The Professor at the Breakfast-Table: What He Said, What He Heard, and What He Saw
WHAT HE SAID, WHAT HE HEARD, AND WHAT HE SAW.
ONE of our boarders — perhaps more than one was concerned in it—sent in some questions to me, the other day, which, trivial as some of them are, I felt bound to answer.
1. — Whether a lady was ever known to write a letter covering only a single page ?
To this I answered, that there was a case on record where a lady had but half a sheet of paper and no envelope; and being obliged to send through the post-office, she covered only one side of the paper (crosswise, lengthwise, and diagonally).
2. — What constitutes a man a gentleman ?
To this I gave several answers, adapted to particular classes of questions.
a. Not trying to be a gentleman.
b. Self-respect underlying courtesy.
c. Knowledge and observance of the fitness of things in social intercourse.
d. £.s. d. (as many suppose.)
3.— Whether face or figure is most attractive in the female sex ?
Answered in the following epigram, by a young man about town :—
Quoth Tom, “ Though fair her features be, It is her figure pleases me." “ What may tier figure be? ” I cried. “One hundred thousand !” he replied.
When this was read to the boarders, the young man John said he should like a chance to “ step up” to a figger of that kind, if the girl was one of the right sort.
The landlady said them that merried for money didn't deserve the blessin’ of a good wife. Money was a great thing when them that had it made a good use of it. She had seen better days herself, and knew what it was never to want for anything. One of her cousins merried a very rich old gentleman, and she had hcerd that he said he lived ten year longer than if he’d staid by himself without anybody to take care of him. There was nothin’ like a wife for nussin' sick folks and them that couldn’t take care of themselves.
The young man John got off a little wink, and pointed slyly with his thumb in the direction of our diminutive friend, for whom he seemed to think this speech was intended.
If it was meant for him, he didn’t appear to know that it was. Indeed, he seems somewhat listless of late, except when the conversation falls upon one of those larger topics that specially interest him, and then he grows excited, speaks loud and fast, sometimes almost savagely,— and, I have noticed once or twice, presses his left hand to his right side, as if there were something that ached, or weighed, or throbbed in that region.
While he speaks in this way, the general conversation is interrupted, and we all listen to him. Iris looks steadily in his face, and then he will turn as if magnetized and meet the amber eyes with his own melancholy gaze. I do believe that they have some kind of understanding together, that they meet elsewhere than at our table, and that there is a mystery, which is going to break upon us all of a sudden, involving the relations of these two persons. From the very first, they have taken to each other. The one thing they have in common is the heroic will. In him, it shows itself in thinking his way straightforward, in doing battle for “free trade and no right of search ” on the high seas of religious controversy, and especially in fighting the battles of his crooked old city. In her, it is standing up for her little friend with the most queenly disregard of the code of boarding-house etiquette. People may say or look what they like, — she will have her way about this sentiment of hers.
The poor relation is in a dreadful fidget whenever the little gentleman says anything that interferes with her own infallibility. She seems to think Faith must go with her face tied up, as if she had the toothache, — and that if she opens her mouth to the quarter the wind blows from, she will catch her “ death o’ cold.”
The landladyherself came to him one day, as I have found out, and tried to persuade him to hold his tongue. — The boarders was gettin’ uneasy,— she said,— and some of’em would go, she mistrusted, if he talked any more about things that belonged to the ministers to settle. She was a poor woman, that had known better days, but all her livin’ depended on her hoarders, and she was sure there wasn’t any of ’em she set so much by as she did by him; but there was them that never liked to hear about such things, except on Sundays.
The little gentleman looked very smiling at the landlady, who smiled even more cordially in return, and adjusted her cap-ribbon with an unconscious movement,— a reminiscence of the long-past pairing-time, when she had smoothed her locks and softened her voice, and won her mate by these and other bird-like graces. — My dear Madam,—he said, — I will remember your interests, and speak only of matters to which I am totally indifferent.— I don’t doubt he meant this; but a day or two after, something stirred him up, and I heard his voice uttering itself aloud, thus:—
&emdashIt must be done, Sir!—he was saying,—it must be done ! Our religion has been Judaized, it has been Romanized, it has been Orientalized, it has been Anglicized, and the time is at hand when it must be AMERICANIZED ! Now, Sir, you see what Americanizing is in polities;— it means that a man shall have a vote because he is a man.— and shall vote for whom he pleases, without his neighbor’s interference. If he chooses to vote for the Devil, that is his lookout;—perhaps he thinks the Devil is better than the other candidates; and I don’t doubt he’s often right, Sir ! Just so a man’s soul has a vote in the spiritual community ; and it doesn’t do, Sir, or it won’t do long, to call him “ schismatic” and “heretic” and those other wicked names that the old murderous Inquisitors have left us to help along “ peace and good-will to men ”!
