Sylvan Station

I HAVE been reflecting upon the wonderful spectroscope, and wishing it could be applied to human beings. How intensely interesting our commonest neighbor might suddenly become, some bright new apparition irradiating our vision, as the test was applied ! Every substance in nature giving out, in suitable circumstances, a peculiar characteristic light, how can we doubt that there is in every human being something altogether its own, if it could only be exhumed from the conventionalities that overlie it, and could be induced to reveal itself?

Accident lately disclosed veins of gold and silver where I had all my life been in the habit of searching for the earliest hepaticas, without once dreaming that there was any other reason for digging among the dead leaves than to have the honor of discovering them.

The year I spent at Sylvan Station seemed to me rich in the material for thought that lies in common things and humble people. We had been living for twenty years in California, at a place called the “ Encinal,” or Oak Grove, of Alameda. We thought it a curious coincidence that directed us to another oak grove in Massachusetts. We had no idea that within five miles of Boston could still be found a place of so much wild, natural beauty. We welcomed with delight the oaks and the pines. “ For him who endures the pine grows green and flourishes,” and so with the oak (robur, the strong tree). We felt at once invigorated by their presence, and in a fair way to recover the lost health of which we were in search.

After so many years without seeing a snowflake, it was like living in a wonderful new world to wake, on the second morning after our arrival, and look upon the white earth. The first great fall of snow was in perfect silence. All landmarks were obliterated, and we took a new start in life on a pure white plain. It was amusing to see each man’s estimate of his duty depicted upon it, in the way of shoveling. Our pioneer neighbor in the rear made a deep cut that passed five or six houses, and reached the main street ; our timid neighbor on the other side dug merely a footpath to his own door. Later in the day, the little bride opposite came out in slippers and a white cloud, looking like a pretty snow wraith, and flourished her broom about, to clear the steps and welcome her husband home. The station-master made little diverging paths in all directions, to accommodate the world and facilitate travel.

This station-master, unpretending as he was, really did a great deal to give its character to the place. Sometimes, at the railroad offices, I have wondered if it would not be just as well to have some machinery arranged, by which one could pass in money and take out a ticket, so perfectly automatic has the railroad official become. To see this you have only to ask some question a little out of the ordinary routine, which it is not perhaps exactly his business to answer, but which it concerns you very much to know. To him travelers are evidently mere moving masses. This man, however, appeared to entertain the idea that into everything which a human being does some human element should enter. His little rough building he made as comfortable as possible, out of pure good will toward the whole human race, and evidently considered every man that waited for a train there as his guest. In summer, he twined scarlet beans and morning-glories over it, and set his old cane-seat rockingchairs invitingly outside. In winter, he drew them round a bright fire, and dressed the walls with hemlock.

One day, as I waited, I saw a dirt-car stop and deposit about twenty cans, containing the dinners of some laborers employed on the road. Any one who had no particular interest in the men might easily have omitted to take any notice of the fact ; but it at once occurred to him that it was pleasant to any man to have his coffee hot, and to find a comfortable place in which to take it; so he hastily carried in all the cans, and placed them round the fire ; and then, with much appearance of kindliness, as if some choice visitors were at hand, he began to brush up a little, and sweep the floor. I reproved myself inwardly, feeling certain that if I had been in his place I should only have thought of sweeping it after, and not before, such guests. Presently a gang of men came along, — rough, grimy - looking fellows. They stood staring about, in a stupid, uncertain way, till he called out in a cheery voice, “Walk in, gentlemen, and help yourselves.” It must have been the only time in their lives that they had been called “ gentlemen.” I felt as if it might alter their ideals for life.

Besides making his house as agreeable as possible, he had a cordial, unconscious way of offering himself, too, for the entertainment of his guests. I heard him, one day, consulting the assembled company as to what would be a suitable Christmas present for him to give a friend; saying that he wanted to give something lasting, and had thought of poetry.

Thoreau might have had such a man as this in mind, when he said, “ Here comes such a subtile and ineffable quality, for instance, as truth, or justice, though the slightest amount, or new variety of it, along the road. It takes the stiffness out of our joints, and makes us supple and buoyant, when we knew not what ailed us, to recognize any generosity in man or nature.” And again, when he speaks of the man in his neighborhood, “ who lived in a hollow tree, with manners truly regal.”

