The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table
By Oliver Wendell Holmes
[ILLUSTRATION: Chapter 12 half-title]
[I DID not think it probable that I should have a great many more talks with our company, and therefore I was anxious to get as much as I could into every conversation. That is the reason why you will find some odd, miscellaneous facts here, which I wished to tell at least once, as I should not have a chance to tell them habitually, at our breakfast-table.-We're very free and easy, you know; we don't read what we don't like. Our parish is so large, one can't pretend to preach to all the pews at once. One can't be all the time trying to do the best of one's best if a company works a steam fire-engine, the firemen needn't he straining themselves all day to squirt over the top of the flagstaff. Let them wash some of those lower-story win~ows a little. Besides, there is no use in our quarrelling now, as you will find out when you get through this paper.]
----Travel, according to my experience, does not exactly correspond to the idea one gets of it out of most books of travels. I am thinking of travel as it was when I made the Grand Tour, especially in Italy. Memory is a net; one finds it full of fish when he takes it from the brook; but a dozen miles of water have run through it without sticking. I can prove some facts about travelling by a story or two. There arc certain principles to he assumed, such as these:--He who is carried by horses must deal with rogues.--To-day's dinner subtends a larger visual angle than yesterday's revolution. A mote in my eye is bigger to me than the biggest of Dr. Gould's private planets.--Every traveller is a self-taught entomologist.--Old jokes are dynamometers of mental tension; an old joke tells better among friends travelling than at home,--which shows that their minds are in a state of diminished, rather than increased vitality. There was a story about "strahps to your pahnts," which was vastly funny to us fellows--on the road from Milan to Venice.-- Cælum, non animum,--travellers change their guineas, but not their characters. The bore is the same, eating dates under the cedars of Lebanon, as over a plate of baked beans in Beacon Street.--Parties of travellers have a morbid instinct for "establishing raws" upon each other.--A man shall sit down with his friend at the foot of the Great Pyramid and they will take up the question they had been talking about under "the great elm," and forget all about Egypt. When I was crossing the Po, we were all fighting about the propriety of one fellow's telling another that his argument was absurd; one maintaining it to be a perfectly admissible logical term, as proved by the phrase "reductio ad absurdum;" the rest badgering him as a conversational bully. Mighty little we troubled ourselves for Padus, the Po, "a river broader and more rapid than the Rhone," and the times when Hannibal led his grim Africans to its banks, and his elephants thrust their trunks into the yellow waters over which that pendulum ferry-boat was swinging back and forward every ten minutes!
----Here are some of those reminiscences, with morals prefixed, or annexed, or implied.
Lively emotions very commonly do not strike us full in front, but obliquely from the side; a scene or incident in undress often affects us more than one in full costume.
"Is this the mighty occan?--is this all?"
says the Princess in Gebir. The rush that should have flooded my soul in the Coliseum did not come. But walking one day in the fields about the city, I stumbled over a fragment of broken masonry, and lo! the World's Mistress in her stone girdle--alta mænia Romæ--rose before me and whitened my cheek with her pale shadow as never before or since.
I used very often, when coming home from my morning's work at one of the public institutions of Paris, to stop in at the dear old church of St. Etienne du Mont. The tomb of St. Genevieve, surrounded by burning candles and votive tablets, was there; the mural tablet of Jacobus Benignus Winslow was there; there was a noble organ with carved figures; the pulpit was borne on the oaken shoulders of a stooping Samson; and there was a marvellous staircase like a coil of lace. These things I mention from memory, but not all of them together impressed me so much us an inscription on a small slab of marble fixed in one of the walls. It told how this church of St. Stephen was repaired and beautified in the year 16**, and how, during the celebration of its reopening, two girls of the parish (filles de la paroisse) fell frpm the gallery, carrying a part of the balustrade with them, to the pavement, but by a miracle escaped uninjured. Two young girls, nameless, but real presences to my imagination, as much as when they came fluttering down on the tiles with a cry that outscreamed the sharpest treble in the Te Deum! (Look at Carlyle's article on Boswell, and see how he speaks of the poor young woman Johnson talked with in the streets one evening.) All the crowd gone but these two "filles de la paroisse,"--gone as utterly as the dresses they wore, as the shoes that were on their feet, as the bread and meat that were in the market on that day.
Not the great historical events, but the personal incidents that call up single sharp pictures of some human being in its pang or struggle, reach us most nearly. I remember the platform at Berne, over the parapet of which Theobald Weinzäpfli's restive horse sprung with him and landed him more than a hundred feet beneath in the lower town, not dead, but sorely broken, and no longer a wild youth, but God's servant from that day forward. I have forgotten the famous bears, and all else.--I remember the Percy lion on the bridge over the little river at Alnwick, the leaden lion with his tail stretched out straight like a pump-handle,--and why? Because of the story of the village boy who must fain bestride the leaden tail, standing out over the water,--which breaking, he dropped into the stream far below, and was taken out an idiot for the rest of his life.
