The Passing of Indoors
INDOORS is going. We may just as well make up our minds on this revolutionary point, and accept it with such degree of hardy rejoicing or shivering regret as our natures prompt in us.
The movement has been long under way, gradually working the perfect ejection which seems now at hand. We might have recognized the dislodging process long ago, had we been far-sighted enough. It began — who shall say when it did begin ? Surely not in the shaggy breasts of those rude ancestors of ours whom we hold in such veneration, and to whose ways we seem to ourselves to be so wisely returning. They dragged their venison into the depths of a cave darker and closer than any house, and devoured it in great seclusion. Perhaps it began in the San Marco Piazza at Venice, with the little open-air tables under the colonnades. “So delightful! So charming!” Thus the tourists, as they sipped their coffee and dallied with their ices. They were right; it was delightful and charming, and so it is to this day, but it was perhaps the thin edge of the wedge which is turning us all out now.
Supper was the first regular meal to follow the open-air suggestion, country supper on the piazza in the warm summer evening. That also was delightful, of course, and not at all alarming. All nations and ages have practiced the sport of occasional festive repasts out of doors when the weather has permitted. But breakfast was not long in following suit; and, when dinner, that most conservative, conventional of meals, succumbed to the outward pressure and spread its congealing gravies in the chilly air, we were in for the thing in good earnest, the new custom was on. No longer a matter of times and seasons, the weather had nothing to do with it now; and in really zealous families the regular summer dining-room was out of doors. Summer dining-room — that sounds well; since summer and warmth go together traditionally. But not always actually in New England, where bleak rains overtake the world now and then, and clearing northwest winds come racing keenly. It was soon essential to introduce a new fashion in dinner garments : overcoats, sweaters, and heavy shawls, felt hats and mufflers.
“ Excuse me while I run upstairs to get a pair of mittens? ”
“ Finish your soup first, dear; it will be quite cold if you leave it.”
The adherents of the new doctrine are very conscientious and faithful, as was only to be expected. We are a valiant race in the matter of our enthusiasms and can be trusted to follow them sturdily, buckling on armor or overcoats or whatever other special equipment the occasion demands. Conscientiousness is a good trait, but there is perhaps more of the joy of life in some other qualities.
Sleeping outdoors was the next great phase in the open-air movement. That also began casually enough and altogether charmingly. One lingered in the hammock, watching the stars, musing in the still summer night, until, lo! there was the dawn beginning behind the eastern hills. A wonderful experience. Not much sleeping about it truly, — there is commonly not much sleeping about great experiences, — but so beautiful that the heart said, “Go to! why not have this always ? Why not sleep outdoors every night ? ” Which is of course exactly the way in which human nature works; very reasonable, very sane and convincing, but unfortunately never quite so successful as it should be. That which has blessed us once must be secured in perpetuity for our souls to feast on continually; revelation must fold its wings and abide with us. So we soberly go to work and strip all the poetry of divine chance, all the delight of the unexpected, from our great occasions by laying plans for their systematic recurrence.
Does the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses a joy as it flies,
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
It is a pity that William Blake could not teach us that once for all. As a matter of fact, of course, great occasions care nothing at all for our urging; and a plan is an institution which they cordially abhor. The stars and the dawn do not condescend to such paraphernalia for waylaying them as sleeping-bags, rubber blankets, air-pillows, and mosquito netting, with a stout club close at hand in case of tramps or a skunk.
One experience of my own recurs to my memory poignantly here, and I think I cannot do better than set it forth. I had passed an unforgettable night all alone in a meadow, detained by the evening almost insensibly into “solemn midnight’s tingling silences,” and thence into the austere dawn. It was an episode such as should have sealed my lips forever; but I profanely spoke of it, and at once the contagion of interest spread through the little village.
“ What fun! Did you have your rubbers on? Did you sit in a chair ? I should think you would have sat in a chair — so much more comfortable! Well, I tell you what, let’s do it together, — a lot of us, so we won’t be afraid,—and let’s climb a mountain. The sunset and dawn will be beautiful from a mountain.”
We did it; I blush to confess that some twenty-five of us did it. It was an excursion planned and discussed for a matter of two weeks (a full moon being part of the programme), and there was no accident unforeseen, no event unprovided for. The procession that wended its way toiling and puffing, up the ascent of Haystack, — the favored mountain selected for the high pedestal of our rapture, — on the auspicious night, was about as sad, and withal as funny, an affront as the secrecy of beauty ever received. Blankets, steamer-rugs, pillows, shawls, hammocks, whiskey-flasks — how we groaned beneath the burden of all these things! We lost the way, of course, and had to beat the woods in every direction; we were tired and hot and — cross ? Perhaps. But we knew what our rôle was, and when we reached the top of the mountain, we all of us stood very solemnly in a row and said, “ How beautiful ! ”
It was beautiful; that was just the fineness of the night’s triumph over us—over me at least; I cannot speak for the other twenty-four. To this day, be it said in parentheses, whenever we mention that night on Haystack we lift our eyes in ecstasy, and no one of us has ever confessed any sense of lack. But honestly, honestly at the last (dear stalwart relief of honesty!), that experiment was a failure— so beautiful that the spirit should have been lifted out of the body, and would have been, had it stood alone, had it not already exhausted itself in plans and expectations. Beneath us, a farspreading sea of misty, rolling hills, all vague and blended in the light of the soaring moon; above us, such a sweep of sky as only mountain-tops command; around us, silence, silence. Yet the unstrenuous orchard at home, with its tranquil acceptance of such degree of sunset light as was granted to it, and of the moon’s presence when she rose above the apple trees, would have conveyed the night’s message a thousand times more clearly.
