How lonesome the old house was; how cold it was, away from that great central fire in the heart of it; how its timbers creaked as if in the contracting pinch of the frost; what a rattling there was of windows, what a concerted attack upon the clapboards; how the floors squeaked, and what gusts from round corners came to snatch the feeble flame of the candle from the boy's hand. How he shivered, as he paused at the staircase window to look out upon the great fields of snow, upon the stripped forest, through which he could hear the wind raving in a kind of fury, and up at the black flying clouds, amid which the young moon was dashing and driven on like a frail shallop at sea. And his teeth chattered more than ever when he got into the icy sheets, and drew himself up into a ball in his flannel nightgown, like a fox in his hole.
For a little time he could hear the noises downstairs, and an occasional laugh; he could guess that now they were having cider, and now apples were going round; and he could feel the wind tugging at the house, even sometimes shaking the bed. But this did not last long. He soon went away into a country he always delighted to be in: a calm place where the wind never blew, and no one dictated the time of going to bed to any one else. I like to think of him sleeping there, in such rude surroundings, ingenious, innocent, mischievous, with no thought of the buffeting he is to get from a world that has a good many worse places for a boy than the hearth of an old farmhouse, and the sweet, though undemonstrative, affection of its family life.
But there were other evenings in the boy's life, that were different from these at home, and one of them he will never forget. It opened a new world to John, and set him into a great flutter. It produced a revolution in his mind in regard to neckties; it made him wonder if greased boots were quite the thing compared with blacked boots; and he wished he had a long looking-glass, so that he could see, as he walked away from it, what was the effect of round patches on the portion of his trousers he could not see, except in a mirror; and if patches were quite stylish, even on everyday trousers. And he began to be very much troubled about the parting of his hair, and how to find out on which side was the natural part.
The evening to which I refer was that of John's first party. He knew the girls at school, and he was interested in some of them with a different interest from that he took in the boys. He never wanted to "take it out" with one of them, for an insult, in a stand-up fight, and he instinctively softened a boy's natural rudeness when he was with them. He would help a timid little girl to stand erect and slide; he would draw her on his sled, till his hands were stiff with cold, without a murmur; he would generously give her red apples into which he longed to set his own sharp teeth; and he would cut in two his lead-pencil for a girl, when he would not for a boy. Had he not some of the beautiful auburn tresses of Cynthia Rudd in his skate, spruce-gum, and wintergreen box at home? And yet the grand sentiment of life was little awakened in John. He liked best to be with boys, and their rough play suited him better than the amusements of the shrinking, fluttering, timid, and sensitive little girls. John had not learned then that a spider-web is stronger than a cable; or that a pretty little girl could turn him round her finger a great deal easier than a big bully of a boy could make him cry "enough."
John had indeed been at spelling-schools, and had accomplished the feat of "going home with a girl" afterwards; and he had been growing into the habit of looking around in meeting on Sunday, and noticing how Cynthia was dressed, and not enjoying the service quite as much if Cynthia was absent as when she was present. But there was very little sentiment in all this, and nothing whatever to make John blush at hearing her name.
But now John was invited to a regular party. There was the invitation, in a three-cornered billet, sealed with a transparent wafer: "Miss C. Rudd requests the pleasure of the company of," etc., all in blue ink, and the finest kind of pin-scratching writing. What a precious document it was to John! It even exhaled a faint sort of perfume, whether of lavender or caraway-seed he could not tell. He read it over a hundred times, and showed it confidentially to his favorite cousin, who had beaux of her own and had even "sat up" with them in the parlor. And from this sympathetic cousin John got advice as to what he should wear and how he should conduct himself at the party.
JOHN'S FIRST PARTY
It turned out that John did not go after all to Cynthia Rudd's party, having broken through the ice on the river when he was skating that day, and, as the boy who pulled him out said, "come within an inch of his life." But he took care not to tumble into anything that should keep him from the next party, which was given with due formality by Melinda Mayhew.
John had been many a time to the house of Deacon Mayhew, and never with any hesitation, even if he knew that both the deacon's daughters—Melinda and Sophronia were at home. The only fear he had felt was of the deacon's big dog, who always surlily watched him as he came up the tan-bark walk, and made a rush at him if he showed the least sign of wavering. But upon the night of the party his courage vanished, and he thought he would rather face all the dogs in town than knock at the front door.
The parlor was lighted up, and as John stood on the broad flagging before the front door, by the lilac-bush, he could hear the sound of voices—girls' voices—which set his heart in a flutter. He could face the whole district school of girls without flinching,—he didn't mind 'em in the meeting-house in their Sunday best; but he began to be conscious that now he was passing to a new sphere, where the girls are supreme and superior, and he began to feel for the first time that he was an awkward boy. The girl takes to society as naturally as a duckling does to the placid pond, but with a semblance of shy timidity; the boy plunges in with a great splash, and hides his shy awkwardness in noise and commotion.
When John entered, the company had nearly all come. He knew them every one, and yet there was something about them strange and unfamiliar. They were all a little afraid of each other, as people are apt to be when they are well dressed and met together for social purposes in the country. To be at a real party was a novel thing for most of them, and put a constraint upon them which they could not at once overcome. Perhaps it was because they were in the awful parlor,—that carpeted room of haircloth furniture, which was so seldom opened. Upon the wall hung two certificates framed in black, —one certifying that, by the payment of fifty dollars, Deacon Mayhew was a life member of the American Tract Society, and the other that, by a like outlay of bread cast upon the waters, his wife was a life member of the A. B. C. F. M., a portion of the alphabet which has an awful significance to all New England childhood. These certificates are a sort of receipt in full for charity, and are a constant and consoling reminder to the farmer that he has discharged his religious duties.
There was a fire on the broad hearth, and that, with the tallow candles on the mantelpiece, made quite an illumination in the room, and enabled the boys, who were mostly on one side of the room, to see the girls, who were on the other, quite plainly. How sweet and demure the girls looked, to be sure! Every boy was thinking if his hair was slick, and feeling the full embarrassment of his entrance into fashionable life. It was queer that these children, who were so free everywhere else, should be so constrained now, and not know what to do with themselves. The shooting of a spark out upon the carpet was a great relief, and was accompanied by a deal of scrambling to throw it back into the fire, and caused much giggling. It was only gradually that the formality was at all broken, and the young people got together and found their tongues.
John at length found himself with Cynthia Rudd, to his great delight and considerable embarrassment, for Cynthia, who was older than John, never looked so pretty. To his surprise he had nothing to say to her. They had always found plenty to talk about before—but now nothing that he could think of seemed worth saying at a party.
"It is a pleasant evening," said John.
"It is quite so," replied Cynthia.
"Did you come in a cutter?" asked John anxiously.
"No; I walked on the crust, and it was perfectly lovely walking," said Cynthia, in a burst of confidence.
"Was it slippery?" continued John.
John hoped it would be slippery—very—when he walked home with Cynthia, as he determined to do, but he did not dare to say so, and the conversation ran aground again. John thought about his dog and his sled and his yoke of steers, but he didn't see any way to bring them into conversation. Had she read the "Swiss Family Robinson"? Only a little ways. John said it was splendid, and he would lend it to her, for which she thanked him, and said, with such a sweet expression, she should be so glad to have it from him. That was encouraging.
And then John asked Cynthia if she had seen Sally Hawkes since the husking at their house, when Sally found so many red ears; and didn't she think she was a real pretty girl.
"Yes, she was right pretty;" and Cynthia guessed that Sally knew it pretty well. But did John like the color of her eyes?
No; John didn't like the color of her eyes exactly.
"Her mouth would be well enough if she did n't laugh so much and show her teeth."
John said her mouth was her worst feature.
"Oh, no," said Cynthia warmly; "her mouth is better than her nose."
John did n't know but it was better than her nose, and he should like her looks better if her hair was n't so dreadful black.
But Cynthia, who could afford to be generous now, said she liked black hair, and she wished hers was dark. Whereupon John protested that he liked light hair—auburn hair—of all things.
And Cynthia said that Sally was a dear, good girl, and she did n't believe one word of the story that she only really found one red ear at the husking that night, and hid that and kept pulling it out as if it were a new one.
And so the conversation, once started, went on as briskly as possible about the paring-bee, and the spelling-school, and the new singing-master who was coming, and how Jack Thompson had gone to Northampton to be a clerk in a store, and how Elvira Reddington, in the geography class at school, was asked what was the capital of Massachusetts, and had answered "Northampton," and all the school laughed. John enjoyed the conversation amazingly, and he half wished that he and Cynthia were the whole of the party.
But the party had meantime got into operation, and the formality was broken up when the boys and girls had ventured out of the parlor into the more comfortable living-room, with its easy-chairs and everyday things, and even gone so far as to penetrate the kitchen in their frolic. As soon as they forgot they were a party, they began to enjoy themselves.
