A Pagan Boyhood


MY ancestors represented three nationalities. My father was of Puritan stock, from Yorkshire; my mother was English, German, and French. Her paternal ancestor was a certain French baron and admiral who, being defeated by the British in a naval engagement off the New England coast, settled in the American wilderness, leading a life far from orthodox and leaving behind him a line of descendants whom the Anglo-Saxons had the habit of jailing for ‘divers atheistic writings and beliefs.’ These men plunged deep into the forest, built log houses that would have done credit to a baronial estate, prospered as only Frenchmen can, and revised the Ten Commandments to their liking.

I was born on a large farm in a beautiful valley. Across the road from the house was the remnant of a pine forest — the ‘Dark Forest’ the Indians had called it when it covered all the valley— in which the wind crooned to me with my first breath. About me were miles on miles of apple orchards, and in our own I worked and played from the time of pink and scented bloom to that of scented and yellow fruit. Within view of my bedroom window was a great marsh, about which a river ran in a long crescent resembling a giant bowl broken in half. Here, in summer, thousands of bobolinks held high carnival until ruthless mowing machines cut down the rank grass from the tops of which these feathered revelers delivered their rollicking songs.

Beyond the valley, like a huge dragon enveloped in its own breath, a low mountain slipped forever away over the western horizon. Over it — or through it? — came at rare intervals the rhythmic beat of the ocean upon some vague shore after a heavy storm. Sometimes in the breathless silence of a winter’s night I would catch its mighty swing, and then my emotions would nearly smother me.

Just behind our farm lay another mountain range, where, year after year, the panorama of the seasons passed in beautiful and sacred procession. In early spring the trailing arbutus (‘Mayflower,’ we miscalled it) bloomed in the rough pasture land between receding snow banks soiled with the dust of burned-out shooting stars; and no one, not even my mother, could gather such tempting nosegays of this queen of the northern wilderness as I could. Each returning April I filled the house with them, and stained all our books — even the family Bible — by placing between the leaves those showing the most delicate shades of pink.

On April nights, with ‘spring’s sweet trouble in the air,’ I would lie in bed beside my soundly sleeping brother and hear the frogs in antiphonal chorus in the pond beyond the east orchard. Since then I have heard the mocking bird, the skylark, the nightingale, but no bird’s song has ever kindled in me quite the ecstasy that those ‘high flutes in silvery interchange’ awakened on those enchanted spring nights.

My grandfather watched me through those childhood years with an evergrowing disapprobation that slowly kindled into something akin to hate; and when, later in the summer, I would go in pursuit of butterflies (my only net was my battered straw hat), he would protest to my father that I should be made to work, else I should come to some bad end. When the old fellow died he willed me a spavined horse out of his considerable property, presumably to emphasize his disapproval of me.

Behind the pines that my father had saved, ostensibly as a windbreak for the buildings and orchards, but in reality because he loved them, was a no man’s land dotted with patches of second-growth pine and spruce, and the remains of logs decayed down to the level of the ground. In these brownishgray remnants of ancient pines nighthawks laid their two creamy-white eggs, spotted with greenish brown and lilac.

Between the old and the new growth of trees ran a swale, dense with alders, willows, elders, and, in season, cattails. Under the low spruce bushes along the edge of this depression nested the hermit thrush, to me the most exalted singer in all the feathered world. I would worm my way under the tangled growth in search of a thrush’s nest, and, when I had found one, lie with my head propped in my hands and look into the fearless dark eyes of the mother bird as she sat deep in a rather bulky structure sunk to the level of the ground. Never did I betray her by even so much as touching the clear bluish-green eggs when occasionally I found her away from the nest.

In the densest part of these secondgrowth spruces and pines I used to bury every fall a barrel of apples well below the frost line, and when all the apples were gone in our cellar I would dig down to these. I always found them in perfect condition, except that the pulp had burst the skin around the stem and rolled out into a roselike excrescence. Lying on the pine needles under the low boughs, I would peel my apples and eat them. One day I saw a large buck rabbit looking intently at me through the branches, fitfully revolving his long ears and twitching his harelip as only a hungry rabbit can. I tossed him a strip of peeling, but the motion of my arm sent him crashing through the brush. The story of how I tamed that rabbit to eat out of my hand, and eventually to sit on my chest, is a long one; but I did it, although his ‘better half’ usually sat a few yards away looking her pronounced disapproval.


There was not a tree in that grove which at one time or another I did not climb. Many of them rose fifty feet without a branch, and in my numerous ascents to scrutinize the covered houses of squirrels and the nests of blue jays and crows I would frequently bark my shins. But the sight of blood did not disturb me. Indeed, it seems to me as I look back that I was always bleeding from some part of my scarred and lean body. As a little fellow I used to crouch at mouseholes and spring upon unwary mice with the deadly accuracy of a cat. Unlike the cat, though, I usually got bitten. Later, I used to set box traps for squirrels in the pine grove, baiting the spindle with a sweet apple. To catch the squirrel was comparatively easy; but to get him safely in my hand was a job that, in insurance parlance, might be classified as ‘extra hazardous.’

