way, the other day.--Beautiful entertainment,--names there on the plates that flow from all English~speaking tongues as familiarly as and or the; entertainers known wherever good poetry and fair title~pages are held in esteem; guest a kind-hearted, modest, genial, hopeful poet, who sings to the hearts of his countrymen, the British people, the songs of good cheer which the better days to come, as all honest souls trust and believe, wlll turn into the prose of common life. My friend, the Poet, says you must not read such a string of verses too literally. If he trimmed it nicely below, you wouldn't see the roots, he says, and he likes to keep them, and a little of the soil clinging to them.
This is the farewell my friend, the Poet, read to his and our friend, the Poet:--
[POEM: A GOOD TIME GOING!]
When my friend, the Professor, found that my friend, the Poet, had been coming out in this full-blown style, he got a little excited, as you may have seen a canary, sometimes, when another strikes up. The Professor says he knows he can lecture, and thinks he can write verses. At any rate, he has often tried, and now he was determined to try again. So when some professional friends of his called him up, one day, after a feast of reason and a regular "freshet" of soul which had lasted two or three hours, he read them these verses. He introduced them with a few remarks, he told me, of which the only one he remembered was this: that he had rather write a single line which one among them should think worth remembering than set them all laughing with a string of epigrams. It was all right, I don't doubt; at any rate, that was his fancy then, and perhaps another time he may be obstinately hilarious; however, it may be that he is growing graver, for time is a fact so long as clocks and watches continue to go, and a cat can't be a kitten always, as the old gentleman opposite said the other day.
You must listen to this seriously, for I think the Professor was very much in earnest when he wrote it.
[POEM: THE TWO ARMIES]