The Poet at the Breakfast Table
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (The Physician and Poet)
Part 4 out of 6
I am jealous, yes, I own I am jealous of any word, spoken or written,
that would tend to impair that birthright of reverence which becomes
for so many in after years the basis of a deeper religious sentiment.
And yet, as I have said, I cannot and will not shut my eyes to the
problems which may seriously affect our modes of conceiving the
eternal truths on which, and by which, our souls must live. What a
fearful time is this into which we poor sensitive and timid creatures
are born! I suppose the life of every century has more or less
special resemblance to that of some particular Apostle. I cannot
help thinking this century has Thomas for its model. How do you
suppose the other Apostles felt when that experimental philosopher
explored the wounds of the Being who to them was divine with his
inquisitive forefinger? In our time that finger has multiplied
itself into ten thousand thousand implements of research, challenging
all mysteries, weighing the world as in a balance, and sifting
through its prisms and spectroscopes the light that comes from the
throne of the Eternal.
Pity us, dear Lord, pity us! The peace in believing which belonged
to other ages is not for us. Again Thy wounds are opened that we may
know whether it is the blood of one like ourselves which flows from
them, or whether it is a Divinity that is bleeding for His creatures.
Wilt Thou not take the doubt of Thy children whom the time commands
to try all things in the place of the unquestioning faith of earlier
and simpler-hearted generations? We too have need of Thee. Thy
martyrs in other ages were cast into the flames, but no fire could
touch their immortal and indestructible faith. We sit in safety and
in peace, so far as these poor bodies are concerned; but our
cherished beliefs, the hopes, the trust that stayed the hearts of
those we loved who have gone before us, are cast into the fiery
furnace of an age which is fast turning to dross the certainties and
the sanctities once prized as our most precious inheritance.
You will understand me, my dear sir, and all my solicitudes and
apprehensions. Had I never been assailed by the questions that meet
all thinking persons in our time, I might not have thought so
anxiously about the risk of perplexing others. I know as well as you
must that there are many articles of belief clinging to the skirts of
our time which are the bequests of the ages of ignorance that God
winked at. But for all that I would train a child in the nurture and
admonition of the Lord, according to the simplest and best creed I
could disentangle from those barbarisms, and I would in every way try
to keep up in young persons that standard of reverence for all sacred
subjects which may, without any violent transition, grow and ripen
into the devotion of later years. Believe me,
Very sincerely yours,
I have thought a good deal about this letter and the writer of it
lately. She seemed at first removed to a distance from all of us,
but here I find myself in somewhat near relations with her. What has
surprised me more than that, however, is to find that she is becoming
so much acquainted with the Register of Deeds. Of all persons in the
world, I should least have thought of him as like to be interested in
her, and still less, if possible, of her fancying him. I can only
say they have been in pretty close conversation several times of
late, and, if I dared to think it of so very calm and dignified a
personage, I should say that her color was a little heightened after
one or more of these interviews. No! that would be too absurd! But
I begin to think nothing is absurd in the matter of the relations of
the two sexes; and if this high-bred woman fancies the attentions of
a piece of human machinery like this elderly individual, it is none
of my business.
I have been at work on some more of the Young Astronomer's lines. I
find less occasion for meddling with them as he grows more used to
versification. I think I could analyze the processes going on in his
mind, and the conflict of instincts which he cannot in the nature of
things understand. But it is as well to give the reader a chance to
find out for himself what is going on in the young man's heart and
WIND-CLOUDS AND STAR-DRIFTS.
The snows that glittered on the disk of Mars
Have melted, and the planet's fiery orb
Rolls in the crimson summer of its year;
But what to me the summer or the snow
Of worlds that throb with life in forms unknown,
If life indeed be theirs; I heed not these.
My heart is simply human; all my care
For them whose dust is fashioned like mine own;
These ache with cold and hunger, live in pain,
And shake with fear of worlds more full of woe;
There may be others worthier of my love,
But such I know not save through these I know.
There are two veils of language, hid beneath
Whose sheltering folds, we dare to be ourselves;
And not that other self which nods and smiles
And babbles in our name; the one is Prayer,
Lending its licensed freedom to the tongue
That tells our sorrows and our sins to Heaven;
The other, Verse, that throws its spangled web
Around our naked speech and makes it bold.
I, whose best prayer is silence; sitting dumb
In the great temple where I nightly serve
Him who is throned in light, have dared to claim
The poet's franchise, though I may not hope
To wear his garland; hear me while I tell
My story in such form as poets use,
But breathed in fitful whispers, as the wind
Sighs and then slumbers, wakes and sighs again.
Thou Vision, floating in the breathless air
Between me and the fairest of the stars,
I tell my lonely thoughts as unto thee.
Look not for marvels of the scholar's pen
In my rude measure; I can only show
A slender-margined, unillumined page,
And trust its meaning to the flattering eye
That reads it in the gracious light of love.
Ah, wouldst thou clothe thyself in breathing shape
And nestle at my side, my voice should lend
Whate'er my verse may lack of tender rhythm
To make thee listen.
I have stood entranced
When, with her fingers wandering o'er the keys,
The white enchantress with the golden hair
Breathed all her soul through some unvalued rhyme;
Some flower of song that long had lost its bloom;
Lo! its dead summer kindled as she sang!
The sweet contralto, like the ringdove's coo,
Thrilled it with brooding, fond, caressing tones,
And the pale minstrel's passion lived again,
Tearful and trembling as a dewy rose
The wind has shaken till it fills the air
With light and fragrance. Such the wondrous charm
A song can borrow when the bosom throbs
That lends it breath.
So from the poet's lips
His verse sounds doubly sweet, for none like him
Feels every cadence of its wave-like flow;
He lives the passion over, while he reads,
That shook him as he sang his lofty strain,
And pours his life through each resounding line,
As ocean, when the stormy winds are hushed,
Still rolls and thunders through his billowy caves.
Let me retrace the record of the years
That made me what I am. A man most wise,
But overworn with toil and bent with age,
Sought me to be his scholar,--me, run wild
From books and teachers,--kindled in my soul
The love of knowledge; led me to his tower,
Showed me the wonders of the midnight realm
His hollow sceptre ruled, or seemed to rule,
Taught me the mighty secrets of the spheres,
Trained me to find the glimmering specks of light
Beyond the unaided sense, and on my chart
To string them one by one, in order due,
As on a rosary a saint his beads.
I was his only scholar; I became
The echo to his thought; whate'er he knew
Was mine for asking; so from year to year
We wrought together, till there came a time
When I, the learner, was the master half
Of the twinned being in the dome-crowned tower.
Minds roll in paths like planets; they revolve
This in a larger, that a narrower ring,
But round they come at last to that same phase,
That self-same light and shade they showed before.
I learned his annual and his monthly tale,
His weekly axiom and his daily phrase,
I felt them coming in the laden air,
And watched them laboring up to vocal breath,
Even as the first-born at his father's board
Knows ere he speaks the too familiar jest
Is on its way, by some mysterious sign
Forewarned, the click before the striking bell.
He shrivelled as I spread my growing leaves,
Till trust and reverence changed to pitying care;
He lived for me in what he once had been,
But I for him, a shadow, a defence,
The guardian of his fame, his guide, his staff,
Leaned on so long he fell if left alone.
I was his eye, his ear, his cunning hand,
Love was my spur and longing after fame,
But his the goading thorn of sleepless age
That sees its shortening span, its lengthening shades,
That clutches what it may with eager grasp,
And drops at last with empty, outstretched hands.
All this he dreamed not. He would sit him down
Thinking to work his problems as of old,
And find the star he thought so plain a blur,
The columned figures labyrinthine wilds
Without my comment, blind and senseless scrawls
That vexed him with their riddles; he would strive
And struggle for a while, and then his eye
Would lose its light, and over all his mind
The cold gray mist would settle; and erelong
The darkness fell, and I was left alone.
Alone! no climber of an Alpine cliff,
No Arctic venturer on the waveless sea,
Feels the dread stillness round him as it chills
The heart of him who leaves the slumbering earth
To watch the silent worlds that crowd the sky.
Alone! And as the shepherd leaves his flock
To feed upon the hillside, he meanwhile
Finds converse in the warblings of the pipe
Himself has fashioned for his vacant hour,
So have I grown companion to myself,
And to the wandering spirits of the air
That smile and whisper round us in our dreams.
Thus have I learned to search if I may know
The whence and why of all beneath the stars
And all beyond them, and to weigh my life
As in a balance, poising good and ill
Against each other,-asking of the Power
That flung me forth among the whirling worlds,
If I am heir to any inborn right,
Or only as an atom of the dust
That every wind may blow where'er it will.
I am not humble; I was shown my place,
Clad in such robes as Nature had at hand;
Took what she gave, not chose; I know no shame,
No fear for being simply what I am.
I am not proud, I hold my every breath
At Nature's mercy. I am as a babe
Borne in a giant's arms, he knows not where;
Each several heart-beat, counted like the coin
A miser reckons, is a special gift
As from an unseen hand; if that withhold
Its bounty for a moment, I am left
A clod upon the earth to which I fall.
Something I find in me that well might claim
The love of beings in a sphere above
This doubtful twilight world of right and wrong;
Something that shows me of the self-same clay
That creeps or swims or flies in humblest form.
Had I been asked, before I left my bed
Of shapeless dust, what clothing I would wear,
I would have said, More angel and less worm;
But for their sake who are even such as I,
Of the same mingled blood, I would not choose
To hate that meaner portion of myself
Which makes me brother to the least of men.
I dare not be a coward with my lips
Who dare to question all things in my soul;
Some men may find their wisdom on their knees,
Some prone and grovelling in the dust like slaves;
Let the meek glow-worm glisten in the dew;
I ask to lift my taper to the sky
As they who hold their lamps above their heads,
Trusting the larger currents up aloft,
Rather than crossing eddies round their breast,
Threatening with every puff the flickering blaze.
My life shall be a challenge, not a truce!
This is my homage to the mightier powers,
To ask my boldest question, undismayed
By muttered threats that some hysteric sense
Of wrong or insult will convulse the throne
Where wisdom reigns supreme; and if I err,
They all must err who have to feel their way
As bats that fly at noon; for what are we
But creatures of the night, dragged forth by day,
Who needs must stumble, and with stammering steps
Spell out their paths in syllables of pain ?
Thou wilt not hold in scorn the child who dares
Look up to Thee, the Father,--dares to ask
More than Thy wisdom answers. From Thy hand
The worlds were cast; yet every leaflet claims
From that same hand its little shining sphere
Of star-lit dew; thine image, the great sun,
Girt with his mantle of tempestuous flame,
Glares in mid-heaven; but to his noontide blaze
The slender violet lifts its lidless eye,
And from his splendor steals its fairest hue,
Its sweetest perfume from his scorching fire.
I may just as well stop here as anywhere, for there is more of the
manuscript to come, and I can only give it in instalments.
The Young Astronomer had told me I might read any portions of his
manuscript I saw fit to certain friends. I tried this last extract
on the old Master.