But the real pleasure only began with the games. The party was nothing without the games, and, indeed, it was made for the games. Very likely it was one of the timid girls who proposed to play something, and when the ice was once broken, the whole company went into the business enthusiastically. There was no dancing. We should hope not. Not in the deacon's house; not with the deacon's daughters, nor anywhere in this good Puritanic society. Dancing was a sin in itself, and no one could tell what it would lead to. But there was no reason why the boys and girls shouldn't come together and kiss each other during a whole evening occasionally. Kissing was a sign of peace, and was not at all like taking hold of hands and skipping about to the scraping of a wicked fiddle.
In the games there was a great deal of clasping hands, of going round in a circle, of passing under each other's elevated arms, of singing about my true love, and the end was kisses distributed with more or less partiality, according to the rules of the play; but, thank Heaven, there was no fiddler. John liked it all, and was quite brave about paying all the forfeits imposed on him, even to the kissing all the girls in the room; but he thought he could have amended that by kissing a few of them a good many times instead of kissing them all once.
But John was destined to have a damper put upon his enjoyment. They were playing a most fascinating game, in which they all stand in a circle and sing a philandering song, except one who is in the center of the ring, and holds a cushion. At a certain word in the song, the one in the center throws the cushion at the feet of some one in the ring, indicating thereby the choice of a "mate" and then the two sweetly kneel upon the cushion, like two meek angels, and—and so forth. Then the chosen one takes the cushion and the delightful play goes on. It is very easy, as it will be seen, to learn how to play it. Cynthia was holding the cushion, and at the fatal word she threw it down, not before John, but in front of Ephraim Leggett. And they two kneeled, and so forth. John was astounded. He had never conceived of such perfidy in the female heart. He felt like wiping Ephraim off the face of the earth, only Ephraim was older and bigger than he. When it came his turn at length,—thanks to a plain little girl for whose admiration he did n't care a straw,—he threw the cushion down before Melinda Mayhew with all the devotion he could muster, and a dagger look at Cynthia. And Cynthia's perfidious smile only enraged him the more. John felt wronged, and worked himself up to pass a wretched evening.
When supper came, he never went near Cynthia, and busied himself in carrying different kinds of pie and cake, and red apples and cider, to the girls he liked the least. He shunned Cynthia, and when he was accidentally near her, and she asked him if he would get her a glass of cider, he rudely told her—like a goose as he was—that she had better ask Ephraim. That seemed to him very smart; but he got more and more miserable, and began to feel that he was making himself ridiculous.
Girls have a great deal more good sense in such matters than boys. Cynthia went to John, at length, and asked him simply what the matter was. John blushed, and said that nothing was the matter. Cynthia said that it wouldn't do for two people always to be together at a party; and so they made up, and John obtained permission to "see" Cynthia home.
It was after half-past nine when the great festivities at the Deacon's broke up, and John walked home with Cynthia over the shining crust and under the stars. It was mostly a silent walk, for this was also an occasion when it is difficult to find anything fit to say. And John was thinking all the way how he should bid Cynthia good-night; whether it would do and whether it wouldn't do, this not being a game, and no forfeits attaching to it. When they reached the gate, there was an awkward little pause. John said the stars were uncommonly bright. Cynthia did not deny it, but waited a minute and then turned abruptly away, with "Good-night, John!"
And the party was over, and Cynthia was gone, and John went home in a kind of dissatisfaction with himself.
It was long before he could go to sleep for thinking of the new world opened to him, and imagining how he would act under a hundred different circumstances, and what he would say, and what Cynthia would say; but a dream at length came, and led him away to a great city and a brilliant house; and while he was there, he heard a loud rapping on the under floor, and saw that it was daylight.
THE SUGAR CAMP
I think there is no part of farming the boy enjoys more than the making of maple sugar; it is better than "blackberrying," and nearly as good as fishing. And one reason he likes this work is, that somebody else does the most of it. It is a sort of work in which he can appear to be very active, and yet not do much.
And it exactly suits the temperament of a real boy to be very busy about nothing. If the power, for instance, that is expended in play by a boy between the ages of eight and fourteen could be applied to some industry, we should see wonderful results. But a boy is like a galvanic battery that is not in connection with anything; he generates electricity and plays it off into the air with the most reckless prodigality. And I, for one, would n't have it otherwise. It is as much a boy's business to play off his energies into space as it is for a flower to blow, or a catbird to sing snatches of the tunes of all the other birds.
In my day maple-sugar-making used to be something between picnicking and being shipwrecked on a fertile island, where one should save from the wreck tubs and augers, and great kettles and pork, and hen's eggs and rye-and-indian bread, and begin at once to lead the sweetest life in the world. I am told that it is something different nowadays, and that there is more desire to save the sap, and make good, pure sugar, and sell it for a large price, than there used to be, and that the old fun and picturesqueness of the business are pretty much gone. I am told that it is the custom to carefully collect the sap and bring it to the house, where there are built brick arches, over which it is evaporated in shallow pans, and that pains is taken to keep the leaves, sticks, and ashes and coals out of it, and that the sugar is clarified; and that, in short, it is a money-making business, in which there is very little fun, and that the boy is not allowed to dip his paddle into the kettle of boiling sugar and lick off the delicious sirup. The prohibition may improve the sugar, but it is cruel to the boy.
As I remember the New England boy (and I am very intimate with one), he used to be on the qui vive in the spring for the sap to begin running. I think he discovered it as soon as anybody. Perhaps he knew it by a feeling of something starting in his own veins,—a sort of spring stir in his legs and arms, which tempted him to stand on his head, or throw a handspring, if he could find a spot of ground from which the snow had melted. The sap stirs early in the legs of a country-boy, and shows itself in uneasiness in the toes, which get tired of boots, and want to come out and touch the soil just as soon as the sun has warmed it a little. The country-boy goes barefoot just as naturally as the trees burst their buds, which were packed and varnished over in the fall to keep the water and the frost out. Perhaps the boy has been out digging into the maple-trees with his jack-knife; at any rate, he is pretty sure to announce the discovery as he comes running into the house in a great state of excitement—as if he had heard a hen cackle in the barn—with "Sap's runnin'!"
And then, indeed, the stir and excitement begin. The sap-buckets, which have been stored in the garret over the wood-house, and which the boy has occasionally climbed up to look at with another boy, for they are full of sweet suggestions of the annual spring frolic,—the sap-buckets are brought down and set out on the south side of the house and scalded. The snow is still a foot or two deep in the woods, and the ox-sled is got out to make a road to the sugar camp, and the campaign begins. The boy is everywhere present, superintending everything, asking questions, and filled with a desire to help the excitement.
It is a great day when the cart is loaded with the buckets and the procession starts into the woods. The sun shines almost unobstructedly into the forest, for there are only naked branches to bar it; the snow is soft and beginning to sink down, leaving the young bushes spindling up everywhere; the snowbirds are twittering about, and the noise of shouting and of the blows of the axe echoes far and wide. This is spring, and the boy can scarcely contain his delight that his out-door life is about to begin again.
In the first place, the men go about and tap the trees, drive in the spouts, and hang the buckets under. The boy watches all these operations with the greatest interest. He wishes that sometime, when a hole is bored in a tree, the sap would spout out in a stream as it does when a cider-barrel is tapped; but it never does, it only drops, sometimes almost in a stream, but on the whole slowly, and the boy learns that the sweet things of the world have to be patiently waited for, and do not usually come otherwise than drop by drop.
Then the camp is to be cleared of snow. The shanty is re-covered with boughs. In front of it two enormous logs are rolled nearly together, and a fire is built between them. Forked sticks are set at each end, and a long pole is laid on them, and on this are hung the great caldron kettles. The huge hogsheads are turned right side up, and cleaned out to receive the sap that is gathered. And now, if there is a good "sap run," the establishment is under full headway.
The great fire that is kindled up is never let out, night or day, as long as the season lasts. Somebody is always cutting wood to feed it; somebody is busy most of the time gathering in the sap; somebody is required to watch the kettles that they do not boil over, and to fill them. It is not the boy, however; he is too busy with things in general to be of any use in details. He has his own little sap-yoke and small pails, with which he gathers the sweet liquid. He has a little boiling-place of his own, with small logs and a tiny kettle. In the great kettles the boiling goes on slowly, and the liquid, as it thickens, is dipped from one to another, until in the end kettle it is reduced to sirup, and is taken out to cool and settle, until enough is made to "sugar off." To "sugar off" is to boil the sirup until it is thick enough to crystallize into sugar. This is the grand event, and is done only once in two or three days.
But the boy's desire is to "sugar off" perpetually. He boils his kettle down as rapidly as possible; he is not particular about chips, scum, or ashes; he is apt to burn his sugar; but if he can get enough to make a little wax on the snow, or to scrape from the bottom of the kettle with his wooden paddle, he is happy. A good deal is wasted on his hands, and the outside of his face, and on his clothes, but he does not care; he is not stingy.
