The Professor at the Breakfast Table
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (The Physician and Poet)
Part 3 out of 6
between these two points, he must look one way or the other,--I don't
believe they would take offence at anything I have reported of our
But supposing any one do take offence at first sight, let him look
over these notes again, and see whether he is quite sure he does not
agree with most of these things that were said amongst us. If he
agrees with most of them, let him be patient with an opinion he does
not accept, or an expression or illustration a little too vivacious.
I don't know that I shall report any more conversations on these
topics; but I do insist on the right to express a civil opinion on
this class of subjects without giving offence, just when and where I
please,---unless, as in the lecture-room, there is an implied
contract to keep clear of doubtful matters. You did n't think a man
could sit at a breakfast-table doing nothing but making puns every
morning for a year or two, and never give a thought to the two
thousand of his fellow-creatures who are passing into another state
during every hour that he sits talking and laughing. Of course, the
one matter that a real human being cares for is what is going to
become of them and of him. And the plain truth is, that a good many
people are saying one thing about it and believing another.
--How do I know that? Why, I have known and loved to talk with good
people, all the way from Rome to Geneva in doctrine, as long as I can
remember. Besides, the real religion of the world comes from women
much more than from men,--from mothers most of all, who carry the key
of our souls in their bosoms. It is in their hearts that the
"sentimental" religion some people are so fond of sneering at has its
source. The sentiment of love, the sentiment of maternity, the
sentiment of the paramount obligation of the parent to the child as
having called it into existence, enhanced just in proportion to the
power and knowledge of the one and the weakness and ignorance of the
other,--these are the "sentiments" that have kept our soulless
systems from driving men off to die in holes like those that riddle
the sides of the hill opposite the Monastery of St. Saba, where the
miserable victims of a falsely-interpreted religion starved and
withered in their delusion.
I have looked on the face of a saintly woman this very day, whose
creed many dread and hate, but whose life is lovely and noble beyond
all praise. When I remember the bitter words I have heard spoken
against her faith, by men who have an Inquisition which
excommunicates those who ask to leave their communion in peace, and
an Index Expurgatorius on which this article may possibly have the
honor of figuring,--and, far worse than these, the reluctant,
pharisaical confession, that it might perhaps be possible that one
who so believed should be accepted of the Creator,--and then recall
the sweet peace and love that show through all her looks, the price
of untold sacrifices and labors, and again recollect how thousands of
women, filled with the same spirit, die, without a murmur, to earthly
life, die to their own names even, that they may know nothing but
their holy duties,--while men are torturing and denouncing their
fellows, and while we can hear day and night the clinking of the
hammers that are trying, like the brute forces in the "Prometheus,"
to rivet their adamantine wedges right through the breast of human
nature,--I have been ready to believe that we have even now a new
revelation, and the name of its Messiah is WOMAN!
--I should be sorry,--I remarked, a day or two afterwards, to the
divinity-student,--if anything I said tended in any way to foster any
jealousy between the professions, or to throw disrespect upon that
one on whose counsel and sympathies almost all of us lean in our
moments of trial. But we are false to our new conditions of life, if
we do not resolutely maintain our religious as well as our political
freedom, in the face of any and all supposed monopolies. Certain men
will, of course, say two things, if we do not take their views:
first, that we don't know anything about these matters; and,
secondly, that we are not so good as they are. They have a polarized
phraseology for saying these things, but it comes to precisely that.
To which it may be answered, in the first place, that we have good
authority for saying that even babes and sucklings know something;
and, in the second, that, if there is a mote or so to be removed from
our premises, the courts and councils of the last few years have
found beams enough in some other quarters to build a church that
would hold all the good people in Boston and have sticks enough left
to make a bonfire for all the heretics.
As to that terrible depolarizing process of mine, of which we were
talking the other day, I will give you a specimen of one way of
managing it, if you like. I don't believe it will hurt you or
anybody. Besides, I had a great deal rather finish our talk with
pleasant images and gentle words than with sharp sayings, which will
only afford a text, if anybody repeats them, for endless relays of
attacks from Messrs. Ananias, Shimei, and Rabshakeh.
[I must leave such gentry, if any of them show themselves, in the
hands of my clerical friends, many of whom are ready to stand up for
the rights of the laity,--and to those blessed souls, the good women,
to whom this version of the story of a mother's hidden hopes and
tender anxieties is dedicated by their peaceful and loving servant.]
A MOTHER'S SECRET.
How sweet the sacred legend--if unblamed
In my slight verse such holy things are named--
Of Mary's secret hours of hidden joy,
Silent, but pondering on her wondrous boy!
Ave, Maria! Pardon, if I wrong
Those heavenly words that shame my earthly song!
The choral host had closed the angel's strain
Sung to the midnight watch on Bethlehem's plain;
And now the shepherds, hastening on their way,
Sought the still hamlet where the Infant lay.
They passed the fields that gleaning Ruth toiled O'er,
They saw afar the ruined threshing-floor
Where Moab's daughter, homeless and forlorn,
Found Boaz slumbering by his heaps of corn;
And some remembered how the holy scribe,
Skilled in the lore of every jealous tribe,
Traced the warm blood of Jesse's royal son
To that fair alien, bravely wooed and won.
