The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner Volume 3
Charles Dudley Warner
Part 2 out of 7
watching that tree all the morning. There hain't been a breath of
wind: but for hours the leaves have been falling, falling, just as
you see them now; and at last it's pretty much bare." And after a
pause, pensively: "Waal, I suppose its hour had come."
This contemplative habit of Old Phelps is wholly unappreciated by his
neighbors; but it has been indulged in no inconsiderable part of his
life. Rising after a time, he said, "Now I want you to go with me
and see my golden city I've talked so much about." He led the way to
a hill-outlook, when suddenly, emerging from the forest, the
spectators saw revealed the winding valley and its stream. He said
quietly, "There is my golden city." Far below, at their feet, they
saw that vast assemblage of birches and "popples," yellow as gold in
the brooding noonday, and slender spires rising out of the glowing
mass. Without another word, Phelps sat a long time in silent
content: it was to him, as Bunyan says, "a place desirous to be in."
Is this philosopher contented with what life has brought him?
Speaking of money one day, when we had asked him if he should do
differently if he had his life to live over again, he said, "Yes, but
not about money. To have had hours such as I have had in these
mountains, and with such men as Dr. Bushnell and Dr. Shaw and Mr.
Twichell, and others I could name, is worth all the money the world
could give." He read character very well, and took in accurately the
boy nature. "Tom" (an irrepressible, rather overdone specimen),--"
Tom's a nice kind of a boy; but he's got to come up against a
snubbin'-post one of these days."--"Boys!" he once said: "you can't
git boys to take any kinder notice of scenery. I never yet saw a boy
that would look a second time at a sunset. Now, a girl will some
times; but even then it's instantaneous,--comes an goes like the
sunset. As for me," still speaking of scenery, "these mountains
about here, that I see every day, are no more to me, in one sense,
than a man's farm is to him. What mostly interests me now is when I
see some new freak or shape in the face of Nature."
In literature it may be said that Old Phelps prefers the best in the
very limited range that has been open to him. Tennyson is his
favorite among poets an affinity explained by the fact that they are
both lotos-eaters. Speaking of a lecture-room talk of Mr. Beecher's
which he had read, he said, "It filled my cup about as full as I
callerlate to have it: there was a good deal of truth in it, and some
poetry; waal, and a little spice, too. We've got to have the spice,
you know." He admired, for different reasons, a lecture by Greeley
that he once heard, into which so much knowledge of various kinds was
crowded that he said he "made a reg'lar gobble of it." He was not
without discrimination, which he exercised upon the local preaching
when nothing better offered. Of one sermon he said, "The man began
way back at the creation, and just preached right along down; and he
didn't say nothing, after all. It just seemed to me as if he was
tryin' to git up a kind of a fix-up."
Old Phelps used words sometimes like algebraic signs, and had a habit
of making one do duty for a season together for all occasions.
"Speckerlation" and "callerlation" and "fix-up" are specimens of
words that were prolific in expression. An unusual expression, or an
unusual article, would be charactcrized as a "kind of a scientific
"What is the program for tomorrow?" I once asked him. " Waal, I
callerlate, if they rig up the callerlation they callerlate on, we'll
go to the Boreas." Starting out for a day's tramp in the woods, he
would ask whether we wanted to take a "reg'lar walk, or a random
scoot,"--the latter being a plunge into the pathless forest. When he
was on such an expedition, and became entangled in dense brush, and
maybe a network of "slash" and swamp, he was like an old wizard, as
he looked here and there, seeking a way, peering into the tangle, or
withdrawing from a thicket, and muttering to himself, "There ain't no
speckerlation there." And when the way became altogether
inscrutable,--"Waal, this is a reg'lar random scoot of a rigmarole."
As some one remarked, "The dictionary in his hands is like clay in
the hands of the potter." A petrifaction was a kind of a hard-wood
There is no conceit, we are apt to say, like that born of isolation
from the world, and there are no such conceited people as those who
have lived all their lives in the woods. Phelps was, however,
unsophisticated in his until the advent of strangers into his life,
who brought in literature and various other disturbing influences. I
am sorry to say that the effect has been to take off something of the
bloom of his simplicity, and to elevate him into an oracle. I
suppose this is inevitable as soon as one goes into print; and Phelps
has gone into print in the local papers. He has been bitten with the
literary "git up." Justly regarding most of the Adirondack
literature as a "perfect fizzle," he has himself projected a work,
and written much on the natural history of his region. Long ago he
made a large map of the mountain country; and, until recent surveys,
it was the only one that could lay any claim to accuracy. His
history is no doubt original in form, and unconventional in
expression. Like most of the writers of the seventeenth century, and
the court ladies and gentlemen of the eighteenth century, he is an
independent speller. Writing of his work on the Adirondacks, he
says, "If I should ever live to get this wonderful thing written, I
expect it will show one thing, if no more; and that is, that every
thing has an opposite. I expect to show in this that literature has
an opposite, if I do not show any thing els. We could not enjoy the
blessings and happiness of riteousness if we did not know innicuty
was in the world: in fact, there would be no riteousness without
innicuty." Writing also of his great enjoyment of being in the
woods, especially since he has had the society there of some people
he names, he adds, "And since I have Literature, Siance, and Art all
spread about on the green moss of the mountain woods or the gravell
banks of a cristle stream, it seems like finding roses, honeysuckels,
and violets on a crisp brown cliff in December. You know I don't
believe much in the religion of seramony; but any riteous thing that
has life and spirit in it is food for me." I must not neglect to
mention an essay, continued in several numbers of his local paper, on
"The Growth of the Tree," in which he demolishes the theory of Mr.
Greeley, whom he calls "one of the best vegetable philosophers,"
about "growth without seed." He treats of the office of sap: "All
trees have some kind of sap and some kind of operation of sap flowing
in their season," the dissemination of seeds, the processes of
growth, the power of healing wounds, the proportion of roots to
branches, &c. Speaking of the latter, he says, "I have thought it
would be one of the greatest curiosities on earth to see a thrifty
growing maple or elm, that had grown on a deep soil interval to be
two feet in diameter, to be raised clear into the air with every root
and fibre down to the minutest thread, all entirely cleared of soil,
so that every particle could be seen in its natural position. I
think it would astonish even the wise ones." From his instinctive
sympathy with nature, he often credits vegetable organism with
"instinctive judgment." " Observation teaches us that a tree is
given powerful instincts, which would almost appear to amount to
judgment in some cases, to provide for its own wants and
Here our study must cease. When the primitive man comes into
literature, he is no longer primitive.
It seems to be agreed that civilization is kept up only by a constant
effort: Nature claims its own speedily when the effort is relaxed.
If you clear a patch of fertile ground in the forest, uproot the
stumps, and plant it, year after year, in potatoes and maize, you say
you have subdued it. But, if you leave it for a season or two, a
kind of barbarism seems to steal out upon it from the circling woods;
coarse grass and brambles cover it; bushes spring up in a wild
tangle; the raspberry and the blackberry flower and fruit; and the
humorous bear feeds upon them. The last state of that ground is
worse than the first.
Perhaps the cleared spot is called Ephesus. There is a splendid city
on the plain; there are temples and theatres on the hills; the
commerce of the world seeks its port; the luxury of the Orient flows
through its marble streets. You are there one day when the sea has
receded: the plain is a pestilent marsh; the temples, the theatres,
the lofty gates have sunken and crumbled, and the wild-brier runs
over them; and, as you grow pensive in the most desolate place in the
world, a bandit lounges out of a tomb, and offers to relieve you of
all that which creates artificial distinctions in society. The
higher the civilization has risen, the more abject is the desolation
of barbarism that ensues. The most melancholy spot in the
Adirondacks is not a tamarack-swamp, where the traveler wades in moss
and mire, and the atmosphere is composed of equal active parts of
black-flies, mosquitoes, and midges. It is the village of the
Adirondack Iron-Works, where the streets of gaunt houses are falling
to pieces, tenantless; the factory-wheels have stopped; the furnaces
are in ruins; the iron and wooden machinery is strewn about in
helpless detachment; and heaps of charcoal, ore, and slag proclaim an
arrested industry. Beside this deserted village, even Calamity Pond,
shallow, sedgy, with its ragged shores of stunted firs, and its
melancholy shaft that marks the spot where the proprietor of the
iron-works accidentally shot himself, is cheerful.
The instinct of barbarism that leads people periodically to throw
aside the habits of civilization, and seek the freedom and discomfort
of the woods, is explicable enough; but it is not so easy to
understand why this passion should be strongest in those who are most
refined, and most trained in intellectual and social fastidiousness.
Philistinism and shoddy do not like the woods, unless it becomes
fashionable to do so; and then, as speedily as possible, they
introduce their artificial luxuries, and reduce the life in the
wilderness to the vulgarity of a well-fed picnic. It is they who
have strewn the Adirondacks with paper collars and tin cans. The
real enjoyment of camping and tramping in the woods lies in a return
to primitive conditions of lodging, dress, and food, in as total an
escape as may be from the requirements of civilization. And it
remains to be explained why this is enjoyed most by those who are
most highly civilized. It is wonderful to see how easily the
restraints of society fall off. Of course it is not true that
courtesy depends upon clothes with the best people; but, with others,
behavior hangs almost entirely upon dress. Many good habits are
easily got rid of in the woods. Doubt sometimes seems to be felt
whether Sunday is a legal holiday there. It becomes a question of
casuistry with a clergyman whether he may shoot at a mark on Sunday,
if none of his congregation are present. He intends no harm: he only
gratifies a curiosity to see if he can hit the mark. Where shall he
draw the line? Doubtless he might throw a stone at a chipmunk, or
shout at a loon. Might he fire at a mark with an air-gun that makes
no noise? He will not fish or hunt on Sunday (although he is no more
likely to catch anything that day than on any other); but may he eat
trout that the guide has caught on Sunday, if the guide swears he
caught them Saturday night? Is there such a thing as a vacation in
religion? How much of our virtue do we owe to inherited habits?
I am not at all sure whether this desire to camp outside of
civilization is creditable to human nature, or otherwise. We hear
sometimes that the Turk has been merely camping for four centuries in
Europe. I suspect that many of us are, after all, really camping
temporarily in civilized conditions; and that going into the
wilderness is an escape, longed for, into our natural and preferred
state. Consider what this " camping out " is, that is confessedly so
agreeable to people most delicately reared. I have no desire to
exaggerate its delights.
The Adirondack wilderness is essentially unbroken. A few bad roads
that penetrate it, a few jolting wagons that traverse them, a few
barn-like boarding-houses on the edge of the forest, where the
boarders are soothed by patent coffee, and stimulated to unnatural
gayety by Japan tea, and experimented on by unique cookery, do little
to destroy the savage fascination of the region. In half an hour, at
any point, one can put himself into solitude and every desirable
discomfort. The party that covets the experience of the camp comes
down to primitive conditions of dress and equipment. There are
guides and porters to carry the blankets for beds, the raw
provisions, and the camp equipage; and the motley party of the
temporarily decivilized files into the woods, and begins, perhaps by
a road, perhaps on a trail, its exhilarating and weary march. The
exhilaration arises partly from the casting aside of restraint,
partly from the adventure of exploration; and the weariness, from the
interminable toil of bad walking, a heavy pack, and the grim monotony
of trees and bushes, that shut out all prospect, except an occasional
glimpse of the sky. Mountains are painfully climbed, streams forded,
lonesome lakes paddled over, long and muddy "carries" traversed.
Fancy this party the victim of political exile, banished by the law,
and a more sorrowful march could not be imagined; but the voluntary
hardship becomes pleasure, and it is undeniable that the spirits of
the party rise as the difficulties increase.
For this straggling and stumbling band the world is young again: it
has come to the beginning of things; it has cut loose from tradition,
and is free to make a home anywhere: the movement has all the promise
of a revolution. All this virginal freshness invites the primitive
instincts of play and disorder. The free range of the forests
suggests endless possibilities of exploration and possession.