I observed that the station-master always waved his hand, in greeting, to the engineer of the passing train. Most men would have thought they had enough to do to open and shut the heavy gates, but these little courtesies never seemed to make his work any harder. I inclined to suspect, even, that they made it easier, so joyous was his ordinary mood. To manifest a little good will toward everybody that chanced to come in his way was as natural to him as it is for the sun to shine. Nor were his sympathies confined to human beings, as I happened to learn by calling one day at the door of his dwelling-house, adjoining the station. I saw his old mother, whom he had just brought down from New Hampshire to make him a visit. Beside her purred her big cat. “ Mother would n't have built up any,” he remarked, “ if I had brought her down, and left Jerry.”

I noticed at the window what seemed a little tropical forest, such a rich, strong growth of green, with the sunbeams striking through it. It was a club-moss he had brought from the woods, which throve so luxuriantly in his hands. A neighbor who stood by remarked to me, with a mysterious look, “ Some folks can’t do nothing with plants.” I thought of Emerson’s lines, “One man can bid our bread feed and our fire warm us.” To a mere moss a touch may be sunshine or frost.

Having very little human society, we naturally took a lively interest in our fellow passengers in the horse-cars, especially in the children. It was, sometimes, the event of the day merely to sit beside one of these little creatures, fresh from heaven. We had only one child near us, — little Scotch Maggie. One day, in the midst of the great snows, we saw a small white coffin carried from Maggie’s door. It was a bright, still day, and there was no visible mourning among the few people who followed. As quietly as the blossoms drop from the trees, the baby was borne to its rest. Maggie had told us with great delight of the birth of the baby, and I wanted to know how its death seemed to her. Seeing her again, I inquired for the little brother. She said, “ It has gone far off from us.” I began to express some sorrow ; but she replied, very quietly, “ We did not want it any more.” I asked, “ Who takes care of it now ? ” “ Its mother,” she said. “ And who takes care of you?” “My mother,” — showing that she thought they had both the same care, although from different hands. The perfect assurance with which she spoke reminded me of what I had heard of the Chinese — how on special occasions they listen to the prattle of children, and try to divine it, as inspired language.

Maggie was three years old, and always ready with an answer to every question asked. One day, when she came to see us, a little girl present repeated a Swedish poem. Maggie was astounded. I asked her if she could recite a little verse, knowing very well that none had ever been taught her. Being taken by surprise, she said “ No ; ” but presently, with a cunning little smile rippling all over her face, she improvised one, exclaiming, with an upward-springing motion, “ Up comes the summer day! ” and then, again and again, with the same merry little laugh of satisfaction with herself, “ Up comes the summer day ! ” It seemed like the uplifting of flowers from the earth.

Being at last fairly established, we found it impossible to postpone any longer what, we feared, would prove a most difficult and disagreeable undertaking, — finding a suitable domestic. We had been long absent from the East, employing only Chinese, and in the mean time we had heard desperate accounts of how this family and that had been obliged to resort to boarding, for no other reason than just because it proved so utterly impossible to find suitable servants. We were told that no girl was willing to live in the country in winter; and that, if any one was ever so fortunate as to find a girl who understood her work, she placed such an extravagant estimate on herself, on that account, and made such exorbitant demands, that it was impossible to tolerate her; that the old-fashioned servant, who expected to take an interest in the affairs of her employers, had passed entirely off the stage ; that it was a question now only of work on one side, and wages on the other. One of our friends gave us, as the result of her experience, the opinion that it was best to look for as neutral a character as possible. Anything positive, she said, was an objection. Peculiarities were apt to clash; and as we only wanted her to do the work, the more she resembled a machine the better. I only wish she could have seen Sanna, and felt the grasp of her hand, as she held it out to me in greeting.

