The Professor at the Breakfast-Table: What He Said, What He Heard, and What He Saw
I DON’T know whether our literary or professional people are more amiable than they are in other places, but certainly quarrelling is out of fashion among them. This could never be, if they were in the habit of secret anonymous puffing of each other. That is the kind of under-ground machinery, which manufactures false reputations and genuine hatreds. On the other hand, I should like to know if we are not at liberty to have a good time together, and say the pleasantest things we can think of to each other, when any of us reaches his thirtieth or fortieth or fiftieth or eightieth birthday.
We don’t have “scenes,” I warrant you, on these occasions. No “surprise” parties! You understand these, of course. In the rural districts, where scenic tragedy and melodrama cannot be had, as in the city, at the expense of a quarter and a while pocket-handkerchief, emotional excitement has to be sought in the dramas of real life. Christenings; weddings, and funerals, especially the latter, are the main dependence; but babies, brides, and deceased citizens cannot be had at a day’s notice. Now, then, for a surprise-party !
A bag of flour, a barrel of potatoes, some strings of onions, a basket ot apples, a big cake and many little cakes, a jug of lemonade, a purse stuffed with bills of the more modest denominations, may, perhaps, do well enough for the properties in one of these private theatrical exhibitions. The minister of the parish, a tender-hearted, quiet, hard-working man, living on a small salary, with many children, sometimes pinched to feed and clothe them, praying fervently every day to be blest in his “basket and store,” but sometimes fearing he asks amiss, to judge by the small returns, has the tirst rôle,—not, however, by his own choice, but forced upon him. The minister’s wife, a sharp-eyed, unsentimental body, is first lady; the remaining parts by the rest of the family. If they only had a play-bill, it would rim thus:—
ON TUESDAY NEXT WILL BE PRESENTED THE AFFECTING SCENE CALLED THE SURPRISE-PARTY, OR THE OVERCOME FAMILY;
WITH THE FOI,LOWING STRONG CAST OF CHARACTERS:
The Rev. Mr. Overcome, by the Clergyman of this Parish.
Mrs. Overcome, by his estimable lady.
Masters Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John Overcome,
Misses Dorcas, Tabitha, Rachel, and Hannah Overcome, by their interesting children.
Peggy, by the female help.
The poor man is really grateful;—it is a most welcome and unexpected relief, He tries to express his thanks,—his voice falters,—he chokes,—and bursts into tears. That is the great effect of the evening. The sharp-sighted lady cries a little with one eye, and counts the strings of onions, and the rest of the things, with the other. The children stand ready for a spring at the apples. The female help weeps after the noisy fashion of untutored handmaids.
Now this is all very well as charity, but do let the kind visitors remember they get their money’s worth. If you pay a quarter for dry crying, done by a second-rate actor, how much ought you to pay for real hot, wet tears, out of the honest eyes of a gentleman who is not acting, but sobbing in earnest?
All I meant to say, when I began, was, that this was not a surprise-party where I read these few lines that follow:—
We will not speak of years to-night;
For what have years to bring,
But larger floods of love and light
And sweeter songs to sing?
We will not drown in wordy praise
The kindly thoughts that rise;
If friendship owns one tender phrase,
He reads it in our eyes.
We need not waste our schoolboy art
To gild this notch of time;
Forgive me, if my wayward heart
Has throbbed in artless rhyme.
Enough for him the silent grasp
That knits us hand in hand,
And he the bracelet's radiant clasp
That locks our circling band.
Strength to his hours of manly toil!
Peace to his starlit dreams!
Who loves alike the furrowed soil,
The music-haunted streams !
Sweet smiles to keep forever bright
The sunshine on his lips,
And faith, that sees the ring of light
Round Nature’s last eclipse!
—One of our boarders has been talking in such strong language that I am almost afraid to report it. However, as be seems to be really honest and is so very sincere in his local prejudices, I don’t believe anybody will be very angry with him.
It is here, Sir ! right here!—said the little deformed gentleman,—in this old new city of Boston,—this remote provincial corner of a provincial nation, that the Battle of the Standard is fighting, and was fighting before we were born, and will be fighting when we are dead and gone,—please God! The battle goes on everywhere throughout civilization; but here, here, here ! is the broad white flag flying which proclaims, first of all, peace and good-will to men, and, next to that, the absolute, unconditional spiritual liberty of each individual immortal soul! The three-hilled city against the sevenhilled-city ! That is it. Sir,—nothing less than that; and if you know what that means, I don’t think you'll ask for anything more. I swear to you, Sir, I believe that these two centres of civilization are just exactly the two points that close the circuit in the battery of our planetary intelligence ! And I believe there are spiritual eyes looking out from Uranus and unseen Neptune,—ay, Sir, from the systems of Sirius and Areturns and Aldebaran, and as far as that faint stain of sprinkled worlds confluent in the distance that we call the nebula of Orion, — looking on, Sir, with what organs I know not, to see which are going to melt in that fiery fusion, the accidents and hindrances of humanity or man himself, Sir,—the stupendous abortion, the illustrious failure that he is, if the threehilled city does not ride down and trample out the seven-hilled city !