It is seldom worth while to describe any failure of the spirit very minutely, and tragedy is not the tone this paper would assume; but one slight episode of the dawn following that fatal night must be related. We were gathered on the eastern edge of our mountain top, a tousled, gray, disheveled lot, heavy-eyed and weary. Does the reader understand the significance of the term “ to prevent the dawn ” ? He does if he has stood and waited for the sun to rise —or the moon or any of the constellations, for that matter. All heavenly bodies retard their progress through the influence of being waited for. “ Surely now! ” a dozen times we warned one another there, with our faces toward the quickening east; yet no glittering, lambent rim slid up to greet our eyes.
At last a decent comely cloud came to the rescue of the sun, halting and embarrassed, and settled snugly all about the mountain of the day-spring. Into this the sun was born, so obscurely that it rode high above the mountain’s edge, shorn and dull, a rubber ball, before we discovered it. “ Why — why — ” some one began, stammering; and then there was a dramatic pause. Brave and determined though we were in our pursuit of ecstasy, we could not burst forth into song like Memnon statues at the sight of that belated orange, “ Lo, the Lord Sun!” Not at all. It was the merest varlet. In this dilemma of our hearts, a funny little wailing cry came from the cliff’s edge. “ I want my money back! I want my money back! ” It was a perfect commentary on the whole situation, as fine and humorous and true an utterance as could be asked on the foiled occasion. We laughed at it, and all the air was straightway clearer for us. Then down the mountain-side we trooped, and went home to bed.
Of course I am not unaware of the impatience of some readers, if they have taken pains to scan so far this earnest exposition. The outdoor movement is not one primarily of sentiment, but of health and happiness; and the story just related is aside from the point. That may be true. I certainly stand in respect of the great claims of the physical side of the subject, and would not deal with them. By all means, let all people be as well as possible. But it is still the other side, the side of sentiment and rapture, which is most pleadingly and often brought home to me.
It is pitiful how helpless we are against the invasions of a new enthusiasm like this — we sober, conservative folk. I still sleep in my bed, in my room, but the satisfaction I used to take in the innocent practice is broken of late by haunting fears that I may not be able to keep it up. My friends will not let me alone.
“ Of all things! why don’t you sleep out here, on this little upper piazza ? Precisely the place! I can’t understand how you can ignore such an opportunity.”
“ Well, you see,” — my answer was glib at first, — “ the piazza overhangs the road, and the milk-wagons go by very early. I don’t want to get up at four o’clock every morning.”
“ They could n’t see much of you, I should think,” —with a thoughtful measuring glance, — “ not more than your toes and the tip of your nose.”
“Oh, thank you, that’s quite enough! ”
“ Well, you might saw off the legs of a cot, to bring it below the railing. Or just a mattress spread on the floor would do very well.”
Just a mattress spread on the floor! That closes the argument. I have no spirit left to prefer any other objections to these dauntless souls, such as the rain (the piazza has no roof). But what would a cold bath be if not distinctly so much to the good in view of the toilet operations of the following morning ? There is no course left me but that final one, — which should in honesty have come first, — of damning myself by the hopeless assertion, “ I don’t want to sleep out of doors.” This locks the argument, and the barrier stands complete, shutting me off in a world by myself, interrupting the genial flow of sympathetic friendship. But I love my friends. Therefore it follows that I tremble for my further repose in my bed. I fear I shall yet utter midnight sighs on that piazza floor.
Indoors, dear indoors! I would I might plead its cause a little here. Does no one ever pause to reflect that there was never any outdoors at all until indoors was created ? The two had a simultaneous birth, but it was an appurtenance of the latter that marked the distinction and gave the names. A little humiliating that might have seemed to any creatures less generous than woods and mountains — to have been here really from the beginning, ages and ages in glorious life, and then to take their first generic name, find their first classification, all of them in a lump together (what a lump!) as the other side of a fragile barrier to a mushroom construction. One wonders that those who exalt the outdoors as everything nowadays, do not find some better title for it than its dooryard term. But those who love the indoors too, though they may smile at the calm presumption of its dubbing the universe, accept the conclusion without any question. Man is after all the creature of creatures, and his life is of first importance. We do not hear that the woodchuck speaks of out-hole, or the bird of out-tree.
