The Complete PG Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (The Physician and Poet)
Part 9 out of 51
blue eye, those I knew I had. But there is a something which
recalls a smile that faded away from my sister's lips--how many
years ago! I thought it so pleasant in her, that I love myself
better for having a trace of it.
Are we not young? Are we not fresh and blooming? Wait, a bit. The
artist takes a mean little brush and draws three fine lines,
diverging outwards from the eye over the temple. Five years.--The
artist draws one tolerably distinct and two faint lines,
perpendicularly between the eyebrows. Ten years.--The artist
breaks up the contours round the mouth, so that they look a little
as a hat does that has been sat upon and recovered itself, ready, as
one would say, to crumple up again in the same creases, on smiling
or other change of feature.--Hold on! Stop that! Give a young
fellow a chance! Are we not whole years short of that interesting
period of life when Mr. Balzac says that a man, etc., etc., etc.?
There now! That is ourself, as we look after finishing an article,
getting a three-mile pull with the ten-foot sculls, redressing the
wrongs of the toilet, and standing with the light of hope in our eye
and the reflection of a red curtain on our cheek. Is he not a POET
that painted us?
"Blest be the art that can immortalize!"
--Young folks look on a face as a unit; children who go to school
with any given little John Smith see in his name a distinctive
appellation, and in his features as special and definite an
expression of his sole individuality as if he were the first created
of his race: As soon as we are old enough to get the range of three
or four generations well in hand, and to take in large family
histories, we never see an individual in a face of any stock we
know, but a mosaic copy of a pattern, with fragmentary tints from
this and that ancestor. The analysis of a face into its ancestral
elements requires that it should be examined in the very earliest
infancy, before it has lost that ancient and solemn look it brings
with it out of the past eternity; and again in that brief space when
Life, the mighty sculptor, has done his work, and Death, his silent
servant, lifts the veil and lets us look at the marble lines he has
wrought so faithfully; and lastly, while a painter who can seize all
the traits of a countenance is building it up, feature after
feature, from the slight outline to the finished portrait.
--I am satisfied, that, as we grow older, we learn to look upon our
bodies more and more as a temporary possession and less and less as
identified with ourselves. In early years, while the child "feels
its life in every limb," it lives in the body and for the body to a
very great extent. It ought to be so. There have been many very
interesting children who have shown a wonderful indifference to the
things of earth and an extraordinary development of the spiritual
nature. There is a perfect literature of their biographies, all
alike in their essentials; the same "disinclination to the usual
amusements of childhood "; the same remarkable sensibility; the same
docility; the same conscientiousness; in short, an almost uniform
character, marked by beautiful traits, which we look at with a
painful admiration. It will be found that most of these children
are the subjects of some constitutional unfitness for living, the
most frequent of which I need not mention. They are like the
beautiful, blushing, half-grown fruit that falls before its time
because its core is gnawed out. They have their meaning,--they do
not-live in vain,--but they are windfalls. I am convinced that many
healthy children are injured morally by being forced to read too
much about these little meek sufferers and their spiritual
exercises. Here is a boy that loves to run, swim, kick football,
turn somersets, make faces, whittle, fish, tear his clothes, coast,
skate, fire crackers, blow squash "tooters," cut his name on fences,
read about Robinson Crusoe and Sinbad the Sailor, eat the widest-
angled slices of pie and untold cakes and candies, crack nuts with
his back teeth and bite out the better part of another boy's apple
with his front ones, turn up coppers, "stick" knives, call names,
throw stones, knock off hats, set mousetraps, chalk doorsteps, "cut
behind" anything on wheels or runners, whistle through his teeth,
"holler" Fire! on slight evidence, run after soldiers, patronize an
engine-company, or, in his own words, "blow for tub No. 11," or
whatever it may be;--isn't that a pretty nice sort of a boy, though
he has not got anything the matter with him that takes the taste of
this world out? Now, when you put into such a hot-blooded, hard-
fisted, round-cheeked little rogue's hand a sad-looking volume or
pamphlet, with the portrait of a thin, white-faced child, whose life
is really as much a training for death as the last month of a
condemned criminal's existence, what does he find in common between
his own overflowing and exulting sense of vitality and the
experiences of the doomed offspring of invalid parents? The time
comes when we have learned to understand the music of sorrow, the
beauty of resigned suffering, the holy light that plays over the
pillow of those who die before their time, in humble hope and trust.
But it is not until he has worked his way through the period of
honest hearty animal existence, which every robust child should make
the most of,--not until he has learned the use of his various
faculties, which is his first duty,--that a boy of courage and
animal vigor is in a proper state to read these tearful records of
premature decay. I have no doubt that disgust is implanted in the
minds of many healthy children by early surfeits of pathological
piety. I do verily believe that He who took children in His arms
and blessed them loved the healthiest and most playful of them just
as well as those who were richest in the tuberculous virtues. I
know what I am talking about, and there are more parents in this
country who will be willing to listen to what I say than there are
fools to pick a quarrel with me. In the sensibility and the
sanctity which often accompany premature decay I see one of the most
beautiful instances of the principle of compensation which marks the
Divine benevolence. But to get the spiritual hygiene of robust
natures out of the exceptional regimen of invalids is just simply
what we Professors call "bad practice"; and I know by experience
that there are worthy people who not only try it on their own
children, but actually force it on those of their neighbors.
--Having been photographed, and stereographed, and chromatographed,
or done in colors, it only remained to be phrenologized. A polite
note from Messrs. Bumpus and Crane, requesting our attendance at
their Physiological Emporium, was too tempting to be resisted. We
repaired to that scientific Golgotha.
Messrs. Bumpus and Crane are arranged on the plan of the man and the
woman in the toy called a "weather-house," both on the same wooden
arm suspended on a pivot,--so that when one comes to the door, the
other retires backwards, and vice versa. The more particular
speciality of one is to lubricate your entrance and exit,--that of
the other to polish you off phrenologically in the recesses of the
establishment. Suppose yourself in a room full of casts and
pictures, before a counterful of books with taking titles. I wonder
if the picture of the brain is there, "approved" by a noted
Phrenologist, which was copied from my, the Professor's, folio
plate, in the work of Gall and Spurzheim. An extra convolution, No.
9, Destructiveness, according to the list beneath, which was not to
be seen in the plate, itself a copy of Nature, was very liberally
supplied by the artist, to meet the wants of the catalogue of
"organs." Professor Bumpus is seated in front of a row of women,--
horn-combers and gold-beaders, or somewhere about that range of
life,--looking so credulous, that, if any Second-Advent Miller or
Joe Smith should come along, he could string the whole lot of them
on his cheapest lie, as a boy strings a dozen "shiners" on a
stripped twig of willow.
The Professor (meaning ourselves) is in a hurry, as usual; let the
horn-combers wait,--he shall be bumped without inspecting the
Tape round the head,--22 inches. (Come on, old 23 inches, if you
think you are the better man!)
Feels thorax and arm, and nuzzles round among muscles as those
horrid old women poke their fingers into the salt-meat on the
provision-stalls at the Quincy Market. Vitality, No. 5 or 6, or
something or other. Victuality, (organ at epigastrium,) some
other number equally significant.
Mild champooing of head now commences. 'Extraordinary revelations!
Cupidiphilous, 6! Hymeniphilous, 6 +! Paediphilous, 5!
Deipniphilous, 6! Gelasmiphilous, 6! Musikiphilous, 5!
Uraniphilous, 5! Glossiphilous, 8!! and so on. Meant for a
linguist.--Invaluable information. Will invest in grammars and
dictionaries immediately.--I have nothing against the grand total
of my phrenological endowments.
I never set great store by my head, and did not think Messrs.
Bumpus and Crane would give me so good a lot of organs as they did,
especially considering that I was a dead-head on that occasion.
Much obliged to them for their politeness. They have been useful in
their way by calling attention to important physiological facts.
(This concession is due to our immense bump of Candor.)
A short Lecture on Phrenology, read to the Boarders at our
I shall begin, my friends, with the definition of a Pseudo-science.
A Pseudo-science consists of a nomenclature, with a self-adjusting
arrangement, by which all positive evidence, or such as favors its
doctrines, is admitted, and all negative evidence, or such as tells
against it, is excluded. It is invariably connected with some
lucrative practical application. Its professors and practitioners
are usually shrewd people; they are very serious with the public,
but wink and laugh a good deal among themselves. The believing
multitude consists of women of both sexes, feeble minded inquirers,
poetical optimists, people who always get cheated in buying horses,
philanthropists who insist on hurrying up the millennium, and others
of this class, with here and there a clergyman, less frequently a
lawyer, very rarely a physician, and almost never a horse-jockey or
a member of the detective police.--I do not say that Phrenology was
one of the Pseudo-sciences.
A Pseudo-science does not necessarily consist wholly of lies. It
may contain many truths, and even valuable ones. The rottenest bank
starts with a little specie. It puts out a thousand promises to pay
on the strength of a single dollar, but the dollar is very commonly
a good one. The practitioners of the Pseudo-sciences know that
common minds, after they have been baited with a real fact or two,
will jump at the merest rag of a lie, or even at the bare hook.
When we have one fact found us, we are very apt to supply the next
out of our own imagination. (How many persons can read Judges xv.
16 correctly the first time?) The Pseudo-sciences take advantage of
this.--I did not say that it was so with Phrenology.
I have rarely met a sensible man who would not allow that there was
something in Phrenology. A broad, high forehead, it is commonly
agreed, promises intellect; one that is "villanous low" and has a
huge hind-head back of it, is wont to mark an animal nature. I have
as rarely met an unbiassed and sensible man who really believed in
the bumps. It is observed, however, that persons with what the
Phrenologists call "good heads" are more prone than others toward
plenary belief in the doctrine.
It is so hard to prove a negative, that, if a man should assert that
the moon was in truth a green cheese, formed by the coagulable
substance of the Milky Way, and challenge me to prove the contrary,
I might be puzzled. But if he offer to sell me a ton of this lunar
cheese, I call on him to prove the truth of the Gaseous nature of
our satellite, before I purchase.
It is not necessary to prove the falsity of the phrenological
statement. It is only necessary to show that its truth is not
proved, and cannot be, by the common course of argument. The walls
of the head are double, with a great air-chamber between them, over
the smallest and most closely crowded "organs." Can you tell how
much money there is in a safe, which also has thick double walls, by
kneading its knobs with your fingers? So when a man fumbles about
my forehead, and talks about the organs of Individuality, Size,
etc., I trust him as much as I should if he felt of the outside of
my strong-box and told me that there was a five-dollar or a ten-
dollar-bill under this or that particular rivet. Perhaps there is;
only he does n't know anything about at. But this is a point that
I, the Professor, understand, my friends, or ought to, certainly,
better than you do. The next argument you will all appreciate.
I proceed, therefore, to explain the self-adjusting mechanism of
Phrenology, which is very similar to that of the Pseudo-sciences.