-Steam's up!—said the young man John, so called, in a low tone.—Three hundred and sixty-five tons to the square inch. Let him blow her off, or he’ll bu’st his b’iler.
The divinity-student took it calmly, only whispering that he thought there was a little confusion of images between a galvanic battery and a charge of cavalry.
But the Koh-i-noor — the gentleman, you remember, with a very large diamond in his shirt-front—laughed his scornful laugh, and made as if to speak.
Sail in, Metropolis! — said that same young man John, by name. And then, in a lower tone, not meaning to be heard,— Now, then, Ma’am Allen!
But he was heard,—and the Koh-inoor’s face turned so white with rage, that his blue-black moustache and beard looked fearful, seen against it. He grinned with wrath, and caught at a tumbler, as if he would have thrown it or its contents at the speaker. The young Marylander fixed his clear, steady eye upon him, and laid his hand on his arm, carelessly almost, but the Jewel found it was held so that he could not move it. It was of no use. The youth was his master in muscle, and in that deadly Indian hug in which men wrestle with their eyes ; —over in five seconds, but breaks one of their two backs, and is good for threescore years and ten ;—one trial enough, —settles the whole matter,—just as when two feathered songsters of the barnyard, game and dunghill, come together,—after a jump or two at each other, and a few sharp kicks, there is the end of it; and it is, Après vous, Monsieur, in all the social relations with the beaten party for all the rest of his days.
I cannot philosophically account for the Koh-i-noor’s wrath. For though a cosmetic is sold, bearing the name of the lady to whom reference was made by the young person John, yet, as it is publicly asserted in respectable prints that this cosmetic is not a dye, I see no reason why he should have felt offended by any suggestion that he was indebted to it or its authoress. I have no doubt that there are certain exceptional complexions to which the purple tinge, above alluded to, is natural. Nature is fertile in variety. I saw an albiness in London once, for sixpence, (including the inspection of a stuffed boa-constrictor,) who looked as if she had been boiled in milk. A young Hottentot of my acquaintance had his hair all in little pellets of the size of marrowfat peas. One of my own classmates has undergone a singular change of late years, —his hair losing its original tint, and getting a remarkable discolored look ; and another has ceased to cultivate any hair at all over the vertex or crown of the head. So I am perfectly willing to believe that the purple-black of the Koh-inoor’s moustache and whiskers is constitutional and not pigmentary. But I can’t think why he got so angry.
The intelligent reader will understand that all this pantomime of the threatened onslaught and its suppression passed so quickly that it was all over by the time the other end of the table found out there was a disturbance ; just as a man chopping wood half a mile off may be seen resting on his axe at the instant you hear the last blow he struck. So you will please to observe that the Little Gentleman was not interrupted during the time implied by these ex-post-facto remarks of mine, but for some ten or fifteen seconds only.
He did not seem to mind the interruption at all, for he started again. The “Sir” of his harangue was no doubt addressed to myself more than anybody else, but he often uses it in discourse as if he were talking with some imaginary opponent.
-America, Sir,—he exclaimed,—is the only place where man is full-grown !
He straightened himself up, as he spoke, standing on the top round of his high chair, I suppose, and so presented the larger part of his little figure to the view of the boarders.
It was next to impossible to keep from laughing. The commentary was so strange an illustration of the text !
I thought it was time to put in a word; for I have lived in foreign parts, and am more or less cosmopolitan.
I doubt if we have more practical freedom in America than they have in England,— I said. — An Englishman thinks as he likes in religion and politics. Mr. Martineau speculates as freely as ever Dr. Channing did, and MIr. Bright is as independent as Mr. Seward.
Sir,— said he,— it isn’t what a man thinks or says, but when and where and to whom he thinks and says it. A man with a flint and steel striking sparks over a wet blanket is one thing, and striking them over a tinder-box is another. The free Englishman is born under protest; he lives and dies under protest,— a tolerated, but not a welcome fact. Is not freethinker a term of reproach in England ? The same idea in the soul of an Englishman who struggled up to it and still holds it antagonistically, and in the soul of an American to whom it is congenital and spontaneous, and often unrecognized, except as an element blended with all his thoughts, a natural movement, like the drawing of his breath or the beating of his heart, is a very different thing. You may teach a quadruped to walk on his hind legs, but he is always wanting to be on all-fours, Nothing that can be taught a growing youth is like the atmospheric knowledge he breathes from his infancy upwards. The American baby sucks in freedom with the milk of the breast at which he hangs.
-That’s a good joke,—said the young fellow John,—considerin’ it commonly belongs to a female Paddy.