To watch the operations of the big fire gives him constant pleasure. Sometimes he is left to watch the boiling kettles, with a piece of pork tied on the end of a stick, which he dips into the boiling mass when it threatens to go over. He is constantly tasting of it, however, to see if it is not almost sirup. He has a long round stick, whittled smooth at one end, which he uses for this purpose, at the constant risk of burning his tongue. The smoke blows in his face; he is grimy with ashes; he is altogether such a mass of dirt, stickiness, and sweetness, that his own mother would n't know him.
He likes to boil eggs in the hot sap with the hired man; he likes to roast potatoes in the ashes, and he would live in the camp day and night if he were permitted. Some of the hired men sleep in the bough shanty and keep the fire blazing all night. To sleep there with them, and awake in the night and hear the wind in the trees, and see the sparks fly up to the sky, is a perfect realization of all the stories of adventures he has ever read. He tells the other boys afterwards that he heard something in the night that sounded very much like a bear. The hired man says that he was very much scared by the hooting of an owl.
The great occasions for the boy, though, are the times of "sugaring-off." Sometimes this used to be done in the evening, and it was made the excuse for a frolic in the camp. The neighbors were invited; sometimes even the pretty girls from the village, who filled all the woods with their sweet voices and merry laughter and little affectations of fright. The white snow still lies on all the ground except the warm spot about the camp. The tree branches all show distinctly in the light of the fire, which sends its ruddy glare far into the darkness, and lights up the bough shanty, the hogsheads, the buckets on the trees, and the group about the boiling kettles, until the scene is like something taken out of a fairy play. If Rembrandt could have seen a sugar party in a New England wood, he would have made out of its strong contrasts of light and shade one of the finest pictures in the world. But Rembrandt was not born in Massachusetts; people hardly ever do know where to be born until it is too late. Being born in the right place is a thing that has been very much neglected.
At these sugar parties every one was expected to eat as much sugar as possible; and those who are practiced in it can eat a great deal. It is a peculiarity about eating warm maple sugar, that though you may eat so much of it one day as to be sick and loathe the thought of it, you will want it the next day more than ever. At the "sugaring-off" they used to pour the hot sugar upon the snow, where it congealed, without crystallizing, into a sort of wax, which I do suppose is the most delicious substance that was ever invented. And it takes a great while to eat it. If one should close his teeth firmly on a ball of it, he would be unable to open his mouth until it dissolved. The sensation while it is melting is very pleasant, but one cannot converse.
The boy used to make a big lump of it and give it to the dog, who seized it with great avidity, and closed his jaws on it, as dogs will on anything. It was funny the next moment to see the expression of perfect surprise on the dog's face when he found that he could not open his jaws. He shook his head; he sat down in despair; he ran round in a circle; he dashed into the woods and back again. He did everything except climb a tree, and howl. It would have been such a relief to him if he could have howled. But that was the one thing he could not do.
THE HEART OF NEW ENGLAND
It is a wonder that every New England boy does not turn out a poet, or a missionary, or a peddler. Most of them used to. There is everything in the heart of the New England hills to feed the imagination of the boy, and excite his longing for strange countries. I scarcely know what the subtle influence is that forms him and attracts him in the most fascinating and aromatic of all lands, and yet urges him away from all the sweet delights of his home to become a roamer in literature and in the world, a poet and a wanderer. There is something in the soil and the pure air, I suspect, that promises more romance than is forthcoming, that excites the imagination without satisfying it, and begets the desire of adventure. And the prosaic life of the sweet home does not at all correspond to the boy's dreams of the world. In the good old days, I am told, the boys on the coast ran away and became sailors; the countryboys waited till they grew big enough to be missionaries, and then they sailed away, and met the coast boys in foreign ports. John used to spend hours in the top of a slender hickory-tree that a little detached itself from the forest which crowned the brow of the steep and lofty pasture behind his house. He was sent to make war on the bushes that constantly encroached upon the pastureland; but John had no hostility to any growing thing, and a very little bushwhacking satisfied him. When he had grubbed up a few laurels and young tree-sprouts, he was wont to retire into his favorite post of observation and meditation. Perhaps he fancied that the wide-swaying stem to which he clung was the mast of a ship; that the tossing forest behind him was the heaving waves of the sea; and that the wind which moaned over the woods and murmured in the leaves, and now and then sent him a wide circuit in the air, as if he had been a blackbird on the tip-top of a spruce, was an ocean gale. What life, and action, and heroism there was to him in the multitudinous roar of the forest, and what an eternity of existence in the monologue of the river, which brawled far, far below him over its wide stony bed! How the river sparkled and danced and went on, now in a smooth amber current, now fretted by the pebbles, but always with that continuous busy song! John never knew that noise to cease, and he doubted not, if he stayed here a thousand years, that same loud murmur would fill the air.
On it went, under the wide spans of the old wooden, covered bridge, swirling around the great rocks on which the piers stood, spreading away below in shallows, and taking the shadows of a row of maples that lined the green shore. Save this roar, no sound reached him, except now and then the rumble of a wagon on the bridge, or the muffled far-off voices of some chance passers on the road. Seen from this high perch, the familiar village, sending its brown roofs and white spires up through the green foliage, had a strange aspect, and was like some town in a book, say a village nestled in the Swiss mountains, or something in Bohemia. And there, beyond the purple hills of Bozrah, and not so far as the stony pastures of Zoah, whither John had helped drive the colts and young stock in the spring, might be, perhaps, Jerusalem itself. John had himself once been to the land of Canaan with his grandfather, when he was a very small boy; and he had once seen an actual, no-mistake Jew, a mysterious person, with uncut beard and long hair, who sold scythe-snaths in that region, and about whom there was a rumor that he was once caught and shaved by the indignant farmers, who apprehended in his long locks a contempt of the Christian religion. Oh, the world had vast possibilities for John. Away to the south, up a vast basin of forest, there was a notch in the horizon and an opening in the line of woods, where the road ran. Through this opening John imagined an army might appear, perhaps British, perhaps Turks, and banners of red and of yellow advance, and a cannon wheel about and point its long nose, and open on the valley. He fancied the army, after this salute, winding down the mountain road, deploying in the meadows, and giving the valley to pillage and to flame. In which event his position would be an excellent one for observation and for safety. While he was in the height of this engagement, perhaps the horn would be blown from the back porch, reminding him that it was time to quit cutting brush and go for the cows. As if there were no better use for a warrior and a poet in New England than to send him for the cows!
John knew a boy—a bad enough boy I daresay—who afterwards became a general in the war, and went to Congress, and got to be a real governor, who also used to be sent to cut brush in the back pastures, and hated it in his very soul; and by his wrong conduct forecast what kind of a man he would be. This boy, as soon as he had cut about one brush, would seek for one of several holes in the ground (and he was familiar with several), in which lived a white-and-black animal that must always be nameless in a book, but an animal quite capable of the most pungent defense of himself. This young aspirant to Congress would cut a long stick, with a little crotch in the end of it, and run it into the hole; and when the crotch was punched into the fur and skin of the animal, he would twist the stick round till it got a good grip on the skin, and then he would pull the beast out; and when he got the white-and-black just out of the hole so that his dog could seize him, the boy would take to his heels, and leave the two to fight it out, content to scent the battle afar off. And this boy, who was in training for public life, would do this sort of thing all the afternoon, and when the sun told him that he had spent long enough time cutting brush, he would industriously go home as innocent as anybody. There are few such boys as this nowadays; and that is the reason why the New England pastures are so much overgrown with brush.
John himself preferred to hunt the pugnacious woodchuck. He bore a special grudge against this clover-eater, beyond the usual hostility that boys feel for any wild animal. One day on his way to school a woodchuck crossed the road before him, and John gave chase. The woodchuck scrambled into an orchard and climbed a small apple-tree. John thought this a most cowardly and unfair retreat, and stood under the tree and taunted the animal and stoned it. Thereupon the woodchuck dropped down on John and seized him by the leg of his trousers. John was both enraged and scared by this dastardly attack; the teeth of the enemy went through the cloth and met; and there he hung. John then made a pivot of one leg and whirled himself around, swinging the woodchuck in the air, until he shook him off; but in his departure the woodchuck carried away a large piece of John's summer trousers-leg. The boy never forgot it. And whenever he had a holiday, he used to expend an amount of labor and ingenuity in the pursuit of woodchucks that would have made his for tune in any useful pursuit. There was a hill pasture, down on one side of which ran a small brook, and this pasture was full of woodchuck-holes. It required the assistance of several boys to capture a woodchuck. It was first necessary by patient watching to ascertain that the woodchuck was at home. When one was seen to enter his burrow, then all the entries to it except one—there are usually three—were plugged up with stones. A boy and a dog were then left to watch the open hole, while John and his comrades went to the brook and began to dig a canal, to turn the water into the residence of the woodchuck. This was often a difficult feat of engineering, and a long job. Often it took more than half a day of hard labor with shovel and hoe to dig the canal. But when the canal was finished and the water began to pour into the hole, the excitement began. How long would it take to fill the hole and drown out the woodchuck? Sometimes it seemed as if the hole was a bottomless pit. But sooner or later the water would rise in it, and then there was sure to be seen the nose of the woodchuck, keeping itself on a level with the rising flood. It was piteous to see the anxious look of the hunted, half-drowned creature as—it came to the surface and caught sight of the dog. There the dog stood, at the mouth of the hole, quivering with excitement from his nose to the tip of his tail, and behind him were the cruel boys dancing with joy and setting the dog on. The poor creature would disappear in the water in terror; but he must breathe, and out would come his nose again, nearer the dog each time. At last the water ran out of the hole as well as in, and the soaked beast came with it, and made a desperate rush. But in a trice the dog had him, and the boys stood off in a circle, with stones in their hands, to see what they called "fair play." They maintained perfect "neutrality" so long as the dog was getting the best of the woodchuck; but if the latter was likely to escape, they "interfered" in the interest of peace and the "balance of power," and killed the woodchuck. This is a boy's notion of justice; of course, he'd no business to be a woodchuck,—an—unspeakable woodchuck.
