The Complete PG Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (The Physician and Poet)
Part 18 out of 51
"What is the first thing you would do?" asked Number Five in a
pleasant, easy way.
"The first thing? Pick out a few thousand of the best specimens of
the best races, and drown the rest like so many blind puppies."
"Why," said she, "that was tried once, and does not seem to have
worked very well."
"Very likely. You mean Noah's flood, I suppose. More people
nowadays, and a better lot to pick from than Noah had."
"Do tell us whom you would take with you," said Number Five.
"You, if you would go," he answered, and I thought I saw a slight
flush on his cheek. "But I didn't say that I should go aboard the
new ark myself. I am not sure that I should. No, I am pretty sure
that I shouldn't. I don't believe, on the whole, it would pay me to
save myself. I ain't of much account. But I could pick out some
And just now he was saying that he should like to boss the universe!
All this has nothing very wonderful about it. Every one of us is
subject to alternations of overvaluation and undervaluation of
ourselves. Do you not remember soliloquies something like this?
"Was there ever such a senseless, stupid creature as I am? How have
I managed to keep so long out of the idiot asylum? Undertook to
write a poem, and stuck fast at the first verse. Had a call from a
friend who had just been round the world. Did n't ask him one word
about what he had seen or heard, but gave him full details of my
private history, I having never been off my own hearth-rug for more
than an hour or two at a time, while he was circumnavigating and
circumrailroading the globe. Yes, if anybody can claim the title, I
am certainly the prize idiot." I am afraid that we all say such
things as this to ourselves at times. Do we not use more emphatic
words than these in our self-depreciation? I cannot say how it is
with others, but my vocabulary of self-reproach and humiliation is so
rich in energetic expressions that I should be sorry to have an
interviewer present at an outburst of one of its raging geysers, its
savage soliloquies. A man is a kind of inverted thermometer, the
bulb uppermost, and the column of self-valuation is all the time
going up and down. Number Seven is very much like other people in
this respect,--very much like you and me.
This train of reflections must not carry me away from Number Seven.
"If I can't get a chance to boss this planet for a week or so," he
began again, "I think 1 could write its history,--yes, the history of
the world, in less compass than any one who has tried it so far."
"You know Sir Walter Raleigh's 'History of the World,' of course?"
said the Professor.
"More or less,--more or less," said Number Seven prudently. "But I
don't care who has written it before me. I will agree to write the
story of two worlds, this and the next, in such a compact way that
you can commit them both to memory in less time than you can learn
the answer to the first question in the Catechism."
What he had got into his head we could not guess, but there was no
little curiosity to discover the particular bee which was buzzing in
his bonnet. He evidently enjoyed our curiosity, and meant to keep us
waiting awhile before revealing the great secret.
"How many words do you think I shall want?"
It is a formula, I suppose, I said, and I will grant you a hundred
"Twenty," said the Professor. "That was more than the wise men of
Greece wanted for their grand utterances."
The two Annexes whispered together, and the American Annex gave their
joint result. One thousand was the number they had fixed on. They
were used to hearing lectures, and could hardly conceive that any
subject could be treated without taking up a good part of an hour.
"Less than ten," said Number Five. "If there are to be more than
ten, I don't believe that Number Seven would think the surprise would
be up to our expectations."
"Guess as much as you like," said Number Seven.
"The answer will keep. I don't mean to say what it is until we are
ready to leave the table." He took a blank card from his pocket-book,
wrote something on it, or appeared, at any rate, to write, and handed
it, face down, to the Mistress. What was on the card will be found
near the end of this paper. I wonder if anybody will be curious
enough to look further along to find out what it was before she reads
the next paragraph?
In the mean time there is a train of thought suggested by Number
Seven and his whims. If you want to know how to account for
yourself, study the characters of your relations. All of our brains
squint more or less. There is not one in a hundred, certainly, that
does not sometimes see things distorted by double refraction, out of
plumb or out of focus, or with colors which do not belong to it, or
in some way betraying that the two halves of the brain are not acting
in harmony with each other. You wonder at the eccentricities of this
or that connection of your own. Watch yourself, and you will find
impulses which, but for the restraints you put upon them, would make
you do the same foolish things which you laugh at in that cousin of
yours. I once lived in the same house with the near relative of a
very distinguished person, whose name is still honored and revered
among us. His brain was an active one, like that of his famous
relative, but it was full of random ideas, unconnected trains of
thought, whims, crotchets, erratic suggestions. Knowing him, I could
interpret the mental characteristics of the whole family connection
in the light of its exaggerated peculiarities as exhibited in my odd
fellow-boarder. Squinting brains are a great deal more common than
we should at first sight believe. Here is a great book, a solid
octavo of five hundred pages, full of the vagaries of this class of
organizations. I hope to refer to this work hereafter, but just now
I will only say that, after reading till one is tired the strange
fancies of the squarers of the circle, the inventors of perpetual
motion, and the rest of the moonstruck dreamers, most persons will
confess to themselves that they have had notions as wild, conceptions
as extravagant, theories as baseless, as the least rational of those
which are here recorded.
Some day I want to talk about my library. It is such a curious
collection of old and new books, such a mosaic of learning and
fancies and follies, that a glance over it would interest the
company. Perhaps I may hereafter give you a talk abut books, but
while I am saying a few passing words upon the subject the greatest
bibliographical event that ever happened in the book-market of the
New World is taking place under our eyes. Here is Mr. Bernard
Quaritch just come from his well-known habitat, No. 15 Piccadilly,
with such a collection of rare, beautiful, and somewhat expensive
volumes as the Western Continent never saw before on the shelves of a
We bookworms are all of us now and then betrayed into an
extravagance. The keen tradesmen who tempt us are like the fishermen
who dangle a minnow, a frog, or a worm before the perch or pickerel
who may be on the lookout for his breakfast. But Mr. Quaritch comes
among us like that formidable angler of whom it is said,
His hook he baited with a dragon's tail,
And sat upon a rock and bobbed for whale.
The two catalogues which herald his coming are themselves interesting
literary documents. One can go out with a few shillings in his
pocket, and venture among the books of the first of these catalogues
without being ashamed to show himself with no larger furnishing of
the means for indulging his tastes,--he will find books enough at
comparatively modest prices. But if one feels very rich, so rich that
it requires a good deal to frighten him, let him take the other
catalogue and see how many books he proposes to add to his library at
the prices affixed. Here is a Latin Psalter with the Canticles, from
the press of Fust and Schoeffer, the second book issued from their
press, the second book printed with a date, that date being 1459.
There are only eight copies of this work known to exist; you can have
one of them, if so disposed, and if you have change enough in your
pocket. Twenty-six thousand two hundred and fifty dollars will make
you the happy owner of this precious volume. If this is more than
you want to pay, you can have the Gold Gospels of Henry VIII., on
purple vellum, for about half the money. There are pages on pages of
titles of works any one of which would be a snug little property if
turned into money at its catalogue price.
Why will not our multimillionaires look over this catalogue of Mr.
Quaritch, and detain some of its treasures on this side of the
Atlantic for some of our public libraries? We decant the choicest
wines of Europe into our cellars; we ought to be always decanting the
precious treasures of her libraries and galleries into our own, as we
have opportunity and means. As to the means, there are so many rich
people who hardly know what to do with their money that it is well to
suggest to them any new useful end to which their superfluity may
contribute. I am not in alliance with Mr. Quaritch; in fact, I am
afraid of him, for if I stayed a single hour in his library, where I
never was but once, and then for fifteen minutes only, I should leave
it so much poorer than I entered it that I should be reminded of the
picture in the titlepage of Fuller's 'Historie of the Holy Warre,'
"We went out full. We returned empty."
--After the teacups were all emptied, the card containing Number
Seven's abridged history of two worlds, this and the next, was handed
This was all it held:
After all had looked at it, it was passed back to me. "Let The
Dictator interpret it," they all said.
This is what I announced as my interpretation:
Two worlds, the higher and the lower, separated by the thinnest of
partitions. The lower world is that of questions; the upper world is
that of answers. Endless doubt and unrest here below; wondering,
admiring, adoring certainty above.--Am I not right?
"You are right," answered Number Seven solemnly. "That is my
The following poem was found in the sugar-bowl.
I read it to the company. There was much whispering and there were
many conjectures as to its authorship, but every Teacup looked
innocent, and we separated each with his or her private conviction.
I had mine, but I will not mention it.
THE ROSE AND THE FERN.
Lady, life's sweetest lesson wouldst thou learn,
Come thou with me to Love's enchanted bower:
High overhead the trellised roses burn;
Beneath thy feet behold the feathery fern,
A leaf without a flower.
What though the rose leaves fall? They still are sweet,
And have been lovely in their beauteous prime,
While the bare frond seems ever to repeat,
"For us no bud, no blossom, wakes to greet
The joyous flowering time!"
Heed thou the lesson. Life has leaves to tread
And flowers to cherish; summer round thee glows;
Wait not till autumn's fading robes are shed,
But while its petals still are burning red
Gather life's full-blown rose!
Of course the reading of the poem at the end of the last paper has
left a deep impression. I strongly suspect that something very much
like love-making is going on at our table. A peep under the lid of
the sugar-bowl has shown me that there is another poem ready for the
company. That receptacle is looked upon with an almost tremulous
excitement by more than one of The Teacups. The two Annexes turn
towards the mystic urn as if the lots which were to determine their
destiny were shut up in it. Number Five, quieter, and not betraying
more curiosity than belongs to the sex at all ages, glances at the
sugarbowl now and then; looking so like a clairvoyant, that sometimes
I cannot help thinking she must be one. There is a sly look about
that young Doctor's eyes, which might imply that he knows something
about what the silver vessel holds, or is going to hold. The Tutor
naturally falls under suspicion, as he is known to have written and
published poems. I suppose the Professor and myself have hardly been
suspected of writing love-poems; but there is no telling,--there is
no telling. Why may not some one of the lady Teacups have played the
part of a masculine lover? George Sand, George Eliot, Charles Egbert
Craddock, made pretty good men in print. The authoress of "Jane
Eyre" was taken for a man by many persons. Can Number Five be
masquerading in verse? Or is one of the two Annexes the make.
believe lover? Or did these girls lay their heads together, and send
the poem we had at our last sitting to puzzle the company? It is
certain that the Mistress did not write the poem. It is evident that
Number Seven, who is so severe in his talk about rhymesters, would
not, if he could, make such a fool of himself as to set up for a
"poet." Why should not the Counsellor fall in love and write verses?
A good many lawyers have been "poets."
Perhaps the next poem, which may be looked for in its proper place,
may help us to form a judgment. We may have several verse-writers
among us, and if so there will be a good opportunity for the exercise
of judgment in distributing their productions among the legitimate
claimants. In the mean time, we must not let the love-making and the
song-writing interfere with the more serious matters which these
papers are expected to contain.