So fared they on to seek the promised sign
That marked the anointed heir of David's line.
At last, by forms of earthly semblance led,
They found the crowded inn, the oxen's shed.
No pomp was there, no glory shone around
On the coarse straw that strewed the reeking ground;
One dim retreat a flickering torch betrayed,
In that poor cell the Lord of Life was laid!
The wondering shepherds told their breathless tale
Of the bright choir that woke the sleeping vale;
Told how the skies with sudden glory flamed;
Told how the shining multitude proclaimed
"Joy, joy to earth! Behold the hallowed morn!
In David's city Christ the Lord is born!
'Glory to God!' let angels shout on high,
'Good-will to men!' the listening Earth reply!"
They spoke with hurried words and accents wild;
Calm in his cradle slept the heavenly child.
No trembling word the mother's joy revealed,
One sigh of rapture, and her lips were sealed;
Unmoved she saw the rustic train depart,
But kept their words to ponder in her heart.
Twelve years had passed; the boy was fair and tall,
Growing in wisdom, finding grace with all.
The maids of Nazareth, as they trooped to fill
Their balanced urns beside the mountain-rill,
The gathered matrons, as they sat and spun,
Spoke in soft words of Joseph's quiet son.
No voice had reached the Galilean vale
Of star-led kings or awe-struck shepherds' tale;
In the meek, studious child they only saw
The future Rabbi, learned in Israel's law.
So grew the boy; and now the feast was near,
When at the holy place the tribes appear.
Scarce had the home-bred child of Nazareth seen
Beyond the hills that girt the village-green,
Save when at midnight, o'er the star-lit sands,
Snatched from the steel of Herod's murdering bands,
A babe, close-folded to his mother's breast,
Through Edom's wilds he sought the sheltering West.
Then Joseph spake: "Thy boy hath largely grown;
Weave him fine raiment, fitting to be shown;
Fair robes beseem the pilgrim, as the priest
Goes he not with us to the holy feast?"
And Mary culled the flaxen fibres white;
Till eve she spun; she spun till morning light.
The thread was twined; its parting meshes through
From hand to hand her restless shuttle flew,
Till the full web was wound upon the beam,
Love's curious toil,--a vest without a seam!
They reach the holy place, fulfil the days
To solemn feasting given, and grateful praise.
At last they turn, and far Moriah's height
Melts in the southern sky and fades from sight.
All day the dusky caravan has flowed
In devious trails along the winding road,
(For many a step their homeward path attends,
And all the sons of Abraham are as friends.)
Evening has come,--the hour of rest and joy;
Hush! hush!--that whisper,-"Where is Mary's boy?"
O weary hour! O aching days that passed
Filled with strange fears, each wilder than the last:
The soldier's lance,--the fierce centurion's sword,
The crushing wheels that whirl some Roman lord,
The midnight crypt that suck's the captive's breath,
The blistering sun on Hinnom's vale of death!
Thrice on his cheek had rained the morning light,
Thrice on his lips the mildewed kiss of night,
Crouched by some porphyry column's shining plinth,
Or stretched beneath the odorous terebinth.
At last, in desperate mood, they sought once more
The Temple's porches, searched in vain before;
They found him seated with the ancient men,
The grim old rufflers of the tongue and pen,
Their bald heads glistening as they clustered near;
Their gray beards slanting as they turned to hear,
Lost in half-envious wonder and surprise
That lips so fresh should utter words so wise.
And Mary said,--as one who, tried too long,
Tells all her grief and half her sense of wrong,
"What is this thoughtless thing which thou hast done?
Lo, we have sought thee sorrowing, O my son!"
Few words he spake, and scarce of filial tone,
Strange words, their sense a mystery yet unknown;
Then turned with them and left the holy hill,
To all their mild commands obedient still.
The tale was told to Nazareth's sober men,
And Nazareth's matrons told it oft again;
The maids retold it at the fountain's side;
The youthful shepherds doubted or denied;
It passed around among the listening friends,
With all that fancy adds and fiction fends,
Till newer marvels dimmed the young renown
Of Joseph's son, who talked the Rabbis down.
But Mary, faithful to its lightest word,
Kept in her heart the sayings she had heard,
Till the dread morning rent the Temple's veil,
And shuddering Earth confirmed the wondrous tale.
Youth fades; love droops; the leaves of friendship fall;
A mother's secret hope outlives them all.
You don't look so dreadful poor in the face as you did a while back.
Bloated some, I expect.
This was the cheerful and encouraging and elegant remark with which
the Poor Relation greeted the divinity-student one morning.