I used the word "aromatic" in relation to the New England soil. John knew very well all its sweet, aromatic, pungent, and medicinal products, and liked to search for the scented herbs and the wild fruits and exquisite flowers; but he did not then know, and few do know, that there is no part of the globe where the subtle chemistry of the earth produces more that is agreeable to the senses than a New England hill-pasture and the green meadow at its foot. The poets have succeeded in turning our attention from it to the comparatively barren Orient as the land of sweet-smelling spices and odorous gums. And it is indeed a constant surprise that this poor and stony soil elaborates and grows so many delicate and aromatic products.
John, it is true, did not care much for anything that did not appeal to his taste and smell and delight in brilliant color; and he trod down the exquisite ferns and the wonderful mosses—without compunction. But he gathered from the crevices of the rocks the columbine and the eglantine and the blue harebell; he picked the high-flavored alpine strawberry, the blueberry, the boxberry, wild currants and gooseberries, and fox-grapes; he brought home armfuls of the pink-and-white laurel and the wild honeysuckle; he dug the roots of the fragrant sassafras and of the sweet-flag; he ate the tender leaves of the wintergreen and its red berries; he gathered the peppermint and the spearmint; he gnawed the twigs of the black birch; there was a stout fern which he called "brake," which he pulled up, and found that the soft end "tasted good;" he dug the amber gum from the spruce-tree, and liked to smell, though he could not chew, the gum of the wild cherry; it was his melancholy duty to bring home such medicinal herbs for the garret as the gold-thread, the tansy, and the loathsome "boneset;" and he laid in for the winter, like a squirrel, stores of beechnuts, hazel-nuts, hickory-nuts, chestnuts, and butternuts. But that which lives most vividly in his memory and most strongly draws him back to the New England hills is the aromatic sweet-fern; he likes to eat its spicy seeds, and to crush in his hands its fragrant leaves; their odor is the unique essence of New England.
The New England country-boy of the last generation never heard of Christmas. There was no such day in his calendar. If John ever came across it in his reading, he attached no meaning to the word.
If his curiosity had been aroused, and he had asked his elders about it, he might have got the dim impression that it was a kind of Popish holiday, the celebration of which was about as wicked as "card-playing," or being a "Democrat." John knew a couple of desperately bad boys who were reported to play "seven-up" in a barn, on the haymow, and the enormity of this practice made him shudder. He had once seen a pack of greasy "playing-cards," and it seemed to him to contain the quintessence of sin. If he had desired to defy all Divine law and outrage all human society, he felt that he could do it by shuffling them. And he was quite right. The two bad boys enjoyed in stealth their scandalous pastime, because they knew it was the most wicked thing they could do. If it had been as sinless as playing marbles, they would n't have cared for it. John sometimes drove past a brown, tumble-down farmhouse, whose shiftless inhabitants, it was said, were card-playing people; and it is impossible to describe how wicked that house appeared to John. He almost expected to see its shingles stand on end. In the old New England one could not in any other way so express his contempt of all holy and orderly life as by playing cards for amusement.
There was no element of Christmas in John's life, any more than there was of Easter; and probably nobody about him could have explained Easter; and he escaped all the demoralization attending Christmas gifts. Indeed, he never had any presents of any kind, either on his birthday or any other day. He expected nothing that he did not earn, or make in the way of "trade" with another boy. He was taught to work for what he received. He even earned, as I said, the extra holidays of the day after the Fourth and the day after Thanksgiving. Of the free grace and gifts of Christmas he had no conception. The single and melancholy association he had with it was the quaking hymn which his grandfather used to sing in a cracked and quavering voice:
"While shepherds watched their flocks by night, All seated on the ground."
The "glory" that "shone around" at the end of it—the doleful voice always repeating, "and glory shone around "—made John as miserable as "Hark! from the tombs." It was all one dreary expectation of something uncomfortable. It was, in short, "religion." You'd got to have it some time; that John believed. But it lay in his unthinking mind to put off the "Hark! from the tombs" enjoyment as long as possible. He experienced a kind of delightful wickedness in indulging his dislike of hymns and of Sunday.
John was not a model boy, but I cannot exactly define in what his wickedness consisted. He had no inclination to steal, nor much to lie; and he despised "meanness" and stinginess, and had a chivalrous feeling toward little girls. Probably it never occurred to him that there was any virtue in not stealing and lying, for honesty and veracity were in the atmosphere about him. He hated work, and he "got mad" easily; but he did work, and he was always ashamed when he was over his fit of passion. In short, you couldn't find a much better wicked boy than John.
When the "revival" came, therefore, one summer, John was in a quandary. Sunday meeting and Sunday-school he did n't mind; they were a part of regular life, and only temporarily interrupted a boy's pleasures. But when there began to be evening meetings at the different houses, a new element came into affairs. There was a kind of solemnity over the community, and a seriousness in all faces. At first these twilight assemblies offered a little relief to the monotony of farm life; and John liked to meet the boys and girls, and to watch the older people coming in, dressed in their second best. I think John's imagination was worked upon by the sweet and mournful hymns that were discordantly sung in the stiff old parlors. There was a suggestion of Sunday, and sanctity too, in the odor of caraway-seed that pervaded the room. The windows were wide open also, and the scent of June roses came in, with all the languishing sounds of a summer night. All the little boys had a scared look, but the little girls were never so pretty and demure as in this their susceptible seriousness. If John saw a boy who did not come to the evening meeting, but was wandering off with his sling down the meadow, looking for frogs, maybe, that boy seemed to him a monster of wickedness.
After a time, as the meetings continued, John fell also under the general impression of fright and seriousness. All the talk was of "getting religion," and he heard over and over again that the probability was if he did not get it now, he never would. The chance did not come often, and if this offer was not improved, John would be given over to hardness of heart. His obstinacy would show that he was not one of the elect. John fancied that he could feel his heart hardening, and he began to look with a wistful anxiety into the faces of the Christians to see what were the visible signs of being one of the elect. John put on a good deal of a manner that he "did n't care," and he never admitted his disquiet by asking any questions or standing up in meeting to be prayed for. But he did care. He heard all the time that all he had to do was to repent and believe. But there was nothing that he doubted, and he was perfectly willing to repent if he could think of anything to repent of.
It was essential he learned, that he should have a "conviction of sin." This he earnestly tried to have. Other people, no better than he, had it, and he wondered why he could n't have it. Boys and girls whom he knew were "under conviction," and John began to feel not only panicky, but lonesome. Cynthia Rudd had been anxious for days and days, and not able to sleep at night, but now she had given herself up and found peace. There was a kind of radiance in her face that struck John with awe, and he felt that now there was a great gulf between him and Cynthia. Everybody was going away from him, and his heart was getting harder than ever. He could n't feel wicked, all he could do. And there was Ed Bates his intimate friend, though older than he, a "whaling," noisy kind of boy, who was under conviction and sure he was going to be lost. How John envied him! And pretty soon Ed "experienced religion." John anxiously watched the change in Ed's face when he became one of the elect. And a change there was. And John wondered about another thing. Ed Bates used to go trout-fishing, with a tremendously long pole, in a meadow brook near the river; and when the trout didn't bite right off, Ed would—get mad, and as soon as one took hold he would give an awful jerk, sending the fish more than three hundred feet into the air and landing it in the bushes the other side of the meadow, crying out, "Gul darn ye, I'll learn ye." And John wondered if Ed would take the little trout out any more gently now.
John felt more and more lonesome as one after another of his playmates came out and made a profession. Cynthia (she too was older than John) sat on Sunday in the singers' seat; her voice, which was going to be a contralto, had a wonderful pathos in it for him, and he heard it with a heartache. "There she is," thought John, "singing away like an angel in heaven, and I am left out." During all his after life a contralto voice was to John one of his most bitter and heart-wringing pleasures. It suggested the immaculate scornful, the melancholy unattainable.