We found her at an employment office, just arrived from Sweden. As I noticed her sunny hair and blue eyes and strong, free step, I thought of what some one said of Jenny Lind : that she ought to have been called the Swedish Lioness, rather than the Swedish Nightingale, from the freedom and strength of her bearing. Not able to speak a word of English, she sat looking at me with such confident blue eyes that no one could feel otherwise than kindly towards her, when the world seemed to her such a fair, honest place.

She held out a little hook, printed in Swedish and English, by which we were to converse together. I looked it over, and saw that it contained directions, given to servants in their own country, by which they were to conduct themselves. Among other things, they were told to “ step softly, move lightly, and desire nothing.”

After I came to know more of her intensely social nature, I often wondered how she survived the first few weeks, when we never attempted anything more in the way of conversation than “ cup,” “ plate,” etc. At length, in an outburst of desperation, she exclaimed, “ I want to talk ! ” So did we, but the difficulty was how to begin. She solved it herself by asking if we knew George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. We, in return, asked if she knew Linnæus and Swedenborg, to both of which questions she replied in the affirmative, and also recognized, with delight, a picture of Luther. After this, conversation became easy ; she was so very apt and eager. She was soon able to give a little account of her voyage: telling us how she, with a hundred other girls, came as steerage passengers, on a great steamer; and how, in leaving, they sang together the Fatherland Song; and how the passengers on the upper deck all clapped their hands, as well they might if the other voices were like hers. They had great luncheon baskets ; but she lost hers overboard, in a storm, and also her hat. “ Now I must every day say to some one, ‘ Please give me a little bread.’ ” In the storm she thought, “ By and by I dead.” It is wonderful, the courage of these girls, starting alone for an unknown world. Some of her friends in Sweden, she said, thought that to come to America they would have to travel through the earth. But she had been taught otherwise at school ; taught also to knit, embroider, crochet, and make baskets. The dress she had on she had not only fitted for herself, but had made the woolen cloth for it, and had woven her plaid shawl. She wore generally, on her head, a little black shawl. One day she said to me, touching it, “ Every Woman in Sweden all the same.”

She readily understood that we enjoyed hearing about her country, as she took so much interest herself in learning everything possible. She soon began to tell us about the Lapps, as the most curious little people in the world; very short, but wearing tall, pointed hoods, made of reindeer skin. She always talked with great enthusiasm about the “ rein,” as she called the reindeer : said that if a man had a thousand rein he was rich ; that the Lapps traveled about all the time, only lassoing some rein and traveling on to find moss for them, the rein furnishing them with all their food. When they went to church they left their babies outside in little holes in the snow, sewed up in skins. They themselves wore one garment of skin. Swedish babies had a little knit garment, that covered them all over, arms, legs, and feet. Lapp babies were always cold, and the Lapps were very, very poor. I asked, “ Why not come to Boston ? ” She answered, “ Oh, Lapp say Lapland good.” She mocked their funny ways of talking, in monosyllables. They could not open their mouths, she said ; it was so cold. She used to mock, too, the peasants’ walk, — stiff, ungainly strides; crouching as they went along, because it was so cold. It was very different from reading these things in the geography to hear them from one who had actually seen them, and touched the little cold Lapp babies.

Her inseparable and most congenial companion was Blanche, the little white kitten, who followed her out into the yard, as she hung out the clothes, and chased the dried oak leaves over the frozen crust; springing at them, and whirling round and round; sometimes, in her eagerness, leaping at nothing; selecting some little spot, and pouncing again and again upon it, evidently play, ing there was something there. She scrambled up into the little oak bushes, and peered out at us, with a wild light in her eyes, and often persistently refused to come into the house even after a snow-storm had begun. How demoralized and effeminate seemed the life of an ordinary cat, curled up beside the fire, after seeing one in which the aboriginal instincts had revived ! I always attributed it to Sanna’s influence; it had such an animating effect upon us all.

The amount of her general knowledge continually surprised us. It showed how much any one might learn who had a desire, only, without much opportunity. She inquired eagerly about the progress of Nordenskjöld, the Swedish Arctic explorer, and spoke of the four Swedish poets-laureate, of whom two, Björnson and Junson, have been in this country.

