The Sky Line at Wykeham
To the memory of cherished places their decay is the worst that can happen. Next to the worst is their improvement. And so it has come about that no child at Wykeham can mount his white picket-fence on summer evenings and stare through dust clouds at the swaying stagecoach with its trunk-laden rack and its mighty straps, bringing guests to the Mansion House. Steve Pratt, the square-bearded driver, wag of the countryside, has long since paid his own fare to Charon, thrust a long leather boot against the river-bank, and composed himself, grimly, for his journey.
For more than a generation no schoolboy has dipped a rusty tin cup into Walden’s spring, while the stern bell rang out ‘hurry,’ and the lilacs overhead whispered ‘stay.’
But the sky line at Wykeham remains what it was. Neither Time nor Death can make rigid the folds of it, or mar its loveliness and grace.
As it appears to-day, so it appeared to the first file of red men skirting the river, wending their way along the Mohawk trail; so it appeared to the vanguard of white settlers moving westward; so it appeared to us children from the roof of our big square house.
It was my mother’s custom after thunder showers on summer afternoons, to suggest the abandonment of the supper table in the midst of the evening meal in order to view from the spacious roof a rainbow, or a gorgeous sunset.
We trooped, therefore, up a narrow staircase and through the attic, past pyramids of old silk hats, and heaps of rusty skates, and great bookcases groaning with their painful burdens of Latin, Greek, and German grammars. And then I recall under foot the crunching sound of gravel embedded in tar, the cool silvery note of robins after rain, and the wide circling flight of swallows enveloping far horizons. The sky line at Wykeham ! And my mother’s brooding smile, and quiet prudent voice, ‘Be careful; don’t lose your balance!’
Those rapt half-hours seem now the sublimation of our childhood’s being; they have become, with that sweep of horizon, the very symbol of early happiness and beauty, the revelation, in time, of the ideal of Home and of Peace. Thus memory and the sky line blend and make one.
A curious fact one delights to recall was the passion that possessed everyone of us, from oldest to youngest, for ‘family discussions’ as we called them. The subjects of the most furious debate were likely to be topics of no vital concern whatsoever. Always, if the assembly became an actual riot, father would bang upon the table, and call out with terrible gravity, ‘Remember, this is a Christian family! Now go ahead!' Throughout these cyclones, however great the uproar and terrific the onset, no one of us ever dreamed of ‘injured feelings,’ for we had never heard of such a thing in family life. This was due to father’s detestation of the resort to personalities. Injured feeling never happened because it never would have been tolerated for an instant of time.
A famous debate was upon this question: ‘The South Part Church: what point of the compass does it face ? ‘ This, one of our more fruitful discussions, occupied the better part of two years. Some insisted upon ‘south,’ others insisted upon ‘east.’ Yet others of us, like Athanasius against the world, were tenacious of ‘southeast.’ Now this could have been settled easily any Sunday morning by putting a toy compass into one’s pocket and using it. Of course no one ever suggested such vulgar recourse to finality. In our inmost hearts we knew why. It would have been a breach of family loyalty. At best we could have reached only certainty, and certainty was what we all dreaded and avoided.
In the marsh beneath the moon;
A strange white heron, rising
With silver on its wings.
But oh! not too soon; for after all what was a heron?
Still stands the South Part Church; the east and the south are still there, presumably; but what the mutual relations of these I know not, nor could I bear to know, though I have passed by the modest, portal a hundred times.
Now, while ‘personalities’ were ruled out by the laws of the game, there was, nevertheless, an abundance of raillery, and nobody was exempt. My father loved practical joking, and no jokes so much as those that victimized himself. In all the blessed years one can recall but a single exception.
