HENRY ADAMS was, in at least one respect, less fortunate than my sister Cynthia. At three years old he first became aware of sunlight on a yellow kitchen floor; but he was sitting in that sunlight, whereas she, at the same age, saw its broad, dazzling shaft from the top of our old secretary. I saw it, too, and from the same vantage ground; but it was not with me, as in the case of Henry Adams and of Cynthia, my first sense impression. I was five. Already I had known the drowsy scent of red peonies in a hot corner of the garden, the friendly odor of cool apples. Taste I knew, too — the puckery, restraining taste of forbidden chokecherries, the taste of sulphur and molasses, lingering and powdery long after it should have gone. And the yellow of a floor was to me never so yellow as a great ball of dandelions which my father had once made for me and which he rolled to and fro, hither and yon, across the clipped green grass. I always used to imagine that the sunlight on our kitchen floor had somehow got into Cynthia’s eyes — she used to gaze at it so steadily from the top of the secretary. My own eyes never shone like that. I too early forgot the glories of ‘that imperial palace’ whence I came.
Of course, it might have been different with me had my mother thought two years earlier of the old secretary; but she did not. That inspiration was coincident in family history with the unexpected marriage of our one servant, already at middle age, to an exacting fisherman, the arrival of a new baby, and an especially bitter winter. My mother, beset by accident and Fate, and yoked, however happily, with a husband manually ineffective, had need of inspiration. She always said in after years that the idea came to her in the middle of a winter night when, fearful lest her bread was not rising as it should, she had come downstairs to replenish the kitchen fire. Then and there, as the dying embers caught the dry bark of a stick of birch and as thin, bright circles of light outlined themselves upon the black range, the thought of the old secretary leaped into my mother’s mind and raced about there until she fairly laughed aloud in her quiet kitchen. As she started upstairs, she gave a defiant little kick to the rug rolled tightly against the outside door to keep out the draughts of cold air. No more, she told herself, would coughs and croup slink across the kitchen floor to Cynthia and me playing there on cold winter mornings; and this, with all the rest, she told my father also, waking him out of a sound sleep to do so.
Accordingly, the next morning, before he left for his office, my father moved the secretary from its place in our shabby, overcrowded library to the west wall of the kitchen, just between the wide baking board and the cellar door. It was a huge piece of furniture, topped by two broad shelves, one just far enough below the other to serve as a convenient and comfortable foot rest. Between these shelves there were tiny drawers with glass knobs, and below the lower there were more drawers, so long and roomy as to make one think that the secretary was only a chest of them after all. But just between the second and third, if one touched the springs on either side of the polished edge, the green baize top of a desk began to come out, and lo! the secretary was complete. No one felt quite certain as to its age. My mother could remember how, when she was a little girl, her grandfather had sat, cravatted and stern, by the desk part and read the Bible at family prayers.
The very novelty of my mother’s idea made memorable our first morning on the secretary. It was a cold January day of high wind and bright sunlight, glaring against the deep snow of our driveway and orchard. The yellow painted floor of our great old kitchen was cut by broad bands of light on whose shining surfaces were reflected leaf and flower shadows from the plants on the window ledges. My father and mother lifted Cynthia and me, laughing and in high feather, to our places at either end of the wide top shelf and secured us firmly to the stout upright posts by roller towels, which, passed double under our arms, assured our perfect safety. Our feet rested comfortably on the shelf below, our knees at just the most perfect angle for the roomiest of laps; between us was an assortment of puzzles, picture books, and some old, orange-colored fashion magazines from which to cut paper dolls. After my father had done laughing at us, he kissed my mother twice instead of once. Then he left for the village through the snow-blocked driveway, and she watched him quite out of sight.
That morning was but the first of a five years’ tenure for me as winter resident of the old secretary, and yet the details of it are sketched indelibly upon my memory. Beyond the frost of the windows, and visible through the clear, uneven spaces at the top of the panes, stretched the snow-covered fields with the dark, delicate branches of trees above them; within the kitchen the fragrant warmth of the bright air and the even singing of the fire; on the floor the sunlight. My mother bathed the baby by the fire while we watched from our eminence, and carried him to his cradle in the library for his nap. Then she hurried about with her baking, for once free from children underfoot. It was not long before there was a downy patch of flour, like the frailest of snow crystals, upon her pink cheek, and as she worked she sang about a bright and shining river, by which sometime we were all to gather and which in some way became confused in my mind with the sunlight on the floor. When the great clock in the dining-room struck ten, she brought us fresh ginger cookies and some milk in our new mugs, on which blue children in white sunbonnets gathered blue flowers in a white field.