Perhaps we are treading where man since the creation never trod
before; perhaps the waters of this bubbling spring, which we deepen
by scraping out the decayed leaves and the black earth, have never
been tasted before, except by the wild denizens of these woods. We
cross the trails of lurking animals,--paths that heighten our sense
of seclusion from the world. The hammering of the infrequent
woodpecker, the call of the lonely bird, the drumming of the solitary
partridge,--all these sounds do but emphasize the lonesomeness of
nature. The roar of the mountain brook, dashing over its bed of
pebbles, rising out of the ravine, and spreading, as it were, a mist
of sound through all the forest (continuous beating waves that have
the rhythm of eternity in them), and the fitful movement of the air-
tides through the balsams and firs and the giant pines,--how these
grand symphonies shut out the little exasperations of our vexed life!
It seems easy to begin life over again on the simplest terms.
Probably it is not so much the desire of the congregation to escape
from the preacher, or of the preacher to escape from himself, that
drives sophisticated people into the wilderness, as it is the
unconquered craving for primitive simplicity, the revolt against the
everlasting dress-parade of our civilization. From this monstrous
pomposity even the artificial rusticity of a Petit Trianon is a
relief. It was only human nature that the jaded Frenchman of the
regency should run away to the New World, and live in a forest-hut
with an Indian squaw; although he found little satisfaction in his
act of heroism, unless it was talked about at Versailles.
When our trampers come, late in the afternoon, to the bank of a
lovely lake where they purpose to enter the primitive life,
everything is waiting for them in virgin expectation. There is a
little promontory jutting into the lake, and sloping down to a sandy
beach, on which the waters idly lapse, and shoals of red-fins and
shiners come to greet the stranger; the forest is untouched by the
axe; the tender green sweeps the water's edge; ranks of slender firs
are marshaled by the shore; clumps of white-birch stems shine in
satin purity among the evergreens; the boles of giant spruces,
maples, and oaks, lifting high their crowns of foliage, stretch away
in endless galleries and arcades; through the shifting leaves the
sunshine falls upon the brown earth; overhead are fragments of blue
sky; under the boughs and in chance openings appear the bluer lake
and the outline of the gracious mountains. The discoverers of this
paradise, which they have entered to destroy, note the babbling of
the brook that flows close at hand; they hear the splash of the
leaping fish; they listen to the sweet, metallic song of the evening
thrush, and the chatter of the red squirrel, who angrily challenges
their right to be there. But the moment of sentiment passes. This
party has come here to eat and to sleep, and not to encourage Nature
in her poetic attitudinizing.
The spot for a shanty is selected. This side shall be its opening,
towards the lake; and in front of it the fire, so that the smoke
shall drift into the hut, and discourage the mosquitoes; yonder shall
be the cook's fire and the path to the spring. The whole colony
bestir themselves in the foundation of a new home,--an enterprise
that has all the fascination, and none of the danger, of a veritable
new settlement in the wilderness. The axes of the guides resound in
the echoing spaces; great trunks fall with a crash; vistas are opened
towards the lake and the mountains. The spot for the shanty is
cleared of underbrush; forked stakes are driven into the ground,
cross-pieces are laid on them, and poles sloping back to the ground.
In an incredible space of time there is the skeleton of a house,
which is entirely open in front. The roof and sides must be covered.
For this purpose the trunks of great spruces are skinned. The
woodman rims the bark near the foot of the tree, and again six feet
above, and slashes it perpendicularly; then, with a blunt stick, he
crowds off this thick hide exactly as an ox is skinned. It needs but
a few of these skins to cover the roof; and they make a perfectly
water-tight roof, except when it rains. Meantime busy hands have
gathered boughs of the spruce and the feathery balsam, and shingled
the ground underneath the shanty for a bed. It is an aromatic bed:
in theory it is elastic and consoling. Upon it are spread the
blankets. The sleepers, of all sexes and ages, are to lie there in a
row, their feet to the fire, and their heads under the edge of the
sloping roof. Nothing could be better contrived. The fire is in
front: it is not a fire, but a conflagration--a vast heap of green
logs set on fire--of pitch, and split dead-wood, and crackling
balsams, raging and roaring. By the time, twilight falls, the cook
has prepared supper. Everything has been cooked in a tin pail and a
skillet,--potatoes, tea, pork, mutton, slapjacks. You wonder how
everything could have been prepared in so few utensils. When you
eat, the wonder ceases: everything might have been cooked in one
pail. It is a noble meal; and nobly is it disposed of by these
amateur savages, sitting about upon logs and roots of trees. Never
were there such potatoes, never beans that seemed to have more of the
bean in them, never such curly pork, never trout with more Indian-
meal on them, never mutton more distinctly sheepy; and the tea, drunk
out of a tin cup, with a lump of maple-sugar dissolved in it,--it is
the sort of tea that takes hold, lifts the hair, and disposes the
drinker to anecdote and hilariousness. There is no deception about
it: it tastes of tannin and spruce and creosote. Everything, in
short, has the flavor of the wilderness and a free life. It is
idyllic. And yet, with all our sentimentality, there is nothing
feeble about the cooking. The slapjacks are a solid job of work,
made to last, and not go to pieces in a person's stomach like a
trivial bun: we might record on them, in cuneiform characters, our
incipient civilization; and future generations would doubtless turn
them up as Acadian bricks. Good, robust victuals are what the
primitive man wants.
Darkness falls suddenly. Outside the ring of light from our
conflagration the woods are black. There is a tremendous impression
of isolation and lonesomeness in our situation. We are the prisoners
of the night. The woods never seemed so vast and mysterious. The
trees are gigantic. There are noises that we do not understand,--
mysterious winds passing overhead, and rambling in the great
galleries, tree-trunks grinding against each other, undefinable stirs
and uneasinesses. The shapes of those who pass into the dimness are
outlined in monstrous proportions. The spectres, seated about in the
glare of the fire, talk about appearances and presentiments and
religion. The guides cheer the night with bear-fights, and catamount
encounters, and frozen-to-death experiences, and simple tales of
great prolixity and no point, and jokes of primitive lucidity. We
hear catamounts, and the stealthy tread of things in the leaves, and
the hooting of owls, and, when the moon rises, the laughter of the
loon. Everything is strange, spectral, fascinating.
By and by we get our positions in the shanty for the night, and
arrange the row of sleepers. The shanty has become a smoke-house by
this time: waves of smoke roll into it from the fire. It is only by
lying down, and getting the head well under the eaves, that one can
breathe. No one can find her "things"; nobody has a pillow. At
length the row is laid out, with the solemn protestation of intention
to sleep. The wind, shifting, drives away the smoke.
Good-night is said a hundred times; positions are readjusted, more
last words, new shifting about, final remarks; it is all so
comfortable and romantic; and then silence. Silence continues for a
minute. The fire flashes up; all the row of heads is lifted up
simultaneously to watch it; showers of sparks sail aloft into the
blue night; the vast vault of greenery is a fairy spectacle. How the
sparks mount and twinkle and disappear like tropical fireflies, and
all the leaves murmur, and clap their hands! Some of the sparks do
not go out: we see them flaming in the sky when the flame of the fire
has died down. Well, good-night, goodnight. More folding of the
arms to sleep; more grumbling about the hardness of a hand-bag, or
the insufficiency of a pocket-handkerchief, for a pillow. Good-
night. Was that a remark?--something about a root, a stub in the
ground sticking into the back. "You couldn't lie along a hair?"---
"Well, no: here's another stub. It needs but a moment for the
conversation to become general,--about roots under the shoulder,
stubs in the back, a ridge on which it is impossible for the sleeper
to balance, the non-elasticity of boughs, the hardness of the ground,
the heat, the smoke, the chilly air. Subjects of remarks multiply.
The whole camp is awake, and chattering like an aviary. The owl is
also awake; but the guides who are asleep outside make more noise
than the owls. Water is wanted, and is handed about in a dipper.
Everybody is yawning; everybody is now determined to go to sleep in
good earnest. A last good-night. There is an appalling silence. It
is interrupted in the most natural way in the world. Somebody has
got the start, and gone to sleep. He proclaims the fact. He seems
to have been brought up on the seashore, and to know how to make all
the deep-toned noises of the restless ocean. He is also like a war-
horse; or, it is suggested, like a saw-horse. How malignantly he
snorts, and breaks off short, and at once begins again in another
key! One head is raised after another.
"Who is that?"
"Somebody punch him."
"Turn him over."
"Reason with him."
The sleeper is turned over. The turn was a mistake. He was before,
it appears, on his most agreeable side. The camp rises in
indignation. The sleeper sits up in bewilderment. Before he can go
off again, two or three others have preceded him. They are all
alike. You never can judge what a person is when he is awake. There
are here half a dozen disturbers of the peace who should be put in
solitary confinement. At midnight, when a philosopher crawls out to
sit on a log by the fire, and smoke a pipe, a duet in tenor and
mezzo-soprano is going on in the shanty, with a chorus always coming
in at the wrong time. Those who are not asleep want to know why the
smoker doesn't go to bed. He is requested to get some water, to
throw on another log, to see what time it is, to note whether it
looks like rain. A buzz of conversation arises. She is sure she
heard something behind the shanty. He says it is all nonsense.
"Perhaps, however, it might be a mouse."
"Mercy! Are there mice?"
"Then that's what I heard nibbling by my head. I shan't sleep a
wink! Do they bite?"
"No, they nibble; scarcely ever take a full bite out."
Towards morning it grows chilly; the guides have let the fire go out;
the blankets will slip down. Anxiety begins to be expressed about
"What time does the sun rise?"
"Awful early. Did you sleep?
"Not a wink. And you?"
"In spots. I'm going to dig up this root as soon as it is light
"See that mist on the lake, and the light just coming on the Gothics!
I'd no idea it was so cold: all the first part of the night I was
"What were they talking about all night?
When the party crawls out to the early breakfast, after it has washed
its faces in the lake, it is disorganized, but cheerful. Nobody
admits much sleep; but everybody is refreshed, and declares it
delightful. It is the fresh air all night that invigorates; or maybe
it is the tea, or the slap-jacks. The guides have erected a table of
spruce bark, with benches at the sides; so that breakfast is taken in
form. It is served on tin plates and oak chips. After breakfast
begins the day's work. It may be a mountain-climbing expedition, or
rowing and angling in the lake, or fishing for trout in some stream
two or three miles distant. Nobody can stir far from camp without a
guide. Hammocks are swung, bowers are built novel-reading begins,
worsted work appears, cards are shuffled and dealt. The day passes
in absolute freedom from responsibility to one's self. At night when
the expeditions return, the camp resumes its animation. Adventures
are recounted, every statement of the narrator being disputed and
argued. Everybody has become an adept in woodcraft; but nobody
credits his neighbor with like instinct. Society getting resolved
into its elements, confidence is gone.
Whilst the hilarious party are at supper, a drop or two of rain
falls. The head guide is appealed to. Is it going to rain? He says
it does rain. But will it be a rainy night? The guide goes down to
the lake, looks at the sky, and concludes that, if the wind shifts a
p'int more, there is no telling what sort of weather we shall have.
Meantime the drops patter thicker on the leaves overhead, and the
leaves, in turn, pass the water down to the table; the sky darkens;
the wind rises; there is a kind of shiver in the woods; and we scud
away into the shanty, taking the remains of our supper, and eating it
as best we can. The rain increases. The fire sputters and fumes.
All the trees are dripping, dripping, and the ground is wet. We
cannot step outdoors without getting a drenching. Like sheep, we are
penned in the little hut, where no one can stand erect. The rain
swirls into the open front, and wets the bottom of the blankets. The
smoke drives in. We curl up, and enjoy ourselves. The guides at
length conclude that it is going to be damp. The dismal situation
sets us all into good spirits; and it is later than the night before
when we crawl under our blankets, sure this time of a sound sleep,
lulled by the storm and the rain resounding on the bark roof. How
much better off we are than many a shelter-less wretch! We are as
snug as dry herrings. At the moment, however, of dropping off to
sleep, somebody unfortunately notes a drop of water on his face; this
is followed by another drop; in an instant a stream is established.