An example will show it most conveniently.
A. is a notorious thief. Messrs. Bumpus and Crane examine him and
find a good-sized organ of Acquisitiveness. Positive fact for
Phrenology. Casts and drawings of A. are multiplied, and the bump
does not lose in the act of copying.--I did not say it gained.--
What do you look so for? (to the boarders.)
Presently B. turns up, a bigger thief than A. But B. has no bump at
all over Acquisitiveness. Negative fact; goes against Phrenology.
--Not a bit of it. Don't you see how small Conscientiousness is?
That's the reason B. stole.
And then comes C., ten times as much a thief as either A. or B.,--
used to steal before he was weaned, and would pick one of his own
pockets and put its contents in another, if he could find no other
way of committing petty larceny. Unfortunately, C. has a hollow,
instead of a bump, over Acquisitiveness. Ah, but just look and see
what a bump of Alimentiveness! Did not C. buy nuts and gingerbread,
when a boy, with the money he stole? Of course you see why he is a
thief, and how his example confirms our noble science.
At last comes along a case which is apparently a settler, for there
is a little brain with vast and varied powers,--a case like that of
Byron, for instance. Then comes out the grand reserve-reason which
covers everything and renders it simply impossible ever to corner a
Phrenologist. "It is not the size alone, but the quality of an
organ, which determines its degree of power."
Oh! oh! I see.--The argument may be briefly stated thus by the
Phrenologist: "Heads I win, tails you lose." Well, that's
It must be confessed that Phrenology has a certain resemblance to
the Pseudo-sciences. I did not say it was a Pseudo-science.
I have often met persons who have been altogether struck up and
amazed at the accuracy with which some wandering Professor of
Phrenology had read their characters written upon their skulls. Of
course the Professor acquires his information solely through his
cranial inspections and manipulations.--What are you laughing at?
(to the boarders.)--But let us just suppose, for a moment, that a
tolerably cunning fellow, who did not know or care anything about
Phrenology, should open a shop and undertake to read off people's
characters at fifty cents or a dollar apiece. Let us see how well
he could get along without the "organs."
I will suppose myself to set up such a shop. I would invest one
hundred dollars, more or less, in casts of brains, skulls, charts,
and other matters that would make the most show for the money. That
would do to begin with. I would then advertise myself as the
celebrated Professor Brainey, or whatever name I might choose, and
wait for my first customer. My first customer is a middle-aged man.
I look at him,--ask him a question or two, so as to hear him talk.
When I have got the hang of him, I ask him to sit down, and proceed
to fumble his skull, dictating as follows:
SCALE FROM 1 TO 10.
LIST OF FACULTIES FOR PRIVATE NOTES FOR MY PUPIL.
Each to be accompanied with a wink.
Amativeness, 7. Most men love the conflicting sex, and all
men love to be told they do.
Alimentiveness, 8. Don't you see that he has burst off his
lowest waistcoat-button with feeding,--hey
Acquisitiveness, 8. Of course. A middle-aged Yankee.
Approbativeness 7+. Hat well brushed. Hair ditto. Mark the
effect of that plus sign.
Self-Esteem 6. His face shows that.
Benevolence 9. That'll please him.
Conscientiousness 8 1/2 That fraction looks first-rate.
Mirthfulness 7 Has laughed twice since he came in.
Ideality 9 That sounds well.
Form, Size, Weight, 4 to 6. Average everything that
Color, Locality, cannot be guessed.
Eventuality, etc. etc.
And so of the other faculties.
Of course, you know, that isn't the way the Phrenologists do. They
go only by the bumps.--What do you keep laughing so for? (to the
boarders.) I only said that is the way I should practise
"Phrenology" for a living.
End of my Lecture.
--The Reformers have good heads, generally. Their faces are
commonly serene enough, and they are lambs in private intercourse,
even though their voices may be like
The wolf's long howl from Oonalaska's shore,
when heard from the platform. Their greatest spiritual danger is
from the perpetual flattery of abuse to which they are exposed.
These lines are meant to caution them.
SAINT ANTHONY THE REFORMER.
No fear lest praise should make us proud!
We know how cheaply that is won;
The idle homage of the crowd
Is proof of tasks as idly done.
A surface-smile may pay the toil
That follows still the conquering Right,
With soft, white hands to dress the spoil
That sunbrowned valor clutched in fight.
Sing the sweet song of other days,
Serenely placid, safely true,
And o'er the present's parching ways
Thy verse distils like evening dew.
But speak in words of living power,--
They fall like drops of scalding rain
That plashed before the burning shower
Swept o'er the cities of the plain!
Then scowling Hate turns deadly pale,--
Then Passion's half-coiled adders spring,
And, smitten through their leprous mail,
Strike right and left in hope to sting.
If thou, unmoved by poisoning wrath,
Thy feet on earth, thy heart above,
Canst walk in peace thy kingly path,
Unchanged in trust, unchilled in love,--
Too kind for bitter words to grieve,
Too firm for clamor to dismay,
When Faith forbids thee to believe,
And Meekness calls to disobey,--
Ah, then beware of mortal pride!
The smiling pride that calmly scorns
Those foolish fingers, crimson dyed
In laboring on thy crown of thorns!
One of our boarders--perhaps more than one was concerned in it--sent
in some questions to me, the other day, which, trivial as some of
them are, I felt bound to answer.
1.--Whether a lady was ever known to write a letter covering only a
To this I answered, that there was a case on record where a lady had
but half a sheet of paper and no envelope; and being obliged to send
through the post-office, she covered only one side of the paper
(crosswise, lengthwise, and diagonally).
2.--What constitutes a man a gentleman?
To this I gave several answers, adapted to particular classes of
a. Not trying to be a gentleman.
b. Self-respect underlying courtesy.
c. Knowledge and observance of the fitness of things in social
d. f. s. d. (as many suppose.)
3.--Whether face or figure is most attractive in the female sex?
Answered in the following epigram, by a young man about town:
Quoth Tom, "Though fair her features be,
It is her figure pleases me."
"What may her figure be?" I cried.
"One hundred thousand!" he replied.
When this was read to the boarders, the young man John said he
should like a chance to "step up" to a figger of that kind, if the
girl was one of the right sort.
The landlady said them that merried for money didn't deserve the
blessin' of a good wife. Money was a great thing when them that had
it made a good use of it. She had seen better days herself, and
knew what it was never to want for anything. One of her cousins
merried a very rich old gentleman, and she had heerd that he said he
lived ten year longer than if he'd staid by himself without anybody
to take care of him. There was nothin' like a wife for nussin' sick
folks and them that couldn't take care of themselves.
The young man John got off a little wink, and pointed slyly with his
thumb in the direction of our diminutive friend, for whom he seemed
to think this speech was intended.
If it was meant for him, he did n't appear to know that it was.
Indeed, he seems somewhat listless of late, except when the
conversation falls upon one of those larger topics that specially
interest him, and then he grows excited, speaks loud and fast,
sometimes almost savagely,--and, I have noticed once or twice,
presses his left hand to his right side, as if there were something
that ached, or weighed, or throbbed in that region.
While he speaks in this way, the general conversation is
interrupted, and we all listen to him. Iris looks steadily in his
face, and then he will turn as if magnetized and meet the amber eyes
with his own melancholy gaze. I do believe that they have some kind
of understanding together, that they meet elsewhere than at our
table, and that there is a mystery, which is going to break upon us
all of a sudden, involving the relations of these two persons. From
the very first, they have taken to each other. The one thing they
have in common is the heroic will. In him, it shows itself in
thinking his way straightforward, in doing battle for "free trade
and no right of search" on the high seas of religious controversy,
and especially in fighting the battles of his crooked old city. In
her, it is standing up for her little friend with the most queenly
disregard of the code of boarding-house etiquette. People may say
or look what they like,--she will have her way about this sentiment
The Poor Relation is in a dreadful fidget whenever the Little
Gentleman says anything that interferes with her own infallibility.
She seems to think Faith must go with her face tied up, as if she
had the toothache,--and that if she opens her mouth to the quarter
the wind blows from, she will catch her "death o' cold."
The landlady herself came to him one day, as I have found out, and
tried to persuade him to hold his tongue.--The boarders was gettin'
uneasy,--she said,--and some of 'em would go, she mistrusted, if he
talked any more about things that belonged to the ministers to
settle. She was a poor woman, that had known better days, but all
her livin' depended on her boarders, and she was sure there was n't
any of 'em she set so much by as she did by him; but there was them
that never liked to hear about sech things, except on Sundays.
The Little Gentleman looked very smiling at the landlady, who smiled
even more cordially in return, and adjusted her cap-ribbon with an
unconscious movement,--a reminiscence of the long-past pairing-time,
when she had smoothed her locks and softened her voice, and won her
mate by these and other bird-like graces.--My dear Madam,--he
said,--I will remember your interests, and speak only of matters to
which I am totally indifferent.--I don't doubt he meant this; but a
day or two after, something stirred him up, and I heard his voice
uttering itself aloud, thus:
-It must be done, Sir!--he was saying,--it must be done! Our
religion has been Judaized, it has been Romanized, it has been
Orientalized, it has been Anglicized, and the time is at hand when
it must be AMERICANIZED! Now, Sir, you see what Americanizing is in
politics;--it means that a man shall have a vote because he is a
man,--and shall vote for whom he pleases, without his neighbor's
interference. If he chooses to vote for the Devil, that is his
lookout;--perhaps he thinks the Devil is better than the other
candidates; and I don't doubt he's often right, Sir. Just so a
man's soul has a vote in the spiritual community; and it doesn't do,
Sir, or it won't do long, to call him "schismatic" and "heretic" and
those other wicked names that the old murderous Inquisitors have
left us to help along "peace and goodwill to men"!
As long as you could catch a man and drop him into an oubliette, or
pull him out a few inches longer by machinery, or put a hot iron
through his tongue, or make him climb up a ladder and sit on a board
at the top of a stake so that he should be slowly broiled by the
fire kindled round it, there was some sense in these words; they led
to something. But since we have done with those tools, we had
better give up those words. I should like to see a Yankee
advertisement like this!--(the Little Gentleman laughed fiercely as
he uttered the words,--)
--Patent thumb-screws,--will crush the bone in three turns.
--The cast-iron boot, with wedge and mallet, only five dollars!
--The celebrated extension-rack, warranted to stretch a man six
inches in twenty minutes,--money returned, if it proves
I should like to see such an advertisement, I say, Sir! Now, what's
the use of using the words that belonged with the thumb-screws, and
the Blessed Virgin with the knives under her petticoats and sleeves
and bodice, and the dry pan and gradual fire, if we can't have the
things themselves, Sir? What's the use of painting the fire round a
poor fellow, when you think it won't do to kindle one under him,--as
they did at Valencia or Valladolid, or wherever it was?
--What story is that?--I said.
