The Professor at the Breakfast-Table: What He Said, What He Heard, and What He Saw
I INTENDED to have signalized my first appearance by a certain large statement, which I flatter myself is the nearest approach to a universal formula of life yet promulgated at this breakfasttable. It would have had a grand effect. For this purpose I fixed my eyes on a certain divinity-student, with the intention of exchanging a few phrases, and then forcing my picture-card, namely, The great end of being.—I will thank you for the sugar,—I said.—Man is a dependent creature.
It is a small favor to ask,—said the divinity-student,—and passed the sugar to me.
—Life is a great bundle of little tilings,—I said.
The divinity-student smiled, as if that was the concluding epigram of the sugar question.
You smile,—I said.—Perhapslife seems to you a little bundle of great things ?
The divinity-student started a laugh, but suddenly reined it back with a pull, as one throws a horse on his haunches. —Life is a great bundle of great things, —he said.
(Now, then !) The great end of being, after all, is—
Hold on ! — said my neighbor, a young fellow whose name seems to be John, and nothing else,—for that is what they all call him,—hold on ! the Sculpin is go’n’ to say somethin’.
Now the Sculpin (Cottus Virginianus) is a little water-beast which pretends to consider itself a fish, and, under that pretext, hangs about the piles upon which West-Boston Bridge is built, swallowing the bait and hook intended for flounders. On being drawn from the water, it exposes an immense head, a diminutive bony carcass, and a surface so full of spines, ridges, ruffles, and frills, that the naturalists have not been able to count them without quarrelling about the number, and that the colored youth, whose sport they spoil, do not like to touch them, and especially to tread on them, unless they happen to have shoes on, to cover the thick white soles of their broad black feet.
When, therefore, I heard the young fellow’s exclamation, I looked round the table with curiosity to see what it meant. At the further end of it I saw a head, and a small portion of a little deformed body, mounted on a high chair, which brought the occupant up to a fair level enough for him to get at his food. His whole appearance was so grotesque, I felt for a minute as if there was a showman behind him who would pull him down presently and put up Judy, or the hangman, or the Devil, or some other wooden personage of the famous spectacle. I contrived to lose the first part of his sentence, but what I heard began so:—
—by the Frog-Pond, when there were frogs in it, and the folks used to come down from the tents on 'Lection and Independence days with their pails to get water to make egg-pop with. Born in Boston; went to school in Boston as long as the boys would let me. —The little man groaned, turned, as if to look round, and went on.—Ran away from school one day to see Phillips hung for killing Denegri with a loggerhead. That was in flip days, when there were always two or three loggerheads in the fire. I’m a Boston boy, I tell you,—born at North End, and mean to be buried on Copps' Hill, with the good old underground people,—the Worthylakes, and the rest of 'em. Yes, Sir,—up on the old hill, where they buried Captain Daniel Malcolm in a stone grave, ten feet deep, to keep him safe from the red-coats, in those old times when the world was frozen up tight and there wasn’t but one spot open, and that was right over Faneuil Hall,—and black enough it looked, I tell you ! There’s where my bones shall lie, Sir, and rattle away when the big guns go off at the Navy Yard opposite ! You can’t make me ashamed of the old place ! Full of crooked little streets;—I was born and used to run round in one of ’em—
—I should think so,—said that young man whom I hear them call "John,"— softly, not meaning to be heard, nor to be cruel, but thinking in a halt-whisper, evidently,—I should think so ; and got kinked up, turnin’ so many corners.—The little man did not hear what was said, but went on,—
—full of crooked little streets; but I tell you Boston has opened, and kept open, more turnpikes that lead straight to free thought and free speech and free deeds than any other city of live men or dead men,—I don’t care how broad their streets are, nor how high their steeples !
—How high is Bosting meet’n’house?—said a person with black whiskers and imperial, a velvet waistcoat, a guard-chain rather too massive, and a diamond pin so very large that the most trusting nature might confess an inward suggestion,—of course, nothing amounting to a suspicion. For this is a gentleman from a great city, and sits next to the landlady’s daughter, who evidently believes in him, and is the object of his especial attention.
How high?—said the little man.—As high as the first step of the stairs that lead to the New Jerusalem. Isn’t that high enough ?
It is,—I said.—The great end of being is to harmonize man with the order of things; and the church has been a good pitch-pipe, and may be so still. But who shall tune the pitch-pipe? Quis cus—(On the whole, as this quotation was not entirely new, and, being in a foreign language, might not be familiar to all the boarders, I thought I would not finish it.)
—Go to the Bible !—said a sharp voice from a sharp-faced, sharp-eyed, sharp-elbowed, strenuous-looking woman in a black dress, appearing as if it began as a piece of mourning and perpetuated itself as a bit of economy.