I thought—I will not be certain—that Little Boston winked, as if he had been hit somewhere,—as I have no doubt Dr. Darwin did when the wooden-spoon suggestion upset his theory about why, etc. If he winked, however, he did not dodge.
A lively comment! — he said.—But Rome, in her great founder, sucked the blood of empire out of the dugs of a brute, Sir ! The Milesian wet-nurse is only a convenient vessel through which the American infant gets the life-blood of this virgin soil, Sir, that is making man over again, on the sunset pattern ! You don’t think what we are doing and going to do here. Why, Sir, while commentators are bothering themselves with interpretation of prophecies, we have got the new heavens and the new earth over us and under us! Was there ever anything in Italy, I should like to know, like a Boston sunset?
-This time there was a laugh, and the little man himself almost smiled.
Yes,— Boston sunsets:—perhaps they’re as good in some other places, but I know 'em best here. Anyhow, the American skies are different from anything they see in the Old World. Yes, and the rocks are different, and the soil is different, and everything that comes out of the soil, from grass up to Indians, is different. And now that the provisional races are dying out―
-What do you mean by the provisional races, Sir? — said the divinitystudent, interrupting him.
Why, the aboriginal bipeds, to be sure, — he answered,— the red-crayon sketch of humanity laid on the canvas before the colors for the real manhood were ready.
I hope they will come to something yet,— said the divinity-student.
Irreclaimable, Sir,— irreclaimable !— said the little gentleman.— Cheaper to breed white men than domesticate a nation of red ones. When you can get the bitter out of the partridge’s thigh, you can make an enlightened commonwealth of Indians. A provisional race, Sir,—nothing more. Exhaled carbonic acid for the use of vegetation, kept down the bears and catamounts, enjoyed themselves in scalping and being scalped, and then passed away or are passing away, according to the programme.
Well, Sir, these races dying out, the white man has to acclimate himself. It takes him a good while ; but he will come all right by-and-by, Sir,—as sound as a woodchuck,—as sound as a musquash !
A new nursery, Sir, with Lake Superior and Huron and all the rest of 'em for wash-basins! A new race, and a whole new world for the new-born human soul to work in ! And Boston is the brain of it, and has been any time these hundred years ! That's all I claim for Boston,— that it is the thinking centre of the continent, and therefore of the planet.
--And the grand emporium of modesty,— said the divinity-student, a little mischievously.
Oh, don’t talk to me of modesty ! — answered Little Boston,— I’m past that! There isn’t a thing that was ever said or done in Boston, from pitching the tea overboard to the last ecclesiastical lie it tore into tatters and flung into the dock, that wasn’t thought very indelicate by some fool or tyrant or bigot, and all the entrails of commercial and spiritual conservatism are twisted into colies as often as tins revolutionary brain of ours has a fit of thinking come over it.—No, Sir,—show me any other place that is, or was since the megalosaurus has died out, where wealth and social influence are so fairly divided between the stationary and the progressive classes! Show me any other place where every other drawing-room is not a chainber of the Inquisition, with papas and mammas for inquisitors,— and the cold shoulder, instead of the “dry pan and the gradual fire,” the punishment of “ heresy ”!
—— We think Baltimore is a pretty civilized kind of a village,—said the young Marylander, good-naturedly,—But I suppose you can’t forgive it for always keeping a little ahead of Boston in point of numbers, — tell the truth now. Are we not the centre of something ?
Ah, indeed, to be sure you are. You are the gastronomic metropolis of the Union. Why don’t you put a canvasback duck on the top of the Washington column ? Why don’t you get that lady off from Battle Monument and plant a terrapin in her place ? Why will you ask for other glories when you have soft crabs ? No, Sir,— you live too well to think as hard as we do in Boston. Logic comes to us with the salt-fish of Cape Ann ; rhetoric, is born of the beans of Beverly; but you — if you open your mouths to speak. Nature stops them with a fat oyster, or offers a slice of the breast of your divine bird, and silences all your aspirations.
And what of Philadelphia ?—said the Marylander.
Oh, Philadelphia ? — Waterworks,— killed by the Croton and Cochituate ; — Ben Franklin,— borrowed from Boston; —David Rittenhouse,— made an orrery ; —Benjamin Rush,— made a medical system :—both interesting to antiquarians; — great Red-river raft of medical students,— spontaneous generation of professors to match : — more widely known through the Moyamensing hose-company, and the Wistar parties ;—for geological section of social strata, go to The Club. —Good place to live in,— first-rate market,— tip-top peaches. —What do we know about Philadelphia, except that the engine-companies are always shooting each other?
And what do you say to Ne’ York ? —asked the Koh-i-noor ?