Why,--he answered,--at the last auto-da-fe, in 1824 or '5, or
somewhere there,--it's a traveller's story, but a mighty knowing
traveller he is,--they had a "heretic" to use up according to the
statutes provided for the crime of private opinion. They could n't
quite make up their minds to burn him, so they only hung him in a
hogshead painted all over with flames!
No, Sir! when a man calls you names because you go to the ballot-
box and vote for your candidate, or because you say this or that is
your opinion, he forgets in which half of the world he was born,
Sir! It won't be long, Sir, before we have Americanized religion as
we have Americanized government; and then, Sir, every soul God sends
into the world will be good in the face of all men for just so much
of His "inspiration" as "giveth him understanding"!--None of my
words, Sir! none of my words!
--If Iris does not love this Little Gentleman, what does love look
like when one sees it? She follows him with her eyes, she leans
over toward him when he speaks, her face changes with the changes of
his speech, so that one might think it was with her as with
That all her features were resigned
To this sole image in her mind.
But she never looks at him with such intensity of devotion as when
he says anything about the soul and the soul's atmosphere, religion.
Women are twice as religious as men;--all the world knows that.
Whether they are any better, in the eyes of Absolute Justice, might
be questioned; for the additional religious element supplied by sex
hardly seems to be a matter of praise or blame. But in all common
aspects they are so much above us that we get most of our religion
from them,--from their teachings, from their example,--above all,
from their pure affections.
Now this poor little Iris had been talked to strangely in her
childhood. Especially she had been told that she hated all good
things,--which every sensible parent knows well enough is not true
of a great many children, to say the least. I have sometimes
questioned whether many libels on human nature had not been a
natural consequence of the celibacy of the clergy, which was
enforced for so long a period.
The child had met this and some other equally encouraging statements
as to her spiritual conditions, early in life, and fought the battle
of spiritual independence prematurely, as many children do. If all
she did was hateful to God, what was the meaning of the approving or
else the disapproving conscience, when she had done "right" or
"wrong"? No "shoulder-striker" hits out straighter than a child
with its logic. Why, I can remember lying in my bed in the nursery
and settling questions which all that I have heard since and got out
of books has never been able to raise again. If a child does not
assert itself in this way in good season, it becomes just what its
parents or teachers were, and is no better than a plastic image.--
How old was I at the time?--I suppose about 5823 years old,--that
is, counting from Archbishop Usher's date of the Creation, and
adding the life of the race, whose accumulated intelligence is a
part of my inheritance, to my own. A good deal older than Plato,
you see, and much more experienced than my Lord Bacon and most of
the world's teachers.--Old books, as you well know, are books of
the world's youth, and new books are fruits of its age. How many of
all these ancient folios round me are like so many old cupels! The
gold has passed out of them long ago, but their pores are full of
the dross with which it was mingled.
And so Iris--having thrown off that first lasso which not only
fetters, but chokes those whom it can hold, so that they give
themselves up trembling and breathless to the great soul-subduer,
who has them by the windpipe had settled a brief creed for herself,
in which love of the neighbor, whom we have seen, was the first
article, and love of the Creator, whom we have not seen, grew out of
this as its natural development, being necessarily second in order
of time to the first unselfish emotions which we feel for the
fellow-creatures who surround us in our early years.
The child must have some place of worship. What would a young girl
be who never mingled her voice with the songs and prayers that rose
all around her with every returning day of rest? And Iris was free
to choose. Sometimes one and sometimes another would offer to carry
her to this or that place of worship; and when the doors were
hospitably opened, she would often go meekly in by herself. It was
a curious fact, that two churches as remote from each other in
doctrine as could well be divided her affections.
The Church of Saint Polycarp had very much the look of a Roman
Catholic chapel. I do not wish to run the risk of giving names to
the ecclesiastical furniture which gave it such a Romish aspect; but
there were pictures, and inscriptions in antiquated characters, and
there were reading-stands, and flowers on the altar, and other
elegant arrangements. Then there were boys to sing alternately in
choirs responsive to each other, and there was much bowing, with
very loud responding, and a long service and a short sermon, and a
bag, such as Judas used to hold in the old pictures, was carried
round to receive contributions. Everything was done not only
"decently and in order," but, perhaps one might say, with a certain
air of magnifying their office on the part of the dignified
clergymen, often two or three in number. The music and the free
welcome were grateful to Iris, and she forgot her prejudices at the
door of the chapel. For this was a church with open doors, with
seats for all classes and all colors alike,--a church of zealous
worshippers after their faith, of charitable and serviceable men and
women, one that took care of its children and never forgot its poor,
and whose people were much more occupied in looking out for their
own souls than in attacking the faith of their neighbors. In its
mode of worship there was a union of two qualities,--the taste and
refinement, which the educated require just as much in their
churches as elsewhere, and the air of stateliness, almost of pomp,
which impresses the common worshipper, and is often not without its
effect upon those who think they hold outward forms as of little
value. Under the half-Romish aspect of the Church of Saint
Polycarp, the young girl found a devout and loving and singularly
cheerful religious spirit. The artistic sense, which betrayed
itself in the dramatic proprieties of its ritual, harmonized with
her taste. The mingled murmur of the loud responses, in those
rhythmic phrases, so simple, yet so fervent, almost as if every
tenth heart-beat, instead of its dull tic-tac, articulated itself as
"Good Lord, deliver us! "--the sweet alternation of the two choirs,
as their holy song floated from side to side, the keen young voices
rising like a flight of singing-birds that passes from one grove to
another, carrying its music with it back and forward,--why should
she not love these gracious outward signs of those inner harmonies
which none could deny made beautiful the lives of many of her
fellow-worshippers in the humble, yet not inelegant Chapel of Saint
The young Marylander, who was born and bred to that mode of worship,
had introduced her to the chapel, for which he did the honors for
such of our boarders as were not otherwise provided for. I saw them
looking over the same prayer-book one Sunday, and I could not help
thinking that two such young and handsome persons could hardly
worship together in safety for a great while. But they seemed to
mind nothing but their prayer-book. By-and-by the silken bag was
handed round.--I don't believe she will; so awkward, you know;-
besides, she only came by invitation. There she is, with her hand
in her pocket, though,--and sure enough, her little bit of silver
tinkled as it struck the coin beneath. God bless her! she has n't
much to give; but her eye glistens when she gives it, and that is
all Heaven asks.--That was the first time I noticed these young
people together, and I am sure they behaved with the most charming
propriety,--in fact, there was one of our silent lady-boarders with
them, whose eyes would have kept Cupid and Psyche to their good
behavior. A day or two after this I noticed that the young
gentleman had left his seat, which you may remember was at the
corner diagonal to that of Iris, so that they have been as far
removed from each other as they could be at the table. His new seat
is three or four places farther down the table. Of course I made a
romance out of this, at once. So stupid not to see it! How could
it be otherwise?--Did you speak, Madam? I beg your pardon. (To my
I never saw anything like the tenderness with which this young girl
treats her little deformed neighbor. If he were in the way of going
to church, I know she would follow him. But his worship, if any, is
not with the throng of men and women and staring children.
I, the Professor, on the other hand, am a regular church-goer. I
should go for various reasons if I did not love it; but I am happy
enough to find great pleasure in the midst of devout multitudes,
whether I can accept all their creeds or not. One place of worship
comes nearer than the rest to my ideal standard, and to this it was
that I carried our young girl.
The Church of the Galileans, as it is called, is even humbler in
outside pretensions than the Church of Saint Polycarp. Like that,
it is open to all comers. The stranger who approaches it looks down
a quiet street and sees the plainest of chapels,--a kind of wooden
tent, that owes whatever grace it has to its pointed windows and the
high, sharp roofs--traces, both, of that upward movement of
ecclesiastical architecture which soared aloft in cathedral-spires,
shooting into the sky as the spike of a flowering aloe from the
cluster of broad, sharp-wedged leaves below. This suggestion of
medieval symbolism, aided by a minute turret in which a hand-bell
might have hung and found just room enough to turn over, was all of
outward show the small edifice could boast. Within there was very
little that pretended to be attractive. A small organ at one side,
and a plain pulpit, showed that the building was a church; but it
was a church reduced to its simplest expression:
Yet when the great and wise monarch of the East sat upon his throne,
in all the golden blaze of the spoils of Ophir and the freights of
the navy of Tarshish, his glory was not like that of this simple
chapel in its Sunday garniture. For the lilies of the field, in
their season, and the fairest flowers of the year, in due
succession, were clustered every Sunday morning over the preacher's
desk. Slight, thin-tissued blossoms of pink and blue and virgin
white in early spring, then the full-breasted and deep-hearted roses
of summer, then the velvet-robed crimson and yellow flowers of
autumn, and in the winter delicate exotics that grew under skies of
glass in the false summers of our crystal palaces without knowing
that it was the dreadful winter of New England which was rattling
the doors and frosting the panes,--in their language the whole year
told its history of life and growth and beauty from that simple
desk. There was always at least one good sermon,--this floral
homily. There was at least one good prayer,--that brief space when
all were silent, after the manner of the Friends at their devotions.
Here, too, Iris found an atmosphere of peace and love. The same
gentle, thoughtful faces, the same cheerful but reverential spirit,
the same quiet, the same life of active benevolence. But in all
else how different from the Church of Saint Polycarp! No clerical
costume, no ceremonial forms, no carefully trained choirs. A
liturgy they have, to be sure, which does not scruple to borrow from
the time-honored manuals of devotion, but also does not hesitate to
change its expressions to its own liking.
Perhaps the good people seem a little easy with each other;--they
are apt to nod familiarly, and have even been known to whisper
before the minister came in. But it is a relief to get rid of that
old Sunday--no,--Sabbath face, which suggests the idea that the
first day of the week is commemorative of some most mournful event.
The truth is, these brethren and sisters meet very much as a family
does for its devotions, not putting off their humanity in the least,
considering it on the whole quite a delightful matter to come
together for prayer and song and good counsel from kind and wise
lips. And if they are freer in their demeanor than some very
precise congregations, they have not the air of a worldly set of
people. Clearly they have not come to advertise their tailors and
milliners, nor for the sake of exchanging criticisms on the
literary character of the sermon they may hear. There is no
restlessness and no restraint among these quiet, cheerful
worshippers. One thing that keeps them calm and happy during the
season so evidently trying to many congregations is, that they join
very generally in the singing. In this way they get rid of that
accumulated nervous force which escapes in all sorts of fidgety
movements, so that a minister trying to keep his congregation still
reminds one of a boy with his hand over the nose of a pump which
another boy is working,--this spirting impatience of the people is
so like the jets that find their way through his fingers, and the
grand rush out at the final Amen! has such a wonderful likeness to
the gush that takes place when the boy pulls his hand away, with
immense relief, as it seems, to both the pump and the officiating
How sweet is this blending of all voices and all hearts in one
common song of praise! Some will sing a little loud, perhaps,--and
now and then an impatient chorister will get a syllable or two in
advance, or an enchanted singer so lose all thought of time and
place in the luxury of a closing cadence that he holds on to the
last semi-breve upon his private responsibility; but how much more
of the spirit of the old Psalmist in the music of these imperfectly
trained voices than in the academic niceties of the paid performers
who take our musical worship out of our hands!