It's the same story we all have to tell,--said he, when I had done
reading.---We are all asking questions nowadays. I should like to
hear him read some of his verses himself, and I think some of the
other boarders would like to. I wonder if he wouldn't do it, if we
asked him! Poets read their own compositions in a singsong sort of
way; but they do seem to love 'em so, that I always enjoy it. It
makes me laugh a little inwardly to see how they dandle their
poetical babies, but I don't let them know it. We must get up a
select party of the boarders to hear him read. We'll send him a
regular invitation. I will put my name at the head of it, and you
shall write it.
--That was neatly done. How I hate writing such things! But I
suppose I must do it.
The Master and I had been thinking for some time of trying to get the
Young Astronomer round to our side of the table. There are many
subjects on which both of us like to talk with him, and it would be
convenient to have him nearer to us. How to manage it was not quite
so clear as it might have been. The Scarabee wanted to sit with his
back to the light, as it was in his present position. He used his
eyes so much in studying minute objects, that he wished to spare them
all fatigue, and did not like facing a window. Neither of us cared
to ask the Man of Letters, so called, to change his place, and of
course we could not think of making such a request of the Young Girl
or the Lady. So we were at a stand with reference to this project of
But while we were proposing, Fate or Providence disposed everything
for us. The Man of Letters, so called, was missing one morning,
having folded his tent--that is, packed his carpet-bag--with the
silence of the Arabs, and encamped--that is, taken lodgings--in some
locality which he had forgotten to indicate.
The Landlady bore this sudden bereavement remarkably well. Her
remarks and reflections; though borrowing the aid of homely imagery
and doing occasional violence to the nicer usages of speech, were not
without philosophical discrimination.
--I like a gentleman that is a gentleman. But there's a difference
in what folks call gentlemen as there is in what you put on table.
There is cabbages and there is cauliflowers. There is clams and
there is oysters. There is mackerel and there is salmon. And there
is some that knows the difference and some that doos n't. I had a
little account with that boarder that he forgot to settle before he
went off, so all of a suddin. I sha'n't say anything about it. I've
seen the time when I should have felt bad about losing what he owed
me, but it was no great matter; and if he 'll only stay away now he
's gone, I can stand losing it, and not cry my eyes out nor lay awake
all night neither. I never had ought to have took him. Where he
come from and where he's gone to is unbeknown to me. If he'd only
smoked good tobacco, I wouldn't have said a word; but it was such
dreadful stuff, it 'll take a week to get his chamber sweet enough to
show them that asks for rooms. It doos smell like all possest.
--Left any goods?--asked the Salesman.
--Or dockermunts?--added the Member of the Haouse.
The Landlady answered with a faded smile, which implied that there
was no hope in that direction. Dr. Benjamin, with a sudden
recurrence of youthful feeling, made a fan with the fingers of his
right hand, the second phalanx of the thumb resting on the tip of the
nose, and the remaining digits diverging from each other, in the
plane of the median line of the face,--I suppose this is the way he
would have described the gesture, which is almost a specialty of the
Parisian gamin. That Boy immediately copied it, and added greatly to
its effect by extending the fingers of the other hand in a line with
those of the first, and vigorously agitating those of the two hands,
--a gesture which acts like a puncture on the distended self-esteem
of one to whom it is addressed, and cheapens the memory of the absent
to a very low figure.
I wish the reader to observe that I treasure up with interest all the
words uttered by the Salesman. It must have been noticed that he
very rarely speaks. Perhaps he has an inner life, with its own deep
emotional, and lofty contemplative elements, but as we see him, he is
the boarder reduced to the simplest expression of that term. Yet,
like most human creatures, he has generic and specific characters not
unworthy of being studied. I notice particularly a certain
electrical briskness of movement, such as one may see in a squirrel,
which clearly belongs to his calling. The dry-goodsman's life behind
his counter is a succession of sudden, snappy perceptions and brief
series of coordinate spasms; as thus:
"Purple calico, three quarters wide, six yards."
Up goes the arm; bang! tumbles out the flat roll and turns half a
dozen somersets, as if for the fun of the thing; the six yards of
calico hurry over the measuring nails, hunching their backs up, like
six cankerworms; out jump the scissors; snip, clip, rip; the stuff is
wisped up, brown--papered, tied, labelled, delivered, and the man is
himself again, like a child just come out of a convulsion-fit. Think
of a man's having some hundreds of these semi-epileptic seizures
every day, and you need not wonder that he does not say much; these
fits take the talk all out of him.
But because he, or any other man, does not say much, it does not
follow that he may not have, as I have said, an exalted and intense
inner life. I have known a number of cases where a man who seemed
thoroughly commonplace and unemotional has all at once surprised
everybody by telling the story of his hidden life far more pointedly
and dramatically than any playwright or novelist or poet could have
told it for him. I will not insult your intelligence, Beloved, by
saying how he has told it.
--We had been talking over the subjects touched upon in the Lady's
--I suppose one man in a dozen--said the Master--ought to be born a
skeptic. That was the proportion among the Apostles, at any rate.
--So there was one Judas among them,--I remarked.
--Well,--said the Master,--they 've been whitewashing Judas of late.
But never mind him. I did not say there was not one rogue on the
average among a dozen men. I don't see how that would interfere with
my proposition. If I say that among a dozen men you ought to find
one that weighs over a hundred and fifty pounds, and you tell me that
there were twelve men in your club, and one of 'em had red hair, I
don't see that you have materially damaged my statement.
--I thought it best to let the old Master have his easy victory,
which was more apparent than real, very evidently, and he went on.
--When the Lord sends out a batch of human beings, say a hundred--Did
you ever read my book, the new edition of it, I mean?
It is rather awkward to answer such a question in the negative, but I
said, with the best grace I could, "No, not the last edition."
--Well, I must give you a copy of it. My book and I are pretty much
the same thing. Sometimes I steal from my book in my talk without
mentioning it, and then I say to myself, "Oh, that won't do;
everybody has read my book and knows it by heart." And then the
other I says,--you know there are two of us, right and left, like a
pair of shoes,--the other I says, "You're a--something or other--
fool. They have n't read your confounded old book; besides, if they
have, they have forgotten all about it." Another time, I say,
thinking I will be very honest, "I have said something about that in
my book"; and then the other I says, "What a Balaam's quadruped you
are to tell 'em it's in your book; they don't care whether it is or
not, if it's anything worth saying; and if it isn't worth saying,
what are you braying for? "That is a rather sensible fellow, that
other chap we talk with, but an impudent whelp. I never got such
abuse from any blackguard in my life as I have from that No. 2 of me,
the one that answers the other's questions and makes the comments,
and does what in demotic phrase is called the "sarsing."
--I laughed at that. I have just such a fellow always with me, as
wise as Solomon, if I would only heed him; but as insolent as Shimei,
cursing, and throwing stones and dirt, and behaving as if he had the
traditions of the "ape-like human being" born with him rather than
civilized instincts. One does not have to be a king to know what it
is to keep a king's jester.
--I mentioned my book,--the Master said, because I have something in
it on the subject we were talking about. I should like to read you a
passage here and there out of it, where I have expressed myself a
little more freely on some of those matters we handle in
conversation. If you don't quarrel with it, I must give you a copy
of the book. It's a rather serious thing to get a copy of a book
from the writer of it. It has made my adjectives sweat pretty hard,
I know, to put together an answer returning thanks and not lying
beyond the twilight of veracity, if one may use a figure. Let me try
a little of my book on you, in divided doses, as my friends the
-Fiat experimentum in corpore vili,--I said, laughing at my own
expense. I don't doubt the medicament is quite as good as the
patient deserves, and probably a great deal better,--I added,
reinforcing my feeble compliment.
[When you pay a compliment to an author, don't qualify it in the next
sentence so as to take all the goodness out of it. Now I am thinking
of it, I will give you one or two pieces of advice. Be careful to
assure yourself that the person you are talking with wrote the
article or book you praise. It is not very pleasant to be told,
"Well, there, now! I always liked your writings, but you never did
anything half so good as this last piece," and then to have to tell
the blunderer that this last piece is n't yours, but t' other man's.
Take care that the phrase or sentence you commend is not one that is
in quotation-marks. "The best thing in your piece, I think, is a
line I do not remember meeting before; it struck me as very true and
"'An honest man's the noblest work of God.'
"But, my dear lady, that line is one which is to be found in a writer
of the last century, and not original with me." One ought not to
have undeceived her, perhaps, but one is naturally honest, and cannot
bear to be credited with what is not his own. The lady blushes, of
course, and says she has not read much ancient literature, or some
such thing. The pearl upon the Ethiop's arm is very pretty in verse,
but one does not care to furnish the dark background for other
I adjourned from the table in company with the old Master to his
apartments. He was evidently in easy circumstances, for he had the
best accommodations the house afforded. We passed through a
reception room to his library, where everything showed that he had
ample means for indulging the modest tastes of a scholar.
--The first thing, naturally, when one enters a scholar's study or
library, is to look at his books. One gets a notion very speedily of
his tastes and the range of his pursuits by a glance round his
Of course, you know there are many fine houses where the library is a
part of the upholstery, so to speak. Books in handsome binding kept
locked under plate-glass in showy dwarf bookcases are as important to
stylish establishments as servants in livery; who sit with folded
arms, are to stylish equipages. I suppose those wonderful statues
with the folded arms do sometimes change their attitude, and I
suppose those books with the gilded backs do sometimes get opened,
but it is nobody's business whether they do or not, and it is not
best to ask too many questions.
This sort of thing is common enough, but there is another case that
may prove deceptive if you undertake to judge from appearances. Once
in a while you will come on a house where you will find a family of
readers and almost no library. Some of the most indefatigable
devourers of literature have very few books. They belong to book
clubs, they haunt the public libraries, they borrow of friends, and
somehow or other get hold of everything they want, scoop out all it
holds for them, and have done with it. When I want a book, it is as
a tiger wants a sheep. I must have it with one spring, and, if I
miss it, go away defeated and hungry. And my experience with public
libraries is that the first volume of the book I inquire for is out,
unless I happen to want the second, when that is out.
--I was pretty well prepared to understand the Master's library and
his account of it. We seated ourselves in two very comfortable
chairs, and I began the conversation.
-I see you have a large and rather miscellaneous collection of books.
Did you get them together by accident or according to some
--Both, sir, both,--the Master answered. When Providence throws a
good book in my way, I bow to its decree and purchase it as an act of
piety, if it is reasonably or unreasonably cheap. I adopt a certain
number of books every year, out of a love for the foundlings and
stray children of other people's brains that nobody seems to care
for. Look here.