If ever a boy honestly tried to work himself into a conviction of sin, John tried. And what made him miserable was, that he couldn't feel miserable when everybody else was miserable. He even began to pretend to be so. He put on a serious and anxious look like the others. He pretended he did n't care for play; he refrained from chasing chipmunks and snaring suckers; the songs of birds and the bright vivacity of the summer—time that used to make him turn hand-springs smote him as a discordant levity. He was not a hypocrite at all, and he was getting to be alarmed that he was not alarmed at himself. Every day and night he heard that the spirit of the Lord would probably soon quit striving with him, and leave him out. The phrase was that he would "grieve away the Holy Spirit." John wondered if he was not doing it. He did everything to put himself in the way of conviction, was constant at the evening meetings, wore a grave face, refrained from play, and tried to feel anxious. At length he concluded that he must do something.
One night as he walked home from a solemn meeting, at which several of his little playmates had "come forward," he felt that he could force the crisis. He was alone on the sandy road; it was an enchanting summer night; the stars danced overhead, and by his side the broad and shallow river ran over its stony bed with a loud but soothing murmur that filled all the air with entreaty. John did not then know that it sang, "But I go on forever," yet there was in it for him something of the solemn flow of the eternal world. When he came in sight of the house, he knelt down in the dust by a pile of rails and prayed. He prayed that he might feel bad, and be distressed about himself. As he prayed he heard distinctly, and yet not as a disturbance, the multitudinous croaking of the frogs by the meadow spring. It was not discordant with his thoughts; it had in it a melancholy pathos, as if it were a kind of call to the unconverted. What is there in this sound that suggests the tenderness of spring, the despair of a summer night, the desolateness of young love? Years after it happened to John to be at twilight at a railway station on the edge of the Ravenna marshes. A little way over the purple plain he saw the darkening towers and heard "the sweet bells of Imola." The Holy Pontiff Pius IX. was born at Imola, and passed his boyhood in that serene and moist region. As the train waited, John heard from miles of marshes round about the evening song of millions of frogs, louder and more melancholy and entreating than the vesper call of the bells. And instantly his mind went back for the association of sound is as subtle as that of odor—to the prayer, years ago, by the roadside and the plaintive appeal of the unheeded frogs, and he wondered if the little Pope had not heard the like importunity, and perhaps, when he thought of himself as a little Pope, associated his conversion with this plaintive sound.
John prayed, but without feeling any worse, and then went desperately into the house, and told the family that he was in an anxious state of mind. This was joyful news to the sweet and pious household, and the little boy was urged to feel that he was a sinner, to repent, and to become that night a Christian; he was prayed over, and told to read the Bible, and put to bed with the injunction to repeat all the texts of Scripture and hymns he could think of. John did this, and said over and over the few texts he was master of, and tossed about in a real discontent now, for he had a dim notion that he was playing the hypocrite a little. But he was sincere enough in wanting to feel, as the other boys and girls felt, that he was a wicked sinner. He tried to think of his evil deeds; and one occurred to him; indeed, it often came to his mind. It was a lie; a deliberate, awful lie, that never injured anybody but himself John knew he was not wicked enough to tell a lie to injure anybody else.
This was the lie. One afternoon at school, just before John's class was to recite in geography, his pretty cousin, a young lady he held in great love and respect, came in to visit the school. John was a favorite with her, and she had come to hear him recite. As it happened, John felt shaky in the geographical lesson of that day, and he feared to be humiliated in the presence of his cousin; he felt embarrassed to that degree that he could n't have "bounded" Massachusetts. So he stood up and raised his hand, and said to the schoolma'am, "Please, ma'am, I 've got the stomach-ache; may I go home?" And John's character for truthfulness was so high (and even this was ever a reproach to him), that his word was instantly believed, and he was dismissed without any medical examination. For a moment John was delighted to get out of school so early; but soon his guilt took all the light out of the summer sky and the pleasantness out of nature. He had to walk slowly, without a single hop or jump, as became a diseased boy. The sight of a woodchuck at a distance from his well-known hole tempted John, but he restrained himself, lest somebody should see him, and know that chasing a woodchuck was inconsistent with the stomach-ache. He was acting a miserable part, but it had to be gone through with. He went home and told his mother the reason he had left school, but he added that he felt "some" better now. The "some" did n't save him. Genuine sympathy was lavished on him. He had to swallow a stiff dose of nasty "picra,"—the horror of all childhood, and he was put in bed immediately. The world never looked so pleasant to John, but to bed he was forced to go. He was excused from all chores; he was not even to go after the cows. John said he thought he ought to go after the cows,—much as he hated the business usually, he would now willingly have wandered over the world after cows,—and for this heroic offer, in the condition he was, he got credit for a desire to do his duty; and this unjust confidence in him added to his torture. And he had intended to set his hooks that night for eels. His cousin came home, and sat by his bedside and condoled with him; his schoolma'am had sent word how sorry she was for him, John was Such a good boy. All this was dreadful.
He groaned in agony. Besides, he was not to have any supper; it would be very dangerous to eat a morsel. The prospect was appalling. Never was there such a long twilight; never before did he hear so many sounds outdoors that he wanted to investigate. Being ill without any illness was a horrible condition. And he began to have real stomach-ache now; and it ached because it was empty. John was hungry enough to have eaten the New England Primer. But by and by sleep came, and John forgot his woes in dreaming that he knew where Madagascar was just as easy as anything.
It was this lie that came back to John the night he was trying to be affected by the revival. And he was very much ashamed of it, and believed he would never tell another. But then he fell thinking whether, with the "picra," and the going to bed in the afternoon, and the loss of his supper, he had not been sufficiently paid for it. And in this unhopeful frame of mind he dropped off in sleep.
And the truth must be told, that in the morning John was no nearer to realizing the terrors he desired to feel. But he was a conscientious boy, and would do nothing to interfere with the influences of the season. He not only put himself away from them all, but he refrained from doing almost everything that he wanted to do. There came at that time a newspaper, a secular newspaper, which had in it a long account of the Long Island races, in which the famous horse "Lexington" was a runner. John was fond of horses, he knew about Lexington, and he had looked forward to the result of this race with keen interest. But to read the account of it how he felt might destroy his seriousness of mind, and in all reverence and simplicity he felt it—be a means of "grieving away the Holy Spirit." He therefore hid away the paper in a table-drawer, intending to read it when the revival should be over. Weeks after, when he looked for the newspaper, it was not to be found, and John never knew what "time" Lexington made nor anything about the race. This was to him a serious loss, but by no means so deep as another feeling that remained with him; for when his little world returned to its ordinary course, and long after, John had an uneasy apprehension of his own separateness from other people, in his insensibility to the revival. Perhaps the experience was a damage to him; and it is a pity that there was no one to explain that religion for a little fellow like him is not a "scheme."
Every boy who is good for anything is a natural savage. The scientists who want to study the primitive man, and have so much difficulty in finding one anywhere in this sophisticated age, couldn't do better than to devote their attention to the common country-boy. He has the primal, vigorous instincts and impulses of the African savage, without any of the vices inherited from a civilization long ago decayed or developed in an unrestrained barbaric society. You want to catch your boy young, and study him before he has either virtues or vices, in order to understand the primitive man.
Every New England boy desires (or did desire a generation ago, before children were born sophisticated, with a large library, and with the word "culture" written on their brows) to live by hunting, fishing, and war. The military instinct, which is the special mark of barbarism, is strong in him. It arises not alone from his love of fighting, for the boy is naturally as cowardly as the savage, but from his fondness for display,—the same that a corporal or a general feels in decking himself in tinsel and tawdry colors and strutting about in view of the female sex. Half the pleasure in going out to murder another man with a gun would be wanting if one did not wear feathers and gold-lace and stripes on his pantaloons. The law also takes this view of it, and will not permit men to shoot each other in plain clothes. And the world also makes some curious distinctions in the art of killing. To kill people with arrows is barbarous; to kill them with smooth-bores and flintlock muskets is semi-civilized; to kill them with breech-loading rifles is civilized. That nation is the most civilized which has the appliances to kill the most of another nation in the shortest time. This is the result of six thousand years of constant civilization. By and by, when the nations cease to be boys, perhaps they will not want to kill each other at all. Some people think the world is very old; but here is an evidence that it is very young, and, in fact, has scarcely yet begun to be a world. When the volcanoes have done spouting, and the earthquakes are quaked out, and you can tell what land is going to be solid and keep its level twenty-four hours, and the swamps are filled up, and the deltas of the great rivers, like the Mississippi and the Nile, become terra firma, and men stop killing their fellows in order to get their land and other property, then perhaps there will be a world that an angel would n't weep over. Now one half the world are employed in getting ready to kill the other half, some of them by marching about in uniform, and the others by hard work to earn money to pay taxes to buy uniforms and guns.
John was not naturally very cruel, and it was probably the love of display quite as much as of fighting that led him into a military life; for he, in common with all his comrades, had other traits of the savage. One of them was the same passion for ornament that induces the African to wear anklets and bracelets of hide and of metal, and to decorate himself with tufts of hair, and to tattoo his body. In John's day there was a rage at school among the boys for wearing bracelets woven of the hair of the little girls. Some of them were wonderful specimens of braiding and twist. These were not captured in war, but were sentimental tokens of friendship given by the young maidens themselves. John's own hair was kept so short (as became a warrior) that you couldn't have made a bracelet out of it, or anything except a paintbrush; but the little girls were not under military law, and they willingly sacrificed their tresses to decorate the soldiers they esteemed. As the Indian is honored in proportion to the scalps he can display, at John's school the boy was held in highest respect who could show the most hair trophies on his wrist. John himself had a variety that would have pleased a Mohawk, fine and coarse and of all colors. There were the flaxen, the faded straw, the glossy black, the lustrous brown, the dirty yellow, the undecided auburn, and the fiery red. Perhaps his pulse beat more quickly under the red hair of Cynthia Rudd than on account of all the other wristlets put together; it was a sort of gold-tried-in-the-fire-color to John, and burned there with a steady flame. Now that Cynthia had become a Christian, this band of hair seemed a more sacred if less glowing possession (for all detached hair will fade in time), and if he had known anything about saints, he would have imagined that it was a part of the aureole that always goes with a saint. But I am bound to say that while John had a tender feeling for this red string, his sentiment was not that of the man who becomes entangled in the meshes of a woman's hair; and he valued rather the number than the quality of these elastic wristlets.
John burned with as real a military ardor as ever inflamed the breast of any slaughterer of his fellows. He liked to read of war, of encounters with the Indians, of any kind of wholesale killing in glittering uniform, to the noise of the terribly exciting fife and drum, which maddened the combatants and drowned the cries of the wounded. In his future he saw himself a soldier with plume and sword and snug-fitting, decorated clothes,—very different from his somewhat roomy trousers and country-cut roundabout, made by Aunt Ellis, the village tailoress, who cut out clothes, not according to the shape of the boy, but to what he was expected to grow to,—going where glory awaited him. In his observation of pictures, it was the common soldier who was always falling and dying, while the officer stood unharmed in the storm of bullets and waved his sword in a heroic attitude. John determined to be an officer.
It is needless to say that he was an ardent member of the military company of his village. He had risen from the grade of corporal to that of first lieutenant; the captain was a boy whose father was captain of the grown militia company, and consequently had inherited military aptness and knowledge. The old captain was a flaming son of Mars, whose nose militia, war, general training, and New England rum had painted with the color of glory and disaster. He was one of the gallant old soldiers of the peaceful days of our country, splendid in uniform, a martinet in drill, terrible in oaths, a glorious object when he marched at the head of his company of flintlock muskets, with the American banner full high advanced, and the clamorous drum defying the world. In this he fulfilled his duties of citizen, faithfully teaching his uniformed companions how to march by the left leg, and to get reeling drunk by sundown; otherwise he did n't amount to much in the community; his house was unpainted, his fences were tumbled down, his farm was a waste, his wife wore an old gown to meeting, to which the captain never went; but he was a good trout-fisher, and there was no man in town who spent more time at the country store and made more shrewd observations upon the affairs of his neighbors. Although he had never been in an asylum any more than he had been in war, he was almost as perfect a drunkard as he was soldier. He hated the British, whom he had never seen, as much as he loved rum, from which he was never separated.
The company which his son commanded, wearing his father's belt and sword, was about as effective as the old company, and more orderly. It contained from thirty to fifty boys, according to the pressure of "chores" at home, and it had its great days of parade and its autumn maneuvers, like the general training. It was an artillery company, which gave every boy a chance to wear a sword, and it possessed a small mounted cannon, which was dragged about and limbered and unlimbered and fired, to the imminent danger of everybody, especially of the company. In point of marching, with all the legs going together, and twisting itself up and untwisting breaking into single-file (for Indian fighting), and forming platoons, turning a sharp corner, and getting out of the way of a wagon, circling the town pump, frightening horses, stopping short in front of the tavern, with ranks dressed and eyes right and left, it was the equal of any military organization I ever saw. It could train better than the big company, and I think it did more good in keeping alive the spirit of patriotism and desire to fight. Its discipline was strict. If a boy left the ranks to jab a spectator, or make faces at a window, or "go for" a striped snake, he was "hollered" at no end.
It was altogether a very serious business; there was no levity about the hot and hard marching, and as boys have no humor, nothing ludicrous occurred. John was very proud of his office, and of his ability to keep the rear ranks closed up and ready to execute any maneuver when the captain "hollered," which he did continually. He carried a real sword, which his grandfather had worn in many a militia campaign on the village green, the rust upon which John fancied was Indian blood; he had various red and yellow insignia of military rank sewed upon different parts of his clothes, and though his cocked hat was of pasteboard, it was decorated with gilding and bright rosettes, and floated a red feather that made his heart beat with martial fury whenever he looked at it. The effect of this uniform upon the girls was not a matter of conjecture. I think they really cared nothing about it, but they pretended to think it fine, and they fed the poor boy's vanity, the weakness by which women govern the world.
The exalted happiness of John in this military service I daresay was never equaled in any subsequent occupation. The display of the company in the village filled him with the loftiest heroism. There was nothing wanting but an enemy to fight, but this could only be had by half the company staining themselves with elderberry juice and going into the woods as Indians, to fight the artillery from behind trees with bows and arrows, or to ambush it and tomahawk the gunners. This, however, was made to seem very like real war. Traditions of Indian cruelty were still fresh in western Massachusetts. Behind John's house in the orchard were some old slate tombstones, sunken and leaning, which recorded the names of Captain Moses Rice and Phineas Arms, who had been killed by Indians in the last century while at work in the meadow by the river, and who slept there in the hope of the glorious resurrection. Phineas Arms martial name—was long since dust, and even the mortal part of the great Captain Moses Rice had been absorbed in the soil and passed perhaps with the sap up into the old but still blooming apple-trees. It was a quiet place where they lay, but they might have heard—if hear they could—the loud, continuous roar of the Deerfield, and the stirring of the long grass on that sunny slope. There was a tradition that years ago an Indian, probably the last of his race, had been seen moving along the crest of the mountain, and gazing down into the lovely valley which had been the favorite home of his tribe, upon the fields where he grew his corn, and the sparkling stream whence he drew his fish. John used to fancy at times, as he sat there, that he could see that red specter gliding among the trees on the hill; and if the tombstone suggested to him the trump of judgment, he could not separate it from the war-whoop that had been the last sound in the ear of Phineas Arms. The Indian always preceded murder by the war-whoop; and this was an advantage that the artillery had in the fight with the elderberry Indians. It was warned in time. If there was no war-whoop, the killing did n't count; the artillery man got up and killed the Indian. The Indian usually had the worst of it; he not only got killed by the regulars, but he got whipped by the home guard at night for staining himself and his clothes with the elderberry.
But once a year the company had a superlative parade. This was when the military company from the north part of the town joined the villagers in a general muster. This was an infantry company, and not to be compared with that of the village in point of evolutions. There was a great and natural hatred between the north town boys and the center. I don't know why, but no contiguous African tribes could be more hostile. It was all right for one of either section to "lick" the other if he could, or for half a dozen to "lick" one of the enemy if they caught him alone. The notion of honor, as of mercy, comes into the boy only when he is pretty well grown; to some neither ever comes. And yet there was an artificial military courtesy (something like that existing in the feudal age, no doubt) which put the meeting of these two rival and mutually detested companies on a high plane of behavior. It was beautiful to see the seriousness of this lofty and studied condescension on both sides. For the time everything was under martial law. The village company being the senior, its captain commanded the united battalion in the march, and this put John temporarily into the position of captain, with the right to march at the head and "holler;" a responsibility which realized all his hopes of glory. I suppose there has yet been discovered by man no gratification like that of marching at the head of a column in uniform on parade, unless, perhaps, it is marching at their head when they are leaving a field of battle. John experienced all the thrill of this conspicuous authority, and I daresay that nothing in his later life has so exalted him in his own esteem; certainly nothing has since happened that was so important as the events of that parade day seemed. He satiated himself with all the delights of war.
It is impossible to say at what age a New England country-boy becomes conscious that his trousers-legs are too short, and is anxious about the part of his hair and the fit of his woman-made roundabout. These harrowing thoughts come to him later than to the city lad. At least, a generation ago he served a long apprenticeship with nature only for a master, absolutely unconscious of the artificialities of life.