Of our activities that morning I do not recall so much. The unusualness of the situation, perhaps, contented us with doing little. I suppose we cut dolls and worked at puzzles; but I remember most clearly the fascination of the sunlight for Cynthia. At last she fell asleep in her encircling roller towel and was borne away to quarters more luxurious for a nap. But, like Henry Adams, she never forgot that sunlight. I know. For twenty years later, when we read together of his education and came to the yellow kitchen floor, I saw her face.
Just as soon as single words, laboriously conned, began to lose their personal identities in the teasing rhythm of sentences, I began to read to Cynthia on the top of the old secretary. But it was not long before she outdistanced me. For purposes of reading we were encircled by the same towel, and, sitting thus closely, she could follow with her eyes my somewhat halting phrases. Mere letters she eschewed with fine scorn — she had no time for them. It was words she wanted, and she learned them with the fabled ease of young Alexander in conflict with Homer,
No longer did I hold the book when once she had learned to discover what lay concealed within those neat symbols, pacing so sedately across the plain white pages. Years afterward she told me that the most overpowering thing about first learning to read was the sudden understanding that those unostentatious, orderly marks might be stories — stories which, indeed, baffled sleep and chimney corners; and thus early did she acquire that dissatisfaction with ear-reading only which ever belongs to the true lover of books.
At seven I was sent, protesting, to the village school, to the same building and the same teacher that had nurtured my father and mother, while Cynthia stayed at home and on cold December mornings read to the baby, both of them securely tied to the posts of the secretary. But in those halcyon days of municipal poverty there was relief in the long vacation which occupied the months of January and February. Then, on mornings when the weather forbade long hours of coasting or when we were needed as nursemaids, we mounted with assistance to our Parnassus, submitted to the roller towels, which now bound not only us to the posts but the baby to us, opened our battered red copy of Grimm, and were off!
I am sure Grimm wats our favorite. We were blind in those earliest days to the greater delicacy of Hans Andersen and to that wistful, all-pervading pity which makes wise and kind his simplest tale. We loved Elsa, to be sure, with her poor, nettle-stung hands, and the cruel concreteness of the Klauses, Little and Big, delighted us; but the Tin Soldier was a tin soldier, and his steadfastness in succeeding misfortunes was wearisome when compared with Hansel and Gretel, standing hand in hand before the gingerbread house of the wicked witch.
Oh, that house of houses, made with magic hands! With what light, beneficent and perpetual, have the shining eyes of countless children surrounded thee — thy roofs of crystal sugar, thy doorposts of striped candy! For translators — contrary, indeed, to custom and tradition — have for once improved upon the original by a more lavish and concrete rendering of that phrase mit Kuchen gedeckt, penned with much smacking of the lips, we may believe, by those good and scholarly brothers of Hanau, who could forsake even the interchange of consonants for such a house as that! Only a few weeks since, when, in an endeavor to bring home to a class of college freshmen the appeal in concrete imagery, I asked them the one thing in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ which they remembered most vividly, I was answered by a chorus of twenty-five voices, crying, ‘The witch’s house!’ And never shall I forget how the geraniums and heliotrope of a Berlin Platz suddenly became a blurred and colorful mist when I, a homesick student, standing alone before the bright windows of a Konditorei, saw the little house, resplendent and satisfying, atop a three-tiered cake!
Gulliver we had in words of one syllable, a prose arrangement which early annoyed Cynthia. She used to point with amused tolerance at such disjointed words as Em-man'-u-el Col-lege and Glum'-dal-clitch; and I feel sure that not even the terrifying experiences of Gulliver in the arms of the Brobdingnagian monkey ever quite dispelled from her mind the patronage of that particular editor. But for me the tale was the thing, and such insults I willingly brooked. I early discovered that, as a narrative, ‘ Lilliput ’ was far inferior to ‘Brobdingnag’ in incident, characterization, and descriptive detail—a childish criticism which the years have but strengthened and justified; and on Gulliver days, as soon as we had once freed our hero from the strings, the showers of arrows, and the scouts scouting across his chest, and had witnessed his triumphal capture of the enemy’s fleet of ships, we spent our time in Lorbrulgrud. The adventures with the spaniel, the frog, the giant rat, and the wasps, which hummed ‘ louder than the drones of many bagpipes,’ the story of the jovial dwarf who threw Gulliver into the bowl of cream, and the climaxing and terrible incident of the eagle with the ring of Gulliver’s box in his monstrous beak — of these we never tired. The great Dean was, I think, responsible also for the birth of literary appreciation in the baby, for at two he laughed quite hilariously at the idea, expounded to him laboriously by Cynthia and me, of a baby’s rattle ‘filled with great stones and fastened by a cable to the child’s waist.’