The first squirrel I caught I let loose in the living room. I never did it again. The pretty little fellow developed into a red demon that worked such havoc with curtains, pictures, and dishes that I was in disgrace for a week. After many experiments, in which the squirrel often made his escape, I hit upon the device of raising the cover a little, thrusting in my hand, and seizing him by any part of his agile body that I could lay hold of. Often he would use his chisel-like teeth upon my fingers, sometimes cutting to the bone; but I always held on to him until I had secured his tail. As a result, there were a goodly number of squirrels in that grove that suggested a certain rodent of Shakespearean literature, and the proximity of ‘joy riders’ who were devotees, not of the ‘gas chariot,’ but of the broomstick. As I write this I am examining some of the scars on my hands left by the teeth of squirrels, muskrats, woodchucks, and a very deep one inflicted by the rapier-like bill of a wounded blue heron. Each is a reminder of my vividly real but utterly irreclaimable youth.

These bloody encounters were, I take it, the savage side of me that was just boy. And the most savage rite I practised in that grove was robbing crows’ nests. The nest was always built hard up against the trunk of a tree on the opposite side from the prevailing wind. That, I suppose, sheltered it from both wind and rain. Also, the crows never built a nest where the foliage was dense. The somewhat bulky structure was always in a spot that commanded a fairly wide outlook of the surrounding grove. Further, it was seldom more than three fourths the distance up the tree. This, I presume, was a precaution against discovery by sharp-eyed hawks and owls passing over the tree tops. Finally, it was in plain view of the ground, although the color of its coarse twigs and sticks blended so naturally with its grayish setting as to render it quite unnoticed by the untrained eye. Did the crow devise this last precaution before man with his upward-peering face appeared upon the scene?

The trunk of the tree selected for the nest was always difficult to climb, and by the time I was halfway up crows were darting at me from every side and fiercely snapping their bills within a few inches of my face. When at last I would reach the nest and look over the rim at the light-green eggs, spotted and blotched with blackish brown, the angry cawing, the swish of wings, and the snapping of bills became so alarming that it required real coolness and courage to face the onslaught. One by one I would drop the eggs to the ground, and each motion would provoke a fresh attack. Only once did I toss a nestful of featherless and scrawny young ones to earth. I can feel yet the warmth of their ungainly little bodies in my hand, and the sense of guilt that went with the act of taking them from the nest. I never betrayed any other bird in that infamous way until I went on an ornithological expedition with an uncle, when in the cause of science we visited a group of lonely islands in the Atlantic and brought back the blown eggs and stuffed bodies of some rare sea birds.

Once, as I shoved my way through the dense growth along the edge of the swamp, I came upon a cuckoo’s nest built about three feet from the ground in a spruce bush. I was right upon it before the mother bird, with a graceful flirt of her long slim tail, slipped noiselessly away and vanished in the thicket. There, under my very eyes, in the flimsiest of nests, were four cloudy lightgreen eggs! I think that to my childish fancy this was the greatest discovery of my young life. As far back as I could remember I had searched for both bird and nest, but until that unforgettable moment had never found either.

Some years later, while passing through this part of the grove in a driving sleet storm, I noticed a large, inky-black bird clinging desperately to a writhing branch. Having my gun with me, I brought down what proved to be an unusually large raven. As I had only winged him, he made at me with a ferocity I had never credited his tribe with. I stopped him with the butt of the gun, into which he sank his talons as easily as if the wood had been putty. I dragged the old warrior home in triumph and tried to tame him; but he was so filthy in his habits that one day when I was at school my mother set him free.


My first intimate knowledge of death came to me when I was nine years old. It was early April, and I had gone ‘trouting’ during the sunny part of the day in a small brook that wandered leisurely across our farm and joined the river through ‘Mud Creek.’ I was sitting on a log by a stone bridge, idly bobbing my line in the vortex of foam at the corner of the culvert. Opposite me was a steep slope starred with the first dandelions, among which bumblebees droned as they hurried greedily from flower to flower. The bees and the dandelions were proving more fascinating than the wary old trout I knew to be hiding under the edge of the culvert, so I sat and watched them with that peace in my child’s heart which literally passeth understanding.

A loud call from the direction of the river failed to rouse me. It was followed by another and another; and then I heard a stentorian shout from a man who lived on the other side of the river nearly a mile away. Looking up, I saw a woman running along the road toward the landing. Dropping my fishing pole, I ran after her, and, following a steep path down a wooded bluff, reached the bank of the river in time to see two men struggling with gray-haired Mrs. M—— to prevent her from plunging into the dark, hurrying water. People kept pouring down the path and across the great marsh on the other side, until the babel of voices made it difficult for little me to find out what had happened. Then a hoop of an old woman whose chin always shook as t hough she were pronouncing a perpetual malediction told me that Ralph and Will were drowned! The two boys had been collecting spruce gum all winter, and, wishing to go to town to sell it, had attempted to cross the river in a leaky skiff. The derelict had rapidly filled, and when in midstream they had lost their heads and leaped into the water, trying to swim to shore; but the swift current had carried them over the rapids, and men working on a raft of logs at the landing had seen them both sink.