Hearing that a minister in a neighboring town was in need of a holiday father offered to preach for him on a given Sunday in summer —from good will, of course, and as a mark of personal favor. The sermon that morning was a charming one, full of imagination and not without vital appeal. Each rung of that ladder of his stands against the past with clear outline after all these intervening years. On coming out of church, however, I overheard a lady of very full proportions, whose fan clicked against the shiny buttons of her black-silk dress, observe in an irritated tone, ‘Well! I never was so disappointed in my life! I expected to see Reverend Doctor Frank Smirk in the pulpit. ‘Stead of that we have one of them cheap Professors from Wykeham College!’
Halfway home I chuckled aloud over the incident, and father inquired the reason for my mirth.
‘Oh, nothing much,’ said I.
‘ Come, come, sonny, out with it!5
It had to be divulged, so I told him. We had just reached a dark, long, covered, wooden bridge. Our old horse, Chevalier, carried us into the shadows, the wheels rumbled gloomily over the loosened splintered planking, — half smothered in dust exhaling stable odors, — and still no word from my companion. It seemed the most unending tunnel in the world. But as we emerged into the fresh air and the sunlight, and as we caught sight of great Saddleback Mountain, father broke out into a roar of laughter.
‘ That was good! ‘ said he. ‘ Yes, that was mighty good — it grows on me, it grows on me! ‘
Discussion filled every waking hour. We began the day with family prayers, and discussed the Prophets of the Old Testament. In the course of about a year we had discussed our way through the Bible, but always stopped at the Book of Revelation, which the head of the house would decline to read on the ground that the book was ‘meaningless and futile.’ I felt sorry for the author of this book. Father seemed to entertain a grievance against him; and the more sensible he was of its magnificent imagery, the more his exasperation increased.
Week-day mornings, in his Economics classes at the college, whatever the special topic, he gave himself largely to the discussion of the Tariff. The midday dinner-hour would be given to discussion of local history — except on Sundays, when we discussed the sermon, and my mother would entertain the table with some ludicrous impersonation of the mannerisms of such holy men as had sought to edify the morning congregation.
Ours being a strictly Puritan household, the early part of Sunday afternoon would be spent by the six boys of the family in the discussion of schemes by which we could avoid being read to out of such books as Professor Fisher’s History of the Reformation. In summer, the three open windows of father’s study afforded cautious escape. On Sunday nights we read Wordsworth aloud. All parts of Wordsworth looked alike to father; all were incomparably great. But my mother insisted that the bulk of it was as dull as Sahara. The poem called ‘ Michael ‘ was enough to ruin her Sabbath peace.
Now and again there would arise from the Professor’s Economics classes a gentle protest that they were not hearing ‘the other side,’ meaning the other side of the Free Trade question. (They certainly were not!) Sometimes the polite revolt would be started by some serious student of outstanding ability and independence; more often by boys blessed and inspired by male parents at home who dreaded any crack in the pedestal supporting ‘The Iron Stag upon the Lawn.5 It was literally true that, for the Professor, there was another side to the Free Trade question only in the sense in which there was another side to the Eighth Commandment — Thou shalt not steal! Protectionism was not a science: it was an art — the art of picking pockets!
Believing this wholly and believing it intensely, the wonder is, not that he was so extravagant, but that he was so moderate.
Yet the situation had its humor. So far as cool argument is considered, his classroom many a time resembled nothing so much as the circus; and a Protectionist tenet had about as much chance as the air-filled, transparent glass balls tossed up by the left hand of Buffalo Bill. Ping! Ping! — and annihilation. Father supplied the white horse, the rifle, the powder, and the glass balls.
Once, with the Professor’s cheerful consent, Senator Frye of Maine was engaged by a class to come to Wykeham and give an address in favor of Protectionism. The boys were eager for a joint debate; but this the Professor declined, not thinking it courteous to take an extra inning on the homegrounds. Having as a young man come off very well from a great debate against Horace Greeley in New York, it was not likely that in his prime he would be frightened by the Senator from Maine.