You speak well, Madam,—I said;—yet there is room for a gloss or commentary on what you say. "He who would bring back the wealth of the Indies must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” What you bring away from the Bible depends to some extent on what, you carry to it.— Benjamin Franklin ! Be so good as to step up to my chamber and bring me down the small uncovered pamphlet of twenty pages which you will find lying under the “Cruden’s Concordance.” [The boy took a large bite, which left a very perfect crescent in the slice of breadand-butter he held, and departed on his errand, with the portable fraction of his breakfast to sustain him on the way.]
Here it is. “Go to the Bible. A Dissertation, etc., etc. By J. J. Flournoy. Athens, Georgia. 1858.”
Mr. Flournoy, Madam, has obeyed the precept which you have judiciously delivered. You may be interested, Madam, to know what are the conclusions at which Mr. J. J, Flournoy of Athens, Georgia, has arrived. You shall hear, Madam. He has gone to the Bible, and he has come back from the Bible, bringing a remedy for existing social evils, which, if it is the real specific, as it professes to be, is of great interest to humanity, and to the female part of humanity in particular. It is what he calls trigamy, Madam, or the marrying of three wives, so that "good old men" may be solaced at once by the companionship of the wisdom of maturity, and of those less perfected but hardly less engaging qualities which are found at an earlier period of life. He has followed your precept, Madam ; I hope you accept his conclusions.
The female boarder in black attire looked so puzzled, and, in fact, "all abroad," after the delivery of this "counter” of mine, that I left her to recover her wits, and went on with the conversation, which I was beginning to get pretty well in hand.
But in the mean time I kept my eye on the female boarder to see what effect I had produced. First, she was a little stunned at having her argument knocked over. Secondly, she was a little shocked at the tremendous character of the triple matrimonial suggestion. Thirdly.— I don’t like to say what I thought. Something seemed to have pleased her fancy. Whether it was, that, if trigamy should come into fashion, there would be three times as many chances to enjoy the luxury of saying, “No !” is more than I can tell you. I may as well mention that B. F. came to me after breakfast to borrow the pamphlet for “a lady,”—one of the boarders, he said,—looking as if he had a secret he wished to be relieved of.
—I continued.—If a human soul is necessarily to be trained up in the faith of those from whom it inherits its body, why, there is the end of all reason. If, sooner or later, every soul is to look for truth with its own eyes, the first thing is to recognize that no presumption in favor of any particular belief arises from the fact of our inheriting it. Otherwise you would not give the Mahometan a fair chance to become a convert to a better religion.
The second thing would be to depolarize every fixed religious idea in the mind by changing the word which stands for it.
—I don’t know what you mean by "depolarizing" an idea,—said the divinity-student.
I will tell you,—I said.—When a given symbol which represents a thought has lain for a certain length of time in the mind, it undergoes a change like that which rest in a certain position gives to iron. It becomes magnetic in its relations,—it is traversed by strange forces which did not belong to it. The word, and consequently the idea it represents, is polarized.
The religious currency of mankind, in thought, in speech, and in print, consists entirely of polarized words. Borrow one of these from another language and religion, and you will find it leaves all its magnetism behind it. Take that famous word, O’m, of the Hindoo mythology. Even a priest cannot pronounce it without sin ; and a holy Pundit would shut his ears and run away from you in horror, if you should say it aloud. What do you care for O’m ? If you wanted to get the Pundit to look at his religion fairly, you must first depolarize this and all similar words for him. The argument for and against new translations of the Bible really turns on this. Skepticism is afraid to trust its truths in depolarized words, and so cries out against a new translation. I think, myself, if every idea our Book contains could be shelled out of its old symbol and put into a new, clean, unmagnetic word, we should have some chance of reading it as philosophers, or wisdom-lovers, ought to read it,—which we do not and cannot now, any more than a Hindoo can read the “ Gayatri ” as a fair man and lover of truth should do. When society has once fairly dissolved the New Testament, which it never has done yet, it will perhaps crystallize it over again in new forms of language.
—I didn’t know you was a settled minister over this parish,—said the young fellow near me.