I am of the opinion that the creed of the Church of the Galileans is
not laid down in as many details as that of the Church of Saint
Polycarp. Yet I suspect, if one of the good people from each of
those churches had met over the bed of a suffering fellow-creature,
or for the promotion of any charitable object, they would have found
they had more in common than all the special beliefs or want of
beliefs that separated them would amount to. There are always many
who believe that the fruits of a tree afford a better test of its
condition than a statement of the composts with which it is dressed,
though the last has its meaning and importance, no doubt.
Between these two churches, then, our young Iris divides her
affections. But I doubt if she listens to the preacher at either
with more devotion than she does to her little neighbor when he
talks of these matters.
What does he believe? In the first place, there is some deep-rooted
disquiet lying at the bottom of his soul, which makes him very
bitter against all kinds of usurpation over the right of private
judgment. Over this seems to lie a certain tenderness for humanity
in general, bred out of life-long trial, I should say, but sharply
streaked with fiery lines of wrath at various individual acts of
wrong, especially if they come in an ecclesiastical shape, and
recall to him the days when his mother's great-grandmother was
strangled on Witch Hill, with a text from the Old Testament for her
halter. With all this, he has a boundless belief in the future of
this experimental hemisphere, and especially in the destiny of the
free thought of its northeastern metropolis.
--A man can see further, Sir,--he said one day,--from the top of
Boston State House, and see more that is worth seeing, than from all
the pyramids and turrets and steeples in all the places in the
world! No smoke, Sir; no fog, Sir; and a clean sweep from the Outer
Light and the sea beyond it to the New Hampshire mountains! Yes,
Sir,--and there are great truths that are higher than mountains and
broader than seas, that people are looking for from the tops of
these hills of ours;--such as the world never saw, though it might
have seen them at Jerusalem, if its eyes had been open!--Where do
they have most crazy people? Tell me that, Sir!
I answered, that I had heard it said there were more in New England
than in most countries, perhaps more than in any part of the world.
Very good, Sir,--he answered.--When have there been most people
killed and wounded in the course of this century?
During the wars of the French Empire, no doubt,--I said.
That's it! that's it!--said the Little Gentleman;--where the battle
of intelligence is fought, there are most minds bruised and broken!
We're battling for a faith here, Sir.
The divinity-student remarked, that it was rather late in the
world's history for men to be looking out for a new faith.
I did n't say a new faith,--said the Little Gentleman;--old or new,
it can't help being different here in this American mind of ours
from anything that ever was before; the people are new, Sir, and
that makes the difference. One load of corn goes to the sty, and
makes the fat of swine,--another goes to the farm-house, and becomes
the muscle that clothes the right arms of heroes. It is n't where a
pawn stands on the board that makes the difference, but what the
game round it is when it is on this or that square.
Can any man look round and see what Christian countries are now
doing, and how they are governed, and what is the general condition
of society, without seeing that Christianity is the flag under which
the world sails, and not the rudder that steers its course? No,
Sir! There was a great raft built about two thousand years ago,--
call it an ark, rather,--the world's great ark! big enough to hold
all mankind, and made to be launched right out into the open waves
of life,--and here it has been lying, one end on the shore and one
end bobbing up and down in the water, men fighting all the time as
to who should be captain and who should have the state-rooms, and
throwing each other over the side because they could not agree about
the points of compass, but the great vessel never getting afloat
with its freight of nations and their rulers;--and now, Sir, there
is and has been for this long time a fleet of "heretic" lighters
sailing out of Boston Bay, and they have been saying, and they say
now, and they mean to keep saying, "Pump out your bilge-water,
shovel over your loads of idle ballast, get out your old rotten
cargo, and we will carry it out into deep waters and sink it where
it will never be seen again; so shall the ark of the world's hope
float on the ocean, instead of sticking in the dock-mud where it is
It's a slow business, this of getting the ark launched. The Jordan
was n't deep enough, and the Tiber was n't deep enough, and the
Rhone was n't deep enough, and the Thames was n't deep enough, and
perhaps the Charles is n't deep enough; but I don't feel sure of
that, Sir, and I love to hear the workmen knocking at the old blocks
of tradition and making the ways smooth with the oil of the Good
Samaritan. I don't know, Sir,--but I do think she stirs a little,--
I do believe she slides;--and when I think of what a work that is
for the dear old three-breasted mother of American liberty, I would
not take all the glory of all the greatest cities in the world for
my birthright in the soil of little Boston!
--Some of us could not help smiling at this burst of local
patriotism, especially when it finished with the last two words.
And Iris smiled, too. But it was the radiant smile of pleasure
which always lights up her face when her little neighbor gets
excited on the great topics of progress in freedom and religion, and
especially on the part which, as he pleases himself with believing,
his own city is to take in that consummation of human development to
which he looks forward.
Presently she looked into his face with a changed expression,--the
anxiety of a mother that sees her child suffering.
You are not well,--she said.
I am never well,--he answered.--His eyes fell mechanically on the
death's-head ring he wore on his right hand. She took his hand as
if it had been a baby's, and turned the grim device so that it
should be out of sight. One slight, sad, slow movement of the head
seemed to say, "The death-symbol is still there!"
A very odd personage, to be sure! Seems to know what is going on,--
reads books, old and new,--has many recent publications sent him,
they tell me, but, what is more curious, keeps up with the everyday
affairs of the world, too. Whether he hears everything that is said
with preternatural acuteness, or whether some confidential friend
visits him in a quiet way, is more than I can tell. I can make
nothing more of the noises I hear in his room than my old
conjectures. The movements I mention are less frequent, but I often
hear the plaintive cry,--I observe that it is rarely laughing of
late;--I never have detected one articulate word, but I never heard
such tones from anything but a human voice.
There has been, of late, a deference approaching to tenderness, on
the part of the boarders generally so far as he is concerned. This
is doubtless owing to the air of suffering which seems to have
saddened his look of late. Either some passion is gnawing at him
inwardly, or some hidden disease is at work upon him.
--What 's the matter with Little Boston?--said the young man John to
me one day.--There a'n't much of him, anyhow; but 't seems to me he
looks peakeder than ever. The old woman says he's in a bad way, 'n'
wants a puss to take care of him. Them pusses that take care of old
rich folks marry 'em sometimes,--'n' they don't commonly live a
great while after that. No, Sir! I don't see what he wants to die
for, after he's taken so much trouble to live in such poor
accommodations as that crooked body of his. I should like to know
how his soul crawled into it, 'n' how it's goin' to get out. What
business has he to die, I should like to know? Let Ma'am Allen (the
gentleman with the diamond) die, if he likes, and be (this is a
family-magazine); but we a'n't goin' to have him dyin'. Not by a
great sight. Can't do without him anyhow. A'n't it fun to hear him
blow off his steam?
I believe the young fellow would take it as a personal insult, if
the Little Gentleman should show any symptoms of quitting our table
for a better world.
--In the mean time, what with going to church in company with our
young lady, and taking every chance I could get to talk with her, I
have found myself becoming, I will not say intimate, but well
acquainted with Miss Iris. There is a certain frankness and
directness about her that perhaps belong to her artist nature. For,
you see, the one thing that marks the true artist is a clear
perception and a firm, bold hand, in distinction from that imperfect
mental vision and uncertain touch which give us the feeble pictures
and the lumpy statues of the mere artisans on canvas or in stone. A
true artist, therefore, can hardly fail to have a sharp, well-
defined mental physiognomy. Besides this, many young girls have a
strange audacity blended with their instinctive delicacy. Even in
physical daring many of them are a match for boys; whereas you will
find few among mature women, and especially if they are mothers, who
do not confess, and not unfrequently proclaim, their timidity. One
of these young girls, as many of us hereabouts remember, climbed to
the top of a jagged, slippery rock lying out in the waves,--an ugly
height to get up, and a worse one to get down, even for a bold young
fellow of sixteen. Another was in the way of climbing tall trees
for crows' nests,--and crows generally know about how far boys can
"shin up," and set their household establishments above that high-
water mark. Still another of these young ladies I saw for the first
time in an open boat, tossing on the ocean ground-swell, a mile or
two from shore, off a lonely island. She lost all her daring, after
she had some girls of her own to look out for.
Many blondes are very gentle, yielding in character, impressible,
unelastic. But the positive blondes, with the golden tint running
through them, are often full of character. They come, probably
enough, from those deep-bosomed German women that Tacitus portrayed
in such strong colors. The negative blondes, or those women whose
tints have faded out as their line of descent has become
impoverished, are of various blood, and in them the soul has often
become pale with that blanching of the hair and loss of color in the
eyes which makes them approach the character of Albinesses.
I see in this young girl that union of strength and sensibility
which, when directed and impelled by the strong instinct so apt to
accompany this combination of active and passive capacity, we call
genius. She is not an accomplished artist, certainly, as yet; but
there is always an air in every careless figure she draws, as it
were of upward aspiration,--the elan of John of Bologna's Mercury,--
a lift to them, as if they had on winged sandals, like the herald of
the Gods. I hear her singing sometimes; and though she evidently is
not trained, yet is there a wild sweetness in her fitful and
sometimes fantastic melodies,--such as can come only from the
inspiration of the moment,--strangely enough, reminding me of those
long passages I have heard from my little neighbor's room, yet of
different tone, and by no means to be mistaken for those weird
I cannot pretend to deny that I am interested in the girl. Alone,
unprotected, as I have seen so many young girls left in boarding-
houses, the centre of all the men's eyes that surround the table,
watched with jealous sharpness by every woman, most of all by that
poor relation of our landlady, who belongs to the class of women
that like to catch others in mischief when they themselves are too
mature for indiscretions, (as one sees old rogues turn to thief-
catchers,) one of Nature's gendarmerie, clad in a complete suit of
wrinkles, the cheapest coat-of-mail against the shafts of the great
little enemy,--so surrounded, Iris spans this commonplace household-
life of ours with her arch of beauty, as the rainbow, whose name she
borrows, looks down on a dreary pasture with its feeding flocks and
herds of indifferent animals.
These young girls that live in boarding-houses can do pretty much as
they will. The female gendarmes are off guard occasionally. The
sitting-room has its solitary moments, when any two boarders who
wish to meet may come together accidentally, (accidentally, I said,
Madam, and I had not the slightest intention of Italicizing the
word,) and discuss the social or political questions of the day, or
any other subject that may prove interesting. Many charming
conversations take place at the foot of the stairs, or while one of
the parties is holding the latch of a door,--in the shadow of
porticoes, and especially on those outside balconies which some of
our Southern neighbors call "stoops," the most charming places in
the world when the moon is just right and the roses and honeysuckles
are in full blow,--as we used to think in eighteen hundred and never
On such a balcony or "stoop," one evening, I walked with Iris. We
were on pretty good terms now, and I had coaxed her arm under mine,-
-my left arm, of course. That leaves one's right arm free to defend
the lovely creature, if the rival--odious wretch! attempt, to ravish
her from your side. Likewise if one's heart should happen to beat a
little, its mute language will not be without its meaning, as you
will perceive when the arm you hold begins to tremble, a
circumstance like to occur, if you happen to be a good-looking young
fellow, and you two have the "stoop" to yourselves.
