THE pagan, as we all know, was originally nothing more nor less than an Italian rustic ; a man who lived and plodded and died, remote from all urban associations and influences. Though prevented by the exigencies of his lot from giving himself up to that frantic pursuit of a “good time” which constituted the chief preoccupation of his more citified compatriots, he still made, in the comparatively leisure months of the agricultural year, certain awkward attempts at festivity. He did his best to conciliate Old Father Time, at the Saturnalia of December; and he held his yet more characteristic Paganalia in the month of January. These uncouth feasts of his were the licentious and sunshiny South Italian equivalent of the “ huskings ” and “ sugarings-off ” of the old-fashioned rural New Englander. The pagan was the man who stood, open - mouthed and glassyeyed, when through - passengers from Rome to Brindisi stopped overnight in his village, and nobly cursed its mean accommodations, in the intervals of their cryptic talk about the new games, with elephants, the latest divorce, and that notorious Optimate who had just “ ratted ” or “ paired-off ” in the Senate. New fashions came in, at the great centres of trade and civilization, in dress, equipage, phraseology, poetry, philosophy, and religion. But the pagan still wore his undyed woolen tunic, drove his gray oxen afield, made his hobbling rhymes, clipped his final syllables, ran his verbs and pronouns together, and worshiped the Dii patrii indigetes very much as his representative upon the same soil does to the present day. It was not until one imported faith, more vital than all the rest, had displaced its competitors, and become the religion of the state and the metropolis, and therefore fashionable, that the word pagan began to connote impiety as well as rusticity.
Nor is Italy, as it would seem, the only land where the indigenous gods display an obstinate vitality ; long maintaining a retired existence, and an authority quite distinct from that of the Deity — or deities — of the people’s professed worship. I have, indeed, always thought it one of the strongest arguments for the miraculous origin and subsistence of Christianity, that the theory of it — sometimes described as the “ Christian Scheme,” — is one which could never, by any possibility, have occurred to a mere terrœ filius, or simple, home-keeping, soil-delving creature ; and I have been curiously confirmed in this view by what I have seen during the last few years of a certain circumscribed, semi-mountainous district in one of the New England, states. Owing to the geographical position of this tract, untouched by any of the main routes of continental travel, it is, in a manner, self-centred; the backwater of its state, as the late Clarence King used to say that San Francisco was the backwater of the world.
The scenery of the region is beautiful, — to such, at least, as like their landscape simple, verdant, and wild ; very slightly humanized, and innocent of all pretension to the great style, either in its original contours or in its native growth.
Even so, alas, it is being rapidly denuded and vulgarized by the ruthless destruction of the white pine and feathery hemlock woods, which used, in the beautiful metaphor of Keats, to “ fledge the wild flank ” of every considerable hill. Along the clear streams which run among these hills, — devious and loquacious, — low in summer but well-nigh ungovernable in spring, lie the gaunt little villages; many of them less busy and populous than they were sixty years ago, when they were still traversed by important stage routes. The inn, which used often to be crowded in those days, and hospitable with the steam of hearty food and the aroma of comfortable drink, sits dozing in slow decay ; a world too wide for its diminished clientèle, and merely calling attention to its own infirmities by fatuously proclaiming itself an hotel. The “ Academy ” — where the better-to-do farmers’ boys once acquired the modicum of Latin and Greek which fitted them to enter one of our lesser colleges — has been converted to some baser use, and even the stark meetinghouses — for there are always two at least — often tell, by their falling clapboards and faded wooden shutters, a tale of long neglect, and sometimes of cynical abandonment.
The meagre annals of the recluse hamlet are written upon tables of stone in the wind-swept graveyard yonder. Siste viator, and let us learn something from these, if we can, of the true character of the deity to whom the seniors of the oldest living inhabitant bowed the knee in awe.
What stupendous kind of a machinedivinity was that who was invoked by some bereft husband or lover in the startling couplet: —
Till God shall burst the blue concave ” ?