But I do not think his early education was neglected. And yet it is easy to underestimate the influences that, unconsciously to him, were expanding his mind and nursing in him heroic purposes. There was the lovely but narrow valley, with its rapid mountain stream; there were the great hills which he climbed, only to see other hills stretching away to a broken and tempting horizon; there were the rocky pastures, and the wide sweeps of forest through which the winter tempests howled, upon which hung the haze of summer heat, over which the great shadows of summer clouds traveled; there were the clouds themselves, shouldering up above the peaks, hurrying across the narrow sky,—the clouds out of which the wind came, and the lightning and the sudden dashes of rain; and there were days when the sky was ineffably blue and distant, a fathomless vault of heaven where the hen-hawk and the eagle poised on outstretched wings and watched for their prey. Can you say how these things fed the imagination of the boy, who had few books and no contact with the great world? Do you think any city lad could have written "Thanatopsis" at eighteen?
If you had seen John, in his short and roomy trousers and ill-used straw hat, picking his barefooted way over the rocks along the river-bank of a cool morning to see if an eel had "got on," you would not have fancied that he lived in an ideal world. Nor did he consciously. So far as he knew, he had no more sentiment than a jack-knife. Although he loved Cynthia Rudd devotedly, and blushed scarlet one day when his cousin found a lock of Cynthia's flaming hair in the box where John kept his fishhooks, spruce gum, flag-root, tickets of standing at the head, gimlet, billets-doux in blue ink, a vile liquid in a bottle to make fish bite, and other precious possessions, yet Cynthia's society had no attractions for him comparable to a day's trout-fishing. She was, after all, only a single and a very undefined item in his general ideal world, and there was no harm in letting his imagination play about her illumined head. Since Cynthia had "got religion" and John had got nothing, his love was tempered with a little awe and a feeling of distance. He was not fickle, and yet I cannot say that he was not ready to construct a new romance, in which Cynthia should be eliminated. Nothing was easier. Perhaps it was a luxurious traveling carriage, drawn by two splendid horses in plated harness, driven along the sandy road. There were a gentleman and a young lad on the front seat, and on the back seat a handsome pale lady with a little girl beside her. Behind, on the rack with the trunk, was a colored boy, an imp out of a story-book. John was told that the black boy was a slave, and that the carriage was from Baltimore. Here was a chance for a romance. Slavery, beauty, wealth, haughtiness, especially on the part of the slender boy on the front seat,—here was an opening into a vast realm. The high-stepping horses and the shining harness were enough to excite John's admiration, but these were nothing to the little girl. His eyes had never before fallen upon that kind of girl; he had hardly imagined that such a lovely creature could exist. Was it the soft and dainty toilet, was it the brown curls, or the large laughing eyes, or the delicate, finely cut features, or the charming little figure of this fairy-like person? Was this expression on her mobile face merely that of amusement at seeing a country-boy? Then John hated her. On the contrary, did she see in him what John felt himself to be? Then he would go the world over to serve her. In a moment he was self-conscious. His trousers seemed to creep higher up his legs, and he could feel his very ankles blush. He hoped that she had not seen the other side of him, for, in fact, the patches were not of the exact shade of the rest of the cloth. The vision flashed by him in a moment, but it left him with a resentful feeling. Perhaps that proud little girl would be sorry some day, when he had become a general, or written a book, or kept a store, to see him go away and marry another. He almost made up his cruel mind on the instant that he would never marry her, however bad she might feel. And yet he could n't get her out of his mind for days and days, and when her image was present, even Cynthia in the singers' seat on Sunday looked a little cheap and common. Poor Cynthia! Long before John became a general or had his revenge on the Baltimore girl, she married a farmer and was the mother of children, red-headed; and when John saw her years after, she looked tired and discouraged, as one who has carried into womanhood none of the romance of her youth.
Fishing and dreaming, I think, were the best amusements John had. The middle pier of the long covered bridge over the river stood upon a great rock, and this rock (which was known as the swimming-rock, whence the boys on summer evenings dove into the deep pool by its side) was a favorite spot with John when he could get an hour or two from the everlasting "chores." Making his way out to it over the rocks at low water with his fish-pole, there he was content to sit and observe the world; and there he saw a great deal of life. He always expected to catch the legendary trout which weighed two pounds and was believed to inhabit that pool. He always did catch horned dace and shiners, which he despised, and sometimes he snared a monstrous sucker a foot and a half long. But in the summer the sucker is a flabby fish, and John was not thanked for bringing him home. He liked, however, to lie with his face close to the water and watch the long fishes panting in the clear depths, and occasionally he would drop a pebble near one to see how gracefully he would scud away with one wave of the tail into deeper water. Nothing fears the little brown boy. The yellow-bird slants his wings, almost touches the deep water before him, and then escapes away under the bridge to the east with a glint of sunshine on his back; the fish-hawk comes down with a swoop, dips one wing, and, his prey having darted under a stone, is away again over the still hill, high soaring on even-poised pinions, keeping an eye perhaps upon the great eagle which is sweeping the sky in widening circles.
But there is other life. A wagon rumbles over the bridge, and the farmer and his wife, jogging along, do not know that they have startled a lazy boy into a momentary fancy that a thunder-shower is coming up. John can see as he lies there on a still summer day, with the fishes and the birds for company, the road that comes down the left bank of the river,—a hot, sandy, well-traveled road, hidden from view here and there by trees and bushes. The chief point of interest, however, is an enormous sycamore-tree by the roadside and in front of John's house. The house is more than a century old, and its timbers were hewed and squared by Captain Moses Rice (who lies in his grave on the hillside above it), in the presence of the Red Man who killed him with arrow and tomahawk some time after his house was set in order. The gigantic tree, struck with a sort of leprosy, like all its species, appears much older, and of course has its tradition. They say that it grew from a green stake which the first land-surveyor planted there for one of his points of sight. John was reminded of it years after when he sat under the shade of the decrepit lime-tree in Freiburg and was told that it was originally a twig which the breathless and bloody messenger carried in his hand when he dropped exhausted in the square with the word "Victory!" on his lips, announcing thus the result of the glorious battle of Morat, where the Swiss in 1476 defeated Charles the Bold. Under the broad but scanty shade of the great button-ball tree (as it was called) stood an old watering-trough, with its half-decayed penstock and well-worn spout pouring forever cold, sparkling water into the overflowing trough. It is fed by a spring near by, and the water is sweeter and colder than any in the known world, unless it be the well Zem-zem, as generations of people and horses which have drunk of it would testify, if they could come back. And if they could file along this road again, what a procession there would be riding down the valley!—antiquated vehicles, rusty wagons adorned with the invariable buffalo-robe even in the hottest days, lean and long-favored horses, frisky colts, drawing, generation after generation, the sober and pious saints, that passed this way to meeting and to mill.
What a refreshment is that water-spout! All day long there are pilgrims to it, and John likes nothing better than to watch them. Here comes a gray horse drawing a buggy with two men,—cattle buyers, probably. Out jumps a man, down goes the check-rein. What a good draught the nag takes! Here comes a long-stepping trotter in a sulky; man in a brown linen coat and wide-awake hat,—dissolute, horsey-looking man. They turn up, of course. Ah, there is an establishment he knows well: a sorrel horse and an old chaise. The sorrel horse scents the water afar off, and begins to turn up long before he reaches the trough, thrusting out his nose in anticipation of the coot sensation. No check to let down; he plunges his nose in nearly to his eyes in his haste to get at it. Two maiden ladies —unmistakably such, though they appear neither "anxious nor aimless" —within the scoop-top smile benevolently on the sorrel back. It is the deacon's horse, a meeting-going nag, with a sedate, leisurely jog as he goes; and these are two of the "salt of the earth,"—the brevet rank of the women who stand and wait,—going down to the village store to dicker. There come two men in a hurry, horse driven up smartly and pulled up short; but as it is rising ground, and the horse does not easily reach the water with the wagon pulling back, the nervous man in the buggy hitches forward on his seat, as if that would carry the wagon a little ahead! Next, lumber-wagon with load of boards; horse wants to turn up, and driver switches him and cries "G'lang," and the horse reluctantly goes by, turning his head wistfully towards the flowing spout. Ah, here comes an equipage strange to these parts, and John stands up to look; an elegant carriage and two horses; trunks strapped on behind; gentleman and boy on front seat and two ladies on back seat,—city people. The gentleman descends, unchecks the horses, wipes his brow, takes a drink at the spout and looks around, evidently remarking upon the lovely view, as he swings his handkerchief in an explanatory manner. Judicious travelers. John would like to know who they are. Perhaps they are from Boston, whence come all the wonderfully painted peddlers' wagons drawn by six stalwart horses, which the driver, using no rein, controls with his long whip and cheery voice. If so, great is the condescension of Boston; and John follows them with an undefined longing as they drive away toward the mountains of Zoar. Here is a footman, dusty and tired, who comes with lagging steps. He stops, removes his hat, as he should to such a tree, puts his mouth to the spout, and takes a long pull at the lively water. And then he goes on, perhaps to Zoar, perhaps to a worse place.
