MAN is like an onion. He exists in concentric layers. He is born a bulb and grows by external accretions. The number and character of his involutions certify to his culture and courtesy. Those of the boor are few and coarse. Those of the gentleman are numerous and fine. But strip off the scales from all and you come to the same germ. The core of humanity is barbarism. Every man is a latent savage.
You may be startled and shocked, but I am stating fact, not theory. I announce not an invention, but a discovery. You look around you, and because you do not see tomahawks and tattooing you doubt my assertion. But your observation is superficial. You have not penetrated into the secret place where souls abide. You are staring only at the outside layer of your neighbors; just peel them and see what you will find.
I speak from tho highest possible authority,— my own. Representing the gentler half of humanity, of respectable birth, tolerable parts, and good education, as tender-hearted as most women, not unfamiliar with the best society, mingling, to some extent, with those who understand and practise the minor moralities, you would at onee infer from my circumstances that I was a very fair specimen of the better class of Americans,— and so I am. For one that stands higher than I in the moral, social, and intellectual scale, you will undoubtedly find ten that stand lower. Yet through all these layers gleam the fiery eyes of my savage.
I thought I was a Christian. I have endeavored to do my duty to my day and generation ; but of a sudden Christianity and civilization leave me in the lurch, and the “ old Adam ” within me turns out to be just such a fierce Saxon pirate as hurtled down against the white shores of Britain fifteen hundred years ago.
For we have been moving.
People who live in cities and move regularly every year from one good, finished, right-side-up house to another will think I give a very small reason for a very broad fact ; but they do not know what they are talking about. They have fallen into a way of looking upon a house only as an exaggerated trunk, into which they pack themselves annually with as much nonchalance as if it were only their preparation for a summer trip to the seashore. They don’t strike root anywhere. They don’t have to tear up anything. A man comes with cart and horses. There is a stir in the one house,—they are gone ; — there is a stir in the other house,—they are settled,—and everything is wound up and set going to run another year. We do these tilings differently in the country. We don’t build a house by way of experiment and live in it a few years, then tear it down and build another. We live in a house till it cracks, and then we plaster it over; then it totters, and we prop it up; then it rocks, and we rope it down ; then it sprawls, and we clamp it; then it crumbles, and we have a new underpinning,— but keep living in it all the time. To know what moving really means, you must move from just such a rickety-rackety old farmhouse, where you have clung and grown like a fungus ever since there was anything to grow,—where your life and luggage have crept into all the crevices and corners, and every wall is festooned with associations thicker than the cobwebs, though the cobwebs are pretty thick,— where the furniture and the pictures and the knick-knacks are so become a part and parcel of the house, so grown with it and into it, that you do not know they are chiefly rubbish till you begin to move them and they fall to pieces, and don’t know it then, but persist in packing them up and carrying them away for the sake of auld lang syne, till, set up again in your new abode, you suddenly find that their sacredness is gone, their dignity has degraded into dinginess, and the faded, patched chintz sofa, that was not only comfortable, but respectable, in the old wainscoted sitting-room, has suddenly turned into “ an object,” when lang syne goes by the board and the heirloom is incontinently set adrift. Undertake to move from this tumble-down old house, strewn thick with the débris of many generations, into a tumble-up, peaky, perky, plastery, shingly, stary new one, that is not half finished, and never will be, and good enough for it, and you will perhaps comprehend how it is that I find a great crack in my life. On the farther side are prosperity, science, literature, philosophy, religion, society, all the refinements, and amenities, and benevolences, and purities of life, — in short, all the arts of peace, and civilization, and Christianity, — and on this side --moving. You will also understand why that one word comprises, to my thinking, all the discomforts short of absolute physical torture that can be condensed into the human lot. Condensed, did I say ? If it were a condensed agony, I could endure it. One great, stunning, overpowering blow is undoubtedly terrible, but you rally all your fortitude to meet and resist it, and when it is over it is over and the recuperative forces go to work ; but a trouble that worries and baffles and pricks and rasps you, that penetrates into all the ramifications of your life, that fills you with profound disgust, and fires you with irrepressible fury, and makes of you an Ishmaelite indeed, with your hand against every man and every man’s band against you, — ah! that is the experimentum crucis. Such is moving, in the country, — not an act, but a process,—not a volition, but a fermentation.
