“ A man he seems of cheerful yesterdays
And confident to-morrows.”
WOKDSWOHTH, Excursion, Book VII.
A CAMBRIDGE BOYHOOD.
IN introducing the imaginary Chronicles of P. P. Clerk of this Parish the poet Pope remarks that any such book might well be inscribed, “ On the Importance of a Man to Himself.” Yet perhaps the first obstacle to be encountered by any autobiographer is the sudden sense of his own extreme unimportance. Does each ant in an ant-hill yearn to bequeath to the universe his personal reminiscences? When, at the dead of night, I hear my neighbors at the Harvard Observatory roll away their lofty shatters, in preparation for their accustomed tryst with the stars, it seems as if one might well be content to keep silence in the presence of the Pleiades. Yet after all, the telescope need only be reversed to make the universe appear little, and the observer large ; so that we may as well begin at the one end as at the other.
Another to attend him.”
Probably, if the truth were known, nothing in the universe is really insignificant, not even ourselves.
When I think of the vast changes which every man of my time has seen, of the men and women whom I have known, —those who have created American literature and have freed millions of slaves, — men and women whom, as the worldly-wise Lord Houghton once wrote me, “ Europe has learned to honor, and would do well to imitate,” then I feel that, whether I will or no, something worth chronicling may be included in the proposed paper. For the rest, the autobiographer has the least reason of all writers to concern himself about tlie portrayal of his own personality. He is sure to reveal it, particularly if he tries to hide it. Confucius asked, “ How can a man be concealed? ” Of all methods, certainly not by writing his reminiscences. He can escape unobserved, or else mislead observers, only by holding his tongue ; let him open his lips, and we have him as he is.
All the scenes and atmosphere of one’s native village — if one is fortunate enough to have been born in such a locality — lie around the memory like the horizon line, unreachable, impassable. Even a so-called cosmopolitan man has never seemed to me a very happy being, and a cosmopolitan child is above all things to be pitied. To be identified in early memories with some limited and therefore characteristic region, —that is happiness. No child is old enough to be a citizen of the world. What denationalized Americans hasten to stamp as provincial is for children, at least, a saving grace. You do not call a nest provincial. All this is particularly true of those marked out by temperament for a literary career. The predestined painter or musician needs an early contact with the treasures and traditions of an older world, but literature needs for its material only men, nature, and books ; and of these, the first two are everywhere, and the last are easily transportable, since you can pile the few supreme authors of the world in a little corner of the smallest log cabin. The Cambridge of my boyhood — two or three thousand people — afforded me, it now seems, all that human heart could ask for its elementary training. Those who doubt it might, perchance, have been the gainers if they had shared it. “ He despises me,” said Ben Jonson, “because I live in an alley. Tell him his soul lives in an alley.”
I was born in Cambridge on December 22, 1823, in a house built by my father at the head of what was then called Professors’ Row, and is now Kirkland Street, — the street down which the provincial troops marched to the battle of Bunker Hill, having first halted for prayer at the house once standing next to ours, — the “gambrel-roofed house ” where Dr. O. W. Holmes was born. My father’s house — nowr occupied by Mrs. J. M. Batchelder — Avas begun in 1818, when the land was bought from Harvard College, whose official he had just become. Already the Scientific School and the Hemenway Gymnasium crowd upon it, and the university will doubtless, one of these days, engulf it once more. My father came of a line of Puritan clergymen, officials, militia officers, and latterly East India merchants, all dating back to the Rev. Francis Higginson, who landed at Salem in 1629, in charge of the first large party for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and who made that historic farewell recorded by Cotton Mather, as his native shores faded away : “ We will not say, as the Separatists said, Farewell. Rome ! Farewell, Babylon ! But we will say, Farewell, dear England ! Farewell the Christian church in England, and all the Christian friends there ! ”
My father had been, like his father before him,—also named Stephen Higginson, and a member of the Continental Congress in 1783. — among the leading merchants of Boston, until Jefferson’s embargo ruined him, with many others. He had always been princely in his benefactions, and retained warm friends in his adversity, who bought for him the land where the house stood, and secured for him the position of steward of the college, the post now rechristened “ bursar,” and one in which he did, as Dr. A. P. Peabody tells us, most of the duties of treasurer. In that capacity, he planted, as I have always been told, a large part of the trees in the college yard, — nobody in Cambridge ever says “ campus,” — and had also the wisdom to hang a lamp 0Arer each entrance to the yard, although these lamps Avere soon extinguished by the economical college. He was ardently interested in the early Unitarian division, then pending, in the Congregational body ; organized the Harvard Divinity School, — not then, as now, undenominational ; and seems to have been for some years a sort of lay bishop among the Unitarian parishes, distributing young ministers to vacant. churches without fear or favor. He liked to read theology, but Avas in no respect a scholar; indeed. Dr. Peabody said that, on receiving for the institution its first supply of Hebrew Bibles, my father went to the president, Dr. Kirkland, with some indignation, saying that the books must all be returned, since the careless printer had put all the titlepages at the wrong end. In his adversity as in his wealth, he was a man of boundless and somewhat impetuous kindness, and espoused Avith such ardor the cause of Miss Hannah Adams, the historian, against her rival in history, the Rev. Dr. Morse, that be was betrayed into a share in one or two vehement pamphlets, and very nearly into a lawsuit.