As long as you could catch a man and drop him into an oubliette, or pull him out a few inches longer by machinery, or put a hot iron through his fondue, or make him climb up a ladder and sit on a board at the top of a stake so that he should be slowly broiled by the fire kindled round it, there was some sense in these words; they led to something. But since we have done with those tools, we had better give up those words. I should like to see a Yankee advertisement like this! — (the little gentleman laughed fiercely as he uttered the words,—)
—Patent thumb-screws, warranted to crush the bone in three turns.
—The cast-iron boot, with wedge and mallet,— only live dollars!
—— The celebrated extension-rack, warranted to stretch a man six inches in twenty minutes,— money returned, if it proves unsatisfactory.
I should like to see such an advertisement, I say, Sir! Now, what’s the use of using the words that belonged with the thumb-screws, and the Blessed Virgin with the knives under her petticoats and sleeves and bodice, and the dry pan and gradual fire, if we can’t have the things themselves, Sir ? What’s the use of painting the fire round a poor fellow, when you think it won’t do to kindle one under him,—as they did at Valencia or Valladolid, or wherever it. was?
-What story is that ? — I said.
Why,— he answered,—at the last autoda-fe, in 1824 or ’5, or somewhere there, — it’s a traveller’s story, but a mighty knowing traveller he is, — they had a “ heretic ” to use up according to the statutes provided for the crime of private opinion. They couldn’t quite make up their minds to burn him, so they only hung him in a hogshead painted all over with flames!
No, Sir! when a man calls you names because you go to the ballot-box and vote for your candidate, or because you say this or that is your opinion, he forgets in which half of the world he was born, Sir! It won t be long. Sir, before we have Americanized religion as we have Americanized government ; and then, Sir, every soul God sends info the world will be good in the face of all men for just so much of His “ inspiration” as “ giveth him understanding”! — None of my words, Sir! none of my words!
—If Iris does not love this little gentleman, what does love look like when one sees it ? She follows him with her eyes, she leans over toward him when he speaks, her face changes with the changes of his speech, so that one might think it was with her as with Christabel,—
That all her features were resigned
To this sole image in her mind.
But she never looks at him with such intensity of devotion as when he says anything about the soul and the soul's atmosphere, religion.
Women are twice as religious as men ; — all the world knows that. Whether they are any better, in the eyes of Absolute Justice, might be questioned; for the additional religious element supplied by sex hardly seems to be a matter of praise or blame. But in all common aspects they are so much above us that we get most of our religion from them,— from their teachings, from their example,— above all, from their pure affections.
Now this poor little. Iris had been talked to strangely in her childhood. Especially she had been told that she hated all good things, — which every sensible parent knows well enough is not true of a great many children, to say the least. I have sometimes questioned whether many libels on human nature had not. been a natural consequence of the celibacy of the clergy, which was enforced for so long a period.
The child had met this and some other equally encouraging statements as to her spiritual conditions, early in life, and fought the battle of spiritual independence prematurely, as many children do. If all she did was hateful to God, what was the meaning of the approving or else the disapproving conscience, when she had done “right” or “wrong"? No “ shoulder-striker ” hits out straighter than a child with its logic. Why, I can remember lying-in my bed in the nursery and settling questions which all that I have heard since and got out of books has never been able to raise again. If a child does not assert itself in this way in good season, it becomes just what its parents or teachers were, and is no better than a plaster image.— How old was I at the time? I suppose about 5323 years old,—that is, counting from Archbishop Usher’s date of the Creation, and adding the life of the race, whose accumulated intelligence is a part of my inheritance, to my own. A good deal older than Plato, you see, and much more experienced than my Lord Bacon and most of the world’s teachers. — Old books are books of the world's youth, and new books are fruits of its age. How many of all these old folios round me are like so many old cupels ! The gold has passed out of them long ago, but their pores are full of the dross with which it was mingled.
