When I was a boy in Scotland I was fond of everything that was wild, and all my life I’ve been growing fonder and fonder of wild places and wild creatures. Fortunately, around my native town of Dunbar, by the stormy North Sea, there was no lack of wildness, though most of the land lay in smooth cultivation. With red-blooded playmates, wild as myself, I loved to wander in the fields to hear the birds sing, and along the seashore to gaze and wonder at the shells and seaweeds, eels and crabs in the pools among the rocks when the tide was low. And, best of all, in glorious storms to watch the waves thundering on the black headlands and craggy ruins of the old Dunbar Castle when the sea and the sky, the waves and the clouds, were mingled together as one.
After I was five or six years old I ran away to the seashore or the fields almost every Saturday, and every day in the school vacations except Sundays, though solemnly warned that I must play at home in the garden and backyard, lest I should learn to think bad thoughts and say bad words. All in vain. In spite of the sure sore punishments that followed like shadows, the natural inherited wildness in our blood ran true on its glorious course, as invincible and unstoppable as the stars.
My earliest recollections of the country were gained on short walks with my grandfather when I was perhaps not over three years old. On one of these walks grandfather took me to Lord Lauderdale’s gardens, where I saw figs growing against a sunny wall and tasted some of them, and got as many apples to eat as I wished. On another memorable walk in a hay-field, when we sat down to rest on one of the haycocks, I heard a sharp, prickly, stinging cry, and jumping up eagerly, called grandfather’s attention to it. He said he heard only the wind, but I insisted on digging into the hay and turning it over until we discovered the source of the strange exciting sound—a mother field-mouse with half a dozen naked young hanging to her teats. This to me was a wonderful discovery. No hunter could have been more excited on discovering a bear and her cubs in a wilderness den.
I was sent to school before I had completed my third year. The first school-day was doubtless full of wonders, but I am not able to recall any of them. I remember the servant washing my face and getting soap in my eyes, and mother hanging a little green bad with my first book in it around my neck so I would not lose it, and its blowing back in the sea-wind like a flag. But before I was sent to school my grandfather, as I was told, had taught me my letters from shop signs across the street. I can remember distinctly how proud I was when I had spelled my way through the little first book into the second, which seemed large and important, and so on to the third. Going from one book to another formed a grand triumphal advancement, the memories of which still stand out in clear relief.
At this time infants were baptized and vaccinated a few days after birth. I remember very well a fight with the doctor when my brother David was vaccinated. This happened, I think, before I was sent to school. I could not imagine what the doctor, a tall, severe-looking man in black, was doing to my brother; but as mother, who was holding him in her arms, offered no objection, I looked on quietly while he scratched the arm, until I saw blood. Then, unable to trust even my mother, I managed to spring up high enough to grab and bite the doctor’s arm, yelling that ‘I wasna gan to let him hurt my bonnie brither,’ while to my utter astonishment mother and the doctor only laughed at me. So far from complete at times is sympathy between parents and children, and so much like wild beasts are baby boys: little fighting, biting, climbing pagans.
Father was proud of his garden and seemed always to be trying to make it as much like Eden as possible, and in a corner of it he gave each of us a little bit of ground for our very own, in which we planted what we best liked, wondering how the hard dry seeds could change into soft leaves and flowers and find their way out to the light; and to see how they were coming on we used to dig up the larger ones, such as peas and beans, every day. My aunt had a corner assigned to her in our garden, which she filled with lilies, and we all looked with the utmost respect and admiration at that precious lily-bed, and wondered whether when we grew up we should ever be rich enough to own one anything. We imagined that each lily was worth an enormous sum of money, and never dared to touch a single leaf or petal of them. We really stood in awe of them. Far, far was I then from the wild-lily gardens of California, which I was destined to see in their glory.
When I was a little boy at Mungo Siddons’s school a flower-show was held in Dunbar and i saw a number of the exhibitors carrying large handfuls of dahlias, the first I had ever seen. I thought them marvelous in size and beauty and, as in the case of my aunt’s lilies, wondered if I should ever be rich enough to own some of them.