Arrow-heads must be brought to a sharp point, and the guillotine-axe must have a slanting edge. Something intensely human, narrow, and definite pierces to the seat of our sensibilities more readily than huge occurrences and catastrophes. A nail will pick a lock that defies hatchet and hammer. "The Royal George" went down with all her crew, and Cowper wrote an exquisitely simple poem about it; but the leaf which holds it is smooth, while that which bears the lines on his mother's portrait is blistered with tears.
My telling these recollections sets me thinking of others of the same kind which strike the imagination, especially when one is still young. You remember the monument in Devizes market to the woman struck dead with a lie in her mouth. I never saw that, but it is in the books. Here is one I never heard mentioned;--if any of the "Note and Query" tribe can tell the story, I hope they will. Where is this monument? I was riding on an English stage-coach when we passed a handsome marble column (as I remember it) of considerable size and pretensions.--What is that?--I said.--That,--answered the coachman,--is the hangman's pillar.  Then he told me how a man went out one night, many years ago, to steal sheep. He caught one, tied its legs together, passed the rope over his head, and started for home. In climbing a fence, the rope slipped, caught him by the neck, and strangled him. Next morning he was found hanging dead on one side of the fence and the sheep on the other; in memory whereof the lord of the manor caused this monument to be erected as a warning to all who love mutton better than virtue. I will send a copy of this record to him or her who shall first set me right about this column and its locality. 
And telling over these old stories reminds me that I have something which may interest architects and perhaps some other persons. I once ascended the spire of Strasburg Cathedral, which is the highest, I think, in Europe. It is a shaft of stone filigree-work, frightfully open, so that the guide puts his arms behind you to keep you from falling. To climb it is a noonday nightmare, and to think of having climbed it crisps all the fifty-six joints of one's twenty digits. While I was on it, "pinnacled dim in the intense inane," a strong wind was blowing, and I felt sure that the spire was rocking. It swayed back and forward like a stalk of rye or a cat-o'nine-tails (bulrush) with a bobolink on it. I mentioned it to the guide, and he said that the spire did really swing back and forward,--I think he said some feet.
Keep any line of knowledge ten years and some other line will intersect it. Long afterwards I was hunting out a paper of Dumeril's in an old journal,--the "Magazin Encyclopédique" for l'an troisième, (1795,) when I stumbled upon a brief article on the vibrations of the spire of Strasburg Cathedral. A man can shake it so that the movement shall be shown in a vessel of water nearly seventy feet below the summit, and higher up the vibration is like that of an earthquake. I have seen one of those wretched wooden spires with which we very shabbily finish some of our stone churches (thinking that the lidless blue eye of heaven cannot tell the counterfeit we try to pass on it,) swinging like a reed, in a wind, but one would hardly think of such a thing's happening in a stone spire. Does the Bunker-Hill Monument bend in the blast like a blade of grass? I suppose so.
You see, of course, that I am talking in a cheap way;--perhaps we will have some philosophy by and by;--let me work out this thin mechanical vein.--I have something more to say about trees. I have brought down this slice of hemlock to show you. Tree blew down in my woods (that were) in 1852. Twelve feet and a half round, fair girth;--nine feet, where I got my section, higher up. This is a wedge, going to the centre, of the general shape of a slice of apple-pie in a large and not opulent family. Length, about eighteen inches. I have studied the growth of this tree by its rings, and it is curious. Three hundred and forty-two rings. Started, therefore, about 1510. The thickness of the rings tells the rate at which it grew. For five or six years the rate was slow,--then rapid for twenty years. A little before the year 1550 it began to grow very slowly, and so continued for about seventy years. in 1620 it took a new start and grew fast until 1714; then for the most part slowly until 1786, when it started again and grew pretty well and uniformly until within the last dozen years, when it seems to have got on sluggishly.
Look here. Here are some human lives laid down against the periods of its growth, to which they corresponded. This is Shakspeare's. The tree was seven inches in diameter when he was born; ten inches when he died. A little less than ten inches when Milton was born; seventeen when he died. Then comes a long interval and this thread marks out Johnson's life, during which the tree increased from twenty-two to twenty-nine inches in diameter. Here is the span of Napoleon's career;--the tree doesn't seem to have minded it.
I never saw the man yet who was not startled at looking on this section. I have seen many wooden preachers,--never one like this. How much more striking would be the calendar counted on the rings of one of those awful trees which were standing when Christ was on earth, and where that brief mortal life is chronicled with the stolid apathy of vegetable being, which remembers all human history as a thing of yesterday in its own dateless existence!