Of course every good man considers it a great sacrifice on his part
to continue living in this transitory, unsatisfactory, and
particularly unpleasant world. This is so much a matter of course,
that I was surprised to see the divinity-student change color. He
took a look at a small and uncertain-minded glass which hung slanting
forward over the chapped sideboard. The image it returned to him had
the color of a very young pea somewhat overboiled. The scenery of a
long tragic drama flashed through his mind as the lightning-express-
train whishes by a station: the gradual dismantling process of
disease; friends looking on, sympathetic, but secretly chuckling over
their own stomachs of iron and lungs of caoutchouc; nurses attentive,
but calculating their crop, and thinking how soon it will be ripe, so
that they can go to your neighbor, who is good for a year or so
longer; doctors assiduous, but giving themselves a mental shake, as
they go out of your door, which throws off your particular grief as a
duck sheds a raindrop from his oily feathers; undertakers solemn, but
happy; then the great subsoil cultivator, who plants, but never looks
for fruit in his garden; then the stone-cutter, who puts your name on
the slab which has been waiting for you ever since the birds or
beasts made their tracks on the new red sandstone; then the grass and
the dandelions and the buttercups,----Earth saying to the mortal
body, with her sweet symbolism, "You have scarred my bosom, but you
are forgiven"; then a glimpse of the soul as a floating consciousness
without very definite form or place, but dimly conceived of as an
upright column of vapor or mist several times larger than life-size,
so far as it could be said to have any size at all, wandering about
and living a thin and half-awake life for want of good old-fashioned
solid matter to come down upon with foot and fist,--in fact, having
neither foot nor fist, nor conveniences for taking the sitting
And yet the divinity-student was a good Christian, and those heathen
images which remind one of the childlike fancies of the dying Adrian
were only the efforts of his imagination to give shape to the
formless and position to the placeless. Neither did his thoughts
spread themselves out and link themselves as I have displayed them.
They came confusedly into his mind like a heap of broken mosaics,--
sometimes a part of the picture complete in itself, sometimes
connected fragments, and sometimes only single severed stones.
They did not diffuse a light of celestial joy over his countenance.
On the contrary, the Poor Relation's remark turned him pale, as I
have said; and when the terrible wrinkled and jaundiced looking-glass
turned him green in addition, and he saw himself in it, it seemed to
him as if it were all settled, and his book of life were to be shut
not yet half-read, and go back to the dust of the under-ground
archives. He coughed a mild short cough, as if to point the
direction in which his downward path was tending. It was an honest
little cough enough, so far as appearances went. But coughs are
ungrateful things. You find one out in the cold, take it up and
nurse it and make everything of it, dress it up warm, give it all
sorts of balsams and other food it likes, and carry it round in your
bosom as if it were a miniature lapdog. And by-and-by its little
bark grows sharp and savage, and--confound the thing!--you find it
is a wolf's whelp that you have got there, and he is gnawing in the
breast where he has been nestling so long.--The Poor Relation said
that somebody's surrup was good for folks that were gettin' into a
bad way.--The landlady had heard of desperate cases cured by cherry-
Whiskey's the fellah,--said the young man John.--Make it into punch,
cold at dinner-time 'n' hot at bed-time. I'll come up 'n' show you
how to mix it. Have n't any of you seen the wonderful fat man
exhibitin' down in Hanover Street?
Master Benjamin Franklin rushed into the dialogue with a breezy
exclamation, that he had seen a great picter outside of the place
where the fat man was exhibitin'. Tried to get in at half-price, but
the man at the door looked at his teeth and said he was more'n ten
It is n't two years,--said the young man John, since that fat fellah
was exhibitin' here as the Livin' Skeleton. Whiskey--that's what did
it,--real Burbon's the stuff. Hot water, sugar, 'n' jest a little
shavin' of lemon-skin in it,--skin, mind you, none o' your juice;
take it off thin,--shape of one of them flat curls the factory-girls
wear on the sides of their foreheads.
But I am a teetotaller,--said the divinity-student in a subdued
tone;--not noticing the enormous length of the bow-string the young
fellow had just drawn.
He took up his hat and went out.
I think you have worried that young man more than you meant,--I said.
--I don't believe he will jump off one of the bridges, for he has too
much principle; but I mean to follow him and see where he goes, for
he looks as if his mind were made up to something.
I followed him at a reasonable distance. He walked doggedly along,
looking neither to the right nor the left, turned into State Street,
and made for a well-known Life-Insurance Office. Luckily, the doctor
was there and overhauled him on the spot. There was nothing the
matter with him, he said, and he could have his life insured as a
sound one. He came out in good spirits, and told me this soon after.
This led me to make some remarks the next morning on the manners of
well-bred and ill-bred people.
I began,--The whole essence of true gentle-breeding (one does not
like to say gentility) lies in the wish and the art to be agreeable.
Good-breeding is surface-Christianity. Every look, movement, tone,
expression, subject of discourse, that may give pain to another is
habitually excluded from conversational intercourse. This is the
reason why rich people are apt to be so much more agreeable than
--I thought you were a great champion of equality,--said the discreet
and severe lady who had accompanied our young friend, the Latin
I go politically for equality,--I said,--and socially for the
Who are the "quality,"--said the Model, etc., in a community like
I confess I find this question a little difficult to answer,--I said.
--Nothing is better known than the distinction of social ranks which
exists in every community, and nothing is harder to define. The
great gentlemen and ladies of a place are its real lords and masters
and mistresses; they are the quality, whether in a monarchy or a
republic; mayors and governors and generals and senators and ex-
presidents are nothing to them. How well we know this, and how
seldom it finds a distinct expression! Now I tell you truly, I
believe in man as man, and I disbelieve in all distinctions except
such as follow the natural lines of cleavage in a society which has
crystallized according to its own true laws. But the essence of
equality is to be able to say the truth; and there is nothing more
curious than these truths relating to the stratification of society.
