The Rain-Water Barrel

THE old rain-water barrel! Not quite a sacred relic, like the spinning-wheel, the brass knocker, and — somewhat more profanely — the old oaken bucket; but still is it not sufficiently out of date as an institution to become interestingly reminiscent? I have noticed that even where the closed cistern and the prosaic iron pump have not yet come with their convenience to displace the picturesque, there seem to be only old boilers, or galvanized iron tubs, standing under the spouts at the corners of houses. Now, what can there possibly be in a galvanized iron tub to equal the delights of sight and sound that lurked in the green-black depths of the wooden rain-water barrel ? I never think of it as being full of water. In the very brief periods when it was allowed to remain full, there were other watery things of more interest to barefooted youngsters. Nor do I recall when it suffered complete drouth, though such times must have been. Chiefly I remember the rain-water barrel as a strange dark cavern, capable of producing alluringly fearsome reverberations. In the pool at the bottom, shallow or deep according to the number of days since a rain, small girls could see strange black shadows of their curly heads, and lovely drowned bugs, — and “ wrigglers.” Next to the reverberations, these lively creatures were the best thing in the barrel. We liked to watch them darting and squirming, impossible to catch, and amounting to nothing but specks if accidentally landed on the stick with which we sometimes disturbed their quiet habitat. As I think of it now, it seems to me that the rain-water barrel was almost as important a feature of my small-girl universe as was the teeter-board or the swing under the apple tree. In the happy seasons I spent in the country I found scores of barrels, some of them possessing peculiar charms, — for instance, the one where the black cat had her kittens; but there was no other’so attractive, so responsive, as the barrel under the spout by our own cellar door.

These forgotten delights all came back to me the other evening when some one told a story of a discerning young lady who was about to be married. As a sort of introduction to herself, she went several times a day to the rain-water barrel, and shouted into it the new name she was soon to bear. “ Mrs. Henry Brockelmeyer,” she shrieked. If you were properly initiated in your youth, you will know what she heard; but no mere description of mine can make it clear to you.

The old barrel was a failure in enunciation, though masterly in volume. Our favorite salute was a peculiar call, for which I have no name, but which was as much a part of childhood craft as the game of hide-and-seek. You half closed your mouth in an O shape, then made almost any vowel sound at any possible pitch, meanwhile patting your puckered lips rapidly with your hand. It was a sort of war-whoop, often used as a signal to one’s chum, and it sounded well in the woods; but we seemed to feel its tonal beauties most keenly when we heard it echoing in the rain-water barrel. Yet we also indulged in many original communications. The barrel was a safe confessional for those wonderful secrets that must not be told to a single living soul. It answered scared whispers with strange, indistinct murmurs; but even at double forte its response was as safely mysterious as if it were speaking Kamschatkan. Once, however, in a season of “ being mad ” at Susanna Arnold, I yelled into the barrel, “ You mean old thing! ” wishing I could find courage to shout that in her very ear. But then the barrel seemed to “ talk plain.” With most unusual distinctness it echoed the words back to my own ears. I fell to thinking, and for several days was a model child, and finally asked my mother to make me some molasses candy — the kind Susanna liked best.

There was a limit to the familiarity one might indulge in with the rain-water barrel. Of course, one never went there after dark, at least not alone. It was strange, too, that I never thought of getting into the barrel, not even when playing hideand-seek. Perhaps if some grinning boy had “ dared ” me, I might have learned that for a strange, “ trembly ” reason which I could not have defined, I simply did n’t want to try that feat. How keen this unnamable feeling was I discovered in ruder fashion. Wandering home one summer evening from an excursion down to the creek just east of town, — tired, dirty, my lean little legs spattered with mud and scratched by brambles, I was suddenly seized by Uncle Dan and chucked into the rain-water barrel. I cannot describe the terror that came upon me. I must have fainted; for I knew nothing more until I found myself lying on the bed with solemn faces about me and my mother crying. No one could explain my fright. I had never heard of ghosts and goblins. When I felt better they asked questions: — “ What were you afraid of, dear ? ” How could I tell them ? But when the rest had gone away, and my mother took me in her arms, I sobbed, “ I was just afraid;” and I think she understood, for I do now, though no course in the psychology of childhood has enlightened me.

Perhaps, out in the sweet-smelling country one may still find real rain-water barrels. I hope so, for it is hard to see all the old-fashioned things passing away. Oh, yes, you will argue that we are well rid of tallow candles, fireplaces, wellsweeps, spinning-wheels, rain-water barrels, and all, and that our modern substitutes are better for every one; but I am not arguing, only meditating.


