Old School-Books


ARE you a frequenter of attics? Do you believe in them as I do? That they are full of Romance and Adventure, and that distant and ever-changing horizon of Hope? Of course, there are some that are so swept and garnished and bereft of all the old charm that makes an attic an attic, that Memory has abandoned them; but that is not the sort of attic I mean. My Attic — I capitalize it, for it is symbolic — is like one I saw the other afternoon; swept and garnished, it is true, for my friend keeps it with a symmetrical New England conscience, but still full of the old things that helped make the daily happiness of the house a hundred years ago; fanback Windsors and rush-bottom chairs, blue scrolled Bennington crocks and jugs; the tall, fluted posts of a canopy bed tucked away under the eaves; faded daguerreotypes, old flax-wheels, and piles of books! I know of nothing pleasanter than to sit on an accommodating hair trunk, when a winter-wind is abroad and the snow sifts lightly against the narrow panes—to sit there, warm and contented, and look at yellowing old pages with their engaging woodcuts and their formal, slanting long.

These were old school-books, anti old school-books are one of my enthusiams, eternally fascinating to me, for they so reveal the past. Reveal it unconsciously, but with such a flavor, such a passion for imparting knowledge, that they make our present textbooks seem just a little anæmic. Grammars and composition-books have suffered least of all our manuals; naturally, you do not expect them to reach the high excellence of the incomparable Minscheu, dowered in his cradle with wit and philosophy, and able to make real people talk real talk; old Minscheu who describes his work as ‘ Pleasant and Delightful Dialogues in Spanish and English, Profitable to the Reader and Not Unpleasant to Any Other Person.’ But, even in comparison, it is not distasteful to me to read of the present-day Madame S-, who so divert ingly goes

her chatty way across the ocean and through Europe, accompanied by an obliging courier and an indulgent spouse. For here is Imagination, and Imagination, I am sure, lies at the basis of most good teaching. However, she and all her gorgeous doings cannot compare with a beguiling book of my early childhood, bound in green and very unpretentious. My mother had owned it before me, and it had no intended relation to my destined education. But I claimed it for my own, and I loved to lie on the floor, and read (in English, of course) about Le Jar din, La Promenade, Le Déjeuner, and the rest. The vicarious joys of Les Etrenncs — ah, that happy child who received them! — will glisten forever in my memory, I know; and, oh, t hose lovely ladies in billowing crinolines, who swept through gardenwalks going to some Arabian Night’s feast, asking on their way such met iculous questions about each flower! To my seven-year-old mind French seemed a delightful study; and, consequently, I have a picture of the Third Empire that I shall never lose.

And the older these books get, the more real they get. Beside me is a little worn book bound in brown leather; a late seventeenth-century Lati n grammar, it purports to be. Actually, it is a record of the life of the times: of the belles who went to the playhouse and the beaux who went to ogle them; of swords and periwigs; of larks bought at the market-place; and of the boys at Bury School, diligent or lazy, rejoicing at a holiday or at the prospect of a lire in the schoolroom, ‘for, in truth, ’t is very cold,’ or riding up with their masters to matriculate at Cambridge. The man who wrote it was evidently an Oranger enragé, for the book was published in those troublous last days of William and Mary, and every now and then came phrases like this: ‘Knaves confer with Knaves when they are about a plot against the King’; ‘They that design the destruction of the King, first detract from his Honour and his Wisdom in governing the Commonwealth.’ Think of a book to-day so taking us into its confidence!

But geographies have lost infinitely more. My children, I think, like geography as a study well enough; still, I think also that there are very few far horizons for them; little, as they survey mankind from China to Peru, of the silken sails and scndal ropes that so enchanted even my youth. For I was brought up on Warren’s Common School Geography, — a fact, which definitely dates my age, — and, to this day, its pictures delight me: those curling, coiling serpents, the crouching jaguars and playful monkeys (all in one illustration, with flamingoes and alligators thrown in for make-weight); that nonchalant. traveler intrepidly strapped to an Indian’s back, and thus daring the perils of the Andes; the elephant-hunt and the Bedouin encampment still combine to give me that thrill of distant, long-ago lands where lived the ‘Anthropopagi and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders.’ And the further back you go, the better the illustrations get — more of the wondering quality.