And so Iris — having thrown off that first lasso, which not only fetters, but choices those whom it can hold, so that they give themselves up trembling and breathless to the great soul-subduer, who has them by the windpipe —had settled a brief creed for herself, in which love of the neighbor, whom we have seen, was the first article, and love of the Creator, whom we have not seen, grew out of this as its natural development, being necessarily second in order of time to the first unselfish emotions which we feel for the fellow-creatures who surround us in our early years.
The child must have some place to worship. Whatwould a young girl be who never mingled her voice with the songs and prayers that rose all around her with every returning day of rest? And Iris was free to choose. Sometimes one and sometimes another would offer to carry her to this or that place of worship; and when the doors were hospitably opened, she would often go meekly in by herself. It was a curious fact, that two churches as remote from each other in doctrine as could well be divided her affections.
The Church of Saint Polycarp had very much the look of a Roman Catholic chapel. I do not wish to run the risk of giving names to the ecclesiastical furniture which gave it such a Romish aspect; but there were pictures, and inscriptions in antiquated characters, and there were reading-stands, and flowers on the altar, and other elegant arrangements. Then there were boys to sing alternately in choirs responsive to each other, and there was much bowing, with very loud responding, and a long service and a short sermon, and a bag, such as Judas used to hold in the old pictures, was carried round to receive contributions. Everything was done not only “ decently and in order,” but, perhaps one might say, with a certain air of magnifying their office on the part of the dignified clergymen, often two or three in number. The music and the free welcome were grateful to Iris, and she forgot her prejudices at the door of the chapel. For this was a church with open doors, with seats for all classes and all colors alike,— a church of zealous worshippers after their faith, of charitable and serviceable men and women, one that took care of its children and never forgot its poor, and whose people were much more occupied in looking out for their own souls than in attacking the faith of their neighbors. In its mode of worship there was a union of two qualities,— the taste and refinement, which the educated require just as much in their churches as elsewhere, and the air of stateliness, almost of pomp, which impresses the common worshipper, and is often not without its effect upon those who think they hold outward forms as of little value. Under the half-Romish aspect of the Church of Saint Polyearp, the young girl found a devout and loving and singularly cheerful religious spirit. The artistic sense, which betrayed itself in the dramatic proprieties of its ritual, harmonized with her taste. The mingled murmur of the loud responses, in those rhythmic phrases, so simple, yet so fervent, almost as if every tenth heartbeat, instead of its dull tic-tac, articulated itself as “ Good Lord, deliver us! ” — the sweet alternation of the two choirs, as their holy song floated from side to side,— the keen young voices rising like a flight of singing-birds that passes from one grove to another, carrying its music with it back and forward,— why should site not love these gracious outward signs of those inner harmonies which none could deny made beautiful the lives of many of her fellow-worshippers in the humble, yet not inelegant Chapel of Saint Polycarp ?
The young Marylander, who was born and bred to that mode of worship, had introduced her to the chapel, for which he did the honors for such of our hoarders as were not otherwise provided for. I saw them looking over the same prayerbook one Sunday, and I could not help thinking that two such young and handsome persons could hardly worship together in safety for a great while. But they seemed to mind nothing but their prayer-book. By-and-by the silken bag was handed round. — I don’t believe she will;—so awkward, you know;—besides, she only came by invitation. There she is, with her hand in her pocket, though, —and sure enough, her little bit of silver tinkler! as it. struck the coin beneath. God bless her! she hasn't much to give; but her eye glistens when she gives it, and that is all Heaven asks. — That was the first time I noticed these young people together, and I am sure they behaved with the most charming propriety, — in fact, there was one of our silent ladyboarders with them, whose eyes would have kept Cupid and Psyche to their good behavior. A day or two after this I noticed that the young gentleman had left his seat, which you may remember was at the corner diagonal to that of Iris, so that they have been as far removed from each other as they could be at the table. His new seat is three or four places farther down the table. Of course I made a romance out of this, at once. So stupid not to see it! How could it be otherwise ? — Did you speak, Madam ? I beg your pardon. (To my lady-reader.)
I never saw anything like the tenderness with which this young girl treats her little deformed neighbor. If he were in the way of going to church, I know she would follow him. But his worship, if any, is not with the throng of men and women and staring children.