A great city, Sir,—replied Little Boston,—a very opulent, splendid city. A point of transit of much that is remarkable, and of permanence for much that is respectable. A great money-centre. San Francisco with the mines aboveground,—and some of’em under the sidewalks. I have seen next to nothing grandiose, out of New York, in all our cities. It makes 'em all look paltry and petty, Has many elements of civilization. May stop where Venice did, though, for aught we know.—The order of its development is just this:—Wealth; architecture; upholstery; painting; sculpture. Printing, as a mechanical art,—just as Nicholas Jenson and the Aldi, who were scholars too, made Venice renowned for it. Journalism, which is the accident of business and crowded populations, in great perfection. Venice got as far as Titian and Paul Veronese and Tintoretto,— great colorists, mark you, magnificent on the flesh-and-blood side of Art,—but look over to Florence and see who he in Santa Croce, and ask out of whose loins Dante sprung !
Oh, yes, to be sure, Venice built her Ducal Palace, and her Church of St. Mark, and her Casa d’ Oro, and the rest of her golden houses ; and Venice had great pictures and good music; and Venice had a Golden Book, in which all the large tax-payers had their names written ; —but all that did not make Venice the brain of Italy.
I tell you what, Sir,— with all these magnificent appliances of civilization, it is time we began to hear something from the jeunesse dorée whose names are on the Golden Book of our sumptuous, splendid, marble-palaced Venice,— something in the higher walks of literature,— something in the councils of the nation. Plenty of Art, I grant you, Sir; now, then, for vast libraries, and for mighty scholars and thinkers and statesmen,— five for every Boston one, as the population is to ours,— ten to one more properly, in virtue of centralizing attraction as the alleged metropolis,— and not call our people provincials, and have to come begging to us to write the lives of Hendrik Hudson and Gouverneur Morris !
—The little gentleman was on his hobby, exalting his own city at the expense of every other place. I don’t suppose he had been in either of the cities he had been talking about. I was just going to say something to sober him down, if I could, when the young Marylander spoke up.
Come, now,—he said,—what's the use of these comparisons ? Didn’t I hear this gentleman saying, the other day, that every American owns all America ? If you have really got more brains in Boston than other folks, as you seem to think, who hates you for it, except a pack of scribbling fools ? If I like Broadway better than Washington Street, what then ? I own them both, as much as anybody owns either. I am an American,—and wherever I look up and see the stars and stripes overhead, that is home to me !
He spoke, and looked up as if he heard the emblazoned folds crackling over him in the breeze. We all looked up involuntarily, as if we should see the national flag by so doing. The sight of the dingy ceiling and the gas-fixture depending therefrom dispelled the illusion.
Bravo! bravo! — said the venerable gentleman on the other side of the table. —Those are the sentiments of Washington's Farewell Address. Nothing better than that since the last chapter in Revelations, Five-and-forty years ago there used to be Washington societies, and little boys used to walk in processions, each little boy having a copy of the Address, bound in red, hung round his neck by a ribbon. Why don’t they now ? Why don’t they now ? I saw enough of hating each other in the old Federal times; now let’s love each other, I say,—let’s love each other, and not try to make it out that there isn’t any place fit to live in except the one we happen to be born in.
It dwarfs the mind, I think,— said I, —to feed it on any localism. The full stature of manhood is shrivelled—
The color burst up into my cheeks. What was I saying,-—I, who would not for the world have pained our unfortunate little boarder by an allusion ?
I will go, — he said, — and made a movement with his left arm to let himself down from his high chair.
No,—no,— he doesn’t mean it,— you must not go, — said a kind voice next him; and a soft, white hand was laid upon his arm.
Iris, my dear! — exclaimed another voice, as of a female, in accents that might be considered a strong atmospheric solution of duty with very little flavor of grace.
She did not move for this address, and there was a tableau that lasted some seconds. For the young girl, in the glory of half-blown womanhood, and the dwarf, the cripple, the misshapen little creature covered with Nature’s insults, looked straight into each other’s eyes.
Perhaps no handsome young woman had ever looked at him so in his life. Certainly the young girl never had looked into eyes that reached into her soul as these did. It was not that they were in themselves supernaturally bright,—but there was the sad fire in them that flames up from the soul of one who looks on the beauty of woman without hope, but, alas! not without emotion. To him it seemed as if those amber gates had been translucent as the brown water of a mountainbrook, and through them he had seen dimly into a virgin wilderness, only waiting for the sunrise of a great passion for all its buds to blow and all its bowers to ring with melody.
That is my image, of course,—not his. It was not a simile that was in his mind, or is in anybody’s at such a moment,— it was a pang of wordless passion, and then a silent, inward moan.