But of all textbooks old arithmetics are the most engaging. I have nothing to say for the one of the days of my youth, the Franklin Written Arithmetic, — another milestone, — for it was incomparably dull and stupid, and so, to be honest, was I. But take any eighteenth-century arithmetic, and you will find it delightful reading. In a tattered and torn old volume I even discovered a page of ‘Pleasing and Diverting Questions,’ including ‘St. Ives,’ ‘The Fox, the Goose and the Bag of Corn,’ and the ‘Three Jealous Husbands.’ Schoolmasters then taught subtraction historically: ‘King Charles the Martyr was beheaded in 1648; how many years is it since?’ ‘General Washington was born in the year 1732; what is his age in 1806?’ And what hardship could there be in making out miniature bills concerning pieces of tammy and Persian and blue shaloon? Or in solving a question that begins, ‘A laceman well versed in numbers agreed with a gentleman to sell him twenty-two yards of rich gold brocaded lace.’ Immediately The Tale of the Tailor of Gloucester comes to my mind, that, cherished book the Littlest Daughter and I read before bedtime, beside a flickering fire: ‘All day long while the light lasted he sewed and snippeted, piecing out his satin and pompadour and lutestring; stuffs had strange names and w ere very expensive in the days of the Tailor of Gloucester.’

And, on these yellowed pages, England is still the old, rural England, the England that eigh t eenth-century Squire Western loved and enjoyed, that twentieth-century Squire Clinton loved and regretted. Fancy doing sums like this: ‘Good-morrow, good fellow with your 20 geese’; or beginning, ‘A young man coming into a garden saith, “Bless you all, you 10 fair maids,” ’ and, —

If 20 dogs for 30 groats
Go 40 weeks to grass;
How many hounds for 60 crowns
May winter in that place?

Ah, Art was long, but Time was long then, too; people put the same quality into their teaching —into their textbooks, at least — as into making their furniture, into working their samplers, into all their craftsmanship. They took their theme, and, like very loving Cyranos, embroidered it. Witness the following problem: ‘A merchant having a soft young man to his son, covetous enough, but scarce able to keep a shopbook, was minded to purchase for him some considerable lands in the country; and bid him inquire out some handsome estate that would be sold, and he would buy it for him. The young man, overjoyed at the news, runs to an inn, where he heard divers country gentlemen lodged, and in all haste, asked them if any one of them would sell their estates? Most of them were very angry, and near beating of him; but one of them being a facetious gentleman, resolved to put a trick upon him; and told him, that he had a neat hall,with a goodly park and manor on the bank of a pleasant river, and a great number of sufficient tenants; all of which, with the royalty of a fair, market-town, and patronage of a parishchurch, belonging thereto, should be his, upon condition that he would lay down one penny on the threshold of the porch-door belonging to the hall, twopence at the next door, four pence at the third door, and so on. doubling till he had gone through all the doors, which were 64 in all. “ I will have it,” saith the young man, “and here is a piece in earnest”; and in all haste tells his father what a purchase he has made, wishing him to give him an hundred pounds, for that, he thought, could not but abundantly satisfy. “Thou calf,” quoth his father, “the King of Spain’s revenues would not pay what thou hast promised, if they were sold at twenty years’ value; much less can my estate, for it will not bring thee past the 24th threshold. The best is, the gentleman knows thee not; but I will warrant he is making merry with a fool’s earnest.” Now I desire to know what the sum laid down on the 24th threshold was, and what the whole would come to?’

The familiar theme of geometric progression-, you see, but what magnificent embroidery! It must have been an idle lad indeed who would not mind his book, and do such cloth-of-gold sums.

So is n’t it possible to get imagination, and, consequently, interest, once more into our textbooks? Or am I, do you suppose, only snared in the Past’s magic web? Will someone, a hundred years from now, let us say, searching for romantic happenings in a discarded Franklin Written Arithmetic, run across these gilded items of my own childhood ? ‘A farmer sold his eggs at an average of 23y cents a dozen’ (I am writing in mid-winter!); or, ‘I exchanged 42 tubs of butter at 2l½ cents a pound—’ It may be that the magic distance of Time will still lend enchantment to the view!