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Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)

Parson Turell's Legacy:

By Oliver Wendell Holmes


or, The President's Old Arm-Chair.

A Mathematical Story.

Facts respecting an old arm chair.
At Cambridge. Is kept in the College there.
Seems but little the worse for wear.
That's remarkable when I say
It was old in President Holyoke's day.
(One of his boys, perhaps you know,
Died, at one hundred, years ago).
He took lodgings for rain or shine
Under green bed-clothes in '69.

Know Old Cambridge? Hope you do.--
Born there? Don't say so! I was, too.
(Born in a house with a gambrel-roof,--
Standing still, if you must have proof..--
"Gambrel?--Gambrel?"--Let me beg
You'll look at a horse's hinder leg,--
First great angle above the hoof,--
That's the gambrel; hence gambrel-roof.)
--Nicest place that ever was seen,--
Colleges red and Common green,
Sidewalks brownish with trees between.
Sweetest spot beneath the skies
When the canker-worms don't rise,--
When the dust, that sometimes flies
Into your mouth and ears and eyes,
In a quiet slumber lies,
Not in the shape of unbaked pies
Such as barefoot children prize.

A kind of harbor it seems to be,
Facing the flow of a boundless sea
Rows of gray old Tutors stand
Ranged like rocks above the sand;
Rolling beneath them, soft and green,
Breaks the tide of bright sixteen,--
One wave, two waves, three waves, four,
Sliding up the sparkling floor;
Then it ebbs to flow no more,
Wandering off from shore to shore
With its freight of golden ore!
--Pleasant place for boys to play;--
Better keep your girls away;
Hearts get rolled as pebbles do
Which countless fingering waves pursue,
And every classic beach is strown
With heart-shaped pebbles of blood-red stone.

But this is neither here nor there;--
I'm talking about an old arm-chair.
You've heard, no doubt, of PARSON TURELL?
Over at Medford he used to dwell;
Married one of the Mathers' folk;
Got with his wife a chair of oak,--
Funny old chair, with seat like wedge,
Sharp behind and broad front edge,--
One of the oddest of human things,
Turned all over with knobs and rings,--
But heavy, and wide, and deep, and grand,--
Fit for the worthies of the land--
Chief-Justice Sewall a cause to try in,
Or Cotton Mather to sit--and lie--in.
--Parson Turell bequeathed the same
To a certain student,--SMITH by name;
These were the terms, as we are told
"Saide Smith saide Chaire to have and holde;
When he doth graduate, then to passe
To ye oldest Youth in ye Senior Classe.
On Payment of"--(naming a certain sum)--
"By him to whom ye Chaire shall come;
He to ye oldest Senior next,
And soe forever,"--(thus runs the text),--
"But one Crown lesse than he gave to claime,
That being his Debte for use of same."

Smith transferred it to one of the BROWNS,
And took his money,--five silver crowns.
Brown delivered it up to MOORE,
Who paid, it is plain, not five, but four.
Moore made over the chair to LEE,
Who gave him crowns of silver three.
Lee conveyed it unto DREW,
And now the payment, of course, was two.
DREW gave up the chair to DUNN,--
All he got, as you see, was one.
DUNN released the chair to HALL,
And got by the bargain no crown at all.
--And now it passed to a second BROWN,
Who took it, and likewise claimed a crown.
When BROWN conveyed it unto WARE,
Having had one crown, to make it fair,
He paid him two crowns to take the chair;
And WARE being honest (as all Wares be),
He paid one POTTER, who took it, three.
Four got ROBINSON; five got Dix;
JOHNSON primus demanded six;
And so the sum kept gathering still
Till after the battle of Bunker's Hill.

--When paper money became so cheap,
Folks wouldn't count it, but said "a heap,"
A certain RICHARDS,--the books declare,--
(A.M. in '90? I've looked with care
Through the Triennial,--name not there.)--
This person, Richards, was offered then
Eight score pounds, but would have ten;
Nine, I think, was the sum he took,--
Not quite certain,--but see the book.
--By and by the wars were still,
But nothing had altered the Parson's will.
The old arm-chair was solid yet,
But saddled with such a monstrous debt!
Things grew quite too bad to bear,
Paying such sums to get rid of the chair!
But dead men's fingers hold awful tight,
And there was the will in black and white,
Plain enough for a child to spell.
What should be done no man could tell,
For the chair was a kind of nightmare curse,
And every season but made it worse.

As a last resort, to clear the doubt,
They got old GOVERNOR HANCOCK out.
The Governor came, with his Light-horse Troop
And his mounted truckmen, all cock-a-hoop
Halberds glittered and colors flew,
French horns whinnied and trumpets blew,
The yellow fifes whistled between their teeth
And the bumble-bee bass-drums boomed beneath;
So he rode with all his band,
Till the President met him, cap in hand.
--The Governor "hefted" the crowns, and said,--
"A will is a will, and the Parson's dead."
The Governor hefted the crowns. Said he,--
"There is your p'int. And here's my fee.
These are the terms you must fulfil,--
On such conditions I BREAK THE WILL!"
The Governor mentioned what these should be,
(Just wait a minute and then you'll see.)
The President prayed. Then all was still,
And the Governor rose and BROKE THE WILL!
--"About those conditions?" Well, now you go
And do as I tell you, and then you'll know.
Once a year, on Commencement-day,
If you'll only take the pains to stay,
You'll see the President in the CHAIR,
Likewise the Governor sitting there.
The President rises; both old and young
May hear his speech in a foreign tongue,
The meaning whereof, as lawyers swear,
Is this: Can I keep this old arm-chair?
And then his Excellency bows,
As much as to say that he allows.
The Vice-Gub. next is called by name
He bows like t'other, which means the same.
And all the officers round 'em bow,
As much as to say that they allow.
And a lot of parchments about the chair,
Are handed to witnesses then and there,
And then the lawyers hold it clear
That the chair is safe for another year.

God bless you, Gentlemen! Learn to give
Money to colleges while you live.
Don't be silly and think you'll try
To bother the colleges, when you die,
With codicil this, and codicil that,
That Knowledge may starve while Law grows fat;
For there never was pitcher that wouldn't spill,
And there's always a flaw in a donkey's will!