Such life of man is an inner thing, intensely inner; its essence lies in its inwardness. It can hardly know itself “ all abroad; ” it must needs have devised for itself a shelter as soon as it came to selfconsciousness, a refuge, not only from storm and cold but from the distracting variety of the extensive world. Indoors is really an august symbol, a very grave and reverend thing, if we apprehend it rightly. It stands for the separate life of man, apart from (though still a part of, too) the rest of the universe. Take any one room inhabited daily by a person of strong individuality, — how alive it is! flow brisk and alert in the very attitudes of the chairs and the pictures on the walls! Or, more happily, how serene and reposeful! Or how matter-of-fact! Morbid and passionate, flippant, austere, boisterous, decorous, — anything, everything a room may be which a human creature may be; and that range, as most of us know, is almost unlimited.
It is hard to understand how any person can fail to respond to the warm appeal of his own abode. Say one has been abroad all day (another term that assumes the house as a starting-point), climbing the mountains, exploring the woods, ravishing eyes and heart with the beauty of the excellent world. Night comes at last, and weariness droops upon the flesh. Enough! Even the spirit’s cry finds a pause. Enough, enough! The wide world suddenly spreads so vast that it overwhelms and frightens; there is something pitiless in the reach of the unbounded sky. Then, as fast as they can, the lagging feet make for a point on the hillside where the eyes can command the valley, and swiftly, eagerly flies the glance to one dear accustomed goal. A white house nestled among the trees, — that is all, yet it thrills the heart with a potent summons which mountain-peaks and sunsets do not know. Home! Ah, hurry, then!
Down the hill, across the pasture, in at the white gate, and up the two marble steps. The front door stands open unconcernedly. The house makes no stir at receiving its inmate back, — its inmate whose life it has held and brooded during his absence, waiting to reinvest him with it when he wants it again, —but there is a quiet sense of welcome, a content of returning, which is among the sweetest and most establishing of human experiences. The clock ticks steadily in the hall, its hands approaching the genial hour of supper-time. Within the open library door, the books dream on the shelves. Little sounds of a tranquil preparation come from the dining-room; the tea-kettle sings, the black kitten purrs. Blessed indoors! It draws a veil gently over the tired head, bewildered with much marveling, lays a cool hand over the eyes, says, “Now rest, rest.” Indoors is like the Guardian Angel in Browning’s poem.
After supper, one sits by the lamp and reads peacefully. Aunt Susan reads, too, on the other side of the big table, and Cousin Jane sews. The books and the pictures look on benignly, and even the furniture is instinct with a mute eloquence of companionship. The song of the night insects throbs without, and millers hurl themselves with soft thuds against the windows; an owl mutters to himself in the maple tree. But not for anything would one go out, not for anything would one leave this glowing, brooding, protecting indoors which one has regained. After a while, one goes upstairs and lays one’s self in the safe white bed in one’s own room. The windows are open to the night, but solid walls are all round about; and, before the sleepily closing eyes, gleam one’s own peculiar cherished belongings in the creeping moonlight. Into the very heart of one’s life one has returned at the close of the day, and there one goes to sleep. “ In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength.”
And we will not? Is the discouraged clause, promptly succeeding to that most beautiful verse of Isaiah, true, then, of us ? Are we going to despoil ourselves of all the poetry, the intimate meaning of our indoor life ?
“ A place in which to dress and undress
— that is all I want of a house,” an energetic young woman said.
A bath-house would suit her perfectly. Perhaps that is what we are coming to
— rows of bath-houses, with sleepingbags stored up in them against the night. Alas for the pictures! Alas for the music! Alas for the books!
The books! There is a happy suggestion. I believe the books will save us. There is certainly nothing that objects with greater decision and emphasis to sleeping out of doors than a book — yes, even a volume of Walt Whitman. Books are obstinate in their way; they know their own minds, and there are some things which they will not do. The effect of leaving one in the orchard inadvertently over night has a final melancholy about it which most book-lovers understand poignantly. Could books be printed on india rubber and bound in waterproof cloth ? Perhaps; but the method does not sound attractive enough to be feasible even in these practical days. No, I believe the books will save us. They are a great army and they have power; a steady conservative hold is theirs on their restless owners. Other threatening situations they have saved and are constantly saving.
“ I sometimes think I ’d give up housekeeping, and not have a home any more,” one woman said, “ if it were n’t for my books. But I can’t part with them, nor yet can I get them all into one room; so here I stay.”
“ Buy books ? ” exclaimed a New York man. “ No; it hurts them too much to move them.”
Which innocent implication has caused me many a thoughtful smile.
Essentially human, — with the humanity of the ages, not of a few decades, — books understand what man really wants, and what he must have, better than he does himself. In the serene and gracious indoors, they took up their places long ago, and there they remain, and there they will always make shift to abide. Perhaps, if we sit down close at their feet, we, too, may abide.