A sermon by a lay-preacher may be worth listening to,—I replied, calmly.— It gives the parallax of thought and feeling as they appear to the observers from two very different points of view. If you wish to get the distance of a heavenly body, you know that you must take two observations from distant points of the earth’s orbit,—in midsummer and midwinter, for instance. To get the parallax of heavenly truths, you must take an observation from the position of the laity as well as of the clergy. Teachers and students of theology get a certain look, certain conventional tones of voice, a clerical gait, a professional neckcloth, and habits of mind as professional as their externals. They are scholarly men and read Bacon, and know well enough what the “ idols of the tribe ” are. Of course they have their false gods, as all men that follow one exclusive calling are prone to do.—The clergy have played the part of the fly-wheel in our modern civilization. They have never suffered it to stop. They have often carried on its movement, when other moving powers failed, by the momentum stored in their vast body. Sometimes, too, they have kept it back by their vis inertiæ;, when its wheels were like to grind the bones of some old canonized error into fertilizers for the soil that yields the bread of life. But the mainspring of the world’s onward religious movement is not in them, nor in any one body of men, let me tell you. It is the people that makes the clergy, and not the clergy that makes the people. Of course, the profession reacts on its source with variable energy.—But there never was a guild of dealers or a company of craftsmen that did not need sharp looking after.
Our old friend, Dr. Holyoke, whom we gave the dinner to some time since, must have known many people that saw the great bonfire in Harvard College yard.
—Bonfire?—shrieked the little man. —The bonfire when Robert Calef’s book was burned ?
The same, — I said, — when Robert Calef the Boston merchant’s book was burned in the yard of Harvard College, by order of Increase Mather, President of the College and Minister of the Gospel. You remember the old witchcraft revival of ’92, and how stout Master Robert Calef, trader, of Boston, had the pluck to tell the ministers and judges what a set of fools and worse than fools they were—
Remember it ?-—said the little man.—I don’t think I shall forget it, as long as I can stretch this forefinger to point with, and see what it wears.—There was a ring on it.
May I look at it ?—I said.
Where it is,—said the little man ;—it will never come off, till it falls off from the bone in the darkness and in the dust.
He pushed the high chair on which he sat slightly back from the table, and dropped himself, standing, to the floor,— his head being only a little above the level of the table, as he stood. With pain and labor, lilting one foot over the other, as a drummer handles his sticks, he took a few steps from his place,—his motions and the dead beat of the misshapen boots announcing to my practised eye and ear the malformation which is called in learned language talipes varus, or inverted club-foot.
Stop ! stop !—I said,—let me come to you.
The little man hobbled back, and lifted himself by the left arm, with an ease approaching to grace which surprised me, into his high chair. I walked to his side, and he stretched out the forefinger of his right hand, with the ring upon it. The ring had been put on long ago, and could not pass the misshapen joint. It was one of those funeral rings which used to be given to relatives and friends after the decease of persons of any note or importance. Beneath a round bit of glass was a death’s head. Engraved on one side of this, "L. B. Æt. 22,”—on the other, “Ob. 1692.”
My grandmother’s grandmother,—said the little man.—Hanged for a witch. It doesn’t seem a great while ago. I knew my grandmother, and loved her. Her mother was daughter to the witch that Chief Justice Sewall hanged and Cotton Mather delivered over to the Devil.— That was Salem, though, and not Boston. No, not Boston. Robert Calef, the Boston merchant, it was that blew them all to-
Never mind where he blew them to,— I said ;—for the little man was getting red in the face, and I didn’t know what might come next.
This episode broke me up, as the jockeys say, out of my square conversational trot; but I settled down to it again.
—A man that knows men, in the street, at their work, human nature in its shirt-sleeves,—who makes bargains with deacons, instead of talking over texts with them,—a man who has found out that there are plenty of praying rogues and swearing saints in the world,—above all, who has found out, by living into the pith and core of life, that all of the Deity which can be folded up between the sheets of any human book is to the Deity of the firmament, of the strata, of the hot aortic flood of throbbing human life, of this infinite, instantaneous consciousness in which the soul’s being consists,— an incandescent point in the filament connecting the negative pole of a past eternity with the positive pole of an eternity that is to come,—that all of the Deity which any human book can hold is to this larger Deity of the working battery of the universe only as the films in a book of gold-leaf are to the broad seams and curdled lumps of ore that lie in unsunned mines and virgin placers,— Oh!—I was saying that a man who lives out-ofdoors, among live people, gets some things into his head he might not find in the index of his "Body of Divinity.”
I tell you what,—the idea of the professions' digging a moat round their close corporations, like that Japanese one at Jeddo, which you could put Park-Street Church on the bottom of and look over the vane from its side, and try to stretch another such spire across it without spanning the chasm,—that idea, I say, is pretty nearly worn out. Now when a civilization or a civilized custom falls into senile dementia, there is commonly a judgment ripe for it, and it comes as plagues come, from a breath,—as fires come, from a spark.
Here, look at medicine. Big wigs, gold-headed canes, Latin prescriptions, shops full of abominations, recipes a yard long, “curing” patients by drugging as sailors bring a wind by whistling, selling lies at a guinea apiece,—a routine, in short, of giving unfortunate sick people a mess of things either too odious to swallow or too acrid to hold, or, if that were possible, both at once.