How vivid still is the following night! The lights from the many boats on the river where men were grappling for the bodies; the old brass telescope through which they tried to scan the bottom; the fearful three-pronged grappling irons attached to long poles; the shouts; the appalling silences. Then in the thick dawn a boat took shape out of the fog, and when it had been made fast to an old snag half buried in mud, two men lifted a dripping body from the bottom and started to carry it up the path. I slipped between grown-ups and looked at the face. It was Will’s! I had been talking with him only the afternoon before, while he repaired some snake fence for my grandfather, for whom he worked. The appearance of that face with the freckles still showing on the wet cheeks is stamped deeper into the tablet of my memory than is any other thing. Later, from the same treacherous river, and up the same path, the body of my mother was carried.

I followed close behind Will, and when they opened the door of my grandfather’s workshop and placed the corpse on a carpenter’s bench I watched with shivering disgust as one of the men who had helped to carry it reached into a dripping pocket and, removing a handful of gum, selected a couple of amber-colored lumps and slipped them into his mouth.

The summer tide raced up the river’s tortuous channel, meeting little resistance from the greatly shrunken stream of fresh water. As it boiled along it sucked up a fine sediment from the banks of the adjoining marshes, until the water became an opaque brown fluid resembling mineral paint. For a few minutes at the turn of the tide this ‘devil’s broth’ became ominously quiet, then turned and hurried back toward the ocean, leaving behind it long, greasy, olive-brown mud banks. In this mud we boys wallowed, naked and unashamed, like creatures of the primeval slime.

The spring tide in August, when the river had dwindled to a mere thread of water, would rush up the empty channel with a foaming brown crest upon its turbulent front. Into this we would plunge, and, with no further exertion than that of keeping afloat, be swept upstream for half a mile. But we often had to ‘pay the piper’ on the return trip, which had to be made on foot, as we would not wait for the ebbing tide to carry us back. Usually there were folks, male and female, still making hay on the marshes, and to get past these unnoticed was a first-rate adventure.

On one of these adventures, however, I encountered a real difficulty. I had undressed in a clump of spruce trees, and as I neared it on my return I heard voices. Creeping up, I saw a young couple seated on a rug not ten feet from my clothes. The young lady was reading Longfellow’s Evangeline to the young man, who lay with upturned face at her feet, drinking in her every word. She not only read that poem to the bitter end, but they sat for a good half-hour afterward discussing its beauties. Later, I read Evangeline only under compulsion.

When the nighthawks would gather by hundreds in the late afternoon over a certain field, keeping up a continuous roar as they swooped down about my head, I knew that summer was gone. They always congregated thus without warning, and in a few days the solemn hush which succeeds the departure of the song birds and the subsidence of insect life was upon us. Then the goldenrod, the aster, and the ‘black dandelion’ came into their own, and the sunlight lay thick like yellow pollen upon the empty fields. From my bed at night I could hear the occasional muffled thud of an apple dropping to the ground in the dark and silent orchard, and the hesitant inquiry of an owl from the pines for the approaching frosty nights.

On one of these evenings in early autumn the cows did not come home, and the next morning before daylight my brother and I were sent in search of them. As I stood with my bare feet deep in the dewy grass, 1 chanced to look up at the stars. They had paused, and, leaning far down to me, were saying unutterable things that made me catch my breath in sudden rapture. Since then I have seen the stars from the decks of steamers on the Seven Seas, from the highlands of South Africa, from the top of one of the world’s loftiest mountains, from the stealthy tropic jungle, but they have never communed with me again. It was Stephen Phillips — was it not? — who said: ‘For the great stars consented, and withdrew.’

Once, during my college days, a professor of astronomy on a brilliant winter’s night took me to look through a telescope at a certain planet. When he had adjusted the instrument I took one look, then without a word of explanation turned and fled. In that moment of disillusionment I had seen through time and space — even matter itself — and out into the void. I did not recover from the shock for days. Indeed, I doubt if I have ever wholly recovered. For to me the stars are the most terrible things in the universe.


Have you ever seen a mother skunk leading her young abroad of a summer’s evening? If so, you have never forgotten it. What an example of courage tinctured with caution, of maternal devotion without nonsense! How plainly I can see one of these sturdy little creatures plodding along in the dusk, alert for any stray June bug, brush high over her back for the young ones to follow. Occasionally, on my way home from a late swim in the river, I would meet one of these worthy burgesses leading abroad her neat, well-kept family. The code of etiquette on such an occasion was quite elaborate. The mother would pause about three rods away, spread her uplifted tail to its utmost capacity, and then stamp firmly on the ground with a forefoot as a warning that I was to advance no farther. If I halted and played fair, she would slowly and in a most dignified manner back away and move off in another direction, the youngsters executing an orderly retreat behind her; but if I stooped to pick up a stone, or continued to advance, I would certainly have a potent reminder of my rashness.