A lady’s wish,— he said, with a certain gallantry of manner,—makes slaves of us all,—And Nature, who is kind to all her children, and never leaves the smallest and saddest of all her human failures without one little comfit of selflove at the bottom of his poor ragged pocket,— Nature suggested to him that he had turned his sentence well; and he fell into a reverie, in which the old thoughts that were always hovering just outside the doors guarded by Common Sense, and watching for a chance to squeeze in, knowing perfectly well they would be ignominiously kicked out again as soon as Common Sense saw them, flocked in pellmell,—misty, fragmentary, vague, half-ashamed of themselves, but still shouldering up against his inner consciousness till it warmed with their contact: — John Wilkes’s — the ugliest man’s in England—saying, that with half-an-hour’s start he would cut out the handsomest man in all the land in any woman’s good graces; Cadenus — old and Savage — leading captive Stella and Vanessa ; and then the stray line of a ballad,—“ And a winning tongue had he,” —as much as to say, it isn’t looks, after all, but cunning words, that win our Eves over,—just as of old, when it was the worst-looking brute of the lot that got our grandmother to listen to his stuff, and so did the mischief.
Ah, dear me ! We rehearse the part of Hercules with his club, subjugating man and woman in our fancy, the first by the weight of it, and the second by our handling of it,—we rehearse it, I Say, by our own hearth-stones, with the cold poker as our club, and the exercise is easy. But when we come to real life, the poker is in the fire, and, ten to one, if we would grasp it, we find it too hot to hold;—lucky for us, if it is not white-hot, and we do not have to leave the skin of our bands sticking to it when we fling it down or drop it with a loud or silent cry !
-I am frightened when I find into what a labyrinth of human character and feeling I am winding. I meant to tell my thoughts, and to throw in a few studies of manner and costume as they pictured themselves for me from day to day. Chance has thrown together at the table with me a number of persons who are worth studying, and I mean not only to look on them, but, if I can, through them. You can get any man’s or woman’s secret, whose sphere is circumscribed by your own, if you will only look patiently on them long enough. Nature is always applying her reagents to character, if you will take the pains to watch her. Our studies of character, to change the image, are very much like the surveyor’s triangulation of a geographical province. We get a base-line in organization, always; then we get an angle by sighting some distant object to which the passions or aspirations of the subject of our observation are tending; then another;—and so we construct our first triangle. Once fix a man’s ideals, and for the most part the rest is easy. A wants to die worth half a million. Good. B (female) wants to catch him,— and outlive him. All right. Minor details at our leisure.
What is it, of all your experiences, of all your thoughts, of all your misdoings, that lies at the very bottom of the great heap of acts of consciousness which make up your past life ? What should you most dislike to tell your nearest friend ?—Be so good as to pause for a brief space, and shut the pamphlet you hold with your finger between the pages. -Oh, that is it!
What a confessional I have been sitting at, with the inward ear of my soul open, as the multitudinous whisper of my involuntary confidants came back to me like the reduplicated echo of a cry among the craggy bills !
At the house of a friend where I once passed the night was one of those stately upright cabinet-desks and cases of drawers which were not rare in prosperous families during the last century, It had held the clothes and the books and the papers of generation after generation. The hands that opened its drawers had grown withered, shrivelled, and at last been folded in death. The children that placed with the lower handles had got tall enough to open the desk,—to reach the upper shelves behind the folding-doors,— grown bent after a while,—and then followed those who had gone before, and left the old cabinet to be ransacked by a new generation.
A boy of ten or twelve was looking at it a few years ago, and, being a quickwitted fellow, saw that all the space was not accounted for by the smaller drawers in the part beneath the lid of the desk, Prying about with busy eyes and fingers, he at length came upon a spring, on pressing which, a hidden drawer flew from its hiding-place. It had never been opened but by the maker. The mahogany shavings and dust were lying in it as when the artisan closed it,—and when I saw it, it was as fresh as if that day finished.
Is there not one little drawer in your soul, my sweet reader, which no hand but yours has ever opened, and which none that have known you seem to have suspected ? What does it hold? — A sin ?—l hope not.
What a strange thing an old dead sin laid away in a secret drawer of the soul is! Must it some time or other be moistened with tears, until it comes to life again and begins to stir in our consciousness,—as the dry wheel-animalcule, looking like a grain of dust, becomes alive, if it is wet with a drop of water?
Or is it a passion ? There are plenty of withered men and women walking about the streets who have the secret drawer in their hearts, which, if it were opened, would show as fresh as it was when they were in the flush of youth and its first trembling emotions. What it held will, perhaps, never be known, until they are dead and gone, and some curious eye lights on an old yellow letter with the fossil footprints of the extinct passion trodden thick all over it.
There is not a boarder at our table, I firmly believe, excepting the young girl, who has not a story of the heart to tell, if one could only get the secret drawer open. Even this arid female, whose armor of black bombazine looks stronger against the shafts of love than any cuirass of triple brass, has had her sentimental history, if I am not mistaken. I will tell you my reason for suspecting it.