—You don’t know what I mean, indignant and not unintelligent countrypractitioner ? Then you don’t know the history of medicine,—and that is not my fault. But don’t expose yourself in any outbreak of eloquence; for, by the mortar in which Anaxagoras was pounded ! I did not bring home Schenckius and Forestus and Hildanus, and all the old folios in calf and vellum I will show you, to be bullied by the proprietor of a "Wood and Bache," and a shelf of peppered sheepskin reprints by Philadelphia Editors. Besides, many of the profession and I know a little something of each other, and you don't think I am such a simpleton as to lose their good opinion by saying what the better heads among them would condemn as unfair and untrue ? Now mark how the great plague came on the generation of drugging doctors, and in what form it fell.
A scheming drug-vendor, (inventive genius,) an utterly untrustworthy and incompetent observer, (profound searcher of Nature,) a shallow dabbler in erudition, (sagacious scholar,) started the monstrous fiction (founded the immortal system) of Homoeopathy. I am very fair, you see, —you can help yourself to either of these sets of phrases.
All the reason in the world would not have had so rapid and general an effect on the public mind to disabuse it of the idea that a drug is a good thing in itself, instead of being, as it is, a bad thing, as was produced by the trick (system) of this German charlatan (theorist). Not that the wiser part of the profession needed him teach them; but the routinists and then employers, the "general practitioners," who lived by selling pills and mixtures, and their drug-consuming customers, had to recognize that people could get well, unpuisoned. These dumb cattle would not learn it of themselves, and so the murrain of Homoeopathy fell on them.
—You don’t know what plague has fallen on the practitioners of theology? I will tell you, then. It is SPIRITUALISM. While some are crying out against it as a delusion of the Devil, and some are laughing at it as an hysteric folly, and some are getting angry with it as a mere trick of interested or mischievous persons, Spiritualism is quietly undermining the traditional ideas of the future state which have been and are still accepted,—not merely in those who believe in it, but in the general sentiment of the community, to a larger extent than most good people seem to be aware of. It needn’t be true, to do this, any more than Homoeopathy need, to do its work. The Spiritualists have some pretty strong instincts to pry over, which no doubt have been roughly handled by theologians at different times. And the Nemesis of the pulpit comes, in a shape it little thought of, beginning with the snap of a toe-joint, and ending with such a crack of old beliefs that the roar of it is heard in all the ministers' studies of Christendom ! Sir, you cannot have people of cultivation, of pure character, sensible enough in common things, large-hearted women, grave judges, shrewd business-men, men of science, professing to be in communication with the spiritual world and keeping up constant intercourse with it, without its gradually reacting on the whole conception of that other life. It is the folly of the world, constantly, which confounds its wisdom. Not only out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, but out of the mouths of fools and cheats, we may often get our truest lessons. For the fool’s judgment is a dog-vane that turns with a breath, and the cheat watches the clouds and sets his weathercock by them,—so that one shall often see by their pointing which way the winds of heaven are blowing, when the slow-wheeling arrows and feathers of what we call the Temples of Wisdom are turning to all points of the compass.
—Amen! — said the young fellow called John.—Ten minutes by the watch. Those that are unanimous will please to signify by holding up their left foot!
I looked this young man steadily in the face for about thirty seconds. His countenance was as calm as that of a reposing infant. I think it was simplicity, rather than mischief, with perhaps a youthful playfulness, that led him to this outbreak. I have often noticed that even quiet horses, on a sharp November morning, when their coats are just beginning to get the winter roughness, will give little sportive demi-kicks, with slight sudden elevation of the subsequent region of the body, and a sharp short whinny, —by no means intending to put their heels through the dasher, or to address the driver rudely, but feeling, to use a familiar word, frisky. This, I think, is the physiological condition of the young person, John. I noticed, however, what I should call a palpebral spasm, affecting the eyelid and muscles of one side, which, if it were intended for the facial gesture called a wink, might lead me to suspect a disposition to be satirical on his part.
—Resuming the conversation, I remarked,—I am, ex officio, as a Professor, a conservative. For I don’t know any fruit that clings to its tree so faithfully, not even a “froze-’n’-thaw” winter-apple, as a Professor to the bough of which his chair is made. You can’t shake him off, and it is as much as you can do to pull him off. Hence, by a chain of induction I need not unwind, he tends to conservatism generally.
But then, you know, if you are sailing the Atlantic, and all at once find yourself in a current and the sea covered with weeds, and drop your Fahrenheit over the side and find it eight or ten degrees higher than in the ocean generally, there is no use in flying in the face of facts and swearing there is no such thing as a GulfStream, when you are in it.