THERE is a real as well as an ideal kingdom of Bohemia; but ever since Shakespeare gave the real kingdom an imaginary seacoast, Bohemia has meant more to the imagination than to geographical science. The seacoast, — let it stand for the touch of romance with which Bohemia is transfigured. For the romancer has always been busy with Bohemia, from Shakespeare’s day to our own : busy with its facts, still busier with its memories. What if it is to-day more sidewalk and restaurant and studio than seacoast? What if we do not draw so sharp a line between Philistia and Bohemia as did our fathers and fathers’ fathers ? — at least the line is drawn. It is a good place to read about, this capital of art and good fellowship; for Bohemia is indeed the capital to-day, and no longer the resort of shipwrecked captains accompanied by ladies in borrowed trousers. The conditions have altered, but the place abides; abides, at least, as a convention, the “ property ” of novelist and story-teller.

Traditionally, it is the serf of dessicated proprieties, the unimaginative victim of the stereotyped in society and in ideas, who never could gain the keys, the freedom, of this city-state. Though he supped late, perhaps, the fact that there was money in his pockets, or that he had a job, was always enough to keep him from sparkling like the garret-genius, who dreams when his pockets are flat, and drinks when they are full. But where are — not the snows, who cares about them ! —where are the dreams of yesterday ? I too have always hankered after the chimeras, and Bohemia is one of them. Where is Bohemia? In books, but not in life, alas; not in New York, nor London, nor Paris. I have tried to find it; sometimes with pockets full, more often with pockets empty. It has vanished. It defies discovery.

Did it ever exist, Bohemia? If so, it must have been in those wonderful Thirties, in the Paris of Gautier and Hugo and Musset and George Sand. Yet even Gautier’s flaming waistcoat was never so red as it was painted; and as for Baudelaire, — to-day we know that the secret of his scandalous green locks was the loss of hair and the use of an unguent restorer to bring it back in full force. They, too, craved a Bohemia: being geniuses, more or less, they created it. For a moment it lighted up their lives, then faded out, though only after their books had caught the reflection for all time. Bohemia is still more than a geographical concept, thanks to the narrative of the performances of Hernani; it glows in the letters of George Sand; in the lives of some actors in the Comédie Humaine, And that is all,—but that its reflection shines, half sad, half gay and careless, in the tales of Murger.

The finding of a Bohemia for ourselves is conditional on certain alternatives; and here they are. Either we must be very young and very unexacting, or else very old and blessed with a genius for gilding gorgeously our recollections of a tawdry past. Thus is Bohemia discovered, — thus and in no other way. Hazlitt, poor fellow! murmured on his death bed that his life had been happy; Rousseau derived belated pleasures of imagination in living over and ennobling, so far as he was able, the amorous passages of his youth. “ Impassioned Recollection ” is the critic’s word for Hazlitt’s faculty, and Rousseau’s. And with that faculty each of us may build him a Bohemia — long after the event. Yes, — and there is one other, an ignoble, manner of finding a Bohemia for others. As hungry journalists we may, if we like, glance round our bare hall-bedrooms, survey the chop-house or the Latin Quarter restaurant (one of the Rendezvous des Cockers, at a pinch), and proceed to metamorphose our Midionette into Grazielia, her callous hands into long, tapering fingers, the daub on our canvas into a masterpiece, a barren existence into the artist’s life. Thus do we write a book of the Under-world of Art that will make you, amiable and well-nourished reader, water at the mouth. Afterwards, we will dine alone for one-franc-fifty, — for thirty cents.

For most Bohemias are gas-light Vulgarias, tenanted by less vigorous Elbert Hubbards. We wink at what we don’t like; we tell only of that prospect which does please (when the sun is out), and we forge our documents. Imagination — it is far more the power not to see what is there than that to build one castles in Spain. The inhabitants of Bohemia — how gracious in fiction, even in the novels of W. J. Locke! I do not know them. I have seen dirty Americans playing poker in a Montparnasse café that artists use; were they Bohemians ? I have seen revolting performances on Christmas Eve — perhaps they could be shaped into romance if one had the stomach for the work ?

Frankly, the Bohemians of literature are the Vulgarians of real life whose unpleasant qualities have been elided or even quite erased, — this in the interest of the Contributors’ Club. Did they ever exist in real life, these characters? If so, you would never have given them a bow. The personages in Trilby were not Bohemians; you remarked the fact, perhaps, that they took cold tubs ?

Take the uninspired, dead-eyed art student of these degenerate days; give him a velvet jacket if you like; retain his finger-nails as a picturesque bit of realism ; add then to his person the charms that only some respectable Philistine ever had, — stir determinedly, — presto! there stands your Bohemian of fiction. Sometimes, however, the more observing reader will remark that refinement and dirt do clash; that the manner of life and the results (for he is bound to succeed, this fellow, — in fiction) are almost as contradictory. And then the Bohemian will be revealed to you, as to me — and both of us are well-intentioned persons — revealed as the product of vulgarity and the protagonist of the disgusting.