The Transmigrations of My Soul


“WELL, Philip, have you learned to read yet ? ”

My father’s question interrupted the companionless and rather unexciting game of mumble t’ peg by which I was assisting the tooth of Time to demolish the back steps.

“Oh yes,” I answered confidently, “ I can read tip-top.” I had hoped that so satisfactory a response — which was hardly borne out by the facts — would prevent further discourse on a subject which interested me not at all. But I reckoned without my host.

“ Very good,” said my father; “ then it is time that you began to read the Bible. At your age I had finished the Pentateuch and commenced the book of Joshua. You may come in and begin now.”

Thus without ceremony was I ushered into a new world, — the world of Literature. I entered reluctantly, — it would have been rebelliously had I dared. Looking back now over the days of my years hitherto, I perceive that after I entered that world I never had any proper Ego. I lived the life and thought the thoughts of the people I read about. My body was just a convenient dwelling-place for one or another ψυχή which had outworn its material framework or perhaps had never possessed one of its own. So that, strictly speaking, all I know anything about is the transmigration of other people’s souls. Sometimes several of these immaterial infusions contended for the occupancy of my frail tenement. The outward and visible result of this inward strife was variously — and often unpleasantly — characterized by my elders, who failed to perceive the cause of my vagaries. A woman or a child has a strong preference for the personal and concrete. So as I painfully read aloud the book of Genesis, by little and little in daily “ stents,” just as my sister sewed her patch-work, I was Noah or Abraham or Joseph by turns. But oftenest I was Adam in the Garden, because I was a dreamy lad and the life suited me, and because, also, my mental image of that “ garden planted to the eastward ” was taken from my playground, — a charming bit of country, lake and river hound, filled with trees and with kindly beasts for company. So, finding my Eden ready, I entered into its joys. To be sure, the old-time characters were not precisely new acquaintances. But in church or at family prayers these things wear a different aspect. Moreover, it sometimes happens, when a boy appears most edifyingly attentive, that his astral body is playing ball, or fishing, or climbing trees for young squirrels. I never hesitated to insist that the immanent Adam should adapt himself to my environment, though one or two thrilling suggestions from the printed page were gladly welcomed. I eagerly watched the little lakes for some sign of the “ great sea-monsters,” but there was no Eve in my Paradise, and I always knew better than to parley with serpents. The woodchuck, also, I regarded as an enemy. Doubtless the woodchuck returned my feeling in kind.

Among my father’s books which I was not yet permitted to read, I one day came upon one called Rasselas. Knowing nothing of its contents, I assumed that Rasselas was a boy, and forthwith invited him to come out and play with me. He came readily enough, and when I gave him first choice of a game, he apparently declared for duck-stone. We set off at full speed for the pond where stones were best in size and most abundant. But before we were halfway there, Rasselas tripped me up, and a sharp edge of rock cut my forehead. The cut bled so that I had to go home for repairs — not that I would have played with Rasselas any longer anyway. My grandaunt bathed and plastered my head very gently, scolding all the time as was her custom.

“ How did you get such a cut, anyhow ? ” she exclaimed, in a tone which implied that a cut on the forehead was positive proof of total depravity.

“ Rasselas tripped me up,” I sobbed.

“’Rastus ? ’Rastus who?” she ejaculated. “ I don’t know any ’Rastuses.”

“ Oh, I think he does n’t live on this side of the pond, grandaunt,” interposed cousin Jane, partly suspecting the identity of Rasselas, and wishing to keep me from further entanglement. Playing with strange — and evidently vicious — boys from across the lake was a fault my grandaunt could understand and deal with. But playing with a boy invited down from the library shelves would have been one of those mysterious misdemeanors which puzzled her New England conscience.

The volume relating to the Persecutions of the Early Christians was responsible for one other escapade wherein I got rather an overdose of realism. Personating an Early Christian, I fled wildly through the woods from imaginary pursuers, hiding now and then in dens and caves. At last I thought of a plan which would require less strain of imagination, and would enable me to enter thoroughly into the spirit of my part. A railroad ran through the district, and at each grade crossing was a sort of excavation under the rails which I now understand the farmers call a culvert, but which I then knew as a “culprit.” Being designed to keep stray cows from untimely death, — a railroad having much the same fascination for a cow as for a boy, — the “ culprit ” was uncovered. I, being still an Early Christian, filled one of the dry channels with green weeds and small bushes, beneath which I crawled, hiding from my pursuing foes, represented by the locomotive with its line of cars. Not knowing much about railway schedules, I crept into my hiding-place and waited. I waited so long that my enthusiasm grew cool and my body stiff and cramped. I remembered that sometimes at the Junction steam came from the locomotive’s wastepipe and made little reeking puddles on the ground. I wondered if I ran any risk of being scalded. I began to feel afraid, which, to be sure, was just what I was there for, but I found the real thing worse than I had expected. The repressed energy of my muscles seemed to find outlet through my imagination ; until by the time the train actually came on, I was no longer a seeker after experimental knowledge of Early Christian sufferings, but a much terrified boy of seven, who scarcely hoped to survive the passing of the coming monster over the “ culprit ” and his own trembling little body. Curiously enough, it did not once occur to me that I could crawl out of my hiding-place and go home whenever I pleased. I was there for a purpose, and I stayed until that purpose was accomplished. After the train had gone by, and I had got my breath once more, I went home a wiser but by no means a sadder boy. Indeed, after the stiffness had passed a little from my limbs, I walked braggartly as one who had performed great feats. But the noise of my deed had preceded me, — by what means I never knew. It put the cap upon the climax by which my iniquities had been steadily mounting. I was removed from the gentle tutelage of cousin Jane, and sent to school.