Although I never dared to touch my aunt’s sacred lilies, I have good cause to remember stealing some common flowers from an apothecary, Peter Lawson, who also answered the purpose of a regular physician to most of the poor people of the town and adjacent country. He had a pony which was considered very wild and dangerous, and when he was called out of town he mounted this wonderful beast, which after standing long in the stable was frisky and boisterous, and often to our delight reared and jumped and danced about from side to side of the street before he could be persuaded to go ahead. We boys gazed in awful admiration and wondered how the druggist could be so brave and able as to get on and stay on that wild beast’s back. This famous Peter loved flowers and had a fine garden surrounded by an iron fence, through the bars of which, when I thought no one saw me, I oftentimes snatched a flower and took to my heels. One day Peter discovered me in this mischief, dashed out into the street and caught me. I screamed that I wouldna steal any more if he would let me go. He didn’t say anything, but just dragged me along to the stable where he kept the wild pony, pushed me in right back of his heels, and shut the door. I was screaming of course, but as soon as I was imprisoned the fear of being kicked quenched all noise. I hardly dared breathe. My only hope was in motionless silence. Imagine the agony I endured! I didn’t steal any more of his flowers. He was a good hard judge of boy nature.
It appears natural for children to be fond of water, although the Scotch method of making every duty dismal contrived to make necessary bathing for health terrible to us. I well remember among the awful experiences of childhood being taken by the servant to the seashore when I was between two and three years old, stripped at the side of a deep pool in the rocks, plunged into it among crawling crawfish and slippery wriggling snake-like eels, and drawn up gasping and shrieking only to be plunged down again and again. As the time approached for this terrible bathing I used to hide in the darkest corners of the house, and oftentimes a long search was required to find me. But after we were a few years older we enjoyed bathing with older boys as we wandered along the shore, careful however not to get into a pool that had an invisible boy-devouring monster at the bottom of it. Such pools, miniature maelstroms, were called ‘Sookin-in-goats,’ and were well known to most of us. Nevertheless we never ventured into any pool on strange parts of the coast before we had thrust a stick into it. If the stick were not pulled out of our hands, we boldly entered, and enjoyed plashing and ducking long ere we had learned to swim.
Most of the Scotch children believe in ghosts, and some under peculiar conditions continue to believe in them all through life. Grave ghosts are deemed particularly dangerous, and many of the most credulous will go far out of their way to avoid passing through or near a graveyard in the dark. After being instructed by the servants in the nature, looks, and habits of the various black and white ghosts, boowuzzies, and witches, we often speculated as to whether they could run fast, and tried to believe that we had a good chance to get away from most of them. To improve our speed and wind we often took long runs into the country. Tam o’ Shanter’s mare outran a lot of witches, — at least until she reached a place of safety beyond the keystone of the bridge, — and we thought perhaps we also might be able to outrun them.
Our house formerly belonged to a physician, and a servant girl told us that the ghost of the dead doctor haunted one of the unoccupied rooms in the second story, that was kept dark on account of a heavy window-tax. Our bedroom was adjacent to the ghost room, which had in it a lot of chemical apparatus, — glass-tubing, glass and brass retorts, test-tubes, flasks, etc., — and we thought that those strange articles were still used by the old dead doctor in compounding physic. In the long summer days David and I were put to bed several hours before sunset. Mother tucked us in carefully, drew the curtains of the big old-fashioned bed, and told us to lie still and sleep like gude bairns; but we were usually out of bed, playing games of daring called ‘scootchers,’ about as soon as our loving mother reached the foot of the stairs, for we couldn’t lie still, however hard we might try. Going into the ghost room was regarded as a very great scootcher. After venturing in a few steps and rushing back in terror, I used to dare David to go as far without getting caught.
The roof of our house, as well as the crags and walls of the old castle, offered fine mountaineering exercise. Our bedroom was lighted by a dormer window. One night I opened it in search of good scootchers and hung myself out over the slates, holding on to the sill, while the wind was making a balloon of my nightgown. I then dared David to try the adventure, and he did. THen I went out again and hung by one hand, and David did the same. Then I hung by one finger, being careful not to slip, and he did that too. Then I stood on the sill and examined the edge of the left wall of the window, crept up the slates along its side by slight fingerholds, got astride of the roof, sat there a few minutes looking at the scenery over the garden wall while the wind was howling and threatening to blow me off, managed to slip down, catch hold of the sill and get safely back into the room. But before attempting this scootcher, recognizing its dangerous character, with commendable caution I warned David that in case I should happen to slip I would grip the rain trough when i was going over the eaves and hang on, and that he must then run fast downstairs and tell father to get a ladder for me, and tell him to be quick because I would soon be tired hanging dangling in the wind by my hands. After my return from this capital scootcher, David, not to be outdone, crawled up to the top of the window roof, and got bravely astride of it; but in trying to return he lost courage and began to greet (to cry), ‘I canna get doon. Oh, I canna get doon.’ I leaned out of the window and shouted encouragingly, ‘Dinna greet, David, dinna greet, I’ll help ye doon. If you greet, fayther will hear, and gee us baith an awfu’ skelping.’ Then, standing on the sill and holding on by one hand to the window casing, I directed him to slip his feet down within reach, and after securing a good hold, I jumped inside and dragged him in by his heels. This finished scootcher-scrambling for the night and frightened us into bed.