He moves his head to a dry place. Scarcely has he done so, when he
feels a dampness in his back. Reaching his hand outside, he finds a
puddle of water soaking through his blanket. By this time, somebody
inquires if it is possible that the roof leaks. One man has a stream
of water under him; another says it is coming into his ear. The roof
appears to be a discriminating sieve. Those who are dry see no need
of such a fuss. The man in the corner spreads his umbrella, and the
protective measure is resented by his neighbor. In the darkness
there is recrimination. One of the guides, who is summoned, suggests
that the rubber blankets be passed out, and spread over the roof.
The inmates dislike the proposal, saying that a shower-bath is no
worse than a tub-bath. The rain continues to soak down. The fire is
only half alive. The bedding is damp. Some sit up, if they can find
a dry spot to sit on, and smoke. Heartless observations are made. A
few sleep. And the night wears on. The morning opens cheerless.
The sky is still leaking, and so is the shanty. The guides bring in
a half-cooked breakfast. The roof is patched up. There are reviving
signs of breaking away, delusive signs that create momentary
exhilaration. Even if the storm clears, the woods are soaked. There
is no chance of stirring. The world is only ten feet square.
This life, without responsibility or clean clothes, may continue as
long as the reader desires. There are, those who would like to live
in this free fashion forever, taking rain and sun as heaven pleases;
and there are some souls so constituted that they cannot exist more
than three days without their worldly--baggage. Taking the party
altogether, from one cause or another it is likely to strike camp
sooner than was intended. And the stricken camp is a melancholy
sight. The woods have been despoiled; the stumps are ugly; the
bushes are scorched; the pine-leaf-strewn earth is trodden into mire;
the landing looks like a cattle-ford; the ground is littered with all
the unsightly dibris of a hand-to-hand life; the dismantled shanty is
a shabby object; the charred and blackened logs, where the fire
blazed, suggest the extinction of family life. Man has wrought his
usual wrong upon Nature, and he can save his self-respect only by
moving to virgin forests.
And move to them he will, the next season, if not this. For he who
has once experienced the fascination of the woods-life never escapes
its enticement: in the memory nothing remains but its charm.
A WILDERNESS ROMANCE
At the south end of Keene Valley, in the Adirondacks, stands Noon
Mark, a shapely peak thirty-five hundred feet above the sea, which,
with the aid of the sun, tells the Keene people when it is time to
eat dinner. From its summit you look south into a vast wilderness
basin, a great stretch of forest little trodden, and out of whose
bosom you can hear from the heights on a still day the loud murmur of
the Boquet. This basin of unbroken green rises away to the south and
southeast into the rocky heights of Dix's Peak and Nipple Top,--the
latter a local name which neither the mountain nor the fastidious
tourist is able to shake off. Indeed, so long as the mountain keeps
its present shape as seen from the southern lowlands, it cannot get
on without this name.
These two mountains, which belong to the great system of which Marcy
is the giant centre, and are in the neighborhood of five thousand
feet high, on the southern outposts of the great mountains, form the
gate-posts of the pass into the south country. This opening between
them is called Hunter's Pass. It is the most elevated and one of the
wildest of the mountain passes. Its summit is thirty-five hundred
feet high. In former years it is presumed the hunters occasionally
followed the game through; but latterly it is rare to find a guide
who has been that way, and the tin-can and paper-collar tourists have
not yet made it a runway. This seclusion is due not to any inherent
difficulty of travel, but to the fact that it lies a little out of
We went through it last summer; making our way into the jaws from the
foot of the great slides on Dix, keeping along the ragged spurs of
the mountain through the virgin forest. The pass is narrow, walled
in on each side by precipices of granite, and blocked up with
bowlders and fallen trees, and beset with pitfalls in the roads
ingeniously covered with fair-seeming moss. When the climber
occasionally loses sight of a leg in one of these treacherous holes,
and feels a cold sensation in his foot, he learns that he has dipped
into the sources of the Boquet, which emerges lower down into falls
and rapids, and, recruited by creeping tributaries, goes brawling
through the forest basin, and at last comes out an amiable and boat-
bearing stream in the valley of Elizabeth Town. From the summit
another rivulet trickles away to the south, and finds its way through
a frightful tamarack swamp, and through woods scarred by ruthless
lumbering, to Mud Pond, a quiet body of water, with a ghastly fringe
of dead trees, upon which people of grand intentions and weak
vocabulary are trying to fix the name of Elk Lake. The descent of
the pass on that side is precipitous and exciting. The way is in the
stream itself; and a considerable portion of the distance we swung
ourselves down the faces of considerable falls, and tumbled down
cascades. The descent, however, was made easy by the fact that it
rained, and every footstep was yielding and slippery. Why sane
people, often church-members respectably connected, will subject
themselves to this sort of treatment,--be wet to the skin, bruised by
the rocks, and flung about among the bushes and dead wood until the
most necessary part of their apparel hangs in shreds,--is one of the
delightful mysteries of these woods. I suspect that every man is at
heart a roving animal, and likes, at intervals, to revert to the
condition of the bear and the catamount.
There is no trail through Hunter's Pass, which, as I have intimated,
is the least frequented portion of this wilderness. Yet we were
surprised to find a well-beaten path a considerable portion of the
way and wherever a path is possible. It was not a mere deer's
runway: these are found everywhere in the mountains. It is trodden
by other and larger animals, and is, no doubt, the highway of beasts.
It bears marks of having been so for a long period, and probably a
period long ago. Large animals are not common in these woods now,
and you seldom meet anything fiercer than the timid deer and the
gentle bear. But in days gone by, Hunter's Pass was the highway of
the whole caravan of animals who were continually going backward; and
forwards, in the aimless, roaming way that beasts have, between Mud
Pond and the Boquet Basin. I think I can see now the procession of
them between the heights of Dix and Nipple Top; the elk and the moose
shambling along, cropping the twigs; the heavy bear lounging by with
his exploring nose; the frightened deer trembling at every twig that
snapped beneath his little hoofs, intent on the lily-pads of the
pond; the raccoon and the hedgehog, sidling along; and the velvet-
footed panther, insouciant and conscienceless, scenting the path with
a curious glow in his eye, or crouching in an overhanging tree ready
to drop into the procession at the right moment. Night and day, year
after year, I see them going by, watched by the red fox and the
comfortably clad sable, and grinned at by the black cat,--the
innocent, the vicious, the timid and the savage, the shy and the
bold, the chattering slanderer and the screaming prowler, the
industrious and the peaceful, the tree-top critic and the crawling
biter,--just as it is elsewhere. It makes me blush for my species
when I think of it. This charming society is nearly extinct now: of
the larger animals there only remain the bear, who minds his own
business more thoroughly than any person I know, and the deer, who
would like to be friendly with men, but whose winning face and gentle
ways are no protection from the savageness of man, and who is treated
with the same unpitying destruction as the snarling catamount. I
have read in history that the amiable natives of Hispaniola fared no
better at the hands of the brutal Spaniards than the fierce and
warlike Caribs. As society is at present constituted in Christian
countries, I would rather for my own security be a cougar than a
There is not much of romantic interest in the Adirondacks. Out of
the books of daring travelers, nothing. I do not know that the Keene
Valley has any history. The mountains always stood here, and the Au
Sable, flowing now in shallows and now in rippling reaches over the
sands and pebbles, has for ages filled the air with continuous and
soothing sounds. Before the Vermonters broke into it some three-
quarters of a century ago, and made meadows of its bottoms and sugar-
camps of its fringing woods, I suppose the red Indian lived here in
his usual discomfort, and was as restless as his successors, the
summer boarders. But the streams were full of trout then, and the
moose and the elk left their broad tracks on the sands of the river.
But of the Indian there is no trace. There is a mound in the valley,
much like a Tel in the country of Bashan beyond the Jordan, that may
have been built by some pre-historic race, and may contain treasure
and the seated figure of a preserved chieftain on his slow way to
Paradise. What the gentle and accomplished race of the Mound-
Builders should want in this savage region where the frost kills the
early potatoes and stunts the scanty oats, I do not know. I have
seen no trace of them, except this Tel, and one other slight relic,
which came to light last summer, and is not enough to found the
history of a race upon.
Some workingmen, getting stone from the hillside on one of the little
plateaus, for a house-cellar, discovered, partly embedded, a piece of
pottery unique in this region. With the unerring instinct of workmen
in regard to antiquities, they thrust a crowbar through it, and broke
the bowl into several pieces. The joint fragments, however, give us
the form of the dish. It is a bowl about nine inches high and eight
inches across, made of red clay, baked but not glazed. The bottom is
round, the top flares into four comers, and the rim is rudely but
rather artistically ornamented with criss-cross scratches made when
the clay was soft. The vessel is made of clay not found about here,
and it is one that the Indians formerly living here could not form.
Was it brought here by roving Indians who may have made an expedition
to the Ohio; was it passed from tribe to tribe; or did it belong to a
race that occupied the country before the Indian, and who have left
traces of their civilized skill in pottery scattered all over the
If I could establish the fact that this jar was made by a prehistoric
race, we should then have four generations in this lovely valley:-the
amiable Pre-Historic people (whose gentle descendants were probably
killed by the Spaniards in the West Indies); the Red Indians; the
Keene Flaters (from Vermont); and the Summer Boarders, to say nothing
of the various races of animals who have been unable to live here
since the advent of the Summer Boarders, the valley being not
productive enough to sustain both. This last incursion has been more
destructive to the noble serenity of the forest than all the
But we are wandering from Hunter's Pass. The western walls of it are
formed by the precipices of Nipple Top, not so striking nor so bare
as the great slides of Dix which glisten in the sun like silver, but
rough and repelling, and consequently alluring. I have a great
desire to scale them. I have always had an unreasonable wish to
explore the rough summit of this crabbed hill, which is too broken
and jagged for pleasure and not high enough for glory. This desire
was stimulated by a legend related by our guide that night in the Mud
Pond cabin. The guide had never been through the pass before;
although he was familiar with the region, and had ascended Nipple Top
in the winter in pursuit of the sable. The story he told doesn't
amount to much, none of the guides' stories do, faithfully reported,
and I should not have believed it if I had not had a good deal of
leisure on my hands at the time, and been of a willing mind, and I
may say in rather of a starved condition as to any romance in this
The guide said then--and he mentioned it casually, in reply to our
inquiries about ascending the mountain--that there was a cave high up
among the precipices on the southeast side of Nipple Top. He
scarcely volunteered the information, and with seeming reluctance
gave us any particulars about it. I always admire this art by which
the accomplished story-teller lets his listener drag the reluctant
tale of the marvelous from him, and makes you in a manner responsible
for its improbability. If this is well managed, the listener is
always eager to believe a great deal more than the romancer seems
willing to tell, and always resents the assumed reservations and
doubts of the latter.
There were strange reports about this cave when the old guide was a
boy, and even then its very existence had become legendary. Nobody
knew exactly where it was, but there was no doubt that it had been
inhabited. Hunters in the forests south of Dix had seen a light late
at night twinkling through the trees high up the mountain, and now
and then a ruddy glare as from the flaring-up of a furnace. Settlers
were few in the wilderness then, and all the inhabitants were well
known. If the cave was inhabited, it must be by strangers, and by
men who had some secret purpose in seeking this seclusion and eluding
observation. If suspicious characters were seen about Port Henry, or
if any such landed from the steamers on the shore of Lake Champlain,
it was impossible to identify them with these invaders who were never
seen. Their not being seen did not, however, prevent the growth of
the belief in their existence. Little indications and rumors, each
trivial in itself, became a mass of testimony that could not be
disposed of because of its very indefiniteness, but which appealed
strongly to man's noblest faculty, his imagination, or credulity.