Since the college boys thought half a loaf would be better than nothing the two student promoters of the exhibition invited the Professor and the Senator for a sleigh-ride on the afternoon before the night address, in the hope and expectation of witnessing a grand duel from the back seat of the sleigh. This, however, would be expensive; and the boys’ accounts at Tommy McMahon’s were not then of the best, showing. But dear old Tommy favored the enterprise, insisting with cheerful unveracity that he never yet had lost a cint by anny of the Wykeham byes, and he would like to drive, himself, and see a grand light, between the greatest Dimmycrat in the wur-r-rld and a U-nited States Sinater; and he would go, too, begad, only it was four below zero, and gittin’ colder all the time. The party jingled down the village street and out into the hinterland. Tommy McMahon was right. It was now eight below zero; and Clarence, the Ethiopian driver, had to pull down his cap over his ears, and to thump his broad chest.
Sure enough, there was an animated, enthusiastic discussion between the Professor and the Senator. It was about the Colonial History of Maine! Only this, and nothing more; absolutely nothing more.
At the address given that night in the old Goodrich Hall, on the site of the present college chapel, my father introduced the guest of the evening in these words: 4 Ladies and Gentlemen allow me to present my good friend, the Senator from Maine. There is no more competent person, even in the Republican Party, for proving to you that two is equal to four, and that the part is greater than the whole.'
Among eminent teachers of youth in this country there have been few, I dare to believe, whose practical reason reacted so instantly to logical stimulus. If a thing were true, it seemed to him of immense importance that it should be realized and validated immediately. ‘How about the nationalized railways of Europe?’ I piped up one day at the beginning of dinner. He laid down his carving knife, and started a withering discourse upon this subject. But my mother interposed: —
‘You have had a long morning, my dear. What you need now is not extra talking, but food.’
‘Not at all!’ father rejoined, with some asperity; ’if the boy is to be saved, it must be done now; otherwise he is lost — engulfed in the folly of government ownership.’
I had not supposed my case was so serious as that. But what father called wrong thinking seemed to him always nothing short of abominable. His passion for truth meant always passion for right action. The teaching-instinct within him made clarification instant, inescapable, exacting. What he deemed a misconception in an immature mind became a moral challenge. He would put into the clearing ot muddled notions the same costly, vital enthusiasm that others have reserved, let us say, for the race track.
But his personality being whimsical, there were times when he acted on precisely the opposite principle, and purposely left one mystified.
On Saturday afternoons he would often take me with him to the sawmill at the northwest corner of Wykeham. Perched side by side on the high perilous seat of our lumber-wagon we would rattle through the campus and the village in quest of sawdust wherewith to ‘bed down Chevalier.’ Sawdust, maintained father, was ‘an admirable sweetener.’ Chevalier in consequence, always bore a close resemblance to the Wooden Horse of Troy; nor did the likeness stop with externals; for he contained within himself a hundred fierce devils.
On these journeys, despite the demoralizing clatter and the fearful sidewise motion, there was always conversation. Among other questions, I asked him, one afternoon, the meaning of the Yale arms — Lux et Veritas. He answered, ‘Looks a University and is n’t.’
Years afterward, a student at New Haven, I came to see why he laughed to himself over that answer!
There came a day when father and mother admitted, both of them, that it was time I should be allowed to see my first play. Betaking myself, one evening in late autumn, across the old campus, and up the hill by the mysterious footpath we used to call ‘over the mountain,’through the dark pine woods, I felt the suppressed excitement that forebodes all great human happenings.
I recalled that mother had once told me her own first play had been the acting of Edwin Forrest in Shakespeare. But really, when you came to think of it, what was Shakespeare compared with Harriet Beecher Stowe?
The widow of Professor Lincoln lived with us for many years. Her bent figure I love to recall. I can see her trudging homeward through the deep snows of the Berkshire winter from some missionary gathering, her steps firm and determined, her mind intent on some just reported victorious skirmish in the age-long battle of the Cross against the Darkness in some far-off corner of the globe. ‘Yes!’ I can hear her say, as she discards her snowy overshoes, ‘it was an excellent meeting.’ Good and kind and keen, and very, very able, she was all her life long a spirit-passenger on the good ship Morning Star.
_ She must long ago have met the Pilot face to face; beyond all shadow of doubt that too was ‘an excellent meeting.’
She used to be President of the Shakespeare Club, in which Charley King, the druggist, would sometimes read the part of King Lear while she herself was at her best as Ophelia.
It was a favorite sentiment of Mrs. Lincoln - I had heard her express it many, many times — that the plays of Shakespeare were composed to beread, not to be acted on the stage. While I knew nothing about the merits of the question I felt very confident that my mother did not accept this dictum at all. But she never contradicted the old Latin scholar’s widow. None of us did — not even father. My explanation of this is, that while the infallibility of father was merely a habit, the infallibility of Mrs. Lincoln was a spiritual endowment. It seemed almost coeval with the cosmos.
Conducted to a settee in the illlighted basement of the town hall, I had time to recall the fascinating scenes I had witnessed in this glorious forum. Only a month before, at a Democratic rally, I had listened to the magnificent oratory of Benjamin F. Mills, Esquire, handsome and florid headmaster of Greylock Institute, who had thrilled a handful of Irish citizens, my father, and my brothers, with a description of how Samuel J. Tilden would look on the fourth of March entering the classic portals of the White House. The peroration had been this: ‘And the mocking-birds will be singing in the sweet savannahs of the South!'
But now, alas, it seemed assured that while ’the mocking-birds’ would doubtless be there, the great and good Mr. Tilden would not.
The palpable odors of Town-Meeting of the preceding spring seemed to cling still to the hall. Yellowed overcoats, soaked by rain, cheap cigars, mud and tobacco juice, the hoarse cackle of Abe Bunter’s laugh, the rustic solemn dignity of ‘Mr. Moderator’—of all these things my memory spoke.
Also I was greatly occupied by thoughts of Mary Marden. I wondered if she were sitting in the hall, but try as I would she could not be discerned through the dimness. Extending my left arm along the back of the bench so that the new cuff-button of celluloid might be properly exposed in case she were behind me somewhere, I gave myself up to reverie.
Mary Marden was a pretty girl, ‘ going on twelve,’ from whose broad low forehead brown hair drew away beneath a round rubber comb. She had recently recovered from a serious illness, during which my own dear sister, always my confidante in these matters, could find me no good reason why I should not pray for Mary Marden. I did pray, and earnestly, that she might come through this diphtheria ‘without getting pock-marked like Mirabeau.’ And my prayer had been answered.
She had a somewhat gruff voice and I thought it charming. (Satan, across the abyss of time, whispers ‘adenoids.’) I even admired the freckles on her nose; they really seemed to add something.
Monk Raymond, my best friend, a philosopher of thirteen summers, had been given a free ticket to the play, for he had been engaged to turn the windlass that wound up the curtain pole. He conceived his part, as always, with deep seriousness, while I fought down my envy as well as I might.
There were bloodhounds, but surely no bloodhounds could range widely on so narrow a stage as this; nor did they. A fiercer Legree, however, never appeared on any stage. And Eliza, considering that the river-scene had to be helped out by a wall map of Mesopotamia, loaned by the Methodist Church, managed the ice in the Euphrates admirably.
Monk and I walked home through the woods without saying a word. But as he bade me ‘Good Night’ he sighed, and observed, ‘I ‘m going to give up the stage.’
‘Why is all this, Monk?’
‘Well, in the first place,’ said he, ‘it’s a dog’s life; and in the second place, I’d rather stay poor and keep my character. ‘
The next day, as I hurried past Mary Marden on my way home from school, she called to me.
‘I caught a glimpse of you, last evening,’ she said.
‘ Yes, last evening, while I was seated at the Opera.’
The Sky Line at Wykeham! Far flight of swallows waving in evening gold, swinging, swinging to the west, follow your sky line; pray find it ever the same, little swallows, till the world’s end; and be careful: ‘Don’t lose your balance!’