Boys are often at once cruel and merciful, thoughtlessly hard-hearted and tender-hearted, sympathetic, pitiful, and kind in ever changing contrasts. Love of neighbors, human or animal, grows up amid savage traits, coarse and fine. When father made out to get us securely locked up in the backyard to prevent our shore and field wanderings, we had to play away the comparatively dull time as best we could. One of our amusements was hunting cats without seriously hurting them. These sagacious animals knew, however, that, though not very dangerous, boys were not to be trusted. Once in particular, I remember, we began throwing stones at an experienced old Tom, not wishing to hurt him much, though he was a tempting mark. He soon saw what we were up to, fled to the stable and climbed to the top of the hay-manger. He was still within range, however, and we kept the stones flying faster and faster, but he just blinked and played possum without wincing either at our best shots or at the noise we made. I happened to strike him pretty hard with a good-sized pebble, but he still blinked and sat still as if without feeling. ‘He must be mortally wounded,’ I said, ‘and now we must kill him to put him out of pain,’ the savage in us rapidly growing with indulgence. All took heartily to this sort of cat mercy and began throwing the heaviest stones we could manage, but that old fellow knew what characters we were, and just as we imagined him mercifully dead he evidently thought that the play was becoming too serious and it was time to retreat; for suddenly with a wild whir and gurr of energy, he launched himself over our heads, rushed across the yard in a blur of speed, climbed to the roof of another building and over the garden wall—out of pain and bad company, with all his lives wide-awake and in good working order.
After we had thus learned that Tom had at least nine lives, we tried to verify the common saying that no matter how far cats fall they always land on their feet unhurt. We caught one in our back-yard—not Tom, but a smaller one of manageable size—and somehow got him smuggled up to the top story of the house. I don’t know how on earth we managed to let go of him, for when we opened the window and held him over the sill he knew his danger and made violent efforts to scratch and bite his way back into the room; but we determined to carry the thing through, and at last managed to drop him. I can remember to this day how the poor creature in danger of his life strained and balanced as he was falling, and managed to alight on his feet. This was a cruel thing for even wild boys to do, and we never tried the experiment again, for we sincerely pitied the poor fellow when we saw him creeping slowly away, stunned and frightened, with a swollen black-and-blue chin.
Again, showing the natural savagery of boys, we delighted in dog fights, and even in the horrid red work of slaughter houses, often running long distances and climbing over walls and roofs to see a pig killed, as soon as we heard the desperately earnest squealing. And if the butcher was good-natured, we begged him to let us get a near view of the mysterious insides, and to give us a bladder to blow up for a football.
But here is an illustration of the better side of boy nature. In our back-yard there were three elm trees, and in the one nearest the house a pair of robin-redbreasts had their nest. When the young were almost able to fly, a troop of the celebrated ‘Scots Grays’ visited Dunbar, and three or four of their fine horses were lodged in our stable. When the soldiers were polishing their swords and helmets they happened to notice the nest, and just as they were leaving, one of them climbed the tree and robbed it. With sore sympathy we watched the young birds as the hard-hearted robber pushed them one by one beneath his jacket—all but two that jumped out of the nest and tried to fly; but they were easily caught as they fluttered on the ground, and were hidden away with the rest. The distress of the bereaved parents, as they hovered and screamed over the frightened crying children they so long had loved and sheltered and fed, was pitiful to see; but the shining soldier rode grandly away on his big gray horse, caring only for the few pennies the young song-birds would bring and the beer they would buy, while we all, sisters and brothers, were crying and sobbing. I remember as if it happened this day how my heart fairly ached and choked me. Mother put us to bed and tried to comfort us, telling us that the little birds would be well fed and grow big, and soon learn to sing in pretty cages; but again and again we rehearsed the sad story of the poor bereaved birds and their frightened children, and could not be comforted. Father came into the room when we were half asleep and still sobbing, and I heard mother telling him that, ‘A’ the bairns’ hearts were broken over the robbing of the nest in the elm.’