He died when I was but nine years old, and my main rearing came from my mother, a person of exquisite qualities and great personal attractions, whom I have recently described elsewhere. She was the daughter of Captain Thomas Storrow, a young officer of the British army, who had been a prisoner at Portsmouth, N. H., at the close of the American Revolution, and had there wooed and won a young American maiden, a scion of the prominent Wentworth and Appleton families, and a resident in the household of the royal governor. The marriage was disapproved by both families. but was a happy one, except for Captain Storrow’s early death; and all the American family of Storrow sprung from it. My mother was adopted, when almost a child, into my father’s family, and ultimately became his second wife. He had five children by the first marriage and ten by the second, so that I had the great happiness, joined with some disadvantages, of being the youngest of a large family, and receiving the proportion of petting and teasing which that implies. There were numerous cousins in Boston and Brookline, and we had large family parties on every Thanksgiving evening; practicing for the rest of the year a good deal of wholesome economy, which was and is the fortunate privilege of a college town.
My father’s connection with the college, and the popular qualities of my mother and her maiden sister, Miss Anne G. Storrow, brought many guests to our house, including the most cultivated men in Boston and Cambridge. My earliest documentary evidence of existence on this planet is a note to my father, in Edward Everett’s exquisite handwriting, inquiring after the health of the babe, and saying that Mrs. Everett was putting up some tamarinds to accompany the note. The precise object of the tamarinds I have never clearly understood, but it is pleasant to think that I was, at the age of seven months, assisted toward maturity by this benefaction from a man so eminent. Professor Andrew Norton and George Ticknor gave their own books to my mother and aunt; and I remember Dr. J. G. Palfrey’s bringing to the house a new book, Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, and reading aloud A Rill from the Town Pump.
Once, and once only, Washington Irving came there, while visiting a nephew who had married my cousin. Margaret Fuller, a plain, precocious, overgrown girl, but already credited with unusual talents, used to visit my elder sister, and would sometimes sit on a footstool at my mother’s feet, gazing up at her in admiration. A younger sister of Professor Longfellow was a frequent guest, and the young poet himself came, in the dawning of his yet undeveloped fame. My nurse was a certain Rowena Pratt, wife of Dexter Pratt, the “ Village Blacksmith ” of Longfellow; and it is my impression that she was married from our house. It is amusing to remember that Professor Longfellow once asked me, many years after, what his hero’s name was. My special playmate, Charles Parsons, was a nephew of Dr. O. W. Holmes, who was in those years studying in Europe; and in the elder Dr. Holmes’s house Charles Parsons and I often “ tumbled about in a library,” — indeed, in the very same library where the Autocrat had himself performed the process he recommended. Under these circumstances it seems very natural that a child thus moulded should have drifted into a literary career.