Of all the facts in this world that do not take hold of immortality,
there is not one so intensely real, permanent, and engrossing as this
of social position,--as you see by the circumstances that the core of
all the great social orders the world has seen has been, and is
still, for the most part, a privileged class of gentlemen and ladies
arranged in a regular scale of precedence among themselves, but
superior as a body to all else.
Nothing but an ideal Christian equality, which we have been getting
farther away from since the days of the Primitive Church, can prevent
this subdivision of society into classes from taking place
everywhere,--in the great centres of our republic as much as in old
European monarchies. Only there position is more absolutely
hereditary,--here it is more completely elective.
--Where is the election held? and what are the qualifications? and
who are the electors?--said the Model.
Nobody ever sees when the vote is taken; there never is a formal
vote. The women settle it mostly; and they know wonderfully well
what is presentable, and what can't stand the blaze of the
chandeliers and the critical eye and ear of people trained to know a
staring shade in a ribbon, a false light in a jewel, an ill-bred
tone, an angular movement, everything that betrays a coarse fibre and
cheap training. As a general thing, you do not get elegance short of
two or three removes from the soil, out of which our best blood
doubtless comes,--quite as good, no doubt, as if it came from those
old prize-fighters with iron pots on their heads, to whom some great
people are so fond of tracing their descent through a line of small
artisans and petty shopkeepers whose veins have held "base" fluid
enough to fill the Cloaca Maxima!
Does not money go everywhere?--said the Model.
Almost. And with good reason. For though there are numerous
exceptions, rich people are, as I said, commonly altogether the most
agreeable companions. The influence of a fine house, graceful
furniture, good libraries, well-ordered tables, trim servants, and,
above all, a position so secure that one becomes unconscious of it,
gives a harmony and refinement to the character and manners which we
feel, if we cannot explain their charm. Yet we can get at the reason
of it by thinking a little.
All these appliances are to shield the sensibility from disagreeable
contacts, and to soothe it by varied natural and artificial
influences. In this way the mind, the taste, the feelings, grow
delicate, just as the hands grow white and soft when saved from toil
and incased in soft gloves. The whole nature becomes subdued into
suavity. I confess I like the quality ladies better than the common
kind even of literary ones. They have n't read the last book,
perhaps, but they attend better to you when you are talking to them.
If they are never learned, they make up for it in tact and elegance.
Besides, I think, on the whole, there is less self-assertion in
diamonds than in dogmas. I don't know where you will find a sweeter
portrait of humility than in Esther, the poor play-girl of King
Ahasuerus; yet Esther put on her royal apparel when she went before
her lord. I have no doubt she was a more gracious and agreeable
person than Deborah, who judged the people and wrote the story of
Sisera. The wisest woman you talk with is ignorant of something
that you know, but an elegant woman never forgets her elegance.
Dowdyism is clearly an expression of imperfect vitality. The
highest fashion is intensely alive,--not alive necessarily to the
truest and best things, but with its blood tingling, as it were, in
all its extremities and to the farthest point of its surface, so
that the feather in its bonnet is as fresh as the crest of a
fighting-cock, and the rosette on its slipper as clean-cut and
pimpant (pronounce it English fashion,--it is a good word) as a
dahlia. As a general rule, that society where flattery is acted is
much more agreeable than that where it is spoken. Don't you see
why? Attention and deference don't require you to make fine
speeches expressing your sense of unworthiness (lies) and returning
all the compliments paid you. This is one reason.
--A woman of sense ought to be above flattering any man,--said the
[My reflection. Oh! oh! no wonder you did n't get married. Served
you right.] My remark. Surely, Madam,--if you mean by flattery
telling people boldly to their faces that they are this or that,
which they are not. But a woman who does not carry about with her
wherever she goes a halo of good feeling and desire to make
everybody contented,--an atmosphere of grace, mercy, and peace, of
at least six feet radius, which wraps every human being upon whom
she voluntarily bestows her presence, and so flatters him with the
comfortable thought that she is rather glad he is alive than
otherwise, isn't worth the trouble of talking to, as a woman; she
may do well enough to hold discussions with.
--I don't think the Model exactly liked this. She said,--a little
spitefully, I thought,--that a sensible man might stand a little
praise, but would of course soon get sick of it, if he were in the
habit of getting much.
Oh, yes,--I replied,--just as men get sick of tobacco. It is
notorious how apt they are to get tired of that vegetable.
--That 's so!--said the young fellow John,--I've got tired of my
cigars and burnt 'em all up.
I am heartily glad to hear it,--said the Model,--I wish they were
all disposed of in the same way.
So do I,--said the young fellow John.
Can't you get your friends to unite with you in committing those
odious instruments of debauchery to the flames in which you have
consumed your own?
I wish I could,--said the young fellow John.
It would be a noble sacrifice,--said the Model, and every American
woman would be grateful to you. Let us burn them all in a heap out
in the yard.
That a'n't my way,--said the young fellow John;--I burn 'em one 't'
time,--little end in my mouth and big end outside.