One day she made a droll mistake. By misunderstanding a word, she thought she heard the master of the house spoken of as a poet. She exclaimed with rapture to the little daughter, “ Oh, Margie, is’t you not happy, have poet-parents ? I always thought you mamma was poet.” This idealizing of me into a poet quite overcame me. I had been such a severe task-mistress to her, and, owing to the inevitable want of understanding between us, I felt that I had often spoken to her in ways quite incompatible with the idea of my being a poet. But she had a good broad way of looking at things, and passed by much that was disagreeable.

Sometimes she sang the watchman’s song : —

“ Klocken a slfra slagen !
Vinclen aȓ ost.
För svaȓd ock brand,
För tjufrar’s hand,
Gud bevare vaȓt Sverige, vaȓt land! ”
“ The clock strikes eleven !
The wind is east.
From sword and brand,
From hostile hand,
God keep our Sweden’s land.”

How primitive it seemed, watching over these people in their sleep, and telling them the way of the wind! If it had been in California, they would have wanted to know, instead, how stocks were.

She always spoke with so much enthusiasm about Sweden that we asked her once why it was so beautiful. She said,

“ Because it is so wild.” I thought that she was more contented for the little Scandinavian landscape she could see from her attic window. It was the edge of the Middlesex Fells. There were great wastes of snow, with ledges of dark rock and pine-trees. On one of the heights was a red-roofed tower, and she could hear, in the distance, the sound of a waterfall.

In thinking about her it occurred to me that the contrast between the really rich and the really poor is more a difference in enthusiasm than in anything else. Some people are so much more conscious than others that the whole world is open to them. When her work was done, she always sat down to sing. As I listened to her, I said to myself,

“ Can it be this beautiful bird I have been ordering about all day, employing in such drudgery ? ” A voice so light and soaring I had never heard. Her consciousness of the possibilities this fine voice might open to her finally took her from us.

We comforted ourselves with thinking that we would try to find some one else as much like her as possible. But, as it proved, no contrast could be greater than that between our lively Sanna and the demure little Feina, who took her place. She was a stunted-looking girl, with a plain face and undemonstrative nature, — one of those phenomenal beings, as we presently discovered, who never talk, except from necessity, and who have no desire to express themselves in any way. I was just about to decline taking her, when it was as if I caught a glimpse of her inmost nature, and became conscious of something rare and beautiful in her. Without making any of the disparaging remarks I had intended, I simply accepted her. She made a little courtesy, and said, “ Tank,” which she always thenceforward repeated whenever anything was done for her.

Her clothes were coarse and poor, but my eye was caught by a silken tie on her neck, of a most rare and beautiful shade. It struck me, afterward, that it represented something in her entirely unconnected with her menial condition, and unsoiled by it. I saw, one day, her representative in the blue succory, on the edge of the sidewalk: like her, fitted by nature for hard conditions, with coarse leaves touching the earth, companion to the pig-weed and the burdock ; with clouds of dust continually sweeping over it, but with heaven’s own blue, undimmed, on its soft fringed petals.

Her charm was in her perfect, uniform gentleness. Day after day, as I watched her going through the same monotonous routine, it seemed to me that she was as patient as the sky or the earth. I could explain her to myself only by thinking of the long line of peasant ancestors, who had transmitted content to her, and made her so strong in her simple virtues. I felt that a little bit of heaven was mirrored in every one of her unvarying, uneventful days.

We had found such infinite variety in the snow, tossed by the wind and wreathed about our dwelling, soft and still, with pale blue shadows, or sparkling with infinitesimal stars, that we were really sorry to part with it; but as spring drew near, we began to feel the thrill of delight that runs through all nature. Year after year, with the same old dusky evergreens about us, we had longed for the beautiful outburst of leaves and blossoms. Only those who have been long separated from it can conceive the strength of desire, which year adds to year, to see it again. When our hope was just on the verge of fulfillment, a fire swept through the woods ; great tongues of flame appeared to lick up and destroy everything in fierce delight. We thought every germ of life must perish; but how little we knew of the exuberance of Nature! Out of the charred and devastated earth she brought richer beauty ; the wild-grape leaves had a deeper tinge of pink and a more beautiful gloss. Everywhere was the same abundance, the same lavish grace. How fascinating it was to watch the little hooded ferns uncurl, and the opening of the leaves; to see the exquisite care with which they had all been folded and packed in their coverings ! What a tender touch showed itself everywhere ! Under the pinetree, I saw the little white heads of the Indian pipe thrusting themselves up through the dead leaves. I drew one up. What a curious little flower ! It apparently had neither root nor branches, — a mere little flower, as if the ground itself were blossoming. I thought of a young man, in the last stages of consumption, whom we had noticed on our journey. We heard him telling a friend that he had been advised to go into the country. “ But then the country is so lonesome,” he said. What a pity that one so soon to sleep in her bosom should know so little of the motherliness of the earth!