We had it to ourselves that evening. The Koh-inoor, as we called
him, was in a corner with our landlady's daughter. The young fellow
John was smoking out in the yard. The gendarme was afraid of the
evening air, and kept inside, The young Marylander came to the door,
looked out and saw us walking together, gave his hat a pull over his
forehead and stalked off. I felt a slight spasm, as it were, in the
arm I held, and saw the girl's head turn over her shoulder for a
second. What a kind creature this is! She has no special interest
in this youth, but she does not like to see a young fellow going off
because he feels as if he were not wanted.
She had her locked drawing-book under her arm.--Let me take it,--I
She gave it to me to carry.
This is full of caricatures of all of us, I am sure,--said I.
She laughed, and said,--No,--not all of you.
I was there, of course?
Why, no,--she had never taken so much pains with me.
Then she would let me see the inside of it?
She would think of it.
Just as we parted, she took a little key from her pocket and handed
it to me. This unlocks my naughty book,--she said,--you shall see
it. I am not afraid of you.
I don't know whether the last words exactly pleased me. At any
rate, I took the book and hurried with it to my room. I opened it,
and saw, in a few glances, that I held the heart of Iris in my hand.
--I have no verses for you this month, except these few lines
suggested by the season.
Here! sweep these foolish leaves away,
I will not crush my brains to-day!
Look! are the southern curtains drawn?
Fetch me a fan, and so begone!
Not that,--the palm-tree's rustling leaf
Brought from a parching coral-reef!
Its breath is heated;--I would swing
The broad gray plumes,--the eagle's wing.
I hate these roses' feverish blood!
Pluck me a half-blown lily-bud,
A long-stemmed lily from the lake,
Cold as a coiling water-snake.
Rain me sweet odors on the air,
And wheel me up my Indian chair,
And spread some book not overwise
Flat out before my sleepy eyes.
--Who knows it not,--this dead recoil
Of weary fibres stretched with toil,
The pulse that flutters faint and low
When Summer's seething breezes blow?
O Nature! bare thy loving breast
And give thy child one hour of rest,
One little hour to lie unseen
Beneath thy scarf of leafy green!
So, curtained by a singing pine,
Its murmuring voice shall blend with mine,
Till, lost in dreams, my faltering lay
In sweeter music dies away.
IRIS, HER BOOK
I pray thee by the soul of her that bore thee,
By thine own sister's spirit I implore thee,
Deal gently with the leaves that lie before thee!
For Iris had no mother to infold her,
Nor ever leaned upon a sister's shoulder,
Telling the twilight thoughts that Nature told her.
She had not learned the mystery of awaking
Those chorded keys that soothe a sorrow's aching,
Giving the dumb heart voice, that else were breaking.
Yet lived, wrought, suffered. Lo, the pictured token!
Why should her fleeting day-dreams fade unspoken,
Like daffodils that die with sheaths unbroken?
She knew not love, yet lived in maiden fancies,
Walked simply clad, a queen of high romances,
And talked strange tongues with angels in her trances.
Twin-souled she seemed, a twofold nature wearing,
Sometimes a flashing falcon in her daring,
Then a poor mateless dove that droops despairing.
Questioning all things: Why her Lord had sent her?
What were these torturing gifts, and wherefore lent her?
Scornful as spirit fallen, its own tormentor.
And then all tears and anguish: Queen of Heaven,
Sweet Saints, and Thou by mortal sorrows riven,
Save me! oh, save me! Shall I die forgiven?
And then--Ah, God! But nay, it little matters
Look at the wasted seeds that autumn scatters,
The myriad germs that Nature shapes and shatters!
If she had--Well! She longed, and knew not wherefore
Had the world nothing she might live to care for?
No second self to say her evening prayer for?
She knew the marble shapes that set men dreaming,
Yet with her shoulders bare and tresses streaming
Showed not unlovely to her simple seeming.
Vain? Let it be so! Nature was her teacher.
What if a lonely and unsistered creature
Loved her own harmless gift of pleasing feature,
Saying, unsaddened,--This shall soon be faded,
And double-hued the shining tresses braided,
And all the sunlight of the morning shaded?
--This her poor book is full of saddest follies,
Of tearful smiles and laughing melancholies,
With summer roses twined and wintry hollies.
In the strange crossing of uncertain chances,
Somewhere, beneath some maiden's tear-dimmed glances
May fall her little book of dreams and fancies.
Sweet sister! Iris, who shall never name thee,
Trembling for fear her open heart may shame thee,
Speaks from this vision-haunted page to claim thee.
Spare her, I pray thee! If the maid is sleeping,
Peace with her! she has had her hour of weeping.
No more! She leaves her memory in thy keeping.
These verses were written in the first leaves of the locked volume.
As I turned the pages, I hesitated for a moment. Is it quite fair
to take advantage of a generous, trusting impulse to read the
unsunned depths of a young girl's nature, which I can look through,
as the balloon-voyagers tell us they see from their hanging-baskets
through the translucent waters which the keenest eye of such as sail
over them in ships might strive to pierce in vain? Why has the
child trusted me with such artless confessions,--self-revelations,
which might be whispered by trembling lips, under the veil of
twilight, in sacred confessionals, but which I cannot look at in the
light of day without a feeling of wronging a sacred confidence?
To all this the answer seemed plain enough after a little thought.
She did not know how fearfully she had disclosed herself; she was
too profoundly innocent. Her soul was no more ashamed than the fair
shapes that walked in Eden without a thought of over-liberal
loveliness. Having nobody to tell her story to,--having, as she
said in her verses, no musical instrument to laugh and cry with
her,--nothing, in short, but the language of pen and pencil,--all
the veinings of her nature were impressed on these pages as those of
a fresh leaf are transferred to the blank sheets which inclose it.
It was the same thing which I remember seeing beautifully shown in a
child of some four or five years we had one day at our boarding-
house. The child was a deaf mute. But its soul had the inner sense
that answers to hearing, and the shaping capacity which through
natural organs realizes itself in words. Only it had to talk with
its face alone; and such speaking eyes, such rapid alternations of
feeling and shifting expressions of thought as flitted over its
face, I have never seen in any other human countenance.
I wonder if something of spiritual transparency is not typified in
the golden-blonde organization. There are a great many little
creatures,--many small fishes, for instance,--which are literally
transparent, with the exception of some of the internal organs. The
heart can be seen beating as if in a case of clouded crystal. The
central nervous column with its sheath runs as a dark stripe through
the whole length of the diaphanous muscles of the body. Other
little creatures are so darkened with pigment that we can see only
their surface. Conspirators and poisoners are painted with black,
beady-eyes and swarthy hue; Judas, in Leonardo's picture, is the
model of them all.
However this may be, I should say there never had been a book like
this of Iris,--so full of the heart's silent language, so
transparent that the heart itself could be seen beating through it.
I should say there never could have been such a book, but for one
recollection, which is not peculiar to myself, but is shared by a
certain number of my former townsmen. If you think I over-color
this matter of the young girl's book, hear this, which there are
others, as I just said, besides myself, will tell you is strictly
THE BOOK OF THE THREE MAIDEN SISTERS.
In the town called Cantabridge, now a city, water-veined and gas
windpiped, in the street running down to the Bridge, beyond which
dwelt Sally, told of in a book of a friend of mine, was of old a
house inhabited by three maidens. They left no near kinsfolk, I
believe; whether they did or not, I have no ill to speak of them;
for they lived and died in all good report and maidenly credit. The
house they lived in was of the small, gambrel-roofed cottage
pattern, after the shape of Esquires' houses, but after the size of
the dwellings of handicraftsmen. The lower story was fitted up as a
shop. Specially was it provided with one of those half-doors now so
rarely met with, which are to whole doors as spencers worn by old
folk are to coats. They speak of limited commerce united with a
social or observing disposition--on the part of the shopkeeper,--
allowing, as they do, talk with passers-by, yet keeping off such as
have not the excuse of business to cross the threshold. On the
door-posts, at either side, above the half-door, hung certain
perennial articles of merchandise, of which my memory still has
hanging among its faded photographs a kind of netted scarf and some
pairs of thick woollen stockings. More articles, but not very many,
were stored inside; and there was one drawer, containing children's
books, out of which I once was treated to a minute quarto ornamented
with handsome cuts. This was the only purchase I ever knew to be
made at the shop kept by the three maiden ladies, though it is
probable there were others. So long as I remember the shop, the
same scarf and, I should say, the same stockings hung on the door-
posts.--You think I am exaggerating again, and that shopkeepers
would not keep the same article exposed for years. Come to me, the
Professor, and I will take you in five minutes to a shop in this
city where I will show you an article hanging now in the very place
where more than thirty years ago I myself inquired the price of it
of the present head of the establishment. [ This was a glass
alembic, which hung up in Daniel Henchman's apothecary shop, corner
of Cambridge and Chambers streets.]
The three maidens were of comely presence, and one of them had had
claims to be considered a Beauty. When I saw them in the old
meeting-house on Sundays, as they rustled in through the aisles in
silks and satins, not gay, but more than decent, as I remember them,
I thought of My Lady Bountiful in the history of "Little King
Pippin," and of the Madam Blaize of Goldsmith (who, by the way, must
have taken the hint of it from a pleasant poem, "Monsieur de la
Palisse," attributed to De la Monnoye, in the collection of French
songs before me). There was some story of an old romance in which
the Beauty had played her part. Perhaps they all had had lovers;
for, as I said, they were shapely and seemly personages, as I
remember them; but their lives were out of the flower and in the
berry at the time of my first recollections.
One after another they all three dropped away, objects of kindly
attention to the good people round, leaving little or almost
nothing, and nobody to inherit it. Not absolutely nothing, of
course. There must have been a few old dresses--perhaps some bits
of furniture, a Bible, and the spectacles the good old souls read it
through, and little keepsakes, such as make us cry to look at, when
we find them in old drawers;--such relics there must have been. But
there was more. There was a manuscript of some hundred pages,
closely written, in which the poor things had chronicled for many
years the incidents of their daily life. After their death it was
passed round somewhat freely, and fell into my hands. How I have
cried and laughed and colored over it! There was nothing in it to
be ashamed of, perhaps there was nothing in it to laugh at, but such
a picture of the mode of being of poor simple good old women I do
believe was never drawn before. And there were all the smallest
incidents recorded, such as do really make up humble life, but which
die out of all mere literary memoirs, as the houses where the
Egyptians or the Athenians lived crumble and leave only their
temples standing. I know, for instance, that on a given day of a
certain year, a kindly woman, herself a poor widow, now, I trust,
not without special mercies in heaven for her good deeds,--for I
read her name on a proper tablet in the churchyard a week ago,--sent
a fractional pudding from her own table to the Maiden Sisters, who,
I fear, from the warmth and detail of their description, were
fasting, or at least on short allowance, about that time. I know
who sent them the segment of melon, which in her riotous fancy one
of them compared to those huge barges to which we give the
ungracious name of mudscows. But why should I illustrate further
what it seems almost a breach of confidence to speak of? Some kind
friend, who could challenge a nearer interest than the curious
strangers into whose hands the book might fall, at last claimed it,
and I was glad that it should be henceforth sealed to common eyes.