Once, in a narrow path in the secondgrowth pines, I met an unusually large male. At sight of me he looked me squarely in the eyes, slowly raised his splendid brush (I can see the long yellowish-white hairs cascading in the opposite direction as the tail reached an upright position), and then thumped vigorously several times with his left forefoot as a signal for me to retreat. But on that day my better judgment deserted me. I picked up a stone and threw it at him. The next moment I saw all the stars in the firmament as a stream of yellowish oil hit me squarely in the eyes. In an agony as great as any I have ever suffered, I tore blindly through the bushes, across a marsh, and, plunging into the river, thrashed about until I had washed away enough of the deadly stuff to enable me dimly to discern objects. It was weeks before I wholly recovered my sight.

The supreme event of each autumn was a visit to a certain poplar grove on the side of the ‘Hog’s Back’ — a high, sharp windrow of ancient sand across the mouth of a mountain gorge. From childhood I have loved yellow above every other color. The dandelion, the buttercup, the goldenrod, kindle in me an emotion such as Wordsworth must have experienced when he first saw his host of golden daffodils. I understand that a love of yellow is an attribute of childhood — something elemental, primitive. So be it!

The first sharp frost would reveal to my searching eyes the poplar grove in its setting of sombre spruce and fir. Day after day the yellow would grow more pronounced, until early October found it a great cloth of purest gold. I would watch it until I deemed the coloring ripe, perfect, then slip quietly away some smouldering afternoon and visit my holy of holies. By that time the leaves were beginning to fall, and the ground was a great yellow carpet into which my feet sank luxuriously. I would sit there in the solemn hush that had come over the forest, broken now and then by the late drumming of a grouse or the tapping of a woodpecker, until the chill of evening struck through my cotton shirt and forced me to be going. In a battered volume of The Story of an African Farm that has thrice encircled the globe with me I found the other day some of those poplar leaves.

A few thrills of my childhood days are still vivid in my memory. On one occasion a half dozen of us little boys were splashing along stark-naked through the tall bulrushes that fringed the river, heading toward a certain quiet eddy for a swim, when my foot encountered something more substantial than the greasy mud left by the tide. Glancing down, I looked into the wide, sightless eyes of a bearded and bloated face half buried in the slime. A cry from me brought the other boys to my side. For a long moment we stared in horrid fascination, then broke and ran. I did not stop until, breathless and naked, I burst into our kitchen. It proved to be the body of a drowned sailor carried upstream by the tide.

Although later I was twice nearly drowned in that river and brought to life again, the nearest I ever came to death in my childhood was on a pleasant May morning in a quiet pasture. My grandfather had bought a big black stallion w hose coat shone like a crow’s wing. Even my five-year-old intelligence divined that there was something bad connected with that splendid creature. Whenever he was led to the watering trough from the barn I always took refuge behind a high board fence, and through a crack watched him curve his haughty neck, plunge his muzzle into the trough in a way that threw out half the water, and then greedily drink.

On this day I had slipped between the rails of a snake fence into the horse pasture, looking for dandelion blossoms. I was on my knees rounding out a handful of the yellow beauties when I heard heavy footsteps behind me. Glancing round, I saw the most terrifying sight ever a child beheld. Standing high over me on his hind legs was the black stallion! His eyes were blazing, his red nostrils widely distended, and his great forefeet wildly pawed the air just above my head. A horrible snort galvanized me into action, and I darted for the fence on all fours (lucky that I did n’t have time to rise!), the towering monster walking on his hind legs just behind me. I can still see — and hear — the long yellowwhite teeth with which he snapped at me as he reached his head far over the top rail.

As many another can testify, the ear is a far more potent vehicle of fear than the eye. One short December day I had hurried home from school, slipped over my cowhide boots a pair of long woolen stockings, and started off through the fluffy snow for the daily round of my rabbit snares. When I reached the first snare that afternoon the sun was on the horizon and dusk was already gathering under the low thick boughs. This snare held a gray bunny, frozen stiff, its head twisted far back over its left shoulder, and its popping eyes glazed with frost. By the time I had collected a half-dozen rabbits the snow was blue in the open places under a brilliant winter moon. In front of me, stark against the moon’s face, was a large buck rabbit dangling from a spring pole. I was bending down the gray birch, slipping my hand along toward the snare, when a piercing cry came from a clump of bushes not three rods behind me. Dropping my rabbits, I stood rigid with fear. In a few moments the cry was repeated. It was that of a child being murdered! Surely sandals of lightning were on my feet, and I slackened my pace out in the open pasture only when my pounding heart and burning throat compelled me to. My father, beautiful character that he was, did not laugh at me, but explained that the cries were from a rabbit caught in one of my own snares.