--I watched for the effect of this sudden change of programme, when
it should reach the calm stillness of the Model's interior
apprehension, as a boy watches for the splash of a stone which he
has dropped into a well. But before it had fairly reached the
water, poor Iris, who had followed the conversation with a certain
interest until it turned this sharp corner, (for she seems rather to
fancy the young fellow John,) laughed out such a clear, loud laugh,
that it started us all off, as the locust-cry of some full-throated
soprano drags a multitudinous chorus after it. It was plain that
some dam or other had broken in the soul of this young girl, and she
was squaring up old scores of laughter, out of which she had been
cheated, with a grand flood of merriment that swept all before it.
So we had a great laugh all round, in which the Model--who, if she
had as many virtues as there are spokes to a wheel, all compacted
with a personality as round and complete as its tire, yet wanted
that one little addition of grace, which seems so small, and is as
important as the linchpin in trundling over the rough ways of life--
had not the tact to join. She seemed to be "stuffy" about it, as
the young fellow John said. In fact, I was afraid the joke would
have cost us both our new lady-boarders. It had no effect, however,
except, perhaps, to hasten the departure of the elder of the two,
who could, on the whole, be spared.
--I had meant to make this note of our conversation a text for a few
axioms on the matter of breeding. But it so happened, that, exactly
at this point of my record, a very distinguished philosopher, whom
several of our boarders and myself go to hear, and whom no doubt
many of my readers follow habitually, treated this matter of
manners. Up to this point, if I have been so fortunate as to
coincide with him in opinion, and so unfortunate as to try to
express what he has more felicitously said, nobody is to blame; for
what has been given thus far was all written before the lecture was
delivered. But what shall I do now? He told us it was childish to
lay down rules for deportment,--but he could not help laying down a
Thus,--Nothing so vulgar as to be in a hurry. True, but hard of
application. People with short legs step quickly, because legs are
pendulums, and swing more times in a minute the shorter they are.
Generally a natural rhythm runs through the whole organization:
quick pulse, fast breathing, hasty speech, rapid trains of thought,
excitable temper. Stillness of person and steadiness of features
are signal marks of good-breeding. Vulgar persons can't sit still,
or, at least, they must work their limbs or features.
Talking of one's own ails and grievances.--Bad enough, but not so
bad as insulting the person you talk with by remarking on his ill-
looks, or appealing to notice any of his personal peculiarities.
Apologizing.--A very desperate habit,--one that is rarely cured.
Apology is only egotism wrong side out. Nine times out of ten, the
first thing a man's companion knows of his shortcoming is from his
apology. It is mighty presumptuous on your part to suppose your
small failures of so much consequence that you must make a talk
Good dressing, quiet ways, low tones of voice, lips that can wait,
and eyes that do not wander,--shyness of personalities, except in
certain intimate communions,--to be light in hand in conversation,
to have ideas, but to be able to make talk, if necessary, without
them,--to belong to the company you are in, and not to yourself,--to
have nothing in your dress or furniture so fine that you cannot
afford to spoil it and get another like it, yet to preserve the
harmonies, throughout your person and--dwelling: I should say that
this was a fair capital of manners to begin with.
Under bad manners, as under graver faults, lies very commonly an
overestimate of our special individuality, as distinguished from our
generic humanity. It is just here that the very highest society
asserts its superior breeding. Among truly elegant people of the
highest ton, you will find more real equality in social intercourse
than in a country village. As nuns drop their birth-names and
become Sister Margaret and Sister Mary, so high-bred people drop
their personal distinctions and become brothers and sisters of
conversational charity. Nor are fashionable people without their
heroism. I believe there are men who have shown as much self-
devotion in carrying a lone wall-flower down to the supper-table as
ever saint or martyr in the act that has canonized his name. There
are Florence Nightingales of the ballroom, whom nothing can hold
back from their errands of mercy. They find out the red-handed,
gloveless undergraduate of bucolic antecedents, as he squirms in his
corner, and distill their soft words upon him like dew upon the
green herb. They reach even the poor relation, whose dreary
apparition saddens the perfumed atmosphere of the sumptuous drawing-
room. I have known one of these angels ask, of her own accord, that
a desolate middle-aged man, whom nobody seemed to know, should be
presented to her by the hostess. He wore no shirt-collar,--he had
on black gloves,--and was flourishing a red bandanna handkerchief!
Match me this, ye proud children of poverty, who boast of your
paltry sacrifices for each other! Virtue in humble life! What is
that to the glorious self-renunciation of a martyr in pearls and
diamonds? As I saw this noble woman bending gracefully before the
social mendicant,--the white billows of her beauty heaving under the
foam of the traitorous laces that half revealed them,--I should have
wept with sympathetic emotion, but that tears, except as a private
demonstration, are an ill-disguised expression of self-consciousness
and vanity, which is inadmissible in good society.
