In that delightful book, "Out-Door Papers," the author celebrates charmingly the charm of birds; but I, who am more humanist than naturalist, would say rather, What exhaustless fascination in their flight!—for this appears to touch by some subtile suggestion upon the hope or dream of man. I am, indeed, now—though always, please God, a boy—not so young a boy as once, when I could be unhappy for the want of wings, and deem, for a moment, that life is little worth without them; yet never does a bird fly in my view, especially if its flight be lofty and sustained, but it seems to carry some deep, immemorial secret of my existence, as if my immortal life flew with it. Sweet fugitive, when will it fly with me? Whenever it does,—and something assures me that one day it will,—then the new heavens and new earth! Meanwhile the intimation of it puts to the lip some unseen cup, out of which, in a soft ecstasy of pain that is better than pleasure, I quaff peace, peace. It is not always nor often that one is open to this supreme charm; but it comes at times, and then to hope all and believe all is easy as to breathe.
This mood also carries me farther than almost anything else into childhood; for, in the height of it, I can go back by link after link of remembrance, and see myself ... there ... and there ... and there again ... and at last deep into the rosy suffusion of dawn,—still looking up, and intent on that airy motion. To this day I know birds better by their flight than by their forms, unless it be the form of the wing.
I tried to see what it is which gives to the flight of some birds that look of majestic ease. Partly it is due to the slow stroke, but more, I thought, to the flexibility of the wing, and to the fact that this is less directly up-and-down in its action than that of the duck, for example. The chief effort of the duck is to sustain its weight. Consequently the wing must lie flat (comparatively) upon the air, and be kept straight out, economizing its vertical pressure; and hence the noticeable stiffness and toilsomeness of its progression. The gull, less concerned to sustain itself, uses the wing more flexibly, bending it slightly at the elbow, and pressing back the outer portion with each stroke. So a heavy swimmer must keep his hands flat, pressing down upon the water to hold up his head; while one who swims very lightly handles them more freely and flexibly, using them at pleasure to assist his progress. Yet the matter refuses to be wholly explained, and remains partly a mystery. Darwin, when in Patagonia, observed condors circling in the air, and saw them sail half an hour by the watch without any smallest vibration of the wings and without the smallest perceptible descent. I used in boyhood to see bald eagles do the same for a considerable period, though I never timed them exactly, and wonder at it now as I did then.
Away now to another island, still seeking ducks. Arrived, the Canadians land, in order, in Bradford's behalf, to have the first chance; while the Judge and I, who pretend to no skill with the gun, remain awhile behind. The island had the shape described in our first paper: a gentle slope and rock-beach on one side,—a steep, broken, half-precipitous descent on the other. Landing presently, I went slowly along the slope,—slowly, for one's feet sank deep at every step in the elastic moss, so that it was like walking on a feather-bed. Some patches of shrubbery, two and a half or three feet high,—the first approach to woody growth I had seen,—drew my attention; and it is curious now to think what importance they had in my eyes, as if here were the promise of a new world. I hastened towards them, forgetting the coveted ducks; and the Canadian's gun, which sounded in the distance, did not reawaken my ambition. Forgetting or remembering were probably much the same; for I had scarcely fired a gun in twenty and odd years, never had taken a bird on the wing, and, besides, must now fire from the left shoulder,—the right eye being like Goldsmith's tea-cups, "wisely kept for show." But as I touched the shrubbery there was a stir, a rustle, a whirr, and away went a large brown bird, scurrying off toward the sea. Upon the impulse of the moment, I up gun, and blazed after. To my amazement, the bird fell. I stumped off for my prize, actually achieving a sort of run, the first for years,—pretty sure, however, that the creature was making game of me rather than I of it, and would rise and flirt its tail in my face when I should be near enough to make the mockery poignant. No, the poor thing's game was up. It was a large bird, of an orange-brown hue, mottled with faint white and shadings of black. A powerful relenting came over me, and I could have sat down and cried like a baby, had that been suitable for a "boy" of my years.
"Do you know that was pretty well done?" cried a voice.
It was Bradford, who was hurrying up. I had no heart to answer; I was not jolly.
"Why, it's a female eider," he said, when near; "you've shot an eider on the wing!"
O tempora! O mores! then the Elder was glad!—all his compunction drowned in the pleasure of connecting himself, even through the gates of death, with a youthful fascination.
It now occurred to me—and the conjecture proved correct—that these plats of shrubbery must serve as hiding-places for the duck. The Canadians, whose behavior was all along mysterious, had forborne to give us any hint. I was vexed at them then, but had no reason perhaps. This was their larder, which they could not wish to impoverish. Besides, fishermen and visitors on this coast are so sweeping and ruthless in their destructions, that one might reasonably desire to protect the birds against them. It is not so much by shooting the birds as by destroying their eggs that the mischief is done. A party will take possession of an island at night, carry off every egg that can be found, and throw it into the sea,—then, returning next forenoon, take the fresh eggs laid in the mean time for food. On the whole, I feel less like blaming our guides than like returning to make apologies. Yet to us also the ducks are necessary, for we have no fresh meat but such as our guns obtain; and to one seeking health, this was a matter of some serious moment.
The elder Canadian has also shot a duck, and, besides, a red-breasted diver, a noble bird; and with these prizes we set sail for another island, frequented by "Tinkers." The day meanwhile had cleared, the sun shone richly, and we began to see somewhat of the glory, as well as grimness, of Labrador. Away to the southwest, eminent over the lesser islands, rose Mecatina, all tossed into wild billows of blue, with purple in the hollows; while to the north the hills of the mainland lifted themselves up to hold fellowship with it in height and hue.
"Tinker," we found, meant Murre and Razor-Billed Auk. These are finely shaped birds, black above and white below, twice the size of a pigeon, and closely resembling each other, save in the bill. That of the murre is not noticeable; but the other's is singularly shaped, and marked with delicate, finely cut grooves, the central one being nicely touched with a line of white, while a similar thread of white runs from the bill to the eye.
I notice it thus, because it suggested to me a reflection. Looking at this bill, I asked myself how Darwin's theory comported with it. "The struggle for life,"—are all the forms of organic existence due to that? But how did the struggle for life cut these grooves, paint these ornamental lines? "Beauty is its own excuse for being"; and that Nature respects beauty is, to my mind, nothing less than fatal to the Darwinian hypothesis. That his law exists as a modifying influence I freely admit, and accredit him with an important addition to our thought upon such matters; that it is the sole formative influence I shall be better prepared to believe when I see that beauty is not regarded in Nature, but is a mere casual attendant upon use. The artist Greenough did, indeed, strenuously maintain this last. But the sloth and the bird-of-paradise are equally useful to themselves; if beauty were but an aspect of use, these should be equally comely in our eyes. No; "the struggle for life" has not grooved the bill of the auk, and painted the tail of the peacock, any more, so far as I can see, than it has given to evening and morning their scarlet and gold. And so my auk said to me, "Any attempt to string existence upon a single thread has failed and will fail, unless it be that thread which man can never formulate, never stretch out into a straight line,—the Eternal Unity, God."
These birds have a catlike instinct of fidelity to old haunts, and, having once chosen a habitat, adhere to it, despite many a year of persecution. They prefer inaccessible cliffs, on every projecting shelf and jut of which the eggs are laid, but also inhabit islands where are many clefts, fissures, and holes made by tumbled masses of rock. This at which we had arrived was not much more than a hundred feet high; and the cliffs in which it terminated on one side were scarcely to be named inaccessible. The number of birds upon it seemed to our novice-eyes immense, but at a later period would have seemed trivial. They are always flying about the shores, and have also a laudable curiosity, which leads them to investigate when any strange form appears or any strange noise is made in the neighborhood of their homes.
On landing, the Judge made off to the left, and was soon heard from,—as it afterwards appeared, with immediate success. The Canadian and myself took our station upon a broad platform some forty feet above the sea, with steep rocks behind, and were soon busily engaged in—missing! It was nothing but bang! pish! bang! pshaw! for half an hour. It could not be said that the birds were indifferent to the prospect of being immortalized as specimens. On the contrary, they showed an appreciation of the honor, and an open zeal to obtain it, which were worthy of the highest commendation. But they very properly declined to be bungled even into a taxidermist paradise. Nothing could be more admirably orthodox than their resolution to be immortalized secundum artem; and considering how many are ready to sneak, without the smallest regard to desert or self-respect, into any attainable post mortem felicity, this honorable cut direct to all mere aukward and heterodox inductions into happiness begot in me toward these creatures sentiments of the highest consideration. All the while they kept flying past, often near, but always going through the air like a dart, as if they would say, "Take, but earn!"