After attaining the manly belligerent age of five or six years, very few of my school-days passed without a fist fight, and half a dozen was no uncommon number. When any classmate of our own age questioned our rank and standing as fighters we always made haste to settle the matter at a quiet place on the Davel Brae. To be a ‘gude fechter’ was our highest ambition, our dearest aim in life in or out of school. To be a good scholar was a secondary consideration, though we tried hard to hold high places in our classes and gloried in being Dux. We fairly reveled in the battle stories of glorious William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, with which every breath of Scotch air is saturated, and of course we were all going to be soldiers. On the Davel Brae battleground we often managed to bring on something like real war, greatly more exciting than personal combat. Choosing leaders, we divided into two armies. In winter damp snow furnished plenty of ammunition to make the thing serious, and in summer sand and grass-sods. Cheering and shouting some battle-cry such as ‘Bannockburn! Bannockburn! Scotland forever! The Last War in India!’ we were led bravely on. For heavy battery work we stuffed our Scotch blue bonnets with snow and sand, sometimes mixed with gravel, and fired them at each other as cannon balls.
An exciting time came when at the age of seven or eight years I left the auld Davel Brae school for the grammar school. Of course I had a terrible lot of fighting to do, because a new scholar had to meet every one of his age who dared to challenge him, this being the common introduction to a new school. It was very strenuous for the first month or so, establishing my fighting rank, taking up new studies, especially Latin and French, getting acquainted with new classmates and the master and his rules. In the first few Latin and French lessons the new teacher, Mr. Lyon, blandly smiled at our comical blunders; but pedagogical weather of the severest kind quickly set in, when for every mistake, everything short of perfection, the taws was promptly applied. We had to get three lessons every day in Latin, three in French, and as many in English, besides spelling, history, arithmetic, and geography. Word-lessons in particular the ‘wouldst couldst shouldst have loved’ kind, were kept up with much warlike thrashing until I had committed the whole of the French, Latin and English grammars to memory; and in connection with reading lessons we were called on to recite parts of them with the rules over and over again, as if all the incomprehensible regular and irregular verb-stuff was poetry.
In addition to all this, father made me learn so many Bible verses every day that by the time I was eleven years of age I had about three-fourths of the Old Testament and all of the New by heart and by sore flesh. I could recite the New Testament from the beginning of Matthew to the end of Revelation without a single stop. The dangers of cramming and of making scholars study at home, instead of letting their little brains rest, were never heard of in those days. We carried our school-books home in a strap every night and committed to memory our next day’s lessons before we went to bed, and to do that we had to bend our attention as closely on our tasks as lawyers on great million-dollar cases.
I cannot conceive of anything that would now enable me to concentrate my attention more fully than when I was a mere stripling boy, and it was all done by whipping—thrashing in general. Old-fashioned Scotch teachers spent no time in seeking short roads to knowledge, or in trying any of the new-fangled psychological methods so much in vogue nowadays. There was nothing said about making the seats easy or the lessons easy. We were simply driven point-blank against our books like soldiers against the enemy, and sternly ordered, ‘Up and at ’em. Commit your lessons to memory!’ If we failed in any part, however slight, we were whipped; for the grand, simple, all-sufficing Scotch discovery had been made that there was a close connection between the skin and the memory, and that irritating the skin excited the memory to any required degree.
Fighting was carried on still more vigorously in the high school than in the common school. Whenever anyone was challenged, either the challenge was allowed or it was decided by a battle on the seashore, where with stubborn enthusiasm we battered each other as if we had not been sufficiently battered by the teacher. When we were so fortunate as to finish a fight without getting a black eye, we usually escaped a thrashing at home and another next morning at school, for other traces of the fray could be easily could be easily washed off at a well on the church brae, or concealed, or represented as the results of playground accidents; but a black eye could never be explained away from downright fighting.