Through the meadow near us crept a little sluggish stream. Every day in summer was a high festival there. The air was full of fragrance, and sweet with sounds of insect and bird. The banks were solid walls of flowers ; swift-glancing dragon-flies hovering over the water, glittering beetles circling in mystic dance on its surface, butterflies softly opening and closing their wings of velvet and gold, little birds rocking lightly to and fro on the branches, — every living creature overflowing with unmistakable delight.

Sometimes thoughts came into my mind, on that sunny meadow, that seemed to belong there only by contrast. What place had the discords of human life in that world of pure love and joy ? I remembered a funeral that I had once attended in California, where I felt so deeply the wretchedness of shams and pretense. It was all the more painful that it was on so humble a scale; there must have been such sacrifices made all along to keep up appearances. It was of a woman, who had kept a little fancy store and died gradually of consumption. As I looked at her, in her coffin, I felt that her whole nature had been slowly starved out. She lay in state, in a hall, her husband belonging to some association that owned it, and this was supposed to give a kind of dignity to her funeral; but the image of starvation was so impressed upon her that the majesty and peace of death, which I had never before seen wholly wanting on the face of any dead person, did not appear at all. A cheap undertaker had dressed her with artificial flowers. Her husband was a lame man. At a signal from the undertaker he limped forward, to take leave of her, as part of the ceremony. He touched his lips lightly to hers, and stepped aside. I noticed the flash of a false diamond on his bosom, and wondered if it represented what he had within. After all was over, he turned to a friend, and asked if he thought due honor had been done his wife, and remarked that his son had won a bet at a gaming-table ; and that was the last news they had told her, though it was something, he said, she never seemed much pleased to hear.

I felt as if I could not let this woman be buried, at least I could not bury the thought of her, until I had extorted for myself some comfort in regard to her. I was confident that somewhere, in the deepest recesses of her being, known perhaps only to God and her, was something true; but I should have felt more sure of it, and that she had had something of her share of the joy of life, if she had only lived in the country. The city is so hard in every way upon the poor, so soul-destroying. The country is kind to all. I think no one can ever be wholly insensible to its sweet influences. Everything that is real is wholesome, bitter or sweet; but the desire to appear what we are not is a worm that gnaws at the heart of things. How genuine all things seem in our out-door life! I lay my head upon the earth, and feel that I am not expected to be anything but what is natural to me. It suits the customs of society better that every one should wear a mask: but the sturdy pitch-pine is not trying to turn into a white-pine, though the white-pine is a more elegant tree ; it is a stout pitchpine, full of lusty health. It is so comfortable to be what one was made to be, and everything becomes so easy if one is only so fortunate as to slip into the right place.

Sometimes we climbed to the top of an immense rock that overlooked the trees. We could never be tired of watching them swaying in the wind, so slender and graceful, and yet so strong. How far from all care and trouble that rock seemed, an island in the green sea ! One day, as I lay on the top of it, a bird flew close above me. He sang a few notes, as he passed, as if he would like to speak to me, if I could only understand. On the ledges about us grew the pretty rock fern. Here and there one sat, like a little householder, at the door of a tiny cavern. Each likes to have a house of its own, and a little roof over it; then it shows its satisfaction by growing in perfect and beautiful whorls, otherwise sending up only a few ragged shoots.