You can’t keep gas in a bladder, and you can’t keep knowledge tight in a profession. Hydrogen will leak out, and air will leak in, through India-rubber; and special knowledge will leak out, and general knowledge will leak in, though a profession were covered with twenty thicknesses of sheepskin diplomas. By Jove, Sir, till common sense is well mixed up with medicine, and common manhood with theology, and common honesty with law, We the people, Sir, some of us with nutcrackers, and some of us with trip-hammers, and some of us with pile-drivers, and some of us coming with a whish ! like air-stones out of a lunar volcano, will crash down on the lumps of nonsense in all of them till we have made powder of them like Aaron’s calf!
If to be a conservative is to let all the drains of thought choke up and keep all the soul’s windows down,—to shut out the sun from the east and the wind from the west,—to let the rats run free in the cellar, and the moths feed their fill in the chambers, and the spiders weave their lace before the mirrors, till the soul’s typhus is bred out of our neglect, and we begin to snore in its coma or rave in its delirium,—I, Sir, am a bonnet-rouge, a red-cap of the barricades, my friends, rather than a conservative.
—Were you born in Boston. Sir ?— said the little man,—looking eager and excited.
I was not,—I replied.
It’s a pity,—it’s a pity,—said the little man ;—it’s the place to be born in. But if you can’t fix it so as to be born here, you can come and live here. Old Ben Franklin, the father of American science and the American Union, wasn’t ashamed to be born here. Jim Otis, the father of American Independence, bothered about in the Cape Cod marshes awhile, but he came to Boston as soon as he got big enough. Joe Warren, the first bloody ruffled-shirt of the Revolution, was as good as burn here. Parson Channing strolled along this way from Newport, and staid here. Pity old Sam Hopkins hadn’t come, too;—we’d have made a man of him,—poor, dear, good old Christian heathen ! There he lies, as peaceful as a young baby, in the old burying-ground ! I’ve stood on the slab many a time. Meant well,—meant well. Juggernaut. Parson Channing put a little oil on one linchpin, and slipped it out so softly, the first thing they knew about it was the wheel of that side was down. T’other fellow’s at work now; but he makes more noise about it. When the linchpin comes out on his side, there’ll be a jerk, I tell you! Some think it will spoil the old cart, and they pretend to say that there are valuable things in it which may get hurt. Hope not,—hope not. But this is the great Macadamizing place,—always cracking up something.
Cracking up Boston folks,—said the gentleman with the diamond-pin, whom, for convenience’ sake, I shall hereafter call the Koh-i-noor.
The little man turned round mechanically towards him, as Maelzel’s Turk used to turn, carrying his head slowly and horizontally, as if it went by cogwheels.—Cracking up all sorts of things, —native and foreign vermin included,— said the little man.
This remark was thought by some of us to have a hidden personal application, and to afford a fair opening for a lively rejoinder, if the Koh-i-noor had been so disposed. The little man uttered it with the distinct wooden calmness with which the ingenious Turk used to exclaim, E-chec! so that it must have been heard. The party supposed to be interested in the remark was, however, carrying a large knife-blade-full of something to his mouth just then, which, no doubt, interfered with the reply he would have made.
—My friend who used to board here was accustomed sometimes, in a pleasant way, to call himself the Autocrat of the table,—meaning, I suppose, that he had it all his own way among the boarders. I think our small boarder here is like to prove a refractory subject, if I undertake to use the sceptre my friend meant to bequeathe me, too magisterially. I won’t deny that sometimes, on rare occasions, when I have been in company with gentlemen who preferred listening, I have been guilty of the same kind of usurpation which my friend openly justified. But I maintain, that I, the Professor, am a good listener. If a man can tell me a fact which subtends an appreciable angle in the horizon of thought, I am as receptive as the contribution-box in a congregation of colored brethren. If, when I am exposing my intellectual dry-goods, a man will begin a good story, I will have them all in, and my shutters up, before he has got to the fifth “says he,” and listen like a three-years’ child, as the author of the “Old Sailor” says. I had rather hear one of those grand elemental laughs from either of our two Georges, (fictitious names, Sir or Madam,) or listen to one of those old playbills of our College days, in which “Tom and Jerry” ("Thomas and Jeremiah,” as the old Greek Professor was said to call it) was announced to be brought on the stage with the whole force of the Faculty, read by our Frederick, (no such person, of course,) than say the best tilings I might by any chance find myself capable of saying. Of course, if I come across a real thinker, a suggestive, acute, illuminating, informing talker, I enjoy the luxury of sitting still for a while as much as another.