A good double thrashing was the inevitable penalty, but all without avail: fighting went on without the slightest abatement, like natural storms, for no punishment less than death could quench the ancient inherited belligerence in our pagan blood. Nor could we be made to believe that it was fair that father and teacher should thrash us so industriously for our good, while begrudging us the pleasure of thrashing each other for our good. All these various thrashings however were admirably influential in developing not only memory, but fortitude as well. For if we did not endure our school punishments and fighting pains without flinching and making faces, we were mocked on the playground, and public opinion on a Scotch playground was a powerful agent in controlling behavior; therefore we at length managed to keep our features in smooth repose while enduring pain that would try anybody but an American Indian.
Far from feeling that we were called on to endure too much pain, one of our playground games was thrashing each other with whips about two feet long, made from the tough wiry stems of a species of polygonum fastened together in a stiff firm braid. Handing two of these whips to a companion to take his choice, we stood up close together and thrashed each other on the legs until one succumbed to the intolerable pain, and thus lost the game.
Nearly all our playground games were strenuous: shin-battering shinny, wrestling, prisoners’ base, and dogs-and-hares; all augmenting, in no slight degree, our lessons in fortitude. Moreover, we regarded our punishments and pains of every sort as training for war, since we were all going to be soldiers. Besides single combats we sometimes assembled on Saturdays to meet the scholars of another school, when very little was required for the growth of strained relations, and war. The immediate cause might be nothing more than a saucy stare; perhaps the scholar stared at would insolently inquire, ‘What are ye glowerin’ at, Bob?’ Bob would reply, ‘I’ll look where I hae a mind, and hinder me if ye daur.’ ‘Weel, Bob,’ the outraged, stared-at scholar would reply, ‘I’ll soon let ye see whether I daur or no!’ and give Bob a blow on the face. This opened the battle, and every good scholar belonging to either school was drawn into it. After both sides were sore and weary, a strong-lunged warrior would be heard above the din of battle shouting, ‘I’ll tell ye what we’ll da wi’ ye. If ye’ll let us alane we’ll let ye alane!’—and the school-war ended as most others between nations do; and most of them begin in much the same way.
Forty-seven years after leaving this fighting school I returned on a visit to Scotland, and a cousin in Dunbar introduced me to a minister who was acquainted with the history of the school, and obtained for me an invitation to dine with the new master. Of course I gladly accepted, for I wanted to see the old place of fun and pain, and the battle ground on the sands. Mr. Lyon, our able teacher and thrasher, I learned, had held his place as master of the school for twenty or thirty years after I left it, and had recently died in London, after preparing many young men for the English universities. At the dinner-table, while recalling the amusements and fights of my old school-days, the minister remarked to the new master, ‘Now, don’t you wish that you had been teacher in those days, and gained the honor of walloping John Muir?’ This pleasure so merrily suggested showed that the minister also had been a fighter in his youth. The old free-stone school building was still perfectly sound, but the carved ink-stained desks were almost whittled away.
Our most exciting sport was playing with gunpowder. We made guns out of gas-pipe, mounted them on sticks of any shape, clubbed our pennies together for powder, gleaned pieces of lead here and there and cut them into slugs, and while one aimed another applied a match to the touch-hole. With these awful weapons we wandered along the beach and fired at the gulls and Solan geese as they passed us. Fortunately we never hurt any of them that we knew of. We also dug holes in the ground, put in a handful or two of powder, tamped it well round a fuse made of a wheat-stalk, and, reaching cautiously forward, touched a match to the straw. This we called making earthquakes. Oftentimes we went home with singed hair and faces well peppered with powder-grains that could not be washed out. Then, of course, came a correspondingly severe punishment from both father and teacher.
Another favorite sport was climbing trees and scaling garden-walls. Boys eight or ten years of age could get over almost any wall by standing on each other’s shoulders, thus making living ladders. To make walls secure against marauders many of them were finished on top with broken bottles imbedded in lime, leaving the cutting edges sticking up; but, with bunches of grass and weeds, we could sit or stand in comfort on top of the jaggedest of them. Like squirrels that begin to eat nuts long before they are ripe, we began to eat apples about as soon as they were formed, causing of course desperate gastric disturbances, to be cured by castor-oil. Serious were the risks we ran in climbing and squeezing through hedges, and of course among the country-folk we were far from welcome. Farmers passing us on the roads often shouted by way of greeting, ‘Oh, you vagabonds! Back to the toon wi’ ye. Gang back where ye belang. You’re up to mischief I ’se warrant. I can see it. The game-keeper’ll catch ye, and maist-like ye’ll a’ be hanged some day.’