Like many other old women, she shows a great nervousness and restlessness whenever I venture to express any opinion upon a class of subjects which can hardly be said to belong to any man or set of men as their strictly private property,—not even to the clergy, or the newspapers commonly called “religious." Now, although it would be a great luxury to me to obtain my opinions by contract, ready-made, from a professional man, and although I have a constitutional kindly feeling to all sorts of good people which would make me happy to agree with all their beliefs, if that were possible, still I must have an idea, now and then, as to the meaning of life; and though the only condition of peace in this world is to have no ideas, or, at least, not to express them, with reference to such subjects, I can’t afford to pay quite so much as that even for peace.
I find that there is a very prevalent opinion among the dwellers on the shores of Sir Isaac Newton's Ocean of Truth, that salt fish, which have been taken from it a good while ago, split open, cured and dried, are the only proper and allowable food for reasonable people. I maintain, on the other hand, that there are a number of live fish still swimming in it, and that every one of us has a right to see if he cannot catch some of them. Sometimes I please myself with the idea that I have landed an actual living fish, small, perhaps, but with rosy gills and silvery scales. Then I find the consumers of nothing but the salted and dried article insist that it is poisonous, simply because it is alive, and cry out to people not to touch it. I have not found, however, that people mind them much.
The poor boarder in bombazine is my dynamometer. I try every questionable proposition on her. If she winces, I must be prepared for an outcry from the other old women. I frightened her, the other day, by saying that faith, as an intellectual state, was self-reliance, which, if you have a metaphysical turn, you will find is not so much of a paradox as it sounds at first. So she sent me a book to read which was to cure me of that error. It was an old book, and looked as if it had not been opened for a long time. What should drop out of it, one day, but a small heart-shaped paper, containing a look of that straight, coarse, brown hair which sets off the sharp faces, of so many thin-flanked, large-handed bumpkins ? I read upon the paper the name “ Hiram.” —Love ! love ! love !—everywhere ! everywhere !—under diamonds and Attleboro' “jewelry,”—lifting the marrowy camel's-hair, and rustling even the black bombazine !—No, no,—I think she never was pretty, but she was young once, and wore bright ginghams, and, perhaps, gay merinos, We shall find that the poor little crooked man has been in love, or is in love, or will be in love before we have done with him, for aught that I know !
Romance ! Was there ever a boarding-house in the world where the seemingly prosaic table had not a living fresco for its background, where you could see, if you had eyes, the smoke and fire of some upheaving sentiment, or the dreary craters of smouldering or burnt-out passions ? You look on the black bombazine and high-necked decorum of your neighbor, and no more think of the real life that underlies this despoiled and dismantled womanhood than you think of a stone trilobite, as having once been full of the juices and the nervous thrills of throbbing and self-conscious being. There is a wild creature under that long yellow pin which serves as brooch for the bombazine cuirass, — a wild creature, which I venture to say would leap in his cage, if I should stir him, quiet as you think him. A heart which has been domesticated by matrimony and maternity is as tranquil as a tame bulfinch; but a wild heart which has never been fairly broken in flutters fiercely long after you think time has tamed it down,—like that purple finch I had the other day, which could not be approached without such palpitations and frantic flings against the bars of his cage, that I had to send him back and get a little orthodox canary which had learned to be quiet and never mind the wires or his keeper’s handling. I will tell you my wicked, but involuntary experiment on the wild heart under the faded bombazine.
Was there ever'a person in the room with you. marked by any special weakness or peculiarity, with whom you could be two hours and not touch the infirm spot ? I confess the most frightful tendency to do just this thing. If a man has a brogue, I am sure to catch myself imitating it. If another is lame, I follow him, or, worse than that, go before him, limping. I could never meet an Irish gentleman-—if it had been the Duke of Wellington himself—without stumbling upon the word ” Paddy,”—which I use rarely in my common talk.
I have been worried to know whether this was owing to some innate depravity of disposition on my part., some malignant torturing instinct, which, under different circumstances, might have made a Fijian anthropophagus of me, or to some law of thought for which 1 was not answerable. It is, I am convinced, a kind of physical fact like endosmosis, with which some of you are acquainted. A thin film of politeness separates the unspoken and unspeakable current of thought from the stream of conversation. After a time one begins to soak through and mingle with the other.
We were talking about names, one day.—Was there ever anything,—I said, —like the Yankee for inventing the most uncouth, pretentious, detestable appellations,—inventing or finding them,—since the time of Praise-God Barebones ? I heard a country-boy once talking of another whom he called Elpit, as I understood him. Elbridge is common enough, but this sounded oddly. It seems the boy was christened Lord Pitt,—and called, for convenience, as above. I have heard a charming little girl, belonging to an intelligent family in the country, called Angēs invariably ; doubtless intended for Agnes. Names are cheap. How can a man name an innocent new-born child, that never did him any harm, Hiram ? -The poor relation, or whatever she is, in bombazine, turned toward me, but I was stupid, and went on.—To think of a man going through life saddled with such an abominable name as that!——The poor relation grew very uneasy.-—I continued; for I never thought of all this till afterwards.—I knew one young fellow, a good many years ago, by the name of Hiram—
-What’s got into you, Cousin,— said our landlady,—to look so?—There! you’ve upset your teacup !