I have never been able to concur with Stevenson in his opinion of the Robinsons, whom, one will remember, he calls a ‘dreary family.’ Prayerful and pedantic though they were, they were never dreary to Cynthia and me. Their ‘plethora of goods’ did not disturb us, nor did their many devotions. The latter, indeed, to New England children of the early nineties, still beset by Puritanism, seemed but right and proper, though always a whit embarrassing. Moreover, there clung in those days to The Swiss Family Robinson a romance which none of our other books possessed. It marked our entrance into that charmed and luminous circle of those who buy books, not to give away, but to have and to hold. For we had bought The Swiss Family Robinson at the grocery store for the price of twelve soap wrappers, taken from the cakes of yellow laundry soap and hoarded with jealous care in one of the little glassknobbed drawers of the old secretary.
The memory of that Saturday morning when Cynthia and I, soap wrappers in hand, stood in delightful indecision before the shelf in the grocery store which held the books will long remain untarnished. The cheapest of editions then meant nothing to us, the rusty cloth covers, the tiny, half-blurred print on the worst of paper. We took long to choose between The Three Musketeers— which we pronounced, in some show of humor, with the accent on the second syllable, and which contained some bad pictures of fights, many and single-handed — and The Swiss Family Robinson. The opening paragraphs at length decided us. To children reared on tales of the sea there was more of immediate excitement and interest in the details of a shipwreck than in those happenings, however unprecedented, which were heralded in front of The Jolly Miller on that first Monday in the month of April in the year 1625.
As we grew older and the old secretary included yet another on its broad topmost shelf, many were the books we read thereon. Jane Porter, Marryat, George Macdonald, Harriet Martineau, Dickens in Great Expectations and David Copperfield, and Thackeray in all those absurdly delightful doings of the royal family of Paflagonia—these and others, their compeers, were the names we conjured with. Nor must I for a moment forget the inimitable Alice, following the gloved and waistcoated White Rabbit into the hole and drinking that equally inimitable potion flavored, one remembers, with cherry tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast! For, indeed, the names of Lewis Carroll and of John Tenniel, his illustrator, were not writ in water!
But besides these there were others—bits of driftwood on uncharted seas, books borrowed from schoolmates or from the meagre Sunday-school library, always a prey to the questionable generosity of the spring housecleaner. These belonged no doubt to a quite inglorious race; they were written by unknown authors and have long since passed out of circulation; yet Cynthia and I have not forgotten them. Their pale deathbed scenes are imprinted on our minds as was that of Clarissa Harlowe on the mind of Lady Mary; their voluble moral precepts recall twinges of conscience; their lofty and impassioned cries of valor, love, and revenge still sound in our delighted ears.
There was one — what would I not give to know that some garret or village library still harbors its prototype! — entitled Duke Rollo and His Mighty Deeds. Its date and author are alike unknown to me; it doubtless was the least among books; and yet to it I owe the birth of a great desire and its incomparable fulfillment. That volume of faded blue, with a mace and a battleaxe crossed on its frayed cover, chronicled in grandiloquent phrases the life and times of Duke Rollo of Normandy. From it we learned that, after Duke Rollo was exiled from his northern home and ere he journeyed southward, he lived for a season among some picturesque and romantic islands known as the Hebrides. I must at this point unblushingly state that Cynthia and I called these islands the He'brīdes. Indeed, it was not until ten years later, when with Wordsworth we listened entranced to the song of that solitary reaper,
Among the farthest Hebrides,
that we regretfully understood what loveliness had for so long escaped our willing ears. We were sadly conscious of the insult we had accorded a place so beautiful. For Wordsworth’s lines, tender and haunting with suggestion, but added weight, as well as a much needed grace, to the blustering and pompous assertion of Duke Rollo, every ringing syllable of which after thirty years is as clear as it was then.