I have something more to say about elms. A relative tells me there is one of great glory in Andover, near Bradford. I have some recollections of the former place, pleasant and other. [I wonder if the old Seminary clock strikes as slowly as it used to. My room-mate thought, when he first came, it was the bell tolling deaths, and people's ages, as they do in the country. He swore--(ministers' sons get so familiar with good words that they are apt to handle them carelessly)--that the children were dying by the dozen, of all ages, from one to twelve, and ran off next day in recess, when it began to strike eleven, but was caught before the clock got through striking.] At the foot of "the hill," down in town, is, or was, a tidy old elm, which was said to have been hooped with iron to protect it from Indian tomahawks, (Credat Hahnemannus,) and to have grown round its hoops and buried them in its wood. Of course, this is not the tree my relative means.
Also, I have a very pretty letter from Norwich, in Connecticut, telling me of two noble elms which are to be seen in that town. One hundred and twenty~seven feet from bough-end to bough-end! What do you say to that? And gentle ladies beneath it, that love it and celebrate its praises! And that in a town of such supreme, audacious, Alpine loveliness as Norwich!--Only the dear people there must learn to call it Norridge, and not be misled by the mere accident of spelling.
What a sad picture of our civilization!
I did not speak to you of the great tree on what used to be the Colman farm, in Deerfield, simply because I had not seen it for many years, and did not like to trust my recollection. But I had it in memory, and even noted down, as one of the finest trees in symmetry and beauty I had ever seen. I have received a document, signed by two citizens of a neighboring town, certified by the postmaster and a selectman, and these again corroborated, reinforced, and sworn to by a member of that extraordinary college-class to which it is the good fortune of my friend the Professor to belong, who, though he has formerly been a member of Congress, is, I believe, fully worthy of confidence. The tree "girts" eighteen and a half feet, and spreads over a hundred, and is a real beauty. I hope to meet my friend under its branches yet; if we don't have "youth at the prow," we will have " pleasure at the 'elm."
And just now, again, I have got a letter about some grand willows in Maine, and another about an elm in Wayland, but too late for anything but thanks.
[And this leads me to say, that I have received a great many communications, in prose and verse, since I began printing these notes. The last came this very morning, in the shape of a neat and brief poem, from New Orleans. I could not make any of them public, though sometimes requested to do so. Some of them have given me great pleasure, and encouraged me to believe I had friends whose faces I had never seen. If you are pleased with anything a writer says, and doubt whether to tell him of it, do not hesitate; a pleasant word is a cordial to one, who perhaps thinks he is tiring you, and so becomes tired himself. I purr very loud over a good, honest letter that says pretty things to me.]
----Sometimes very young persons send communications which they want forwarded to editors; and these young persons do not always seem to have right conceptions of these same editors, and of the public, and of themselves. Here is a letter I wrote to one of these young folks, but, on the whole, thought it best not to send. It is not fair to single out one for such sharp advice, where there are hundreds that are in need of it.
DEAR SIR,--YOU seem to be somewhat, but not a great deal, wiser than I was at your age. I don't wish to be understood as saying too much, for I think, without committing myself to any opinion on my present state, that I was not a Solomon at that stage of development.
You long to "leap at a single bound into celebrity." Nothing is so common-place as to wish to be remarkable. Fame usually comes to those who are thinking about something else,--very rarely to those who say to themselves, "Go to, now, let us be a celebrated individual!" The struggle for fame, as such, commonly ends in notoriety;--that ladder is easy to climb, but it leads to the pillory which is crowded with fools who could not hold their tongues and rogues who could not hide their tricks.
If you have the consciousness of genius, do some thing to show it. The world is pretty quick, nowadays, to catch the flavor of true originality; if you write anything remarkable, the magazines and newspapers will find you out, as the school-boys find out where the ripe apples and pears are. Produce anything really good, and an intelligent editor will jump at it. Don't flatter yourself that any article of yours is rejected because you are unknown to fame. Nothing pleases an editor more than to get anything worth having from a new hand. There is always a dearth of really fine articles for a first-rate journal; for, of a hundred pieces received, ninety are at or below the sea-level; some have water enough, but no head; some head enough, but no water; only two or three are from full reservoirs, high up that hill which is so hard to climb.
You may have genius. The contrary is of course probable, but it is not demonstrated. If you have, the world wants you more than you want it. It has not only a desire, but a passion, for every spark of genius that shows itself among us; there is not a bull-calf in our national pasture that can bleat a rhyme but it is ten to one, among his friends, and no takers, that he is the real, genuine, no-mistake Osiris.
Qu'est ce qu'il a fait? What has he done? That was Napoleon's test. What have you done? Turn up the faces of your picture-cards, my boy! You need not make mouths at the public because it has not accepted you at your own fancy-valuation. Do the prettiest thing you can and wait your time.