Nobody talks much that doesn’t say unwise things,—things he did not mean to say; as no person plays much without striking a false note sometimes. Talk, to me, is only spading up the ground for crops of thought. I can’t answer for what will turn up. If I could, it wouldn’t be talking, but "speaking my piece.” Better, I think, the hearty abandonment of one’s self to the suggestions of the moment, at the risk of an occasional slip of the tongue, perceived the instant it escapes, but just one syllable too late, than the royal reputation of never saying a foolish thing.
—What shall I do with this little man ?—There is only one tiling to do,— and that is, to let him talk when he will. The day of the “Autocrat’s” monologues is over.
—My friend,—said I to the young fellow whom, as I have said, the boarders call "John,”—My friend,—I said, one morning, after breakfast,—can you give me any information respecting the deformed person who sits at the other end of the table ?
What ! the Sculpin’?—said the young fellow.
The diminutive person, with angular curvature of the spine,—I said,—and double talipes varus,—I beg your pardon,—with two club-feet.
Is that long word what you call it when a fellah walks so ?—said the young man, making his fists revolve round an imaginary axis, as you may have seen youth of tender age and limited pugilistic knowledge, when they show how they would punish an adversary, themselves protected by this rotating guard,—the middle knuckle, meantime, thumb-supported, fiercely prominent, death-threatening.
It is,—said I.—But would you have the kindness to tell me it you know anything about this deformed person ?
About the Sculpin ?—said the young fellow.
My good friend,—said I,—I am sure, by your countenance, you would not hurt the feelings of one who has been hardly enough treated by Nature to be spared by his fellows. Even in speaking of him to others, I could wish that you might not employ a term which implies contempt for what should inspire only pity.
A fellah’s no business to be so— crooked,—said the young man called John.
Yes, yes,—I said, thoughtfully,—the strong hate the weak. It’s all right. The arrangement has reference to the race, and not to the individual. Infirmity must be kicked out, or the stock run down. Wholesale moral arrangements are so different from retail!—I understand the instinct, my friend,—it is cosmic,—it is planetary,—it is a conservative principle in creation.
The young fellow’s face gradually lost its expression as I was speaking, until it became as blank of vivid significance as the countenance of a gingerbread rabbit with two currants in the place of eyes. He had not taken my meaning.
Presently the intelligence came back with a snap that made him wink, as he answered,—Jest so. All right. A 1. Put her through. That’s the way to talk. Did you speak to me, Sir ?—Here the young man struck up that well-known song which I think they used to sing at Masonic festivals, beginning, “Aldiborontiphoscophornio, Where left you Chrononhotonthologos ? ”
I beg your pardon,—I said ;—all I meant was, that men, as temporary occupants of a permanent abode called human life, which is improved or injured by occupancy, according to the style of tenant, have a natural dislike to those who, if they live the life of the race as well as of the individual, will leave lasting injurious effects upon the abode spoken of, which is to be occupied by countless future generations. This is the final cause of the underlying brute instinct which we have in common with the herds.
—The gingerbread-rabbit expression was coming on so fast, that I thought I must try again.—It’s a pity that families are kept up, where there are such hereditary infirmities. Still, let us treat this poor man fairly, and not call him names. Do you know what his name is?
I know what the rest of ’em call him, —said the young fellow.—They call him Little Boston. There’s no harm in that, is there ?
It is an honorable term,—I replied.— But why Little Boston, in a place where most are Bostonians ?
Because, nobody else is quite so Boston all over as he is,—said the young fellow.
“L. B. Ob. 1692.”—Little Boston let him be, when we talk about him. The ring he wears labels him well enough. There is stuff in the little man, or he wouldn't stiek so manfully by this crooked, crotchety old town. Give him a chance.—You will drop the Seulpin, won’t you ?—I said to the young fellow.
Drop him ?—he answered,—I ha’n’t took him up yet.
No, no,—the term,—I said,—the term. Don’t call him so any more, if you please. Call him Little Boston, if you like.
All right,—said the young fellow.—I wouldn’t be hard on the poor little—
The word he used was objectionable in point of significance and of grammar. It was a frequent termination of certain adjectives among the Romans,—as of those designating a person following the sea, or given to rural pursuits. It is classed by custom among the profane words; why, it is hard to say,—but it is largely used in the street by those who speak of their fellows in pity or in wrath.
I never heard the young fellow apply the name of the odious pretended fish to the little man from that day forward.