He took down a Greek Lexicon finely bound in calf, and spread it
Do you see that Hedericus? I had Greek dictionaries enough and to
spare, but I saw that noble quarto lying in the midst of an ignoble
crowd of cheap books, and marked with a price which I felt to be an
insult to scholarship, to the memory of Homer, sir, and the awful
shade of AEschylus. I paid the mean price asked for it, and I wanted
to double it, but I suppose it would have been a foolish sacrifice of
coin to sentiment: I love that book for its looks and behavior. None
of your "half-calf" economies in that volume, sir! And see how it
lies open anywhere! There is n't a book in my library that has such
a generous way of laying its treasures before you. From Alpha to
Omega, calm, assured rest at any page that your choice or accident
may light on. No lifting of a rebellious leaf like an upstart
servant that does not know his place and can never be taught manners,
but tranquil, well-bred repose. A book may be a perfect gentleman in
its aspect and demeanor, and this book would be good company for
personages like Roger Ascham and his pupils the Lady Elizabeth and
the Lady Jane Grey.
The Master was evidently riding a hobby, and what I wanted to know
was the plan on which he had formed his library. So I brought him
back to the point by asking him the question in so many words.
Yes,--he said,--I have a kind of notion of the way in which a library
ought to be put together--no, I don't mean that, I mean ought to
grow. I don't pretend to say that mine is a model, but it serves my
turn well enough, and it represents me pretty accurately. A scholar
must shape his own shell, secrete it one might almost say, for
secretion is only separation, you know, of certain elements derived
from the materials of the world about us. And a scholar's study,
with the books lining its walls, is his shell. It is n't a mollusk's
shell, either; it 's a caddice-worm's shell. You know about the
--More or less; less rather than more,--was my humble reply.
Well, sir, the caddice-worm is the larva of a fly, and he makes a
case for himself out of all sorts of bits of everything that happen
to suit his particular fancy, dead or alive, sticks and stones and
small shells with their owners in 'em, living as comfortable as ever.
Every one of these caddice-worms has his special fancy as to what he
will pick up and glue together, with a kind of natural cement he
provides himself, to make his case out of. In it he lives, sticking
his head and shoulders out once in a while, that is all. Don't you
see that a student in his library is a caddice-worm in his case?
I've told you that I take an interest in pretty much everything, and
don't mean to fence out any human interests from the private grounds
of my intelligence. Then, again, there is a subject, perhaps I may
say there is more than one, that I want to exhaust, to know to the
very bottom. And besides, of course I must have my literary harem,
my pare aux cerfs, where my favorites await my moments of leisure and
pleasure,--my scarce and precious editions, my luxurious
typographical masterpieces; my Delilahs, that take my head in their
lap: the pleasant story-tellers and the like; the books I love
because they are fair to look upon, prized by collectors, endeared by
old associations, secret treasures that nobody else knows anything
about; books, in short, that I like for insufficient reasons it may
be, but peremptorily, and mean to like and to love and to cherish
till death us do part.
Don't you see I have given you a key to the way my library is made
up, so that you can apriorize the plan according to which I have
filled my bookcases? I will tell you how it is carried out.
In the first place, you see, I have four extensive cyclopaedias. Out
of these I can get information enough to serve my immediate purpose
on almost any subject. These, of course, are supplemented by
geographical, biographical, bibliographical, and other dictionaries,
including of course lexicons to all the languages I ever meddle with.
Next to these come the works relating to my one or two specialties,
and these collections I make as perfect as I can. Every library
should try to be complete on something, if it were only on the
history of pin-heads. I don't mean that I buy all the trashy
compilations on my special subjects, but I try to have all the works
of any real importance relating to them, old as well as new. In the
following compartment you will find the great authors in all the
languages I have mastered, from Homer and Hesiod downward to the last
great English name.
This division, you see, you can make almost as extensive or as
limited as you choose. You can crowd the great representative
writers into a small compass; or you can make a library consisting
only of the different editions of Horace, if you have space and money
enough. Then comes the Harem, the shelf or the bookcase of Delilahs,
that you have paid wicked prices for, that you love without
pretending to be reasonable about it, and would bag in case of fire
before all the rest, just as Mr. Townley took the Clytie to his
carriage when the anti-Catholic mob threatened his house in 1780. As
for the foundlings like my Hedericus, they go among their peers; it
is a pleasure to take them, from the dusty stall where they were
elbowed by plebeian school-books and battered odd volumes, and give
them Alduses and Elzevirs for companions.
Nothing remains but the Infirmary. The most painful subjects are the
unfortunates that have lost a cover. Bound a hundred years ago,
perhaps, and one of the rich old browned covers gone--what a pity!
Do you know what to do about it? I 'll tell you,--no, I 'll show
you. Look at this volume. M. T. Ciceronis Opera,--a dozen of 'em,
--one of 'em minus half his cover, a poor one-legged cripple, six
months ago,--now see him.
--He looked very respectably indeed, both covers dark, ancient, very
decently matched; one would hardly notice the fact that they were not
-I 'll tell you what I did. You poor devil, said I, you are a
disgrace to your family. We must send you to a surgeon and have some
kind of a Taliacotian operation performed on you. (You remember the
operation as described in Hudibras, of course.) The first thing was
to find a subject of similar age and aspect ready to part with one of
his members. So I went to Quidlibet's,--you know Quidlibet and that
hieroglyphic sign of his with the omniscient-looking eye as its most
prominent feature,--and laid my case before him. I want you, said I,
to look up an old book of mighty little value,--one of your ten-cent
vagabonds would be the sort of thing,--but an old beggar, with a
cover like this, and lay it by for me.
And Quidlibet, who is a pleasant body to deal with,--only he has
insulted one or two gentlemanly books by selling them to me at very
low-bred and shamefully insufficient prices,--Quidlibet, I say, laid
by three old books for me to help myself from, and did n't take the
trouble even to make me pay the thirty cents for 'em. Well, said I
to myself, let us look at our three books that have undergone the
last insult short of the trunkmaker's or the paper-mills, and see
what they are. There may be something worth looking at in one or the
other of 'em.
Now do you know it was with a kind of a tremor that I untied the
package and looked at these three unfortunates, too humble for the
companionable dime to recognize as its equal in value. The same sort
of feeling you know if you ever tried the Bible-and-key, or the
Sortes Virgiliance. I think you will like to know what the three
books were which had been bestowed upon me gratis, that I might tear
away one of the covers of the one that best matched my Cicero, and
give it to the binder to cobble my crippled volume with.
The Master took the three books from a cupboard and continued.
No. I. An odd volume of The Adventurer. It has many interesting
things enough, but is made precious by containing Simon Browne's
famous Dedication to the Queen of his Answer to Tindal's
"Christianity as old as the Creation." Simon Browne was the Man
without a Soul. An excellent person, a most worthy dissenting
minister, but lying under a strange delusion.
Here is a paragraph from his Dedication:
"He was once a man; and of some little name; but of no worth, as his
present unparalleled case makes but too manifest; for by the
immediate hand of an avenging GOD, his very thinking substance has,
for more than seven years, been continually wasting away, till it is
wholly perished out of him, if it be not utterly come to nothing.
None, no, not the least remembrance of its very ruins, remains, not
the shadow of an idea is left, nor any sense that so much as one
single one, perfect or imperfect, whole or diminished, ever did
appear to a mind within him, or was perceived by it."
Think of this as the Dedication of a book "universally allowed to be
the best which that controversy produced," and what a flood of light
it pours on the insanities of those self-analyzing diarists whose
morbid reveries have been so often mistaken for piety! No. I. had
something for me, then, besides the cover, which was all it claimed
to have worth offering.
No. II. was "A View of Society and Manners in Italy." Vol. III. By
John Moore, M. D. (Zeluco Moore.) You know his pleasant book. In
this particular volume what interested me most, perhaps, was the very
spirited and intelligent account of the miracle of the liquefaction
of the blood of Saint Januarius, but it gave me an hour's mighty
agreeable reading. So much for Number Two.
No. III. was "An ESSAY On the Great EFFECTS of Even Languid and
Unheeded LOCAL MOTION." By the Hon. Robert Boyle. Published in
1685, and, as appears from other sources, "received with great and
general applause." I confess I was a little startled to find how
near this earlier philosopher had come to the modern doctrines, such
as are illustrated in Tyndall's "Heat considered as a Mode of
Motion." He speaks of "Us, who endeavor to resolve the Phenomena of
Nature into Matter and Local motion." That sounds like the
nineteenth century, but what shall we say to this? "As when a bar of
iron or silver, having been well hammered, is newly taken off of the
anvil; though the eye can discern no motion in it, yet the touch will
readily perceive it to be very hot, and if you spit upon it, the
brisk agitation of the insensible parts will become visible in that
which they will produce in the liquor." He takes a bar of tin, and
tries whether by bending it to and fro two or three times he cannot
"procure a considerable internal commotion among the parts "; and
having by this means broken or cracked it in the middle, finds, as he
expected, that the middle parts had considerably heated each other.
There are many other curious and interesting observations in the
volume which I should like to tell you of, but these will serve my
--Which book furnished you the old cover you wanted?--said I.
--Did he kill the owl ?--said the Master, laughing. [I suppose you,
the reader, know the owl story.]--It was Number Two that lent me one
of his covers. Poor wretch! He was one of three, and had lost his
two brothers. From him that hath not shall be taken even that which
he hath. The Scripture had to be fulfilled in his case. But I
couldn't help saying to myself, What do you keep writing books for,
when the stalls are covered all over with 'em, good books, too, that
nobody will give ten cents apiece for, lying there like so many dead
beasts of burden, of no account except to strip off their hides?
What is the use, I say? I have made a book or two in my time, and I
am making another that perhaps will see the light one of these days.
But if I had my life to live over again, I think I should go in for
silence, and get as near to Nirvana as I could. This language is
such a paltry tool! The handle of it cuts and the blade doesn't.
You muddle yourself by not knowing what you mean by a word, and send
out your unanswered riddles and rebuses to clear up other people's
difficulties. It always seems to me that talk is a ripple and
thought is a ground swell. A string of words, that mean pretty much
anything, helps you in a certain sense to get hold of a thought, just
as a string of syllables that mean nothing helps you to a word; but
it's a poor business, it's a poor business, and the more you study
definition the more you find out how poor it is. Do you know I
sometimes think our little entomological neighbor is doing a sounder
business than we people that make books about ourselves and our
slippery abstractions? A man can see the spots on a bug and count
'em, and tell what their color is, and put another bug alongside of
him and see whether the two are alike or different. And when he uses
a word he knows just what he means. There is no mistake as to the
meaning and identity of pulex irritans, confound him!
--What if we should look in, some day, on the Scarabeeist, as he
calls himself?--said I.---The fact is the Master had got agoing at
such a rate that I was willing to give a little turn to the
--Oh, very well,--said the Master,--I had some more things to say,
but I don't doubt they'll keep. And besides, I take an interest in
entomology, and have my own opinion on the meloe question.
--You don't mean to say you have studied insects as well as solar
systems and the order of things generally?