We could hardly look in any direction without seeing something from which it was hard to turn away our eyes. The rock upon which we sat, when broken into fragments, revealed beautiful little landscapes painted upon it. The vegetation was fern-like ; sometimes defined with the utmost distinctness, then veiled in purple mist. The backgrounds were of rich Egyptian colors, orange and brown; occasionally of a cold, hard gray, looking like a frozen region, — a fine feathery vegetation, growing up closely together like little forests ; or perhaps in tufts, crowning rocky heights, or drooping over them. It was like the frostwork on the windows, with the addition of the coloring. We took some pieces of it to a mineralogist, to inquire about it. He said the impressions were made by infiltrations of water, containing oxide of iron and manganese; but what disposed it to assume those beautiful forms he could not tell.

After the height of the season was over, we saw with pleasure that the few bright stragglers left appeared to take some notice of us, as if their curiosity was at length awakened to know who we were, and why we were stopping there. Perhaps the slight chill in the air, or the little barren look that began to appear, woke up some social feeling in them, as it is so apt to do in us. The dragon-fly, in July far too airy and fleet for us to approach him, in September settled down upon us as readily as upon the asters or golden-rod. We tried to make acquaintance with our tiny neighbors, and soon became convinced that the definition of instinct which we had learned in our school-books (the knowledge of a few unvarying facts, impressed upon creatures at birth) was an error. As soon as we begin to observe even insects we see that they meet emergencies in ways that show individual peculiarities and character. as the caterpillar we brought home to watch through the chrysalis stage,—one of the kind called “ wooly bears,”large, strong, and shaggy, — who, instead of coiling himself up quietly, after a little languid exploration, as all our others had done, made a determined resistance to confinement, and rushed constantly to and fro with a furious air; a miniature wild beast, searching in all directions for a possibility of outlet. We e had put a glass over him, on the side of which the former occupant had made a cocoon, securely fastened, half-way up, with myriad silken threads. After spending all day, and as far as we could tell all night, in frantic efforts that were not visibly connected with any plan, all at once it became evident that an idea had popped into his little horny head. His whole manner changed, and he set about his work with the calm energy of one who knows what he is doing. It had occurred to him that the door of his prison, which for thirtysix hours he had constantly sought, was obstructed by the cocoon. He knew now what was to be done, though not yet how to do it. He nudged and thrust at the cocoon, but for a long time it held firm ; finally, he hooked the end of his body round it, and with a great jerk he and the cocoon came down together. I could not face his despair when he saw that it was all in vain ; that the prison absolutely had no door. I released this energetic little lover of freedom, though I lost the chance of seeing what a fine creature he might some day have become, when his wanderings were all ended.

What we called our summer sittingroom had been formerly the bed of a swamp. As autumn drew near, we moved to our upland parlor, with its russet carpet of dried pine. There we sat and listened to the soft rising and falling of the wind, and watched the glistening films of light that floated in the air and rested on the grass and the bushes. The sumach hung out her crimson streamers, and the poplar dropped little showers of gold. Here and there a single branch of maple flamed in the sunlight, while the hills, covered with oaks, were slowly deepening and brightening in color. I used to think of the maple as the glory of the autumn woods, but here there were hardly any maples, and it seemed as if the whole depth and richness of the forest lay in the oaks, here blended and there contrasted with the dark green of the pines. Every little weed about our feet was in festive array, tipped and spotted with red. It was like the red Tamáhnous we saw among the Indians, when every one was freshly painted and wrapped in a bright blanket, to celebrate the Feast of Love.

There were dark, still places in the woods into which the full daylight never entered. One day I sat down to rest in one. There was neither sound nor sunbeam, — absolute quiet everywhere. A faint green light appeared to come from the trees. There was an infinite depth of rest there, and I did not feel as if I were alone, although I saw no one. What is it in these beautiful, solitary places that seems so near to us? I cannot tell how there gradually stole upon me such a satisfying assurance of good will from some deep, secret source ; but somehow, in the silence, I became conscious of it. All about the human world, so chaotic and incomprehensible, lies the world of nature, strong, serene, beautiful, and harmonious, still rejoicing, undisturbed by our disasters, as if knowing them to be ephemeral and unreal.

Caroline E. Leighton.