Words, Words, Words

WHEN the Poet came (for he comes to children), we called him by no name. He might have been one, or he might have been many ; with a finer instinct than that of the bookmen, we took what he gave us without question. With a catholicity which has never been ours since, we assigned him to no race and to no clime. If there was one thing more than another with which we connected him, it was music. He was like Christina’s playing.

Christina was old ; she wore tails to her gowns ; she pushed her shining hair to the top of her head, and fastened it with combs; she had lovers. There was a little carved organ that stood in the little front parlor, and out of its keys Christina could wring most heavenly melodies. We used to sit out in the hall at the foot of the darkening staircase, and listen, and resolve never again to forget to say our prayers, and listen, listen. And all the things that had been, and all the things that were to be, came gliding out of the corners, and stood about us.

And the Poet ? Our farthest recollection in regard to him begins with Christina. She had been saying over some foolish and jingling verses to us, when of a sudden out flowed a line that was strange and different.

“ Over the hills and far away,” said Christina.

She went on with the foolish other words, and we heard them, and forgot them, but these we remembered: —

“ Over the hills and far away.”

What was it like ? It was like the dusk when the rain is beginning to fall, very softly indeed, and in the pale west a gleam from the sunset is still lingering, and there is no one in sight. It made us feel a little sad, a little older, and alone in the world. We created for ourselves a long and fading highway, and down it in the soft rain went trooping many people, and not one of them ever came back again. It was a highway that was always full, and yet always empty.

Our next recollection gathers about the Sea Captain. This was a bronzed and worthy veteran who had designs upon Christina. He could be told a long way off by the hearty fashion in which he took our winding country lanes. They seemed too narrow for him.

Once he had fished up out of his pockets a handful of sweet-smelling nuts, and presented them to us. We had cracked them, and found them much to our taste. One afternoon we followed this seafaring friend into the house, and stationed ourselves at that angle of the hall stair which would first catch his eye when he looked up. We yearned for more sweet-smelling nuts.

Christina was long in coming. It was hot weather, and the captain fanned himself with his hat. We looked mournfully on from the staircase. Presently, still fanning in the lazy and loose fashion that was his, he picked up a book and began to read. A word floated to us now and then. All at once he rose to his feet: —

“ Had I but served my God with half the zeal I served my king, he would not in mine age Have left me naked to mine enemies.”

There was a wail in that voice. We trembled. This was another, a far-off, a glorified sea captain. He had no place in our little worldly front parlor.

“ Had I but served my God ” —

And then in came Christina.

We were sent away richer than ever before. For this was more than Mystery. It was more than rainy dusk or lonely highway. It shook us by the heart. It was Revelation. We forgot all except the first line, but the impression left by the whole was so moving and so great that we did not need more to bring it to mind. We gathered together what we remembered, and that greater remnant which we did not, and wrapped it around a splendid central figure, that of one who lamented and was alone. He walked before us, set in cloud, without a name, without a country, a Shape, a majestic spirit.

Another time, with our left arm nicely bandaged up in lily leaves and alcohol, we were taken to hospital on the parlor sofa, where we lay smelling like Araby the blest. The Sea Captain found us there a little later.

For a while we stared at him with unblinking eyes. We were remembering. Then we lifted up a strident voice, crying out, with a flourish of our sound arm, —

“ ‘ Had I but served my God with half the zeal ’ ” —

“ Hello! ” said the Sea Captain.

A sincere, old-fashioned love of verse seemed the possession of our kind nautical friend, an instinct for sound, which is often quite as rare as an instinct for sense. Word after word rolled out upon the air, and beat down upon us, and beat away again. Sometimes a single expression, like the note of a bugle, broke along our way, and, before it had a chance to fade, became our very own. “ Cavernous ” was one of these. We did not take counsel of any printed page, but we knew, as well as we knew we smelled of lily leaves, that “ cavernous ” meant all the hollows in the world gathered into one place. It was a dark place, and the wind was making a great noise. A good word to take to bed with us at night. We used to whisper it softly out in the silence, and then draw up the sheets over our reckless head, while we waited for the ghostly step that we knew was creeping by.

舠 Words, words, words.” Not always those of the Poet, but always vague, great, alluring, with something of the wind, and something of the sea. Grave ones out of Pilgrim’s Progress concerning shepherds and swelling hills ; and thereafter, for many a day, we saw a singing spirit in every dusty drover, and gave immortality to his flock of sheep. Stray ones out of hymns shrilled along the hot Sunday afternoons; far-off ones out of memoirs bound in gray cloth, and lying in the dust under the garret eaves. Triumphant ones swelling up out of catechism and creed, into an atmosphere bare of theology and doubt.

Even old Eli, the free negro who lived in the ramshackle cabin opposite our house, had a share in adding to our slowly increasing store of treasure.

He was a bent and withered creature, the gatherer and dispenser of simples to the entire neighborhood. Beside his skill in these sweet-smelling drugs he had that of reading futurity by what lay at the bottom of a teacup, and by the hundred crossing lines in a trembling palm. He could foretell storms; he had the gift of tongues.

Once he hailed us as we hurried by.

“ Come here, honey, an’ I ’ll tell yo’ fortune.”

Afraid to run away, we advanced to the prophet’s portal, and held our hands out across the rickety palings.

Old Eli kept utter silence for a moment. Then he spat on the ground. His lean black fingers began to trace out the. lines upon our rosy little palm.

“ Honey,” he said, with a sort of rolling solemnity, “yo’ ain’t goin’ to be rich, but yo’ goin’ to be good, good, and ” — he made a triumphant flourish with his right hand — “ and — circumwigous.”

We took stately steps as we held our way across the dust of the pike. Filthy lucre had no allurements for us, and the paths of righteousness had often proved untenable to our wayward feet; but — circumwigous ! It wrapped us around in an amber-colored cloud. It was books, and holidays, and kind, gift-bearing aunts, and any number of china mugs with pink rosebuds painted along the handles.

Circumwigous! Ah, we feel, even now, that we could storm the heights of fate with the very memory of the word !