--He looked pleased. All philosophers look pleased when people say
to them virtually, "Ye are gods." The Master says he is vain
constitutionally, and thanks God that he is. I don't think he has
enough vanity to make a fool of himself with it, but the simple truth
is he cannot help knowing that he has a wide and lively intelligence,
and it pleases him to know it, and to be reminded of it, especially
in an oblique and tangential sort of way, so as not to look like
Yes, yes, I have amused a summer or two with insects, among other
things. I described a new tabanus,--horsefly, you know,--which, I
think, had escaped notice. I felt as grand when I showed up my new
discovery as if I had created the beast. I don't doubt Herschel felt
as if he had made a planet when he first showed the astronomers
Georgium Sidus, as he called it. And that reminds me of something.
I was riding on the outside of a stagecoach from London to Windsor in
the year--never mind the year, but it must have been in June, I
suppose, for I bought some strawberries. England owes me a sixpence
with interest from date, for I gave the woman a shilling, and the
coach contrived to start or the woman timed it so that I just missed
getting my change. What an odd thing memory is, to be sure, to have
kept such a triviality, and have lost so much that was invaluable!
She is a crazy wench, that Mnemosyne; she throws her jewels out of
the window and locks up straws and old rags in her strong box.
[De profundis! said I to myself, the bottom of the bushel has
dropped out! Sancta--Maria, ora pro nobis!]
--But as I was saying, I was riding on the outside of a stage-coach
from London to Windsor, when all at once a picture familiar to me
from my New England village childhood came upon me like a
reminiscence rather than a revelation. It was a mighty bewilderment
of slanted masts and spars and ladders and ropes, from the midst of
which a vast tube, looking as if it might be a piece of ordnance such
as the revolted angels battered the walls of Heaven with, according
to Milton, lifted its muzzle defiantly towards the sky. Why, you
blessed old rattletrap, said I to myself, I know you as well as I
know my father's spectacles and snuff-box! And that same crazy witch
of a Memory, so divinely wise and foolish, travels thirty-five
hundred miles or so in a single pulse-beat, makes straight for an old
house and an old library and an old corner of it, and whisks out a
volume of an old cyclopaedia, and there is the picture of which this
is the original. Sir William Herschel's great telescope! It was
just about as big, as it stood there by the roadside, as it was in
the picture, not much different any way. Why should it be? The
pupil of your eye is only a gimlet-hole, not so very much bigger than
the eye of a sail-needle, and a camel has to go through it before you
can see him. You look into a stereoscope and think you see a
miniature of a building or a mountain; you don't, you 're made a fool
of by your lying intelligence, as you call it; you see the building
and the mountain just as large as with your naked eye looking
straight at the real objects. Doubt it, do you? Perhaps you'd like
to doubt it to the music of a couple of gold five-dollar pieces. If
you would, say the word, and man and money, as Messrs. Heenan and
Morrissey have it, shall be forthcoming; for I will make you look at
a real landscape with your right eye, and a stereoscopic view of it
with your left eye, both at once, and you can slide one over the
other by a little management and see how exactly the picture overlies
the true landscape. We won't try it now, because I want to read you
something out of my book.
--I have noticed that the Master very rarely fails to come back to
his original proposition, though he, like myself, is fond of
zigzagging in order to reach it. Men's minds are like the pieces on
a chess-board in their way of moving. One mind creeps from the
square it is on to the next, straight forward, like the pawns.
Another sticks close to its own line of thought and follows it as far
as it goes, with no heed for others' opinions, as the bishop sweeps
the board in the line of his own color. And another class of minds
break through everything that lies before them, ride over argument
and opposition, and go to the end of the board, like the castle. But
there is still another sort of intellect which is very apt to jump
over the thought that stands next and come down in the unexpected way
of the knight. But that same knight, as the chess manuals will show
you, will contrive to get on to every square of the board in a pretty
series of moves that looks like a pattern of embroidery, and so these
zigzagging minds like the Master's, and I suppose my own is something
like it, will sooner or later get back to the square next the one
they started from.
The Master took down a volume from one of the shelves. I could not
help noticing that it was a shelf near his hand as he sat, and that
the volume looked as if he had made frequent use of it. I saw, too,
that he handled it in a loving sort of way; the tenderness he would
have bestowed on a wife and children had to find a channel somewhere,
and what more natural than that he should look fondly on the volume
which held the thoughts that had rolled themselves smooth and round
in his mind like pebbles on a beach, the dreams which, under cover of
the simple artifices such as all writers use, told the little world
of readers his secret hopes and aspirations, the fancies which had
pleased him and which he could not bear to let die without trying to
please others with them? I have a great sympathy with authors, most
of all with unsuccessful ones. If one had a dozen lives or so, it
would all be very well, but to have only a single ticket in the great
lottery, and have that drawn a blank, is a rather sad sort of thing.
So I was pleased to see the affectionate kind of pride with which the
Master handled his book; it was a success, in its way, and he looked
on it with a cheerful sense that he had a right to be proud of it.
The Master opened the volume, and, putting on his large round
glasses, began reading, as authors love to read that love their
--The only good reason for believing in the stability of the moral
order of things is to be found in the tolerable steadiness of human
averages. Out of a hundred human beings fifty-one will be found in
the long run on the side of the right, so far as they know it, and
against the wrong. They will be organizers rather than
disorganizers, helpers and not hinderers in the upward movement of
the race. This is the main fact we have to depend on. The right
hand of the great organism is a little stronger than the left, that
Now and then we come across a left-handed man. So now and then we
find a tribe or a generation, the subject of what we may call moral
left-handedness, but that need not trouble us about our formula. All
we have to do is to spread the average over a wider territory or a
longer period of time. Any race or period that insists on being
left-handed must go under if it comes in contact with a right-handed
one. If there were, as a general rule, fifty-one rogues in the
hundred instead of forty-nine, all other qualities of mind and body
being equally distributed between the two sections, the order of
things would sooner or later end in universal disorder. It is the
question between the leak and the pumps.
It does not seem very likely that the Creator of all things is taken
by surprise at witnessing anything any of his creatures do or think.
Men have sought out many inventions, but they can have contrived
nothing which did not exist as an idea in the omniscient
consciousness to which past, present, and future are alike Now.
We read what travellers tell us about the King of Dahomey, or the
Fejee Island people, or the short and simple annals of the
celebrities recorded in the Newgate Calendar, and do not know just
what to make of these brothers and sisters of the race; but I do not
suppose an intelligence even as high as the angelic beings, to stop
short there, would see anything very peculiar or wonderful about
them, except as everything is wonderful and unlike everything else.
It is very curious to see how science, that is, looking at and
arranging the facts of a case with our own eyes and our own
intelligence, without minding what somebody else has said, or how
some old majority vote went in a pack of intriguing ecclesiastics,
--I say it is very curious to see how science is catching up with one
superstition after another.
There is a recognized branch of science familiar to all those who
know anything of the studies relating to life, under the name of
Teratology. It deals with all sorts of monstrosities which are to be
met with in living beings, and more especially in animals. It is
found that what used to be called lusus naturae, or freaks of nature,
are just as much subject to laws as the naturally developed forms of
The rustic looks at the Siamese twins, and thinks he is contemplating
an unheard-of anomaly; but there are plenty of cases like theirs in
the books of scholars, and though they are not quite so common as
double cherries, the mechanism of their formation is not a whit more
mysterious than that of the twinned fruits. Such cases do not
disturb the average arrangement; we have Changs and Engs at one pole,
and Cains and Abels at the other. One child is born with six fingers
on each hand, and another falls short by one or more fingers of his
due allowance; but the glover puts his faith in the great law of
averages, and makes his gloves with five fingers apiece, trusting
nature for their counterparts.
Thinking people are not going to be scared out of explaining or at
least trying to explain things by the shrieks of persons whose
beliefs are disturbed thereby. Comets were portents to Increase
Mather, President of Harvard College; "preachers of Divine wrath,
heralds and messengers of evil tidings to the world." It is not so
very long since Professor Winthrop was teaching at the same
institution. I can remember two of his boys very well, old boys, it
is true, they were, and one of them wore a three-cornered cocked hat;
but the father of these boys, whom, as I say, I can remember, had to
defend himself against the minister of the Old South Church for the
impiety of trying to account for earthquakes on natural principles.
And his ancestor, Governor Winthrop, would probably have shaken his
head over his descendant's dangerous audacity, if one may judge by
the solemn way in which he mentions poor Mrs. Hutchinson's unpleasant
experience, which so grievously disappointed her maternal
expectations. But people used always to be terribly frightened by
those irregular vital products which we now call "interesting
specimens" and carefully preserve in jars of alcohol. It took next
to nothing to make a panic; a child was born a few centuries ago with
six teeth in its head, and about that time the Turks began gaining
great advantages over the Christians. Of course there was an
intimate connection between the prodigy and the calamity. So said
the wise men of that day.
--All these out-of-the-way cases are studied connectedly now, and are
found to obey very exact rules. With a little management one can
even manufacture living monstrosities. Malformed salmon and other
fish can be supplied in quantity, if anybody happens to want them.
Now, what all I have said is tending to is exactly this, namely, that
just as the celestial movements are regulated by fixed laws, just as
bodily monstrosities are produced according to rule, and with as good
reason as normal shapes, so obliquities of character are to be
accounted for on perfectly natural principles; they are just as
capable of classification as the bodily ones, and they all diverge
from a certain average or middle term which is the type of its kind.
If life had been a little longer I would have written a number of
essays for which, as it is, I cannot expect to have time. I have set
down the titles of a hundred or more, and I have often been tempted
to publish these, for according to my idea, the title of a book very
often renders the rest of it unnecessary. "Moral Teratology," for
instance, which is marked No. 67 on my list of "Essays Potential, not
Actual," suggests sufficiently well what I should be like to say in
the pages it would preface. People hold up their hands at a moral
monster as if there was no reason for his existence but his own
choice. That was a fine specimen we read of in the papers a few
years ago, the Frenchman, it may be remembered, who used to waylay
and murder young women, and after appropriating their effects, bury
their bodies in a private cemetery he kept for that purpose. It is
very natural, and I do not say it is not very proper, to hang such
eccentric persons as this; but it is not clear whether his vagaries
produce any more sensation at Headquarters than the meek enterprises
of the mildest of city missionaries. For the study of Moral
Teratology will teach you that you do not get such a malformed
character as that without a long chain of causes to account for it;
and if you only knew those causes, you would know perfectly well what
You may feel pretty sure that our friend of the private cemetery was
not the child of pious and intelligent parents; that he was not
nurtured by the best of mothers, and educated by the most judicious
teachers; and that he did not come of a lineage long known and
honored for its intellectual and moral qualities. Suppose that one
should go to the worst quarter of the city and pick out the worst-
looking child of the worst couple he could find, and then train him
up successively at the School for Infant Rogues, the Academy for
Young Scamps, and the College for Complete Criminal Education, would
it be reasonable to expect a Francois Xavier or a Henry Martyn to be
the result of such a training? The traditionists, in whose
presumptuous hands the science of anthropology has been trusted from
time immemorial, have insisted on eliminating cause and effect from
the domain of morals. When they have come across a moral monster
they have seemed to think that he put himself together, having a free
choice of all the constituents which make up manhood, and that
consequently no punishment could be too bad for him.