The cave existed; and it was inhabited by men who came and went on
mysterious errands, and transacted their business by night. What
this band of adventurers or desperadoes lived on, how they conveyed
their food through the trackless woods to their high eyrie, and what
could induce men to seek such a retreat, were questions discussed,
but never settled. They might be banditti; but there was nothing to
plunder in these savage wilds, and, in fact, robberies and raids
either in the settlements of the hills or the distant lake shore were
unknown. In another age, these might have been hermits, holy men who
had retired from the world to feed the vanity of their godliness in a
spot where they were subject neither to interruption nor comparison;
they would have had a shrine in the cave, and an image of the Blessed
Virgin, with a lamp always burning before it and sending out its
mellow light over the savage waste. A more probable notion was that
they were romantic Frenchmen who had grow weary of vice and
refinement together,--possibly princes, expectants of the throne,
Bourbon remainders, named Williams or otherwise, unhatched eggs, so
to speak, of kings, who had withdrawn out of observation to wait for
the next turn-over in Paris. Frenchmen do such things. If they were
not Frenchmen, they might be honest-thieves or criminals, escaped
from justice or from the friendly state-prison of New York. This
last supposition was, however, more violent than the others, or seems
so to us in this day of grace. For what well-brought-up New York
criminal would be so insane as to run away from his political friends
the keepers, from the easily had companionship of his pals outside,
and from the society of his criminal lawyer, and, in short, to put
himself into the depths of a wilderness out of which escape, when
escape was desired, is a good deal more difficult than it is out of
the swarming jails of the Empire State? Besides, how foolish for a
man, if he were a really hardened and professional criminal, having
established connections and a regular business, to run away from the
governor's pardon, which might have difficulty in finding him in the
craggy bosom of Nipple Top!
This gang of men--there is some doubt whether they were accompanied
by women--gave little evidence in their appearance of being escaped
criminals or expectant kings. Their movements were mysterious but
not necessarily violent. If their occupation could have been
discovered, that would have furnished a clew to their true character.
But about this the strangers were as close as mice. If anything
could betray them, it was the steady light from the cavern, and its
occasional ruddy flashing. This gave rise to the opinion, which was
strengthened by a good many indications equally conclusive, that the
cave was the resort of a gang of coiners and counterfeiters. Here
they had their furnace, smelting-pots, and dies; here they
manufactured those spurious quarters and halves that their
confidants, who were pardoned, were circulating, and which a few
honest men were "nailing to the counter."
This prosaic explanation of a romantic situation satisfies all the
requirements of the known facts, but the lively imagination at once
rejects it as unworthy of the subject. I think the guide put it
forward in order to have it rejected. The fact is,--at least, it has
never been disproved,--these strangers whose movements were veiled
belonged to that dark and mysterious race whose presence anywhere on
this continent is a nest-egg of romance or of terror. They were
Spaniards! You need not say buccaneers, you need not say gold-
hunters, you need not say swarthy adventurers even: it is enough to
say Spaniards! There is no tale of mystery and fanaticism and daring
I would not believe if a Spaniard is the hero of it, and it is not
necessary either that he should have the high-sounding name of
Bodadilla or Ojeda.
Nobody, I suppose, would doubt this story if the moose, quaffing deep
draughts of red wine from silver tankards, and then throwing
themselves back upon divans, and lazily puffing the fragrant Havana.
After a day of toil, what more natural, and what more probable for a
Does the reader think these inferences not warranted by the facts?
He does not know the facts. It is true that our guide had never
himself personally visited the cave, but he has always intended to
hunt it up. His information in regard to it comes from his father,
who was a mighty hunter and trapper. In one of his expeditions over
Nipple Top he chanced upon the cave. The mouth was half concealed by
undergrowth. He entered, not without some apprehension engendered by
the legends which make it famous. I think he showed some boldness in
venturing into such a place alone. I confess that, before I went in,
I should want to fire a Gatling gun into the mouth for a little
while, in order to rout out the bears which usually dwell there. He
went in, however. The entrance was low; but the cave was spacious,
not large, but big enough, with a level floor and a vaulted ceiling.
It had long been deserted, but that it was once the residence of
highly civilized beings there could be no doubt. The dead brands in
the centre were the remains of a fire that could not have been
kindled by wild beasts, and the bones scattered about had been
scientifically dissected and handled. There were also remnants of
furniture and pieces of garments scattered about. At the farther
end, in a fissure of the rock, were stones regularly built up, the
rem Yins of a larger fire,--and what the hunter did not doubt was the
smelting furnace of the Spaniards. He poked about in the ashes, but
found no silver. That had all been carried away.
But what most provoked his wonder in this rude cave was a chair I
This was not such a seat as a woodman might knock up with an axe,
with rough body and a seat of woven splits, but a manufactured chair
of commerce, and a chair, too, of an unusual pattern and some
elegance. This chair itself was a mute witness of luxury and
mystery. The chair itself might have been accounted for, though I
don't know how; but upon the back of the chair hung, as if the owner
had carelessly flung it there before going out an hour before, a
man's waistcoat. This waistcoat seemed to him of foreign make and
peculiar style, but what endeared it to him was its row of metal
buttons. These buttons were of silver! I forget now whether he did
not say they were of silver coin, and that the coin was Spanish. But
I am not certain about this latter fact, and I wish to cast no air of
improbability over my narrative. This rich vestment the hunter
carried away with him. This was all the plunder his expedition
afforded. Yes: there was one other article, and, to my mind, more
significant than the vest of the hidalgo. This was a short and stout
crowbar of iron; not one of the long crowbars that farmers use to pry
up stones, but a short handy one, such as you would use in digging
silver-ore out of the cracks of rocks.
This was the guide's simple story. I asked him what became of the
vest and the buttons, and the bar of iron. The old man wore the vest
until he wore it out; and then he handed it over to the boys, and
they wore it in turn till they wore it out. The buttons were cut
off, and kept as curiosities. They were about the cabin, and the
children had them to play with. The guide distinctly remembers
playing with them; one of them he kept for a long time, and he didn't
know but he could find it now, but he guessed it had disappeared. I
regretted that he had not treasured this slender verification of an
interesting romance, but he said in those days he never paid much
attention to such things. Lately he has turned the subject over, and
is sorry that his father wore out the vest and did not bring away the
chair. It is his steady purpose to find the cave some time when he
has leisure, and capture the chair, if it has not tumbled to pieces.
But about the crowbar? Oh I that is all right. The guide has the
bar at his house in Keene Valley, and has always used it.
I am happy to be able to confirm this story by saying that next
day I saw the crowbar, and had it in my hand. It is short and thick,
and the most interesting kind of crowbar. This evidence is enough
for me. I intend in the course of this vacation to search for the
cave; and, if I find it, my readers shall know the truth about it, if
it destroys the only bit of romance connected with these mountains.
WHAT SOME PEOPLE CALL PLEASURE
My readers were promised an account of Spaniard's Cave on Nipple-Top
Mountain in the Adirondacks, if such a cave exists, and could be
found. There is none but negative evidence that this is a mere cave
of the imagination, the void fancy of a vacant hour; but it is the
duty of the historian to present the negative testimony of a
fruitless expedition in search of it, made last summer. I beg leave
to offer this in the simple language befitting all sincere exploits
of a geographical character.
The summit of Nipple-Top Mountain has been trodden by few white men
of good character: it is in the heart of a hirsute wilderness; it is
itself a rough and unsocial pile of granite nearly five thousand feet
high, bristling with a stunted and unpleasant growth of firs and
balsams, and there is no earthly reason why a person should go there.
Therefore we went. In the party of three there was, of course, a
chaplain. The guide was Old Mountain Phelps, who had made the ascent
once before, but not from the northwest side, the direction from
which we approached it. The enthusiasm of this philosopher has grown
with his years, and outlived his endurance: we carried our own
knapsacks and supplies, therefore, and drew upon him for nothing but
moral reflections and a general knowledge of the wilderness. Our
first day's route was through the Gill-brook woods and up one of its
branches to the head of Caribou Pass, which separates Nipple Top from
It was about the first of September; no rain had fallen for several
weeks, and this heart of the forest was as dry as tinder; a lighted
match dropped anywhere would start a conflagration. This dryness has
its advantages: the walking is improved; the long heat has expressed
all the spicy odors of the cedars and balsams, and the woods are
filled with a soothing fragrance; the waters of the streams, though
scant and clear, are cold as ice; the common forest chill is gone
from the air. The afternoon was bright; there was a feeling of
exultation and adventure in stepping off into the open but pathless
forest; the great stems of deciduous trees were mottled with patches
of sunlight, which brought out upon the variegated barks and mosses
of the old trunks a thousand shifting hues. There is nothing like a
primeval wood for color on a sunny day. The shades of green and
brown are infinite; the dull red of the hemlock bark glows in the
sun, the russet of the changing moose-bush becomes brilliant; there
are silvery openings here and there; and everywhere the columns rise
up to the canopy of tender green which supports the intense blue sky
and holds up a part of it from falling through in fragments to the
floor of the forest. Decorators can learn here how Nature dares to
put blue and green in juxtaposition: she has evidently the secret of
harmonizing all the colors.
The way, as we ascended, was not all through open woods; dense masses
of firs were encountered, jagged spurs were to be crossed, and the
going became at length so slow and toilsome that we took to the rocky
bed of a stream, where bowlders and flumes and cascades offered us
sufficient variety. The deeper we penetrated, the greater the sense
of savageness and solitude; in the silence of these hidden places one
seems to approach the beginning of things. We emerged from the
defile into an open basin, formed by the curved side of the mountain,
and stood silent before a waterfall coming down out of the sky in the
centre of the curve. I do not know anything exactly like this fall,
which some poetical explorer has named the Fairy-Ladder Falls. It
appears to have a height of something like a hundred and fifty feet,
and the water falls obliquely across the face of the cliff from left
to right in short steps, which in the moonlight might seem like a
veritable ladder for fairies. Our impression of its height was
confirmed by climbing the very steep slope at its side some three or
four hundred feet. At the top we found the stream flowing over a
broad bed of rock, like a street in the wilderness, slanting up still
towards the sky, and bordered by low firs and balsams, and bowlders
completely covered with moss. It was above the world and open to the
On account of the tindery condition of the woods we made our fire on
the natural pavement, and selected a smooth place for our bed near by
on the flat rock, with a pool of limpid water at the foot. This
granite couch we covered with the dry and springy moss, which we
stripped off in heavy fleeces a foot thick from the bowlders. First,
however, we fed upon the fruit that was offered us. Over these hills
of moss ran an exquisite vine with a tiny, ovate, green leaf, bearing
small, delicate berries, oblong and white as wax, having a faint
flavor of wintergreen and the slightest acid taste, the very essence
of the wilderness; fairy food, no doubt, and too refined for palates
accustomed to coarser viands. There must exist somewhere sinless
women who could eat these berries without being reminded of the lost
purity and delicacy of the primeval senses. Every year I doubt not
this stainless berry ripens here, and is unplucked by any knight of
the Holy Grail who is worthy to eat it, and keeps alive, in the
prodigality of nature, the tradition of the unperverted conditions of
taste before the fall. We ate these berries, I am bound to say, with
a sense of guilty enjoyment, as if they had been a sort of shew-bread
of the wilderness, though I cannot answer for the chaplain, who is by
virtue of his office a little nearer to these mysteries of nature
than I. This plant belongs to the heath family, and is first cousin
to the blueberry and cranberry. It is commonly called the creeping
snowberry, but I like better its official title of chiogenes,--the
Our mossy resting-place was named the Bridal Chamber Camp, in the
enthusiasm of the hour, after darkness fell upon the woods and the
stars came out. We were two thousand five hundred feet above the
common world. We lay, as it were, on a shelf in the sky, with a
basin of illimitable forests below us and dim mountain-passes-in the
And as we lay there courting sleep which the blinking stars refused
to shower down, our philosopher discoursed to us of the principle of
fire, which he holds, with the ancients, to be an independent element
that comes and goes in a mysterious manner, as we see flame spring up
and vanish, and is in some way vital and indestructible, and has a
mysterious relation to the source of all things. "That flame," he
says, "you have put out, but where has it gone?" We could not say,
nor whether it is anything like the spirit of a man which is here for
a little hour, and then vanishes away. Our own philosophy of the
correlation of forces found no sort of favor at that elevation, and
we went to sleep leaving the principle of fire in the apostolic
category of " any other creature."