So they come and go all the summer afternoon; but the great event of the day is the passing down the valley of the majestic stage-coach, —the vast yellow-bodied, rattling vehicle. John can hear a mile off the shaking of chains, traces, and whiffle-trees, and the creaking of its leathern braces, as the great bulk swings along piled high with trunks. It represents to John, somehow, authority, government, the right of way; the driver is an autocrat, everybody must make way for the stage-coach. It almost satisfies the imagination, this royal vehicle; one can go in it to the confines of the world,—to Boston and to Albany.
There were other influences that I daresay contributed to the boy's education. I think his imagination was stimulated by a band of gypsies who used to come every summer and pitch a tent on a little roadside patch of green turf by the river-bank not far from his house. It was shaded by elms and butternut-trees, and a long spit of sand and pebbles ran out from it into the brawling stream. Probably they were not a very good kind of gypsy, although the story was that the men drank and beat the women. John didn't know much about drinking; his experience of it was confined to sweet cider; yet he had already set himself up as a reformer, and joined the Cold Water Band. The object of this Band was to walk in a procession under a banner that declared,
"So here we pledge perpetual hate To all that can intoxicate;"
and wear a badge with this legend, and above it the device of a well-curb with a long sweep. It kept John and all the little boys and girls from being drunkards till they were ten or eleven years of age; though perhaps a few of them died meantime from eating loaf-cake and pie and drinking ice-cold water at the celebrations of the Band.
The gypsy camp had a strange fascination for John, mingled of curiosity and fear. Nothing more alien could come into the New England life than this tatterdemalion band. It was hardly credible that here were actually people who lived out-doors, who slept in their covered wagon or under their tent, and cooked in the open air; it was a visible romance transferred from foreign lands and the remote times of the story-books; and John took these city thieves, who were on their annual foray into the country, trading and stealing horses and robbing hen-roosts and cornfields, for the mysterious race who for thousands of years have done these same things in all lands, by right of their pure blood and ancient lineage. John was afraid to approach the camp when any of the scowling and villainous men were lounging about, pipes in mouth; but he took more courage when only women and children were visible. The swarthy, black-haired women in dirty calico frocks were anything but attractive, but they spoke softly to the boy, and told his fortune, and wheedled him into bringing them any amount of cucumbers and green corn in the course of the season. In front of the tent were planted in the ground three poles that met together at the top, whence depended a kettle. This was the kitchen, and it was sufficient. The fuel for the fire was the driftwood of the stream. John noted that it did not require to be sawed into stove-lengths; and, in short, that the "chores" about this establishment were reduced to the minimum. And an older person than John might envy the free life of these wanderers, who paid neither rent nor taxes, and yet enjoyed all the delights of nature. It seemed to the boy that affairs would go more smoothly in the world if everybody would live in this simple manner. Nor did he then know, or ever after find out, why it is that the world permits only wicked people to be Bohemians.
A CONTRAST TO THE NEW ENGLAND BOY
One evening at vespers in Genoa, attracted by a burst of music from the swinging curtain of the doorway, I entered a little church much frequented by the common people. An unexpected and exceedingly pretty sight rewarded me.
It was All Souls' Day. In Italy almost every day is set apart for some festival, or belongs to some saint or another, and I suppose that when leap year brings around the extra day, there is a saint ready to claim the 29th of February. Whatever the day was to the elders, the evening was devoted to the children. The first thing I noticed was, that the quaint old church was lighted up with innumerable wax tapers,—an uncommon sight, for the darkness of a Catholic church in the evening is usually relieved only by a candle here and there, and by a blazing pyramid of them on the high altar. The use of gas is held to be a vulgar thing all over Europe, and especially unfit for a church or an aristocratic palace.
Then I saw that each taper belonged to a little boy or girl, and the groups of children were scattered all about the church. There was a group by every side altar and chapel, all the benches were occupied by knots of them, and there were so many circles of them seated on the pavement that I could with difficulty make my way among them. There were hundreds of children in the church, all dressed in their holiday apparel, and all intent upon the illumination, which seemed to be a private affair to each one of them.
And not much effect had their tapers upon the darkness of the vast vaults above them. The tapers were little spiral coils of wax, which the children unrolled as fast as they burned, and when they were tired of holding them, they rested them on the ground and watched the burning. I stood some time by a group of a dozen seated in a corner of the church. They had massed all the tapers in the center and formed a ring about the spectacle, sitting with their legs straight out before them and their toes turned up. The light shone full in their happy faces, and made the group, enveloped otherwise in darkness, like one of Correggio's pictures of children or angels. Correggio was a famous Italian artist of the sixteenth century, who painted cherubs like children who were just going to heaven, and children like cherubs who had just come out of it. But then, he had the Italian children for models, and they get the knack of being lovely very young. An Italian child finds it as easy to be pretty as an American child to be good.
One could not but be struck with the patience these little people exhibited in their occupation, and the enjoyment they got out of it. There was no noise; all conversed in subdued whispers and behaved in the most gentle manner to each other, especially to the smallest, and there were many of them so small that they could only toddle about by the most judicious exercise of their equilibrium. I do not say this by way of reproof to any other kind of children.
These little groups, as I have said, were scattered all about the church; and they made with their tapers little spots of light, which looked in the distance very much like Correggio's picture which is at Dresden,—the Holy Family at Night, and the light from the Divine Child blazing in the faces of all the attendants. Some of the children were infants in the nurses' arms, but no one was too small to have a taper, and to run the risk of burning its fingers.
There is nothing that a baby likes more than a lighted candle, and the church has understood this longing in human nature, and found means to gratify it by this festival of tapers.
The groups do not all remain long in place, you may imagine; there is a good deal of shifting about, and I see little stragglers wandering over the church, like fairies lighted by fireflies. Occasionally they form a little procession and march from one altar to another, their lights twinkling as they go.
But all this time there is music pouring out of the organ-loft at the end of the church, and flooding all its spaces with its volume. In front of the organ is a choir of boys, led by a round-faced and jolly monk, who rolls about as he sings, and lets the deep bass noise rumble about a long time in his stomach before he pours it out of his mouth. I can see the faces of all of them quite well, for each singer has a candle to light his music-book.
And next to the monk stands the boy,—the handsomest boy in the whole world probably at this moment. I can see now his great, liquid, dark eyes, and his exquisite face, and the way he tossed back his long waving hair when he struck into his part. He resembled the portraits of Raphael, when that artist was a boy; only I think he looked better than Raphael, and without trying, for he seemed to be a spontaneous sort of boy. And how that boy did sing! He was the soprano of the choir, and he had a voice of heavenly sweetness. When he opened his mouth and tossed back his head, he filled the church with exquisite melody.
He sang like a lark, or like an angel. As we never heard an angel sing, that comparison is not worth much. I have seen pictures of angels singing, there is one by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck in the gallery at Berlin,—and they open their mouths like this boy, but I can't say as much for their singing. The lark, which you very likely never heard either, for larks are as scarce in America as angels,—is a bird that springs up from the meadow and begins to sing as he rises in a spiral flight, and the higher he mounts, the sweeter he sings, until you think the notes are dropping out of heaven itself, and you hear him when he is gone from sight, and you think you hear him long after all sound has ceased.
And yet this boy sang better than a lark, because he had more notes and a greater compass and more volume, although he shook out his voice in the same gleesome abundance.
I am sorry that I cannot add that this ravishingly beautiful boy was a good boy. He was probably one of the most mischievous boys that was ever in an organ-loft. All the time that he was singing the vespers he was skylarking like an imp. While he was pouring out the most divine melody, he would take the opportunity of kicking the shins of the boy next to him, and while he was waiting for his part, he would kick out behind at any one who was incautious enough to approach him. There never was such a vicious boy; he kept the whole loft in a ferment. When the monk rumbled his bass in his stomach, the boy cut up monkey-shines that set every other boy into a laugh, or he stirred up a row that set them all at fisticuffs.
And yet this boy was a great favorite. The jolly monk loved him best of all and bore with his wildest pranks. When he was wanted to sing his part and was skylarking in the rear, the fat monk took him by the ear and brought him forward; and when he gave the boy's ear a twist, the boy opened his lovely mouth and poured forth such a flood of melody as you never heard. And he did n't mind his notes; he seemed to know his notes by heart, and could sing and look off like a nightingale on a bough. He knew his power, that boy; and he stepped forward to his stand when he pleased, certain that he would be forgiven as soon as he began to sing. And such spirit and life as he threw into the performance, rollicking through the Vespers with a perfect abandon of carriage, as if he could sing himself out of his skin if he liked.
While the little angels down below were pattering about with their wax tapers, keeping the holy fire burning, suddenly the organ stopped, the monk shut his book with a bang, the boys blew out the candles, and I heard them all tumbling down-stairs in a gale of noise and laughter. The beautiful boy I saw no more.
About him plays the light of tender memory; but were he twice as lovely, I could never think of him as having either the simple manliness or the good fortune of the New England boy.