We will say that the first of September is the time appointed for the transit. The day approaches. It is the twenty-ninth of August. I prepare to take hold of the matter in earnest. I am nipped in the bud by learning that the woman who was to help about the carpets cannot come, because her baby is taken with the croup. I have not a doubt of it, I never knew a baby yet that did not go and have the croup, or the colic, or the cholera infantum, just when it was imperatively necessary that it should not have them. But there is no help for it. I shudder and bravely gird myself for the work. I tug at the heavy, bulky, unwieldy carpets, and am covered with dust and abomination. I think carpets are the most untidy, unwholesome nuisances in the whole world. It is impossible to be clean with them under your feet. You may sweep your carpet twenty times and raise adust on the twenty-first. I am sure I heard long ago of some new fashion that was to be introduced, — some Italian style, tiles, or mosaic-work, or something of the sort. I should welcome anything that would dispense with these vile rags. I sigh over the good old sanded floors that our grandmothers rejoiced in,—and so, apotheosizing the past and anathematizing the present, I pull away, and the tacks tear my fingers, and the hammer slips and lets me back with a jerk, and the dust fills my hair and nose and eyes and mouth and lungs, and my hands grow red and coarse and ragged and sore and begrimed, and I pull and choke and cough and strangle and pull.
So the carpets all come up and the curtains all come down. The bureaus march out of the chamber-windows and dance on a tight-rope down into the yard below. The chairs are set at “ heads and points.” The clothes are packed into the trunks. The flour and meal and sugar, all the wholesale edibles, are carted down to the new house and stored. The forks are wrapped up and we eat with our fingers, and have nothing to eat at that. Then we are informed that the new house will not be ready short of two weeks at least. Unavoidable delays. The plasterers were hindered; the painters misunderstood orders; the paperers have defalcated, and the universe generally comes to a pause. It is no matter in what faith I was nurtured, I am now a believer in total depravity. Contractors have no conscience; masons are not men of their word ; carpenters are tricky ; all manner of cunning workmen are bruised reeds. But there is nothing to do but submit and make the best of it, — a horrible kind of mechanism. We go forthwith into a chrysalis state for two weeks. The only sign of life is an occasional lurch towards the new house, just sufficient to keep up the circulation. One day I dreamily carry down a basket of wine-glasses. At another time I listlessly stuff all my slippers into a huge pitcher and take up the line of march. Again a bucket is filled with tea-cups, or I shoulder the fire-shovel. The two weeks drag themselves away, and the cry is still, “Unfinished!” To prevent petrifying into a fossil remain, or relapsing into primitive barbarism, or degenerating into a dormouse, I rouse my energies and determine to put my own shoulder to the wheel and see if something cannot he accomplished. I rise early in the morning and walk to Dan, to hire a painter who is possessed of “ gumption,’’ “faculty.” Arrived in Dan, I am told that he is in Beersheba. Nothing daunted, I take a short cut across the fields to Beersheba, bearding manifold dangers from rickety stone-walls, strong enough to keep women in, but not strong enough to keep bears, bulls, and other wild beasts out, —toppling enough to play the mischief with draperies, but not toppling enough to topple over when urgently pressed to do so. But I secure my man, and remember no more my sorrow of bulls and stones for joy at my success. From Beersheba I proceed to Padan-aram to buy seven pounds of flour, thence to Galilee of the Gentiles for a pound of cheese, thence to the land of Uz for a smoked halibut, thence to the ends of the earth for a lemon to make life tolerable, — and the days hobble on.