As soon as ‘hard weather’ set in, my father would yoke ‘Star’ and ‘Lion’ in the ‘Dutch yoke’ and drive them to the nearest blacksmith shop to be shod. Shoeing an ox was to my child’s mind a truly fearsome undertaking. The patient brute was coaxed or bullied into a boxlike place between heavy uprights, a great apron of the stoutest leather attached to rollers was passed under his body, and then these rollers were turned, lifting the fear-stricken beast clear of the floor. Then the burly smith would seize a leg, — sometimes only to be hurled across the shop, — drag it out to one of the beams that ran on either side of the frame, and, after securely lashing down each foot, bottom up, begin the work of shoeing. How I used to hold my breath in fear as the half-moon of iron, a sharp calk on either end, was taken red-hot from the forge and placed gingerly on the hoof. As it touched, a cloud of pungent smoke arose, and I would wince in imagined pain; but when the great brute gave no signs of discomfort I breathed freely again until the process of nailing on the shoe began. As each nail was hammered home, it was as if the sharp point of it were entering my own flesh. Seldom, however, did the thick-chested German shoer prick an animal; but when he did the bulky captive would give no uncertain notice of the mishap.

On the way home, Star, the nigh ox, would at first avoid all ice; and the puzzled look in his big smoky eyes as he gradually discovered that he would not slip on it made the old fellow seem very near to me.

Star was long, small of barrel, and striped like a tiger, with a pair of slim, sharp horns whose glossy black tips pointed straight forward. All the other oxen in the neighborhood had brass knobs on their horns; but my father, for reasons known only to himself, never would use them. Star was conceded to be the champion fighter of the neighborhood. With head low and tail high, he would give swift battle to anything that opposed him. The dull thud of the meeting frontal bones, the quick digging in of toes, the swelling of the thick neck muscles, then the gradual settling back of the vanquished, the spring sideways, and the lightninglike thrust of Star’s deadly horns into the exposed flank — of a truth, man

Snatches the glory of life only from love and from war.

The anguish in my boy’s heart when Star at last went down to defeat is still vividly real. Ike Durland was a cattle buyer who scoured the country to the west of us for beef on t he hoof. Twice a year he would drive a large herd of sleek oxen and fat cows along the road past our farm toward the nearest city. The dark red, lowing, trampling mass was advancing late one afternoon when I chanced to be driving Lion and Star across the road to the pasture. At sight of Star, a huge red-and-white ox in the van of the bovine army lowered his head, snorted, and began to paw at the road in long slow sweeps that sent a cloud of dust high over his back. Star promptly accepted the challenge, and my heart thrilled as he bore down upon that mountain of flesh. The shock of the meeting shook the solid earth. Each animal humped his back, stiffened his neck, and then — oh, the shame and anguish of it! — Star crumpled up like paper, springing away just in time to escape the great curved horns that, backed by a good ton of beef, were directed at his exposed flank. Hannibal, Napoleon, Charles XII —no, the anguish of any one of these in his dark hour could not possibly have been greater than mine.

Later, horses replaced oxen on the farm; but they never displaced my love for Lion and Star. A sweating horse, like a sweating man, is an ill-smelling thing; but the breath of kine has inspired poets.

Running through this pagan joy of my childhood, this dear delight of living in a world in which even snakes were my playfellows (I see yard-long ‘Old Nick’ as he used to lie in the dust, darting out his red forked tongue in sheer delight as I gently stroked his rippling back), is something akin to a dark thread through a cloth of bright gold. It is the Puritan conscience. To my child’s mind anything was right if it gave pleasure to any of God’s creatures and wrong if it brought them pain. To me, God, as the people of the community thought of Him, was simply nonexistent. Even when I was a small boy my remarks to the different clergymen who took tea at our house were pronounced highly dangerous by those dignitaries.


It was about this time that there occurred the most momentous happening of my young life. The schoolhouse, which also served for hall and meetinghouse, stood at the edge of our pine grove, and there I attended school until I reached my teens.

In that schoolhouse there was only one room, and one teacher for all the pupils — some five years old, some twenty. I passed a good deal of my school time playing ‘soldier.’ The game was simple and harmless enough. In the grove we would gather a handful of pine twigs, each with its cluster of attached needles, and, pressing a cluster together, draw a knife across the t ip, leaving the end square. Stood on end, the slightest breath would start these soldiers marching across the desk, now slow, now fast, to right, to left, or in a close formation that was calculated literally to overthrow the enemy. Usually these mock battles escaped the notice of the harassed teacher; but occasionally we would come to blow s over the outcome of some disputed engagement, when we would be punished and our soldiers thrown into the stove.