I have sometimes thought, with a pang, of the position in which
political chance or contrivance might hereafter place some one of
our fellow-citizens. It has happened hitherto, so far as my limited
knowledge goes, that the President of the United States has always
been what might be called in general terms a gentleman. But what if
at some future time the choice of the people should fall upon one on
whom that lofty title could not, by any stretch of charity, be
bestowed? This may happen,--how soon the future only knows. Think
of this miserable man of coming political possibilities,--an
unpresentable boor sucked into office by one of those eddies in the
flow of popular sentiment which carry straws and chips into the
public harbor, while the prostrate trunks of the monarchs of the
forest hurry down on the senseless stream to the gulf of political
oblivion! Think of him, I say, and of the concentrated gaze of good
society through its thousand eyes, all confluent, as it were, in one
great burning-glass of ice that shrivels its wretched object in
fiery torture, itself cold as the glacier of an unsunned cavern!
No,--there will be angels of good-breeding then as now, to shield
the victim of free institutions from himself and from his torturers.
I can fancy a lovely woman playfully withdrawing the knife which he
would abuse by making it an instrument for the conveyance of food,--
or, failing in this kind artifice, sacrificing herself by imitating
his use of that implement; how much harder than to plunge it into
her bosom, like Lucretia! I can see her studying in his provincial
dialect until she becomes the Champollion of New England or Western
or Southern barbarisms. She has learned that haow means what; that
think-in' is the same thing as thinking, or she has found out the
meaning of that extraordinary mono syllable, which no single-tongued
phonographer can make legible, prevailing on the banks of the Hudson
and at its embouchure, and elsewhere,--what they say when they think
they say first, (fe-eest,--fe as in the French le),--or that cheer
means chair,--or that urritation means irritation,--and so of other
enormities. Nothing surprises her. The highest breeding, you know,
comes round to the Indian standard,--to take everything coolly,--nil
admirari,--if you happen to be learned and like the Roman phrase for
the same thing.
If you like the company of people that stare at you from head to
foot to see if there is a hole in your coat, or if you have not
grown a little older, or if your eyes are not yellow with jaundice,
or if your complexion is not a little faded, and so on, and then
convey the fact to you, in the style in which the Poor Relation
addressed the divinity-student,--go with them as much as you like.
I hate the sight of the wretches. Don't for mercy's sake think I
hate them; the distinction is one my friend or I drew long ago. No
matter where you find such people; they are clowns.
The rich woman who looks and talks in this way is not half so much a
lady as her Irish servant, whose pretty "saving your presence," when
she has to say something which offends her natural sense of good
manners, has a hint in it of the breeding of courts, and the blood
of old Milesian kings, which very likely runs in her veins,--thinned
by two hundred years of potato, which, being an underground fruit,
tends to drag down the generations that are made of it to the earth
from which it came, and, filling their veins with starch, turn them
into a kind of human vegetable.
I say, if you like such people, go with them. But I am going to
make a practical application of the example at the beginning of this
particular record, which some young people who are going to choose
professional advisers by-and-by may remember and thank me for. If
you are making choice of a physician, be sure you get one, if
possible, with a cheerful and serene countenance. A physician is
not--at least, ought not to be--an executioner; and a sentence of
death on his face is as bad as a warrant for execution signed by the
Governor. As a general rule, no man has a right to tell another by
word or look that he is going to die. It may be necessary in some
extreme cases; but as a rule, it is the last extreme of impertinence
which one human being can offer to another. "You have killed me,"
said a patient once to a physician who had rashly told him he was
incurable. He ought to have lived six months, but he was dead in
six' weeks. If we will only let Nature and the God of Nature alone,
persons will commonly learn their condition as early as they ought
to know it, and not be cheated out of their natural birthright of
hope of recovery, which is intended to accompany sick people as long
as life is comfortable, and is graciously replaced by the hope of
heaven, or at least of rest, when life has become a burden which the
bearer is ready to let fall.
Underbred people tease their sick and dying friends to death. The
chance of a gentleman or lady with a given mortal ailment to live a
certain time is as good again as that of the common sort of coarse
people. As you go down the social scale, you reach a point at
length where the common talk in sick rooms is of churchyards and
sepulchres, and a kind of perpetual vivisection is forever carried
on, upon the person of the miserable sufferer.
And so, in choosing your clergyman, other things being equal, prefer
the one of a wholesome and cheerful habit of mind and body. If you
can get along with people who carry a certificate in their faces
that their goodness is so great as to make them very miserable, your
children cannot. And whatever offends one of these little ones
cannot be right in the eyes of Him who loved them so well.
After all, as you are a gentleman or a lady, you will probably
select gentlemen for your bodily and spiritual advisers, and then
all will be right.
This repetition of the above words,--gentleman and lady,--which
could not be conveniently avoided, reminds me what strange uses are
made of them by those who ought to know what they mean. Thus, at a
marriage ceremony, once, of two very excellent persons who had been
at service, instead of, Do you take this man, etc.? and, Do you
take this woman? how do you think the officiating clergyman put the
questions? It was, Do you, Miss So and So, take this GENTLEMAN?
and, Do you, Mr. This or That, take this LADY?! What would any
English duchess, ay, or the Queen of England herself, have thought,
if the Archbishop of Canterbury had called her and her bridegroom
anything but plain woman and man at such a time?