“ The flying gold of the ruined woodlands *’ drives through the air, the signal is given, and there is no longer “quiet on the Potomac.” The unnatural calm gives way to an unearthly din. Once more I bring myself to bear on the furniture and the trumpery, and there is a small household whirlpool. All that went before “ pales its Ineffectual fires.” Now comes the strain upon my temper, and my temper bends, and quivers, and creaks, and cracks. Ithuriel touches me with his spear; all the integuments of my conventional, artificial, and acquired gentleness peel off, and I stand revealed a savage. Everything around me sloughs off its usual habitude and becomes savage. Looking-glasses are shivered by the dozen. A bit is nicked out of the best China sugar-bowl. A pin gets under the matting that is wrapped around the centre-table and jags horrible hieroglyphics over the whole polished surface. The bookcase that we are trying to move tilts, and trembles, and goes over, and the old house through all her frame gives signs of woe. A crash detonate on the stairs brings me up from the depths of the closet where I am burrowing. I remember seeing Petronius disappear a moment ago with my lovely and beloved marble Hebe in his arms. I rush rampant to the upper landing in time to see him couchant on the lower. “ I have broken my leg,” roars Petronius, as if I cared for his leg. A fractured leg is easily mended ; but who shall restore me the nose of my nymph, marred into irremediable deformity and dishonor?
Occasionally a gleam of sunshine shoots athwart the darkness to keep me back from rash deeds. Behind the sideboard I find a little cross of dark, bright hair and gold and pearls, that I lost two years ago and would not be comforted. O happy days woven in with the dark, bright hair! O golden, pearly days, come hack to me again ! “Never mind your gewgaws,” interposes real life ; “ what is to be done with the things in this drawer ? ” Lying atop of a heap of old papers in the front-yard, waiting the match that is to glorify them into flame, I find a letter that mysteriously disappeared long since and caused me infinite alarm lest indelicate eyes might see it and indelicate hands make ignoble use of its honest and honorable meaning. I learn also sundry new and interesting facts in mechanics, I become acquainted for the first time with the modus operandi of “ roller-cloths.” I never understood before how the roller got inside the towel. It was one of those gentle domestic mysteries that repel even while they invite investigation. I shall not give the result of my discovery to the public. If you wish very much to find out, you can move, as I did.
But the rifts of sunshine disappear, the clouds draw together and close in. The savage walks abroad once more, and I go to bed tired of life.
I have scarcely fallen asleep, when I am reluctantly, by short and difficult stages, awakened. A rumbling, grating, strident noise first confuses, then startles me. Is it robbers ? Is it an earthquake ? Is it the coming of fate ? I lie rigid, bathed in a cold perspiration. I hear the tread of banditti on the moaning stairs. I see the flutter of ghostly robes by the uncurtained windows. A chill, uncanny air rushes in and grips at my damp hair. I am nerved by the extremity of my terror. I will die of anything but fright. I jerk off the bedclothes, convulse into an upright posture, and glare into the darkness. Nothing. I rise softly, creep cautiously and swiftly over the floor, that always creaked, but now thunders at every footfall. A light gleams through the open door of the opposite room whence the sound issues. A familiar voice utters an exclamation which I recognize. It is Petronius, the unprincipled scoundrel, who is uncording a bed, dragging remorselessly through innumerable holes the long rope whose doleful wail came near giving me an epilepsy. My savage lets loose the dogs of war. Petronius would fain defend himself by declaring that it is morning. I indignantly deny it. He produces his watch. A fig for his watch ! I stake my consciousness against twenty watches, and go to bed again ; but Sleep, angry goddess, once repulsed, returns no more. The dawn conies up the sky and Confirms the scorned watch. The golden daggers of the morning prick in under my eyelids, and Petronius introduces himself upon the scene once more to announce, that, if I don’t wish to be corded up myself, I must abdicate that bed. The threat does not terrify me. Indeed, nothing at the moment seems more inviting than to be corded up and let alone ; but duty still binds me to life, and, assuring Petronius that the just law will do that service for him, if he does not mend his ways, I slowly emerge again into the world, — the dreary, chaotic world, — the world that is never at rest.