For the verses you send me, I will not say they are hopeless, and I dare not affirm that they show promise. I am not an editor, but I know the standard of some editors. You must not expect to "leap with a single bound" into the society of those whom it is not flattery to call your betters. When "The Pactolian" has paid you for a copy of verses,--(I can furnish you a list of alliterative signatures, beginning with Annie Aureole and ending with Zoë Zenith,)--when "The Rag-bag" has stolen your piece, after carefully scratching your name out,--when "The Nut-cracker" has thought you worth shelling, and strung the kernel of your cleverest poem,--then, and not till then, you may consider the presumption against you, from the fact of your rhyming tendency, as called in question, and let our friends hear from you, if you think it worth while. You may possibly think me too candid, and even accuse me of incivility; but let me assure you that I am not half so plain-spoken as Nature, nor half so rude as Time. If you prefer the long jolting of public opinion to the gentle touch of friendship, try it like a man. Only remember this,--that, if a bushel of potatoes is shaken in a market-cart without springs to it, the small potatoes alsways get to the bottom.
I always think of verse-writers when I am in this vein for these are by far the most exacting, eager, self-weighing, restless, querulous, unreasonable literary persons one is like to meet with. Is a young man in the habit of writing verses? Then the presumption is that he is an inferior person. For, look you, there are at least nine chances in ten that he writes poor verses. Now the habit of chewing on rhymes without sense and soul to match them is like that of using any other narcotic, at once a proof of feebleness and a debilitating agent. A young man can get rid of the presumption against him afforded by his writing verses, only by convincing us that they are verses worth writing.
All this sounds hard and rough, but, observe, it is not addressed to any individual, and of course does not refer to any reader of these pages. I would always treat any given young person passing through the meteoric showers which rain down on the brief period of adolescence with great tenderness. God forgive us if we ever speak harshly to young creatures on the strength of these ugly truths, and so, sooner or later, smite some tender-souled poet or poetess on the lips who might have sung the world into sweet trances, had we not silenced the matin-song in its first low breathings. Just as my heart yearns over the unloved, just so it sorrows for the ungifted who are doomed to the pangs of an undeceived self-estimate. I have always tried to be gentle with the most hopeless cases. My experience, however, has not been encouraging.
----X. Y., æt. 18, a cheaply-got-up youth, with narrow jaws, and broad, bony, cold, red hands, having been laughed at by the girls in his village, and "got the mitten " (pronounced mittin) two or three times, falls to souling and controlling, and youthing and truthing, in the newspapers. Sends me some strings of verses, candidates for the Orthopedic Infirmary, all of them, in which I learn for the millionth time one of the following facts: either that something about a chime is sublime, or that something about time is sublime or that something about a chime is concerned with time, or that something about a rhyme is sublime, or concerned with time or with a chime. Wishes my opinion of the same with advice as to his future course.
What shall I do about it? Tell him the whole truth, and send him a ticket of admission to the Institution for Idiots and Feeble-minded Youth? One doesn't like to be cruel,--and yet one hates to lie. Therefore one softens down the ugly central fact of donkeyism,--recommends study of good models,--that writing verse should be an incidental occupation only, not interfering with the hoe, the needle, the lapstone, or the ledger,--and, above all, that there should be no hurry in printing what is written. Not the least use in all this. The poetaster who has tasted type is done for. He is like the man who has once been a candidate for the Presidency. He feeds on the madder of his delusion all his days, and his very bones grow red with the glow of his foolish fancy. One of these young brains is like a bunch of India crackers; once touch fire to it, and it is best to keep hands off until it has done popping,--if it ever stops. I have two letters on file; one is a pattern of adulation, the other of impertinence. My reply to the first, containing the best advice I could give, conveyed in courteous language, had brought out the second. There was some sport in this but Dulness is not commonly a game fish, and only sulks after he is struck. You may set it down as a truth which admits of few exceptions, that those who ask your opinion really want your praise, and will be contented with nothing less.
There is another kind of application to which editors, or those supposed to have access to them, are liable, and which often proves trying and painful. One is appealed to in behalf of some person in needy circumstances who wishes to make a living by the pen. A manuscript accompanying the letter is offered for publication. It is not commonly brilliant,--too often lamentably deficient. If Rachel's saying is true, that "fortune is the measure of intelligence," then poverty is evidence of limited capacity, which it too frequently proves to be, notwithstanding a noble exception here and there. Now an editor is a person under a contact with the public to furnish them with the best things he can afford for his money. Charity shown by the publication of an inferior article would be like the generosity of Claude Duval and the other gentlemen highwaymen, who pitied the poor so much, they robbed the rich to have the means of relieving them.
Though I am not and never was an editor, I know something of the trials to which they are submitted. They have nothing to do but to develop enormous calluses at every point of contact with authorship. Their business is not a matter of sympathy, but of intellect. They must reject the unfit productions of those whom they long to befriend, because it would be a profligate charity to accept them. One cannot burn his house down to warm the hands even of the fatherless and the widow.