The period here described was one when children were taught to read very early, and this in all parts of our country. The celebrated General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, in South Carolina, was reported by his mother in 1745 as “ beginning to spell before he is two years old ; ” but he himself said, later, of this precocious teaching that it was “sad stuff,” and that “ by haste to make him a clever fellow he had very nearly become a stupid one.” My mother made a memorandum in regard to my elder sister, “ She knows all her letters at three,” and of me that at four I had already “ read a good many books.” I still preserve a penciled note from a little playmate, the daughter of a professor, saying, “ I am glad you are six years old. I shall be four in March.” My own daughter could not have written that note when she was seven, and yet learned to read and write at that age almost without conscious effort. I cannot see that my contemporaries either gained or lost anything by this precocious instruction ; and perhaps, in the total development of a child’s mind, the actual reading of books plays a much smaller part than we imagine. Probably the thing of most importance, even with books, as an experienced Boston teacher once said, is to have been “ exposed to them,” to have unconsciously received their flavor, as a pan of milk takes the flavor of surrounding viands. To have lain on the hearth-rug and heard one’s mother read aloud is a liberal education. When I remember that my mother actually read to us in the evenings every one of the Waverley Novels, even down to Castle Dangerous, I cannot but regard with pity the imperfect education of that child of the Tweed, Andrew Lang, who, on being lately called upon to edit an édition de luxe of these novels, bethought himself of perusing some of them with which he had been previously unacquainted. It irresistibly suggested that man who, being put in charge of the French Bibliothèque Nationale during a political upheaval, was congratulated by his uncle on having now such an excellent opportunity to learn to read and write.
My father, in his days of affluence, had bought a great many books in London, and had them bound under his own eye in the solid fashion of that day. Most of them were sold in his adversity, yet nearly a thousand volumes remained, chiefly of English literature and history of the eighteenth century, and many of these I read. There was a fine set of Dr. Johnson’s works in a dozen volumes, with an early edition of Boswell ; all of Hoole’s Tasso and Ariosto ; a charming little edition of the British essayists, with pretty woodcuts ; Bewick’s Birds and Quadrupeds ; Raynal’s Indies ; the Anti-Jacobin ; Plutarch’s Lives; Dobson’s Life of Petrarch ; Marshall’s and Bancroft’s Lives of Washington ; Miss Burney’s and Miss Edgeworth’s works ; and Sir Charles Grandison. There were many volumes of sermons, which my mother was fond of reading, — she was, I think, the last person who read them, — but which I naturally avoided. There were a good many pretty little Italian books, belonging to one of my elder sisters, and a stray volume of Goethe which had been used by another. In out-ofthe-way closets I collected the disused classical textbooks of my elder brothers, and made a little library to be preserved against that magic period when I too should be a “ collegian.” To these were to be added many delightful volumes of the later English poets, Collins, Goldsmith, Byron, Campbell, and others, given at different times to my aunt by George Ticknor. In some of them —as in Byron’s Giaour — he had copied additional stanzas, more lately published ; this was very fascinating, for it seemed like poetry in the making. Later, the successive volumes of Jared Sparks’s historical biographies, Washington, Franklin, Morris, Ledyard, and the Library of American Biography, were all the gift of their kindly author, who had often brought whole parcels of Washington’s and Franklin’s letters for my mother and aunt to look over. A set of Scott’s novels was given to my elder brother by his lifelong crony, John Holmes. Besides all this, the family belonged to a book club, — the first, I believe, of the now innumerable book clubs : of this my eldest brother was secretary, and I was permitted to keep, with pride and delight, the account of the books as they came and went. Add to this my mother’s love of reading aloud in the evening, and it will be seen that there was more danger, for a child thus reared, of excess than of scarcity. Yet as a matter of fact I never had books enough, nor have I ever had to this day.
More important, however, than all this, to my enjoyment, at least, was the musical atmosphere that pervaded the house. One of my elder sisters was an excellent pianist, — one of the first in this region to play Beethoven. Among the many students who came to the house were three who played the flute well, and they practiced trios with her accompaniment. One of them was John Dwight, afterwards editor of the Journal of Music, and long the leading musical critic of Boston ; another was Christopher Pearse Crunch, poet and artist; and the third was William Habersham from Savannah, who had a silver flute, of which I remember John Dwight’s saying, when it first made its appearance, “ It has a silver sound.” Not until I read in later years the experiences of the music-loving boy in Charles Auchester did I appreciate retrospectively the happiness with which I used to leave the door of my little bedroom ajar, when sent to bed at eight o’clock, in order that I might go to sleep to music.
