A Problem in the Ethics of Childhood

— I have read many accounts of Lucullian banquets, and have partaken of some Barmecide feasts, but nothing in the realm of gastronomic fact or fiction, in the long retrospect since my childhood, has ever approached in sumptuousness or artistic display the repasts afforded on the Boston boats in the days of the old Massachusetts. Even the ill-conditioned British tourist, traveling with the discontent of a permanent stomach-ache, was mitigated into human flesh at the sight of these extravagant banquets. Perhaps these appeared greater to us then because Delmonico’s was not, except as a remote corner in Bowling Green, much affected by foreign voluptuaries.

Some lady from abroad, who was at that time condescendingly sojourning among us, — some lady of the Madam Trollope order, — actually withheld the sickle of her satire on contemplating these triumphs of the cuisine ; regarding them as the one thing in all this weary land of social blunders and misgovernmeut which she found it in heart or stomach to praise. Her laudations ran as follows : —

“ We entered a saloon known as the ‘ gentlemen’s cabin.’ Tasteful curtains drawn across the berths served as a festooning of the walls on either side of the pretty oval saloon. On the table, surmounted by the whitest of damask, there was spread a meal at once the most picturesque and incomprehensible. Amid abundance of flowers — for the season was summer — there nestled fruits of both tropic and temperate zones: crimson pyramids of raspberries, pineapples garlanded with peach leaves, with various novelties of miniature architectural display. At the tinkling of a fairy bell, the Arab guard, which had stood at respectful attention, — that is to say, the negro waiters, in snowy jackets and aprons, — advanced as soon as the guests were seated. In a trice the pineapples became butter ; the other tropic fruits took on the forms of domestic viands; the dark pyramids became honed turkey ; the white marble slabs, when tested, resulted in ice cream ; and not until hunger had reduced this fairy scene to a chaos did we realize how the thing was done.”

I was a child when I heard this enthusiastic description, but even now it seems scarcely overdrawn. Great was my delight, then, when, one fine June afternoon, I set sail for Boston, by the old Providence line, in the company of some members of the W— and L— families. Of course, at that tender age, and being, moreover, endowed with a goodly bump of what phrenologists in those days called causality (and my critics have since termed curiosity), I began to make inquiries as to the ways and means, the why and the wherefore, of the various novel sights around me. Among the many blessings granted to childhood there is probably none more conspicuous than its relish of the present. The future is more than vague ; it is not even beset with misgiving ; it scarcely exists ; and as to the past, I fear it teaches no lesson, not even the much-needed one of prudence. We try to include all life’s history within the limits of the present day. And so I turned thoughtfully to the youngest member of the W— family, an intellectual young man of twenty-nine, who wore spectacles, and was deemed the family encyclop&E230;dia.

“ We are out at sea, uncle Thomas, are n’t we ? ”

“ Yes,” said this reverenced authority, “ out of sight of land.”

He whispered airily to one of the ladies of the party, “ It’s dark, you know ! ” — an explanation at which I was justly indignant.

“ Well, then,” I pursued, “where did these strawberries come from, if we are out at sea ? ”

“ Why, don’t you know,” said uncle Thomas, gathering himself for a mot at my expense, “ strawberries grow on the rocks out at sea ? ” As I looked puzzled, he added, “ Not where you come from ; but in our favored laud all things are possible, and the finest kinds of strawberries are raised on the New England reefs, and watered by the sea.”

He said this with such gravity that I had no alternative but to accept his dictum or believe him capable of base perjury, which, from his social connections, I hesitated to do. There ensued some small remonstrance on the part of the ladies of the L— family, and I noticed tokens of a wordy scuffle, in which ray misinformant appeared to be roughly handled. But no adequate solution of the berry problem having presented itself, I was left to pursue my journey thoughtfully, and, it must be added, somewhat discontentedly.

Some seasons later, when I had attained the proud distinction of being head of my class in the Latin School, the question of likes and dislikes came under discussion among a group of boys, most of whom were loud in their praises of Thomas W—; his learning and affability having made him a great favorite with adolescents. I was asked for my opinion.

“ Upon my wrong I steadied up my soul.”

The fiction of the berries still rankled in my bosom as a masterpiece of monstrous injustice ; and while I boldly averred that the subject under criticism was “a liar,”I secretly longed for that license which enabled Pat, the coachman, to add double adjectives to such a characterization.

It is agreed that boys demand infallibility in their instructors, as well as fearless rectitude. That such could lie to him for the mere purpose of appearing “ smart before ladies ” was incomprehensible to the child of whom this history is narrated. Here was a young man whom I, previous to my fatal discovery, believed would have perished rather than tell the whitest of white lies to an adult, yet the same would juggle and mystify when dealing with a child ! Readily as we forgive any mistake which proceeds from the overrating of ourselves, we are bitterly resentful when any such error betrays the condescension of one who is underrating our perceptions.

I have observed that the young orator has the same sensitiveness to condescension from others towards himself. I have sometimes even wondered if the patriotically irate Washington was really so much hurt by the actual tax, a penny or so, set upon his tea as would appear from subsequent proceedings; and the rhetorical defiance that breathed from the nostrils of Revolutionary heroes and orators seems to have had no very substantial basis of actual wrong. But this was in the boyhood of the nation. We, as an adult people, bear grievances a thousandfold greater without one murmur.

“ A tyrant, but our tyrants then
Were still at least our countrymen.”