THE PROFESSOR UNDER CHLOROFORM.
----You haven't heard about my friend the Professor's first experiment in the use of anæsthetics, have you?
He was mightily pleased with the reception of that poem of his about the chaise. He spoke to me once or twice about another poem of similar character he wanted to read me, which I told him I would listen to and criticize.
One day, after dinner, he came in with his face tied up, looking very red in the cheeks and heavy about the eyes.--Hy'r'ye?--he said, and made for an arm-chair, in which he placed first his hat and then his person, going smack through the crown of the former, as neatly as they do the trick at the circus. The Professor jumped at the explosion as if he has sat down on one of those small calthrops our grandfathers used to sow round in the grass when there were Indians about,--iron stars, each ray a rusty thorn an inch and a half long,- stick through moccasins into feet, cripple 'em on the spot, and give 'em lockjaw in a day or two.
At the same time he let off one of those big words which lie at the bottom of the best man's vocabulary, but perhaps never turn up in his life,--just as every man's hair may stand on end, but in most men it never does.
After he had got calm, he pulled out a sheet or two of manuscript, together with a smaller scrap, on which, as he said, he had just been writing an introduction or prelude to the main performance. A certain suspicion had come into my mind that the Professor was not quite right, which was confirmed by the way he talked; but I let him begin. This is the way he read it:--
I'm the fellah that tole one day
The tale of the won'erful one-hoss-shay.
Wan' to hear another? Say.--
--Funny, wasn't it? Made me laugh,
I'm too modest, I am, by half,--
Made me laugh 's though I sh'd split,--
Cahn' a fellah like fellah's own wit?
--Fellahs keep sayin',--"Well, now, that's nice;
Did it once, but cahn' do it twice,"
Don' you b'lieve the'z no more fat;
Lots in the kitch'n 'z good 'z that.
Fus'-rate throw, 'n' no mistake,--
Han' us the props for another shake;--
Know I'll try, 'n' guess I'll win
Here sh' goes for hit 'm ag'in!
Here I thought it necessary to interpose.--Professor,--I said--you are inebriated. The style of what you call your "Prelude " shows that it was written under cerebral excitement. Your articulation is confused. You have told me three times in succession, in exactly the same words, that I was the only true friend you had in the world that you would unbutton your heart to. You smell distinctly and decidedly of spirits.--I spoke, and paused; tender, but firm.
Two large tears orbed themselves beneath the Professor's lids,--in obedience to the principle of gravitation celebrated in that delicious bit of bladdery bathos, "The very law that moulds a tear," with which the "Edinburgh Review" attempted to put down Master George Gordon when that young man was foolishly trying to make himself conspicuous.
One of these tears peeped over the edge of the lid until it lost its balance,--slid an inch and waited for reinforcements,-swelled again,--rolled down a little further,--stopped,--moved on,--and at last fell on the back of the Professor's hand. He held it up for me to look at, and lifted his eyes, brimful, till they met mine.
I couldn't stand it,--I always break down when folks cry in my face,--so I hugged him, and said he was a dear old boy, and asked him kindly what was the matter with him, and what made him smell so dreadfully strong of spirits.
Upset his alcohol lamp,--he said,--and spilt the alcohol on his legs. That was it.--But what had he been doing to get his head into such a state?--had he really committed an excess? What was the matter?--Then it came out that he had been taking chloroform to have a tooth out, which had left him in a very queer state, in which he had written the "Prelude" given above, and under the influence of which he evidently was still.
I took the manuscript from his hands and read the following continuation of the lines he had begun to read me, while he made up for two or three nights' lost sleep as he best might.
[POEM: PARSON TURELL'S LEGACY]
[ILLUSTRATION: the old arm-chair]
---Hospitality is a good deal a matter of latitude, I suspect. The shade of a palm-tree serves an African for a hut; his dwelling is all door and no walls; every body can come in. To make a morning call on an Esquimaux acquaintance, one must creep through a long tunnel; his house is all walls and no door, except such a one as an apple with a worm-hole has. One might, very probably, trace a regular gradation between these two extremes. In cities where the evenings are generally hot, the people have porches at their doors, where they sit, and this is, of course, a provocative to the interchange of civilities. A good deal which in colder regions is ascribed to mean dispositions, belongs really to mean temperature.