And there is hurrying to and fro, and a clang of many voices, and the clatter of much crockery, and a lifting, and balancing, and battering against walls and curving around corners, and sundry contusions, and a great waste of expletives, and a loading of wagons, and a driving of patient oxen back and forth with me generally on the top of the load, steadying a basket of eggs with one foot, keeping a tin can of something from upsetting with the other, and both arms stretched around a very big and very square picture-frame that knocks against my nose or my chin every time the cart goes over a stone or drops into a rut, and the wind threatening to blow my hat off, and blowing it off, and my “ back-hair” tumbling down,— and the old house is at last despoiled. The rooms stand bare and brown and desolate. The sun, a handbreadth above the horizon, pours in through the unblinking windows. The last load is gone. The last man has departed. I am left alone to lock up the house and walk over the hill to the new home. Then, for the first time, I remember that I am leaving. As I pass through the door of my own room, not regretfully, I turn. I look up and down and through and through the place where I shall never rest again, and I rejoice that it is so. As I stand there, with the red, solid sunshine lying on the floor, lying on the walls, unfamiliar in its new profusion, the silence becomes audible. In the still October evening there is an effort in the air. The dumb house is striving to find a voice. I feel the struggle of its insensate frame. The old timbers quiver with the unusual strain. The strong, blind, vegetable energy agonizes to find expression, and, wrestling like a pinioned giant, the soul of matter throws off the weight of its superincumbent inertia. Slowly, gently, most sorrowfully through the golden air cleaves a voice that is somewhat a wail, yet not untuned by love. Inarticulate at first, I catch only the low mournfulness; but it clears, it concentrates, it murmurs into cadence, it syllables into intelligence, and thus the old house speaks:'—
“ Child, my child, forward to depart, stay for one moment your eager feet. Put off from your brow the crown which the sunset has woven, and linger yet a little longer in the shadow which enshrouds me forever. I remember, in this parting hour, the day of days which the tremulous years bore in their bosom,— a day crimson with the woodbine’s happy flush and glowing with the maple’s gold. On that day a tender, tiny life came down, and stately Silence fled before the pelting of baby-laughter. Faint memories of far-off olden time were softly stirred. Blindly thrilled through all my frame a vague, dim sense of swelling buds, and singing-birds, and summergales, — of the purple beauty of violets, the smells of fragrant earth, and the sweetness of summer dews and darks. Many a harvest-moon since then has filled her yellow horn, and queenly Junes crowned with roses have paled before the sternness of Decembers. But Decembers and Junes alike bore royal gifts to you,—tufts to the busy brain and the awakening heart. In dell and copse and meadow and gay green-wood you drank great draughts of life. Yet, even as I watched, your eyes grew wistful. Your lips framed questions for which the Springs found no reply, and the sacred mystery of living brought its sweet, uncertain pain. Then you went away, and a shadow fell. A gleam passed out of the sunshine and a note from the robin’s song. The knights that pranced on the household hearth grew faint and still, and died for want of young eyes to mark their splendor, But when your feet, ever and anon, turned homeward, they used a firmer step, and 1 knew, that, though the path might be rough, you trod it bravely. I saw that you had learned how doing is a nobler thing than dreaming, yet kept the holy fire burning in the holy place. But now you go, and there will be no return. The stars are faded from the sky. The leaves writhe on the greensward. The breezes wail a dirge. The summer rain is pallid like winter snow. And — O bitterest cup of all! — the golden memories of the past have vanished from your heart. I totter down to the grave, while you go on from strength to strength. The Junes that gave you life brought death to me, and you sorrow not. O child of my tender care, look not so coldly on my pain ! Breathe one sigh of regret, drop one tear of pity, before we part ! ”