I learned from it that every good and, alas! every evil act we do
may slumber unforgotten even in some earthly record. I got a new
lesson in that humanity which our sharp race finds it so hard to
learn. The poor widow, fighting hard to feed and clothe and educate
her children, had not forgotten the poorer ancient maidens.
I remembered it the other day, as I stood by her place of rest, and
I felt sure that it was remembered elsewhere. I know there are
prettier words than pudding, but I can't help it,--the pudding went
upon the record, I feel sure, with the mite which was cast into the
treasury by that other poor widow whose deed the world shall
remember forever, and with the coats and garments which the good
women cried over, when Tabitha, called by interpretation Dorcas, lay
dead in the upper chamber, with her charitable needlework strewed
--Such was the Book of the Maiden Sisters. You will believe me more
readily now when I tell you that I found the soul of Iris in the one
that lay open before me. Sometimes it was a poem that held it,
sometimes a drawing, angel, arabesque, caricature, or a mere
hieroglyphic symbol of which I could make nothing. A rag of cloud
on one page, as I remember, with a streak of red zigzagging out of
it across the paper as naturally as a crack runs through a China
bowl. On the next page a dead bird,--some little favorite, I
suppose; for it was worked out with a special love, and I saw on the
leaf that sign with which once or twice in my life I have had a
letter sealed,--a round spot where the paper is slightly corrugated,
and, if there is writing there, the letters are somewhat faint and
blurred. Most of the pages were surrounded with emblematic
traceries. It was strange to me at first to see how often she
introduced those homelier wild-flowers which we call weeds,--for it
seemed there was none of them too humble for her to love, and none
too little cared for by Nature to be without its beauty for her
artist eye and pencil. By the side of the garden-flowers,--of
Spring's curled darlings, the hyacinths, of rosebuds, dear to
sketching maidens, of flower-de-luces and morning-glories, nay,
oftener than these, and more tenderly caressed by the colored brush
that rendered them,--were those common growths which fling
themselves to be crushed under our feet and our wheels, making
themselves so cheap in this perpetual martyrdom that we forget each
of them is a ray of the Divine beauty.
Yellow japanned buttercups and star-disked dandelions,--just as we
see them lying in the grass, like sparks that have leaped from the
kindling sun of summer; the profuse daisy-like flower which whitens
the fields, to the great disgust of liberal shepherds, yet seems
fair to loving eyes, with its button-like mound of gold set round
with milk-white rays; the tall-stemmed succory, setting its pale
blue flowers aflame, one after another, sparingly, as the lights are
kindled in the candelabra of decaying palaces where the heirs of
dethroned monarchs are dying out; the red and white clovers, the
broad, flat leaves of the plantain,--"the white man's foot," as the
Indians called it,--the wiry, jointed stems of that iron creeping
plant which we call "knot-grass," and which loves its life so dearly
that it is next to impossible to murder it with a hoe, as it clings
to the cracks of the pavement;--all these plants, and many more, she
wove into her fanciful garlands and borders.--On one of the pages
were some musical notes. I touched them from curiosity on a piano
belonging to one of our boarders. Strange! There are passages that
I have heard before, plaintive, full of some hidden meaning, as if
they were gasping for words to interpret them. She must have heard
the strains that have so excited my curiosity, coming from my
neighbor's chamber. The illuminated border she had traced round the
page that held these notes took the place of the words they seemed
to be aching for. Above, a long monotonous sweep of waves, leaden-
hued, anxious and jaded and sullen, if you can imagine such an
expression in water. On one side an Alpine needle, as it were, of
black basalt, girdled with snow. On the other a threaded waterfall.
The red morning-tint that shone in the drops had a strange look,--
one would say the cliff was bleeding;--perhaps she did not mean it.
Below, a stretch of sand, and a solitary bird of prey, with his
wings spread over some unseen object.--And on the very next page a
procession wound along, after the fashion of that on the title-page
of Fuller's "Holy War," in which I recognized without difficulty
every boarder at our table in all the glory of the most resplendent
caricature--three only excepted,--the Little Gentleman, myself, and
I confess I did expect to see something that would remind me of the
girl's little deformed neighbor, if not portraits of him.--There is
a left arm again, though;--no,--that is from the "Fighting
Gladiator," the "Jeune Heros combattant" of the Louvre;--there is the
broad ring of the shield. From a cast, doubtless. [The separate
casts of the "Gladiator's" arm look immense; but in its place the
limb looks light, almost slender,--such is the perfection of that
miraculous marble. I never felt as if I touched the life of the old
Greeks until I looked on that statue.]--Here is something very odd,
to be sure. An Eden of all the humped and crooked creatures! What
could have been in her head when she worked out such a fantasy? She
has contrived to give them all beauty or dignity or melancholy
grace. A Bactrian camel lying under a palm. A dromedary flashing
up the sands,--spray of the dry ocean sailed by the "ship of the
desert." A herd of buffaloes, uncouth, shaggy-maned, heavy in the
forehand, light in the hind-quarter. [The buffalo is the lion of
the ruminants.] And there is a Norman horse, with his huge, rough
collar, echoing, as it were, the natural form of the other beast.
And here are twisted serpents; and stately swans, with answering
curves in their bowed necks, as if they had snake's blood under
their white feathers; and grave, high-shouldered herons standing on
one foot like cripples, and looking at life round them with the cold
stare of monumental effigies.--A very odd page indeed! Not a
creature in it without a curve or a twist, and not one of them a
mean figure to look at. You can make your own comment; I am
fanciful, you know. I believe she is trying to idealize what we
vulgarly call deformity, which she strives to look at in the light
of one of Nature's eccentric curves, belonging to her system of
beauty, as the hyperbola, and parabola belong to the conic sections,
though we cannot see them as symmetrical and entire figures, like
the circle and ellipse. At any rate, I cannot help referring this
paradise of twisted spines to some idea floating in her head
connected with her friend whom Nature has warped in the moulding.
--That is nothing to another transcendental fancy of mine. I
believe her soul thinks itself in his little crooked body at times,
--if it does not really get freed or half freed from her own. Did
you ever see a case of catalepsy? You know what I mean,--transient
loss of sense, will, and motion; body and limbs taking any position
in which they are put, as if they belonged to a lay-figure. She had
been talking with him and listening to him one day when the boarders
moved from the table nearly all at once. But she sat as before, her
cheek resting on her hand, her amber eyes wide open and still. I
went to her, she was breathing as usual, and her heart was beating
naturally enough,--but she did not answer. I bent her arm; it was
as plastic as softened wag, and kept the place I gave it.--This
will never do, though, and I sprinkled a few drops of water on her
forehead. She started and looked round.--I have been in a dream,--
she said;--I feel as if all my strength were in this arm;--give me
your hand!--She took my right hand in her left, which looked soft
and white enough, but--Good Heaven! I believe she will crack my
bones! All the nervous power in her body must have flashed through
those muscles; as when a crazy lady snaps her iron window-bars,--she
who could hardly glove herself when in her common health. Iris
turned pale, and the tears came to her eyes;--she saw she had given
pain. Then she trembled, and might have fallen but for me;--the
poor little soul had been in one of those trances that belong to the
spiritual pathology of higher natures, mostly those of women.
To come back to this wondrous book of Iris. Two pages faced each
other which I took for symbolical expressions of two states of mind.
On the left hand, a bright blue sky washed over the page, specked
with a single bird. No trace of earth, but still the winged
creature seemed to be soaring upward and upward. Facing it, one of
those black dungeons such as Piranesi alone of all men has pictured.
I am sure she must have seen those awful prisons of his, out of
which the Opium-Eater got his nightmare vision, described by another
as "cemeteries of departed greatness, where monstrous and forbidden
things are crawling and twining their slimy convolutions among
mouldering bones, broken sculpture, and mutilated inscriptions."
Such a black dungeon faced the page that held the blue sky and the
single bird; at the bottom of it something was coiled,--what, and
whether meant for dead or alive, my eyes could not make out.
I told you the young girl's soul was in this book. As I turned over
the last leaves I could not help starting. There were all sorts of
faces among the arabesques which laughed and scowled in the borders
that ran round the pages. They had mostly the outline of childish
or womanly or manly beauty, without very distinct individuality.
But at last it seemed to me that some of them were taking on a look
not wholly unfamiliar to me; there were features that did not seem
new.--Can it be so? Was there ever such innocence in a creature so
full of life? She tells her heart's secrets as a three-years-old
child betrays itself without need of being questioned! This was no
common miss, such as are turned out in scores from the young-lady-
factories, with parchments warranting them accomplished and
virtuous,--in case anybody should question the fact. I began to
understand her;--and what is so charming as to read the secret of a
real femme incomprise?--for such there are, though they are not the
ones who think themselves uncomprehended women.
Poets are never young, in one sense. Their delicate ear hears the
far-off whispers of eternity, which coarser souls must travel
towards for scores of years before their dull sense is touched by
them. A moment's insight is sometimes worth a life's experience. I
have frequently seen children, long exercised by pain and
exhaustion, whose features had a strange look of advanced age. Too
often one meets such in our charitable institutions. Their faces
are saddened and wrinkled, as if their few summers were threescore
years and ten.
And so, many youthful poets have written as if their hearts were old
before their time; their pensive morning twilight has been as cool
and saddening as that of evening in more common lives. The profound
melancholy of those lines of Shelley,
"I could lie down like a tired child
And weep away the life of care
Which I have borne and yet must bear."
came from a heart, as he says, "too soon grown old,"--at twenty-six
years, as dull people count time, even when they talk of poets.
I know enough to be prepared for an exceptional nature,--only this
gift of the hand in rendering every thought in form and color, as
well as in words, gives a richness to this young girl's alphabet of
feeling and imagery that takes me by surprise. And then besides,
and most of all, I am puzzled at her sudden and seemingly easy
confidence in me. Perhaps I owe it to my--Well, no matter! How one
must love the editor who first calls him the venerable So-and-So!