I, the Professor, on the other hand, am a regular church-goer. I should go for various reasons, if I did not love it; but I am happy enough to find great pleasure. in the midst of devout multitudes, whether I can accept all their creeds or not. One place of worship comes nearer than the rest to my ideal standard, and to this it was that I carried our young girl.
The Church of the Galileans, as it is called, is even humbler in outside pretensions than the Church of Saint Polycarp. Like that, it is open to all comers. The stranger who approaches it looks down a quiet street and secs the plainest of chapels,— a kind of wooden tent, that owes whatever grace it has to its pointed windows and the high, sharp roof,— traces, both, of that upward movement of ecclesiastical architecture which soared aloft in cathedral-spires, shooting into the sky as the spike of a flowering aloe from the cluster of broad, sharp-wedged leaves below. This suggestion of mediceval symbolism, aided by a minute turret in which a hand-bell might have hung and found just room enough to turn over, was all of outward show the small edifice could boast. Within there was very little that pretended to be attractive. A small organ at one side, and a plain pulpit, showed that the building was a church; but it was a church reduced to its simplest expression.
Yet when the great and wise monarch of the East sat upon his throne, in all the golden blaze of the spoils of Opliir and the freights of the navy of Tarshish, his glory was not like that of this simple chapel in its Sunday garniture. For the lilies of the field, in their season, and the fairest flowers of the year, in due succession, were clustered every Sunday morning over the preacher’s desk. Slight, thin-tissued blossoms of pink and blue and virgin white in early spring, then the full-breasted and deep-hearted roses of summer, then the velvet-robed crimson and yellow flowers of autumn, and in the winter delicate exotics that grew under skies of glass in the false summers of our crystal palaces without knowing that it was the dreadful winter of New England which was rattling the doors and frosting the panes,— the whole year told its history of life and growth and beauty front that simple desk. There was always at least one good sermon, — this floral homily. There was at least one good prayer,-—that brief space when all were silent, after the manner of the Friends at their devotions.
Here, too, Iris found an atmosphere of peace and love. The same gentle, thoughtful faces, the same cheerful but reverential spirit, the same quiet, the same life of active benevolence. But in all else how different from the Church of Saint. Polycarp! No clerical costume, no ceremonial forms, no carefully trained choirs. A liturgy they have, to be sure, which does not scruple to borrow from the time-honored manuals of devotion, but also does not hesitate to change its expressions to its own liking.
Perhaps the good people seem a little easy with each other; — they are apt to nod cheerfully, and have even been known to whisper before the minister came in. But it is a relief to get rid of that old Sunday—no,—Sabbath face, which suggests the idea that the first day of the week is commemorative of some most mournful event. The truth is, these people meet very much as a family does for its devotions, not putting offtheir humanity in the least, considering it on the whole quite a cheerful matter to come together for prayer and song and good counsel from kind and wise lips. And if they are freer in their demeanor than some very precise congregations, they have not the air of a worldly set of people. Clearly they have riot come to advertise their tailors and milliners, nor for the sake of exchanging criticisms on the literary character of the sermon they may hear. There is no restlessness and no restraint among this quiet, cheerful people. One thing that keeps them calm and happy during the season so evidently trying to many congregations is, that they join very generally in the singing. In this way they get rid of that accumulated nervous three which escapes in all sorts of fidgety movements, so that a minister trying to keep his congregation still reminds one of a boy with his hand over the nose of a pump which another boy is working,— this spirting impatience of the people is so like the jets that find their way through his fingers, and the grand rush out at the final Amen ! has such a wonderful likeness to the gush that takes place when the hoy pulls his hand away, with such immense relief, as it seems, to both the pump and the officiating youngster.
How sweet is this blending of all voices and all hearts in one common song of praise ! Some will sing a little loud, perhaps,— and now and then an impatient chorister will get a syllable or two in advance, or an enchanted singer so lose all thought of time and place in the luxury of a closing cadence that he holds on to the last semibreve upon his private responsibility ; but how much more of the spirit of the old Psalmist in the music of these imperfectly trained voices than in the academic niceties of the paid performers who take our musical worship out of our hands !
I am of the opinion that the creed of the Church of the Galileans is not quite so precisely laid down as that of the Church of Saint Polycarp. Yet I suspect, if one of the good people from each of those churches had met over the bed of a suffering fellow-creature, or for the promotion of any charitable object, they would have found they had more in common than all the special beliefs or want of beliefs that separated them would amount to. There are always many who believe that the fruits of a tree afford a better test of its condition than a statement of the composts with which it is dressed,— though the last has its meaning and importance, no doubt.