We must admit that this mourner was a bit of a poet, and that there is a certain grandeur in his vision of the violent restoration to consciousness of his poor lost darling. But the author of the ensuing lines held an attitude toward the unseen Powers, as deeply antagonistic, if not quite as cringing, as that of Caliban on the island: —
IN MEMORY OF
And then comes the grim coda: —
God aimed the tree that crushed him dead.”
Many of the inscriptions in these lone places of ancient rest have no true spontaneity or distinctive character. They are dismally conventional. Sometimes, indeed, surviving relatives have had the good taste and good sense merely to engrave some text of sacred Scripture upon the lichened stone : “ I shall go to him, but he will not return to me; ” or else — though much less often — the reasoned and far more confidently hopeful, “ Now is Christ risen from the dead and become the first fruits of them that slept.” The majority, however, follow two or three familiar and tolerably sombre types of epitaph; one of the finest of which in its collected and majestic sternness is this: —
This mortal body from the grave;
Nor can the grave detain me here
When Christ shall call me to appear.”
But in that selfsame green acre of God where Mary has awaited for some hundred and fifty years the thunders of her grand svegliamento, an inquisitive and intractable agnostic of the last century but one has recorded his doctrinal revolt in the following variante on the stanza quoted above: —
This mortal body from the grave ?
Why should the grave detain me here
Till Christ doth call me to appear ? ’ ’
The first of these rather insolent queries reminds one irresistibly of the small David Copperfield spelling out upon a wall-tablet of Blunderstone Church the statement that “ ‘ afflictions sore long time Mr. Podgers bore, and physicians were in vain.’ And then I look at Mr. Chillip and wonder if he was in vain, and what are his feelings on being thus publicly reminded of the fact.”
As compared with the sullen disposition of one who could thus boldly mutilate a venerable text, there is something quite refreshing about the amiable and unschooled vivacity of the spirit which makes its exit with these words : —.
Heaven is my native air.
I bid my friends a fond ado
Impatient to be their.”
Surely it was no chilly home of the shades that cast no shadow, to which this buoyant creature went skipping away ! And what a remarkable power, both of philosophic synthesis and of calm and compact statement, was that of the ofttried widower who has erected a broad stone with five Gothic points, each one bearing the name of a deceased wife, and set below the names the comprehensive line : —
Indeed we find the brighter and healthier as well as the more superstitious aspect of paganism remarkably illustrated sometimes in these leafy NoThoroughfares.
Our horses were being baited, and (theoretically) rubbed down, at the indolent old inn, and we had wandered beyond the village into the open, or rather the continuously wooded country. We had left behind us the straggling street bordered by low, white cottages, of which the “ fore-rooms,” at least, and the jealously fenced front dooryards, were as if sealed in perpetual slumber. We had left the river, shorn, here, even of the serried ranks of splendid scarlet lobelias, or cardinal flowers, which had flanked its lower reaches ; left the shaky bridge and the invalid mill, the tightly closed wooden conventicles, even the hill of slumber under the “ blue concave ” still purely and pensively intact. We had discussed our basket-lunch under some nut trees in a rocky pasture, and were subsequently beguiled into following a curiously well-worn footpath which led off the opposite side of the highway, into a deep, old forest of sighing columnar pines. Two of us had gone on in advance, while two lingered behind, idly gathering handfuls of the vivid dwarfcornel berries—which glowed everywhere upon the dark background of the forest floor, like showers of living sparks. Presently one of our precursors came back and bade us mend our pace. “ There’s an old man here, in the wood, with the most wonderful garden ! He hopes you won’t go without seeing it.”