Once in a while, even in our Northern cities, at noon, in a very hot summer's day, one may realize, by a sudden extension in his sphere of consciousness, how closely he is shut up for the most part. Do you not remember something like this? July, between 1 and 2 P.M., Fahrenheit 96 degrees, or thereabout. Windows all gaping, like the mouths of panting dogs. Long, stinging cry of a locust comes in from a tree, half a mile off; had forgotten there was such a tree. Baby's screams from a house several blocks distant--never knew there were any babies in the neighbourhood before. Tinman pounding something that clatters dreadfully,--very distinct but don't remember any tinman's shop near by. Horses stamping on pavement to get off flies. When you hear these four sounds, you may set it down as a warm day. Then it is that one would like to imitate the mode of life of the native at Sierra Leone, as somebody has described it: stroll into the market in natural costume,--buy a watermelon for a halfpenny,--split it, and scoop out the middle,--sit down in one half of the empty rind, clap the other on one's head, and feast upon the pulp.
----I see some of the London journals have been attacking some of their literary people for lecturing, on the ground of its being a public exhibition of themselves for money. A popular author can print his lecture; if he deliver it, it is a case of quætum corpore, or making profit of his person. None but "snobs " do that. Ergo, etc. To this I reply,--Negatur minor. Her Most Gracious Majesty, the Queen, exhibits herself to the public as a part of the service for which she is paid. We do not consider it low-bred in her to pronounce her own speech, and should prefer it so to hearing it from any other person, or reading it. His Grace and his Lordship exhibit themselves very often for popularity, and their houses every day for money.--No, if a man shows himself other than he is, if he belittles himself before an audience for hire, then he acts unworthily. But a true word, fresh from the lips of a true man, is worth paying for, at the rate of eight dollars a day, or even of fifty dollars a lecture. The taunt must be an outbreak of jealousy against the renowned authors who have the audacity to be also orators. The sublieutenants (of the press) stick a too popular writer and speaker with a epithet in England, instead of with a rapier, as in France.--Poh! All England is one great menagerie, and, all at once, the Jackal, who admires the gilded cage of the royal beast, must protest against the vulgarity of the talking-bird's and the nightingale's being willing to become a part of the exhibition!
THE LONG PATH. (Last of the Parentheses.)
Yes, that was my last walk with the schoolmistress. It happened to be the end of a term; and before the next began, a very nice young woman, who had been her assistant, was announced as her successor, and she was provided for elsewhere. So it was no longer the schoolmistress that I walked with, but -----Let us not be in unseemly haste. I shall call her the schoolmistress still some of you love her under that name.
----When it became known among the boarders that two of their number had joined hands to walk down the long path of life side by side, there was, as you may suppose, no small sensation. I confess I pitied our landlady. It took her all of a suddin,--she said. Had not known that we was keepin' company, and never mistrusted anything partic'lar. Ma'am was right to better herself. Didn't look very rugged to take care of a femily, but could get hired haälp, she calc'lated.--The great maternal instinct came crowding up in her soul just then, and her eyes wandered until they settled on her daughter.
----No, poor, dear woman,--that could not have been. But I am dropping one of my internal tears for you, with this pleasant smile on my face all the time.
The great mystery of God's providence is the permitted crushing out of flowering instincts. Life is maintained by the respiration of oxygen and of sentiments. In the long catalogue of scientific cruelties there is hardly any thing quite so painful to think of as that experiment of putting an animal under the bell of an air-pump and exhausting the air from it. [I never saw the accursed trick performed. Laus Deo!] There comes a time when the souls of human beings, women, perhaps, more even than men, begin to faint for the atmosphere of the affections they were made to breathe. Then it is that Society places its transparent bell-glass over the young woman who is to be the subject of one of itS fatal experiments. The element by which only the heart lives is sucked out of her crystalline prison. Watch her through its transparent walls;--her bosom is heaving; but it is in a vacuum. Death is no riddle, compared to this. I remember a poor girl's story in the "Book of Martyrs." The "dry-pan and the gradual fire" were the images that frightened her most. How many have withered and wasted under as slow a torment in the walls of that larger Inquisition which we call Civilization!
Yes, my surface-thought laughs at you, you foolish, plain, over-dressed, mincing, cheaply-organized, self-saturated young person, whoever you may be, now reading this,--little thinking you are what I describe, and in blissful unconsciousness that you are destined to the lingering asphyxia of soul which is the lot of such multitudes worthier than yourself. But it is only my surface-thought which laughs. For that great procession of the UNLOVED, who not only wear the crown of thorns, but must hide it under the locks of brown or gray,--under the snowy cap, under the chilling turban,--hide it even from themselves,--perhaps never know they wear it, though it kills them,--there is no depth of tenderness in my nature that Pity has not sounded. Somewhere,-- somewhere,--love is in store for them,--the universe must not he allowed to fool them so cruely. What infinite pathos in the small, half-unconscious artifices by which unattractive young persons seek to recommend themselves to the favour of those towards whom our dear sisters, the unloved, like the rest, are impelled by their God-given instincts!