Greater still were the joy and triumph when Miss Helen Davis, who was the musical queen of our little Cambridge world, came and filled the house with her magnificent voice, singing in the dramatic style then in vogue the highly sentimental songs that rent my childish heart with a touch of romance that happily has never faded away: The Breaking Waves Dashed High, The Outward Bound, Love Not, Fairy Bells, The Evening Gun, and dozens of others, the slightest strain of which brings back to me, after sixty years, every thrill of her voice, every movement of her fine head. Strange power of music, strange gift to be bestowed on one who, when once away from the piano, was simply a hearty, good-natured woman, without a trace of inspiration ! She was the sister of Lieutenant (afterwards Admiral) Davis, and his fine naval achievements at Port Royal and Port Hudson seemed only to put into “ squadron-strophes ” the magnificent triumphs of her song. I still recall the enchantment with which I heard, one moonlit summer night, the fine old glee To Greece we Give our Shining Blades, sung as a serenade under my sister’s window, by a quartette consisting of Miss Davis and her brother, of Miss Harriet Mills, who afterwards became his wife, and of William Story. I had never before heard the song, and it made me feel, in Keats’s phrase, as if I were going to a tournament.
I went to a woman’s school till I was eight; then walked daily, for five years, from tbe age of eight to that of thirteen, to the school of William Wells, an institution then regarded as — with the possible exception of the Boston Latin School — the best place in which to fit for Harvard College, and therefore much sought by the best Boston families. Mr. Wells was an Englishman of the old stamp, erect, vigorous, manly, who abhorred a mean or cowardly boy as he did a false quantity. The school was a survival of a type which still lingers, I fancy, in the British provinces, — honest and genuine, mainly physical in its discipline, and quite brutal as to its boyish life and ways. Being a day-scholar only, I escaped something of the coarseness and actual demoralization which existed there ; and thanks to an elder brother, the strongest boy in the school, I went free of the frequent pommeling visited on the smaller boys. I will not go so far as my schoolmate, the late Charles C. Perkins, who used simply to say of it, when questioned by his young sons, “ My dears, it was hell; ” but even as a dayscholar I recall some aspects of it with hearty loathing, and am glad that it was my happy lot to have come no nearer. The evil was, however, tempered by a great deal of wholesome athletic activity, which Mr. Wells encouraged : there was perpetual playing of ball and of fascinating running games; and we were very likely to have an extra half-holi day when skating or coasting was good. There was no real cruelty in the discipline of the school, — though I have sometimes seen this attributed to it, as in Adams’s Life of Richard Dana, — but Mr. Wells carried always a rattan in his hand, and it descended frequently on back and arm. Being very fond of study and learning easily, I usually escaped the rod : but I can see now that its very presence was somewhat degrading to boyish nature. Mr. Wells taught us absolutely nothing but Latin and Greek, yet these he inculcated most faithfully, and I have heretofore described, in an essay On an Old Latin Text Book, the joy I took in them. I well remember that on first being promoted to translating English into Greek, I wrote on and on, purely for pleasure, doing the exercises for days in advance. I should add that he taught us to write from copies set by himself in a clear and beautiful handwriting, and that we were supposed to learn something of history by simply reading aloud in class from Russell’s Modern Europe ; this being, after all, not so bad a way. It must not be forgotten that he bestowed a positive boon upon us by producing a Latin grammar of his own, very brief and simple, and so easily learned that when I was afterwards called upon to administer to pupils the terrible Andrews and Stoddard, it seemed to me, as indeed it has always seemed, a burden too intolerable to lie borne. French was taught by his eldest daughter, an excellent woman, though she sometimes had a way of tapping little boys on the head with her thimble; and mathematics we received from a succession of Harvard students, thimbleless. For a time, one fair girl, Mary Story, — William Story’s sister, and afterwards Mrs. George Ticknor Curtis, — glided in to her desk in the corner, that she might recite Virgil with the older class.