Breakfast in those auld-lang-syne days was simple oatmeal porridge, usually with a little milk or treacle,served in wooden dishes called ‘luggies,’ formed of staves hooped together like miniature tubs about four or five inches in diameter. One of the staves, the lung or ear, a few inches longer than the others, served as a handle, while the number of luggies ranged in a row on a dresser indicated the size of the family. We never dreamed of anything to come after the porridge, or of asking for more. Our portions were consumed in about a couple of minutes; then off to school. At noon we came racing home, ravenously hungry.
The mid-day meal, called dinner, was usually vegetable broth, a small piece of boiled mutton, and barley-meal scone. None of us liked the barley-scone bread, therefore we got all we wanted of it, and in desperation had to eat it, for we were always hungry, about as hungry after as before meals. The evening meal was called ‘tea,’ and was served on our return from school. It consisted, so far as we children were concerned, of half a slice of white bread without butter, barley-scone, and warm water with a little milk and sugar in it, a beverage called ‘content,’ which warmed, but neither cheered nor inebriated. Immediately after tea we ran across the street with our books to Grandfather Gilrye, who took pleasure in seeing us and hearing us recite our next day’s lessons. Then back home to supper, usually a boiled potato and piece of barley-scone. Then family worship and to bed.
Our amusements on Saturday afternoons and vacations depended mostly on getting away from home into the country, especially in the spring when the birds were calling loudest. Father sternly forbade David and me to play truant in the fields with plundering wanderers like ourselves, fearing that we might go on from bad to worse, get hurt in climbing over walls, get caught by gamekeepers, or lost by falling over a cliff into the sea. ‘Play as much as you like in the back-yard and garden,’ he said, ‘and mind what you’ll get when you forget and disobey.’ Thus he warned us with an awfully stern countenance, looking very hard-hearted, while naturally his heart was far from hard, though he devoutly believed in eternal punishment for bad boys both here and hereafter. Nevertheless, like devout martyrs of wildness, we stole away to the seashore, or the green sunny fields, with almost religious regularity, taking advantage of opportunities when father was very busy to join our companions, oftenest to hear the birds sing, and hunt their nests, glorying in the number we had discovered and called our own. A sample of our nest-chatter was something like this.
Willie Chisholm would proudly exclaim, ‘I ken [know] seventeen nests and you, Johnnie, ken only fifteen.’
‘But I wouldna gie my fifteen for your seventeen, for five of mine are larks and mavises. You ken only three o’ the best singers.’
‘Yes, Johnnie, but I ken six goldies and you ken only one. Maist of yours are only sparrows and linties and robin-redbreasts.’
Then, perhaps, Bob Richardson would loudly declare that he ‘kenned mair nests than onybody, for he kenned twenty-three, with about fifty eggs in them, and mair than fifty young birds, — maybe a hundred. Some of them naething but raw gorblings, but lots of them as big as their mithers and ready to flee. And aboot fifty craws’ nests and three fox-dens.’
‘Oh, yes, Bob, but that’s no fair, for naebody counts craws’ nests and foxholes, and then you live in the country at Belle-haven where ye have the best chance.’
‘Yes, but I ken a lot of bumbee’s nests, baith the red-legged and the yellow-legged kind.’
‘Oh, wha cares for bumbee’s nests!’
‘Weel, but here’s something! My father let me gang to a fox-hunt, and, man, it was grand to see the hounds and the long-legged horses lowpin’ the dikes and burns and hedges!’
The nests, I fear, with the beautiful eggs and young birds, were prized quite as highly as the songs of the glad parents, but no Scotch boy that I know of ever failed to listen with enthusiasm to the songs of the skylarks. Oftentimes, on a broad meadow near Dunbar, we stood for hours enjoying their marvelous singing and soaring. From the grass where the nest was hidden the male would suddenly rise, as straight as if shot, up to a height of perhaps thirty or forty feet, and sustaining himself with rapid wing-beats, pour down the most delicious melody, sweet and clear and strong, overflowing all bounds; then suddenly he would soar higher, again and again, ever higher and higher, soaring and singing until lost to sight even on perfectly clear days, and oftentimes in cloudy weather, ‘Far in the downy cloud,’ as the poet says.