Number Seven's compendious and comprehensive symbolism proved
suggestive, as his whimsical notions often do. It always pleases me
to take some hint from anything he says when I can, and carry it out
in a direction not unlike that of his own remark. I reminded the
company of his enigmatical symbol.
You can divide mankind in the same way, I said. Two words, each of
two letters, will serve to distinguish two classes of human beings
who constitute the principal divisions of mankind. Can any of you
tell what those two words are?
"Give me five letters," cried Number Seven, "and I can solve your
problem! F-o-o-1-s,--those five letters will give you the first and
largest half. For the other fraction"--
Oh, but, said I, I restrict you absolutely to two letters. If you
are going to take five, you may as well take twenty or a hundred.
After a few attempts, the company gave it up. The nearest approach
to the correct answer was Number Five's guess of Oh and Ah: Oh
signifying eternal striving after an ideal, which belongs to one kind
of nature; and Ah the satisfaction of the other kind of nature, which
rests at ease in what it has attained.
Good! I said to Number Five, but not the answer I am after. The
great division between human beings is into the Ifs and the Ases.
"Is the last word to be spelt with one or two s's?" asked the young
The company laughed feebly at this question. I answered it soberly.
With one s. There are more foolish people among the Ifs than there
are among the Ases.
The company looked puzzled, and asked for an explanation.
This is the meaning of those two words as I interpret them:
If it were,--if it might be,--if it could be,--if it had been. One
portion of mankind go through life always regretting, always whining,
always imagining. These are the people whose backbones remain
cartilaginous all their lives long, as do those of certain other
vertebrate animals,--the sturgeons, for instance. A good many poets
must be classed with this group of vertebrates.
As it is,--this is the way in which the other class of people look at
the conditions in which they find themselves. They may be optimists
or pessimists, they are very largely optimists,--but, taking things
just as they find them, they adjust the facts to their wishes if they
can; and if they cannot, then they adjust themselves to the facts. I
venture to say that if one should count the Ifs and the Ases in the
conversation of his acquaintances, he would find the more able and
important persons among them--statesmen, generals, men of business--
among the Ases, and the majority of the conspicuous failures among
the Ifs. I don't know but this would be as good a test as that of
Gideon,--lapping the water or taking it up in the hand. I have a
poetical friend whose conversation is starred as thick with ifs as a
boiled ham is with cloves. But another friend of mine, a business
man, whom I trust in making my investments, would not let me meddle
with a certain stock which I fancied, because, as he said, "there are
too many ifs in it. As it looks now, I would n't touch it."
I noticed, the other evening, that some private conversation was
going on between the Counsellor and the two Annexes. There was a
mischievous look about the little group, and I thought they were
hatching some plot among them. I did not hear what the English Annex
said, but the American girl's voice was sharper, and I overheard what
sounded to me like, "It is time to stir up that young Doctor." The
Counsellor looked very knowing, and said that he would find a chance
before long. I was rather amused to see how readily he entered into
the project of the young people. The fact is, the Counsellor is
young for his time of life; for he already betrays some signs of the
change referred to in that once familiar street song, which my
friend, the great American surgeon, inquired for at the music-shops
under the title, as he got it from the Italian minstrel,
"Silva tredi mondi goo."
I saw, soon after this, that the Counsellor was watching his chance
to "stir up the young Doctor."
It does not follow, because our young Doctor's bald spot is slower in
coming than he could have wished, that he has not had time to form
many sound conclusions in the calling to which he has devoted himself
Vesalius, the father of modern descriptive anatomy, published his
great work on that subject before he was thirty. Bichat, the great
anatomist and physiologist, who died near the beginning of this
century, published his treatise, which made a revolution in anatomy
and pathology, at about the same age; dying soon after he had reached
the age of thirty. So, possibly the Counsellor may find that he has
"stirred up" a young man who, can take care of his own head, in case
of aggressive movements in its direction.
"Well, Doctor," the Counsellor began, "how are stocks in the measles
market about these times? Any corner in bronchitis? Any syndicate
in the vaccination business?" All this playfully.
"I can't say how it is with other people's patients; most of my
families are doing very well without my help, at this time."
"Do tell me, Doctor, how many families you own. I have heard it said
that some of our fellow-citizens have two distinct families, but you
speak as if you had a dozen."
"I have, but not so large a number as I should like. I could take
care of fifteen or twenty more without: having to work too hard."
"Why, Doctor, you are as bad as a Mormon. What do you mean by
calling certain families yours?"
"Don't you speak about my client? Don't your clients call you their
lawyer? Does n't your baker, does n't your butcher, speak of the
families he supplies as his families?"
To be sure, yes, of course they do; but I had a notion that a man had
as many doctors as he had organs to be doctored."
"Well, there is some truth in that; but did you think the old-
fashioned family doctor was extinct, a fossil like the megatherium?"
"Why, yes, after the recent experience of a friend of mine, I did
begin to think that there would soon be no such personage left as
that same old-fashioned family doctor. Shall I tell you what that
The young Doctor said be should be mightily pleased to hear it. He
was going to be one of those old-fogy practitioners himself.
"I don't know," the Counsellor said, "whether my friend got all the
professional terms of his story correctly, nor whether I have got
them from him without making any mistakes; but if I do make blunders
in some of the queer names, you can correct me. This is my friend's
"My family doctor,' he said, "was a very sensible man, educated at a
school where they professed to teach all the specialties, but not
confining himself to any one branch of medical practice. Surgical
practice he did not profess to meddle with, and there were some
classes of patients whom he was willing to leave to the female
physician. But throughout the range of diseases not requiring
exceptionally skilled manual interference, his education had
authorized him to consider himself, and he did consider himself,
qualified to undertake the treatment of all ordinary cases--It so
happened that my young wife was one of those uneasy persons who are
never long contented with their habitual comforts and blessings, but
always trying to find something a little better, something newer, at
any rate. I was getting to be near fifty years old, and it happened
to me, as it not rarely does to people at about that time of life,
that my hair began to fall out. I spoke of it to my doctor, who
smiled, said it was a part of the process of reversed evolution, but
might be retarded a little, and gave me a prescription. I did not
find any great effect from it, and my wife would have me go to a
noted dermatologist. The distinguished specialist examined my
denuded scalp with great care. He looked at it through a strong
magnifier. He examined the bulb of a fallen hair in a powerful
microscope. He deliberated for a while, and then said, "This is a
case of alopecia. It may perhaps be partially remedied. I will give
you a prescription." Which he did, and told me to call again in a
fortnight. At the end of three months I had called six times, and
each time got a new recipe, and detected no difference in the course
of my "alopecia." After I had got through my treatment, I showed my
recipes to my family physician; and we found that three of them were
the same he had used, familiar, old-fashioned remedies, and the
others were taken from a list of new and little-tried prescriptions
mentioned in one of the last medical journals, which was lying on the
old doctor's table. I might as well have got no better under his
charge, and should have got off much cheaper.
"The next trouble I had was a little redness of the eyes, for which
my doctor gave me a wash; but my wife would have it that I must see
an oculist. So I made four visits to an oculist, and at the last
visit the redness was nearly gone,--as it ought to have been by that
time. The specialist called my complaint conjunctivitis, but that
did not make it feel any better nor get well any quicker. If I had
had a cataract or any grave disease of the eye, requiring a nice
operation on that delicate organ, of course I should have properly
sought the aid of an expert, whose eye, hand, and judgment were
trained to that special business; but in this case I don't doubt that
my family doctor would have done just as well as the expert.
However, I had to obey orders, and my wife would have it that I
should entrust my precious person only to the most skilful specialist
in each department of medical practice.
"In the course of the year I experienced a variety of slight
indispositions. For these I was auriscoped by an aurist,
laryngoscoped by a laryngologist, ausculted by a stethoscopist, and
so on, until a complete inventory of my organs was made out, and I
found that if I believed all these searching inquirers professed to
have detected in my unfortunate person, I could repeat with too
literal truth the words of the General Confession, "And there is no
health in us." I never heard so many hard names in all my life. I
proved to be the subject of a long catalogue of diseases, and what
maladies I was not manifestly guilty of I was at least suspected of
harboring. I was handed along all the way from alopecia, which used
to be called baldness, to zoster, which used to be known as shingles.
I was the patient of more than a dozen specialists. Very pleasant
persons, many of them, but what a fuss they made about my trifling
incommodities! Please look at that photograph. See if there is a
minute elevation under one eye.'
"'On which side?' I asked him, for I could not be sure there was
anything different on one side from what I saw on the other.
"'Under the left eye. I called it a pimple; the specialist called it
acne. Now look at this photograph. It was taken after my acne had
been three months under treatment. It shows a little more distinctly
than in the first photograph, does n't it?'
"'I think it does,' I answered. 'It does n't seem to me that you
gained a great deal by leaving your customary adviser for the
"'Well,' my friend continued, 'following my wife's urgent counsel, I
kept on, as I told you, for a whole year with my specialists, going
from head to foot, and tapering off with a chiropodist. I got a deal
of amusement out of their contrivances and experiments. Some of them
lighted up my internal surfaces with electrical or other illuminating
apparatus. Thermometers, dynamometers, exploring-tubes, little
mirrors that went half-way down to my stomach, tuning-forks,
ophthalmoscopes, percussion-hammers, single and double stethoscopes,
speculums, sphygmometers,--such a battery of detective instruments I
had never imagined. All useful, I don't doubt; but at the end of the
year I began to question whether I should n't have done about as well
to stick to my long tried practitioner. When the bills for
"professional services" came in, and the new carpet had to be given
up, and the old bonnet trimmed over again, and the sealskin sack
remained a vision, we both agreed, my wife and I, that we would try
to get along without consulting specialists, except in such cases as
our family physician considered to be beyond his skill.'"
The Counsellor's story of his friend's experiences seemed to please
the young Doctor very much. It "stirred him up," but in an agreeable
way; for, as he said, he meant to devote himself to family practice,
and not to adopt any limited class of cases as a specialty. I liked
his views so well that I should have been ready to adopt them as my
own, if they had been challenged.
The young Doctor discourses.
"I am very glad," he said, "that we have a number of practitioners
among us who confine themselves to the care of single organs and
their functions. I want to be able to consult an oculist who has
done nothing but attend to eyes long enough to know all that is known
about their diseases and their treatment,--skilful enough to be
trusted with the manipulation of that delicate and most precious
organ. I want an aurist who knows all about the ear and what can be
done for its disorders. The maladies of the larynx are very ticklish
things to handle, and nobody should be trusted to go behind the
epiglottis who has not the tactus eruditus. And so of certain other
particular classes of complaints. A great city must have a limited
number of experts, each a final authority, to be appealed to in cases
where the family physician finds himself in doubt. There are
operations which no surgeon should be willing to undertake unless he
has paid a particular, if not an exclusive, attention to the cases
demanding such operations. All this I willingly grant.