At first the effect of this superior behavior on their part was to produce humiliation, and, along with this, a weak, nervous excitement, and an attempt to reach my ends by mere determination. I accordingly got to pulling upon them with a vehemence which probably disturbed my aim, as if I had been drawing at a halibut rather than at a trigger. But the gates which are appointed to fly open before a high behavior are but as the barred gates of Destiny toward mere low strength. The gods and birds were immitigable. I must do better, not merely do more.
Meditating on these matters, and moved by the lofty demeanor of my challengers, I at length proceeded seriously to self-amendment. Exchanging my large duck-shot for some of smaller size, I no longer blurted at my auk when he was just abreast; but, deferentially allowing him to pass, and then, aiming after him, as if I accepted his lead, I gently suggested to him my desires; whereupon, in the most becoming manner, he descended and plumped into the sea, without so much as flapping a wing, or being guilty of the faintest impropriety. It was beautiful. Continuing this behavior, I found my attentions uniformly reciprocated. Once, indeed, when I fell into a shade of brusquerie, the individual whom I had complimented stood upon his self-respect, and, as I thought, flew away; but Bradford, who had courteously come up just as I began to succeed, was so kind as to see him fall punctiliously into the water, when he had gone far enough to suggest a reprimand of my slight unseemliness. And now, when the Artist was Christian enough to exclaim, "Why, Blank, I did not know you were such a shot!" I thought it high time to rest on my (back and) laurels. Reposing, therefore, upon the round leathern pillow which was my inseparable and invaluable companion, I enjoyed my spine-ache cum dignitate till the others were ready to return.
On the way to the ship an eider sprang up from a steep ridge we were passing, and fell in a second, Bradford exclaiming, "That's the best shot to-day!" The yawl soon followed us. Ph—— had taken two eiders on the wing; we had six in all. Others brought auks and murres; but the Judge still led the van. Next morning the Colonel and Judge brought in four eiders,—the last for the entire voyage. Others were afterward seen, but only seen. The Parson, some weeks later, closed our intrusive intimacy with them by an attempt to capture some of their young in the water. It couldn't be done. They were only a few days old, but, rich in pre-natal instruction, they always waited until the hand was just upon them,—not to waste any part of their stay beneath water,—and then—under in a moment. One saw that pirate saddle-back must needs bestir himself in order to catch them, and one could appreciate the sagacity of the mother duck in hurrying her brood, almost as soon as they are born, into the water.
And so farewell, eiders! If all goes to my wish, you shall yet have a place on other-world islands and seas, where saddle-backs shall not pillage your nests, nor coat-backs point at you any Long Tom!
* * * * *
We give account only of what was characteristic, and therefore will now jump five weeks of time and a hundred leagues of space. But since this is a long leap, a few stepping-stones will be convenient. The Parson, then, has brought in on the way a nice batch of velvet duck, noticeable for their extremely large, oval, elevated, scarlet nostrils; we have shot at seals, and almost hit them in the most admirable manner; we have hunted for an indubitable polar bear,—and found a dog and a midnight mystification; we have played at chess, euchre, backgammon, whist, debating-club, story-telling, nightmare,—one of our number developing an incomparable genius for the last; we have played at getting tolerable cooking out of two slovens, one of whom knows nothing, and the other everything but his business,—and have lost the game; we have played at catching trout, and found this the best joke of all. There are beautiful brook-trout on the coast of Labrador. They say so; it is so. Beautiful trout,—mostly visible to the naked eye! Not many of them, but enough to gratify an elegant curiosity.
But here we are, July 21, lat. 54 deg. 30'. Bradford has hooked an iceberg, and will "play him" for the afternoon. Half a mile off is an island of the character common to most of the innumerable islands strown all along from Cape Charles to Cape Chudleigh,—an alp submerged to within three hundred feet of the summit. Such islands, and such a coast! But this is a notable "bird-island." So three of us are set ashore there with our guns, the indefatigable Professor coming along also with his perpetual net.
The island—which is rather two islands than one, for straight through it, toward the eastern extremity, goes the narrowest possible chasm—proved precipitous and inaccessible, save in a bit of inlet at the hither opening of this chasm and on three rods of sloping rock to the right. Like almost all its fellows, however, it raises one side higher than the other; and conjecturing that the farther and higher face would be the favorite haunt of these cliff-loving birds,—murres and auks again,—I left my companions busily shooting near the landing, and made my way up and across. It was no easy task, for the wild rock was tossed and tilted, broken and heaped and saw-toothed, as if it represented some savage spasm or fit of madness in Nature. But clambering, sliding, creeping, zigzagging, turning back to find new openings, and in every manner persisting, I slowly got on; while deep down in the chasm on my left,—a hundred feet deep, and in the middle not more than a foot wide, though champered away a little at the top,—the water surged in and out with a thunderous, muffled sough and moan, like a Titan under the earth, pinned down eternally in pain. It was awfully impressive,—so impressive that I reflected neither upon it nor on myself. With this immitigable, adamantine wildness about me, and that abysmal, booming stifle of plaint, to which all the air trembled, sounding from below, I became another being, and the very universe was no longer itself; past and future were not, and I was a dumb atomy creeping over the bare peaks of existence, while out of the blind heart of the world issued an everlasting prayer,—a prayer without hope! And this, too, if not boy's play, was a true piece of boy-experience. I can recall—and better now by the aid of this half-hour—moments in childhood when existence became thus awful, when it overpowered, overwhelmed me, and when time, instead of melting in golden ripeness into the fruitful eternity that lies before, seemed to fall back, doomed forever, into the naked eternity behind. Goethe's "Erl-King," almost alone in modern literature, touches truly, and on its shadowed side, the immeasurable secret which haunts and dominates the heart of a child; while Wordsworth's "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality in Childhood" is our noblest suggestion of its illuminated obverse side.
At length I issued upon the opposite face of the island, and found myself on a shelf of rock about three feet wide, with one hundred and fifty feet, more or less, of vertical cliff beneath, and about the same height of half-cliff behind and above. It was a pretty perch, and gave one a feeling of consequence; for what pigmy perched on Alps ever failed to consider his elevation one of stature strictly, and not at all of position? The outer edge of the shelf rose, inclosing me as in a box, so that I was safe as the owner of an annuity based upon United States securities. Away to my right the perpendicular cliff rose higher still, and, being there covered with clefts, cavelets, and narrow shelves, was the peculiar home of the birds, who had taken possession of this island on a long lease.
Their numbers were inconceivable. Two hundred yards off in the water was an island of them, an acre of feathery black. To the right I could see them now and then ascending in literal clouds; and the sober Ph——, who rowed along here beyond my view, saw the cliffs, as he looked up, white for a half-mile with their snowy breasts, and could find no words to express his sense of their multitude.
But so far as I was concerned,—for my comrades did better,—it was the birds themselves that did the sporting that afternoon. They came streaming by, never crowding together so that more than one could be included in the chances of shot, but incessantly trailing along, and scurrying past with the speed of an arrow. I peppered away, with little result but that of spicing their afternoon's enjoyment for them; for the wicked creatures took it all in the jolliest way, flinging themselves past with a flirt and a wink, just as if I had been no lord of creation at all. I had disdained to shoot them when at rest; for there seemed to be some ancient compact between us, by which they were to have their chance and I mine. But when one came and planted himself on a little jut thirty yards to my right, and mocked me with a look of patronage, seeming to regard me as the weaker party and to incline to my side, I broke the pact, and, masking my hurt conceit under some virtuous indignation against him as a deserter and traitor, turned and smote him under the fifth rib.
And now it came upon me that I must secure that bird. To shoot without obtaining were mere wantonness. Yes, I would have him, and justify myself to myself. To do it was difficult, even in Labradorian boy-eyes. Between me and the auk the upper half of the cliff made a deep recess, terminating in a right angle, with a platform of granite some seventy-five feet below. Along both faces of this recess, nearly on a level with myself, ran a shelf not more than six inches wide, with vertical wall above and beneath; and on this I must go. I began, therefore, working along this, proceeding with care, observing my footing, and clutching with my hands whatever knob or crevice I could find. But when near the angle, I found that the shelf terminated some two feet short of its apex, and began again at about the same distance beyond. Seeking about cautiously for finger-hold, I reached out my left foot, and planted it on the opposite side, but could not stretch far enough to make a place for the right foot when I should withdraw it. I began debating with myself, whether, in case I should swing across and rest on the left foot alone, I could work this along and make room for the right. I knew that the process would have to be repeated on my return; so I must estimate two chances at once.
And now for the first time, as I stood thus, some faint misgiving arose in me, some faint question whether I was not doing one unjustifiable thing to avoid doing another. It occurred to me that there was another personage,—not a bird-seeking boy, like this one here, but a grave man,—with whom I had an important connection, and who cherished serious purposes and had many hopes of worthy labor yet to fulfil. Was I doing the fair thing by him? He was not here, to be sure; I had left him somewhere between Worcester and Labrador, with due pledge of reunion; but even in his absence he was to be considered. Besides, he was my master, and though he had permitted me to go gambolling off by myself, on my promise to bring him back a more serviceable spine, yet his claim remained, and I should be dishonorable to ignore it.
At first, indeed, these considerations seemed vague, far-fetched, little better than affectations. The clear thing to be done was to get that bird. This done, I could consider the rest. To admit any other thought militated in some way against the singleness and compactness of my being. Wise or unwise, what had I to do with far-off matters of that sort? My business was to succeed in a certain task, not to be sage and so forth. I actually felt a kind of shame to be debating any other than the all-important question, Can I get my right foot over here beside the left? Nor was it till certain faces pictured themselves to my mind, that the heart took part with reason, and the tangential left foot returned, rounding itself once more into the proper orbit of my life. I had been standing there perhaps a minute.
It was an invaluable experience. It carried me farther into the heart of the boy-world than I had gone for twenty-five years and more. And as the boy-world is the big world, the life of too many being but another and less attractive phase of boyhood, it supplied a gloss to the book of daily observation, which I could on no account part with. The inconceivable indifference of most men to considerations of speculative truth became conceivable. The way in which the axioms of sages slip off from multitudes, as mere vague "glittering generalities," good enough for cherishers of the "intuitions" to lisp of by moonlight, but sheer fiddle-dee-dee to firmly built men,—the commentary of the able lawyer upon Emerson's lecture, "I don't understand it, but my girls do!"—all this appears in a new light. Are not most men working along some cliff, financial or other, after a bird? And do they not honestly regard it as mere nonsense to be thinking about being sage and so forth, when the real question is how to get the right foot across here beside the left?
I had gone back to my perch, where a rueful, puerile remorse tugged now and then at my elbow, and said, "But that bird! You haven't given up that bird?" when the Professor appeared on the apex of the island above, shouting, "Here's a"—hawk, I thought he said, and caught up my gun. But what? Fox? Yes,—"blue fox."
Now, then, up the cliff! Creep, crawl, wriggle, slide, clamber, scramble, clutch, climb, here jumping—actually jumping, I!—over a crevice, then drawing myself round an insuperable jut by two honest sturdy weeds—many thanks to them!—which had the consideration to be there and to plant themselves firmly in the rock; at last I reached the height, puffing like a high-pressure steam-engine.
"Right over here. I've been chasing him this last half-hour. Finally, the audacious little rascal would stick up his head over a rock, and bark at me."
I soon had him; and was again struck with the vivacity which may be exhibited by a creature whose life is really ended. As I fired, the animal gave a loud "whish!" and sped away like the wind, disappearing behind a jut of rock five or six rods farther away; but five feet from that point I found it dead. This post mortem activity, they told me, was made possible by the small size of the shot. Perhaps, then, a creature slain with a missile sufficiently subtile might go an indefinite time without finding it out, supposing itself alive and well. Institutions and politicians, we have all known, possess this power of ignoring their own decease. Judaism has been dead these eighteen hundred years; yet here are Jew synagogues in New York and Boston. Were the like true of individuals, it might explain to us some lives which seem inexplicable on any other hypothesis. I think, for example, of some editors, who are evidently post-dating their decease; and when these go on writing leading articles, and being sweet upon "our brethren of the South," one does not say, "Disloyal," but only, "So long in learning what has happened!"
My prize was the white fox, a year old, and not quite in adult costume. How it got upon this island were matter for conjecture. Probably on the ice.
Another skip,—and here we are upon another of these summits surrounded by sea. The home of Puffins this is. The puffin is an odd little fellow, smaller than the auk, but of the same general hue, with a short neck and a queer bill. This is very thin from side to side, twice as wide up and down as it is long, strongly marked with concentric scarlet ridges, and altogether agrees so little with this plain-looking bird, that one can scarcely regard it as belonging naturally to him, and fancies that he must lay it aside at night, as people do false teeth. It is an easy bird to take flying; for, on seeing you, it peaks its wings downward in a manner indescribably prim and prudish, and scales past, turning its stubby neck, and inspecting you with an air of comical, muddy gravity and curiosity. My comrade, Ph——, got two dozen to my eight; but I was consoled with a large Arctic falcon, which had been dining at fashionable hours on a full-grown puffin, having set its table in a deep gorge between vertical walls. It was of the kind called by Audubon Falco Labradora, concerning which Professor Baird, of the Smithsonian Institute, who has had the kindness to write to me, doubts whether it may not be an immature stage of Falco Candicans, one of the two undoubted species of Arctic falcons. Captain Handy, however, a very observant and intelligent man, was sure, from the feeling of the bones, that it must be an old bird.
Once more only I will ask the reader to accompany me. We had gone ashore in a place called Stag Bay, not to hunt stags, but to seek a bear, to whose acquaintance we seemed to have obtained a preliminary introduction by trustworthy informations. Bruin, however, positively declined the smallest approach to intimacy, refusing even to look at our cards, and sending out the most hopeless "Not at home." Separating, therefore, we strolled on the beach,—for a beach there actually was at this place,—and observing some Piping Plovers, tiny waders, I made for them. One of them stood as sentinel on a rock, and, thinking the ornithologist might like him for a specimen, I fired. The large shot scattered around him, the distance being considerable, without injury; but I insisted on his being dead, and searched as if enough of searching would in some way cause him to be so. It wouldn't, however; and I was about turning away, when, a rod or two off, I saw him evidently desperately wounded. "Ah! there is my bird, after all," I muttered, and started with a leisurely step to pick it up. Terrified at my approach, the little wretch began to hobble and flutter away, keeping about his original distance. I quickened my pace; he exerted his broken strength still more, and made out to mend his. I walked as rapidly as I could; but new terror lent the poor thing new wings, and it contrived—I could not for my life conjecture how—to keep a little beyond my reach. It would not do to leave him suffering thus; and I coaxed myself into a quick run, when up the little hypocrite sprang, and scudded away like a bee! Not the faintest suspicion of its being otherwise than at death's door had entered my mind until that moment, though I had seen this trick less skilfully performed before.
Returning, I went to the top of the beach and began examining the coarse grass which grew there, thinking that the nests must be hereabout, and desirous of a peep at the eggs. I had hardly pushed my foot in this grass a few times, when another wounded bird appeared but a few feet off. The emergency being uncommon, it put forth all its histrionic power, and never Booth or Siddons did so well. With breast ploughing in the sand, head falling helplessly from side to side, feet kicking out spasmodically and yet feebly behind, and wings fluttering and beating brokenly on the beach, it seemed the very symbol of fear, pain, and weakness, I made a sudden spring forward,—off it went, but immediately returned when I pushed my foot again toward the grass, renewing its speaking pantomime. I could not represent suffering so well, if I really felt it. With a convulsive kick, its poor little helpless head went under, and it tumbled over on the side; then it swooned, was dying; the wings flattened out on the sand, quivering, but quivering less and less; it gasped with open mouth and closing eye, but the gasps grew fainter and fainter; at last it lay still, dead; but when I poked once more in the grass, it revived to endure another spasm of agony, and die again. "Dear, witty little Garrick," I said, "had you a thousand lives and ten thousand eggs, I would not for a kingdom touch one of them!" and I wished he could show me some enemy to his peace, that I might make war upon the felon forthwith.
And in this becoming frame of mind I ended my chapter of "Boy's Play in Labrador."
THE OLD HOUSE.
My little birds, with backs as brown As sand, and throats as white as frost, I've searched the summer up and down, And think the other birds have lost The tunes you sang, so sweet, so low, About the old house, long ago.
My little flowers, that with your bloom So hid the grass you grew upon, A child's foot scarce had any room Between you,—are you dead and gone? I've searched through fields and gardens rare, Nor found your likeness anywhere.
My little hearts, that beat so high With love to God, and trust in men, Oh, come to me, and say if I But dream, or was I dreaming then, What time we sat within the glow Of the old-house hearth, long ago?
My little hearts, so fond, so true, I searched the world all far and wide, And never found the like of you: God grant we meet the other side The darkness 'twixt us now that stands, In that new house not made with hands!
MEMORIES OF AUTHORS.
A SERIES OF PORTRAITS FROM PERSONAL ACQUAINTANCE.
In 1816 the wandering and unsettled ways of the poet were calmed and harmonized in the home of the Gillmans at Highgate, where the remainder of his days, nearly twenty years, were passed in entire quiet and comparative happiness. Mr. Gillman was a surgeon; and it is understood that Coleridge went to reside with him chiefly to be under his surveillance, to break himself of the fearful habit he had contracted of opium-eating,—a habit that grievously impaired his mind, engendered self-reproach, and embittered the best years of his life.[D] He was the guest and the beloved friend as well as the patient of Mr. Gillman; and the devoted attachment of that excellent man and his estimable wife supplied the calm contentment and seraphic peace, such as might have been the dream of the poet and the hope of the man. Honored be the name and reverenced the memory of this true friend! He died on the 1st of June, 1837, having arranged to publish a life of Coleridge, of which he produced but the first volume.[E]
Coleridge's habit of taking opium was no secret. In 1816 it must have reached a fearful pitch. It had produced "during many years an accumulation of bodily suffering that wasted the frame, poisoned the sources of enjoyment, and entailed an intolerable mental load that scarcely knew cessation"; the poet himself called it "the accursed drug." In 1814 Cottle wrote him a strong protest against this terrible and ruinous habit, entreating him to renounce it. Coleridge said in reply, "You have poured oil into the raw and festering wound of an old friend, Cottle, but it is oil of vitriol!" He accounts for the "accursed habit" by stating that he had taken to it first to obtain relief from intense bodily suffering; and he seriously contemplated entering a private insane asylum as the surest means of its removal. His remorse was terrible and perpetual; he was "rolling rudderless," "the wreck of what he once was," "wretched, helpless, and hopeless."
He revealed this "dominion" to De Quincey "with a deep expression of horror at the hideous bondage." It was this "conspiracy of himself against himself" that was the poison of his life. He describes it with frantic pathos as "the scourge, the curse, the one almighty blight, which had desolated his life," the thief
"to steal From my own nature all the natural man."
The habit was, it would seem, commenced in 1802; and if Mr. Cottle is to be credited, in 1814 he had been long accustomed to take "from two quarts of laudanum in a week to a pint a day." He did, however, ultimately conquer it.
It was during his residence with Mr. Gillman that I knew Coleridge. He had arranged to write for "The Amulet"; and circumstances warranted my often seeing him,—a privilege of which I gladly availed myself. In this home at Highgate, where all even of his whims were studied with affectionate and attentive care, he preferred the quiet of home influences to the excitements of society; and although I more than once met there his friend Charles Lamb, and other noteworthy men, I usually found him, to my delight, alone. There he cultivated flowers, fed his pensioners, the birds, and wooed the little children who gambolled on the heath, where he took his daily walks.
It is a beautiful view,—such as can be rarely seen out of England,—that which the poet had from the window of his bed-chamber. Underneath, a valley, rich in "Patrician trees," divides the hill of Highgate from that of Hampstead; the tower of the old church at Hampstead rises above a thick wood,—a dense forest it seems, although here and there a graceful villa stands out from among the dark green drapery that infolds it. It was easy to imagine the poet often contrasting this scene with that of "Brockan's sov'ran height," where no "finer influence of friend or child" had greeted him, and exclaiming,—
"O thou Queen! Thou delegated Deity of Earth, O dear, dear England!"
And what a wonderful change there is in the scene, when the pilgrim to this shrine at Highgate leaves the garden and walks a few steps beyond the elm avenue that still fronts the house!
Forty years have brought houses all about the heath, and shut in the prospect; but from any ascent you may see regal Windsor on one side and Gravesend on the other,—twenty miles of view, look which way you will. But when the poet dwelt there, all London was within ken, a few yards from his door.
The house has undergone some changes, but the garden is much as it was when I used to find the poet feeding his birds there: it has the same wall—moss-covered now—that overhangs the dell; a shady tree-walk shelters it from sun and rain,—it was the poet's walk at midday; a venerable climber, the Glycenas, was no doubt planted by the poet's hand: it was new to England when the poet was old, and what more likely than that his friends would have bidden him plant it where it has since flourished forty years or more?
I was fortunate in sharing some of the regard of Mr. and Mrs. Gillman; after the poet's death, they gave me his inkstand, (a plain inkstand of wood,) which is before me as I write, and a myrtle on which his eyes were fixed as he died. It is now an aged and gnarled tree in our conservatory.[F]
One of the very few letters of Coleridge I have preserved I transcribe, as it illustrates his goodness of heart and willingness to put himself to inconvenience for others.
"DEAR SIR,"—it runs,—"I received some five days ago a letter depicting the distress and urgent want of a widow and a sister, with whom, during the husband's lifetime, I was for two or three years a housemate; and yesterday the poor lady came up herself, almost clamorously soliciting me, not, indeed, to assist her from my own purse,—for she was previously assured that there was nothing therein,—but to exert myself to collect the sum of twenty pounds, which would save her from God knows what. On this hopeless task,—for perhaps never man whose name had been so often in print for praise or reprobation had so few intimates as myself,—when I recollected that before I left Highgate for the seaside you had been so kind as to intimate that you considered some trifle due to me,—whatever it be, it will go some way to eke out the sum which I have with a sick heart been all this day trotting about to make up, guinea by guinea. You will do me a real service, (for my health perceptibly sinks under this unaccustomed flurry of my spirits,) if you could make it convenient to inclose to me, however small the sum may be, if it amount to a bank-note of any denomination, directed 'Grove, Highgate,' where I am, and expect to be any time for the next eight months. In the mean time, believe me
"S. T. COLERIDGE.
"4th December, 1828."
I find also, at the back of one of his manuscripts, the following poem, which I believe to be unpublished; for I cannot trace it in any edition of his collected works.
LOVE'S BURIAL-PLACE.—A MADRIGAL.
Lady. If Love be dead.
Poet. And I aver it.
Lady. Tell me, Bard, where Love lies buried.
Poet. Love lies buried where 'twas born: O gentle Dame, think it no scorn, If in my fancy I presume To call thy bosom poor Love's tomb,— And on that tomb to read the line, "Here lies a Love that once seemed mine, But caught a cold, as I divine, And died at length of a decline!"
I here copy his autograph lines, as he wrote them in Mrs. Hall's album. They will be found, too, as a note, in the "Biographia Literaria."
"ON THE PORTRAIT OF THE BUTTERFLY ON THE SECOND LEAF OF THIS ALBUM.
"The butterfly the ancient Grecians made The soul's fair emblem, and its only name: But of the soul escaped the slavish trade Of earthly life! For in this mortal frame Ours is the reptile's lot, much toil, much blame, Manifold motions, making little speed, And to deform and kill the things whereon we feed!
"S. T. COLERIDGE.
"30th April, 1830."
All who had the honor of the poet's friendship or acquaintance speak of the marvellous gift which gave to this illustrious man almost a character of inspiration. The wonderful eloquence of his conversation can be comprehended only by those who have heard him speak. It was sparkling at times, and at times profound; but the melody of his voice, the impressive solemnity of his manner, the radiant glories of his intellectual countenance, bore off, as it were, the thoughts of the listener from his discourse; and it was rarely that he carried away from the poet any of the gems that fell from his lips.
Montgomery describes the poetry of Coleridge as like electricity, "flashing at rapid intervals with the utmost intensity of effect,"—and contrasts it with that of Wordsworth, like galvanism, "not less powerful, but rather continuous than sudden in its wonderful influence." But of his poems it is needless for me to speak; some of them are familiar to all readers of the English tongue throughout the world. Wilson, in the "Noctes," says, "Wind him up, and away he goes,—discoursing most excellent music, without a discord, full, ample, inexhaustible, serious, and divine"; and in another place, "He becomes inspired by his own silver voice, and pours out wisdom like a sea." Wordsworth speaks of him "as quite an epicure in sound." The painter Haydon speaks of his eloquence and "lazy luxury of poetical outpouring"; and Rogers ("Table-Talk") is reported to have said, "One morning, breakfasting with me, he talked for three hours without intermission, so admirably that I wish every word he uttered had been written down": but he does not quote a single sentence of all the poet said;[G] and a writer in the "Quarterly Review" expresses his belief that "nothing is too high for the grasp of his conversation, nothing too low: it glanced from earth to heaven, from heaven to earth, with a speed and a splendor, an ease and a power, that almost seemed inspired." (Nor did I ever find him incoherent, as some have pretended; but I agree with De Quincey, that he had the largest and most spacious intellect, the subtilest and the most comprehensive that has yet existed among men.) Of Coleridge, Shelley writes,—
"All things he seemed to understand, Of old or new, at sea or land, Save his own soul, which was a mist."
I have listened to him more than once for above an hour, of course without putting in a single word: I would as soon have bellowed a loose song while a nightingale was singing. There was rarely much change of countenance; his face was at that time (it is said from his habit of opium-eating) overladen with flesh, and its expression impaired; yet to me it was so tender and gentle and gracious and loving, that I could have knelt at the old man's feet almost in adoration. My own hair is white now; yet I have much the same feeling as I had then, whenever the form of the venerable man rises in memory before me. I cannot recall now, and I believe could not recall at the time, so as to preserve, as a cherished thing in my remembrance, a single sentence of the many sentences I heard him utter; yet in his "Table-Talk" there is a world of wisdom,—and that is only a collection of scraps, chance-gathered. If any left his presence unsatisfied, it resulted rather from the superabundance than the paucity of the feast.[H]
I can recall many evening rambles with him over the high lands that look down on London; but the memory I cherish most is linked with a crowded street, where the clumsy and the coarse jostled the old man eloquent, as if he had been earthly, of the earth. It was in the Strand: he pointed out to me the window of a room in the office of the "Morning Post," where he had consumed much midnight oil; and then for half an hour he talked of the sorrowful joy he had often felt, when, leaving the office as day was dawning, he heard the song of a caged lark that sang his orisons from the lattice of an artisan, who was rising to begin his labor as the poet was pacing homewards to rest after his work all night. Thirty years had passed; but that unforgotten melody, that dear bird's song, gave him then as much true pleasure as when, to his wearied head and heart, it was the matin hymn of Nature.
I remember once meeting him in Paternoster Row. He was inquiring his way to Bread Street, Cheapside; and of course I endeavored to explain to him, that, if he walked straight on for about two hundred yards and took the fourth turning to the right, it would be the street he wanted. I perceived him gazing so vague and unenlightened, that I could not help expressing my surprise, as I looked earnestly at his forehead and saw the organ of locality unusually prominent above the eyebrows. He took my meaning, laughed, and said, "I see what you are looking at. Why, at school my head was beaten into a mass of bumps, because I could not point out Paris in a map of France." It is said that Spurzheim pronounced him to be a mathematician, and affirmed that he could not be a poet. Such opinion the great phrenologist could not have expressed; for undoubtedly he had a large organ of ideality, although at first it was not perceptible, in consequence of the great breadth and height of his profound forehead.
More than once I met there that most remarkable man,—"martyr and saint," as Mrs. Oliphant styles him, and as perhaps he was,—the Rev. Edward Irving. The two, he and Coleridge, were singular contrasts,—in appearance, that is to say, for their minds and souls were in harmony.[I] The Scotch minister was tall, powerful in frame, and of great physical vigor, "a gaunt and gigantic figure," his long, black, curly hair hanging partially over his shoulders. His features were large and strongly marked; but the expression was grievously marred, like that of Whitefield, by a squint that deduced much from his "apostolic" character, and must have operated prejudicially as regarded his mission. His mouth was exquisitely cut. It might have been a model for a sculptor who desired to portray strong will combined with generous sympathy. Yet he looked what he was,—a brave man, a man whom no abuse could humble, no injuries subdue, no oppression crush. To me he realized the idea of the Baptist St. John; and I imagine the comparison must have been made often.
In the pulpit, where, I lament to say, I heard Irving but once, and then not under the peculiar influences that so often swayed and guided him, he was undoubtedly an orator, thoroughly earnest in his work, and, beyond all question, deeply and solemnly impressed with the truths of the mission to which he was devoted. At times, no doubt, his manner, action, and appearance bordered on the grotesque; but it was impossible to listen without being carried away by the intense fervor and fiery zeal with which he dwelt on the promises or annunciated the threats of the Prophets, "his predecessors." His vehemence was often startling, sometimes appalling. Leigh Hunt called him, with much truth, "the Boanerges of the Temple." He was a soldier, as well as a servant, of the cross. Few men of his age aroused more bitter or more unjust and unchristian hostility. He was in advance of his time; perhaps, if he were living now, he would still be so; for the spirituality of his nature cannot yet be understood. There were not wanting those who decried him as a pretender, a hypocrite, and a cheat. Those who knew him best depose to the honesty of his heart, the depth of his convictions, the fervor of his faith; and many yet live who will indorse this eloquent tribute of his biographer:—"To him, mean thoughts and unbelieving hearts were the only things miraculous and out of Nature"; he "desired to know nothing in heaven or earth, neither comfort nor peace nor any consolation, but the will and work of the Master he loved." Irving died comparatively young: there were but forty-two years between his birth and death. More than thirty years have passed since he was called from earth; and to this generation the name of Edward Irving is little more than a sound, "signifying nothing." Yet it was a power in his day; and the seed he scattered cannot all have fallen among thorns. His love for Coleridge was devoted, a mingling of admiration, affection, and respect.
They were made acquainted by a mutual friend, Basil Montagu, who himself occupied no humble station in intellectual society. His "evenings" were often rare mental treats. He presented the most refined picture of a gentleman, tall, slight, courteous, seemingly ever smiling, yet without an approach to insincerity. He had the esteem of his contemporaries, and the homage of the finer spirits of his time. They were earned and merited. Those who knew him knew also his wife. Mrs. Montagu was one of the most admirable women I have ever known: she was likened to Mrs. Siddons, and forcibly recalled the portraits of that admirably gifted woman. Tall and stately, and with evidence, which Time had by no means obliterated, of great beauty in youth, her expression somewhat severe, yet gracious in manner and generous in words. She had been the honored associate of many of the most intellectual men and women of the age; and not a few of them were her familiar friends.[J]
Whenever it was my privilege to be admitted to the evening meetings at Highgate, I met some of the men who were then famous, and have since become parts of the literature of England.
I attended one of the lectures delivered by Coleridge at the Royal Institution, and I strive to recall him as he stood before his audience. There was but little animation; his theme did not seem to stir him into life; even the usual repose of his countenance was rarely broken up; he used little or no action; and his voice, though mellifluous, was monotonous: he lacked, indeed, that earnestness without which no man is truly eloquent.
At the time I speak of, he was growing corpulent and heavy: being seldom free from pain, he moved apparently with difficulty, yet liked to walk up and down and about the room as he talked, pausing now and then as if oppressed by suffering.
I need not say that I was a silent listener during the evenings at Highgate to which I have referred, when there were present some of those who now "rule us from their urns"; but I was free to gaze on the venerable man,—one of the humblest, but one of the most fervid, perhaps, of the worshippers by whom he was surrounded,—and to treasure in memory the poet's gracious and loving looks, the "thick, waving, silver hair," the still, clear, blue eye; and on such occasions I used to leave him as if I were in a waking dream, trying to recall, here and there, a sentence of the many weighty and mellifluous sentences I had heard,—seldom with success,—and feeling at the moment as if I had been surfeited with honey.
The portrait of Coleridge is best drawn by his friend Wordsworth, and it sufficiently pictures him:—
"A noticeable man, with large, gray eyes, And a pale face, that seemed undoubtedly As if a blooming face it ought to be; Heavy his low-hung lip did oft appear, Depressed by weight of moving phantasy; Profound his forehead was, though not severe."
Wordsworth elsewhere speaks of him as "the brooding poet with the heavenly eyes," and as, "often too much in love with his own dejection." The earliest word-portrait we have of him was drawn by Wordsworth's sister in 1797:—"At first I thought him very plain,—that is, for about three minutes. He is pale, thin, has a wide mouth, thick lips, longish, loose-growing, half-curling, rough, black hair. His eye is large and full, and not dark, but gray;—such an eye as would receive from a heavy soul the dullest expression, but it speaks every emotion of his animated mind. He has fine, dark eyebrows, and an overhanging forehead."
This is De Quincey's sketch of him in 1807:—"In height he seemed about five feet eight inches, in reality he was an inch and a half taller.[K] His person was broad and full, and tended even to corpulence; his complexion was fair, though not what painters technically call fair, because it was associated with black hair; his eyes were soft and large in their expression, and it was by a peculiar appearance of haze or dimness which mixed with their light." "A lady of Bristol," writes De Quincey, "assured me she had not seen a young man so engaging in his exterior as Coleridge when young, in 1796. He had then a blooming and healthy complexion, beautiful and luxuriant hair, falling in natural curls over his shoulders."
Lockhart says,—"Coleridge has a grand head, but very ill-balanced, and the features of the face are coarse; although, to be sure, nothing can surpass the depth of meaning in his eyes, and the unutterable dreamy luxury of his lips."
Hazlitt describes him in early manhood as "with a complexion clear and even light, a forehead broad and high, as if built of ivory, with large projecting eyebrows, and his eyes rolling beneath them like a sea with darkened lustre. His mouth was rather open, his chin good-humored and round, and his nose small. His hair, black and glossy as the raven's wing, fell in smooth masses over his forehead,—long, liberal hair, peculiar to enthusiasts."
Sir Humphry Davy, writing of Coleridge in 1808, says,—"His mind is a wilderness, in which the cedar and the oak, which might aspire to the skies, are stunted in their growth by underwood, thorns, briers, and parasitical plants; with the most exalted genius, enlarged views, sensitive heart, and enlightened mind, he will be the victim of want of order, precision, and regularity."
Leigh Hunt speaks of his open, indolent, good-natured mouth, and of his forehead as "prodigious,—a great piece of placid marble."
"Noisy he was, and gamesome as a boy, Tossing his limbs about him in delight."
In the autumn of 1833, Emerson, on his second visit to England, called on Coleridge. He found him "to appearance a short, thick, old man, with bright blue eyes, and fine clear complexion."
A minute and certainly a true picture is that which Carlyle formed of him, in words, some years later, and probably not long before his removal from earth:—"Brow and head were round, and of massive weight, but the face was flabby and irresolute. The deep eyes, of a light hazel, were as full of sorrow as of inspiration; confused pain looked mildly from them, as in a kind of mild astonishment. The whole figure and air, good and amiable otherwise, might be called flabby and irresolute,—expressive of weakness under possibility of strength. He hung loosely on his limbs, with knees bent and stooping attitude; in walking he rather shuffled than decisively stepped; and a lady once remarked, he never could fix which side of the garden-walk would suit him best, but continually shifted in corkscrew fashion, and kept trying both. A heavy-laden, high-aspiring, and surely much-suffering man. His voice, naturally soft and good, had contracted itself into a plaintive snuffle and sing-song; he spoke as if preaching,—you would have said preaching earnestly, and also hopelessly, the weightiest things."
Such, according to these high authorities, was the outer man Coleridge,—he who
"in bewitching words, with happy heart, Did chant the vision of that ancient man, That bright-eyed mariner."
There are several portraits painted of him. The best would appear to be that which was made by Allston, at Rome, in 1806. Wordsworth speaks of it as "the only likeness of the great original that ever gave me the least pleasure." That by Northcote strongly recalls him to my remembrance: the dreamy eyes; the full, round, yet pale face,—
"that seemed undoubtedly As if a blooming face it ought to be";
the pleasant mouth; the "low-hung" lip; the broad and lofty forehead,—
"Profound, though not severe."
In his later days he took snuff largely, "Whatever he may have been in youth," writes Mr. Gillman, "in manhood he was scrupulously clean in his person, and especially took great care of his hands by frequent ablutions."
Although in his youth and earlier manhood Coleridge had been
"through life Chasing chance-started friendships,"
not long before his death he is described as "thankful for the deep, calm peace of mind he then enjoyed,—a peace such as he had never before experienced, nor scarcely hoped for." All things were then looked at by him through an atmosphere by which all were reconciled and harmonized.
It is true, he did but little of the promised and purposed much. His friend, Justice Talfourd, while testifying to the benignity of his nature, describes his life as "one splendid and sad prospectus,"—and, according to Wordsworth, "his mental power was frozen at its marvellous source";[L] yet what a world of wealth he has bequeathed to us, although the whole produce of his pen, in poetry, is compressed within one single small volume!
Thus writes Talfourd, in his "Memorials of Charles Lamb":—"After a long and painful illness, borne with heroic patience, which concealed the intensity of his sufferings from the by-standers, Coleridge died,"—if that can be called death which removes the soul from its impediment of clay, extends immeasurably its sphere of usefulness, and perpetuates the power to benefit mankind so long as earth endures.
Within a few months past I again drove to Highgate, and visited the house in which the poet passed so many happy years of calm contentment and seraphic peace,—again repeated those lines which, next to his higher faith, were the faith by which his life was ruled and guided:—
"He prayeth best who loveth best All things both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all!"
His remains lie in a vault in the graveyard of the old church at Highgate. He was a stranger in the parish where he died, notwithstanding his long residence there, and was therefore interred alone; not long afterwards, however, the vault was built to receive the body of his wife: there they rest together. It is inclosed by a thick iron grating, and the interior is lined with white marble. When I visited the tomb in 1864, one of the marble slabs had accidentally given way, and the coffin was partially exposed. I laid my hand upon it in solemn reverence, and gratefully recalled to memory him who, in his own emphatic words, had
"Here found life in death."
[D] De Quincey more than insinuates that, instead of Gillman persuading Coleridge to relinquish opium, Coleridge seduced Gillman into taking it.
[E] Gillman published but one volume of a Life of Coleridge. The volume he gave me contains his corrections for another edition. De Quincey says of it that "it is a thing deader than a door-nail,—which is waiting vainly, and for thousands of years is doomed to wait, for its sister volume, namely, Volume Second." It must be ever regretted, that of the poet's later life, of which he knew so much, he wrote nothing; but the world was justified in expecting in the details of his earlier pilgrimage something which it did not get.
[F] Mrs. Gillman gave me also the following sonnet. I believe it never to have been published; but although she requested I "would not have copies of it made to give away," I presume the prohibition cannot now be binding, after a lapse of thirty years since I received it. The poet, he who wrote the sonnet, and the admirable woman to whom it was addressed, have long since met.
"SONNET ON THE LATE SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE.
"And thou art gone, most loved, most honored friend! No, never more thy gentle voice shall blend With air of Earth its pure, ideal tones,— Binding in one, as with harmonious zones, The heart and intellect. And I no more Shall with thee gaze on that unfathomed deep, The Human Soul: as when, pushed off the shore, Thy mystic bark would through the darkness sweep, Itself the while so bright! For oft we seemed As on some starless sea,—all dark above, All dark below,—yet, onward as we drove, To plough up light that ever round us streamed But he who mourns is not as one bereft Of all he loved: thy living Truths are left.
"Cambridge Port, Massachusetts, America.
"For my still dear friend, Mrs. Gillman, of the Grove, Highgate."
[G] Madame de Stael is reported to have said that Coleridge was "rich in a monologue, but poor in a dialogue."
[H] It may not be forgotten that the Rev. Edward Irving, in dedicating to Coleridge one of his books, acknowledges obligations to the venerable sage for many valuable teachings, "as a spiritual man and as a Christian pastor": lessons derived from his "conversations" concerning the revelations of the Christian faith,—"helps in the way of truth,"—"from listening to his discourses." Coleridge has said, "he never found the smallest hitch or impediment in the fullest utterance of his most subtile fancies by word of mouth."
[I] Their friendship lasted for years, and was full of kindness on the part of the philosopher, and of reverential respect on that of Irving, who, following the natural instinct of his own ingenuous nature, changed in an instant in such a presence from the orator, who, speaking in God's name, assumed a certain austere pomp of position,—more like an authoritative priest than a simple presbyter,—into the simple and candid listener, more ready to learn than he was to teach.
[J] "Barry Cornwall" is the husband of her daughter by a prior marriage; and Adelaide Procter, during her brief life, made a name that will live with the best poets of our day.
[K] De Quincey elsewhere states his height to be five feet ten,—exactly the height of Wordsworth: both having been measured in the studio of Haydon.
[L] Very early in his life, Lord Egmont said of him, "he talks very much like an angel, and does nothing at all." De Quincey speaks of his indolence as "inconceivable;" and Joseph Cottle relates some amusing instances of his forgetfulness, even of the hour at which he had arranged to deliver a lecture to an assembled audience.
"Papa, what are you going to give us this winter for our evening readings?" said Jennie.
"I am thinking, for one thing," I replied, "of preaching a course of household sermons from a very odd text prefixed to a discourse which I found at the bottom of the pamphlet-barrel in the garret."
"Don't say sermon, papa,—it has such a dreadful sound; and on winter evenings one wants something entertaining."
"Well, treatise, then," said I, "or discourse, or essay, or prelection; I'm not particular as to words."
"But what is the queer text that you found at the bottom of the pamphlet-barrel?"
"It was one preached upon by your mother's great-great-grandfather, the very savory and much-respected Simeon Shuttleworth, 'on the occasion of the melancholy defections and divisions among the godly in the town of West Dofield'; and it runs thus,—'Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.'"
"It's a curious text enough; but I can't imagine what you are going to make of it."
"Simply an essay on Little Foxes," said I; "by which I mean those unsuspected, unwatched, insignificant little causes that nibble away domestic happiness, and make home less than so noble an institution should be. You may build beautiful, convenient, attractive houses,—you may hang the walls with lovely pictures and stud them with gems of Art; and there may be living there together persons bound by blood and affection in one common interest, leading a life common to themselves and apart from others; and these persons may each one of them be possessed of good and noble traits; there may be a common basis of affection, of generosity, of good principle, of religion; and yet, through the influence of some of these perverse, nibbling, insignificant little foxes, half the clusters of happiness on these so promising vines may fail to come to maturity. A little community of people, all of whom would be willing to die for each other, may not be able to live happily together; that is, they may have far less happiness than their circumstances, their fine and excellent traits, entitle them to expect.
"The reason for this in general is that home is a place not only of strong affections, but of entire unreserves; it is life's undress rehearsal, its back-room, its dressing-room, from which we go forth to more careful and guarded intercourse, leaving behind us much debris of cast-off and every-day clothing. Hence has arisen the common proverb, 'No man is a hero to his valet-de-chambre'; and the common warning, 'If you wish to keep your friend, don't go and live with him.'"
"Which is only another way of saying," said my wife, "that we are all human and imperfect; and the nearer you get to any human being, the more defects you see. The characters that can stand the test of daily intimacy are about as numerous as four-leaved clovers in a meadow; in general, those who do not annoy you with positive faults bore you with their insipidity.' The evenness and beauty of a strong, well-defined nature, perfectly governed and balanced, is about the last thing one is likely to meet with in one's researches into life."
"But what I have to say," replied I, "is this,—that, family-life being a state of unreserve, a state in which there are few of those barriers and veils that keep people in the world from seeing each other's defects and mutually jarring and grating upon each other, it is remarkable that it is entered upon and maintained generally with less reflection, less care and forethought, than pertain to most kinds of business which men and women set their hands to. A man does not undertake to run an engine or manage a piece of machinery without some careful examination of its parts and capabilities, and some inquiry whether he have the necessary knowledge, skill, and strength to make it do itself and him justice. A man does not try to play on the violin without seeing if his fingers are long and flexible enough to bring out the harmonies and raise his performance above the grade of dismal scraping to that of divine music. What should we think of a man who should set a whole orchestra of instruments upon playing together without the least provision or forethought as to their chording, and then howl and tear his hair at the result? It is not the fault of the instruments that they grate harsh thunders together; they may each be noble and of celestial temper; but united without regard to their nature, dire confusion is the result. Still worse were it, if a man were supposed so stupid as to expect of each instrument a role opposed to its nature,—if he asked of the octave-flute a bass solo, and condemned the trombone because it could not do the work of the many-voiced violin.
"Yet just so carelessly is the work of forming a family often performed. A man and woman come together from some affinity, some partial accord of their nature which has inspired mutual affection. There is generally very little careful consideration of who and what they are,—no thought of the reciprocal influence of mutual traits,—no previous chording and testing of the instruments which are to make lifelong harmony or discord,—and after a short period of engagement, in which all their mutual relations are made as opposite as possible to those which must follow marriage, these two furnish their house and begin life together. Ten to one, the domestic roof is supposed at once the proper refuge for relations and friends on both sides, who also are introduced into the interior concert without any special consideration of what is likely to be the operation of character on character, the play of instrument with instrument; then follow children, each of whom is a separate entity, a separate will, a separate force in the family; and thus, with the lesser forces of servants and dependants, a family is made up. And there is no wonder if all these chance-assorted instruments, playing together, sometimes make quite as much discord, as harmony. For if the husband and wife chord, the wife's sister or husband's mother may introduce a discord; and then again, each child of marked character introduces another possibility of confusion. The conservative forces of human nature are so strong and so various, that with all these drawbacks the family state is after all the best and purest happiness that earth affords. But then, with cultivation and care, it might be a great deal happier. Very fair pears have been raised by dropping a seed into a good soil and letting it alone for years; but finer and choicer are raised by the watchings, tendings, prunings of the gardener. Wild grape-vines bore very fine grapes, and an abundance of them, before our friend Dr. Grant took up his abode at Iona, and, studying the laws of Nature, conjured up new species of rarer fruit and flavor out of the old. And so, if all the little foxes that infest our domestic vine and fig-tree were once hunted out and killed, we might have fairer clusters and fruit all winter."
"But, papa," said Jennie, "to come to the foxes; let's know what they are."
"Well, as the text says, little foxes, the pet foxes of good people, unsuspected little animals,—on the whole, often thought to be really creditable little beasts, that may do good, and at all events cannot do much harm. And as I have taken to the Puritanic order in my discourse, I shall set them in sevens, as Noah did his clean beasts in the ark. Now my seven little foxes are these:—Fault-finding, Intolerance, Reticence, Irritability; Exactingness, Discourtesy, Self-Will. And here," turning to my sermon, "is what I have to say about the first of them."
* * * * *
Fault-finding,—a most respectable little animal, that many people let run freely among their domestic vines, under the notion that he helps the growth of the grapes, and is the principal means of keeping them in order.
Now it may safely be set down as a maxim, that nobody likes to be found fault with, but everybody likes to find fault when things do not suit him.
Let my courteous reader ask him- or herself if he or she does not experience a relief and pleasure in finding fault with or about whatever troubles them.
This appears at first sight an anomaly in the provisions of Nature. Generally we are so constituted that what it is a pleasure to us to do it is a pleasure to our neighbor to have us do. It is a pleasure to give, and a pleasure to receive. It is a pleasure to love, and a pleasure to be loved; a pleasure to admire, a pleasure to be admired. It is a pleasure also to find fault, but not a pleasure to be found fault with. Furthermore, those people whose sensitiveness of temperament leads them to find the most fault are precisely those who can least bear to be found fault with; they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on other men's shoulders, but they themselves cannot bear the weight of a finger.
Now the difficulty in the case is this: There are things in life that need to be altered; and that things may be altered, they must be spoken of to the people whose business it is to make the change. This opens wide the door of fault-finding to well-disposed people, and gives them latitude of conscience to impose on their fellows all the annoyances which they themselves feel. The father and mother of a family are fault-finders, ex officio; and to them flows back the tide of every separate individual's complaints in the domestic circle, till often the whole air of the house is chilled and darkened by a drizzling Scotch mist of querulousness. Very bad are these mists for grape-vines, and produce mildew in many a fair cluster.
Enthusius falls in love with Hermione, because she looks like a moonbeam,—because she is ethereal as a summer cloud, spirituelle. He commences forthwith the perpetual adoration system that precedes marriage. He assures her that she is too good for this world, too delicate and fair for any of the uses of poor mortality,—that she ought to tread on roses, sleep on the clouds,—that she ought never to shed a tear, know a fatigue, or make an exertion, but live apart in some bright, ethereal sphere worthy of her charms. All which is duly chanted in her ear in moonlight walks or sails, and so often repeated that a sensible girl may be excused for believing that a little of it may be true.
Now comes marriage,—and it turns out that Enthusius is very particular as to his coffee, that he is excessively disturbed, if his meals are at all irregular, and that he cannot be comfortable with any table arrangements which do not resemble those of his notable mother, lately deceased in the odor of sanctity; he also wants his house in perfect order at all hours. Still he does not propose to provide a trained housekeeper; it is all to be effected by means of certain raw Irish girls, under the superintendence of this angel who was to tread on roses, sleep on clouds, and never know an earthly care. Neither has Enthusius ever considered it a part of a husband's duty to bear personal inconveniences in silence. He would freely shed his blood for Hermione,—nay, has often frantically proposed the same in the hours of courtship, when of course nobody wanted it done, and it could answer no manner of use; and thus to the idyllic dialogues of that period succeed such as these:—
"My dear, this tea is smoked: can't you get Jane into the way of making it better?"
"My dear, I have tried; but she will not do as I tell her."
"Well, all I know is, other people can have good tea, and I should think we might."
And again at dinner:—
"My dear, this mutton is overdone again; it is always overdone."
"Not always, dear, because you recollect on Monday you said it was just right."
"Well, almost always."
"Well, my dear, the reason to-day was, I had company in the parlor, and could not go out to caution Bridget, as I generally do. It's very difficult to get things done with such a girl."
"My mother's things were always well done, no matter what her girl was."
Again: "My dear, you must speak to the servants about wasting the coal. I never saw such a consumption of fuel in a family of our size"; or, "My dear, how can you let Maggie tear the morning paper?" or, "My dear, I shall actually have to give up coming to dinner, if my dinners cannot be regular"; or, "My dear, I wish you would look at the way my shirts are ironed,—it is perfectly scandalous"; or, "My dear, you must not let Johnnie finger the mirror in the parlor"; or, "My dear, you must stop the children from playing in the garret"; or, "My dear, you must see that Maggie doesn't leave the mat out on the railing when she sweeps the front hall"; and so on, up-stairs and down-stairs, in the lady's chamber, in attic, garret, and cellar, "my dear" is to see that nothing goes wrong, and she is found fault with when anything does.
Yet Enthusius, when occasionally he finds his sometime angel in tears, and she tells him he does not love her as he once did, repudiates the charge with all his heart, and declares he loves her more than ever,—and perhaps he does. The only thing is that she has passed out of the plane of moonshine and poetry into that of actualities. While she was considered an angel, a star, a bird, an evening cloud, of course there was nothing to be found fault with in her; but now that the angel has become chief business-partner in an earthly working firm, relations are different. Enthusius could say the same things over again under the same circumstances, but unfortunately now they never are in the same circumstances. Enthusius is simply a man who is in the habit of speaking from impulse, and saying a thing merely and only because he feels it. Before marriage he worshipped and adored his wife as an ideal being dwelling in the land of dreams and poetries, and did his very best to make her unpractical and unfitted to enjoy the life to which he was to introduce her after marriage. After marriage he still yields unreflectingly to present impulses, which are no longer to praise, but to criticize and condemn. The very sensibility to beauty and love of elegance, which made him admire her before marriage, now transferred to the arrangement of the domestic menage, lead him daily to perceive a hundred defects and find a hundred annoyances.
Thus far we suppose an amiable, submissive wife, who is only grieved, not provoked,—who has no sense of injustice, and meekly strives to make good the hard conditions of her lot. Such poor, little, faded women have we seen, looking for all the world like plants that have been nursed and forced into bloom in the steam-heat of the conservatory, and are now sickly and yellow, dropping leaf by leaf, in the dry, dusty parlor.
But there is another side of the picture,—where the wife, provoked and indignant, takes up the fault-finding trade in return, and with the keen arrows of her woman's wit searches and penetrates every joint of the husband's armor, showing herself full as unjust and far more culpable in this sort of conflict.
Saddest of all sad things is it to see two once very dear friends employing all that peculiar knowledge of each other which love had given them only to harass and provoke,—thrusting and piercing with a certainty of aim that only past habits of confidence and affection could have put in their power, wounding their own hearts with every deadly thrust they make at one another, and all for such inexpressibly miserable trifles as usually form the openings of fault-finding dramas.
For the contentions that loosen the very foundations of love, that crumble away all its fine traceries and carved work, about what miserable, worthless things do they commonly begin!—a dinner underdone, too much oil consumed, a newspaper torn, a waste of coal or soap, a dish broken!—and for this miserable sort of trash, very good, very generous, very religious people will sometimes waste and throw away by double-handfuls the very thing for which houses are built, and coal burned, and all the paraphernalia of a home established,—their happiness. Better cold coffee, smoky tea, burnt meat, better any inconvenience, any loss, than a loss of love; and nothing so surely burns away love as constant fault-finding.
For fault-finding once allowed as a habit between two near and dear friends comes in time to establish a chronic soreness, so that the mildest, the most reasonable suggestion, the gentlest implied reproof, occasions burning irritation; and when this morbid stage has once set in, the restoration of love seems wellnigh impossible.
For example: Enthusius, having got up this morning in the best of humors, in the most playful tones begs Hermione not to make the tails of her gs quite so long; and Hermione fires up with—
"And, pray, what else wouldn't you wish me to do? Perhaps you would be so good, when you have leisure, as to make out an alphabetical list of the things in me that need correcting."
"My dear, you are unreasonable."
"I don't think so. I should like to get to the end of the requirements of my lord and master sometimes."
"Now, my dear, you really are very silly."
"Please say something original, my dear. I have heard that till it has lost the charm of novelty."
"Come now, Hermione, don't let's quarrel."
"My dear Sir, who thinks of quarrelling? Not I; I'm sure I was only asking to be directed. I trust some time, if I live to be ninety, to suit your fastidious taste. I trust the coffee is right this morning, and the tea, and the toast, and the steak, and the servants, and the front-hall mat, and the upper-story hall-door, and the basement premises; and now I suppose I am to be trained in respect to my general education. I shall set about the tails of my gs at once, but trust you will prepare a list of any other little things that need emendation."
Enthusius pushes away his coffee, and drums on the table.
"If I might be allowed one small criticism, my dear, I should observe that it is not good manners to drum on the table," said his fair opposite.
"Hermione, you are enough to drive a man frantic!" exclaims Enthusius, rushing out with bitterness in his soul, and a determination to take his dinner at Delmonico's.
Enthusius feels himself an abused man, and thinks there never was such a sprite of a woman,—the most utterly unreasonable, provoking human being he ever met with. What he does not think of is, that it is his own inconsiderate, constant fault-finding that has made every nerve so sensitive and sore, that the mildest suggestion of advice or reproof on the most indifferent subject is impossible. He has not, to be sure, been the guilty partner in this morning's encounter; he has said only what is fair and proper, and she has been unreasonable and cross; but, after all, the fault is remotely his.
When Enthusius awoke, after marriage, to find in his Hermione in very deed only a bird, a star, a flower, but no housekeeper, why did he not face the matter like an honest man? Why did he not remember all the fine things about dependence and uselessness with which he had been filling her head for a year or two, and in common honesty exact no more from her than he had bargained for? Can a bird make a good business-manager? Can a flower oversee Biddy and Mike, and impart to their uncircumcised ears the high crafts and mysteries of elegant housekeeping?
If his little wife has to learn her domestic role of household duty, as most girls do, by a thousand mortifications, a thousand perplexities, a thousand failures, let him, in ordinary fairness, make it as easy to her as possible. Let him remember with what admiring smiles, before marriage, he received her pretty professions of utter helplessness and incapacity in domestic matters, finding only poetry and grace in what, after marriage, proved an annoyance.
And if a man finds that he has a wife ill adapted to wifely duties, does it follow that the best thing he can do is to blurt out, without form or ceremony, all the criticisms and corrections which may occur to him in the many details of household life? He would not dare to speak with as little preface, apology, or circumlocution, to his business-manager, to his butcher, or his baker. When Enthusius was a bachelor, he never criticized the table at his boarding-house without some reflection, and studying to take unto himself acceptable words whereby to soften the asperity of the criticism. The laws of society require that a man should qualify, soften, and wisely time his admonitions to those he meets in the outer world, or they will turn again and rend him. But to his own wife, in his own house and home, he can find fault without ceremony or softening. So he can; and he can awake, in the course of a year or two, to find his wife a changed woman, and his home unendurable. He may find, too, that unceremonious fault-finding is a game that two can play at, and that a woman can shoot her arrows with far more precision and skill than a man.
But the fault lies not always on the side of the husband. Quite as often is a devoted, patient, good-tempered man harassed and hunted and baited by the inconsiderate fault-finding of a wife whose principal talent seems to lie in the ability at first glance to discover and make manifest the weak point in everything.
We have seen the most generous, the most warm-hearted and obliging of mortals, under this sort of training, made the most morose and disobliging of husbands. Sure to be found fault with, whatever they do, they have at last ceased doing. The disappointment of not pleasing they have abated by not trying to please.
We once knew a man who married a spoiled beauty, whose murmurs, exactions, and caprices were infinite. He had at last, as a refuge to his wearied nerves, settled down into a habit of utter disregard and neglect; he treated her wishes and her complaints with equal indifference, and went on with his life as nearly as possible as if she did not exist. He silently provided for her what he thought proper, without troubling himself to notice her requests or listen to her grievances. Sickness came, but the heart of her husband was cold and gone; there was no sympathy left to warm her. Death came, and he breathed freely as a man released. He married again,—a woman with no beauty, but much love and goodness,—a woman who asked little, blamed seldom, and then with all the tact and address which the utmost thoughtfulness could devise; and the passive, negligent husband became the attentive, devoted slave of her will. He was in her hands as clay in the hands of the potter; the least breath or suggestion of criticism from her lips, who criticized so little and so thoughtfully, weighed more with him than many outspoken words. So different is the same human being, according to the touch of the hand which plays upon him!
I have spoken hitherto of fault-finding as between husband and wife: its consequences are even worse as respects children. The habit once suffered to grow up between the two that constitute the head of the family descends and runs through all the branches. Children are more hurt by indiscriminate, thoughtless fault-finding than by any other one thing. Often a child has all the sensitiveness and all the susceptibility of a grown person, added to the faults of childhood. Nothing about him is right as yet; he is immature and faulty at all points, and everybody feels at perfect liberty to criticize him to right and left, above, below, and around, till he takes refuge either in callous hardness or irritable moroseness.