Between these two churches, then, our young Iris divides her affections. But I doubt if she listens to the preacher at either with more devotion than she does to her little neighbor when he talks of these matters.
What does he believe ? In the first place, there is some deep-rooted disquiet lying at the bottom of his soul, which makes him very bitter against all kinds of usurpation over the right of private judgment. Over this seems to lie a certain tenderness for humanity in general, bred out of life-long trial, I should say, but sharply streaked with fiery lines of wrath at various individual acts of wrong, especially if they come in an ecclesiastical shape, and recall to him the days when his mother’s great-grandmother was strangled on Witch Hill, with a text from the Old Testament for her halter. With all this, he has a boundless belief in the future of this experimental hemisphere, and especially in the destiny of the free thought of its northeastern metropolis.
—A man can see further, Sir, — he said one day,— front the top of Boston State-House, and see more that is worth seeing, than from all the pyramids and turrets and steeples in all the places in the world ! No smoke, Sir; no fog, Sir; and a clean sweep from the Outer Light and the sea beyond it to the New Hampshire mountains! Yes, Sir, — and there are great truths that are higher than mountains and broader than seas, that people are looking for from the tops of these hills of ours, — such as the world never saw, though it might have seen them at Jerusalem, if its eyes had been open ! — Where do they have most crazy people ? Tell me that, Sir !
I answered, that I had heard it said there were more in New England than in most countries, perhaps more than in any part of the world.
Very good. Sir,— he answered.—-When have there been most people killed and wounded in the course of this century ?
During the wars of the French Empire, no doubt, — I said.
That’s it! that’s it!—said the little gentleman ; — where the battle of intelligence is fought, there are most minds bruised and broken ! We’re battling for a faith here, Sir.
The divinity-student remarked, that it was rather late in the world’s history for men to be looking out for a new faith.
I didn't say a new faith,— said the little gentleman; — old or new, it can’t help being different here in this American mind of ours from anything that ever was before; the people are new, Sir, and that makes the difference. One load of corn goes to the sty, and makes the fat of swine, — another goes to the farm-house, and becomes the muscle that clothes the right arms of heroes. It isn’t where a pawn stands on the hoard that makes the difference, but what the game round it is when it is on this or that square.
Can any man look round and see what Christian countries are now doing, and how they are governed, and what is the general condition of society, without seeing that Christianity is the flag under which the world sails, and not the rudder that steers its course ? No, Sir ! There was a great raft built about two thousand years ago, — call it an ark, rather,— the world’s great ark! big enough to hold all mankind, and made to be launched right out into the open waves of life,— and here it has been lying, one end on the shore and one end bobbing up and down in the water, men fighting all the time as to who should be captain and who should have the state-rooms, and throwing each other over the side because they could not agree about the points of compass, but the great vessel never getting afloat with its freight of nations and their rulers; — and now, Sir, there is and has been for this long time a fleet of “heretic” lighters sailing out of Boston Bay, and they have been saying, and they say now, and they mean to keep saying, “Pump out your bilgewater, shovel over your loads of idle ballast, got out your old rotten cargo, and we will carry it out into deep waters and sink it where it will never be seen again ; so shall the ark of the world’s hope float on the ocean, instead of sticking in the dock-mud where it is lying !”
It’s a slow business, this of getting the ark launched. The Jordan wasn’t deep enough, and the Tiber wasn’t deep enough, and the Rhone wasn’t deep enough, and the Thames wasn’t deep enough,-—and perhaps the Charles isn’t deep enough; but I don’t feel sure of that, Sir, and I love to hear the workmen knocking at the old blocks of tradition and making the ways smooth with the oil of the Good Samaritan. I don’t know, Sir, — but I do think she stirs a little,— I do believe she slides ; — and when I think of what a work that is for the dear old threebreasted mother of American liberty, I would not take all the glory of all the greatest cities in the world for my birthright in the soil of little Boston!
-Some of us could not help smiling at this burst of local patriotism, especially when it finished with the last two words.
And Iris smiled, too. But it was the radiant smile of pleasure which always lights up her face when her little neighbor gets excited on the great topics of progress in freedom and religion, and especially on the part which, as he pleases himself with believing, his own city is to take in that consummation of human development to which he looks forward.