I say, hang him and welcome, if that is the best thing for society;
hate him, in a certain sense, as you hate a rattlesnake, but, if you
pretend to be a philosopher, recognize the fact that what you hate in
him is chiefly misfortune, and that if you had been born with his
villanous low forehead and poisoned instincts, and bred among
creatures of the Races Maudites whose natural history has to be
studied like that of beasts of prey and vermin, you would not have
been sitting there in your gold-bowed spectacles and passing judgment
on the peccadilloes of your fellow-creatures.
I have seen men and women so disinterested and noble, and devoted to
the best works, that it appeared to me if any good and faithful
servant was entitled to enter into the joys of his Lord, such as
these might be. But I do not know that I ever met with a human being
who seemed to me to have a stronger claim on the pitying
consideration and kindness of his Maker than a wretched, puny,
crippled, stunted child that I saw in Newgate, who was pointed out as
one of the most notorious and inveterate little thieves in London. I
have no doubt that some of those who were looking at this pitiable
morbid secretion of the diseased social organism thought they were
very virtuous for hating him so heartily.
It is natural, and in one sense is all right enough. I want to catch
a thief and put the extinguisher on an incendiary as much as my
neighbors do; but I have two sides to my consciousness as I have two
sides to my heart, one carrying dark, impure blood, and the other the
bright stream which has been purified and vivified by the great
source of life and death,--the oxygen of the air which gives all
things their vital heat, and burns all things at last to ashes.
One side of me loves and hates; the other side of me judges, say
rather pleads and suspends judgment. I think, if I were left to
myself, I should hang a rogue and then write his apology and
subscribe to a neat monument, commemorating, not his virtues, but his
misfortunes. I should, perhaps, adorn the marble with emblems, as is
the custom with regard to the more regular and normally constituted
members of society. It would not be proper to put the image of a
lamb upon the stone which marked the resting-place of him of the
private cemetery. But I would not hesitate to place the effigy of a
wolf or a hyena upon the monument. I do not judge these animals, I
only kill them or shut them up. I presume they stand just as well
with their Maker as lambs and kids, and the existence of such beings
is a perpetual plea for God Almighty's poor, yelling, scalping
Indians, his weasand-stopping Thugs, his despised felons, his
murdering miscreants, and all the unfortunates whom we, picked
individuals of a picked class of a picked race, scrubbed, combed, and
catechized from our cradles upward, undertake to find accommodations
for in another state of being where it is to be hoped they will have
a better chance than they had in this.
The Master paused, and took off his great round spectacles. I could
not help thinking that he looked benevolent enough to pardon Judas
Iscariot just at that moment, though his features can knot themselves
up pretty, formidably on occasion.
--You are somewhat of a phrenologist, I judge, by the way you talk of
instinctive and inherited tendencies--I said.
--They tell me I ought to be,--he answered, parrying my question, as
I thought.---I have had a famous chart made out of my cerebral
organs, according to which I ought to have been--something more than
a poor Magister Artaum.
--I thought a shade of regret deepened the lines on his broad,
antique-looking forehead, and I began talking about all the sights I
had seen in the way of monstrosities, of which I had a considerable
list, as you will see when I tell you my weakness in that direction.
This, you understand, Beloved, is private and confidential.
I pay my quarter of a dollar and go into all the side-shows that
follow the caravans and circuses round the country. I have made
friends of all the giants and all the dwarfs. I became acquainted
with Monsieur Bihin, le plus bel homme du monde, and one of the
biggest, a great many years ago, and have kept up my agreeable
relations with him ever since. He is a most interesting giant, with
a softness of voice and tenderness of feeling which I find very
engaging. I was on friendly terms with Mr. Charles Freeman, a very
superior giant of American birth, seven feet four, I think, in
height, "double-jointed," of mylodon muscularity, the same who in a
British prize-ring tossed the Tipton Slasher from one side of the
rope to the other, and now lies stretched, poor fellow! in a mighty
grave in the same soil which holds the sacred ashes of Cribb, and the
honored dust of Burke,--not the one "commonly called the sublime,"
but that other Burke to whom Nature had denied the sense of hearing
lest he should be spoiled by listening to the praises of the admiring
circles which looked on his dear-bought triumphs. Nor have I
despised those little ones whom that devout worshipper of Nature in
her exceptional forms, the distinguished Barnum, has introduced to
the notice of mankind. The General touches his chapeau to me, and
the Commodore gives me a sailor's greeting. I have had confidential
interviews with the double-headed daughter of Africa,--so far, at
least, as her twofold personality admitted of private confidences. I
have listened to the touching experiences of the Bearded Lady, whose
rough cheeks belie her susceptible heart. Miss Jane Campbell has
allowed me to question her on the delicate subject of avoirdupois
equivalents; and the armless fair one, whose embrace no monarch could
hope to win, has wrought me a watch-paper with those despised digits
which have been degraded from gloves to boots in our evolution from
the condition of quadrumana.
I hope you have read my experiences as good-naturedly as the old
Master listened to them. He seemed to be pleased with my whim, and
promised to go with me to see all the side-shows of the next caravan.
Before I left him he wrote my name in a copy of the new edition of
his book, telling me that it would not all be new to me by a great
deal, for he often talked what he had printed to make up for having
printed a good deal of what he had talked.
Here is the passage of his Poem the Young Astronomer read to us.
WIND-CLOUDS AND STAR-DRIFTS.
From my lone turret as I look around
O'er the green meadows to the ring of blue,
From slope, from summit, and from half-hid vale
The sky is stabbed with dagger-pointed spires,
Their gilded symbols whirling in the wind,
Their brazen tongues proclaiming to the world,
Here truth is sold, the only genuine ware;
See that it has our trade-mark!
You will buy Poison instead of food across the way,
The lies of --this or that, each several name
The standard's blazon and the battle-cry
Of some true-gospel faction, and again
The token of the Beast to all beside.
And grouped round each I see a huddling crowd
Alike in all things save the words they use;
In love, in longing, hate and fear the same.
Whom do we trust and serve? We speak of one
And bow to many; Athens still would find
The shrines of all she worshipped safe within
Our tall barbarian temples, and the thrones
That crowned Olympus mighty as of old.
The god of music rules the Sabbath choir;
The lyric muse must leave the sacred nine
To help us please the dilettante's ear;
Plutus limps homeward with us, as we leave
The portals of the temple where we knelt
And listened while the god of eloquence
(Hermes of ancient days, but now disguised
In sable vestments) with that other god
Somnus, the son of Erebus and Nog,
Fights in unequal contest for our souls;
The dreadful sovereign of the under world
Still shakes his sceptre at us, and we hear
The baying of the triple-throated hound;
Eros-is young as ever, and as fair
The lovely Goddess born of ocean's foam.
These be thy gods, O Israel! Who is he,
The one ye name and tell us that ye serve,
Whom ye would call me from my lonely tower
To worship with the many-headed throng?
Is it the God that walked in Eden's grove
In the cool hour to seek our guilty sire?
The God who dealt with Abraham as the sons
Of that old patriarch deal with other men?
The jealous God of Moses, one who feels
An image as an insult, and is wroth
With him who made it and his child unborn?
The God who plagued his people for the sin
Of their adulterous king, beloved of him,
The same who offers to a chosen few
The right to praise him in eternal song
While a vast shrieking world of endless woe
Blends its dread chorus with their rapturous hymn?
Is this the God ye mean, or is it he
Who heeds the sparrow's fall, whose loving heart
Is as the pitying father's to his child,
Whose lesson to his children is, "Forgive,"
Whose plea for all, "They know not what they do"
I claim the right of knowing whom I serve,
Else is my service idle; He that asks
My homage asks it from a reasoning soul.
To crawl is not to worship; we have learned
A drill of eyelids, bended neck and knee,
Hanging our prayers on binges, till we ape
The flexures of the many-jointed worm.
Asia has taught her Aliabs and salaams
To the world's children,--we have grown to men!
We who have rolled the sphere beneath our feet
To find a virgin forest, as we lay
The beams of our rude temple, first of all
Must frame its doorway high enough for man
To pass unstooping; knowing as we do
That He who shaped us last of living forms
Has long enough been served by creeping things,
Reptiles that left their foot-prints in the sand
Of old sea-margins that have turned to stone,
And men who learned their ritual; we demand
To know him first, then trust him and then love
When we have found him worthy of our love,
Tried by our own poor hearts and not before;
He must be truer than the truest friend,
He must be tenderer than a woman's love,
A father better than the best of sires;
Kinder than she who bore us, though we sin
Oftener than did the brother we are told,
We-poor ill-tempered mortals-must forgive,
Though seven times sinning threescore times and ten.
This is the new world's gospel: Be ye men!
Try well the legends of the children's time;
Ye are the chosen people, God has led
Your steps across the desert of the deep
As now across the desert of the shore;
Mountains are cleft before you as the sea
Before the wandering tribe of Israel's sons;
Still onward rolls the thunderous caravan,
Its coming printed on the western sky,
A cloud by day, by night a pillared flame;
Your prophets are a hundred unto one
Of them of old who cried, "Thus saith the Lord";
They told of cities that should fall in heaps,
But yours of mightier cities that shall rise
Where yet the lonely fishers spread their nets,
Where hides the fox and hoots the midnight owl;
The tree of knowledge in your garden grows
Not single, but at every humble door;
Its branches lend you their immortal food,
That fills you with the sense of what ye are,
No servants of an altar hewed and carved
From senseless stone by craft of human hands,
Rabbi, or dervish, Brahmin, bishop, bonze,
But masters of the charm with which they work
To keep your hands from that forbidden tree!
Ye that have tasted that divinest fruit,
Look on this world of yours with opened eyes!
Ye are as gods! Nay, makers of your gods,
Each day ye break an image in your shrine
And plant a fairer image where it stood
Where is the Moloch of your fathers' creed,
Whose fires of torment burned for span-long babes?
Fit object for a tender mother's love!
Why not? It was a bargain duly made
For these same infants through the surety's act
Intrusted with their all for earth and heaven,
By Him who chose their guardian, knowing well
His fitness for the task,--this, even this,
Was the true doctrine only yesterday
As thoughts are reckoned,--and to-day you hear
In words that sound as if from human tongues
Those monstrous, uncouth horrors of the past
That blot the blue of heaven and shame the earth
As would the saurians of the age of slime,
Awaking from their stony sepulchres
And wallowing hateful in the eye of day!
Four of us listened to these lines as the young man read them,--the
Master and myself and our two ladies. This was the little party we
got up to hear him read. I do not think much of it was very new to
the Master or myself. At any rate, he said to me when we were alone,
That is the kind of talk the "natural man," as the theologians call
him, is apt to fall into.
--I thought it was the Apostle Paul, and not the theologians, that
used the term "natural man", I ventured to suggest.