But in general the ill effect of a purely masculine world was very manifest in the school, and my lifelong preference for co-education was largely based upon what I saw there. I could not help noticing — and indeed observed the same thing in another boarding-school, where I taught at a later day — the greater refinement, and I may say civilization, of the day-scholars, who played with their sisters at home, as compared with those little exiles who had no such natural companionship. I must not forget one almost romantic aspect of the school in the occasional advent of Spanish boys, usually from Porto Rico, who were as good as dime novels to us, with their dark skins and sonorous names, — Victoriano Rosello, Magin Rigual, Pedro Mangual. They swore superb Spanish oaths, which we naturally borrowed; and they once or twice drew knives upon one another, with an air which the Pirates’ Own Rook offered nothing to surpass. Nor must I forget that there were also in the school certain traditions, superstitions, even mechanical contrivances, which were not known in the world outside. There were mechanisms of pulleys for keeping the desk-lid raised; the boys made for themselves little trucks to ride upon, each with two wheels; and every seat in the school was perforated with two small holes for needles, to be worked by a pulley, for the sudden impaling of a fellow student, or even the mathematical usher. Enormous myths existed as to what had been done, in the way of rebellion, by the pupils of a previous generation ; and the initials of older students still remained carved in vast confusion on the end of the woodshed, like the wall which commemorates Canning and Byron at Harrow. Above all, a literature circulated under the desks, to be read surreptitiously, — such books as those to which Emerson records his gratitude at the Latin School; fortunately nothing pernicious, yet much that was exciting, — little dingy volumes of Baron Trenck, and Rinaldo Rinaldini, and The Three Spaniards, and The Devil on Two Sticks. Can these be now found at any bookstore, I wonder, or have the boys of the present generation ever heard of them ?
But the most important portion of a boy’s life is perhaps his outdoor training, since to live outdoors is to be forever in some respects a boy. “ Who could be before me, though the palace of the Cæsars crackt and split with emperors, while I, sitting in silence on a cliff of Rhodes, watcht the sun as he swang his golden censer athwart the heavens ? ” Lander’s hero was not happier than my playmate, Charles Parsons, and myself, as we lay under Lowell’s willows “at the causey’s end,” after a day at Mount Auburn, — then Sweet Auburn still, — to sort out butterflies in summer or divide our walnuts in autumn, and chanted uproariously the Hunter’s Chorus : —
No joy of the court or banquet like this.”
We always made a pause after the word “ court,” and supposed ourselves to be hurling defiance at monarchies.
Every boy of active tastes — and mine were eminently such — must become the one thing or the other, either a sportsman or a naturalist; and I have never regretted that it was my lot to become the latter. My fellow townsman, Dr. O. W. Holmes, describes himself as wandering along our native stream “ with reeking sandal and superfluous gun.” My sandals suffered, also, but I went with butterfly-net and tin botanical box. Perhaps these preoccupied me before I yearned after field - sports, or perhaps there was no real yearning. I can remember that as a child I sometimes accompanied an elder brother or cousin to pick up the birds he shot, though he rarely seemed to shoot any; but there occurred an event which, slight as it was, damped my longing to emulate him. Coming down what is now Divinity Avenue with an older boy, George Ware, who rejoiced in a bow and arrow, we stopped under the mulberry-tree which still stands at the entrance of the street, and he aimed at a beautiful crested cedar - bird which was feeding on the mulberries. By some extraordinary chance he hit it, and down came the pretty creature, fluttering and struggling in the air, with the cruel arrow through its body. I do not know whether the actual sportsman suffered pangs of remorse, but I know that I did, and feel them yet. Afterwards I read with full sympathy Bettine’s thoughts about the dead bird : “ God gives him wings, and I shoot him down: that chimes not in tune.” And I later learned from Tlioreau to study birds through an operaglass.