I don't doubt the Poor Relation thought it was all very fine, if she
happened to be in the church; but if the worthy man who uttered
these monstrous words--monstrous in such a connection--had known the
ludicrous surprise, the convulsion of inward disgust and contempt,
that seized upon many of the persons who were present,--had guessed
what a sudden flash of light it threw on the Dutch gilding, the
pinchbeck, the shabby, perking pretension belonging to certain
social layers,--so inherent in their whole mode of being, that the
holiest offices of religion cannot exclude its impertinences,--the
good man would have given his marriage-fee twice over to recall that
superb and full-blown vulgarism. Any persons whom it could please
could have no better notion of what the words referred to signify
than of the meaning of apsides and asymptotes.
MAN! Sir! WOMAN! Sir! Gentility is a fine thing, not to be
undervalued, as I have been trying to explain; but humanity comes
"When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?"
The beauty of that plainness of speech and manners which comes from
the finest training is not to be understood by those whose habitat
is below a certain level. Just as the exquisite sea-anemones and
all the graceful ocean-flowers die out at some fathoms below the
surface, the elegances and suavities of life die out one by one as
we sink through the social scale. Fortunately, the virtues are more
tenacious of life, and last pretty well until we get down to the mud
of absolute pauperism, where they do not flourish greatly.
--I had almost forgotten about our boarders. As the Model of all
the Virtues is about to leave us, I find myself wondering what is
the reason we are not all very sorry. Surely we all like good
persons. She is a good person. Therefore we like her.--Only we
This brief syllogism, and its briefer negative, involving the
principle which some English conveyancer borrowed from a French wit
and embodied in the lines by which Dr. Fell is made unamiably
immortal, this syllogism, I say, is one that most persons have had
occasion to construct and demolish, respecting somebody or other, as
I have done for the Model. "Pious and painefull." Why has that
excellent old phrase gone out of use? Simply because these good
painefull or painstaking persons proved to be such nuisances in the
long run, that the word "painefull" came, before people thought of
it, to mean pain-giving instead of painstaking.
--So, the old fellah's off to-morrah,--said the young man John.
Old fellow?--said I,--whom do you mean?
Why, the one that came with our little beauty, the old fellah in
--Now that means something,--said I to myself.--These rough young
rascals very often hit the nail on the head, if they do strike with
their eyes shut. A real woman does a great many things without
knowing why she does them; but these pattern machines mix up their
intellects with everything they do, just like men. They can't help
it, no doubt; but we can't help getting sick of them, either.
Intellect is to a woman's nature what her watch-spring skirt is to
her dress; it ought to underlie her silks and embroideries, but not
to show itself too staringly on the outside.---You don't know,
perhaps, but I will tell you; the brain is the palest of all the
internal organs, and the heart the reddest. Whatever comes from the
brain carries the hue of the place it came from, and whatever comes
from the heart carries the heat and color of its birthplace.
The young man John did not hear my soliloquy, of course, but sent up
one more bubble from our sinking conversation, in the form of a
statement, that she was at liberty to go to a personage who receives
no visits, as is commonly supposed, from virtuous people.
Why, I ask again, (of my reader,) should a person who never did
anybody any wrong, but, on the contrary, is an estimable and
intelligent, nay, a particularly enlightened and exemplary member of
society, fail to inspire interest, love, and devotion? Because of
the reversed current in the flow of thought and emotion. The red
heart sends all its instincts up to the white brain to be analyzed,
chilled, blanched, and so become pure reason, which is just exactly
what we do not want of woman as woman. The current should run the
other-way. The nice, calm, cold thought, which in women shapes
itself so rapidly that they hardly know it as thought, should always
travel to the lips via the heart. It does so in those women whom
all love and admire. It travels the wrong way in the Model. That
is the reason why the Little Gentleman said "I hate her, I hate
her." That is the reason why the young man John called her the "old
fellah," and banished her to the company of the great Unpresentable.
That is the reason why I, the Professor, am picking her to pieces
with scalpel and forceps. That is the reason why the young girl
whom she has befriended repays her kindness with gratitude and
respect, rather than with the devotion and passionate fondness which
lie sleeping beneath the calmness of her amber eyes. I can see her,
as she sits between this estimable and most correct of personages
and the misshapen, crotchety, often violent and explosive little man
on the other side of her, leaning and swaying towards him as she
speaks, and looking into his sad eyes as if she found some fountain
in them at which her soul could quiet its thirst.
Women like the Model are a natural product of a chilly climate and
high culture. It is not
"The frolic wind that breathes the spring,
Zephyr with Aurora playing,"
when the two meet
"---on beds of violets blue,
And fresh-blown roses washed in dew,"
that claim such women as their offspring. It is rather the east
wind, as it blows out of the fogs of Newfoundland, and clasps a
clear-eyed wintry noon on the chill bridal couch of a New England
ice-quarry.--Don't throw up your cap now, and hurrah as if this
were giving up everything, and turning against the best growth of
our latitudes,--the daughters of the soil. The brain-women never
interest us like the heart women; white roses please less than red.
But our Northern seasons have a narrow green streak of spring, as
well as a broad white zone of winter,--they have a glowing band of
summer and a golden stripe of autumn in their many-colored wardrobe;
and women are born to us that wear all these hues of earth and
heaven in their souls. Our ice-eyed brain-women are really
admirable, if we only ask of them just what they can give, and no
more. Only compare them, talking or writing, with one of those
babbling, chattering dolls, of warmer latitudes, who do not know
enough even to keep out of print, and who are interesting to us only
as specimens of arrest of development for our psychological
Good-bye, Model of all the Virtues! We can spare you now. A little
clear perfection, undiluted with human weakness, goes a great way.