--I should like to know where the Apostle Paul learned English?--said
the Master, with the look of one who does not mean to be tripped up
if he can help himself.---But at any rate,--he continued,--the
"natural man," so called, is worth listening to now and then, for he
didn't make his nature, and the Devil did n't make it; and if the
Almighty made it, I never saw or heard of anything he made that
wasn't worth attending to.
The young man begged the Lady to pardon anything that might sound
harshly in these crude thoughts of his. He had been taught strange
things, he said, from old theologies, when he was a child, and had
thought his way out of many of his early superstitions. As for the
Young Girl, our Scheherezade, he said to her that she must have got
dreadfully tired (at which she colored up and said it was no such
thing), and he promised that, to pay for her goodness in listening,
he would give her a lesson in astronomy the next fair evening, if she
would be his scholar, at which she blushed deeper than before, and
said something which certainly was not No.
There was no sooner a vacancy on our side of the table, than the
Master proposed a change of seats which would bring the Young
Astronomer into our immediate neighborhood. The Scarabee was to move
into the place of our late unlamented associate, the Man of Letters,
so called. I was to take his place, the Master to take mine, and the
young man that which had been occupied by the Master. The advantages
of this change were obvious. The old Master likes an audience,
plainly enough; and with myself on one side of him, and the young
student of science, whose speculative turn is sufficiently shown in
the passages from his poem, on the other side, he may feel quite sure
of being listened to. There is only one trouble in the arrangement,
and that is that it brings this young man not only close to us, but
also next to our Scheherezade.
I am obliged to confess that he has shown occasional marks of
inattention even while the Master was discoursing in a way that I
found agreeable enough. I am quite sure it is no intentional
disrespect to the old Master. It seems to me rather that he has
become interested in the astronomical lessons he has been giving the
Young Girl. He has studied so much alone, that it is naturally a
pleasure to him to impart some of his knowledge. As for his young
pupil, she has often thought of being a teacher herself, so that she
is of course very glad to acquire any accomplishment that may be
useful to her in that capacity. I do not see any reason why some of
the boarders should have made such remarks as they have done. One
cannot teach astronomy to advantage, without going out of doors,
though I confess that when two young people go out by daylight to
study the stars, as these young folks have done once or twice, I do
not so much wonder at a remark or suggestion from those who have
nothing better to do than study their neighbors.
I ought to have told the reader before this that I found, as I
suspected, that our innocent-looking Scheherezade was at the bottom
of the popgun business. I watched her very closely, and one day,
when the little monkey made us all laugh by stopping the Member of
the Haouse in the middle of a speech he was repeating to us,--it was
his great effort of the season on a bill for the protection of horn-
pout in Little Muddy River,--I caught her making the signs that set
him going. At a slight tap of her knife against her plate, he got
all ready, and presently I saw her cross her knife and fork upon her
plate, and as she did so, pop! went the small piece of artillery.
The Member of the Haouse was just saying that this bill hit his
constitooents in their most vital--when a pellet hit him in the
feature of his countenance most exposed to aggressions and least
tolerant of liberties. The Member resented this unparliamentary
treatment by jumping up from his chair and giving the small aggressor
a good shaking, at the same time seizing the implement which had
caused his wrath and breaking it into splinters. The Boy blubbered,
the Young Girl changed color, and looked as if she would cry, and
that was the last of these interruptions.
I must own that I have sometimes wished we had the popgun back, for
it answered all the purpose of "the previous question" in a
deliberative assembly. No doubt the Young Girl was capricious in
setting the little engine at work, but she cut short a good many
disquisitions that threatened to be tedious. I find myself often
wishing for her and her small fellow-conspirator's intervention, in
company where I am supposed to be enjoying myself. When my friend
the politician gets too far into the personal details of the quorum
pars magna fui, I find myself all at once exclaiming in mental
articulation, Popgun! When my friend the story-teller begins that
protracted narrative which has often emptied me of all my voluntary
laughter for the evening, he has got but a very little way when I say
to myself, What wouldn't I give for a pellet from that popgun! In
short, so useful has that trivial implement proved as a jaw-stopper
and a boricide, that I never go to a club or a dinner-party, without
wishing the company included our Scheherezade and That Boy with his
How clearly I see now into the mechanism of the Young Girl's
audacious contrivance for regulating our table-talk! Her brain is
tired half the time, and she is too nervous to listen patiently to
what a quieter person would like well enough, or at least would not
be annoyed by. It amused her to invent a scheme for managing the
headstrong talkers, and also let off a certain spirit of mischief
which in some of these nervous girls shows itself in much more
questionable forms. How cunning these half-hysteric young persons
are, to be sure! I had to watch a long time before I detected the
telegraphic communication between the two conspirators. I have no
doubt she had sedulously schooled the little monkey to his business,
and found great delight in the task of instruction.
But now that our Scheherezade has become a scholar instead of a
teacher, she seems to be undergoing a remarkable transformation.
Astronomy is indeed a noble science. It may well kindle the
enthusiasm of a youthful nature. I fancy at times that I see
something of that starry light which I noticed in the young man's
eyes gradually kindling in hers. But can it be astronomy alone that
does it? Her color comes and goes more readily than when the old
Master sat next her on the left. It is having this young man at her
side, I suppose. Of course it is. I watch her with great, I may say
tender interest. If he would only fall in love with her, seize upon
her wandering affections and fancies as the Romans seized the Sabine
virgins, lift her out of herself and her listless and weary
drudgeries, stop the outflow of this young life which is draining
itself away in forced literary labor--dear me, dear me--if, if, if
"If I were God
An' ye were Martin Elginbrod!"
I am afraid all this may never be. I fear that he is too much given
to lonely study, to self-companionship, to all sorts of questionings,
to looking at life as at a solemn show where he is only a spectator.
I dare not build up a romance on what I have yet seen. My reader
may, but I will answer for nothing. I shall wait and see.
The old Master and I have at last made that visit to the Scarabee
which we had so long promised ourselves.
When we knocked at his door he came and opened it, instead of saying,
Come in. He was surprised, I have no doubt, at the sound of our
footsteps; for he rarely has a visitor, except the little monkey of a
boy, and he may have thought a troop of marauders were coming to rob
him of his treasures. Collectors feel so rich in the possession of
their rarer specimens, that they forget how cheap their precious
things seem to common eyes, and are as afraid of being robbed as if
they were dealers in diamonds. They have the name of stealing from
each other now and then, it is true, but many of their priceless
possessions would hardly tempt a beggar. Values are artificial: you
will not be able to get ten cents of the year 1799 for a dime.
The Scarabee was reassured as soon as he saw our faces, and he
welcomed us not ungraciously into his small apartment. It was hard
to find a place to sit down, for all the chairs were already occupied
by cases and boxes full of his favorites. I began, therefore,
looking round the room. Bugs of every size and aspect met my eyes
wherever they turned. I felt for the moment as I suppose a man may
feel in a fit of delirium tremens. Presently my attention was drawn
towards a very odd-looking insect on the mantelpiece. This animal
was incessantly raising its arms as if towards heaven and clasping
them together, as though it were wrestling in prayer.
Do look at this creature,--I said to the Master, he seems to be very
hard at work at his devotions.
Mantas religiosa,--said the Master,--I know the praying rogue.
Mighty devout and mighty cruel; crushes everything he can master, or
impales it on his spiny shanks and feeds upon it, like a gluttonous
wretch as he is. I have seen the Mantis religiosa on a larger scale
than this, now and then. A sacred insect, sir,--sacred to many
tribes of men; to the Hottentots, to the Turks, yes, sir, and to the
Frenchmen, who call the rascal prie dieu, and believe him to have
special charge of children that have lost their way.
Doesn't it seem as if there was a vein of satire as well as of fun
that ran through the solemn manifestations of creative wisdom? And
of deception too--do you see how nearly those dried leaves resemble
They do, indeed,--I answered,--but not so closely as to deceive me.
They remind me of an insect, but I could not mistake them for one.
--Oh, you couldn't mistake those dried leaves for an insect, hey?
Well, how can you mistake that insect for dried leaves? That is the
question; for insect it is,--phyllum siccifolium, the "walking leaf,"
as some have called it.--The Master had a hearty laugh at my
The Scarabee did not seem to be amused at the Master's remarks or at
my blunder. Science is always perfectly serious to him; and he would
no more laugh over anything connected with his study, than a
clergyman would laugh at a funeral.
They send me all sorts of trumpery,--he said, Orthoptera and
Lepidoptera; as if a coleopterist--a scarabeeist--cared for such
things. This business is no boy's play to me. The insect population
of the world is not even catalogued yet, and a lifetime given to the
scarabees is a small contribution enough to their study. I like your
men of general intelligence well enough,--your Linnwuses and your
Buffons and your Cuviers; but Cuvier had to go to Latreille for his
insects, and if Latreille had been able to consult me,--yes, me,
gentlemen!--he would n't have made the blunders he did about some of
The old Master, as I think you must have found out by this time,--
you, Beloved, I mean, who read every word,--has a reasonably good
opinion, as perhaps he has a right to have, of his own intelligence
and acquirements. The Scarabee's exultation and glow as he spoke of
the errors of the great entomologist which he himself could have
corrected, had the effect on the old Master which a lusty crow has
upon the feathered champion of the neighboring barnyard. He too knew
something about insects. Had he not discovered a, new tabanus? Had
he not made preparations of the very coleoptera the Scarabee studied
so exclusively,--preparations which the illustrious Swammerdam would
not have been ashamed of, and dissected a melolontha as exquisitely
as Strauss Durckheim himself ever did it? So the Master, recalling
these studies of his and certain difficult and disputed points at
which he had labored in one of his entomological paroxysms, put a
question which there can be little doubt was intended to puzzle the
Scarabee, and perhaps,--for the best of us is human (I am beginning
to love the old Master, but he has his little weaknesses, thank
Heaven, like the rest of us),--I say perhaps, was meant to show that
some folks knew as much about some things as some other folks.
The little dried-up specialist did not dilate into fighting
dimensions as--perhaps, again--the Master may have thought he would.
He looked a mild surprise, but remained as quiet as one of his own
beetles when you touch him and he makes believe he is dead. The
blank silence became oppressive. Was the Scarabee crushed, as so
many of his namesakes are crushed, under the heel of this trampling
At last the Scarabee creaked out very slowly, "Did I understand you
to ask the following question, to wit?" and so forth; for I was quite
out of my depth, and only know that he repeated the Master's somewhat
complex inquiry, word for word.
--That was exactly my question,--said the Master,--and I hope it is
not uncivil to ask one which seems to me to be a puzzler.
Not uncivil in the least,--said the Scarabee, with something as much
like a look of triumph as his dry face permitted,--not uncivil at
all, but a rather extraordinary question to ask at this date of
entomological history. I settled that question some years ago, by a
series of dissections, six-and-thirty in number, reported in an essay
I can show you and would give you a copy of, but that I am a little
restricted in my revenue, and our Society has to be economical, so I
have but this one. You see, sir,--and he went on with elytra and
antennae and tarsi and metatarsi and tracheae and stomata and wing-
muscles and leg-muscles and ganglions,--all plain enough, I do not
doubt, to those accustomed to handling dor-bugs and squash-bugs and
such undesirable objects of affection to all but naturalists.