To test our eyes we often watched a lark until he seemed a faint speck in the sky and finally passed beyond the keenest-sighted of us all. ‘I see him yet!’ we would cry, ‘I see him yet!’ ‘I see him yet!’ ‘I see him yet!’ as he soared. And finally only one of us would be left to claim that he still saw him. At last, he, too, would have to admit that the singer had soared beyond his sight, and still the music came pouring down to us in glorious profusion from a height far above our vision, requiring marvelous power of wing and marvelous power of voice, for that rich, delicious, soft, and yet clear music was distinctly heard long after the bird was out of sight. Then suddenly ceasing, the glorious singer would appear, falling like a bolt straight down to his nest where his mate was sitting on the eggs.
In the winter, when there was but little doing in the fields, we organized running-matches. A dozen or so of us would start out on races that were simply tests of endurance, running on and on along a public road over the breezy hills, like hounds, without stopping or getting tired. The only serious trouble we ever felt in these long races was an occasional stitch in our sides. One of the boys started the story that sucking raw eggs was a sure cure for the stitches. We had hens in our backyard and, on the next Saturday, we managed to swallow a couple of eggs apiece, a disgusting job, but we would do almost anything to mend our speed, and as soon as we could get away, after taking the cure, we set out on a ten-or-twenty-mile run to prove its worth. We thought nothing of running right ahead ten or a dozen miles before turning back; for we knew nothing about taking time by the sun, and none of us had a watch in those days. Indeed, we never cared about time until it began to get dark. Then we thought of home and the thrashing that awaited us. Late or early, the thrashing was sure, unless father happened to be away. If he was expected to return soon, mother made haste to get us to bed before his arrival. We escaped the thrashing next morning, for father never felt like thrashing us in cold blood on the calm, holy Sabbath. But no punishment, however sure and severe, was of any avail against the attraction of the fields and woods. It had other uses, developing memory, and the like, but in keeping us at home it was of no use at all.
Our grammar-school reader, called, I think, Maccoulough’s Course of Reading, contained a few natural history sketches that excited me very much and left a deep impression, especially a fine description of the fishhawk and the bald eagle by the Scotch ornithologist, Wilson, who had the good fortune to wander for years in the American woods while the country was yet mostly wild.
Not less exciting and memorable was Audubon’s wonderful story of the passenger pigeon, a beautiful bird flying in vast flocks that darkened the sky like clouds, countless millions assembling to rest and sleep and rear their young in certain forests, miles in length and breadth, fifty or a hundred nests on a single tree; the overloaded branches would bend low and often break, and the farmers gathering from far and near would beat down countless thousands of the young and old birds from their nests and roosts with long poles at night, and in the morning drive their bands of hogs, some of them brought from farms a hundred miles distant, to fatten on the dead and wounded covering the ground.
In another of our reading-lessons, some of the American forests were described. The most interesting of the trees to us boys was the sugar-maple. And soon after we had learned this sweet story we heard everybody talking about the discovery of gold in the same wonder-filled country.
One night, when David and I were at grandfather’s fireside, learning our lessons as usual, my father came in with news, the most wonderful, most glorious, that wild boys ever heard.
‘Bairns,’ he said, ‘you needna learn your lessons the nicht for we’re gan to America the morn!’
No more grammar, but boundless woods full of mysterious good things; trees full of sugar, growing in ground full of gold; hawks, eagles, pigeons, filling the sky; millions of birds’ nests, and no game-keepers to stop us in all the wild, happy land. We were utterly, blindly glorious.
After father left the room, grandfather gave David and me a gold coin apiece for a keepsake and looked very serious, for he was about to be deserted in his lonely old age. And when we in fullness of young joy spoke of what we were going to do, of the wonderful birds and their nests that we should find, the sugar and gold, and the rest, and promised to send him a big box full of that tree-sugar packed in gold from the glorious paradise over the sea, poor lonely grandfather, about to be forsaken, looked with downcast eyes on the floor, and said in a low, trembling, troubled voice, ‘Ah, poor laddies, poor laddies, you’ll find something else ower the sea forbye gold and sugar, birds’ nests, and freedom fra lessons and schools. You’ll find plenty hard, hard work.’
And so we did. But nothing he could say could cloud our joy or abate the fire of youthful, hopeful, fearless adventure. Nor could we in the midst of such measureless excitement see or feel the shadows and sorrows of his darkening old age.
To my school-mates whom I met that night on the street, I shouted the glorious news, ‘I’m gan to Amaraka the morn!’ None could believe it. I said, ‘Weel, just you see if I am at the skule the morn!’