At daylight we were astir; and, having pressed the principle of fire
into our service to make a pot of tea, we carefully extinguished it
or sent it into another place, and addressed ourselves to the climb
of some thing over two thousand feet. The arduous labor of scaling
an Alpine peak has a compensating glory; but the dead lift of our
bodies up Nipple Top had no stimulus of this sort. It is simply hard
work, for which the strained muscles only get the approbation of the
individual conscience that drives them to the task. The pleasure of
such an ascent is difficult to explain on the spot, and I suspect
consists not so much in positive enjoyment as in the delight the mind
experiences in tyrannizing over the body. I do not object to the
elevation of this mountain, nor to the uncommonly steep grade by
which it attains it, but only to the other obstacles thrown in the
way of the climber. All the slopes of Nipple Top are hirsute and
jagged to the last degree. Granite ledges interpose; granite
bowlders seem to have been dumped over the sides with no more attempt
at arrangement than in a rip-rap wall; the slashes and windfalls of a
century present here and there an almost impenetrable chevalier des
arbres; and the steep sides bristle with a mass of thick balsams,
with dead, protruding spikes, as unyielding as iron stakes. The
mountain has had its own way forever, and is as untamed as a wolf; or
rather the elements, the frightful tempests, the frosts, the heavy
snows, the coaxing sun, and the avalanches have had their way with it
until its surface is in hopeless confusion. We made our way very
slowly; and it was ten o'clock before we reached what appeared to be
the summit, a ridge deeply covered with moss, low balsams, and
I say, appeared to be; for we stood in thick fog or in the heart of
clouds which limited our dim view to a radius of twenty feet. It was
a warm and cheerful fog, stirred by little wind, but moving,
shifting, and boiling as by its own volatile nature, rolling up black
from below and dancing in silvery splendor overhead As a fog it could
not have been improved; as a medium for viewing the landscape it was
a failure and we lay down upon the Sybarite couch of moss, as in a
Russian bath, to await revelations.
We waited two hours without change, except an occasional hopeful
lightness in the fog above, and at last the appearance for a moment
of the spectral sun. Only for an instant was this luminous promise
vouchsafed. But we watched in intense excitement. There it was
again; and this time the fog was so thin overhead that we caught
sight of a patch of blue sky a yard square, across which the curtain
was instantly drawn. A little wind was stirring, and the fog boiled
up from the valley caldrons thicker than ever. But the spell was
broken. In a moment more Old Phelps was shouting, "The sun!" and
before we could gain our feet there was a patch of sky overhead as
big as a farm. "See! quick!" The old man was dancing like a
lunatic. There was a rift in the vapor at our feet, down, down,
three thousand feet into the forest abyss, and lo! lifting out of it
yonder the tawny side of Dix,--the vision of a second, snatched away
in the rolling fog. The play had just begun. Before we could turn,
there was the gorge of Caribou Pass, savage and dark, visible to the
bottom. The opening shut as suddenly; and then, looking over the
clouds, miles away we saw the peaceful farms of the Au Sable Valley,
and in a moment more the plateau of North Elba and the sentinel
mountains about the grave of John Brown. These glimpses were as
fleeting as thought, and instantly we were again isolated in the sea
of mist. The expectation of these sudden strokes of sublimity kept
us exultingly on the alert; and yet it was a blow of surprise when
the curtain was swiftly withdrawn on the west, and the long ridge of
Colvin, seemingly within a stone's throw, heaved up like an island
out of the ocean, and was the next moment ingulfed. We waited longer
for Dix to show its shapely peak and its glistening sides of rock
gashed by avalanches. The fantastic clouds, torn and streaming,
hurried up from the south in haste as if to a witch's rendezvous,
hiding and disclosing the great summit in their flight. The mist
boiled up from the valley, whirled over the summit where we stood,
and plunged again into the depths. Objects were forming and
disappearing, shifting and dancing, now in sun and now gone in fog,
and in the elemental whirl we felt that we were "assisting" in an
original process of creation. The sun strove, and his very striving
called up new vapors; the wind rent away the clouds, and brought new
masses to surge about us; and the spectacle to right and left, above
and below, changed with incredible swiftness. Such glory of abyss
and summit, of color and form and transformation, is seldom granted
to mortal eyes. For an hour we watched it until our vast mountain
was revealed in all its bulk, its long spurs, its abysses and its
savagery, and the great basins of wilderness with their shining
lakes, and the giant peaks of the region, were one by one disclosed,
and hidden and again tranquil in the sunshine.
Where was the cave? There was ample surface in which to look for it.
If we could have flitted about, like the hawks that came circling
round, over the steep slopes, the long spurs, the jagged precipices,
I have no doubt we should have found it. But moving about on this
mountain is not a holiday pastime; and we were chiefly anxious to
discover a practicable mode of descent into the great wilderness
basin on the south, which we must traverse that afternoon before
reaching the hospitable shanty on Mud Pond. It was enough for us to
have discovered the general whereabouts of the Spanish Cave, and we
left the fixing of its exact position to future explorers.
The spur we chose for our escape looked smooth in the distance; but
we found it bristling with obstructions, dead balsams set thickly
together, slashes of fallen timber, and every manner of woody chaos;
and when at length we swung and tumbled off the ledge to the general
slope, we exchanged only for more disagreeable going. The slope for
a couple of thousand feet was steep enough; but it was formed of
granite rocks all moss-covered, so that the footing could not be
determined, and at short intervals we nearly went out of sight in
holes under the treacherous carpeting. Add to this that stems of
great trees were laid longitudinally and transversely and criss-cross
over and among the rocks, and the reader can see that a good deal of
work needs to be done to make this a practicable highway for anything
but a squirrel....
We had had no water since our daylight breakfast: our lunch on the
mountain had been moistened only by the fog. Our thirst began to be
that of Tantalus, because we could hear the water running deep down
among the rocks, but we could not come at it. The imagination drank
the living stream, and we realized anew what delusive food the
imagination furnishes in an actual strait. A good deal of the crime
of this world, I am convinced, is the direct result of the unlicensed
play of the imagination in adverse circumstances. This reflection
had nothing to do with our actual situation; for we added to our
imagination patience, and to our patience long-suffering, and
probably all the Christian virtues would have been developed in us if
the descent had been long enough. Before we reached the bottom of
Caribou Pass, the water burst out from the rocks in a clear stream
that was as cold as ice. Shortly after, we struck the roaring brook
that issues from the Pass to the south. It is a stream full of
character, not navigable even for trout in the upper part, but a
succession of falls, cascades, flumes, and pools that would delight
an artist. It is not an easy bed for anything except water to
descend; and before we reached the level reaches, where the stream
flows with a murmurous noise through open woods, one of our party
began to show signs of exhaustion.
This was Old Phelps, whose appetite had failed the day before,--his
imagination being in better working order than his stomach: he had
eaten little that day, and his legs became so groggy that he was
obliged to rest at short intervals. Here was a situation! The
afternoon was wearing away. We had six or seven miles of unknown
wilderness to traverse, a portion of it swampy, in which a progress
of more than a mile an hour is difficult, and the condition of the
guide compelled even a slower march. What should we do in that
lonesome solitude if the guide became disabled? We couldn't carry
him out; could we find our own way out to get assistance? The guide
himself had never been there before; and although he knew the general
direction of our point of egress, and was entirely adequate to
extricate himself from any position in the woods, his knowledge was
of that occult sort possessed by woodsmen which it is impossible to
communicate. Our object was to strike a trail that led from the Au
Sable Pond, the other side of the mountain-range, to an inlet on Mud
Pond. We knew that if we traveled southwestward far enough we must
strike that trail, but how far? No one could tell. If we reached
that trail, and found a boat at the inlet, there would be only a row
of a couple of miles to the house at the foot of the lake. If no
boat was there, then we must circle the lake three or four miles
farther through a cedar-swamp, with no trail in particular. The
prospect was not pleasing. We were short of supplies, for we had not
expected to pass that night in the woods. The pleasure of the
excursion began to develop itself.
We stumbled on in the general direction marked out, through a forest
that began to seem endless as hour after hour passed, compelled as we
were to make long detours over the ridges of the foothills to avoid
the swamp, which sent out from the border of the lake long tongues
into the firm ground. The guide became more ill at every step, and
needed frequent halts and long rests. Food he could not eat; and
tea, water, and even brandy he rejected. Again and again the old
philosopher, enfeebled by excessive exertion and illness, would
collapse in a heap on the ground, an almost comical picture of
despair, while we stood and waited the waning of the day, and peered
forward in vain for any sign of an open country. At every brook we
encountered, we suggested a halt for the night, while it was still
light enough to select a camping-place, but the plucky old man
wouldn't hear of it: the trail might be only a quarter of a mile
ahead, and we crawled on again at a snail's pace. His honor as a
guide seemed to be at stake; and, besides, he confessed to a notion
that his end was near, and he didn't want to die like a dog in the
woods. And yet, if this was his last journey, it seemed not an
inappropriate ending for the old woodsman to lie down and give up the
ghost in the midst of the untamed forest and the solemn silences he
felt most at home in. There is a popular theory, held by civilians,
that a soldier likes to die in battle. I suppose it is as true that
a woodsman would like to "pass in his chips,"--the figure seems to be
inevitable, struck down by illness and exposure, in the forest
solitude, with heaven in sight and a tree-root for his pillow.
The guide seemed really to fear that, if we did not get out of the
woods that night, he would never go out; and, yielding to his dogged
resolution, we kept on in search of the trail, although the gathering
of dusk over the ground warned us that we might easily cross the
trail without recognizing it. We were traveling by the light in the
upper sky, and by the forms of the tree-stems, which every moment
grew dimmer. At last the end came. We had just felt our way over
what seemed to be a little run of water, when the old man sunk down,
remarking, "I might as well die here as anywhere," and was silent.
Suddenly night fell like a blanket on us. We could neither see the
guide nor each other. We became at once conscious that miles of
night on all sides shut us in. The sky was clouded over: there
wasn't a gleam of light to show us where to step. Our first thought
was to build a fire, which would drive back the thick darkness into
the woods, and boil some water for our tea. But it was too dark to
use the axe. We scraped together leaves and twigs to make a blaze,
and, as this failed, such dead sticks as we could find by groping
about. The fire was only a temporary affair, but it sufficed to boil
a can of water. The water we obtained by feeling about the stones of
the little run for an opening big enough to dip our cup in. The
supper to be prepared was fortunately simple. It consisted of a
decoction of tea and other leaves which had got into the pail, and a
part of a loaf of bread. A loaf of bread which has been carried in a
knapsack for a couple of days, bruised and handled and hacked at with
a hunting-knife, becomes an uninteresting object. But we ate of it
with thankfulness, washed it down with hot fluid, and bitterly
thought of the morrow. Would our old friend survive the night?
Would he be in any condition to travel in the morning? How were we
to get out with him or without him?