Read what the singing-women--one to ten thousand of the suffering women--tell us, and think of the griefs that die unspoken! Nature is in earnest when she makes a woman; and there are women enough lying in the next churchyard with very commonplace blue slate-stones at their head and feet, for whom it was just as true that "all sounds of life assumed one tone of love," as for Letitia Landon, of whom Elizabeth Browning said it; but she could give words to her grief, and they could not.--Will you hear a few stanzas of mine?
[POEM: THE VOICELESS.]
I hope that our landlady's daughter is not so badly off, after all That young man from another city, who made the remark which you remember about Boston State-house and Boston folks, has appeared at our table repeatedly of late, and has seemed to me rather attentive to this young lady. Only last evening I saw him leaning over her while she was playing the accordion,--indeed, I undertook to join them in a song, and got as far as "Come rest in this boo-oo," when, my voice getting tremulous, I turned off; as one steps out of a procession, and left the basso and soprano to finish it. I see no reason why this young woman should not be a very proper match for a man that laughs about Boston State-house. He can't be very particular.
The young fellow whom I have so often mentioned was a little free in his remarks, but very good-natured.--Sorry to have you go,--he said.--Schoolma'am made a mistake not to wait for me. Haven't taken any thing but mournin' fruit at breakfast since I heard of it.-- Mourning fruit,-- said I,--what's that?--Huckleberries and blackberries, -- said he;--couldn't eat in colors, raspberries, currants, and such, after a solemn thing like this happening.--The conceit seemed to please the young fellow. If you will believe it, when we came down to breakfast the next morning, he had carried it out as follows. You know those odious little "saäs-plates" that figure so largely at boarding-houses, and especially at taverns, into which a strenuous attendant female trowels little dabs, sombre of tint and heterogeneous of composition, which it makes you feel home-sick to look at, and into which you poke the elastic coppery teaspoon with the air of a cat dipping her foot into a wash-tub,--(not that I mean to say anything against them, for, when they are of tinted porcelain, or starry many-faceted crystal, and hold clean bright berries, or pale virgin honey, or "lucent syrups tinct with cinnamon," and the teaspoon is of white silver, with the Tower-stamp, solid, but not brutally heavy,--as people in the green stage of millionism will have them,--I can daily with their amber semi-fluids or glossy spherules without a shiver),--you know these small, deep dishes, I say. When we came down the next morning, each of these (two only excepted) was covered with a broad leaf. On lifting this, each hoarder found a small heap of solemn black huckleberries. But one of those plates held red currants, and was covered with a red rose; the other held white currants, and was covered with a white rose. There was a laugh at this at first, and then a short silence, and I noticed that her lip trembled, and the old gentleman opposite was in trouble to get at his bandanna handkerchief.
----"What was the use in waiting?--We should be too late for Switzerland, that season, if we waited much longer." The hand I held trembled in Osine, and the eyes fell meekly, as Esther bowed herself before the feet of Ahasuerus.--She had been reading that chapter, for she looked up,--if there was a film of moisture over her eyes, there was also the faintest shadow of a distant smile skirting her lips, but not enough to accent the dimples,--and said, in her pretty, still way,--"If it please the king, and if I have found favour in his sight, and the thing seem right before the king, and I be pleasing in his eyes"----
I don't remember what King Ahasuerus did or said when Esther got just to that point of her soft, humble words,--but I know what I did. That quotation from Scripture was cut short, anyhow. We came to a compromise on the great question, and the time was settled for the last day of summer.
In the mean time, I talked on with our boarders, much as usual, as you may see by what I have reported. I must say, I was pleased with a certain tenderness they all showed toward us, after the first excitement of the news was over. It came Out in trivial matters,--but each one, in his or her way, manifested kindness. Our landlady, for instance, when we had chickens, sent the liver instead of the gizzard, with the wing, for the schoolmistress. This was not an accident; the two are never mistaken, though some landladies appear as if they did not know the difference. The whole of the company were even more respectfully attentive to my remarks than usual. There was no idle punning, and very little winking, on the part of that lively young gentleman who, as the reader may remember, occasionally interposed some playful question or remark, which could hardly be considered relevant,--except when the least allusion was made to matrimony, when he would look at the landlady's daughter, and wink with both sides of his face, until she would ask what he was pokin' his fun at her for, and if he wasn't ashamed of himself. In fact, they all behaved very handsomely, so that I really felt sorry at the thought of leaving my boarding-house.
I suppose you think that, because I lived at a plain widow-woman's plain table, I was of course more or less infirm in point of worldly fortune. You may not he sorry to learn that, though not what great merchants call very rich, I was comfortable,--comfortable,--so that most of those moderate luxuries I described in my verses on Contentment--most of them, I say- were within our reach, if we chose to have them. But I found out that the schoolmistress had a vein of charity about her, which had hitherto been worked on a small silver and copper basis, which made her think less, perhaps, of luxuries than even I did,--modestly as I have expressed my wishes.