It may appear strange that with this feeling about birds I seemed to have no such vivid feeling about fishes or insects. Perhaps because they are so much farther from the human, and touch the imagination less. 1 could then fish all day by the seashore and collect insects without hesitation, — always being selflimited in the latter case to two specimens of each species. Since the Civil War, however. I find that I can do neither of these things without compunction, and was pleased to hear from that eminent officer and thoroughly manly man, General F. A. Walker, that the war had a similar effect on him. “ Dulce bellum inexpertis.” It has been a source of happiness for life to have acquired such early personal acquaintance with the numberless little people of the woods and mountains. Every spring they come out to meet me, each a familiar friend, unchanged in a world where all else changes; and several times in a year I dream by night of some realm gorgeous with gayly tinted beetles and lustrous butterflies. Wild flowers, also, have been a lasting delight, though these are a little less fascinating than insects, as belonging to a duller life. Yet I associate with each ravaged tract in my native town the place where vanished flowers once grew,— the cardinal flowers and gentians in the meadows, the gay rhexia by the woodside, and the tall hibiscus by the river.
Being large and tolerably strong, I loved all kinds of athletic exercises, and learned to swim in the river near where Professor Horsford’s active imagination has established the “ Lief’s booths ” of the Norse legends. There have been few moments in life which ever gave a sense of conquest and achievement so delicious as when I first clearly made my way through water beyond my depth, from one sedgy bank to another. Skating was learned on Craigie’s Pond, now drained, and afterwards practiced on the beautiful black ice of Fresh Pond. We played baseball and football and a modified cricket, and on Saturdays made our way to the tenpin alleys at Fresh Pond or Porter’s Tavern. My father had an old white pony which patiently ambled under me, and I was occasionally allowed to borrow Dr. Webster’s donkey, the only donkey I had ever seen. Sometimes we were taken to Nahant for a day by the seaside, and watched there the swallows actually building their nests in swallows’ caves, whence they have long since vanished. Perhaps we drove down over the interminable beach, but we oftener went in the steamboat; and my very earliest definite recollection is that of being afraid to go down into the cabin for dinner because a black waiter — the first I ever saw — had just gone down, and I was afraid. Considering how deeply I was to cast in my life with the black race in later years, it seems curious that the acquaintance should have begun with this unsubstantial and misplaced alarm. It was, perhaps, the subsequent hunger of that day which fixed the fact in my mind.
It was a great advantage for outdoor training that my school was a mile off, and I paced the distance to and fro, twice a day, through what was then a rural region interspersed with a few large houses of historical associations. The great wooden residences on Tory Row, of which Craigie House was only one, always impressed the imagination. Sometimes I had companions, — my elder brother for a time, and his classmates, Lowell and Story. I remember treading along behind them once as they discussed Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which they had been reading, and which led us younger boys to christen a favorite playplace “the Bower of Bliss.” Story was then a conspicuously handsome boy, with a rather high-bred look, and overflowing with fun and frolic, as indeed he was during his whole life. Lowell was at that time of much more ordinary appearance, short and freckled, and a secondary figure beside Story ; yet in later life, with his fine eyes and Apollo-like brow, he became much the more noticeable of the two, as he was certainly far superior in genius.
Oftener I went alone. Sometimes I made up stories as I went, usually magnifying little incidents or observations of my own into some prolonged tale with a line name, having an imaginary hero. For a long time his name was D’Arlon, from the person of that name in Taylor’s Philip van Artevelde, which my mother was reading to us. In these imaginings all the small wrongs and failures of my life were retrieved. D Arlon went through the same incidents with myself, but uniformly succeeded where I had failed, and came out of the crisis with the unerring certainty of one of Stanley Weyman’s heroes. One of my chief playmates, Thornton Ware, a handsome boy with curly black hair, the admiration of all little girls, might easily distance me in their regard, but had no chance whatever against the imaginary D’Arlon. At other times I had no material for a story, but watched the robins, the bluebirds, and above all the insects, acquiring an eagle eye for a far-off moth or beetle on fence or wall. At the corner of Fresh Pond Lane, where Craigie Street now turns off from Brattle Street, there was a clump of milkweed, where every day there was some new variety of spotted ladybird (coccinella or chrysomela) ; and I remember pondering, as I compared them, with pre-Darwinian wonder, whether they were all created from the beginning as separate species, or were somehow developed from one another. On other days I played a game of football a mile long, seeing whether 1 could kick before me some particular stone or horse-chestnut for the whole distance from the school door to my own gate; sometimes betting heavily with myself, and perhaps losing manfully, like Dick Swiveller at his solitary cribbage. Then in winter there was always the hope of “ punging.” getting a ride on the runners of a sleigh, or hitching my sled behind some vehicle ; and in spring that of riding with the driver of an empty ice-cart or walking beside a full one, and watching the fine horses that then, in endless procession, drew heavy wagons bearing the winter harvest of Fresh Pond to be shipped to distant lands.