I was eleven years old when the thing happened that was to mould all the remainder of my life. I was sitting in the back seat on the boys’ side of the room, my bare feet dangling a good six inches above the floor, my breath skillfully directing an army against Abner’s embattled hosts. The teacher was frail, flat-chested, with a sparse brown beard, chalk-white forehead, and pale blue eyes in whose puzzled depths lurked the vague shadow of defeat. I was busy w ith my soldiers, when gradually I was aware of his voice reading to a class of young people.

‘Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain. . .’

Although it was June, warm and lovely, I felt the gooseflesh coming out all over me, and chills running up and down my spine. By the time he had finished I seemed to be freezing to death. I never finished the battle with my pine soldiers, and through the magic door which that voice opened for me I entered into the rich heritage of English poetry.

The architects of that schoolhouse (in imagination I see them coming together some evening after milking) were confronted with the difficulty of building a structure that from the outside would resemble a church, but in reality would be a schoolhouse.

When the wind blew, the gable end behind the teacher’s desk would sway in and out a good six inches, and as time passed the plaster on it showed signs of loosening.

One winter we had for our teacher a crabbed old fellow who went on crutches. He would sit behind his high desk with his hat on (his head was bald and the cavernlike place drafty), and occasionally summon some larger boy up to his detestable presence for an application of a strap that he had borrowed from my father’s harness. Abner was the first boy to discover the widening crack in the plaster, some thirty feet above our tormentor’s head. Day after day we watched that crack with a fascination bordering on the hypnotic, and whenever the gable swayed in and out we were so well behaved that an occasional glint of suspicion narrowed the old tyrant’s fishy eyes. That morning a stiff wind was blowing, sift ing the newly fallen snow over the shiny crust with a hissing sound. Toward noon the wind increased to a gale that swooped fitfully round the pine grove from the northeast and landed upon the gable with a force that made it sway in and out like the flank of some heavily breathing beast. ‘Old Fish-Eye’ was sitting grimly behind his desk, in hat and overcoat, quite unconscious of his impending doom. With bated breath we watched a great slab of plaster tip out a few inches from the wall, and then return to its place as the gable buckled back. We waited with savage expectancy for the next onslaught of the wind.

Then the totally unexpected happened. The old tyrant got up from his chair, and, taking his crutches, hobbled down to the stove, already red-hot, to see for himself if any more wood could be poked into its cavernous maw. He was noisily replacing the cover when the crash came. A half ton of plaster swooped down from the gable, smashing the pedagogic chair and desk and a small globe that had taken me on many thrilling adventures through steaming tropical Africa and frigid Siberia. ‘And he had n’t been near the stove for a month!’ growled Abner.

My first fistic encounter was also my last, and its effect upon my entire subsequent life has been, I suspect, profound. Since then the sight, and more especially the sound, of one person striking another in the face has always filled me with horror. I have seen men mutilated in accidents, shot to pieces in action, without being greatly disturbed; but at the sight of one man pommeling another’s face I am quite unnerved. I have never attended a prize fight.

Among the long list of games which we played at that school was one which I suspect was unique. Along the edge of the swamp where the hermit thrushes nested grew withe-woods (botanical name quite unknown to me), long, slim, pea-green, and in the hands of an expert an instrument of exquisite torture. If two boys had a ‘difference’ not of sufficient gravity to be settled with the fists, they would proceed to the swamp, arm themselves each with the supplest and longest withe-wood that could be found, and then return to the green plot behind the schoolhouse, upon which no spying windows peered. The tournament at Ashby was never looked forward to more enthusiastically than was one of those gentle and joyous passages at arms in which withe-woods supplanted lances.

The opponents would advance into the open spot, about which were ringed the boys of the school; each would remove his coat and waistcoat, often leaving only a thin cotton shirt over the body; one would raise his arms high over his head, and the other, after measuring the distance between them with a practised eye, would coil his withe-wood about the body of his adversary with all the skill and power behind his lithe young arm. If the withe-wood was a long one, it would encircle the body twice, the tip often slashing viciously through the shirt, and drawing blood. Six strokes was the limit, when the other fellow would take his turn, the two alternating until one lowered his arms and declined to endure further punishment. The sharp intake of breath among the spectators, the look of utter savagery upon the encircling faces, strongly suggest a certain dance I once saw among Malay headhunters. After one of those scourgings I would be blue-black for days from armpits to hips.

Another game was a more exquisite form of torture. On either side of the schoolhouse yard was a high fence constructed of boards placed upright one against the other. Not quite solid, either; for a West Indian Negro who had strayed north among us occasionally gave an exhibition of prowess by rushing at the fence, leaping clear of the ground en route, and smashing a board with his head as he descended. For some reason he had spared the fence on the west side of the yard, and against this, on a good snowballing day, we would stand a certain beanstalk of a boy over six feet tall and weighing less than ninety pounds. Then the mob would arm itself with snowballs and proceed to outline the victim’s body against the dark gray background of the fence. For a few moments the air was blurred with flying missiles, above the whiz of which came an occasional howl of pain from the unlucky wight who stood figuratively and literally with his back to the wall. Even on a cold winter’s day I have seen him wet with sweat and limp with fright when the ordeal was over.