He paused when he got through, not for an answer, for there evidently
was none, but to see how the Master would take it. The Scarabee had
had it all his own way.
The Master was loyal to his own generous nature. He felt as a
peaceful citizen might feel who had squared off at a stranger for
some supposed wrong, and suddenly discovered that he was undertaking
to chastise Mr. Dick Curtis, "the pet of the Fancy," or Mr. Joshua
Hudson; "the John Bull fighter."
He felt the absurdity of his discomfiture, for he turned to me good-
naturedly, and said,
"Poor Johnny Raw! What madness could impel
So rum a flat to face so prime a swell?"
To tell the truth, I rather think the Master enjoyed his own defeat.
The Scarabee had a right to his victory; a man does not give his life
to the study of a single limited subject for nothing, and the moment
we come across a first-class expert we begin to take a pride in his
superiority. It cannot offend us, who have no right at all to be his
match on his own ground. Besides, there is a very curious sense of
satisfaction in getting a fair chance to sneer at ourselves and scoff
at our own pretensions. The first person of our dual consciousness
has been smirking and rubbing his hands and felicitating himself on
his innumerable superiorities, until we have grown a little tired of
him. Then, when the other fellow, the critic, the cynic, the Shimei,
who has been quiet, letting self-love and self-glorification have
their perfect work, opens fire upon the first half of our personality
and overwhelms it with that wonderful vocabulary of abuse of which he
is the unrivalled master, there is no denying that he enjoys it
immensely; and as he is ourself for the moment, or at least the chief
portion of ourself (the other half-self retiring into a dim corner of
semiconsciousness and cowering under the storm of sneers and
contumely,--you follow me perfectly, Beloved,--the way is as plain as
the path of the babe to the maternal fount), as, I say, the abusive
fellow is the chief part of us for the time, and he likes to exercise
his slanderous vocabulary, we on the whole enjoy a brief season of
self-depreciation and self-scolding very heartily.
It is quite certain that both of us, the Master and myself, conceived
on the instant a respect for the Scarabee which we had not before
felt. He had grappled with one difficulty at any rate and mastered
it. He had settled one thing, at least, so it appeared, in such a
way that it was not to be brought up again. And now he was
determined, if it cost him the effort of all his remaining days, to
close another discussion and put forever to rest the anxious doubts
about the larva of meloe.
--Your thirty-six dissections must have cost you a deal of time and
labor,--the Master said.
--What have I to do with time, but to fill it up with labor?--
answered the Scarabee.---It is my meat and drink to work over my
beetles. My holidays are when I get a rare specimen. My rest is to
watch the habits of insects, those that I do not pretend to study.
Here is my muscarium, my home for house-flies; very interesting
creatures; here they breed and buzz and feed and enjoy themselves,
and die in a good old age of a few months. My favorite insect lives
in this other case; she is at home, but in her private-chamber; you
shall see her.
He tapped on the glass lightly, and a large, gray, hairy spider came
forth from the hollow of a funnel-like web.
--And this is all the friend you have to love? said the Master, with
a tenderness in his voice which made the question very significant.
--Nothing else loves me better than she does, that I know of,--he
--To think of it! Not even a dog to lick his hand, or a cat to purr
and rub her fur against him! Oh, these boarding-houses, these
boarding-houses! What forlorn people one sees stranded on their
desolate shores! Decayed gentlewomen with the poor wrecks of what
once made their households beautiful, disposed around them in narrow
chambers as they best may be, coming down day after day, poor souls!
to sit at the board with strangers; their hearts full of sad memories
which have no language but a sigh, no record but the lines of sorrow
on their features; orphans, creatures with growing tendrils and
nothing to cling to; lonely rich men, casting about them what to do
with the wealth they never knew how to enjoy, when they shall no
longer worry over keeping and increasing it; young men and young
women, left to their instincts, unguarded, unwatched, save by
malicious eyes, which are sure to be found and to find occupation in
these miscellaneous collections of human beings; and now and then a
shred of humanity like this little adust specialist, with just the
resources needed to keep the "radical moisture" from entirely
exhaling from his attenuated organism, and busying himself over a
point of science, or compiling a hymn-book, or editing a grammar or a
dictionary;--such are the tenants of boarding-houses whom we cannot
think of without feeling how sad it is when the wind is not tempered
to the shorn lamb; when the solitary, whose hearts are shrivelling,
are not set in families!
The Master was greatly interested in the Scarabee's Muscarium.
--I don't remember,--he said,--that I have heard of such a thing as
that before. Mighty curious creatures, these same house-flies! Talk
about miracles! Was there ever anything more miraculous, so far as
our common observation goes, than the coming and the going of these
creatures? Why didn't Job ask where the flies come from and where
they go to? I did not say that you and I don't know, but how many
people do know anything about it? Where are the cradles of the young
flies? Where are the cemeteries of the dead ones, or do they die at
all except when we kill them? You think all the flies of the year
are dead and gone, and there comes a warm day and all at once there
is a general resurrection of 'em; they had been taking a nap, that is
--I suppose you do not trust your spider in the Muscarium ?--said I,
addressing the Scarabee.
--Not exactly,--he answered,--she is a terrible creature. She loves
me, I think, but she is a killer and a cannibal among other insects.
I wanted to pair her with a male spider, but it wouldn't do.
-Wouldn't do?--said I,--why not? Don't spiders have their mates as
well as other folks?
-Oh yes, sometimes; but the females are apt to be particular, and if
they don't like the mate you offer them they fall upon him and kill
him and eat him up. You see they are a great deal bigger and
stronger than the males, and they are always hungry and not always
particularly anxious to have one of the other sex bothering round.
--Woman's rights!--said I,--there you have it! Why don't those
talking ladies take a spider as their emblem? Let them form
arachnoid associations, spinsters and spiders would be a good motto.
--The Master smiled. I think it was an eleemosynary smile, for my
pleasantry seems to me a particularly basso rilievo, as I look upon
it in cold blood. But conversation at the best is only a thin
sprinkling of occasional felicities set in platitudes and
commonplaces. I never heard people talk like the characters in the
"School for Scandal,"--I should very much like to.---I say the Master
smiled. But the Scarabee did not relax a muscle of his countenance.
--There are persons whom the very mildest of faecetiae sets off into
such convulsions of laughter, that one is afraid lest they should
injure themselves. Even when a jest misses fire completely, so that
it is no jest at all, but only a jocular intention, they laugh just
as heartily. Leave out the point of your story, get the word wrong
on the duplicity of which the pun that was to excite hilarity
depended, and they still honor your abortive attempt with the most
lusty and vociferous merriment.
There is a very opposite class of persons whom anything in the nature
of a joke perplexes, troubles, and even sometimes irritates, seeming
to make them think they are trifled with, if not insulted. If you
are fortunate enough to set the whole table laughing, one of this
class of persons will look inquiringly round, as if something had
happened, and, seeing everybody apparently amused but himself, feel
as if he was being laughed at, or at any rate as if something had
been said which he was not to hear. Often, however, it does not go
so far as this, and there is nothing more than mere insensibility to
the cause of other people's laughter, a sort of joke-blindness,
comparable to the well-known color-blindness with which many persons
are afflicted as a congenital incapacity.
I have never seen the Scarabee smile. I have seen him take off his
goggles,--he breakfasts in these occasionally,--I suppose when he has
been tiring his poor old eyes out over night gazing through his
microscope,--I have seen him take his goggles off, I say, and stare
about him, when the rest of us were laughing at something which
amused us, but his features betrayed nothing more than a certain
bewilderment, as if we had been foreigners talking in an unknown
tongue. I do not think it was a mere fancy of mine that he bears a
kind of resemblance to the tribe of insects he gives his life to
studying. His shiny black coat; his rounded back, convex with years
of stooping over his minute work; his angular movements, made natural
to him by his habitual style of manipulation; the aridity of his
organism, with which his voice is in perfect keeping;--all these
marks of his special sedentary occupation are so nearly what might be
expected, and indeed so much, in accordance with the more general
fact that a man's aspect is subdued to the look of what he works in,
that I do not feel disposed to accuse myself of exaggeration in my
account of the Scarabee's appearance. But I think he has learned
something else of his coleopterous friends. The beetles never smile.
Their physiognomy is not adapted to the display of the emotions; the
lateral movement of their jaws being effective for alimentary
purposes, but very limited in its gamut of expression. It is with
these unemotional beings that the Scarabee passes his life. He has
but one object, and that is perfectly serious, to his mind, in fact,
of absorbing interest and importance. In one aspect of the matter he
is quite right, for if the Creator has taken the trouble to make one
of His creatures in just such a way and not otherwise, from the
beginning of its existence on our planet in ages of unknown
remoteness to the present time, the man who first explains His idea
to us is charged with a revelation. It is by no means impossible
that there may be angels in the celestial hierarchy to whom it would
be new and interesting. I have often thought that spirits of a
higher order than man might be willing to learn something from a
human mind like that of Newton, and I see no reason why an angelic
being might not be glad to hear a lecture from Mr. Huxley, or Mr.
Tyndall, or one of our friends at Cambridge.
I have been sinuous as the Links of Forth seen from Stirling Castle,
or as that other river which threads the Berkshire valley and runs, a
perennial stream, through my memory,--from which I please myself with
thinking that I have learned to wind without fretting against the
shore, or forgetting cohere I am flowing,--sinuous, I say, but not
jerky,--no, not jerky nor hard to follow for a reader of the right
sort, in the prime of life and full possession of his or her
--All this last page or so, you readily understand, has been my
private talk with you, the Reader. The cue of the conversation which
I interrupted by this digression is to be found in the words "a good
motto;" from which I begin my acccount of the visit again.
--Do you receive many visitors,--I mean vertebrates, not articulates?
--said the Master.
I thought this question might perhaps bring il disiato riso, the
long-wished-for smile, but the Scarabee interpreted it in the
simplest zoological sense, and neglected its hint of playfulness with
the most absolute unconsciousness, apparently, of anything not
entirely serious and literal.
--You mean friends, I suppose,--he answered.--I have correspondents,
but I have no friends except this spider. I live alone, except when
I go to my subsection meetings; I get a box of insects now and then,
and send a few beetles to coleopterists in other entomological
districts; but science is exacting, and a man that wants to leave his
record has not much time for friendship. There is no great chance
either for making friends among naturalists. People that are at work
on different things do not care a great deal for each other's
specialties, and people that work on the same thing are always afraid
lest one should get ahead of the other, or steal some of his ideas
before he has made them public. There are none too many people you
can trust in your laboratory. I thought I had a friend once, but he
watched me at work and stole the discovery of a new species from me,
and, what is more, had it named after himself. Since that time I
have liked spiders better than men. They are hungry and savage, but
at any rate they spin their own webs out of their own insides. I
like very well to talk with gentlemen that play with my branch of
entomology; I do not doubt it amused you, and if you want to see
anything I can show you, I shall have no scruple in letting you see
it. I have never had any complaint to make of amatoors.