My most immediate playmate was the next-door neighbor, already mentioned, who in later life was a medical professor in Brown University. He was a prim, grave little boy, and was called “ oldfashioned ; ” he was very precocious, and though only three months older than myself was a year before me in college, graduating at just seventeen, — each of us being the youngest in our respective classes. There was between our houses only the field now occupied by the Hemenway Gymnasium and the Scientific School; and while we were not schoolmates, we were almost constantly together out of school hours. Many an hour we spent poring over the pictures in the large old Rees’ Cyclopædia; afterwards, when weary, piling up the big volumes for fortifications, to be mutually assailed by cannonading apples from a perpetual barrel in the closet. Meanwhile, the kindly old grandfather, working away at his sermons or his American Annals, never seemed disturbed by our romping; and I remember vividly one winter evening, when he went to the window, and, scratching with his knifeblade through the thick frost, shaped the outlines of rough brambles below, and made a constellation of stars above, with the added motto, “ Per aspera ad astra ; ” then explaining to us its meaning, that through difficulties we must seek the stars.
It is a mistake to suppose that we did not have, sixty years ago, in New England, associations already historic. At home we had various family portraits of ancestors in tie-wigs or powdered hair. We knew the very treasurers which Dr. Holmes describes as gathered in his attic, and never were tired of exploring old cupboards and hunting up traditions. We delighted to pore over the old flat tombstones in the Old Cambridge cemetery, stones with long Latin inscriptions, on which even the language is dead, celebrating virtues ending in issimus and errimus. The most impressive of all was the Vassall monument, raised on pillars above the rest, and bearing no words, only the carved goblet and sun ( Vassol), — the monument beneath which lie, according to tradition, the bodies of two slaves: —
Lies a slave to attend the dead,
But their dust is white as hers.”
This poem was not yet written, but Holmes’s verses on this churchyard were familiar on our lips, and we sighed with him over his sister’s grave, and over the stone where the French exile from Honfleur was buried and his epitaph was carved in French. Moreover, the “ ever-roaming girls ” whom Holmes exhorted to bend over the wall and “sweep the simple lines” with the floating curls then fashionable,—these were our own neighbors and sweethearts, and it all seemed in the last degree poetic and charming. More suggestive than all these were the eloquent fissures in the flat stones where the leaden coats of arms had been pried out to be melted into bullets for the Continental army. And it all so linked us with the past that when, years after, I stood outside the Temple Church in London, and, looking casually down, saw beneath my feet the name of Oliver Goldsmith, it really gave no more Sense of a dignified historic past than those stones at my birthplace. Nor did it actually carry me back so far in time.