--I locked the book and sighed as I laid it down. The world is
always ready to receive talent with open arms. Very often it does
not know what to do with genius. Talent is a docile creature. It
bows its head meekly while the world slips the collar over it. It
backs into the shafts like a lamb. It draws its load cheerfully,
and is patient of the bit and of the whip. But genius is always
impatient of its harness; its wild blood makes it hard to train.
Talent seems, at first, in one sense, higher than genius,--namely,
that it is more uniformly and absolutely submitted to the will, and
therefore more distinctly human in its character. Genius, on the
other hand, is much more like those instincts which govern the
admirable movements of the lower creatures, and therefore seems to
have something of the lower or animal character. A goose flies by a
chart which the Royal Geographical Society could not mend. A poet,
like the goose, sails without visible landmarks to unexplored
regions of truth, which philosophy has yet to lay down on its atlas.
The philosopher gets his track by observation; the poet trusts to
his inner sense, and makes the straighter and swifter line.
And yet, to look at it in another light, is not even the lowest
instinct more truly divine than any voluntary human act done by the
suggestion of reason? What is a bee's architecture but an
unobstructed divine thought?--what is a builder's approximative rule
but an obstructed thought of the Creator, a mutilated and imperfect
copy of some absolute rule Divine Wisdom has established,
transmitted through a human soul as an image through clouded glass?
Talent is a very common family-trait; genius belongs rather to
individuals;--just as you find one giant or one dwarf in a family,
but rarely a whole brood of either. Talent is often to be envied,
and genius very commonly to be pitied. It stands twice the chance
of the other of dying in hospital, in jail, in debt, in bad repute.
It is a perpetual insult to mediocrity; its every word is a trespass
against somebody's vested ideas,--blasphemy against somebody's O'm,
or intangible private truth.
--What is the use of my weighing out antitheses in this way, like a
rhetorical grocer?--You know twenty men of talent, who are making
their way in the world; you may, perhaps, know one man of genius,
and very likely do not want to know any more. For a divine
instinct, such as drives the goose southward and the poet
heavenward, is a hard thing to manage, and proves too strong for
many whom it possesses. It must have been a terrible thing to have
a friend like Chatterton or Burns. And here is a being who
certainly has more than talent, at once poet and artist in tendency,
if not yet fairly developed,--a woman, too;--and genius grafted on
womanhood is like to overgrow it and break its stem, as you may see
a grafted fruit-tree spreading over the stock which cannot keep pace
with its evolution.
I think now you know something of this young person. She wants
nothing but an atmosphere to expand in. Now and then one meets with
a nature for which our hard, practical New England life is obviously
utterly incompetent. It comes up, as a Southern seed, dropped by
accident in one of our gardens, finds itself trying to grow and blow
into flower among the homely roots and the hardy shrubs that
surround it. There is no question that certain persons who are born
among us find themselves many degrees too far north. Tropical by
organization, they cannot fight for life with our eastern and
northwestern breezes without losing the color and fragrance into
which their lives would have blossomed in the latitude of myrtles
and oranges. Strange effects are produced by suffering any living
thing to be developed under conditions such as Nature had not
intended for it. A French physiologist confined some tadpoles under
water in the dark. Removed from the natural stimulus of light, they
did not develop legs and arms at the proper period of their growth,
and so become frogs; they swelled and spread into gigantic tadpoles.
I have seen a hundred colossal human tadpoles, overgrown Zarvce or
embryos; nay, I am afraid we Protestants should look on a
considerable proportion of the Holy Father's one hundred and thirty-
nine millions as spiritual larvae, sculling about in the dark by the
aid of their caudal extremities, instead of standing on their legs,
and breathing by gills, instead of taking the free air of heaven
into the lungs made to receive it. Of course we never try to keep
young souls in the tadpole state, for fear they should get a pair or
two of legs by-and-by and jump out of the pool where they have been
bred and fed! Never! Never. Never?
Now to go back to our plant. You may know, that, for the earlier
stages of development of almost any vegetable, you only want air,
water, light, and warmth. But by-and-by, if it is to have special
complex principles as a part of its organization, they must be
supplied by the soil;--your pears will crack, if the root of the
tree gets no iron,--your asparagus-bed wants salt as much as you do.
Just at the period of adolescence, the mind often suddenly begins to
come into flower and to set its fruit. Then it is that many young
natures, having exhausted the spiritual soil round them of all it
contains of the elements they demand, wither away, undeveloped and
uncolored, unless they are transplanted.
Pray for these dear young souls! This is the second natural birth;-
for I do not speak of those peculiar religious experiences which
form the point of transition in many lives between the consciousness
of a general relation to the Divine nature and a special personal
relation. The litany should count a prayer for them in the list of
its supplications; masses should be said for them as for souls in
purgatory; all good Christians should remember them as they remember
those in peril through travel or sickness or in warfare.
I would transport this child to Rome at once, if I had my will. She
should ripen under an Italian sun. She should walk under the
frescoed vaults of palaces, until her colors deepened to those of
Venetian beauties, and her forms were perfected into rivalry with
the Greek marbles, and the east wind was out of her soil. Has she
not exhausted this lean soil of the elements her growing nature
I do not know. The magnolia grows and comes into full flower on
Cape Ann, many degrees out of its proper region. I was riding once
along that delicious road between the hills and the sea, when we
passed a thicket where there seemed to be a chance of finding it.
In five minutes I had fallen on the trees in full blossom, and
filled my arms with the sweet, resplendent flowers. I could not
believe I was in our cold, northern Essex, which, in the dreary
season when I pass its slate-colored, unpainted farm-houses, and
huge, square, windy, 'squire-built "mansions," looks as brown and
unvegetating as an old rug with its patterns all trodden out and the
colored fringe worn from all its border.
If the magnolia can bloom in northern New England, why should not a
poet or a painter come to his full growth here just as well? Yes,
but if the gorgeous tree-flower is rare, and only as if by a freak
of Nature springs up in a single spot among the beeches and alders,
is there not as much reason to think the perfumed flower of
imaginative genius will find it hard to be born and harder to spread
its leaves in the clear, cold atmosphere of our ultra-temperate zone
Take the poet. On the one hand, I believe that a person with the
poetical faculty finds material everywhere. The grandest objects of
sense and thought are common to all climates and civilizations. The
sky, the woods, the waters, the storms, life, death love, the hope
and vision of eternity,--these are images that write themselves in
poetry in every soul which has anything of the divine gift.
On the other hand, there is such a thing as a lean, impoverished
life, in distinction from a rich and suggestive one. Which our
common New England life might be considered, I will not decide. But
there are some things I think the poet misses in our western Eden.
I trust it is not unpatriotic to mention them in this point of view
as they come before us in so many other aspects.
There is no sufficient flavor of humanity in the soil out of which
we grow. At Cantabridge, near the sea, I have once or twice picked
up an Indian arrowhead in a fresh furrow. At Canoe Meadow, in the
Berkshire Mountains, I have found Indian arrowheads. So everywhere
Indian arrowheads. Whether a hundred or a thousand years old, who
knows? who cares? There is no history to the red race,--there is
hardly an individual in it;--a few instincts on legs and holding a
tomahawk--there is the Indian of all time. The story of one red ant
is the story of all red ants. So, the poet, in trying to wing his
way back through the life that has kindled, flitted, and faded along
our watercourses and on our southern hillsides for unknown
generations, finds nothing to breathe or fly in; he meets
"A vast vacuity! all unawares,
Fluttering his pennons vain, plumb down he drops
Ten thousand fathom deep."
But think of the Old World,--that part of it which is the seat of
ancient civilization! The stakes of the Britons' stockades are
still standing in the bed of the Thames. The ploughman turns up an
old Saxon's bones, and beneath them is a tessellated pavement of the
time of the Caesars. In Italy, the works of mediaeval Art seem to
be of yesterday,--Rome, under her kings, is but an intruding
newcomer, as we contemplate her in the shadow of the Cyclopean walls
of Fiesole or Volterra. It makes a man human to live on these old
humanized soils. He cannot help marching in step with his kind in
the rear of such a procession. They say a dead man's hand cures
swellings, if laid on them. There is nothing like the dead cold
hand of the Past to take down our tumid egotism and lead us into the
solemn flow of the life of our race. Rousseau came out of one of
his sad self-torturing fits, as he cast his eye on the arches of the
old Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard.
I am far from denying that there is an attraction in a thriving
railroad village. The new "depot," the smartly-painted pine houses,
the spacious brick hotel, the white meeting-house, and the row of
youthful and leggy trees before it, are exhilarating. They speak of
progress, and the time when there shall be a city, with a His Honor
the Mayor, in the place of their trim but transient architectural
growths. Pardon me, if I prefer the pyramids. They seem to me
crystals formed from a stronger solution of humanity than the
steeple of the new meeting-house. I may be wrong, but the Tiber has
a voice for me, as it whispers to the piers of the Pons Alius, even
more full of meaning than my well-beloved Charles eddying round the
piles of West Boston Bridge.
Then, again, we Yankees are a kind of gypsies,--a mechanical and
migratory race. A poet wants a home. He can dispense with an
apple-parer and a reaping-machine. I feel this more for others than
for myself, for the home of my birth and childhood has been as yet
exempted from the change which has invaded almost everything around
--Pardon me a short digression. To what small things our memory and
our affections attach themselves! I remember, when I was a child,
that one of the girls planted some Star-of-Bethlehem bulbs in the
southwest gorner of our front-yard. Well, I left the paternal roof
and wandered in other lands, and learned to think in the words of
strange people. But after many years, as I looked on the little
front-yard again, it occurred to me that there used to be some Star-
of-Bethlehems in the southwest corner. The grass was tall there,
and the blade of the plant is very much like grass, only thicker and
glossier. Even as Tully parted the briers and brambles when he
hunted for the sphere-containing cylinder that marked the grave of
Archimedes, so did I comb the grass with my fingers for my
monumental memorial-flower. Nature had stored my keepsake tenderly
in her bosom; the glossy, faintly streaked blades were there; they
are there still, though they never flower, darkened as they are by
the shade of the elms and rooted in the matted turf.
Our hearts are held down to our homes by innumerable fibres, trivial
as that I have just recalled; but Gulliver was fixed to the soil,
you remember, by pinning his head a hair at a time. Even a stone
with a whitish band crossing it, belonging to the pavement of the
back-yard, insisted on becoming one of the talismans of memory.
This intussusception of the ideas of inanimate objects, and their
faithful storing away among the sentiments, are curiously prefigured
in the material structure of the thinking centre itself. In the
very core of the brain, in the part where Des Cartes placed the
soul, is a small mineral deposit, consisting, as I have seen it in
the microscope, of grape-like masses of crystalline matter.