The old man lay silent in the bushes out of sight, and desired only
to be let alone. We tried to tempt him with the offer of a piece of
toast: it was no temptation. Tea we thought would revive him: he
refused it. A drink of brandy would certainly quicken his life: he
couldn't touch it. We were at the end of our resources. He seemed
to think that if he were at home, and could get a bit of fried bacon,
or a piece of pie, he should be all right. We knew no more how to
doctor him than if he had been a sick bear. He withdrew within
himself, rolled himself up, so to speak, in his primitive habits, and
waited for the healing power of nature. Before our feeble fire
disappeared, we smoothed a level place near it for Phelps to lie on,
and got him over to it. But it didn't suit: it was too open. In
fact, at the moment some drops of rain fell. Rain was quite outside
of our program for the night. But the guide had an instinct about
it; and, while we were groping about some yards distant for a place
where we could lie down, he crawled away into the darkness, and
curled himself up amid the roots of a gigantic pine, very much as a
bear would do, I suppose, with his back against the trunk, and there
passed the night comparatively dry and comfortable; but of this we
knew nothing till morning, and had to trust to the assurance of a
voice out of the darkness that he was all right.
Our own bed where we spread our blankets was excellent in one
respect,--there was no danger of tumbling out of it. At first the
rain pattered gently on the leaves overhead, and we congratulated
ourselves on the snugness of our situation. There was something
cheerful about this free life. We contrasted our condition with that
of tired invalids who were tossing on downy beds, and wooing sleep in
vain. Nothing was so wholesome and invigorating as this bivouac in
the forest. But, somehow, sleep did not come. The rain had ceased
to patter, and began to fall with a steady determination, a sort of
soak, soak, all about us. In fact, it roared on the rubber blanket,
and beat in our faces. The wind began to stir a little, and there
was a moaning on high. Not contented with dripping, the rain was
driven into our faces. Another suspicious circumstance was noticed.
Little rills of water got established along the sides under the
blankets, cold, undeniable streams, that interfered with drowsiness.
Pools of water settled on the bed; and the chaplain had a habit of
moving suddenly, and letting a quart or two inside, and down my neck.
It began to be evident that we and our bed were probably the wettest
objects in the woods. The rubber was an excellent catch-all. There
was no trouble about ventilation, but we found that we had
established our quarters without any provision for drainage. There
was not exactly a wild tempest abroad; but there was a degree of
liveliness in the thrashing limbs and the creaking of the tree-
branches which rubbed against each other, and the pouring rain
increased in volume and power of penetration. Sleep was quite out of
the question, with so much to distract our attention. In fine, our
misery became so perfect that we both broke out into loud and
sarcastic laughter over the absurdity of our situation. We had
subjected ourselves to all this forlornness simply for pleasure.
Whether Old Phelps was still in existence, we couldn't tell: we could
get no response from him. With daylight, if he continued ill and
could not move, our situation would be little improved. Our supplies
were gone, we lay in a pond, a deluge of water was pouring down on
us. This was summer recreation. The whole thing was so excessively
absurd that we laughed again, louder than ever. We had plenty of
this sort of amusement. Suddenly through the night we heard a sort
of reply that started us bolt upright. This was a prolonged squawk.
It was like the voice of no beast or bird with which we were
familiar. At first it was distant; but it rapidly approached,
tearing through the night and apparently through the tree-tops, like
the harsh cry of a web-footed bird with a snarl in it; in fact, as I
said, a squawk. It came close to us, and then turned, and as rapidly
as it came fled away through the forest, and we lost the unearthly
noise far up the mountain-slope.
"What was that, Phelps? "we cried out. But no response came; and we
wondered if his spirit had been rent away, or if some evil genius had
sought it, and then, baffled by his serene and philosophic spirit,
had shot off into the void in rage and disappointment.
The night had no other adventure. The moon at length coming up
behind the clouds lent a spectral aspect to the forest, and deceived
us for a time into the notion that day was at hand; but the rain
never ceased, and we lay wishful and waiting, with no item of solid
misery wanting that we could conceive.
Day was slow a-coming, and didn't amount to much when it came, so
heavy were the clouds; but the rain slackened. We crawled out of our
water-cure "pack," and sought the guide. To our infinite relief he
announced himself not only alive, but in a going condition. I looked
at my watch. It had stopped at five o'clock. I poured the water out
of it, and shook it; but, not being constructed on the hydraulic
principle, it refused to go. Some hours later we encountered a
huntsman, from whom I procured some gun-grease; with this I filled
the watch, and heated it in by the fire. This is a most effectual
way of treating a delicate Genevan timepiece.
The light disclosed fully the suspected fact that our bed had been
made in a slight depression: the under rubber blanket spread in this
had prevented the rain from soaking into the ground, and we had been
lying in what was in fact a well-contrived bathtub. While Old Phelps
was pulling himself together, and we were wringing some gallons of
water out of our blankets, we questioned the old man about the
"squawk," and what bird was possessed of such a voice. It was not a
bird at all, he said, but a cat, the black-cat of the woods, larger
than the domestic animal, and an ugly customer, who is fond of fish,
and carries a pelt that is worth two or three dollars in the market.
Occasionally he blunders into a sable-trap; and he is altogether
hateful in his ways, and has the most uncultivated voice that is
heard in the woods. We shall remember him as one of the least
pleasant phantoms of that cheerful night when we lay in the storm,
fearing any moment the advent to one of us of the grimmest messenger.
We rolled up and shouldered our wet belongings, and, before the
shades had yet lifted from the saturated bushes, pursued our march.
It was a relief to be again in motion, although our progress was
slow, and it was a question every rod whether the guide could go on.
We had the day before us; but if we did not find a boat at the inlet
a day might not suffice, in the weak condition of the guide, to
extricate us from our ridiculous position. There was nothing heroic
in it; we had no object: it was merely, as it must appear by this
time, a pleasure excursion, and we might be lost or perish in it
without reward and with little sympathy. We had something like a
hour and a half of stumbling through the swamp when suddenly we stood
in the little trail! Slight as it was, it appeared to us a very
Broadway to Paradise if broad ways ever lead thither. Phelps hailed
it and sank down in it like one reprieved from death. But the boat?
Leaving him, we quickly ran a quarter of a mile down to the inlet.
The boat was there. Our shout to the guide would have roused him out
of a death-slumber. He came down the trail with the agility of an
aged deer: never was so glad a sound in his ear, he said, as that
shout. It was in a very jubilant mood that we emptied the boat of
water, pushed off, shipped the clumsy oars, and bent to the two-mile
row through the black waters of the winding, desolate channel, and
over the lake, whose dark waves were tossed a little in the morning
breeze. The trunks of dead trees stand about this lake, and all its
shores are ragged with ghastly drift-wood; but it was open to the
sky, and although the heavy clouds still obscured all the mountain-
ranges we had a sense of escape and freedom that almost made the
melancholy scene lovely.
How lightly past hardship sits upon us! All the misery of the night
vanished, as if it had not been, in the shelter of the log cabin at
Mud Pond, with dry clothes that fitted us as the skin of the bear
fits him in the spring, a noble breakfast, a toasting fire,
solicitude about our comfort, judicious sympathy with our suffering,
and willingness to hear the now growing tale of our adventure. Then
came, in a day of absolute idleness, while the showers came and went,
and the mountains appeared and disappeared in sun and storm, that
perfect physical enjoyment which consists in a feeling of strength
without any inclination to use it, and in a delicious languor which
is too enjoyable to be surrendered to sleep.
HOW SPRING CAME IN NEW ENGLAND
BY A READER OF "'93"
New England is the battle-ground of the seasons. It is La Vendee.
To conquer it is only to begin the fight. When it is completely
subdued, what kind of weather have you? None whatever.
What is this New England? A country? No: a camp. It is alternately
invaded by the hyperborean legions and by the wilting sirens of the
tropics. Icicles hang always on its northern heights; its seacoasts
are fringed with mosquitoes. There is for a third of the year a
contest between the icy air of the pole and the warm wind of the
gulf. The result of this is a compromise: the compromise is called
Thaw. It is the normal condition in New England. The New-Englander
is a person who is always just about to be warm and comfortable.
This is the stuff of which heroes and martyrs are made. A person
thoroughly heated or frozen is good for nothing. Look at the Bongos.
Examine (on the map) the Dog-Rib nation. The New-Englander, by
incessant activity, hopes to get warm. Edwards made his theology.
Thank God, New England is not in Paris!
Hudson's Bay, Labrador, Grinnell's Land, a whole zone of ice and
walruses, make it unpleasant for New England. This icy cover, like
the lid of a pot, is always suspended over it: when it shuts down,
that is winter. This would be intolerable, were it not for the Gulf
Stream. The Gulf Stream is a benign, liquid force, flowing from
under the ribs of the equator,--a white knight of the South going up
to battle the giant of the North. The two meet in New England, and
have it out there.
This is the theory; but, in fact, the Gulf Stream is mostly a
delusion as to New England. For Ireland it is quite another thing.
Potatoes ripen in Ireland before they are planted in New England.
That is the reason the Irish emigrate--they desire two crops the same
year. The Gulf Stream gets shunted off from New England by the
formation of the coast below: besides, it is too shallow to be of any
service. Icebergs float down against its surface-current, and fill
all the New-England air with the chill of death till June: after that
the fogs drift down from Newfoundland. There never was such a
mockery as this Gulf Stream. It is like the English influence on
France, on Europe. Pitt was an iceberg.
Still New England survives. To what purpose? I say, as an example:
the politician says, to produce "Poor Boys." Bah! The poor boy is
an anachronism in civilization. He is no longer poor, and he is not
a boy. In Tartary they would hang him for sucking all the asses'
milk that belongs to the children: in New England he has all the
cream from the Public Cow. What can you expect in a country where
one knows not today what the weather will be tomorrow? Climate makes
the man. Suppose he, too, dwells on the Channel Islands, where he
has all climates, and is superior to all. Perhaps he will become the
prophet, the seer, of his age, as he is its Poet. The New-Englander
is the man without a climate. Why is his country recognized? You
won't find it on any map of Paris.
And yet Paris is the universe. Strange anomaly! The greater must
include the less; but how if the less leaks out? This sometimes
And yet there are phenomena in that country worth observing. One of
them is the conduct of Nature from the 1st of March to the 1st of
June, or, as some say, from the vernal equinox to the summer
solstice. As Tourmalain remarked, "You'd better observe the
unpleasant than to be blind." This was in 802. Tourmalain is dead;
so is Gross Alain; so is little Pee-Wee: we shall all be dead before
things get any better.
That is the law. Without revolution there is nothing. What is
revolution? It is turning society over, and putting the best
underground for a fertilizer. Thus only will things grow. What has
this to do with New England? In the language of that flash of social
lightning, Beranger, "May the Devil fly away with me if I can see!"
Let us speak of the period in the year in New England when winter
appears to hesitate. Except in the calendar, the action is ironical;
but it is still deceptive. The sun mounts high: it is above the
horizon twelve hours at a time. The snow gradually sneaks away in
liquid repentance. One morning it is gone, except in shaded spots
and close by the fences. From about the trunks of the trees it has
long departed: the tree is a living thing, and its growth repels it.
The fence is dead, driven into the earth in a rigid line by man: the
fence, in short, is dogma: icy prejudice lingers near it.
The snow has disappeared; but the landscape is a ghastly sight,--
bleached, dead. The trees are stakes; the grass is of no color; and
the bare soil is not brown with a healthful brown; life has gone out
of it. Take up a piece of turf: it is a clod, without warmth,
inanimate. Pull it in pieces: there is no hope in it: it is a part
of the past; it is the refuse of last year. This is the condition to
which winter has reduced the landscape. When the snow, which was a
pall, is removed, you see how ghastly it is. The face of the country
is sodden. It needs now only the south wind to sweep over it, full
of the damp breath of death; and that begins to blow. No prospect
would be more dreary.
And yet the south wind fills credulous man with joy. He opens the
window. He goes out, and catches cold. He is stirred by the
mysterious coming of something. If there is sign of change nowhere
else, we detect it in the newspaper. In sheltered corners of that
truculent instrument for the diffusion of the prejudices of the few
among the many begin to grow the violets of tender sentiment, the
early greens of yearning. The poet feels the sap of the new year
before the marsh-willow. He blossoms in advance of the catkins. Man
is greater than Nature. The poet is greater than man: he is nature
on two legs,--ambulatory.