My grandfather kept sheep, and in the flock one winter was an exceptionally large ram with great corrugated horns that in their backward sweep touched his massive shoulders. The sheep pen adjoined the barn floor, which ran corridor-like through the two-hundred-foot structure. By reaching over into the pen with a long stick, from the end of which dangled a tin pan, I discovered that ‘Billy’ could be provoked to a spirited charge. Then I had a bright idea. I tied a rope to a pan, climbed up on the end mow, and my brother let the bellicose Billy in upon the unobstructed and spacious floor. With a look in his eye that clearly signified a burning wish for more worlds to conquer, he quickly discovered the dangling pan, and charged it with a zeal worthy of a Don Quixote. The pan rang under the impact of the blow, and the sport was on. That any living thing could be as persistent and enduring as that ram passes belief. Sometimes we would play the game for a couple of hours, desisting only when we heard my grandfather’s heavy tread approaching through the creaking snow.

By February we had Billy in the pink of condition. We made several attempts to induce him to exhibit his prowess upon grandfather; but, for some reason known only to sheep, he declined. Then came the golden opportunity. A fat little Irish butcher with a delightful brogue came one day to buy a pair of beef steers. His rosy face carried the proverbial wreath of smiles, and as he walked he pushed each short fat leg past his protruding ‘bay window’ as if making a determined effort to get ahead of it. Three good feet of the fluffiest of snow had recently fallen upon a crust stiff enough to carry a person’s weight, and the jolly little man was proceeding from the barn to the house along the narrow path worn deep by grandfather’s substantial feet.

With my brother just behind me on the lookout, I stood by the sheep-pen door, measuring with my eye the distance that would enable Billy to reach his maximum speed before connecting with the butcher, then opened the door and stood quickly aside. Billy, already scenting battle, stuck out his batteringram of a head, blinked in the sudden sunshine, and then discovered the rolypoly Irishman as he waddled along the slippery path. With an air of spurning the vulgar earth beneath him, Billy touched that path only four times before he gained his objective. The butcher, as if in defiance of the law of gravity, suddenly rose, and, performing a curve like an exaggerated football shot from the toe of an expert punter, landed face downward in the snow and ploughed along under its disturbed surface for a couple of rods upon the glassy crust beneath.

The appearance of that Irishman when at last he emerged and gained his feet was fascinating. He so closely resembled some rotund and harmless snow man, such as we always made in the front yard out of the first snowfall, that the roar which at length issued from him came as a complete and shocking surprise. Recovering his breath, he swore so volcanically that the wonder is he held together. Grandfather, who stood on the steps of his back porch watching the latter part of the untoward performance, was so outraged by this outburst of unseemly language that he refused to let the offender have the steers.

Our nearest neighbor was a sardonic old fellow with a face like Voltaire’s — as that gallant old Frenchman’s Christian opponents conceived it to be. We children stood in deep fear of him, knowing the dreadful things he did. For had he not beaten a sow to death in her pen, stabbed to death with a pitchfork a heifer that kicked when he tried to milk her, and — most shocking of all — set a fox trap under a sweetbough tree and caught Ann Poole in it when she ventured into his orchard after apples?

One afternoon my brother and I found a hen’s nest in a clump of hardhack near the back of his barn. The eggs were deeply stained, and sloshed when we shook them. Why not plaster the old sinner’s woodshed door with them? It would serve him right! In high glee we gathered those eggs, three dozen strong, into our straw hats, and, slipping up to the woodshed, peppered the door until it looked plague-infested from top to bottom. Suddenly the door opened, and we fled.

That night is ‘one of the most memorable in history,’ so far as I am concerned. My mother led the two of us supperless to bed, spanked us with a large and astonishingly capable hand, and then requested us to kneel and say our prayers. My tow-headed brother prayed as best he could between gulps, and climbed sobbing into bed; but I flatly declined either to pray or to cry; declared, in short, that ‘it served the old devil right,’ for which gem of truth I received another spanking more vigorous than the first.

Only on one other occasion during my childhood did that dangerous spirit take possession of me. It was on a Sunday morning, and my mother had told me for the third time to change my underclothing. While climbing the back stairs, I made some defiant remark, when my father, livid with sudden rage, sprang after me, and, dragging me out into the back kitchen, flogged me until I could n’t stand. A few weeks before I had bought an old gun (paid for with muskrat pelts and cider apples gleaned from under the sodden leaves in the fence corners), and this I loaded, firmly resolved to shoot my father before the day was done; but as the flame of my anger died down, I wept bitterly, unburdening my outraged soul to my dog.