Sure enough, an abrupt turn of the path a little further on disclosed a sylvan hollow, and a gleam of still water reflecting a simply miraculous pageant of richly blooming and carefully tended flowers ; — the stately, sophisticated, flaunting, garden - blossoms of August. Tall dahlias nodded superciliously to the smaller vegetable people at their feet. There were regiments of stiff gladiolus, wearing their broad, vacant smile, and carrying their sword - like leaves as if on parade. There were the sculpturesque lilies of Japan, both white and pink, hibiscus pink and pale sea-green, California poppies, cockscombs in all the “ new ” shades, crimson bergamot, furnaces of scarlet geranium, —que sçaisje? The sides of the hollow were curtained with flaming nasturtiums, and ferns both native and exotic nodded in the crevices of the out-cropping rocks. Most of the flowers were massed in weedless beds of loam defined by rows of small round pebbles ; while paths a few inches wide, but absolutely well kept, meandered among them, crossing at intervals, by means of tiny rustic bridges, the ribbonstreamlet carried round the parterre for purposes of irrigation, out of the diminutive lake which we had seen from above. The brook that once traversed the hollow had been dammed and water-lilies planted above the barrier, as we saw by thenfloating leaves. There had been a beautiful rose-colored blossom riding there, the day before, so we were told by the genius loci, but some wild animal — boy or beaver — had stolen it away.
He, the Genius, towered over the oasis which he had created in the green desert, a hulking figure, but hale and tall, whitebearded, apple-cheeked ; and he gave us a hearty welcome.
Had nobody helped him about all this ?
“These hands” — extending, with a large gesture, a brown and sinewy pair — “ have done it all! ”
“ And do you never ” — But the second question died upon our lips ; selfconvicted, as it were, of impertinence and vulgarity, The point and wonder of the whole show was, that it had been prepared for Beauty’s sake alone, — a splendid sacrifice upon a turfy altar. Not merely was the garden a mile or two distant from the gardener’s village home ; it was many times as far away from the remotest possibility of a flower-market. There should properly have been a statue of the improper Priapus in that forest dell, and a row of conical straw hives ; but only the wild bees hummed about the red bergamot their faint and drowsy tune.
There came over us then — like a gush of sweet incense out of an unseen thurible — that sense of the immemorial familiarity of what we saw, in which Plato himself has advised us to discern an intimation of our preëxistence. We had known our old man and his flowerbeds in the wild for centuries. And who was he who first made us acquainted, but the selfsame dolce Duca, by whom also we had sat, one blessed evening more than a millennium later, in another flowerstarred hollow, and heard the patient souls, whose ransom had been made secure, singing: —
It is of the anima Cortese Mantonana that I feel I ought more particularly to ask pardon for inserting here — out of a pretty well-forgotten version of his Georgics — a copy of our original note of introduction to the forest gardener : —
Where the brown waves of the river Galæsus run,
Freshening the yellow fields of harvest, I
An exile of Corycus, a man of eld,
Tilling a few spent acres once beheld.
Not apt for the plough were these, nor the bearing of corn,
To nourish flocks, nor kindly unto the vine ;
But how had he filled the home of briers forlorn,
With goodly garden-herbs, and bidden shine
White lilies and vervain round his ordered beds,
And esculent poppies bear aloft their heads !
The treasure of kings in his content he found,
And, lingering late in the field, he came, at eve,
To a humble board with unbought dainties crowned.
His, the first rose of summer to receive,
The first of autumn’s apples! and he, anon,
When fetters of ice were laid the streams upon,
And frosts of surly winter had riven the rocks,
And all the brooks were chained, was fain to shear
The blooming hyacinth of her lovely locks,
While he chid, for its tarrying, the vernal year,
And the lazy zephyrs, long upon the way ;
Wherefore his infant bees did see the day
Earlier in spring, and, in their number more,
Than all beside. He from his combs expressed
The foaming honey in more abundant store,
And limes, and the most luxuriant pines possessed,
And never a fruit did set in flowering-time
Upon his trees but ripened in summer’s prime ! ”
It did not surprise or disconcert our party in the least that the floral tribute offered us, — after an evident struggle, — when we came away, should have been gingerly gathered, scanty and shortstemmed. The Senex Corycius, as we very well remembered, had been equally reluctant, always, to impoverish or deface his beloved plantations.
Harriet Waters Preston.