"But it must not be supposed that we can return to the methods of the
old Egyptians--who, if my memory serves me correctly, had a special
physician for every part of the body--without falling into certain
errors and incurring certain liabilities.
"The specialist is much like other people engaged in lucrative
business. He is apt to magnify his calling, to make much of any
symptom which will bring a patient within range of his battery of
remedies. I found a case in one of our medical journals, a couple of
years ago, which illustrates what I mean. Dr. ___________ of
Philadelphia, had a female patient with a crooked nose,--deviated
septum, if our young scholars like that better. She was suffering
from what the doctor called reflex headache. She had been to an
oculist, who found that the trouble was in her eyes. She went from
him to a gynecologist, who considered her headache as owing to causes
for which his specialty had the remedies. How many more specialists
would have appropriated her, if she had gone the rounds of them all,
I dare not guess; but you remember the old story of the siege, in
which each artisan proposed means of defence which be himself was
ready to furnish. Then a shoemaker said, 'Hang your walls with new
"Human nature is the same with medical specialists as it was with
ancient cordwainers, and it is too possible that a hungry
practitioner may be warped by his interest in fastening on a patient
who, as he persuades himself, comes under his medical jurisdiction.
The specialist has but one fang with which to seize and bold his
prey, but that fang is a fearfully long and sharp canine. Being
confined to a narrow field of observation and practice, he is apt to
give much of his time to curious study, which may be magnifique, but
is not exactly la guerre against the patient's malady. He divides
and subdivides, and gets many varieties of diseases, in most respects
similar. These he equips with new names, and thus we have those
terrific nomenclatures which are enough to frighten the medical
student, to say nothing of the sufferers staggering under this long
catalogue of local infirmities. The 'old-fogy' doctor, who knows the
family tendencies of his patient, who 'understands his constitution,'
will often treat him better than the famous specialist, who sees him
for the first time, and has to guess at many things 'the old doctor'
knows from his previous experience with the same patient and the
family to which he belongs.
"It is a great luxury to practise as a specialist in almost any class
of diseases. The special practitioner has his own hours, hardly
needs a night-bell, can have his residence out of the town in which
he exercises his calling, in short, lives like a gentleman; while the
hard-worked general practitioner submits to a servitude more exacting
than that of the man who is employed in his stable or in his kitchen.
That is the kind of life I have made up my mind to."
The teaspoons tinkled all round the table. This was the usual sign
of approbation, instead of the clapping of hands.
The young Doctor paused, and looked round among The Teacups. "I beg
your pardon," he said, "for taking up so much of your time with
medicine. It is a subject that a good many persons, especially
ladies, take an interest in and have a curiosity about, but I have no
right to turn this tea-table into a lecture platform."
"We should like to hear you talk longer about it," said the English
Annex. "One of us has thought of devoting herself to the practice of
medicine. Would you lecture to us; if you were a professor in one of
the great medical schools?"
"Lecture to students of your sex? Why not, I should like to know? I
don't think it is the calling for which the average woman is
especially adapted, but my teacher got a part of his medical
education from a lady, Madame Lachapelle; and I don't see why, if one
can learn from a woman, he may not teach a woman, if he knows
"We all like a little medical talk now and then," said Number Five,
"and we are much obliged to you for your discourse. You are
specialist enough to take care of a sprained ankle, I suppose, are
"I hope I should be equal to that emergency," answered the young
Doctor; "but I trust you are not suffering from any such accident?"
"No," said Number Five, "but there is no telling what may happen. I
might slip, and get a sprain or break a sinew, or something, and I
should like to know that there is a practitioner at hand to take care
of my injury. I think I would risk myself in your bands, although
you are not a specialist. Would you venture to take charge of the
"Ah, my dear lady," he answered gallantly, "the risk would be in the
other direction. I am afraid it would be safer for your doctor if he
were an older man than I am."
This is the first clearly, indisputably sentimental outbreak which
has happened in conversation at our table. I tremble to think what
will come of it; for we have several inflammable elements in our
circle, and a spark like this is liable to light on any one or two of
I was not sorry that this medical episode came in to vary the usual
course of talk at our table. I like to have one--of an intelligent
company, who knows anything thoroughly, hold the floor for a time,
and discourse upon the subject which chiefly engages his daily
thoughts and furnishes his habitual occupation. It is a privilege to
meet such a person now and then, and let him have his full swing.
But because there are "professionals" to whom we are willing to
listen as oracles, I do not want to see everybody who is not a
"professional" silenced or snubbed, if he ventures into any field of
knowledge which he has not made especially his own. I like to read
Montaigne's remarks about doctors, though he never took a medical
degree. I can even enjoy the truth in the sharp satire of Voltaire
on the medical profession. I frequently prefer the remarks I hear
from the pew after the sermon to those I have just been hearing from
the pulpit. There are a great many things which I never expect to
comprehend, but which I desire very much to apprehend. Suppose that
our circle of Teacups were made up of specialists,--experts in
various departments. I should be very willing that each one should
have his innings at the proper time, when the company were ready for
him. But the time is coming when everybody will know something about
every thing. How can one have the illustrated magazines, the
"Popular Science Monthly," the Psychological journals, the
theological periodicals, books on all subjects, forced on his
attention, in their own persons, so to speak, or in the reviews which
analyze and pass judgment upon them, without getting some ideas which
belong to many provinces of human intelligence? The air we breathe
is made up of four elements, at least: oxygen, nitrogen, carbonic
acid gas, and knowledge. There is something quite delightful to
witness in the absorption and devotion of a genuine specialist.
There is a certain sublimity in that picture of the dying scholar in
Browning's "A Grammarian's Funeral:"--
"So with the throttling hands of death at strife,
Ground he at grammar;
Still, through the rattle, parts of speech were rife;
While he could stammer
He settled Hoti's business--let it be--
Properly based Oun
Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De,
Dead from the waist down."
A genuine enthusiasm, which will never be satisfied until it has
pumped the well dry at the bottom of which truth is lying, always
excites our interest, if not our admiration.
One of the pleasantest of our American writers, whom we all remember
as Ik Marvel, and greet in his more recent appearance as Donald Grant
Mitchell, speaks of the awkwardness which he feels in offering to the
public a "panoramic view of British writers in these days of
specialists,--when students devote half a lifetime to the analysis of
the works of a single author, and to the proper study of a single
He need not have feared that his connected sketches of "English
Lands, Letters and Kings" would be any less welcome because they do
not pretend to fill up all the details or cover all the incidents
they hint in vivid outline. How many of us ever read or ever will
read Drayton's "Poly-Olbion?" Twenty thousand long Alexandrines are
filled with admirable descriptions of scenery, natural productions,
and historical events, but how many of us in these days have time to
read and inwardly digest twenty thousand Alexandrine verses? I fear
that the specialist is apt to hold his intelligent reader or hearer
too cheap. So far as I have observed in medical specialties, what he
knows in addition to the knowledge of the well-taught general
practitioner is very largely curious rather than important. Having
exhausted all that is practical, the specialist is naturally tempted
to amuse himself with the natural history of the organ or function he
deals with; to feel as a writing-master does when he sets a copy,--
not content to shape the letters properly, but he must add flourishes
and fancy figures, to let off his spare energy.
I am beginning to be frightened. When I began these papers, my idea
was a very simple and innocent one. Here was a mixed company, of
various conditions, as I have already told my readers, who came
together regularly, and before they were aware of it formed something
like a club or association. As I was the patriarch among them, they
gave me the name some of you may need to be reminded of; for as these
reports are published at intervals, you may not remember the fact
that I am what The Teacups have seen fit to call The Dictator.
Now, what did I expect when I began these papers, and what is it that
has begun to frighten me?
I expected to report grave conversations and light colloquial
passages of arms among the members of the circle. I expected to
hear, perhaps to read, a paper now and then. I expected to have,
from time to time, a poem from some one of The Teacups, for I felt
sure there must be among them one or more poets,--Teacups of the
finer and rarer translucent kind of porcelain, to speak
Out of these conversations and written contributions I thought I
might make up a readable series of papers; a not wholly unwelcome
string of recollections, anticipations, suggestions, too often
perhaps repetitions, that would be to the twilight what my earlier
series had been to the morning.
I hoped also that I should come into personal relations with my old
constituency, if I may call my nearer friends, and those more distant
ones who belong to my reading parish, by that name. It is time that
I should. I received this blessed morning--I am telling the literal
truth--a highly flattering obituary of myself in the shape of an
extract from "Le National" of the 10th of February last. This is a
bi-weekly newspaper, published in French, in the city of Plattsburg,
Clinton County, New York. I am occasionally reminded by my unknown
friends that I must hurry up their autograph, or make haste to copy
that poem they wish to have in the author's own handwriting, or it
will be too late; but I have never before been huddled out of the
world in this way. I take this rather premature obituary as a hint
that, unless I come to some arrangement with my well-meaning but
insatiable correspondents, it would be as well to leave it in type,
for I cannot bear much longer the load they lay upon me. I will
explain myself on this point after I have told my readers what has
I am beginning to think this room where we take our tea is more like
a tinder-box than a quiet and safe place for "a party in a parlor."
It is true that there are at least two or three incombustibles at our
table, but it looks to me as if the company might pair off before the
season is over, like the crew of Her Majesty's ship the Mantelpiece,
--three or four weddings clear our whole table of all but one or two
of the impregnables. The poem we found in the sugar-bowl last week
first opened my eyes to the probable state of things. Now, the idea
of having to tell a love-story,--perhaps two or three love-stories,
--when I set out with the intention of repeating instructive, useful,
or entertaining discussions, naturally alarms me. It is quite true
that many things which look to me suspicious may be simply playful.
Young people (and we have several such among The Teacups) are fond of
make-believe courting when they cannot have the real thing,--
"flirting," as it used to be practised in the days of Arcadian
innocence, not the more modern and more questionable recreation which
has reached us from the home of the cicisbeo. Whatever comes of it,
I shall tell what I see, and take the consequences.
But I am at this moment going to talk in my own proper person to my
own particular public, which, as I find by my correspondence, is a
very considerable one, and with which I consider myself in
exceptionally pleasant relations.
I have read recently that Mr. Gladstone receives six hundred letters
a day. Perhaps he does not receive six hundred letters every day,
but if he gets anything like half that number daily, what can he do
with them? There was a time when he was said to answer all his
correspondents. It is understood, I think, that he has given up
doing so in these later days.