It is a rather pleasant thing to tell a poor young woman, whom one has contrived to win without showing his rent-roll, that she has found what the world values so highly, in following the lead of her affections. That was an enjoyment I was now ready for.
I began abruptly:--Do you know that you are a rich young person?
I know that I am very rich,--she said.--Heaven has given me more than I ever asked; for I had not thought love was ever meant for me.
It was a woman a confession, and her voice fell to a whisper as it threaded the last words.
I don't mean that,--I said,-you blessed little saint and seraph!--if there's an angel missing in the New Jerusalem, inquire for her at this boarding-house!--I don't mean that! I mean that I--that is, you--am--are--confound it! I mean that you'll be what most people call a lady of fortune. --And I looked full in her eyes for the effect of the announcement.
There wasn't any. She said she was thankful that I had what would save me from drudgery, and that some other time I should tell her about it.--I never made a greater failure in an attempt to produce a sensation.
So the last day of summer came. It was our choice to go to the church, but we had a kind of reception at the boarding-house. The presents were all arranged, and among them none gave more pleasure than the modest tributes of our fellow-boarders,--for there was not one, I believe, who did not send something. The landlady would insist on making an elegant bride-cake, with her own hands; to which Master Benjamin Franklin wished to add certain embellishments out of his private funds,--namely, a Cupid in a mouse-trap, done in white sugar, and two miniature flags with the stars and stripes, which had a very pleasing effect, I assure you. The landlady's daughter sent a richly bound copy of Tupper's Poems. On a blank leaf was the following written in a very delicate and careful hand:
Presented to ... by . . .
On the eve ere her union in holy matrimony.
May sunshine ever beam o'er her!
Even the poor relative thought she must do something, and sent a copy of "The Whole Duty of Man" bound in very attractive variegated sheepskin, the edges nicely marbled. From the divinity-student came the loveliest English edition of "Keble's Christian Year." I opened it, when it came, to the Fourth Sunday in Lent, and read that angelic poem, sweeter than any thing I can remember since Xavier's " My God, I love thee."--I am not a Churchman,--I don't believe in planting oaks in flower-pots,--but such a poem as "The Rosebud" makes one's heart a proselyte to the culture it grows from. Talk about it as much as you like,--one's breeding shows itself nowhere more than in his religion. A man should be a gentleman in his hymns and prayers; the fondness for "scenes," among vulgar saints, contrasts so meanly with that--
"God only and good angels look
Behind the blissful scene,"---
and that other,--
"He could not trust his melting soul
But in his Maker's sight,"--
that I hope some of them will see this, and read the poem, and profit by it.
My laughing and winking young friend undertook to procure and arrange the flower for the table, and did it with immense zeal. I never saw him look happier than when he came in, his hat saucily on one side, and a cheroot in his mouth, with a huge bunch of tea-roses, which he said were for "Madam."
One of the last things that came was an old square box, smelling of camphor, tied and sealed. it bore, in faded ink, the marks, "Calcutta, 1805." On opening it, we found a white cashmere shawl, with a very brief note from the dear old gentleman opposite, saying that he had kept this some years, thinking he might want it, and many more, not knowing what to do with it,--that he had never seen it unfolded since he was a young supercargo,--and now, if he could spread it on her shoulders, it would make him feel young to look at it.
Poor Bridget, or Biddy, our red-armed maid-of-all-work! What must she do but buy a small copper breast-pin and put it under "Schoolma'am's" plate that morning, at breakfast? And Schoolma'am would wear it,--though I made her cover it, as well as I could, with a tea-rose.
It was my last breakfast as a boarder, and I could not leave them in utter silence.
Good by,--I said,--my dear friends, one and all of you! I have been long with you, and I find it hard parting. I have to thank you for a thousand Courtesies, and above all for the patience and indulgence with which you have listened to me when I have tried to instruct or amuse you. My friend the Professor (who, as well as my friend the Poet is unavoidably absent on this interesting occasion) has given me reason to suppose that he would occupy my empty chair about the first of January next. If he comes among you, be kind to him, as you have been to me. May the Lord bless you all!--And we shook hands all round the table.
Half an hour afterwards the breakfast things and the cloth were gone. I looked up and down the length of the bare boards over which I had so often uttered my sentiments and experiences--and--Yes, I am a man, like another.
All sadness vanished, as, in the midst of these old friends of mine, whom you know, and others a little more up in the world, perhaps, to whom I have not introduced you, I took the schoolmistress before the altar from the hands of the old gentleman who used to sit opposite, and who would insist on giving her away.
And now we two are walking the long path in peace together. The "schoolmistress" finds her skill in teaching called for again, without going abroad to seek little scholars. Those visions of mine have all come true.
I hope you all love me none the less for any thing I have told you. Farewell!
[ILLUSTRATION: Chapter 12 end-piece]