The mournful murmur ceased. I am not adamant. My savage crouched out of sight among the underbrush. I think something stirred in the back of my eyes. There was even a suspicion of dampness in front. I thrust my hand in my pocket to have my handkerchief ready in case of a catastrophe, it was an unfortunate proceeding. My pocket was crammed full. I had to push my fingers in between all manner of rubbish, to get at the required article, and when I got hold of it, I had to pull with all my might to get it out, and when it did come, out with it came a tin box of mustard-seed, a round wooden box of tooth-powder, a ball of twine, a paper of picture-books, and a pair of gloves. Of course, the covers of both the boxes came off. The seed scattered over the floor. The tooth-powder puffed a white cloud into my face. The ball of twine unrolled and trundled to the other side of the room. I gathered up what I could, but, by the time order was restored and my handkerchief ready for use, I had no use for it. The stirring in the back of my eyes had stopped. The dewiness had disappeared. My savage sprang out from the underbrush and brandished his tomahawk. And to the old house I made answer as a Bushman of Caffraria might, or a Sioux of the Præ-Pilgrimic Age: —
“ Old House, hash up! Why do you talk stuff? ‘ Golden memories ’ indeed ! To hear you, one might suppose you were an ivied castle on the Rhine. and I a fair-haired princess, cradled in the depths of regal luxury, feeding on the blossoms of a thousand generations, and heroic from inborn royalty. ' Tender care ’ ! Did you not wake me in the middle of the night, last summer, by trickling down water on my face from a passing shower? and did I not have to get up at that unearthly hour to move the bed, and step splash into a puddle, and come very near being floated away? Did not the water drip, drip, drip upon my writing-desk, and soak the leather and swell the wood, and stain the ribbon and spoil the paper inside, and all because you were treacherous at the roof and let it ? Have you not made a perfect rattery of yourself, yawning at every possible chink and crumbling at the underpinning, and keeping me awake night after night by the tramp of a whole brigade of the Grand Army that slaughtered Bishop Hatto ? Whenever a breeze comes along stout enough to make an aspen-leaf tremble, don’t you immediately go into hysterics, and rock, and creak, and groan, as if you were the shell of an earthquake ? Don’t you shrivel at every window to let in the northeasters and all the snow-storms that walk abroad ? Whenever a needle, or a pencil, or a penny drops, don’t you open somewhere and take it in ? ‘ Golden memories’! Leaden memories ! Wooden memories! Mudden memories!”
My savage gave a war-whoop. I turned scornfully. I swept down the staircase. I banged the front-door. I locked it with an accent, and marched up the hill. A soft sighing breathed past me. I knew it was the old house mourning for her departing child. The sun had disappeared, but the western sky was jubilant in purple and gold. The cool evening calmed me. The echoes of the war-whoop vibrated almost tenderly along the hushed hillside. I paused on the summit of the hill and looked back. Down in the valley stood the sorrowful house, tasting the first bitterness of perpetual desolation. The maples and the oaks and the beech-trees hung out their flaming banners. The pond lay dark in the shadow of the circling hills. The years called to me,— the happy, sun-ripe years that I had left tangled in the apple-blossoms, and moaning among the pines, and tinkling in the brook, and floating in the cups of the water-lilies. They looked up at me from the orchard, dark and cool. They thrilled across from the hill-tops, glowing still with the glowing sky. I heard their voice by the lilac-bush. They smiled at me under the peach-trees, and where the blackberries had ripened against the southern wall. I felt them once more in the cloversmells and the new-mown hay. They swayed again in the silken tassels of the crisp, rustling corn. They hummed with the bees in the garden-borders. They sang with the robins in the cherry-trees, and their tone was tender and passing sweet. They besought me not to cast away their memory for despite of the black-browed troop whose vile and sombre robes had mingled in with their silver garments. They prayed me to forget, but not allThey minded me of the sweet counsel we had taken together, when summer came over the hills and walked by the watercourses. They bade me remember the good tidings of great joy which they had brought me when my eyes were dim with unavailing tears. My lips trembled to their call. The war-whoop chanted itself into a vesper. A happy calm lifted from my heart and quivered out over the valley, and a comfort settled on the sad old house as I stretched forth my hands and from my inmost soul breathed down a Benedicite!