I do not pretend that I receive six hundred or even sixty letters a
day, but I do receive a good many, and have told the public of the
fact from time to time, under the pressure of their constantly
increasing exertions. As it is extremely onerous, and is soon going
to be impossible, for me to keep up the wide range of correspondence
which has become a large part of my occupation, and tends to absorb
all the vital force which is left me, I wish to enter into a final
explanation with the well-meaning but merciless taskmasters who have
now for many years been levying their daily tax upon me. I have
preserved thousands of their letters, and destroyed a very large
number, after answering most of them. A few interesting chapters
might be made out of the letters I have kept,--not only such as are
signed by the names of well-known personages, but many from unknown
friends, of whom I had never heard before and have never heard since.
A great deal of the best writing the languages of the world have ever
known has been committed to leaves that withered out of sight before
a second sunlight had fallen upon them. I have had many letters I
should have liked to give the public, had their nature admitted of
their being offered to the world. What straggles of young ambition,
finding no place for its energies, or feeling its incapacity to reach
the ideal towards which it was striving! What longings of
disappointed, defeated fellow-mortals, trying to find a new home for
themselves in the heart of one whom they have amiably idealized! And
oh, what hopeless efforts of mediocrities and inferiorities,
believing in themselves as superiorities, and stumbling on through
limping disappointments to prostrate failure! Poverty comes
pleading, not for charity, for the most part, but imploring us to
find a purchaser for its unmarketable wares. The unreadable author
particularly requests us to make a critical examination of his book,
and report to him whatever may be our verdict,--as if he wanted
anything but our praise, and that very often to be used in his
But what does not one have to submit to who has become the martyr--
the Saint Sebastian--of a literary correspondence! I will not dwell
on the possible impression produced on a sensitive nature by reading
one's own premature obituary, as I have told you has been my recent
experience. I will not stop to think whether the urgent request for
an autograph by return post, in view of the possible contingencies
which might render it the last one was ever to write, is pleasing or
not. At threescore and twenty one must expect such hints of what is
like to happen before long. I suppose, if some near friend were to
watch one who was looking over such a pressing letter, he might
possibly see a slight shadow flit over the reader's features, and
some such dialogue might follow as that between Othello and Iago,
after "this honest creature" has been giving breath to his suspicions
"I see this hath a little dash'd your spirits.
Not a jot, not a jot.
"My lord, I see you're moved."
And a little later the reader might, like Othello, complain,
"I have a pain upon my forehead here."
Nothing more likely. But, for myself, I have grown callous to all
such allusions. The repetition of the Scriptural phrase for the
natural term of life is so frequent that it wears out one's
But how many charming and refreshing letters I have received! How
often I have felt their encouragement in moments of doubt and
depression, such as the happiest temperaments must sometimes
If the time comes when to answer all my kind unknown friends, even by
dictation, is impossible, or more than I feel equal to, I wish to
refer any of those who may feel disappointed at not receiving an
answer to the following general acknowledgments:
I. I am always grateful for any attention which shows me that I am
kindly remembered.--II. Your pleasant message has been read to me,
and has been thankfully listened to.--III. Your book (your essay)
(your poem) has reached me safely, and has received all the
respectful attention to which it seemed entitled. It would take more
than all the time I have at my disposal to read all the printed
matter and all the manuscripts which are sent to me, and you would
not ask me to attempt the impossible. You will not, therefore,
expect me to express a critical opinion of your work.--IV. I am
deeply sensible to your expressions of personal attachment to me as
the author of certain writings which have brought me very near to
you, in virtue of some affinity in our ways of thought and moods of
feeling. Although I cannot keep up correspondences with many of my
readers who seem to be thoroughly congenial with myself, let them be
assured that their letters have been read or heard with peculiar
gratification, and are preserved as precious treasures.
I trust that after this notice no correspondent will be surprised to
find his or her letter thus answered by anticipation; and that if one
of the above formulae is the only answer he receives, the unknown
friend will remember that he or she is one of a great many whose
incessant demands have entirely outrun my power of answering them as
fully as the applicants might wish and perhaps expect.
I could make a very interesting volume of the letters I have received
from correspondents unknown to the world of authorship, but writing
from an instinctive impulse, which many of them say they have long
felt and resisted. One must not allow himself to be flattered into
an overestimate of his powers because he gets many letters expressing
a peculiar attraction towards his books, and a preference of them to
those with which he would not have dared to compare his own. Still,
if the homo unius libri--the man of one book--choose to select one of
our own writing as his favorite volume, it means something,--not
much, perhaps; but if one has unlocked the door to the secret
entrance of one heart, it is not unlikely that his key may fit the
locks of others. What if nature has lent him a master key? He has
found the wards and slid back the bolt of one lock; perhaps he may
have learned the secret of others. One success is an encouragement
to try again. Let the writer of a truly loving letter, such as
greets one from time to time, remember that, though he never hears a
word from it, it may prove one of the best rewards of an anxious and
laborious past, and the stimulus of a still aspiring future.
Among the letters I have recently received, none is more interesting
than the following. The story of Helen Keller, who wrote it, is told
in the well-known illustrated magazine called "The Wide Awake," in
the number for July, 1888. For the account of this little girl, now
between nine and ten years old, and other letters of her writing, I
must refer to the article I have mentioned. It is enough to say that
she is deaf and dumb and totally blind. She was seven years old when
her teacher, Miss Sullivan, under the direction of Mr. Anagnos, at
the Blind Asylum at South Boston, began her education. A child
fuller of life and happiness it would be hard to find. It seems as
if her soul was flooded with light and filled with music that had
found entrance to it through avenues closed to other mortals. It is
hard to understand how she has learned to deal with abstract ideas,
and so far to supplement the blanks left by the senses of sight and
hearing that one would hardly think of her as wanting in any human
faculty. Remember Milton's pathetic picture of himself, suffering
from only one of poor little Helen's deprivations:
"Not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer's rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair
Presented with a universal blank
Of Nature's works, to me expunged and rased,
And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out."
Surely for this loving and lovely child does
"the celestial Light
Anthropologist, metaphysician, most of all theologian, here is a
lesson which can teach you much that you will not find in your
primers and catechisms. Why should I call her "poor little Helen"?
Where can you find a happier child?
SOUTH BOSTON, MASS., March 1, 1890.
DEAR KIND POET,--I have thought of you many times since that bright
Sunday when I bade you goodbye, and I am going to write you a letter
because I love you. I am sorry that you have no little children to
play with sometimes, but I think you are very happy with your books,
and your many, many friends. On Washington's Birthday a great many
people came here to see the little blind children, and I read for
them from your poems, and showed them some beautiful shells which
came from a little island near Palos. I am reading a very sad story
called "Little Jakey." Jakey was the sweetest little fellow you can
imagine, but he was poor and blind. I used to think, when I was
small and before I could read, that everybody was always happy, and
at first it made me very sad to know about pain and great sorrow; but
now I know that we could never learn to be brave and patient, if
there were only joy in the world. I am studying about insects in
Zoology, and I have learned many things about butterflies. They do
not make honey for us, like the bees, but many of them are as
beautiful as the flowers they light upon, and they always delight the
hearts of little children. They live a gay life, flitting from
flower to flower, sipping the drops of honey-dew, without a thought
for the morrow. They are just like little boys and girls when they
forget books and studies, and run away to the woods and the fields to
gather wild-flowers, or wade in the ponds for fragrant lilies, happy
in the bright sunshine. If my little sister comes to Boston next
June, will you let me bring her to see you? She is a lovely baby and
I am sure you will love [her]. Now I must tell my gentle poet good-
bye, for I have a letter to write home before I go to bed. From your
loving little friend,
HELEN A. KELLER.
The reading of this letter made many eyes glisten, and a dead silence
hushed the whole circle. All at once Delilah, our pretty table-maid,
forgot her place,--what business had she to be listening to our
conversation and reading?--and began sobbing, just as if she had
been a lady. She could n't help it, she explained afterwards,--she
had a little blind sister at the asylum, who had told her about
Helen's reading to the children.
It was very awkward, this breaking-down of our pretty Delilah, for
one girl crying will sometimes set off a whole row of others,--it is
as hazardous as lighting one cracker in a bunch. The two Annexes
hurried out their pocket-handkerchiefs, and I almost expected a semi-
hysteric cataclysm. At this critical moment Number Five called
Delilah to her, looked into her face with those calm eyes of hers,
and spoke a few soft words. Was Number Five forgetful, too? Did she
not remember the difference of their position? I suppose so. But
she quieted the poor handmaiden as simply and easily as a nursing
mother quiets her unweaned baby. Why are we not all in love with
Number Five? Perhaps we are. At any rate, I suspect the Professor.
When we all get quiet, I will touch him up about that visit she
promised to make to his laboratory.
I got a chance at last to speak privately with him.
"Did Number Five go to meet you in your laboratory, as she talked of
"Oh, yes, of course she did,--why, she said she would!"
"Oh, to be sure. Do tell me what she wanted in your laboratory."
"She wanted me to burn a diamond for her."
"Burn a diamond! What was that for? Because Cleopatra swallowed a
"No, nothing of that kind. It was a small stone, and had a flaw in
it. Number Five said she did n't want a diamond with a flaw in it,
and that she did want to see how a diamond would burn."
"Was that all that happened?"
"That was all. She brought the two Annexes with her, and I gave my
three visitors a lecture on carbon, which they seemed to enjoy very
I looked steadily in the Professor's face during the reading of the
following poem. I saw no questionable look upon it,--but he has a
remarkable command of his features. Number Five read it with a
certain archness of expression, as if she saw all its meaning, which
I think some of the company did not quite take in. They said they
must read it slowly and carefully. Somehow, "I like you" and "I love
you" got a little mixed, as they heard it. It was not Number Five's
fault, for she read it beautifully, as we all agreed, and as I knew
she would when I handed it to her.
I LIKE YOU AND I LOVE YOU.
I LIKE YOU met I LOVE YOU, face to face;
The path was narrow, and they could not pass.
I LIKE YOU smiled; I LOVE YOU cried, Alas!
And so they halted for a little space.
"Turn thou and go before," I LOVE YOU said,
` "Down the green pathway, bright with many a flower
Deep in the valley, lo! my bridal bower
Awaits thee." But I LIKE YOU shook his head.
Then while they lingered on the span-wide shelf
That shaped a pathway round the rocky ledge,
I LIKE YOU bared his icy dagger's edge,
And first he slew I LOVE YOU,--then himself.
There is no use in burdening my table with those letters of inquiry
as to where our meetings are held, and what are the names of the
persons designated by numbers, or spoken of under the titles of the
Professor, the Tutor, and so forth. It is enough that you are aware
who I am, and that I am known at the tea-table as The Dictator.