Presently she looked into his face with a changed expression, — the anxiety of a mother that sees her child suffering.
You are not well, — she said.
I am never well, — he answered.— His eyes fell mechanically on the death’shead ring he wore on his right hand. She took his hand as if it had been a baby’s, and turned the grim device so that it should be out of sight. One slight, sad, slow movement of the head seemed to say, “ The death-symbol is still there! ”
A very odd personage, to be sure ! Seems to know what is going on, — reads books, old and new, — has many recent publications sent him, they tell me,— but, what is more curious, keeps up with the every-day affairs of the world, too. Whether he hears everything that is said with preternatural acuteness, or whether some confidential friend visits him in a quiet way, is more than I can tell. I can make nothing more of the noises I hear in his room than my old conjectures. The movements I mention are less frequent, but I often hear the plaintive cry, — I observe that it is rarely laughing of late; — I never have detected one articulate word, but I never heard such tones from anything hut a human voice.
There has been, of late, a deference approaching to tenderness, on the part of the boarders generally, so far as he is concerned. This is doubtless owing to the air of suffering which seems to have saddened his look of late. Either some passion is gnawing at him inwardly, or some hidden disease is at work upon him.
——What's the matter with Little Boston?—said the young man John to me one day. — There a’n’t much of him, anyhow ; but 't seems to me be looks peakeder than ever. The old woman says he’s in a bad way, ’n’ wants a nuss to take care of him. Them nusses that take care of old rich folks marry ’em sometimes, — ’n’ they don’t commonly live a great while after that. No, Sir ! I don’t see what he wants to die for, after he’s taken so much trouble to live iu such poor accommodations as that crooked body of his. I should like to know how his soul crawled into it, ’n' how it’s goin’ to get out. What business has he to die, I should like to know ? Let Ma’am Allen (the gentleman with the diamond) die, if he likes, and be (this is a family-magazine) ; but we a’n’t goin’ to have him dyin'. Not by a great sight. Can’t do without him anyhow. A’n’t it fun to hear him blow off his steam ?
I believe the young fellow would take it as a personal insult, if the little gentleman should show any symptoms of quitting our table for a better world.
——In the mean time, what with going to church in company with our young lady, and taking every chance I could get to talk with her, I have found myself becoming. I will not say intimate, but well acquainted with Miss Iris. There is a certain frankness and directness about her that perhaps belong to her artist natureFor, you see, the one thing that marks the true artist is a clear perception and a firm, bold hand, in distinction from that imperfect mental vision and uncertain touch which give us the feeble pictures and the lumpy statues of the mere artisans on canvas or in stone, A true artist, therefore, can hardly fail to have a sharp, well-defined character. Besides this, many young girls have a strange audacity blended with their instinctive delicacy. Even in physical daring many of them are a match for boys; whereas you wall find few among mature women, and especially if they are mothers, who do not confess, and not unrequently proclaim, their timidity. One of these young girls, as many of us hereabouts remember, climbed to the top of a jagged, slippery rock lying out in the waves,— an ugly height to get up, and a worse one to get down, even for a bold young fellow of sixteen. Another was in the way of climbing tall trees for crows’ nests,—-and crows generally know about how far boys can “shin up,” and set their household establishments above high-water-mark. Still another of these young ladies I saw for the first time in an open boat, tossing on the ocean ground-swell, a mile or two from shore, off a lonely island. She lost all her daring, after she had some girls of her own to look out for.
Many blondes are very gentle, yielding in character, impressible, unelastic. But the positive blondes, with the golden tint running through them, are often full of character. They come from those deep-bosomed German women that Tacitus portrayed in such strong colors. The negative blondes, or those women whose tints have faded out as their line of descent has become impoverished, are of various blood, and in them the soul has often become pale with that blanching of the hair and loss of color in the eyes which makes them approach the character of Albinesses.
I see in this young girl that union of strength and sensibility which, when directed and impelled by the strong instinct so apt to accompany this combination of active and passive capacity, we call genius. She is not an accomplished artist, certainly, as yet ; but there is always an air in every careless figure she draws, as it were of upward aspiration, — the elan of John of Bologna’s Mercury, — a lift to them, as if they had on winged sandals, like the herald of the gods. I hear her singing sometimes ; and though she evidently is not trained, yet is there a wild sweetness in her fitful and sometimes fantastic melodies, — such as can come only from the inspiration of the moment,— strangely enough, reminding me of those long passages I have heard from my little neighbor’s room, yet of different tone, and by no means to be mistaken for those weird harmonies.
I cannot pretend to deny that I am interested in the girl. Alone, unprotected, as I have seen so many young girls left in boarding-houses, the centre of all the men’s eyes that surround the table, watched with jealous sharpness by every woman, most of all by that poor relation of our landlady, who belongs to the class of women that like to catch others in mischief when they are too mature for indiscretions, (as one sees old rogues turn to thief-catchers,) one of Nature’s gendarmerie, clad in a complete suit of wrinkles, the cheapestcoat-of-mail against the shafts of the great little enemy,— so surrounded, Iris spans this commonplace household-life of ours with her arch of beauty, as the rainbow, whose name she borrows, looks down on a dreary pasture with its feeding flocks and herds of indifferent animals.
These young girls that live in boarding-houses can do pretty much as they will. The female gendarmes are off guard occasionally. The sitting-room has its solitary moments, when any two boarders who wish to meet may come together accidentally, (accidentally, I said, Madam, and I had not the slightest intention of Italicizing the word.) and discuss the social or political questions of the day, or any other subject that may prove interesting. Many charming conversations take place at the foot of the stairs, or while one of the parties is holding the latch of a door,—-in the shadow of porticos, and especially on those outside balconies which some of our Southern neighbors call “ stoops,” the most charming places in the world when the moon is just right and the roses and honeysuckles are in full blow,— as we used to think in eighteen hundred and never mention it.
On such a balcony or “stoop,” one evening, I walked with Iris. We were on pretty good terms now, and I had coaxed her arm under mine, — my left arm, of course. That leaves one’s right arm free to defend the lovely creature, if the rival — odious wretch! — attempt to ravish her from your side. Likewise if one’s heart should happen to beat a little, its mute language will not be without its meaning, as you will perceive when the arm you hold begins to tremble,— a circumstance like to occur, if you happen to be a good-looking young fellow, and you two have the “stoop” to yourselves.
We had it to ourselves that evening. The Koh-i-noor, as we called him, was in a corner with our landlady’s daughter. The young fellow John was smoking out in the yard. The gendarme was afraid of the evening air, and kept inside. The young Marylander came to the door, looked out and saw us walking together, gave his hat a pull over his forehead and stalked off. I felt a slight spasm, as it were, in the arm I held, and saw the girl’s head turn over her shoulder for a second. What a kind creature this is! She has no special interest in this youth, but she does not like to see a young fellow going off because he feels as if he were not wanted.
She had her locked drawing-book under her arm. — Let me take it, — I said.
She gave it to me to carry.
This is full of caricatures of all of us, I am sure,— said I.
She laughed, and said,—-No,— not all of you.
I was there, of course ?
Why, no,— she had never taken so much pains with me.
Then she would let me see the inside of it ?
She would think of it.
Just as we parted, she took a little key from her pocket and handed it to me. — This unlocks my naughty book,— she said, — you shall see it. I am not afraid of you.
I don’t know whether the last words exactly pleased me. At any rate, I took the book and hurried with it to my room. I opened it, and saw, in a few glances, that I held the heart of Iris in my hand.
—I have no verses for you this month, except these few lines suggested by the season,
HERE! sweep these foolish leaves away,—
I will not crush my brains to-day! —
Look! are the southern curtains drawn?
Fetch me a fan, and so begone!
Not that,— the palm-tree’s rustling leaf
Brought from a parching coral-reef!
Its breath is heated; — I would swing
The broad gray plumes, — the eagle’s wing.
I hate these roses’ feverish blood! —
Pluck me a half-blown lily-bud,
A long-stemmed lily from the lake,
Cold as a coiling water-snake.
Rain me sweet odors on the air,
And wheel me up my Indian chair,
And spread some book not overwise
Fiat out before my sleepy eyes.
—Who knows it not,— this dead recoil
Of weary fibres stretched with toil,—
The pulse that Butters faint and low
When Hummer's seething breezes blow ?
O Nature! bare thy loving breast
And give thy child one hour of rest,—
One little hour to lie unseen
Beneath thy scarf of leafy green!
So, curtained by a singing pine,
Its murmuring voice shall blend with mine,
Till, lost in dreams, my faltering lay
In sweeter music dies away.