In the same way, our walks, when not directed toward certain localities for rare flowers or birds or insects, — as to Mount Auburn sands, now included in the cemetery of that name, or the extensive jungle north of Fresh Pond, where the herons of Longfellow’s poem had their nests, — were more or less guided by historic objects. There was the picturesque old Revolutionary Powder Mill in what is now Somerville, or the remains of redoubts on Winter Hill, where we used to lie along the grassy slopes and repel many British onslaughts. Often we went to the fascinating wharves of Boston, then twice as long as now, and full of sea-smells and crossed yards and earringeed sailors. A neighbor’s boy had the distinction of being bad enough to be actually sent to sea for a dubious reformation ; and though, when he came back, I was forbidden to play with him, on the ground that he not only swore, but carried an alleged pistol, yet it was something to live on the same street with one so marked out from the list of common boys, and to watch him from afar exhibiting to youths of laxer training what seemed to be the weapon. (I may here add that the only other child with whom I was forbidden to play became in later life an eminent clergyman.) Once we undertook to go as far as Bunker Hill, and were ignominiously turned back by a party of Charlestown boys, —
“ Charlestown pigs,”as they were then usually and affectionately called, — who charged us with being “ Port chucks ” (that is,from Cambridgeport) or "Pointers ” (that is, from Lechmere Point, or East Cambridge), and ended with the mild torture of taking away our canes. Or we would visit the ruins of the Ursuline Convent, whose flames I had seen from our front door in Cambridge, standing by my mother’s side; all that I had read of persecutions not implanting so lasting a love of liberty as that one spectacle. I stood by her also the day after, when she went out to take the gauge of public opinion in consultation with the family butcher, Mr. Houghton ; and I saw her checkmated by his leisurely retort, “ Wal, I dunno, Mis’ Higginson; I guess them biships are pretty dissipated characters.”The interest was enhanced by the fact that a youthful Cambridge neighbor, Maria Fay, was a pupil in the school at the time, and was held up by the terrified preceptress to say to the rioters, “ My father is a judge, and if you don’t go away be will put you all in jail.”The effect of the threat may have been somewhat impaired by the fact that her parent was but a peaceful judge of probate, and could only have wreaked his vengeance on their last wills and testaments. At any rate, there stood the blackened walls for many years, until the State was forced to pay for them; and there was no other trace of the affray. except the inscription “ Hell to the Pope ” scrawled in charcoal on a bit of lingering plaster. We gazed at it with awe, as if it were a memorial of Bloody Mary — with a difference.
Greatly to my bliss, I escaped almost absolutely all those rigors of the old New England theology which have darkened the lives of so many. I never heard of the Five Points of Calvinism until maturity; never was converted, never experienced religion. We were expected to read the New Testament, but there was nothing enforced about the Old, and we were as fortunate as a little girl I have since known, who was sure that there could be no such place as hell because their minister had never mentioned it. Even Sunday brought no actual terrors. I have the sweetest image of my mother sitting ready dressed for church, before my sisters had descended, and usually bearing a flower in her hand. And in winter we commonly drove to the parish church in an open sleigh, and once had an epoch-making capsize into a snowdrift. As I was seized by the legs and drawn forth, I felt like the hero of one of the Waverley novels, and as if I had been in Rob Roy’s cave. Xu doubt we observed the Sabbath after a mild fashion, for I once played a surreptitious game of ball with my brother behind the barn on that day, and it could not have made me so very happy had it it not been, as Emerson says, “ drugged with the relish of fear and pain.” Yet I now recall with pleasure that while my mother disapproved of all but sacred music on Sunday, she ruled that all good music was sacred ; and that she let us play on Sunday evening a refreshing game of cards, —geographical cards, — from which we learned that the capital of Dahomey was Abomey. Compared with the fate of many contemporaries, what soothing and harmless chains were these!
In all these early recollections there has been small mention of the other sex, and yet that sweet entity was to me, and in fact to all of us boys, a matter of most momentous importance. We were all, it now seems to me, a set of desperate little lovers, with formidable rivalries, suspicions, and jealousies; and we had names of our own devising for each juvenile maiden, by which she could be mentioned without peril of discovery. One of the older boys, being of a peculiarly inventive turn, got up a long and imaginary wooing of a black-eyed damsel who went to school in Cambridge. He showed us letters and poems, and communicated all the ups and downs of varyiug emotion. They were finally separated, amid mutual despair, and I do not suppose that she had ever known him by sight. We had our share of dancingschools, always in private houses, taught sometimes by the elder Papanti, and sometimes by a most graceful woman, Miss Margaret Davis, sister of the songstress I have described. We had Mayday parties, usually at Mount Auburn, and showed in the chilly May mornings that heroic courage which Lowell plaintively attributes to children on these occasions. But all this sporting with Amaryllis soon became secondary for us, being Cambridge boys, to the great realm of academical life, to which no girls might then aspire. That vast mysterious region lies always before the boy who is bred in a college town, alluring, exciting, threatening, as the sea lies before the sailor’s son. One by one he sees his elder playmates glide away upon it, until at last his turn comes ; and before I was fourteen I myself was launched.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson.