A Castle of Indolence

“The tales
Which poets of an elder time have feigned
To glorify their Tempe, bred in me
Desire of visiting that Paradise.”

JOHN FORD, The Lover’s Melancholy, Act I. Sc. 1.

EVERY one who has attended two courses of lectures at the Lowell Institute or at the Sorbonne must have noticed those withered immortals that are always to be seen in the same seats, wearing the same coats, holding the same note-books; that nod stiffly to one another, and disappear with the lecturer. Some people are still trying to solve the problem of their origin, as a faithful few are still trying to square the circle, but it remains insoluble.

“ The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,
And these are of them.”

The students who frequent the Sorbonne ignorantly jeer at the myoptic old gentlemen upon the front benches ; and the young girls who brighten the Lowell Institute, now and then, cast but a passing glance of wonder at the venerable seekers after knowledge.

Not so with the mystery which envelopes the apparitions of Class-day at Harvard. We would know all that is to be learned about the fairy beings who, with hats and gloves from Paris and scarfs from Rome, bless one day in every year, not only for the boys, but for the graduate of ten years ago. Are they created for Class-day as the old gentlemen of the Lowell Institute are created to make an audience ? After night has fallen upon that day of days, where are they to be found ? Toward which point of compass shall a pursuer direct his steps ? By what route, in what conveyance, shall he go? Let me attempt to answer ; let me, while my old hulk is taking in coal for another voyage, recall the two midsummer months during which it was laid up in ordinary, — two months undisturbed by the wrangling of newspapers, the clatter of street-cars, or the jingle of pianos.

One July evening, with other passengers, in an old-fashioned stage-coach I entered Tempe. The full-faced moon watched by the sea, that murmured in its happy dreams. Green pastures, intersected by walls over which leaned aged apple-trees, sloped from the hard sand of the beach toward a dark pine forest. Great naked promontories, to which the forest line led the eye, formed the boundaries of the beach to the right and to the left. The low voice of the tide united the stillness of the land with the silence of the water. Seaward, a bright light shone, went out, and shone again; landward, a small but steady gleam emerged from the open door at which I was soon set down.

The next morning showed me that no part of what I had seen in the evening was a dream; that Tempe was really bounded on the west by a pine wood, on the north and south by headlands of rock, and on the east by the ocean ; that the island, the existence of which had been intimated by a revolving light, lay in the offing; and that the gnarled trunks against the wall bore common cider-apples. Croquet-hoops had been set where these apple-trees would throw their deepest shade in the afternoon, as well as in the thinner shadow of an elm. A quarter of a mile perhaps from my window, a slender stream crept out of a copse of willows toward the sea. At the line of high tide, an arch of rustic wood-work had been thrown from bank to bank, at each end of which crouched little brown bath-houses. On the edge of the forest, a picturesque mill, whose broken wheel the little brook had long forgotten to turn, waited for the pencils which were to put life into its old timbers again.

Descending from my room, I perceived that the Castle of Indolence where I was domiciled had neither moat nor sentry. A window upon the ground floor was open, and the hall door stood ajar. Water-lilies dozed on their broad leaves in a stagnant pool a few feet from me, and other plants — poppy and tansy and sage —nodded on the outskirts of the vegetable garden, where ostentatious squashes were about to sun themselves. The Castle itself, — Castle I call it, in courtesy to our American nabobs, who veneer pine palaces with proud names in remembrance of the fine, false old maxim, that every Englishman’s house is his castle ; in remembrance, too, of the days when idleness was possible only for the lord of a manor, lying behind thick walls, with drawbridge up and portcullis down, with a Jew whom he had just robbed in the dungeon underground, and a Jew’s daughter whom he would fain rob trembling before him, — our Castle, I say, was composed of several wooden, whitewashed buildings, a story and a half in height, each, furnished with a porch or piazza, on which stood a rocking-chair or two.

The court still slept, but the aborigines, who possessed the land long before Indolence built a castle there, were up and doing. For even in this home of the idle there are hewers of wood and drawers of water, as there must have been in Lotos-land itself. The Lotophagi may have contented themselves, like the Maccaroni-phagi of Naples and the Missionary-phagi of the Cannibal Islands, with a single article of diet; but it must have been somebody’s business to gather the delicious flowers for gentlemen, who lay

“ Propt on beds of amaranth and moly.”

And it must have been somebody’s business to make those beds, for even an amaranth mattress might have to be turned once in a while. On Olympus, Hebe and Ganymede pour the nectar ; in Georgia, Pompey and Chloe sweat for the Hon. Mr. Plantation ; in Boston, John arranges the cushions and opens the door of Mrs. Kopperstox’s carriage.

In Tempe we were served by the oldest family on the continent, — so ancient and so noble that its members, like Anchises and Victoria, bore no surnames. Their Christian or rather anteChristian names, as Job, Reuben, Sarah, Miriam, Isaac, Joseph, David, Moses, or Abigail, betokened a Jewish origin ; but the sole trace of Hebrew in their dialect was the frequent use of the double negative ; their Sabbath fell on the first clay of the week ; they were never known to attend synagogue; and they talked less of Aaron or of Abraham than of fames Buchanan and Andrew Jackson, for they were conservative in politics, and had portraits of these departed Presidents conspicuously hung in parlor and chamber. But, like very Jews, they inveighed against the late war because of its effect upon values ; they could not see why slavery should be more objectionable on the Mississippi than on the Jordan ; they found it easier to believe that Joshua stopped the sun till the battle was over, than that the electrician could talk across the ocean; and they frequently celebrated Feasts of Unleavened Bread. Like Jews, they dwelt in the Past ; deriving their only notions of modern life from weekly journals, which are supposed, in the cities where they purport to be published, to have been long extinct. Like Jews, they are grave in speech, and so similar in physiognomy as to recall the family of Fleminglings, who had “but one face amongst them.”

Births occasionally occur in the valley, but it is not certain that death ever visits it. There are disappearances, it is true. One summer, Lot was no more to be found ; but the house where he used to live was still known as Lot’s cottage, and letters addressed to his care were delivered as before. On the other hand, however, a marble slab in the field which he once tilled bore his name and the date of his disappearance. But does Lot lie there, or does the inscription pretend to be an epitaph ? The question often occurred to me, while watching brown old Miriam, whom Lot married sixty years ago. When her eyes turned to the east, was she looking, through her round-glassed silver spectacles, fastened with twine around her head, for a familiar sail ? Was she communing long silent hours with him who (invisible to us aliens, but visible to her) still dwelt in these Elysian Fields with all the other disappeared ones ? Or had Lot taken a new lease of life in the person, of his grandson ? Only on the hypothesis that what we call death was a change of dress for Lot’s spirit, not a change of residence, were we able to account for the scarlet cloaks and gay bonnets which Abigail and Ruth wore to what Miriam called “ buryin’ parties.” With what other subjects the mysterious meditations of Miriam had to do I never learned. I could not subscribe to the current belief that her thoughts never went beyond the pots and kettles in the midst of which rocked the chair whence she gave her orders for dinner. As well say that the Sphinx,

“ Staring right on with calm eternal eyes,”

never puts to herself the riddle of the Universe.

Some of the peculiarities of this extraordinary race of beings are attributable to the influence of the scenery and climate of Tempe. A person born there would naturally cling to the home of his forefathers, to their idiom, their habits, their usages ; would care for what they loved, be suspicious of novelties, and unwilling to admit the possibility of improvement or the desirableness of leaving a world which gives so much happiness at so slight an expenditure of vital force. The visitor is reminded of Washington Irving’s description of Sleepy Hollow. “It is in these little retired Dutch valleys,” says he, “found here and there in the great State of New York, that population, manners, and customs remain fixed ; while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved. They are like those little nooks of still water which border a rapid stream; where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor, or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the rush of the passing current. Though many years have elapsed since I trod the drowsy shades of Sleepy Hollow, I question whether I should not still find the same trees and the same families vegetating in its sheltered bosom.”

Elsewhere the performance of menia services might have lowered the dignity of these dames of high degree; but Aspasia or the Queen of Sheba should have deemed it an honor to serve the ladies of the Court of Indolence, whose beauty, as Class-days yet to come shall tell, a summer there enriched; for the waters of this pool of Bethesda benefit the angels, as well as those who go in after them.

Would I could entice that dream of fair women into the light of day ! I catch glimpses of white muslin belted with a broad ribbon, blue or cherry, with floating ends ; of movements that are grace; of smiles that are a patent of nobility; I hear musical nothings, like the bird’s trill that makes the morning ; I hear words too good-humored to be scandal and too sprightly to be merely gossip. — but, walking in my memorial hall, I vainly try to conjure portraits into the frames upon its walls ; listening at the most communicative panel of my whispering-gallery, I hear an uncertain rustling as of forest leaves, intelligible to no one now that Pan and Thoreau are dead. I vainly interrogate the tin-types which an “ artist, who drove his atelier into the courtyard of our castle, coaxed the sun to take. But his Solar Majesty, in his best mood a bungler at portrait-painting, had no mind to help this interloper. In the city he may while away an hour in a photographer’s saloon, but in the country he has more agreeable resorts. In the city he does drudgery like other people ; but at Castle Indolence he found the work of shining arduous enough. He would stop in mid-heaven to look into Helen’s eyes, or to lay a caressing finger upon the radiant head of Irene. Every morning he peeped into their windows, and sent his flies to wake them: and every evening he hung his richest clouds around the walkers on the beach. But he knew well enough that the belle of a New England out-ofdoors cannot be imprisoned in a cartede-visite.

Goddesses are not happy without worshippers. The young men who came to Tempe were welcomed. Gloved heavenly bodies in white suffered themselves to waltz with ungloved terrestrial bodies in pepper-and-salt. Diana, unable to take Endymion to Heaven, came down to earth. Some wondered that Indolence permitted the German ; but it was soon apparent that, however active the body might be, the soul slumbered. Such flirtations as occurred would not have aroused the lightest sleeper. Cupid’s arrows were pointless, his eyes were fully open, and his wings had been clipped. Those who would have applied to Tempe the notions of a world in which marrying and giving in marriage play an important part were gradually cured of their delusion. They were quartered by themselves ; were permitted to see the ladies only at stated hours ; were drugged by the air and sea, encouraged to drug themselves, and cajoled into liking each other’s talk. They soon ceased to dream of carrying hearts by a coup de main, and conducted the siege with Chinese patience.

The ladies could now safely accept their escort for excursions beyond the frontiers. Indolence knows well enough that his greatest foe is curiosity, and that prohibition incites curiosity. Locksmiths create the love which laughs at them. Had Rasselas been free to leave the Happy Valley, he might have chosen to stay there. Had the vicinage been as uninviting as that of Tempe, his excursions would have been few. Toward the northern end of the beach the air is cooler than in the heart of Eden ; the sand sinks beneath the feet; and the moon retires early for the night, carrying her silver with her. Clambering over the rocky promontory which shuts Tempe from the world, the hardy explorer comes upon the Sea House, a huge pine building, squarely standing up against the blast. Entering, he finds himself in the peopled solitude of a fashionable hotel. He sees the great hall, shut in by whitewashed walls, and supported by slender whitewashed pillars ; an open safe behind the bustling clerk ; before him a newly arrived guest writing his name in a big folio, and a stranger reading it over his shoulder; in the middle distance, three whirling couples with sedate faces, surrounded by grave men and women in arm-chairs ; in the background, under the stairs, the band, in linen dusters and felt hats, who probably combine the utile of waiting at table with the dulce of blowing through brass, but who have the air of wandering minstrels. This is what "The Bosville Mail” called The Great Hop at the Sea House.

Beyond the promontory to the south the air is almost as soft as in Tempe itself, and the waves break almost as gently; but a cheap caravansary has been erected for the accommodation of man and beast. The landlord tried to tempt his guests into the hall on the second floor, which he called the bowdah; but they left its bay-window in possession of giggling chambermaids and shouting boys, preferring to seat themselves in the parlors on the ground floor, which did not command a view of the sea, but were dark with crimson curtains, and old with the cracked voice of a piano.

These are no resorts for denizens of Tempe. Thankful that we are not as these men and women are, we hasten back to our own sea-scented beach. Two by two, each couple out of earshot of every other, — less because there are confidences to exchange than for the sentiment of a tête-à-tête, — we pace the shore. There is no sparkling dialogue ; there are few even of those pretty phrases which float, like gold-fish, in the garden pond of society. Varieties of character disappear in the sleepy air. Sleep itself is less delicious than the sensation of luxurious repose experienced there, as the far niente of Italy is inferior to the kief of Asia Minor, of which, says a recent Oriental traveller, “Il n’est que l’ombre. Il ne suffit pas de ne point agir, il faut être pénétré du sentiment de son inaction ; c’est quelque chose d’élyséen, comme la sérénité des âmes bienheureuses; c’est le bonheur de se sentir ne rien faire, je dirais presque de se sentir ne pas être.”

We had a morning kief also; for among the soporific influences of this “ pleasing land of drowsyhed,” salt water was next to August air. Dressingrooms were small; the walk into the water under a glaring sun was a long one; the company was mixed; hair got wet, in spite of the oil-silk cap, and feet were bruised, in spite of slippers. If, however, all the inhabitants of Tempe had bathed at eleven o’clock, as most did, the valley would have been wrapped in sleep for several hours of the day. But Israel had never “hearn tell o’ sech a thing”; “’t warn’t hulsome ” ; he “ would n’t do it no how, the Boston folks might like it or lump it.” Israel had to get dinner ready, and dinner he would have as early as half past twelve. Indolence yielded, and the ladies postponed their nap till afternoon. Emboldened by the success of the aborigines, certain persons disregarded the wishes of their host. One pretended that she had not the requisite strength for a cold seabath ; one — he only of the eight clergymen who officiated at the Castle — wrote a sermon during bathing-hours ; a school-girl kept a diary for three days, writing in it while her companions were taking their post-meridian nap; and Lillian, in some freak, entered into a special agreement, to the effect that Indolence, party of the first part, would excuse her from bathing, on condition that she, party of the second part, would regularly walk to and from the beach at the same hours with the bathers, and under the escort of Alfonsus. It was not expressed in the instrument, but it was tacitly understood, that the talk of Alfonsus would put Lillian to sleep; and so it proved.

Yet Lillian was the liveliest lady of the court. She was doubtless born in the country, was a chubby-cheeked child, with the complexion of the blue pearmain, with a loud laugh, a quick walk, and manners almost hoydenish. At eighteen she was still considered too demonstrative by those ladies whose decorous souls never take off their corsets. But if there was an occasional overflow of the banks of conventional propriety, if the surface was sometimes agitated, powerful currents were also to be found in Lillian’s life and quiet depths. Lillian had purposes and principles. She was studying the men she chattered with. She could never be induced to enter the grounds of sentiment, where the looting is uncertain. She refused to dance round dances. She held out against Indolence longer than others, partly in consequence of her buoyant temperament, and partly because she was lodged in a remote wing of the Castle.

Who could still the cuckoo in this clock, if not Alfonsus? Alfonsus is called “a cultivated man.” He has forced his intellect to bear crops of the same kind year after year, until the soil is nearly exhausted. The springs of his affections have dried up in the parched air of libraries. He has never put himself, as Burns said he used to do when he would write his best, “ upon the regimen of a fine woman.” He appears in evening dress, like a pinioned malefactor. Dancing he affects to despise because he has never mastered the German ; an elegant toilet, because he cannot tie his cravat; and scenery, because he cannot see it, being short-sighted. He is much given to criticism, and silences the light-armed wits of younger men with his loudvoiced, if not well-shotted guns. The pleasures of the pipe and social glass are unknown to him. Prematurely old, he has a stoop to his shoulders ; wrinkles about his eyes, like the tracks of beach-birds near the mouth of our creek ; and a beard trimmed but little oftener than those worn by the saints of the Dark Ages, who were made out of such blocks as he.

Lillian had never seen Alfonsus before, and did n’t know what to make of him. But she frisked about as usual; she rang her merriest laugh ; she prattled with uncommon vivacity : she might as well have blown a penny whistle in his ear. But, in an unlucky moment, she alluded to her classes in history and metaphysics. The remark knocking away at a blow every shore, Alfonsus was launched. Lillian, who, though a good scholar enough, had been secretly rejoicing all summer that there would be no more classes till November, felt a fatal stress upon the cable by which she had attached her active little wherry of a mind to the big junk of Alfonsus. Before they had been long at sea, her eyes began to close. But she managed to keep them politely ajar until she could smile good morning upon Alfonsus at the portals of the Castle. After trying the experiment several days, and finding it impossible to be released from her agreement, she resumed sea-bathing with the rest of the world.