But the plants that come up every year in the same place, like the
Star-of-Bethlehems, of all the lesser objects, give me the liveliest
home-feeling. Close to our ancient gambrel-roofed house is the
dwelling of pleasant old Neighbor Walrus. I remember the sweet
honeysuckle that I saw in flower against the wall of his house a few
months ago, as long as I remember the sky and stars. That clump of
peonies, butting their purple heads through the soil every spring in
just the same circle, and by-and-by unpacking their hard balls of
buds in flowers big enough to make a double handful of leaves, has
come up in just that place, Neighbor Walrus tells me, for more years
than I have passed on this planet. It is a rare privilege in our
nomadic state to find the home of one's childhood and its immediate
neighborhood thus unchanged. Many born poets, I am afraid, flower
poorly in song, or not at all, because they have been too often
Then a good many of our race are very hard and unimaginative;--their
voices have nothing caressing; their movements are as of machinery
without elasticity or oil. I wish it were fair to print a letter a
young girl, about the age of our Iris, wrote a short time since. "I
am *** *** ***," she says, and tells her whole name outright. Ah!--
said I, when I read that first frank declaration,--you are one of
the right sort!--She was. A winged creature among close-clipped
barn door fowl. How tired the poor girl was of the dull life about
her,--the old woman's "skeleton hand" at the window opposite,
drawing her curtains,--"Ma'am shooing away the hens,"--the vacuous
country eyes staring at her as only country eyes can stare,--a
routine of mechanical duties, and the soul's half-articulated cry
for sympathy, without an answer! Yes,--pray for her, and for all
such! Faith often cures their longings; but it is so hard to give a
soul to heaven that has not first been trained in the fullest and
sweetest human affections! Too often they fling their hearts away
on unworthy objects. Too often they pine in a secret discontent,
which spreads its leaden cloud over the morning of their youth. The
immeasurable distance between one of these delicate natures and the
average youths among whom is like to be her only choice makes one's
heart ache. How many women are born too finely organized in sense
and soul for the highway they must walk with feet unshod! Life is
adjusted to the wants of the stronger sex. There are plenty of
torrents to be crossed in its journey; but their stepping-stones are
measured by the stride of man, and not of woman.
Women are more subject than men to atrophy of the heart. So says
the great medical authority, Laennec. Incurable cases of this kind
used to find their hospitals in convents. We have the disease in
New England,--but not the hospitals. I don't like to think of it.
I will not believe our young Iris is going to die out in this way.
Providence will find her some great happiness, or affliction, or
duty,--and which would be best for her, I cannot tell. One thing is
sure: the interest she takes in her little neighbor is getting to be
more engrossing than ever. Something is the matter with him, and
she knows it, and I think worries herself about it.
I wonder sometimes how so fragile and distorted a frame has kept the
fiery spirit that inhabits it so long its tenant. He accounts for
it in his own way.
The air of the Old World is good for nothing, he said, one day.--
Used up, Sir,--breathed over and over again. You must come to this
side, Sir, for an atmosphere fit to breathe nowadays. Did not
worthy Mr. Higginson say that a breath of New England's air is
better than a sup of Old England's ale? I ought to have died when I
was a boy, Sir; but I could n't die in this Boston air,--and I think
I shall have to go to New York one of these days, when it's time for
me to drop this bundle,--or to New Orleans, where they have the
yellow fever,--or to Philadelphia, where they have so many doctors.
This was some time ago; but of late he has seemed, as I have before
said, to be ailing. An experienced eye, such as I think I may call
mine, can tell commonly whether a man is going to die, or not, long
before he or his friends are alarmed about him. I don't like it.
Iris has told me that the Scottish gift of second-sight runs in her
family, and that she is afraid she has it. Those who are so endowed
look upon a well man and see a shroud wrapt about him. According to
the degree to which it covers him, his death will be near or more
remote. It is an awful faculty; but science gives one too much like
it. Luckily for our friends, most of us who have the scientific
second-sight school ourselves not to betray our knowledge by word or
Day by day, as the Little Gentleman comes to the table, it seems to
me that the shadow of some approaching change falls darker and
darker over his countenance. Nature is struggling with something,
and I am afraid she is under in the wrestling-match. You do not
care much, perhaps, for my particular conjectures as to the nature
of his difficulty. I should say, however, from the sudden flushes
to which he is subject, and certain other marks which, as an expert,
I know how to interpret, that his heart was in trouble; but then he
presses his hand to the right side, as if there were the centre of
When I say difficulty about the heart, I do not mean any of those
sentimental maladies of that organ which figure more largely in
romances than on the returns which furnish our Bills of Mortality.
I mean some actual change in the organ itself, which may carry him
off by slow and painful degrees, or strike him down with one huge
pang and only time for a single shriek,--as when the shot broke
through the brave Captain Nolan's breast, at the head of the Light
Brigade at Balaklava, and with a loud cry he dropped dead from his
I thought it only fair to say something of what I apprehended to
some who were entitled to be warned. The landlady's face fell when
I mentioned my fears.
Poor man!--she said.--And will leave the best room empty! Has n't
he got any sisters or nieces or anybody to see to his things, if he
should be took away? Such a sight of cases, full of everything!
Never thought of his failin' so suddin. A complication of diseases,
she expected. Liver-complaint one of 'em?
After this first involuntary expression of the too natural selfish
feelings, (which we must not judge very harshly, unless we happen to
be poor widows ourselves, with children to keep filled, covered, and
taught,--rents high,--beef eighteen to twenty cents per pound,)--
after this first squeak of selfishness, followed by a brief movement
of curiosity, so invariable in mature females, as to the nature of
the complaint which threatens the life of a friend or any person who
may happen to be mentioned as ill,--the worthy soul's better
feelings struggled up to the surface, and she grieved for the doomed
invalid, until a tear or two came forth and found their way down a
channel worn for them since the early days of her widowhood.
Oh, this dreadful, dreadful business of being the prophet of evil!
Of all the trials which those who take charge of others' health and
lives have to undergo, this is the most painful. It is all so plain
to the practised eye!--and there is the poor wife, the doting
mother, who has never suspected anything, or at least has clung
always to the hope which you are just going to wrench away from her!
--I must tell Iris that I think her poor friend is in a precarious
state. She seems nearer to him than anybody.
I did tell her. Whatever emotion it produced, she kept a still
face, except, perhaps, a little trembling of the lip.--Could I be
certain that there was any mortal complaint?--Why, no, I could not
be certain; but it looked alarming to me.--He shall have some of my
I suppose this to have been a fancy of hers, or a kind of magnetic
power she could give out;--at any rate, I cannot help thinking she
wills her strength away from herself, for she has lost vigor and
color from that day. I have sometimes thought he gained the force
she lost; but this may have been a whim, very probably.
One day she came suddenly to me, looking deadly pale. Her lips
moved, as if she were speaking; but I could not at first hear a
word. Her hair looked strangely, as if lifting itself, and her eyes
were full of wild light. She sunk upon a chair, and I thought was
falling into one of her trances. Something had frozen her blood
with fear; I thought, from what she said, half audibly, that she
believed she had seen a shrouded figure.
That night, at about eleven o'clock, I was sent for to see the
Little Gentleman, who was taken suddenly ill. Bridget, the servant,
went before me with a light. The doors were both unfastened, and I
found myself ushered, without hindrance, into the dim light of the
mysterious apartment I had so longed to enter.
I found these stanzas in the young girl's book among many others. I
give them as characterizing the tone of her sadder moments.
UNDER THE VIOLETS.
Her hands are cold; her face is white;
No more her pulses come and go;
Her eyes are shut to life and light;
Fold the white vesture, snow on snow,
And lay her where the violets blow.
But not beneath a graven stone,
To plead for tears with alien eyes;
A slender cross of wood alone
Shall say, that here a maiden lies
In peace beneath the peaceful skies.
And gray old trees of hugest limb
Shall wheel their circling shadows round
To make the scorching sunlight dim
That drinks the greenness from the ground,
And drop their dead leaves on her mound.
When o'er their boughs the squirrels run,
And through their leaves the robins call,
And, ripening in the autumn sun,
The acorns and the chestnuts fall,
Doubt not that she will heed them all.
For her the morning choir shall sing
Its matins from the branches high,
And every minstrel voice of spring,
That trills beneath the April sky,
Shall greet her with its earliest cry.
When, turning round their dial-track,
Eastward the lengthening shadows pass,
Her little mourners, clad in black,
The crickets, sliding through the grass,
Shall pipe for her an evening mass.
At last the rootlets of the trees
Shall find the prison where she lies,
And bear the buried dust they seize
In leaves and blossoms to the skies.
So may the soul that warmed it rise!
If any, born of kindlier blood,
Should ask, What maiden lies below?
Say only this: A tender bud,
That tried to blossom in the snow,
Lies withered where the violets blow.
You will know, perhaps, in the course of half an hour's reading,
what has been haunting my hours of sleep and waking for months. I
cannot tell, of course, whether you are a nervous person or not.
If, however, you are such a person,--if it is late at night,--if all
the rest of the household have gone off to bed,--if the wind is
shaking your windows as if a human hand were rattling the sashes,--
if your candle or lamp is low and will soon burn out,--let me advise
you to take up some good quiet sleepy volume, or attack the
"Critical Notices" of the last Quarterly and leave this to be read
by daylight, with cheerful voices round, and people near by who
would hear you, if you slid from your chair and came down in a lump
on the floor.
I do not say that your heart will beat as mine did, I am willing to
confess, when I entered the dim chamber. Did I not tell you that I
was sensitive and imaginative, and that I had lain awake with
thinking what were the strange movements and sounds which I heard
late at night in my little neighbor's apartment? It had come to
that pass that I was truly unable to separate what I had really
heard from what I had dreamed in those nightmares to which I have
been subject, as before mentioned. So, when I walked into the room,
and Bridget, turning back, closed the door and left me alone with
its tenant, I do believe you could have grated a nutmeg on my skin,
such a "goose-flesh" shiver ran over it. It was not fear, but what
I call nervousness,--unreasoning, but irresistible; as when, for
instance, one looking at the sun going down says, "I will count
fifty before it disappears"; and as he goes on and it becomes
doubtful whether he will reach the number, he gets strangely
flurried, and his imagination pictures life and death and heaven and
hell as the issues depending on the completion or non-completion of
the fifty he is counting. Extreme curiosity will excite some people
as much as fear, or what resembles fear, acts on some other less
I may find myself in the midst of strange facts in this little
conjurer's room. Or, again, there may be nothing in this poor
invalid's chamber but some old furniture, such as they say came over
in the Mayflower. All this is just what I mean to, find out while
I am looking at the Little Gentleman, who has suddenly become my
patient. The simplest things turn out to be unfathomable mysteries;
the most mysterious appearances prove to be the most commonplace
objects in disguise.
I wonder whether the boys who live in Roxbury and Dorchester are
ever moved to tears or filled with silent awe as they look upon the
rocks and fragments of "puddingstone" abounding in those localities.
I have my suspicions that those boys "heave a stone" or "fire a
brickbat," composed of the conglomerate just mentioned, without any
more tearful or philosophical contemplations than boys of less
favored regions expend on the same performance. Yet a lump of
puddingstone is a thing to look at, to think about, to study over,
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