—Here we are, then, at our boarding-house. First, myself, the Professor, a little way from the head of the table, on the right, looking down, where the Autocrat used to sit. At the further end sits the Landlady. At the head of the table, just now, the Koh-i-noor, or the gentleman with the diamond. Opposite me is a Venerable Gentleman with a bland countenance, who as yet has spoken little. The Divinity-Student is my neighbor on the right,—and further down, that Young Fellow of whom I have repeatedly spoken. The Landlady's Daughter sits near the Koh-i-noor, as I said. The Poor Relation near the Landlady. At the right upper corner is a fresh-looking youth of whose name and history I have as yet learned nothing. Next the further left-hand corner, looking down the table, sits the deformed person. The chair at his side, occupying that corner, is empty. I need not specially mention the other boarders, with the exception of Benjamin Franklin, the landlady’s son, who sits near his mother. We are a tolerably assorted set,—difference enough and likeness enough; but still it seems to me there is something wanting. The Landlady’s Daughter is the prima donna in the way of feminine attractions. I am not quite satisfied with this young lady. She wears more “jewelry,” as certain young ladies call their trinkets, than I care to see on a person in her position. Her voice is strident, her laugh too much like a giggle, and she has that foolish way of dancing and bobbing like a quill-float with a “minnum” biting the hook below it, which one sees and weeps over sometimes in persons of more pretensions. I can’t help hoping we shall put something into that empty chair yet which will add the missing String to our social harp. I hear talk of a rare Miss who is expected. Something in the school-girl way, I believe. We shall see.
—My friend who calls himself The Autocrat has given me a caution which I am going to repeat, with my comment upon it, for the benefit of all concerned.
Professor,—said he, one day—don’t you think your brain will run dry before a year’s out, if you don’t get the pump to help the cow ? Let me tell you what happened to me once. I put a little money into a bank, and bought a checkbook, so that I might draw it as I wanted, in sums to suit. Things went on nicely for a time ; scratching with a pen was as easy as rubbing Aladdin’s Lamp; and my blank check-book seemed to be a dictionary of possibilities, in which I could find all the synonymes of happiness, and realize any one of them on the spot. A check came back to me at last with these two words on it,—No funds. My checkbook was a volume of waste-paper.
Now, Professor,— said he,— I have drawn something out of your bank, you know; and just so sure as you keep drawing out your soul’s currency without making new deposits, the next thing will be, No funds.—and then where will you be, my boy? These little bits of paper mean your gold and your silver and your copper, Professor; and you will certainly break up and go to pieces, if you don’t hold on to your metallic basis.
There is something in that,—said I.— Only I rather think life, can coin thought somewhat faster than I can count it off in words. What if one shall go round and dry up with soft napkins all the dew that falls of a June evening on the leaves of his garden ? Shall there be no more dew on those leaves thereafter? Marry, yea,—many drops, large and round and full of moonlight as those thou shalt have absterged!
Here am I, the Professor,—a man who has lived long enough to have plucked the flowers of life and come to the berries, —which are not always sad-colored, but sometimes golden-hued as the crocus of April, or rosy-cheeked as the damask of June; a man who staggered against books as a baby, and will totter against them, if he lives to decrepitude ; with a brain as full of tingling thoughts, such as they are, as a limb which we call “asleep,” because it is so particularly awake, is of pricking points ; presenting a key-board of nerve-pulps, not as yet tanned or ossified, to the finger-touch of all outward agencies; knowing something of the filmy threads of this web of life in which we insects buzz awhile, waiting for the gray old spider to come along; contented enough with daily realities, but twirling on his finger the key of a private Bedlam of ideals; in knowledge feeding with the fox oftener than with the stork,— loving better the breadth of a fertilizing inundation than the depth of a narrow artesian well; finding nothing too small for his contemplation in the markings of the grammatophora subtilissima, and nothing too large in the movement of the solar system towards the star Lambda of the constellation Hercules ;—and the question is, whether there is anything left for me, the Professor, to suck out of creation, after my lively friend has had his straw in the bunghole of the Universe !
A man’s mental reactions with the atmosphere of life must go on, whether he will or no, as between his blood and the air he breathes. As to catching the residuum of the process, or what we call thought,—the gaseous ashes of burnedout thinking,—the excretion of mental respiration,—that will depend on many things, as, on having a favorable intellectual temperature about one, and a fitting receptacle.—I sow more thoughtseeds in twenty-four hours' travel over the desert-sand, along which my lonely consciousness paces day and night, than I shall throw into soil where it will germinate, in a year. All sorts of bodily and mental perturbations come between us and the due projection of our thought. The pulse-like "fits of easy and difficult transmission" seem to reach even the transparent medium through which our souls are seen. We know our humanity by its often intercepted rays, as we tell a revolving light from a star or meteor by its constantly recurring obscuration.