The ocean served the aborigines for a fish-pond, and the guests at the Castle for a bath-tub. Indolence forbade boating as risky, and excursions into the forest as tiresome. Worsted-work and embroidery were rarely attempted, and knitting was left to the children of Israel. A novel was sometimes read aloud, but she, most excited by the Prothalamion, was sure to be napping when the Epithalamium was reached. Nobody but Julia, the bas bleu of the circle, who made way with a hundred pages of Macaulay in the course of the summer, tried reading to herself. Games of every description were common, except chess, whist, and twenty questions. Amanda and Stephen met each other at backgammon every morning, but be looked less at the board than at a stray lock which would blow into the bright eyes of his antagonist. One moonless evening, several tables of commerce were formed, which were enlivened by brisk Betsy Baker, whose famous theatricals ended the season. Another evening, the stormiest of the summer, the Princess Sunbeam Scheherazade — a Yankee graft upon an East Indian stock —told the old story of a haunted house, — of clanking chains upon the stairs ; of a step growing louder and louder ; of a bony hand at the bedside, and an imperious gesture ; of following a skeleton to the cellar ; of digging there next day down to a strong-box, which contained a few tarnished gold coins, and what was once a woman’s miniature; of a second visit from the skeleton, a second midnight walk, a second digging ; of the exhumation of a parcel of bones ; of their removal to a consecrated place of sepulture ; and of the peace that fell upon the mansion thereafter, disturbed only by a parting call from the grateful ghost. As the princess finished her tale, the astral lamp was brought in. It showed William and Mary upon the floor, at the princess’s feet, where they had been playing at jack-stones when the day fell and the story began ; Julia at the table, with one finger in Macaulay; Amanda and Stephen upon the sofa, a little nearer each other than when last seen ; and Aurelia in tears.

The others laughed at Aurelia, who was half provoked with herself. But it was this capacity for emotion which constituted Aurelia’s charm. Some Admirers called her “ the goddess,” from the spark of immortal fire at her heart; but they had often to regret the pains she was at to conceal it. For, by virtue of being a woman, Aurelia was two women in one. Fret as she might at conventional rules, she obeyed them. Albeit that she was a dissenter, she interested the Vicar of Wakefield in her spiritual welfare. She convinced Miriam that she was a good cook ; pleased Alfonsus by her deference to his judgment of poetry, and won Stephen from Amanda in the first engagement. She was queen of all she croqueted, both when she took a mallet, and when she attracted Martin to the seat beneath the tree that shades the middle wicket.

Martin measured the world with the foot-rule of Le Sack. When that Papanti of Queen Anne’s reign heard that Harley had been made prime minister, and Earl of Oxford, he was thunderstruck. “ Why,” said he, “ I could never make anything out of him ! ” No belle at the Castle but was proud to be led out by Martin in the German, of which he was the sine quo non. And when Day came from Boston to play for us, it was Day and Martin who gave a brilliant polish to the evening.

In some quarters, Martin was deemed a reprehensible person. One mamma declared that she never would let her daughter dance with such a man ; but she was convinced by Aurelia’s observation that “ no one person can remodel the universe.” There is no royal road to matrimony, and the bypaths are unsafe. Society stakes out the highway for marriageable daughters, — society, which regards conduct or character much less than manners and those minor morals that affect manners, and which sets aside its own regulations in favor of a first-rate dancer. Landor declared, according to Emerson, that nothing had stood more in his way in life than the not being a good dancer. Martin exemplified the converse proposition, that to a good dancer all things are possible,—a proposition nowhere more free from exception than in America. The fashionable society of New York is composed of young people from seventeen to twenty-two years of age. who come together to eat, drink, and dance. In which of our cities is more honor paid to a good head or a sound heart than to the agile toe? What a thrill the announcement that Mr. Robert Paris, just arrived, was the best dancer of New York, sent through Tempe! How the whisper ran from veranda to veranda ! And how great was the disappointment when it turned out that he was only one of the best, and that he didn’t know “the Boston step ” !