It suddenly occurred to me what I had been doing, and I saw the poor woman had her hand at her throat; she was half-choking with the “ hysteric ball,”—a very odd symptom, as you know, which nervous women often complain of. What business had I to be trying experiments on this forlorn old soul ? I had a great deal better be watching that young girl.
Ah, the young girl ! I am sure that she can hide nothing from me. Her skin is so transparent that one can almost count her heart-beats by the flushes they send into her cheeks. She does not seem to be shy, either. I think site does not know enough of danger to be timid. She seems to me like one of those birds that travellers tell of, found in remote, uninhabited islands, who, having never received any wrong at the hand of man, show no alarm at and hardly any particular consciousness of his presence.
The first thing will be to see how she and our little deformed gentleman get along together; for, as I have told you, they sit side by side. The next thing will be to keep an eye on the duenna,— the “ Model ” and so forth, as the white-neckcloth called her. The intention of that estimable lady is, I understand, to launch her and leave her. I suppose there is no help for it, and I don’t doubt this young lady knows how to take care of herself but I do not like to see young girls turned loose in boarding-houses. Look here now ! There is that jewel of his race, whom I have called for convenience the Koh-i-noor, (you understand it is quite out of the question for me to use the family names of our boarders, unless I want to get into trouble,) — I say, the gentleman with the diamond is looking very often and very intently, it seems to me, down toward the farther corner of the table, where sits our amber-eyed blonde. The landlady’s daughter does not look pleased, it seems to me, at this, nor at those other attentions which the gentleman referred to has, as I have learned, pressed upon the newly-arrived young person. The landlady made a communication to me, within a few days after the arrival of Miss Iris, which I will repeat to the best of my remembrance.
He, (the person I have been speaking of.)—she said,-—seemed to be kinder hankerin’ round after that young woman. It had hurt her daughter’s feel in’s a good deal, that the gentleman she was a-keepin' company with should be offerin' tickets and try in’ to send presents to them that he’d never know’d till just a little spell ago,—and he as good as merried, so far as solemn promises went, to as respectable a young lady, if she did say so, as any there was round, whosomever they might be.
Tickets! presents ! — said I. — What tickets, what presents has he had the impertinence to be offering to that young lady ?
Tickets to I the Museum,—said the landlady.—There is them that’s glad enough to go to the Museum, when tickets is given ’em; but some of ’em ha’n’t had a ticket sence Cenderilla was played,-—and now he must be offerin' ’em to this ridiculous young paintress, or whatever she is, that’s come to make more mischief than her board’s worth. But it a’n’t her fault, — said the landlady, relenting; — and that aunt of hers, or whatever she is, served him right enough.
Why, what did she do ?
Do ? Why, she took it up in the tongs and dropped it out o’ window.
Dropped ? dropped what ?—I said.
Why, the soap,—said the landlady.
It appeared that the Koh-i-noor, to ingratiate himself, had sent an elegant package of perfumed soap, directed to Miss Iris, as a delicate expression of a lively sentiment of admiration, and that, after having met with the unfortunate treatment referred to, it was picked up by Master Benjamin Franklin, who appropriated it, rejoicing, and indulged in most unheard-of and inordinate ablutions in consequence, so that his hands were a frequent subject of maternal congratulation, and he smelt like a civet-cat for weeks after his great acquisition.
After watching daily for a time, I think I can see clearly into the relation which is growing up between the little gentleman and the young lady. She shows a tenderness to him that I can’t help being interested in. If he was her crippled child, instead of being more than old enough to be her father, she could not treat him more kindly. The landlady’s daughter said, the other day, she believed that girl was settin’ her cap for Little Boston.
Some of them young folks is very artful,—said her mother,—and there is them that would merry Lazarus, if he’d only picked up crumbs enough. I don’t think, though, this is one of that sort; she’s kinder child-like,—said the landlady,— and maybe never had any dolls to play with ; for they say her folks was poor before Ma’am undertook to see to her teachin’ and board her and clothe her.