An illustrious scholar once told me, that, in the first lecture he ever delivered, he spoke but half his allotted time, and felt as if he had told all he knew. Braham came forward once to sing one of his most famous and familiar songs, and for his life could not recall the first line of it;—he told his mishap to the audience, and they screamed it at him in a chorus of a thousand voices. Milton coukl not write to suit himself, except from the autumnal to the vernal equinox. One in the clothing-business, who, there is reason to suspect, may have inherited, by descent, the great poet’s impressible temperament, let a customer slip through his fingers one day without fitting him with a new garment “Ah !” said he to a friend of mine, who was standing by, “ if it hadn’t been for that confounded headache of mine this morning, I’d have had a coat on that man, in spite of himself, before he left the store.” A passing throb, only,—but it deranged the nice mechanism required to persuade the accidental human being, x, into a given piece of broadcloth, a.
We must take care not to confound this frequent difficulty of transmission of our ideas with want of ideas. I suppose that a man’s mind does in time form a neutral salt with the elements in the universe for which it has special elective affinities. In fact, I look upon a library as a kind of mental chemist’s shop, filled with the crystals of all forms and hues which have come from the union of individual thought with local circumstances or universal principles.
When a man has worked out his special affinities in this way, there is an end of his genius as a real solvent. No more effervescence and hissing tumult as he pours his sharp thought on the world’s biting alkaline unbeliefs! No more corrosion of the old monumental tablets covered with lies ! No more taking up of dull earths, and turning them, first into clear solutions, and then into lustrous prisms!
I, the Professor, am very much like other men. I shall not find out when I have used up my affinities. What a blessed thing it is, that Nature, when she invented, manufactured, and patented her authors, contrived to make critics out of the chips that were left! Painful as the task is, they never fail to warn the author, in the most impressive manner, of the probabilities of failure in what he has undertaken. Sad as the necessity is to their delicate sensibilities, they never hesitate to advertise him of the decline of his powers, and to press upon him the propriety of retiring before he sinks into imbecility. Trusting to their kind offices, I shall endeavor to fulfil—
Bridget enters and begins clearing the table.
The following poem is my (the Professor’s) only contribution to the great department of Ocean-Cable literature. As all the poets of this country will be engaged for the next six weeks in writing for the premium offered by the CrystalPalace Company for the Burns Centenary, (so called, according to our Benjamin Franklin, because there will be na’ry a cent for any of us,) poetry will be very scarce and dear. Consumers may, consequently, be glad to take the present article., which, by the aid of a Latin tutor and a Professor of Chemistry, will be found intelligible to the educated classes.
AN ELECTRO-CHEMICAL ECLOGUE.
TELL me, O Provincial! speak, Ceruleo-Nasal!
Lives there one De Sauty extant now among you,
Whispering Boanerges, son of silent thunder,
Holding talk with nations?
Is there a De Sauty ambulant on Tellus,
Bifid-cleft like mortals, dormient in night-cap,
Having sight, smell, hearing, food-receiving
Three times daily patent ?
Breathes there such a being, O Ceruleo-Nasal ?
Or is he a mythus,—ancient word for "humbug,”—
Such as Livy told about the wolf that wetnursed
Romulus and Remus ?
Was he born of woman, this alleged De Sauty ?
Or a living product of galvanic action,
Like the acarus bred in Crosse’s flint-solution ?
Speak, thou Cyano-Rhinal!
Many things thou askest, jaekknife-bearing
Much-conjecturing mortal, pork-and-treacle-waster!
Pretermit thy whittling, wheel thine ear-flap toward me,
Thou shalt hear them answered.
When the charge galvanic tingled through the
At the polar focus of the wire electric
Suddenly appeared a white-faced man among us.
Called himself "DE SAUTY.”
As the small opossum held in pouch maternal
Grasps the nutrient organ whence the term mammalia,
So the Unknown stranger held the wire electric,
Sucking in the current.
When the current strengthened, bloomed the
Took no drink nor victual, yet grew fat and rosy,—
And from time to time, in sharp articulation,
Said, “All right ! DE SAUTY.”
From the lonely station passed the utterance,
Through the pines and hemlocks to the groves
Till the land was filled with loud reverberations
Of " All right! DE SAUTY.”
When the current slackened, drooped the mystic stranger,—
Faded, faded, faded, as the shocks grew weaker,—
Wasted to a shadow, with a hartshorn odor
Drops of deliquescence glistened on his fore-
Whitened round his feet the dust of efflorescence,
Till one Monday morning, when the flow suspended,
There was no De Sauty.
Nothing but a cloud of elements organic,
C. O. H. N. Ferrum, Chor. Flu. Sil. Potassa,
Calc. Sod. Phosph. Mag. Sulphur, Mang. (?)
Alumin. (?) Cuprum, (?)
Such as man is made of.
Born of stream galvanic, with it he had perished !
There is no De Sauty now there is no current!
Give us a new cable, then again we'll hear him
Cry, "All right! DE SAUTY.”