‘And I would,’cried the great Duke Rollo, raising his mighty battle-axe on high before his armèd hosts, ‘that I need not conquer. For I know of no land under the skies of God more to be desired than these same islands, lying like purple grapes in these dark blue seas!’
It was that figure of Duke Rollo’s that stayed long with Cynthia and me and that finally, five years ago, carried us up the high Scottish coast north of Oban, of Port Appin, of Loch Eil. Late one August afternoon, sailing west from Mallaig, whose gray, desolate houses cling like barnacles to the wind-swept cliffs, we saw rocky islands, near, far, dim in the hazy distance and in the hovering twilight. Purple they were, from blossoming heather, or from the evening light, or from years of dreams, and they rose from the dark blue sea like a great bunch of loosely hung grapes.
‘I suppose,’said Cynthia, watching a last shaft of sunlight as it lay on the most distant island, ’I suppose Duke Rollo left for France on just such an afternoon as this. ’
My mother was directly responsible for an original but not wholly commendable habit which, through her precept and example, early fastened itself upon us. Reacting, as she did, strongly and unmistakably to persons and situations within or without the covers of books, she quite naturally encouraged in us, not only those reactions themselves, but upon occasion the means of registering the same. While we were still very young, it had been her custom, in reading to us, to pass the book solemnly to Cynthia and me in turn, so that we might give tangible vent to our indignation toward some particularly hateful character by loudly slapping the picture of him and his cruelty. If there were no picture, we slapped the monstrous words that chronicled such dark behavior. Thus the wicked stepmother in ‘Snow White,’ in the guise of a peddler, with her fatal apple and her poisoned comb, was early and often rewarded by a shower of serious and righteous blows, as was also dastardly Big Klaus who slew his grandmother, and the wolf who drew near, with mincing step and heart of darkness, to the home of Red Riding Hood.
In recent years my mother has apologized for this teaching. She fears now, she says, that it inculcated prejudice and intolerance; but, being in league with the Comic Spirit, she claims an excuse for it on the modern grounds that she married before she had had time to ‘express herself’ sufficiently! The habit stayed long with Cynthia and me; indeed, it was not so many years ago that I discovered my hand pounding away in fury upon the Thwackum and Square pages in Tom Jones; and I doubt not that the custom might have lingered up to this very day were it not that the old and completely satisfying villains have passed out of books and of life, and that all conceivable modern behavior, actual or fictional, has become, in the light of the new learning, neither righteous nor unrighteous, but merely problematical!
With the old secretary and mornings thereon is the habit indissolubly associated. Reading in The Scottish Chiefs of the cruel death of the Lady Marion, the Sweet Lady of Ellerslie, at the hands of that venomous Heselrigge, tyrant of Lanark, her small, high voice vibrant with contempt and anger, Cynthia, her hand poised to strike, moved the book toward me, and together we thundered upon the picture or the page just retribution. Thus we dutifully gave visible and vigorous sign of our disgust for all meretricious behavior on the part of witches and stepmothers, elder sisters, grudging schoolmasters, and wicked kings, although it is but fair to say that we were often impatient at the necessary interruption.
But there came a morning, and that early, when there was seemingly no place to slap, when Cynthia’s tearfilled eyes looked at mine and mine looked at Cynthia’s, and when there drifted about our warm, quiet kitchen, above the sunlight on the floor, within the fragrance of things cooking, a shadowy perception, strange and disturbing. We had been reading a new Hans Andersen which had come for Cynthia’s birthday, in gay red covers with eleven white swans winging their way toward Elsa and her magical shirts; and for the first time we had become acquainted with the Little Match Girl. There she sat in the cold dawn, — with red cheeks and a smile upon her lips, — in the corner, leaning against the wall, frozen to death on the last evening of the Old Year, so pitiful a figure we both forgot that in her death she had visions for her company.
And who was there to blame for it all — who to slap? Not the boy who had run away with her slipper, cruel though he was. Not her father, who, if she went home, would surely beat her. No, it was not they who had done this thing.
Then, as to Job in the Land of Uz and to Sophocles by the Ægean, there came thus early to Cynthia and me on the top of the old secretary the dim knowledge of that sad and eternal questioning, encircling and uniting all mankind. But for a short moment, a little while, it was clearly better with us than with Job and Sophocles. For we in those days could turn at once to the witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel,’who was surely to blame for it all, and slap away to our hearts’ content.