I could not help overhearing this conversation. "Board her and clothe her!" — speaking of such a young creature ! Oh, dear !—Yes,—she must be fed,—-just like Bridget, maid-of-all-work at this establishment. Somebody must pay for it. Somebody has a right to watch her and see how much it takes to “ keep ” her, and growl at her, if she has too good an appetite. Somebody has a right to keep an eye on her and take care that she does not dress too prettily. No mother to see her own youth over again in those fresh features and rising reliefs of‘ halfsculptured womanhood, and, seeing its loveliness, forget her lessons of neutraltinted propriety, and open the cases that hold her own ornaments to find her a necklace or a bracelet or a pair of earrings,—those golden lamps that light up the deep, shadowy dimples on the cheeks of young beauties,—swinging in a semibarbaric splendor that carries the wild fancy to Abyssinian queens and musky Odalisques! I don’t believe any woman has utterly given up the great firm of Mundus & Co., so long as she wears earrings.
I think Iris loves to hear the little gentleman talk. She smiles sometimes at his vehement statements, but never laughs at him. When he speaks to her, she keeps her eye always steadily upon him. This may be only natural good-breeding, so to speak, but it is worth noticing. I have often observed that vulgar persons, and public audiences of inferior collective intelligence, have this in common : the least thing draws off their minds, when you are speaking to them. I love this young creature’s rapt attention to her diminutive neighbor while he is speaking.
He is evidently pleased with it. For a day or two after she came, he was silent and seemed nervous and excited. Now he is fond of getting the talk into his own hands, and is obviously conscious that he has at least one interested listener. Once or twice I have seen marks of special attention to personal adornment, — a ruffled shirt-bosom, one day, and a diamond pin in it,— not so very large as the Koh-i-noor’s, but more lustrous. I mentioned the death’s-head ring he wears on his right hand. I was attracted by a very handsome red stone, a ruby or carbuncle or something of the sort, to notice his left hand, the other day. It is a handsome hand, and confirms my suspicion that the cast mentioned was taken from his arm. After all, this is just what I should expect. It is not very uncommon to see the upper limbs, or one of them, running away with the whole strength, and, therefore, with the whole beauty, which we should never have noticed, if it had been divided equally between all four extremities. If it is so, of course be is proud of his one strong and beautiful arm ; that is human nature. But he does not make himself ridiculous, at any rate, as people who have any one showy point are apt to do,—especially dentists with handsome teeth, who always smile back to their last molars.
Sitting, as he does, next to the young girl, and next but one to the calm lady who has her in charge, he cannot help seeing their relations to each other.
That is an admirable woman, Sir,— he said to me one day, as we sat alone at the table after breakfast,—an admirable woman, Sir,—and I hate her.
Of course, I begged an explanation.
An admirable woman, Sir, because she does good things, and even kind things,— takes care of this—this—young lady—we have here, talks like a sensible person, and always looks as if she was doing her duty with all her might. I hate her because her voice sounds as if it never trembled, and her eyes look as if she never knew what it was to cry, Besides, she looks at me, Sir, stares at me, as if she wanted to get an image of me for some gallery in her brain,—and we don't love to be looked at in this way, we that
have-I hate her,— I hate her,— her eyes kill me,—it is like being stabbed with icicles to be looked at so,—the sooner she goes home, the better. I don’t want a woman to weigh me in a balance; there are men enough for that sort of work. The judicial character isn’t captivating in females, Sir. A woman fascinates a man quite as often by what she overlooks as by what she sees. Love prefers twilight to daylight; and a man doesn’t think much of, nor care much for, a woman outside of his household, unless he can couple the idea of love, past, present, or future, with her. I don’t believe the Devil cares half so much for the services of a sinner as he does for those of one of these folks that are always doing virtuous acts in a way to make them unpleasing.—That young girl wants a tender nature to cherish her and give her a chance to put out her leaves,—sunshine, and not east winds.
He was silent,—and sat looking at his handsome left hand with the red stone ring upon it.—Is he going to fall in love with Iris?
Here are some lines I read to the boarders the other day: —
THE CROOKED FOOTPATH.
AH, here it is! the sliding rail
That marks the old remembered spot,—
The gap that struck our schoolboy trail,—
The crooked path across the lot.
It left the road by school and church,
A pencilled Shadow, nothing more,
That parted from the silver birch
And ended at the farmhouse door.
No line or compass traced its plan;
With frequent bends to left or right,
In aimless, wayward curves it ran,
But always kept the door in sight.
The gabled porch, with woodbine green,—
The broken millstone at the sill,—
Though many a rood might stretch between.
The truant child could see them still.
No rocks across the pathway lie,—
No fallen trunk is o'er it thrown,—
And yet it winds, we know not why,
And turns as if for tree or stone.
Perhaps some lover trod the way
With shaking knees and leaping heart,—
And so it often runs astray
With sinuous sweep or sudden start.
Or one, perchance, with clouded brain
From some unholy banquet reeled,—
And since, our devious steps maintain
His track across the trodden field.
Nay, deem not thus,—no earth-born will
Could ever trace a faultless line;
Our truest steps are human still,—
To walk unswerving were divine!
Truants from love, we dream of wrath;—
Oh, rather let us trust the more!
Through all the wanderings of the path,
We still can see our Father’s door!