At first there is no appearance of conflict. The winter garrison
seems to have withdrawn. The invading hosts of the South are
entering without opposition. The hard ground softens; the sun lies
warm upon the southern bank, and water oozes from its base. If you
examine the buds of the lilac and the flowering shrubs, you cannot
say that they are swelling; but the varnish with which they were
coated in the fall to keep out the frost seems to be cracking. If
the sugar-maple is hacked, it will bleed,--the pure white blood of
At the close of a sunny day the western sky has a softened aspect:
its color, we say, has warmth in it On such a day you may meet a
caterpillar on the footpath, and turn out for him. The house-fly
thaws out; a company of cheerful wasps take possession of a chamber-
window. It is oppressive indoors at night, and the window is raised.
A flock of millers, born out of time, flutter in. It is most unusual
weather for the season: it is so every year. The delusion is
complete, when, on a mild evening, the tree-toads open their brittle-
brattle chorus on the edge of the pond. The citizen asks his
neighbor, "Did you hear the frogs last night?" That seems to open
the new world. One thinks of his childhood and its innocence, and of
his first loves. It fills one with sentiment and a tender longing,
this voice of the tree-toad. Man is a strange being. Deaf to the
prayers of friends, to the sermons and warnings of the church, to the
calls of duty, to the pleadings of his better nature, he is touched
by the tree-toad. The signs of the spring multiply. The passer in
the street in the evening sees the maid-servant leaning on the area-
gate in sweet converse with some one leaning on the other side; or in
the park, which is still too damp for anything but true affection, he
sees her seated by the side of one who is able to protect her from
the policeman, and hears her sigh, "How sweet it is to be with those
we love to be with!"
All this is very well; but next morning the newspaper nips these
early buds of sentiment. The telegraph announces, "Twenty feet of
snow at Ogden, on the Pacific Road; winds blowing a gale at Omaha,
and snow still falling; mercury frozen at Duluth; storm-signals at
Where now are your tree-toads, your young love, your early season?
Before noon it rains, by three o'clock it hails; before night the
bleak storm-cloud of the northwest envelops the sky; a gale is
raging, whirling about a tempest of snow. By morning the snow is
drifted in banks, and two feet deep on a level. Early in the
seventeenth century, Drebbel of Holland invented the weather-glass.
Before that, men had suffered without knowing the degree of their
suffering. A century later, Romer hit upon the idea of using mercury
in a thermometer; and Fahrenheit constructed the instrument which
adds a new because distinct terror to the weather. Science names and
registers the ills of life; and yet it is a gain to know the names
and habits of our enemies. It is with some satisfaction in our
knowledge that we say the thermometer marks zero.
In fact, the wild beast called Winter, untamed, has returned, and
taken possession of New England. Nature, giving up her melting mood,
has retired into dumbness and white stagnation. But we are wise. We
say it is better to have it now than later. We have a conceit of
The sun is in alliance with the earth. Between the two the snow is
uncomfortable. Compelled to go, it decides to go suddenly. The
first day there is slush with rain; the second day, mud with hail;
the third day a flood with sunshine. The thermometer declares that
the temperature is delightful. Man shivers and sneezes. His
neighbor dies of some disease newly named by science; but he dies all
the same as if it hadn't been newly named. Science has not
discovered any name that is not fatal.
This is called the breaking-up of winter.
Nature seems for some days to be in doubt, not exactly able to stand
still, not daring to put forth anything tender. Man says that the
worst is over. If he should live a thousand years, he would be
deceived every year. And this is called an age of skepticism. Man
never believed in so many things as now: he never believed so much in
himself. As to Nature, he knows her secrets: he can predict what she
will do. He communicates with the next world by means of an alphabet
which he has invented. He talks with souls at the other end of the
spirit-wire. To be sure, neither of them says anything; but they
talk. Is not that something? He suspends the law of gravitation as
to his own body--he has learned how to evade it--as tyrants suspend
the legal writs of habeas corpus. When Gravitation asks for his
body, she cannot have it. He says of himself, "I am infallible; I am
sublime." He believes all these things. He is master of the
elements. Shakespeare sends him a poem just made, and as good a poem
as the man could write himself. And yet this man--he goes out of
doors without his overcoat, catches cold, and is buried in three
days. "On the 21st of January," exclaimed Mercier, "all kings felt
for the backs of their necks." This might be said of all men in New
England in the spring. This is the season that all the poets
celebrate. Let us suppose that once, in Thessaly, there was a genial
spring, and there was a poet who sang of it. All later poets have
sung the same song. "Voila tout!" That is the root of poetry.
Another delusion. We hear toward evening, high in air, the "conk" of
the wild-geese. Looking up, you see the black specks of that
adventurous triangle, winging along in rapid flight northward.
Perhaps it takes a wide returning sweep, in doubt; but it disappears
in the north. There is no mistaking that sign. This unmusical
"conk" is sweeter than the "kerchunk" of the bull-frog. Probably
these birds are not idiots, and probably they turned back south again
after spying out the nakedness of the land; but they have made their
sign. Next day there is a rumor that somebody has seen a bluebird.
This rumor, unhappily for the bird (which will freeze to death), is
confirmed. In less than three days everybody has seen a bluebird;
and favored people have heard a robin or rather the yellow-breasted
thrush, misnamed a robin in America. This is no doubt true: for
angle-worms have been seen on the surface of the ground; and,
wherever there is anything to eat, the robin is promptly on hand.
About this time you notice, in protected, sunny spots, that the grass
has a little color. But you say that it is the grass of last fall.
It is very difficult to tell when the grass of last fall became the
grass of this spring. It looks "warmed over." The green is rusty.
The lilac-buds have certainly swollen a little, and so have those of
the soft maple. In the rain the grass does not brighten as you think
it ought to, and it is only when the rain turns to snow that you see
any decided green color by contrast with the white. The snow
gradually covers everything very quietly, however. Winter comes back
without the least noise or bustle, tireless, malicious, implacable.
Neither party in the fight now makes much fuss over it; and you might
think that Nature had surrendered altogether, if you did not find
about this time, in the Woods, on the edge of a snow-bank, the modest
blossoms of the trailing arbutus, shedding their delicious perfume.
The bravest are always the tenderest, says the poet. The season, in
its blind way, is trying to express itself.
And it is assisted. There is a cheerful chatter in the trees. The
blackbirds have come, and in numbers, households of them, villages of
them,--communes, rather. They do not believe in God, these black-
birds. They think they can take care of themselves. We shall see.
But they are well informed. They arrived just as the last snow-bank
melted. One cannot say now that there is not greenness in the grass;
not in the wide fields, to be sure, but on lawns and banks sloping
south. The dark-spotted leaves of the dog-tooth violet begin to
show. Even Fahrenheit's contrivance joins in the upward movement:
the mercury has suddenly gone up from thirty degrees to sixty-five
degrees. It is time for the ice-man. Ice has no sooner disappeared
than we desire it.
There is a smile, if one may say so, in the blue sky, and there is.
softness in the south wind. The song-sparrow is singing in the
apple-tree. Another bird-note is heard,--two long, musical whistles,
liquid but metallic. A brown bird this one, darker than the song-
sparrow, and without the latter's light stripes, and smaller, yet
bigger than the queer little chipping-bird. He wants a familiar
name, this sweet singer, who appears to be a sort of sparrow. He is
such a contrast to the blue-jays, who have arrived in a passion, as
usual, screaming and scolding, the elegant, spoiled beauties! They
wrangle from morning till night, these beautiful, high-tempered
Encouraged by the birds, by the bursting of the lilac-buds, by the
peeping-up of the crocuses, by tradition, by the sweet flutterings of
a double hope, another sign appears. This is the Easter bonnets,
most delightful flowers of the year, emblems of innocence, hope,
devotion. Alas that they have to be worn under umbrellas, so much
thought, freshness, feeling, tenderness have gone into them! And a
northeast storm of rain, accompanied with hail, comes to crown all
these virtues with that of self-sacrifice. The frail hat is offered
up to the implacable season. In fact, Nature is not to be
forestalled nor hurried in this way. Things cannot be pushed.
Nature hesitates. The woman who does not hesitate in April is lost.
The appearance of the bonnets is premature. The blackbirds see it.
They assemble. For two days they hold a noisy convention, with high
debate, in the tree-tops. Something is going to happen.
Say, rather, the usual thing is about to occur. There is a wind
called Auster, another called Eurus, another called Septentrio,
another Meridies, besides Aquilo, Vulturnus, Africus. There are the
eight great winds of the classical dictionary,--arsenal of mystery
and terror and of the unknown,--besides the wind Euroaquilo of St.
Luke. This is the wind that drives an apostle wishing to gain Crete
upon the African Syrtis. If St. Luke had been tacking to get to
Hyannis, this wind would have forced him into Holmes's Hole. The
Euroaquilo is no respecter of persons.
These winds, and others unnamed and more terrible, circle about New
England. They form a ring about it: they lie in wait on its borders,
but only to spring upon it and harry it. They follow each other in
contracting circles, in whirlwinds, in maelstroms of the atmosphere:
they meet and cross each other, all at a moment. This New England is
set apart: it is the exercise-ground of the weather. Storms bred
elsewhere come here full-grown: they come in couples, in quartets, in
choruses. If New England were not mostly rock, these winds would
carry it off; but they would bring it all back again, as happens with
the sandy portions. What sharp Eurus carries to Jersey, Africus
brings back. When the air is not full of snow, it is full of dust.
This is called one of the compensations of Nature.
This is what happened after the convention of the blackbirds: A
moaning south wind brought rain; a southwest wind turned the rain to
snow; what is called a zephyr, out of the west, drifted the snow; a
north wind sent the mercury far below freezing. Salt added to snow
increases the evaporation and the cold. This was the office of the
northeast wind: it made the snow damp, and increased its bulk; but
then it rained a little, and froze, thawing at the same time. The
air was full of fog and snow and rain. And then the wind changed,
went back round the circle, reversing everything, like dragging a cat
by its tail. The mercury approached zero. This was nothing
uncommon. We know all these winds. We are familiar with the
different "forms of water."
All this was only the prologue, the overture. If one might be
permitted to speak scientifically, it was only the tuning of the
instruments. The opera was to come,--the Flying Dutchman of the air.
There is a wind called Euroclydon: it would be one of the Eumenides;
only they are women. It is half-brother to the gigantic storm-wind
of the equinox. The Euroclydon is not a wind: it is a monster. Its
breath is frost. It has snow in its hair. It is something terrible.
It peddles rheumatism, and plants consumption.
The Euroclydon knew just the moment to strike into the discord of the
weather in New England. From its lair about Point Desolation, from
the glaciers of the Greenland continent, sweeping round the coast,
leaving wrecks in its track, it marched right athwart the other
conflicting winds, churning them into a fury, and inaugurating chaos.
It was the Marat of the elements. It was the revolution marching
into the " dreaded wood of La Sandraie."
Let us sum it all up in one word: it was something for which there is
Its track was destruction. On the sea it leaves wrecks. What does
it leave on land? Funerals. When it subsides, New England is
prostrate. It has left its legacy: this legacy is coughs and patent
medicines. This is an epic; this is destiny. You think Providence
is expelled out of New England? Listen!
Two days after Euroclydon, I found in the woods the hepatica--
earliest of wildwood flowers, evidently not intimidated by the wild
work of the armies trampling over New England--daring to hold up its
tender blossom. One could not but admire the quiet pertinacity of
Nature. She had been painting the grass under the snow. In spots it
was vivid green. There was a mild rain,--mild, but chilly. The
clouds gathered, and broke away in light, fleecy masses. There was a
softness on the hills. The birds suddenly were on every tree,
glancing through the air, filling it with song, sometimes shaking
raindrops from their wings. The cat brings in one in his mouth. He
thinks the season has begun, and the game-laws are off. He is fond
of Nature, this cat, as we all are: he wants to possess it. At four
o'clock in the morning there is a grand dress-rehearsal of the birds.