--Upon my honor,--I would hold my right hand up and take my Bible-
oath, if it was not busy with the pen at this moment,--I do not
believe the Scarabee had the least idea in the world of the satire on
the student of the Order of Things implied in his invitation to the
"amatoor." As for the Master, he stood fire perfectly, as he always
does; but the idea that he, who had worked a considerable part of
several seasons at examining and preparing insects, who believed
himself to have given a new tabanus to the catalogue of native
diptera, the idea that he was playing with science, and might be
trusted anywhere as a harmless amateur, from whom no expert could
possibly fear any anticipation of his unpublished discoveries, went
beyond anything set down in that book of his which contained so much
of the strainings of his wisdom.
The poor little Scarabee began fidgeting round about this time, and
uttering some half-audible words, apologetical, partly, and involving
an allusion to refreshments. As he spoke, he opened a small
cupboard, and as he did so out bolted an uninvited tenant of the
same, long in person, sable in hue, and swift of movement, on seeing
which the Scarabee simply said, without emotion, blatta, but I,
forgetting what was due to good manners, exclaimed cockroach!
We could not make up our minds to tax the Scarabee's hospitality,
already levied upon by the voracious articulate. So we both alleged
a state of utter repletion, and did not solve the mystery of the
contents of the cupboard,--not too luxurious, it may be conjectured,
and yet kindly offered, so that we felt there was a moist filament of
the social instinct running like a nerve through that exsiccated and
almost anhydrous organism.
We left him with professions of esteem and respect which were real.
We had gone, not to scoff, but very probably to smile, and I will not
say we did not. But the Master was more thoughtful than usual.
--If I had not solemnly dedicated myself to the study of the Order of
Things,--he said,--I do verily believe I would give what remains to
me of life to the investigation of some single point I could utterly
eviscerate and leave finally settled for the instruction and, it may
be, the admiration of all coming time. The keel ploughs ten thousand
leagues of ocean and leaves no trace of its deep-graven furrows. The
chisel scars only a few inches on the face of a rock, but the story
it has traced is read by a hundred generations. The eagle leaves no
track of his path, no memory of the place where he built his nest;
but a patient mollusk has bored a little hole in a marble column of
the temple of Serapis, and the monument of his labor outlasts the
altar and the statue of the divinity.
--Whew!--said I to myself,--that sounds a little like what we college
boys used to call a "squirt."--The Master guessed my thought and
--That is from one of my old lectures. A man's tongue wags along
quietly enough, but his pen begins prancing as soon as it touches
paper. I know what you are thinking--you're thinking this is a
squirt. That word has taken the nonsense out of a good many high-
stepping fellows. But it did a good deal of harm too, and it was a
vulgar lot that applied it oftenest.
I am at last perfectly satisfied that our Landlady has no designs on
the Capitalist, and as well convinced that any fancy of mine that he
was like to make love to her was a mistake. The good woman is too
much absorbed in her children, and more especially in "the Doctor,"
as she delights to call her son, to be the prey of any foolish desire
of changing her condition. She is doing very well as it is, and if
the young man succeeds, as I have little question that he will, I
think it probable enough that she will retire from her position as
the head of a boarding-house. We have all liked the good woman who
have lived with her,--I mean we three friends who have put ourselves
on record. Her talk, I must confess, is a little diffuse and not
always absolutely correct, according to the standard of the great
Worcester; she is subject to lachrymose cataclysms and semiconvulsive
upheavals when she reverts in memory to her past trials, and
especially when she recalls the virtues of her deceased spouse, who
was, I suspect, an adjunct such as one finds not rarely annexed to a
capable matron in charge of an establishment like hers; that is to
say, an easy-going, harmless, fetch-and-carry, carve-and-help, get-
out-of-the-way kind of neuter, who comes up three times (as they say
drowning people do) every day, namely, at breakfast, dinner, and tea,
and disappears, submerged beneath the waves of life, during the
intervals of these events.
It is a source of genuine delight to me, who am of a kindly nature
enough, according to my own reckoning, to watch the good woman, and
see what looks of pride and affection she bestows upon her Benjamin,
and how, in spite of herself, the maternal feeling betrays its
influence in her dispensations of those delicacies which are the
exceptional element in our entertainments. I will not say that
Benjamin's mess, like his Scripture namesake's, is five times as
large as that of any of the others, for this would imply either an
economical distribution to the guests in general or heaping the poor
young man's plate in a way that would spoil the appetite of an
Esquimau, but you may be sure he fares well if anybody does; and I
would have you understand that our Landlady knows what is what as
well as who is who.
I begin really to entertain very sanguine expectations of young
Doctor Benjamin Franklin. He has lately been treating a patient of
whose good-will may prove of great importance to him. The Capitalist
hurt one of his fingers somehow or other, and requested our young
doctor to take a look at it. The young doctor asked nothing better
than to take charge of the case, which proved more serious than might
have been at first expected, and kept him in attendance more than a
week. There was one very odd thing about it. The Capitalist seemed
to have an idea that he was like to be ruined in the matter of
bandages,--small strips of worn linen which any old woman could have
spared him from her rag-bag, but which, with that strange perversity
which long habits of economy give to a good many elderly people, he
seemed to think were as precious as if they had been turned into
paper and stamped with promises to pay in thousands, from the
national treasury. It was impossible to get this whim out of him,
and the young doctor had tact enough to humor him in it. All this
did not look very promising for the state of mind in which the
patient was like to receive his bill for attendance when that should
be presented. Doctor Benjamin was man enough, however, to come up to
the mark, and sent him in such an account as it was becoming to send
a man of ample means who had been diligently and skilfully cared for.
He looked forward with some uncertainty as to how it would be
received. Perhaps his patient would try to beat him down, and Doctor
Benjamin made up his mind to have the whole or nothing. Perhaps he
would pay the whole amount, but with a look, and possibly a word,
that would make every dollar of it burn like a blister.
Doctor Benjamin's conjectures were not unnatural, but quite remote
from the actual fact. As soon as his patient had got entirely well,
the young physician sent in his bill. The Capitalist requested him
to step into his room with him, and paid the full charge in the
handsomest and most gratifying way, thanking him for his skill and
attention, and assuring him that he had had great satisfaction in
submitting himself to such competent hands, and should certainly
apply to him again in case he should have any occasion for a medical
adviser. We must not be too sagacious in judging people by the
little excrescences of their character. Ex pede Herculem may often
prove safe enough, but ex verruca Tullium is liable to mislead a
hasty judge of his fellow-men.
I have studied the people called misers and thought a good deal about
them. In former years I used to keep a little gold by me in order to
ascertain for myself exactly the amount of pleasure to be got out of
handling it; this being the traditional delight of the old-fashioned
miser. It is by no means to be despised. Three or four hundred
dollars in double-eagles will do very well to experiment on. There
is something very agreeable in the yellow gleam, very musical in the
metallic clink, very satisfying in the singular weight, and very
stimulating in the feeling that all the world over these same yellow
disks are the master-keys that let one in wherever he wants to go,
the servants that bring him pretty nearly everything he wants, except
virtue,--and a good deal of what passes for that. I confess, then,
to an honest liking for the splendors and the specific gravity and
the manifold potentiality of the royal metal, and I understand, after
a certain imperfect fashion, the delight that an old ragged wretch,
starving himself in a crazy hovel, takes in stuffing guineas into old
stockings and filling earthen pots with sovereigns, and every now and
then visiting his hoards and fingering the fat pieces, and thinking
ever all that they represent of earthly and angelic and diabolic
energy. A miser pouring out his guineas into his palm and bathing
his shrivelled and trembling hands in the yellow heaps before him, is
not the prosaic being we are in the habit of thinking him. He is a
dreamer, almost a poet. You and I read a novel or a poem to help our
imaginations to build up palaces, and transport us into the emotional
states and the felicitous conditions of the ideal characters pictured
in the book we are reading. But think of him and the significance of
the symbols he is handling as compared with the empty syllables and
words we are using to build our aerial edifices with! In this hand
he holds the smile of beauty and in that the dagger of revenge. The
contents of that old glove will buy him the willing service of many
an adroit sinner, and with what that coarse sack contains he can
purchase the prayers of holy men for all succeeding time. In this
chest is a castle in Spain, a real one, and not only in Spain, but
anywhere he will choose to have it. If he would know what is the
liberality of judgment of any of the straiter sects, he has only to
hand over that box of rouleaux to the trustees of one of its
educational institutions for the endowment of two or three
professorships. If he would dream of being remembered by coming
generations, what monument so enduring as a college building that
shall bear his name, and even when its solid masonry shall crumble
give place to another still charged with the same sacred duty of
perpetuating his remembrance. Who was Sir Matthew Holworthy, that
his name is a household word on the lips of thousands of scholars,
and will be centuries hence, as that of Walter de Merton, dead six
hundred years ago, is to-day at Oxford? Who was Mistress Holden,
that she should be blessed among women by having her name spoken
gratefully and the little edifice she caused to be erected preserved
as her monument from generation to generation? All these
possibilities, the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, the pride
of life; the tears of grateful orphans by the gallon; the prayers of
Westminster Assembly's Catechism divines by the thousand; the masses
of priests by the century;--all these things, and more if more there
be that the imagination of a lover of gold is likely to range over,
the miser hears and sees and feels and hugs and enjoys as he paddles
with his lean hands among the sliding, shining, ringing, innocent-
looking bits of yellow metal, toying with them as the lion-tamer
handles the great carnivorous monster, whose might and whose terrors
are child's play to the latent forces and power of harm-doing of the
glittering counters played with in the great game between angels and
I have seen a good deal of misers, and I think I understand them as
well as most persons do. But the Capitalist's economy in rags and
his liberality to the young doctor are very oddly contrasted with
each other. I should not be surprised at any time to hear that he
had endowed a scholarship or professorship or built a college
dormitory, in spite of his curious parsimony in old linen.
I do not know where our Young Astronomer got the notions that he
expresses so freely in the lines that follow. I think the statement
is true, however, which I see in one of the most popular
Cyclopaedias, that "the non-clerical mind in all ages is disposed to
look favorably upon the doctrine of the universal restoration to
holiness and happiness of all fallen intelligences, whether human or
angelic." Certainly, most of the poets who have reached the heart of
men, since Burns dropped the tear for poor "auld Nickie-ben" that
softened the stony-hearted theology of Scotland, have had "non-
clerical" minds, and I suppose our young friend is in his humble way
an optimist like them. What he says in verse is very much the same
thing as what is said in prose in all companies, and thought by a
great many who are thankful to anybody that will say it for them,--
not a few clerical as wall as "non-clerical" persons among them.
WIND-CLOUDS AND STAR-DRIFTS.
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