My mother, before her marriage, was called the most beautiful woman in the county from which she came. Tall, straight, with coal-black hair, white skin, and frank French eyes that measured one at a glance, she was by nature a joyous pagan with a passion for the out-of-doors and a divine instinct for making any plant grow that she entrusted to mother earth. Born into the Catholic faith, she was caught in the deadly Puritan net, from which she never escaped. I can see her yet sitting by the window searching the Bible for the sin against the Holy Ghost, which she feared she had committed. In the dead of night she would rise, get (he great family tome, and continue the search, and, when she had fastened upon some verse which she regarded as proof of her eternal damnation, summon my father to corroborate her decision. How well I remember his patient, harassed face as he strove to persuade her to return to bed.

From her bedroom window my mother could see the graveyard. In the farthest corner was a long row of tall white tombstones, marking the graves of several generations of B——s, whose house was a half mile up the road. One night she woke my father and pointed to a light moving across the fields from the B—— house toward the graveyard. It entered, and, proceeding to the corner in which the B—— s were buried, vanished. In a few days, quite unexpectedly, another B—— died, and was buried beside his kinsfolk. Finally my mother came to watch for those lights with a fearful fascination, always rousing my father to bear witness to the incredible thing. The light would appear shortly after midnight, and was always followed by another death in the ill-fated B—— family. If my very sane father had only smiled at my mother’s hallucination the story would not have impressed me so deeply; but to his death he declared that he also saw the lights. I should like to see the alleged facts placed before the Society for Psychical Research and hear its ‘hard-boiled’ explanation.


Occasionally an evangelist would come down from Boston during the winter months and hold revival meetings in the schoolhouse. On one of these occasions my father, who years before had backslid, returned to the fold, and the next morning astonished us children by bowing his head — I can see the part in my mother’s raven-black hair as she bowed hers also — and saying grace. After that, grace was said before each meal until we children grew up and through sheer indifference silenced what is to me now the only really sacred religious rite connected with my childhood.

The next winter a velvet-tongued evangelist appeared who was truly a high-grade artist. He did not rant and roar; he had a much more effective method of bringing sinners to repentance. He simply played the melodeon and sang over and over in his sugary voice emotional hymns that have mesmerized countless thousands of guileless folk.

I was entering upon adolescence, and the emotional appeal of this smooth gentleman found me fertile soil. The meetings had been in full swing for a couple of weeks, and I was growing vaguely afraid of that sugary voice; but I entered the schoolhouse that evening as usual and sat in the back seats with ‘the gang.’ As the music went on and on I felt something tugging at me, drawing me forward; but I gripped the desk and resisted, until I saw a harddrinking old horse trader in front of me begin to weep, and, swept forward on vocal billows of rejoicing, gain the anxious seat.

Before I knew what had happened, I found myself beside him, and the next moment a soft, seductive hand was on my shoulder and the sugary voice was in my ear. I went home with my head as high in the clouds as if I had been smoking opium, and all night, until the break of a cold January dawn, I said over and over, over and over: ‘I’m saved, I’m saved, I’m saved! ’ When I awoke later in the morning and looked out into the pitiless winter sunshine, I half expected that the bitter weather would have no further power over me; but when I came to dress, my toes and fingers stung as usual, and when I arrived downstairs the wood box had to be filled. In a few days I had recovered from my emotional spree, and I never indulged in another.

My baptism ended my formal religious experience until I stood at the grave of my mother, when my convulsive weeping was mistaken by the officiating clergyman for ‘repentance.’ God rest his obtuse soul! Only in some old European cathedral, and that rarely, has the spirit of formal Christianity returned to me.

Once, years later, on my return to my native land, I attended a Wednesday night prayer meeting as in my boyhood days. As the fathers, markedly aged during the years of my wanderings, knelt one by one and asked fervently for the same old impossible things they had asked for in my childhood, my eyes in roaming about the familiar place rested upon a print of the crucified Christ hanging upon the wall. The gaunt body was raised against an utterly barren background, and as I looked at it the futility of altruistic goodness swept over me. Then, as if by a magician’s wand, I saw poor humanity through His eyes, and suddenly loved Him. Quietly I got up and slipped out into the night. The sky was clear, and the stars in their fathomless black gulfs were sweeping on, just as they swept on when the first glimmer of questioning intelligence first beheld them; just as they will sweep on when the last baffled interrogator turns his face helplessly up to them. What was I — the man on the cross — all life — in the face of that cold and heartless immensity? As the unthinkable æons wore on, even those stars would be utterly annihilated and return into the void, only to reappear in new worlds — over and over and over. Against such a spectacle those old men praying to their own collective shadow seemed less than nothing.

But what about that morning in my childhood when those same stars leaned down, and, communing with me, filled my soul with unutterable joy? What about the ageless chorus of the frogs beyond the orchard, and the prayer of the hermit thrush? Is science leading man into a deadly morass from which there is no escape so long as he worships at her shrine, and will he continue to dwindle until all his glorious spiritual heritage is lost, leaving only a highly intellectualized animal, well ordered, passionless, with no further capacity for either a heaven or a hell?

Or will man eventually rise triumphant above a depersonalized universe, and reconstruct another spiritual kingdom nobler and more spacious than that which science has destroyed?