Theatrical "asides" are apt to be whispered in a pretty loud voice,
and the persons who ought not to have any idea of what is said are
expected to be reasonably hard of bearing. If I named all The
Teacups, some of them might be offended. If any of my readers happen
to be able to identify any one Teacup by some accidental
circumstance,--say, for instance, Number Five, by the incident of her
burning the diamond,--I hope they will keep quiet about it. Number
Five does n't want to be pointed out in the street as the extravagant
person who makes use of such expensive fuel, for the story would soon
grow to a statement that she always uses diamonds, instead of cheaper
forms of carbon, to heat her coffee with. So with other members of
the circle. The "Cracked Teacup," Number Seven, would not, perhaps,
be pleased to recognize himself under that title. I repeat it,
therefore, Do not try to identify the individual Teacups. You will
not get them right; or, if you do, you may too probably make trouble.
How is it possible that I can keep up my freedom of intercourse with
you all if you insist on bellowing my "asides" through a speaking-
trumpet? Besides, you cannot have failed to see that there are
strong symptoms of the springing up of delicate relations between
some of our number. I told you how it would be. It did not require
a prophet to foresee that the saucy intruder who, as Mr. Willis
wrote, and the dear dead girls used to sing, in our young days,
"Taketh every form of air,
And every shape of earth,
And comes unbidden everywhere,
Like thought's mysterious birth,"
would pop his little curly head up between one or more pairs of
Teacups. If you will stop these questions, then, I will go on with
my reports of what was said and done at our meetings over the
Of all things beautiful in this fair world, there is nothing so
enchanting to look upon, to dream about, as the first opening of the
flower of young love. How closely the calyx has hidden the glowing
leaves in its quiet green mantle! Side by side, two buds have been
tossing jauntily in the breeze, often brought very near to each
other, sometimes touching for a moment, with a secret thrill in their
close-folded heart-leaves, it may be, but still the cool green sepals
shutting tight over the burning secret within. All at once a morning
ray touches one of the two buds, and the point of a blushing petal
betrays the imprisoned and swelling blossom.
--Oh, no, I did not promise a love-story. There may be a little
sentiment now and then, but these papers are devoted chiefly to the
opinions, prejudices, fancies, whims, of myself, The Dictator, and
others of The Teacups who have talked or written for the general
benefit of the company.
Here are some of the remarks I made the other evening on the subject
of Intellectual Over-Feeding and its consequence, Mental Dyspepsia.
There is something positively appalling in the amount of printed
matter yearly, monthly, weekly, daily, secreted by that great gland
of the civilized organism, the press. I need not dilate upon this
point, for it is brought home to every one of you who ever looks into
a bookstore or a public library. So large is the variety of literary
products continually coming forward, forced upon the attention of the
reader by stimulating and suggestive titles, commended to his notice
by famous names, recasting old subjects and developing and
illustrating new ones, that the mind is liable to be urged into a
kind of unnatural hunger, leading to a repletion which is often
followed by disgust and disturbed nervous conditions as its natural
It has long been a favorite rule with me, a rule which I have never
lost sight of, however imperfectly I have carried it out: Try to know
enough of a wide range of subjects to profit by the conversation of
intelligent persons of different callings and various intellectual
gifts and acquisitions. The cynic will paraphrase this into a
shorter formula: Get a smattering in every sort of knowledge. I must
therefore add a second piece of advice: Learn to hold as of small
account the comments of the cynic. He is often amusing, sometimes
really witty, occasionally, without meaning it, instructive; but his
talk is to profitable conversation what the stone is to the pulp of
the peach, what the cob is to the kernels on an ear of Indian corn.
Once more: Do not be bullied out of your common sense by the
specialist; two to one, he is a pedant, with all his knowledge and
valuable qualities, and will "cavil on the ninth part of a hair," if
it will give him a chance to show off his idle erudition.
I saw attributed to me, the other day, the saying, "Know something
about everything, and everything about something." I am afraid it
does not belong to me, but I will treat it as I used to treat a stray
boat which came through my meadow, floating down the Housatonic,--get
hold of it and draw it ashore, and hold on to it until the owner
turns up. If this precept is used discreetly, it is very
serviceable; but it is as well to recognize the fact that you cannot
know something about everything in days like these of intellectual
activity, of literary and scientific production. We all feel this.
It makes us nervous to see the shelves of new books, many of which we
feel as if we ought to read, and some among them to study. We must
adopt some principle of selection among the books outside of any
particular branch which we may have selected for study. I have often
been asked what books I would recommend for a course of reading. I
have always answered that I had a great deal rather take advice than
give it. Fortunately, a number of scholars have furnished lists of
books to which the inquirer may be directed. But the worst of it is
that each student is in need of a little library specially adapted to
his wants. Here is a young man writing to me from a Western college,
and wants me to send him a list of the books which I think would be
most useful to him. He does not send me his intellectual
measurements, and he might as well have sent to a Boston tailor for a
coat, without any hint of his dimensions in length, breadth, and
But instead of laying down rules for reading, and furnishing lists of
the books which should be read in order, I will undertake the much
humbler task of giving a little quasi-medical advice to persons,
young or old, suffering from book-hunger, book-surfeit, book-
nervousness, book-indigestion, book-nausea, and all other maladies
which, directly or indirectly, may be traced to books, and to which I
could give Greek or Latin names if I thought it worth while.
I have a picture hanging in my library, a lithograph, of which many
of my readers may have seen copies. It represents a gray-haired old
book-lover at the top of a long flight of steps. He finds himself in
clover, so to speak, among rare old editions, books he has longed to
look upon and never seen before, rarities, precious old volumes,
incunabula, cradle-books, printed while the art was in its infancy,--
its glorious infancy, for it was born a giant. The old bookworm is
so intoxicated with the sight and handling of the priceless treasures
that he cannot bear to put one of the volumes back after he has taken
it from the shelf. So there he stands,--one book open in his hands,
a volume under each arm, and one or more between his legs,--loaded
with as many as he can possibly hold at the same time.
Now, that is just the way in which the extreme form of book-hunger
shows itself in the reader whose appetite has become over-developed.
He wants to read so many books that he over-crams himself with the
crude materials of knowledge, which become knowledge only when the
mental digestion has time to assimilate them. I never can go into
that famous "Corner Bookstore" and look over the new books in the row
before me, as I enter the door, without seeing half a dozen which I
want to read, or at least to know something about. I cannot empty my
purse of its contents, and crowd my bookshelves with all those
volumes. The titles of many of them interest me. I look into one or
two, perhaps. I have sometimes picked up a line or a sentence, in
these momentary glances between the uncut leaves of a new book, which
I have never forgotten. As a trivial but bona fide example, one day
I opened a book on duelling. I remember only these words:
"Conservons-la, cette noble institution." I had never before seen
duelling called a noble institution, and I wish I had taken the name
of the book. Book-tasting is not necessarily profitless, but it is
very stimulating, and makes one hungry for more than he needs for the
nourishment of his thinking-marrow. To feed this insatiable hunger,
the abstracts, the reviews, do their best. But these, again, have
grown so numerous and so crowded with matter that it is hard to find
time to master their contents. We are accustomed, therefore, to look
for analyses of these periodicals, and at last we have placed before
us a formidable-looking monthly, "The Review of Reviews." After the
analyses comes the newspaper notice; and there is still room for the
epigram, which sometimes makes short work with all that has gone
before on the same subject.
It is just as well to recognize the fact that if one should read day
and night, confining himself to his own language, he could not
pretend to keep up with the press. He might as well try to race with
a locomotive. The first discipline, therefore, is that of despair.
If you could stick to your reading day and night for fifty years,
what a learned idiot you would become long before the half-century
was over! Well, then, there is no use in gorging one's self with
knowledge, and no need of self-reproach because one is content to
remain more or less ignorant of many things which interest his
fellow-creatures. We gain a good deal of knowledge through the
atmosphere; we learn a great deal by accidental hearsay, provided we
have the mordant in our own consciousness which makes the wise
remark, the significant fact, the instructive incident, take hold
upon it. After the stage of despair comes the period of consolation.
We soon find that we are not so much worse off than most of our
neighbors as we supposed. The fractional value of the wisest shows a
small numerator divided by an infinite denominator of knowledge.
I made some explanations to The Teacups, the other evening, which
they received very intelligently and graciously, as I have no doubt
the readers of these reports of mine will receive them. If the
reader will turn back to the end of the fourth number of these
papers, he will find certain lines entitled, "Cacoethes Scribendi."
They were said to have been taken from the usual receptacle of the
verses which are contributed by The Teacups, and, though the fact was
not mentioned, were of my own composition. I found them in
manuscript in my drawer, and as my subject had naturally suggested
the train of thought they carried out into extravagance, I printed
them. At the same time they sounded very natural, as we say, and I
felt as if I had published them somewhere or other before; but I
could find no evidence of it, and so I ventured to have them put in
And here I wish to take breath for a short, separate paragraph. I
have often felt, after writing a line which pleased me more than
common, that it was not new, and perhaps was not my own. I have very
rarely, however, found such a coincidence in ideas or expression as
would be enough to justify an accusation of unconscious plagiarism,--
conscious plagiarism is not my particular failing. I therefore say
my say, set down my thought, print my line, and do not heed the
suspicion that I may not be as original as I supposed, in the passage
I have been writing. My experience may be worth something to a
modest young writer, and so I have interrupted what I was about to
say by intercalating this paragraph.
In this instance my telltale suspicion had not been at fault. I had
printed those same lines, years ago, in "The Contributors' Club," to
which I have rarely sent any of my prose or verse. Nobody but the
editor has noticed the fact, so far as I know. This is consoling, or
mortifying, I hardly know which. I suppose one has a right to
plagiarize from himself, but he does not want to present his work as
fresh from the workshop when it has been long standing in his
But I have just received a letter from a brother of the late Henry
Howard Brownell, the poet of the Bay Fight and the River Fight, in
which he quotes a passage from an old book, "A Heroine, Adventures of
Cherubina," which might well have suggested my own lines, if I had
ever seen it. I have not the slightest recollection of the book or
the passage. I think its liveliness and "local color" will make it
please the reader, as it pleases me, more than my own more prosaic
LINES TO A PRETTY LITTLE MAID OF MAMMA'S.
"If Black Sea, Red Sea, White Sea, ran
One tide of ink to Ispahan,
If all the geese in Lincoln fens
Produced spontaneous well-made pens,
If Holland old and Holland new
One wondrous sheet of paper grew,
And could I sing but half the grace
Of half a freckle in thy face,
Each syllable I wrote would reach
From Inverness to Bognor's beach,
Each hair-stroke be a river Rhine,
Each verse an equinoctial line!"
"The immediate dismissal of the 'little maid' was the consequence."
I may as well say that our Delilah was not in the room when the last
sentence was read.
Readers must be either very good-natured or very careless. I have
laid myself open to criticism by more than one piece of negligence,
which has been passed over without invidious comment by the readers
of my papers. How could I, for instance, have written in my original
"copy" for the printer about the fisherman baiting his hook with a
giant's tail instead of a dragon's? It is the automatic fellow,--Me-
Number-Two of our dual personality,--who does these things, who
forgets the message Me--Number--One sends down to him from the
cerebral convolutions, and substitutes a wrong word for the right
one. I suppose Me--Number--Two will "sass back," and swear that
"giant's" was the message which came down from headquarters. He is
always doing the wrong thing and excusing himself. Who blows out the
gas instead of shutting it off? Who puts the key in the desk and
fastens it tight with the spring lock? Do you mean to say that the
upper Me, the Me of the true thinking-marrow, the convolutions of the
brain, does not know better? Of course he does, and Me-Number-Two is
a careless servant, who remembers some old direction, and follows
that instead of the one just given.
Number Seven demurred to this, and I am not sure that he is wrong in
so doing. He maintains that the automatic fellow always does just
what he is told to do. Number Five is disposed to agree with him.
We will talk over the question.
But come, now, why should not a giant have a tail as well as a
dragon? Linnaeus admitted the homo caudatus into his anthropological
catalogue. The human embryo has a very well marked caudal appendage;
that is, the vertebral column appears prolonged, just as it is in a
young quadruped. During the late session of the Medical Congress at
Washington, my friend Dr. Priestley, a distinguished London
physician, of the highest character and standing, showed me the
photograph of a small boy, some three or four years old, who had a
very respectable little tail, which would have passed muster on a
pig, and would have made a frog or a toad ashamed of himself. I have
never heard what became of the little boy, nor have I looked in the
books or journals to find out if there are similar cases on record,
but I have no doubt that there are others. And if boys may have this
additional ornament to their vertebral columns, why not men? And if
men, why not giants? So I may not have made a very bad blunder,
after all, and my reader has learned something about the homo
caudatus as spoken of by Linnxus, and as shown me in photograph by
Dr. Priestley. This child is a candidate for the vacant place of
In accounting for the blunders, and even gross blunders, which,
sooner or later, one who writes much is pretty sure to commit, I must
not forget the part played by the blind spot or idiotic area in the
brain, which I have already described.
The most knowing persons we meet with are sometimes at fault. Nova
onania possumus omnes is not a new nor profound axiom, but it is well
to remember it as a counterpoise to that other truly American saying
of the late Mr. Samuel Patch, "Some things can be done as well as
others." Yes, some things, but not all things. We all know men and
women who hate to admit their ignorance of anything. Like Talkative
in "Pilgrim's Progress," they are ready to converse of "things
heavenly or things earthly; things moral or things evangelical;
things sacred or things profane; things past or things to come;
things foreign or things at home; things more essential or things
Talkative is apt to be a shallow fellow, and to say foolish things
about matters he only half understands, and yet he has his place in
society. The specialists would grow to be intolerable, were they not
counterpoised to some degree by the people of general intelligence.
The man who knows too much about one particular subject is liable to
become a terrible social infliction. Some of the worst bores (to use
plain language) we ever meet with are recognized as experts of high
grade in their respective departments. Beware of making so much as a
pinhole in the dam that holds back their knowledge. They ride their
hobbies without bit or bridle. A poet on Pegasus, reciting his own
verses, is hardly more to be dreaded than a mounted specialist.
One of the best offices which women perform for men is that of
tasting books for them. They may or may not be profound students,--
some of them are; but we do not expect to meet women like Mrs.
Somerville, or Caroline Herschel, or Maria Mitchell at every dinner-
table or afternoon tea. But give your elect lady a pile of books to
look over for you, and she will tell you what they have for her and
for you in less time than you would have wasted in stupefying
yourself over a single volume.
One of the encouraging signs of the times is the condensed and
abbreviated form in which knowledge is presented to the general
reader. The short biographies of historic personages, of which
within the past few years many have been published, have been a great
relief to the large class of readers who want to know something, but
not too much, about them.
What refuge is there for the victim who is oppressed with the feeling
that there are a thousand new books he ought to read, while life is
only long enough for him to attempt to read a hundred? Many readers
remember what old Rogers, the poet,
"When I hear a new book talked about or have it pressed upon me, I
read an old one."
Happy the man who finds his rest in the pages of some favorite
classic! I know no reader more to be envied than that friend of mine
who for many years has given his days and nights to the loving study
of Horace. After a certain period in life, it is always with an
effort that we admit a new author into the inner circle of our
intimates. The Parisian omnibuses, as I remember them half a century
ago,--they may still keep to the same habit, for aught that I know,--
used to put up the sign "Complet" as soon as they were full. Our
public conveyances are never full until the natural atmospheric
pressure of sixteen pounds to the square inch is doubled, in the
close packing of the human sardines that fill the all-accommodating
vehicles. A new-comer, however well mannered and well dressed, is
not very welcome under these circumstances. In the same way, our
tables are full of books half-read and books we feel that we must
read. And here come in two thick volumes, with uncut leaves, in
small type, with many pages, and many lines to a page,--a book that
must be read and ought to be read at once. What a relief to hand it
over to the lovely keeper of your literary conscience, who will tell
you all that you will most care to know about it, and leave you free
to plunge into your beloved volume, in which you are ever finding new
beauties, and from which you rise refreshed, as if you had just come
from the cool waters of Hippocrene! The stream of modern literature
represented by the books and periodicals on the crowded counters is a
turbulent and clamorous torrent, dashing along among the rocks of
criticism, over the pebbles of the world's daily events; trying to
make itself seen and heard amidst the hoarse cries of the politicians
and the rumbling wheels of traffic. The classic is a still lakelet,
a mountain tarn, fed by springs that never fail, its surface never
ruffled by storms,--always the same, always smiling a welcome to its
visitor. Such is Horace to my friend. To his eye "Lydia, dic per
omnes" is as familiar as "Pater noster qui es in caelis" to that of a
pious Catholic. "Integer vitae," which he has put into manly
English, his Horace opens to as Watt's hymn-book opens to "From all
that dwell below the skies." The more he reads, the more he studies
his author, the richer are the treasures he finds. And what Horace
is to him, Homer, or Virgil, or Dante is to many a quiet reader, sick
to death of the unending train of bookmakers.
I have some curious books in my library, a few of which I should like
to say something about to The Teacups, when they have no more
immediately pressing subjects before them. A library of a few
thousand volumes ought always to have some books in it which the
owner almost never opens, yet with whose backs he is so well
acquainted that he feels as if he knew something of their contents.
They are like those persons whom we meet in our daily walks, with
whose faces and figures, whose summer and winter garments, whose
walking-sticks and umbrellas even, we feel acquainted, and yet whose
names, whose business, whose residences, we know nothing about. Some
of these books are so formidable in their dimensions, so rusty and
crabbed in their aspect, that it takes a considerable amount of
courage to attack them.
I will ask Delilah to bring down from my library a very thick, stout
volume, bound in parchment, and standing on the lower shelf, next the
fireplace. The pretty handmaid knows my books almost as if she were
my librarian, and I don't doubt she would have found it if I had
given only the name on the back.
Delilah returned presently, with the heavy quarto in her arms. It
was a pleasing sight,--the old book in the embrace of the fresh young
damsel. I felt, on looking at them, as I did when I followed the
slip of a girl who conducted us in the Temple, that ancient building
in the heart of London. The long-enduring monuments of the dead do
so mock the fleeting presence of the living!
Is n't this book enough to scare any of you? I said, as Delilah
dumped it down upon the table. The teacups jumped from their saucers
as it thumped on the board. Danielis Georgii Morhofii Polyhistor,
Literarius, Philosophicus et Poeticus. Lubecae MDCCXXXIII. Perhaps
I should not have ventured to ask you to look at this old volume, if
it had not been for the fact that Dr. Johnson mentions Morohof as the
author to whom he was specially indebted.--more, I think, than to
any other. It is a grand old encyclopaedic summary of all the author
knew about pretty nearly everything, full of curious interest, but so
strangely mediaeval, so utterly antiquated in most departments of
knowledge, that it is hard to believe the volume came from the press
at a time when persons whom I well remember were living. Is it
possible that the books which have been for me what Morhof was for
Dr. Johnson can look like that to the student of the year 1990?
Morhof was a believer in magic and the transmutation of metals.
There was always something fascinating to me in the old books of
alchemy. I have felt that the poetry of science lost its wings when
the last powder of projection had been cast into the crucible, and
the fire of the last transmutation furnace went out. Perhaps I am
wrong in implying that alchemy is an extinct folly. It existed in
New England's early days, as we learn from the Winthrop papers, and I
see no reason why gold-making should not have its votaries as well as
other popular delusions.
Among the essays of Morhof is one on the "Paradoxes of the Senses."
That title brought to mind the recollection of another work I have
been meaning to say something about, at some time when you were in
the listening mood. The book I refer to is "A Budget of Paradoxes,"
by Augustus De Morgan. De Morgan is well remembered as a very
distinguished mathematician, whose works have kept his name in high
honor to the present time. The book I am speaking of was published
by his widow, and is largely made up of letters received by him and
his comments upon them. Few persons ever read it through. Few
intelligent readers ever took it up and laid it down without taking a
long draught of its singular and interesting contents. The letters
are mostly from that class of persons whom we call "cranks," in our
At this point Number Seven interrupted me by calling out, "Give us
some of those cranks' letters. A crank is a man who does his own
thinking. I had a relation who was called a crank. I believe I have
been spoken of as one myself. That is what you have to expect if you
invent anything that puts an old machine out of fashion, or solve a
problem that has puzzled all the world up to your time. There never
was a religion founded but its Messiah was called a crank. There
never was an idea started that woke up men out of their stupid
indifference but its originator was spoken of as a crank. Do you
want to know why that name is given to the men who do most for the
world's progress? I will tell you. It is because cranks make all
the wheels in all the machinery of the world go round. What would a
steam-engine be without a crank? I suppose the first fool that
looked on the first crank that was ever made asked what that crooked,
queer-looking thing was good for. When the wheels got moving he
found out. Tell us something about that book which has so much to
say concerning cranks."
Hereupon I requested Delilah to carry back Morhof, and replace him in
the wide gap he had left in the bookshelf. She was then to find and
bring down the volume I had been speaking of.
Delilah took the wisdom of the seventeenth century in her arms, and
departed on her errand. The book she brought down was given me some
years ago by a gentleman who had sagaciously foreseen that it was
just one of those works which I might hesitate about buying, but
should be well pleased to own. He guessed well; the book has been a
great source of instruction and entertainment to me. I wonder that
so much time and cost should have been expended upon a work which
might have borne a title like the Encomium Moriae of Erasmus; and yet
it is such a wonderful museum of the productions of the squinting
brains belonging to the class of persons commonly known as cranks
that we could hardly spare one of its five hundred octavo pages.
Those of us who are in the habit of receiving letters from all sorts
of would-be-literary people--letters of inquiry, many of them with
reference to matters we are supposed to understand--can readily see
how it was that Mr. De Morgan, never too busy to be good-natured with
the people who pestered--or amused-him with their queer fancies,
received such a number of letters from persons who thought they had
made great discoveries, from those who felt that they and their
inventions and contrivances had been overlooked, and who sought in
his large charity of disposition and great receptiveness a balm for
their wounded feelings and a ray of hope for their darkened
The book before us is made up from papers published in "The
Athenaeum," with additions by the author. Soon after opening it we
come to names with which we are familiar, the first of these, that of
Cornelius Agrippa, being connected with the occult and mystic
doctrines dealt with by many of De Morgan's correspondents. But the
name most likely to arrest us is that of Giordano Bruno, the same
philosopher, heretic, and martyr whose statue has recently been
erected in Rome, to the great horror of the Pope and his prelates in
the Old World and in the New. De Morgan's pithy account of him will
interest the company: "Giordano Bruno was all paradox. He was, as
has been said, a vorticist before Descartes, an optimist before
Leibnitz, a Copernican before Galileo. It would be easy to collect a
hundred strange opinions of his. He was born about 1550, and was
roasted alive at Rome, February 17, 1600, for the maintenance and
defence of the Holy Church, and the rights and liberties of the
Number Seven could not contain himself when the reading had reached
this point. He rose from his chair, and tinkled his spoon against
the side of his teacup. It may have been a fancy, but I thought it
returned a sound which Mr. Richard Briggs would have recognized as
implying an organic defect. But Number Seven did not seem to notice
it, or, if be did, to mind it.
"Why did n't we all have a chance to help erect that statue?" he
cried. "A murdered heretic at the beginning of the seventeenth
century, a hero of knowledge in the nineteenth,--I drink to the
memory of the roasted crank, Giordano Bruno!"
Number Seven lifted his teacup to his lips, and most of us followed
After this outburst of emotion and eloquence had subsided, and the
teaspoons lay quietly in their saucers, I went on with my extract
from the book I had in hand.
I think, I said, that the passage which follows will be new and
instructive to most of the company. De Morgan's interpretation of
the cabalistic sentence, made up as you will find it, is about as
ingenious a piece of fanciful exposition as you will be likely to
meet with anywhere in any book, new or old. I am the more willing to
mention it as it suggests a puzzle which some of the company may like
to work upon. Observe the character and position of the two
distinguished philosophers who did not think their time thrown away
in laboring at this seemingly puerile task.
"There is a kind of Cabbala Alphabetica which the investigators of
the numerals in words would do well to take up; it is the formation
of sentences which contain all the letters of the alphabet, and each
only once. No one has done it with v and j treated as consonants;
but you and I can do it. Dr. Whewell and I amused ourselves some
years ago with attempts. He could not make sense, though he joined
words he gave me Phiz, styx, wrong, buck, flame, quiz.
"I gave him the following, which he agreed was 'admirable sense,'--
I certainly think the words would never have come together except in
this way: I quartz pyx who fling muck beds. I long thought that no
human being could say this under any circumstances. At last I
happened to be reading a religious writer,--as he thought himself,--
who threw aspersions on his opponents thick and threefold. Heyday
came into my head; this fellow flings muck beds; he must be a quartz
pyx. And then I remembered that a pyx is a sacred vessel, and quartz
is a hard stone, as hard as the heart of a religious foe-curser. So
that the line is the motto of the ferocious sectarian who turns his
religious vessels into mud-holders, for the benefit of those who will
not see what he sees."
"There are several other sentences given, in which all the letters
(except v and j as consonants) are employed, of which the following
is the best: Get nymph; quiz sad brow; fix luck,--which in more sober
English would be, Marry; be cheerful; watch your business. There is
more edification, more religion, in this than in all the 666
interpretations put together."
There is something very pleasant in the thought of these two sages
playing at jackstraws with the letters of the alphabet. The task
which De Morgan and Dr. Whewell, "the omniscient," set themselves
would not be unworthy of our own ingenious scholars, and it might be
worth while for some one of our popular periodicals to offer a prize
for the best sentence using up the whole alphabet, under the same
conditions as those submitted to by our two philosophers.
This whole book of De Morgan's seems to me full of instruction.
There is too much of it, no doubt; yet one can put up with the
redundancy for the sake of the multiplicity of shades of credulity
and self-deception it displays in broad daylight. I suspect many of
us are conscious of a second personality in our complex nature, which
has many traits resembling those found in the writers of the letters
addressed to Mr. De Horgan.
I have not ventured very often nor very deeply into the field of
metaphysics, but if I were disposed to make any claim in that
direction, it would be the recognition of the squinting brain, the
introduction of the term "cerebricity" corresponding to electricity,
the idiotic area in the brain or thinking-marrow, and my studies of
the second member in the partnership of I-My-Self & Co. I add the
Co. with especial reference to a very interesting article in a late
Scribner, by my friend Mr. William James. In this article the reader
will find a full exposition of the doctrine of plural personality
illustrated by striking cases. I have long ago noticed and referred
to the fact of the stratification of the currents of thought in three
layers, one over the other. I have recognized that where there are
two individuals talking together there are really six personalities
engaged in the conversation. But the distinct, separable,
independent individualities, taking up conscious life one after the
other, are brought out by Mr. James and the authorities to which he
refers as I have not elsewhere seen them developed.
Whether we shall ever find the exact position of the idiotic centre
or area in the brain (if such a spot exists) is uncertain. We know
exactly where the blind spot of the eye is situated, and can
demonstrate it anatomically and physiologically. But we have only
analogy to lead us to infer the possible or even probable existence
of an insensible spot in the thinking-centre. If there is a focal
point where consciousness is at its highest development, it would not
be strange if near by there should prove to be an anaesthetic
district or limited space where no report from the senses was
intelligently interpreted. But all this is mere hypothesis.
Notwithstanding the fact that I am nominally the head personage of
the circle of Teacups, I do not pretend or wish to deny that we all
look to Number Five as our chief adviser in all the literary
questions that come before us. She reads more and better than any of
us. She is always ready to welcome the first sign of genius, or of
talent which approaches genius. She makes short work with all the
pretenders whose only excuse for appealing to the public is that they
"want to be famous." She is one of the very few persons to whom I am
willing to read any one of my own productions while it is yet in
manuscript, unpublished. I know she is disposed to make more of it
than it deserves; but, on the other hand, there are degrees in her
scale of judgment, and I can distinguish very easily what delights
her from what pleases only, or is, except for her kindly feeling to
the writer, indifferent, or open to severe comment. What is curious
is that she seems to have no literary aspirations, no desire to be
known as a writer. Yet Number Five has more esprit, more sparkle,
more sense in her talk, than many a famous authoress from whom we
should expect brilliant conversation.
There are mysteries about Number Five. I am not going to describe
her personally. Whether she belongs naturally among the bright young
people, or in the company of the maturer persons, who have had a good
deal of experience of the world, and have reached the wisdom of the
riper decades without losing the graces of the earlier ones, it would
be hard to say. The men and women, young and old, who throng about
her forget their own ages. "There is no such thing as time in her
presence," said the Professor, the other day, in speaking of her.
Whether the Professor is in love with her or not is more than I can
say, but I am sure that he goes to her for literary sympathy and
counsel, just as I do. The reader may remember what Number Five said
about the possibility of her getting a sprained ankle, and her asking
the young Doctor whether he felt equal to taking charge of her if she
did. I would not for the world insinuate that he wishes she would
slip and twist her foot a little,--just a little, you know, but so
that it would have to be laid on a pillow in a chair, and inspected,
and bandaged, and delicately manipulated. There was a banana-skin
which she might naturally have trodden on, in her way to the tea-
table. Nobody can suppose that it was there except by the most
innocent of accidents. There are people who will suspect everybody.
The idea of the Doctor's putting that banana-skin there! People love
to talk in that silly way about doctors.
Number Five had promised to read us a narrative which she thought
would interest some of the company. Who wrote it she did not tell
us, but I inferred from various circumstances that she had known the
writer. She read the story most effectively in her rich, musical
voice. I noticed that when it came to the sounds of the striking
clock, the ringing of the notes was so like that which reaches us
from some far-off cathedral tower that we wanted to bow our heads, as
if we had just heard a summons to the Angelus. This was the short
story that Number Five read to The Teacups:--
I have somewhere read this anecdote. Louis the Fourteenth was
looking out, one day, from, a window of his palace of Saint-Germain.
It was a beautiful landscape which spread out before him, and the
monarch, exulting in health, strength, and the splendors of his
exalted position, felt his bosom swell with emotions of pride and
happiness: Presently he noticed the towers of a church in the
distance, above the treetops. "What building is that?" he asked.
"May it please your Majesty, that is the Church of St. Denis, where
your royal ancestors have been buried for many generations." The
answer did not "please his Royal Majesty." There, then, was the
place where he too was to lie and moulder in the dust. He turned,
sick at heart, from the window, and was uneasy until he had built him
another palace, from which he could never be appalled by that fatal
Something like the experience of Louis the Fourteenth was that of the
THE TERRIBLE CLOCK.
I give the story as transcribed from the original manuscript:--
The clock was bequeathed to me by an old friend who had recently
died. His mind had been a good deal disordered in the later period
of his life. This clock, I am told; seemed to have a strange
fascination for him. His eyes were fastened on it during the last
hours of his life. He died just at midnight. The clock struck
twelve, the nurse told me, as he drew his last breath, and then,
without any known cause, stopped, with both hands upon the hour.
It is a complex and costly piece of mechanism. The escapement is in
front, so that every tooth is seen as it frees itself. It shows the
phases of the moon, the month of the year, the day of the month, and
the day of the week, as well as the hour and minute of the day.
I had not owned it a week before I began to perceive the same kind of
fascination as that which its former owner had experienced. This
gradually grew upon me, and presently led to trains of thought which
became at first unwelcome, then worrying, and at last unendurable. I
began by taking offence at the moon. I did not like to see that
"something large and smooth and round," so like the skull which
little Peterkin picked up on the field of Blenheim. "How many
times," I kept saying to myself, "is that wicked old moon coming up
to stare at me?" I could not stand it. I stopped a part of the
machinery, and the moon went into permanent eclipse. By and by the
sounds of the infernal machine began to trouble and pursue me. They
talked to me; more and more their language became that of
articulately speaking men. They twitted me with the rapid flight of
time. They hurried me, as if I had not a moment to lose. Quick!
Quick! Quick! as each tooth released itself from the escapement. And
as I looked and listened there could not be any mistake about it. I
heard Quick! Quick! Quick! as plainly, at least, as I ever heard a
word from the phonograph. I stood watching the dial one day,--it was
near one o'clock,--and a strange attraction held me fastened to the
spot. Presently something appeared to trip or stumble inside of the
infernal mechanism. I waited for the sound I knew was to follow.
How nervous I got! It seemed to me that it would never strike. At
last the minute-hand reached the highest point of the dial. Then
there was a little stir among the works, as there is in a
congregation as it rises to receive the benediction. It was no form
of blessing which rung out those deep, almost sepulchral tones. But
the word they uttered could not be mistaken. I can hear its
prolonged, solemn vibrations as if I were standing before the clock
at this moment.
Gone! Yes, I said to myself, gone,--its record made up to be opened
I stood still, staring vaguely at the dial as in a trance. And as
the next hour creeps stealthily up, it starts all at once, and cries
aloud, Gone!--Gone! The sun sinks lower, the hour-hand creeps
downward with it, until I hear the thrice-repeated monosyllable,
Gone!--Gone!--Gone! Soon through the darkening hours, until at the
dead of night the long roll is called, and with the last Gone! the
latest of the long procession that filled the day follows its ghostly
companions into the stillness and darkness of the past.
I silenced the striking part of the works. Still, the escapement
kept repeating, Quick! Quick! Quick! Still the long minute-hand,
like the dart in the grasp of Death, as we see it in Roubiliac's
monument to Mrs. Nightingale, among the tombs of Westminster Abbey,
stretched itself out, ready to transfix each hour as it passed, and
make it my last. I sat by the clock to watch the leap from one day
of the week to the next. Then would come, in natural order, the long
stride from one month to the following one.
I could endure it no longer. "Take that clock away!" I said. They
took it away. They took me away, too,--they thought I needed country
air. The sounds and motions still pursued me in imagination. I was
very nervous when I came here. The walks are pleasant, but the walls
seem to me unnecessarily high. The boarders are numerous; a little
miscellaneous, I think. But we have the Queen, and the President of
the United States, and several other distinguished persons, if we may
trust what they tell about themselves.
After we had listened to Number Five's story, I was requested to read
a couple of verses written by me when the guest of my friends, whose
name is hinted by the title prefixed to my lines.
LA MAISON D'OR.
From this fair home behold on either side
The restful mountains or the restless sea:
So the warm sheltering walls of life divide
Time and its tides from still eternity.
Look on the waves: their stormy voices teach
That not on earth may toil and struggle cease.
Look on the mountains: better far than speech
Their silent promise of eternal peace.
I had intended to devote this particular report to an account of my
replies to certain questions which have been addressed to me,--
questions which I have a right to suppose interest the public, and
which, therefore, I was justified in bringing before The Teacups, and
presenting to the readers of these articles.
Some may care for one of these questions, and some for another. A
good many young people think nothing about life as it presents itself
in the far horizon, bounded by the snowy ridges of threescore and the
dim peaks beyond that remote barrier. Again, there are numbers of
persons who know nothing at all about the Jews; while, on the other
hand, there are those who can, or think they can, detect the
Israelitish blood in many of their acquaintances who believe
themselves of the purest Japhetic origin, and are full of prejudices
about the Semitic race.
I do not mean to be cheated out of my intentions. I propose to
answer my questioners on the two points just referred to, but I find
myself so much interested in the personal affairs of The Teacups that
I must deal with them before attacking those less exciting subjects.
There is no use, let me say here, in addressing to me letters marked
"personal," "private," "confidential," and so forth, asking me how I
came to know what happened in certain conversations of which I shall
give a partial account. If there is a very sensitive phonograph
lying about here and there in unsuspected corners, that might account
for some part of my revelations. If Delilah, whose hearing is of
almost supernatural delicacy, reports to me what she overhears, it
might explain a part of the mystery. I do not want to accuse
Delilah, but a young person who assures me she can hear my watch
ticking in my pocket, when I am in the next room, might undoubtedly
tell many secrets, if so disposed. Number Five is pretty nearly
omniscient, and she and I are on the best terms with each other.
These are all the hints I shall give you at present.
The Teacups of whom the least has been heard at our table are the
Tutor and the Musician. The Tutor is a modest young man, kept down a
little, I think, by the presence of older persons, like the Professor
and myself. I have met him several times, of late, walking with
different lady Teacups: once with the American Annex; twice with the
English Annex; once with the two Annexes together; once with Number
I have mentioned the fact that the Tutor is a poet as among his
claims to our attention. I must add that I do not think any the
worse of him for expressing his emotions and experiences in verse.
For though rhyming is often a bad sign in a young man, especially if
he is already out of his teens, there are those to whom it is as
natural, one might almost say as necessary, as it is to a young bird
to fly. One does not care to see barnyard fowls tumbling about in
trying to use their wings. They have a pair of good, stout
drumsticks, and had better keep to them, for the most part. But that
feeling does not apply to young eagles, or even to young swallows and
sparrows. The Tutor is by no means one of those ignorant, silly,
conceited phrase-tinklers, who live on the music of their own
jingling syllables and the flattery of their foolish friends. I
think Number Five must appreciate him. He is sincere, warmhearted,--
his poetry shows that,--not in haste to be famous, and he looks to me
as if he only wanted love to steady him. With one of those two young
girls he ought certainly to be captivated, if he is not already.
Twice walking with the English Annex, I met him, and they were so
deeply absorbed in conversation they hardly noticed me. He has been
talking over the matter with Number Five, who is just the kind of
person for a confidante.
"I know I feel very lonely," he was saying, "and I only wish I felt
sure that I could make another person happy. My life would be
transfigured if I could find such a one, whom I could love well
enough to give my life to her,--for her, if that were needful, and
who felt an affinity for me, if any one could."
"And why not your English maiden?" said Number Five.
"What makes you think I care more for her than for her American
friend?" said the Tutor.
"Why, have n't I met you walking with her, and did n't you both seem
greatly interested in the subject you were discussing? I thought, of
course, it was something more or less sentimental that you were
"I was explaining that 'enclitic de' in Browning's Grammarian's
Funeral. I don't think there was anything very sentimental about
that. She is an inquisitive creature, that English girl. She is
very fond of asking me questions,--in fact, both of them are. There
is one curious difference between them: the English girl settles down
into her answers and is quiet; the American girl is never satisfied
with yesterday's conclusions; she is always reopening old questions
in the light of some new fact or some novel idea. I suppose that
people bred from childhood to lean their backs against the wall of
the Creed and the church catechism find it hard to sit up straight on
the republican stool, which obliges them to stiffen their own backs.
Which of these two girls would be the safest choice for a young man?
I should really like to hear what answer yon would make if I
consulted you seriously, with a view to my own choice,--on the
supposition that there was a fair chance that either of them might be
"The one you are in love with," answered Number Five.
"But what if it were a case of 'How happy could I be with either'?
Which offers the best chance of happiness,--a marriage between two
persons of the same country, or a marriage where one of the parties
is of foreign birth? Everything else being equal, which is best for
an American to marry, an American or an English girl? We need not
confine the question to those two young persons, but put it more
"There are reasons on both sides," answered Number Five. "I have
often talked this matter over with The Dictator. This is the way he
speaks about it. English blood is apt to tell well on the stock upon
which it is engrafted. Over and over again he has noticed finely
grown specimens of human beings, and on inquiry has found that one or
both of the parents or grandparents were of British origin. The
chances are that the descendants of the imported stock will be of a
richer organization, more florid, more muscular, with mellower
voices, than the native whose blood has been unmingled with that of
new emigrants since the earlier colonial times.--So talks The
Dictator.--I myself think the American will find his English wife
concentrates herself more readily and more exclusively on her
husband,--for the obvious reason that she is obliged to live mainly
in him. I remember hearing an old friend of my early days say,
'A woman does not bear transplanting.' It does not do to trust these
old sayings, and yet they almost always have some foundation in the
experience of mankind, which has repeated them from generation to
generation. Happy is the married woman of foreign birth who can say
to her husband, as Andromache said to Hector, after enumerating all
the dear relatives she had lost,
"'Yet while my hector still survives,
I see My father, mother, brethren, all in thee!'
"How many a sorrowing wife, exiled from her native country, dreams of
the mother she shall see no more! How many a widow, in a strange
land, wishes that her poor, worn-out body could be laid among her
kinsfolk, in the little churchyard where she used to gather daisies
in her childhood! It takes a great deal of love to keep down the
'climbing sorrow' that swells up in a woman's throat when such
memories seize upon her, in her moments of desolation. But if a
foreign-born woman does willingly give up all for a man, and never
looks backward, like Lot's wife, she is a prize that it is worth
running a risk to gain,--that is, if she has the making of a good
woman in her; and a few years will go far towards naturalizing her."
The Tutor listened to Number Five with much apparent interest. "And
now," he said, "what do you think of her companion?"
"A charming girl for a man of a quiet, easy temperament. The great
trouble is with her voice. It is pitched a full note too high. It
is aggressive, disturbing, and would wear out a nervous man without
his ever knowing what was the matter with him. A good many crazy
Northern people would recover their reason if they could live for a
year or two among the blacks of the Southern States. But the
penetrating, perturbing quality of the voices of many of our Northern
women has a great deal to answer for in the way of determining love
and friendship. You remember that dear friend of ours who left us
not long since? If there were more voices like hers, the world would
be a different place to live in. I do not believe any man or woman
ever came within the range of those sweet, tranquil tones without
being hushed, captivated, entranced I might almost say, by their
calming, soothing influence. Can you not imagine the tones in which
those words, 'Peace, be still,' were spoken? Such was the effect of
the voice to which but a few weeks ago we were listening. It is hard
to believe that it has died out of human consciousness. Can such a
voice be spared from that world of happiness to which we fondly look
forward, where we love to dream, if we do not believe with assured
conviction, that whatever is loveliest in this our mortal condition
shall be with us again as an undying possession? Your English friend
has a very agreeable voice, round, mellow, cheery, and her
articulation is charming. Other things being equal, I think you, who
are, perhaps, oversensitive, would live from two to three years
longer with her than with the other. I suppose a man who lived
within hearing of a murmuring brook would find his life shortened if
a sawmill were set up within earshot of his dwelling."
"And so you advise me to make love to the English girl, do you?"
asked the Tutor.
Number Five laughed. It was not a loud laugh, she never laughed
noisily; it was not a very hearty laugh; the idea did not seem to
amuse her much.
"No," she said, "I won't take the responsibility. Perhaps this is a
case in which the true reading of Gay's line would be
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