Not all the pieces of the orchestra have arrived; but there are
enough. The grass-sparrow has come. This is certainly charming.
The gardener comes to talk about seeds: he uncovers the straw-berries
and the grape-vines, salts the asparagus-bed, and plants the peas.
You ask if he planted them with a shot-gun. In the shade there is
still frost in the ground. Nature, in fact, still hesitates; puts
forth one hepatica at a time, and waits to see the result; pushes up
the grass slowly, perhaps draws it in at night.
This indecision we call Spring.
It becomes painful. It is like being on the rack for ninety days,
expecting every day a reprieve. Men grow hardened to it, however.
This is the order with man,--hope, surprise, bewilderment, disgust,
facetiousness. The people in New England finally become facetious
about spring. This is the last stage: it is the most dangerous.
When a man has come to make a jest of misfortune, he is lost. "It
bores me to die," said the journalist Carra to the headsman at the
foot of the guillotine: "I would like to have seen the continuation."
One is also interested to see how spring is going to turn out.
A day of sun, of delusive bird-singing, sight of the mellow earth,--
all these begin to beget confidence. The night, even, has been warm.
But what is this in the morning journal, at breakfast?--"An area of
low pressure is moving from the Tortugas north." You shudder.
What is this Low Pressure itself,--it? It is something frightful,
low, crouching, creeping, advancing; it is a foreboding; it is
misfortune by telegraph; it is the "'93" of the atmosphere.
This low pressure is a creation of Old Prob. What is that? Old
Prob. is the new deity of the Americans, greater than AEolus, more
despotic than Sans-Culotte. The wind is his servitor, the lightning
his messenger. He is a mystery made of six parts electricity, and
one part "guess." This deity is worshiped by the Americans; his name
is on every man's lips first in the morning; he is the Frankenstein
of modern science. Housed at Washington, his business is to direct
the storms of the whole country upon New England, and to give notice
in advance. This he does. Sometimes he sends the storm, and then
gives notice. This is mere playfulness on his part: it is all one to
him. His great power is in the low pressure.
On the Bexar plains of Texas, among the hills of the Presidio, along
the Rio Grande, low pressure is bred; it is nursed also in the
Atchafalaya swamps of Louisiana; it moves by the way of Thibodeaux
and Bonnet Carre. The southwest is a magazine of atmospheric
disasters. Low pressure may be no worse than the others: it is
better known, and is most used to inspire terror. It can be summoned
any time also from the everglades of Florida, from the morasses of
When the New-Englander sees this in his news paper, he knows what it
means. He has twenty-four hours' warning; but what can he do?
Nothing but watch its certain advance by telegraph. He suffers in
anticipation. That is what Old Prob. has brought about, suffering by
anticipation. This low pressure advances against the wind. The wind
is from the northeast. Nothing could be more unpleasant than a
northeast wind? Wait till low pressure joins it. Together they make
spring in New England. A northeast storm from the southwest!--there
is no bitterer satire than this. It lasts three days. After that
the weather changes into something winter-like.
A solitary song-sparrow, without a note of joy, hops along the snow
to the dining-room window, and, turning his little head aside, looks
up. He is hungry and cold. Little Minnette, clasping her hands
behind her back, stands and looks at him, and says, "Po' birdie!"
They appear to understand each other. The sparrow gets his crumb;
but he knows too much to let Minnette get hold of him. Neither of
these little things could take care of itself in a New-England spring
not in the depths of it. This is what the father of Minnette,
looking out of the window upon the wide waste of snow, and the
evergreens bent to the ground with the weight of it, says, "It looks
like the depths of spring." To this has man come: to his
facetiousness has succeeded sarcasm. It is the first of May.
Then follows a day of bright sun and blue sky. The birds open the
morning with a lively chorus. In spite of Auster, Euroclydon, low
pressure, and the government bureau, things have gone forward. By
the roadside, where the snow has just melted, the grass is of the
color of emerald. The heart leaps to see it. On the lawn there are
twenty robins, lively, noisy, worm-seeking. Their yellow breasts
contrast with the tender green of the newly-springing clover and
herd's-grass. If they would only stand still, we might think the
dandelions had blossomed. On an evergreen-bough, looking at them,
sits a graceful bird, whose back is bluer than the sky. There is a
red tint on the tips of the boughs of the hard maple. With Nature,
color is life. See, already, green, yellow, blue, red! In a few
days--is it not so?--through the green masses of the trees will flash
the orange of the oriole, the scarlet of the tanager; perhaps
But, in fact, the next day opens a little sourly. It is almost clear
overhead: but the clouds thicken on the horizon; they look leaden;
they threaten rain. It certainly will rain: the air feels like rain,
or snow. By noon it begins to snow, and you hear the desolate cry of
the phoebe-bird. It is a fine snow, gentle at first; but it soon
drives in swerving lines, for the wind is from the southwest, from
the west, from the northeast, from the zenith (one of the ordinary
winds of New England), from all points of the compass. The fine snow
becomes rain; it becomes large snow; it melts as it falls; it freezes
as it falls. At last a storm sets in, and night shuts down upon the
During the night there is a change. It thunders and lightens.
Toward morning there is a brilliant display of aurora borealis. This
is a sign of colder weather.
The gardener is in despair; so is the sportsman. The trout take no
pleasure in biting in such weather.
Paragraphs appear in the newspapers, copied from the paper of last
year, saying that this is the most severe spring in thirty years.
Every one, in fact, believes that it is, and also that next year the
spring will be early. Man is the most gullible of creatures.
And with reason: he trusts his eyes, and not his instinct. During
this most sour weather of the year, the anemone blossoms; and, almost
immediately after, the fairy pencil, the spring beauty, the dog-tooth
violet, and the true violet. In clouds and fog, and rain and snow,
and all discouragement, Nature pushes on her forces with progressive
haste and rapidity. Before one is aware, all the lawns and meadows
are deeply green, the trees are opening their tender leaves. In a
burst of sunshine the cherry-trees are white, the Judas-tree is pink,
the hawthorns give a sweet smell. The air is full of sweetness; the
world, of color.
In the midst of a chilling northeast storm the ground is strewed with
the white-and-pink blossoms from the apple-trees. The next day the
mercury stands at eighty degrees. Summer has come.
There was no Spring.
The winter is over. You think so? Robespierre thought the
Revolution was over in the beginning of his last Thermidor. He lost
his head after that.
When the first buds are set, and the corn is up, and the cucumbers
have four leaves, a malicious frost steals down from the north and
kills them in a night.
That is the last effort of spring. The mercury then mounts to ninety
degrees. The season has been long, but, on the whole, successful.
Many people survive it.
CAPTAIN JOHN SMITH
When I consented to prepare this volume for a series, which should
deal with the notables of American history with some familiarity and
disregard of historic gravity, I did not anticipate the seriousness
of the task. But investigation of the subject showed me that while
Captain John Smith would lend himself easily enough to the purely
facetious treatment, there were historic problems worthy of a
different handling, and that if the life of Smith was to be written,
an effort should be made to state the truth, and to disentangle the
career of the adventurer from the fables and misrepresentations that
have clustered about it.
The extant biographies of Smith, and the portions of the history of
Virginia that relate to him, all follow his own narrative, and accept
his estimate of himself, and are little more than paraphrases of his
story as told by himself. But within the last twenty years some new
contemporary evidence has come to light, and special scholars have
expended much critical research upon different portions of his
career. The result of this modern investigation has been to
discredit much of the romance gathered about Smith and Pocahontas,
and a good deal to reduce his heroic proportions. A vague report of-
-these scholarly studies has gone abroad, but no effort has been made
to tell the real story of Smith as a connected whole in the light of
the new researches.
This volume is an effort to put in popular form the truth about
Smith's adventures, and to estimate his exploits and character. For
this purpose I have depended almost entirely upon original
contemporary material, illumined as it now is by the labors of
special editors. I believe that I have read everything that is
attributed to his pen, and have compared his own accounts with other
contemporary narratives, and I think I have omitted the perusal of
little that could throw any light upon his life or character. For
the early part of his career--before he came to Virginia--there is
absolutely no authority except Smith himself; but when he emerges
from romance into history, he can be followed and checked by
contemporary evidence. If he was always and uniformly untrustworthy
it would be less perplexing to follow him, but his liability to tell
the truth when vanity or prejudice does not interfere is annoying to
the careful student.
As far as possible I have endeavored to let the actors in these pages
tell their own story, and I have quoted freely from Capt. Smith
himself, because it is as a writer that he is to be judged no less
than as an actor. His development of the Pocahontas legend has been
carefully traced, and all the known facts about that Indian--or
Indese, as some of the old chroniclers call the female North
Americans--have been consecutively set forth in separate chapters.
The book is not a history of early Virginia, nor of the times of
Smith, but merely a study of his life and writings. If my estimate
of the character of Smith is not that which his biographers have
entertained, and differs from his own candid opinion, I can only
plead that contemporary evidence and a collation of his own stories
show that he was mistaken. I am not aware that there has been before
any systematic effort to collate his different accounts of his
exploits. If he had ever undertaken the task, he might have
disturbed that serene opinion of himself which marks him as a man who
realized his own ideals.
The works used in this study are, first, the writings of Smith, which
are as follows:
"A True Relation," etc., London, 1608.
"A Map of Virginia, Description and Appendix," Oxford, 1612.
"A Description of New England," etc., London, 1616.
"New England's Trials," etc., London, 1620. Second edition,
"The Generall Historie," etc., London, 1624. Reissued, with date of
title-page altered, in 1626, 1627, and twice in 1632.
"An Accidence: or, The Pathway to Experience," etc., London, 1626.
"A Sea Grammar," etc., London, 1627. Also editions in 1653 and 1699.
"The True Travels," etc., London, 1630.
"Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New England," etc.,
Other authorities are:
"The Historie of Travaile into Virginia," etc., by William Strachey,
Secretary of the colony 1609 to 1612. First printed for the Hakluyt
Society, London, 1849.
"Newport's Relatyon," 1607. Am. Ant. Soc., Vol. 4.
"Wingfield's Discourse," etc., 1607. Am. Ant. Soc., Vol. 4.
"Purchas his Pilgrimage," London, 1613.
"Purchas his Pilgrimes," London, 1625-6.
"Ralph Hamor's True Discourse," etc., London, 1615.
"Relation of Virginia," by Henry Spelman, 1609. First printed by J.
F. Hunnewell, London, 1872.
"History of the Virginia Company in London," by Edward D. Neill,
"William Stith's History of Virginia," 1753, has been consulted for
the charters and letters-patent. The Pocahontas discussion has been
followed in many magazine papers. I am greatly indebted to the
scholarly labors of Charles Deane, LL.D., the accomplished editor of
the "True Relation," and other Virginia monographs. I wish also to
acknowledge the courtesy of the librarians of the Astor, the Lenox,
the New York Historical, Yale, and Cornell libraries, and of Dr. J.
Hammond Trumbull, the custodian of the Brinley collection, and the
kindness of Mr. S. L. M. Barlow of New York, who is ever ready to
give students access to his rich "Americana."
C. D. W.
HARTFORD, June, 1881
CAPTAIN JOHN SMITH
BIRTH AND TRAINING
Fortunate is the hero who links his name romantically with that of a
woman. A tender interest in his fame is assured. Still more
fortunate is he if he is able to record his own achievements and give
to them that form and color and importance which they assume in his
own gallant consciousness. Captain John Smith, the first of an
honored name, had this double good fortune.
We are indebted to him for the glowing picture of a knight-errant of
the sixteenth century, moving with the port of a swash-buckler across
the field of vision, wherever cities were to be taken and heads
cracked in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and, in the language of one of
"To see bright honor sparkled all in gore."
Back to Full Books