Go! be useful, be honorable and honored, be just, be charitable,
talk pure reason, and help to disenchant the world by the light of
an achromatic understanding. Goodbye! Where is my Beranger? I
must read a verse or two of "Fretillon."
Fair play for all. But don't claim incompatible qualities for
anybody. Justice is a very rare virtue in our community.
Everything that public sentiment cares about is put into a Papin's
digester, and boiled under high pressure till all is turned into one
homogeneous pulp, and the very bones give up their jelly. What are
all the strongest epithets of our dictionary to us now? The critics
and politicians, and especially the philanthropists, have chewed
them, till they are mere wads of syllable-fibre, without a
suggestion of their old pungency and power.
Justice! A good man respects the rights even of brute matter and
arbitrary symbols. If he writes the same word twice in succession,
by accident, he always erases the one that stands second; has not
the first-comer the prior right? This act of abstract justice,
which I trust many of my readers, like myself, have often performed,
is a curious anti-illustration, by the way, of the absolute
wickedness of human dispositions. Why doesn't a man always strike
out the first of the two words, to gratify his diabolical love of
So, I say, we owe a genuine, substantial tribute of respect to these
filtered intellects which have left their womanhood on the strainer.
They are so clear that it is a pleasure at times to look at the
world of thought through them. But the rose and purple tints of
richer natures they cannot give us, and it is not just to them to
Fashionable society gets at these rich natures very often in a way
one would hardly at first think of. It loves vitality above all
things, sometimes disguised by affected languor, always well kept
under by the laws of good-breeding,--but still it loves abundant
life, opulent and showy organizations,--the spherical rather than
the plane trigonometry of female architecture,--plenty of red blood,
flashing eyes, tropical voices, and forms that bear the splendors of
dress without growing pale beneath their lustre. Among these you
will find the most delicious women you will ever meet,--women whom
dress and flattery and the round of city gayeties cannot spoil,--
talking with whom, you forget their diamonds and laces,--and around
whom all the nice details of elegance, which the cold-blooded beauty
next them is scanning so nicely, blend in one harmonious whole, too
perfect to be disturbed by the petulant sparkle of a jewel, or the
yellow glare of a bangle, or the gay toss of a feather.
There are many things that I, personally, love better than fashion
or wealth. Not to speak of those highest objects of our love and
loyalty, I think I love ease and independence better than the golden
slavery of perpetual matinees and soirees, or the pleasures of
But fashion and wealth are two very solemn realities, which the
frivolous class of moralists have talked a great deal of silly stuff
about. Fashion is only the attempt to realize Art in living forms
and social intercourse. What business has a man who knows nothing
about the beautiful, and cannot pronounce the word view, to talk
about fashion to a set of people who, if one of the quality left a
card at their doors, would contrive to keep it on the very top of
their heap of the names of their two-story acquaintances, till it
was as yellow as the Codex Vaticanus?
Wealth, too,--what an endless repetition of the same foolish
trivialities about it! Take the single fact of its alleged
uncertain tenure and transitory character. In old times, when men
were all the time fighting and robbing each other,--in those
tropical countries where the Sabeans and the Chaldeans stole all a
man's cattle and camels, and there were frightful tornadoes and
rains of fire from heaven, it was true enough that riches took wings
to themselves not unfrequently in a very unexpected way. But, with
common prudence in investments, it is not so now. In fact, there is
nothing earthly that lasts so well, on the whole, as money. A man's
learning dies with him; even his virtues fade out of remembrance,
but the dividends on the stocks he bequeaths to his children live
and keep his memory green.
I do not think there is much courage or originality in giving
utterance to truths that everybody knows, but which get overlaid by
conventional trumpery. The only distinction which it is necessary
to point out to feeble-minded folk is this: that, in asserting the
breadth and depth of that significance which gives to fashion and
fortune their tremendous power, we do not indorse the extravagances
which often disgrace the one, nor the meanness which often degrades
A remark which seems to contradict a universally current opinion is
not generally to be taken "neat," but watered with the ideas of
common-sense and commonplace people. So, if any of my young friends
should be tempted to waste their substance on white kids and "all-
rounds," or to insist on becoming millionaires at once, by anything
I have said, I will give them references to some of the class
referred to, well known to the public as providers of literary
diluents, who will weaken any truth so that there is not an old
woman in the land who cannot take it with perfect impunity.
I am afraid some of the blessed saints in diamonds will think I mean
to flatter them. I hope not;--if I do, set it down as a weakness.
But there is so much foolish talk about wealth and fashion, (which,
of course, draw a good many heartless and essentially vulgar people
into the glare of their candelabra, but which have a real
respectability and meaning, if we will only look at them
stereoscopically, with both eyes instead of one,) that I thought it
a duty to speak a few words for them. Why can't somebody give us a
list of things that everybody thinks and nobody says, and another
list of things that everybody says and nobody thinks?
Lest my parish should suppose we have forgotten graver matters in
these lesser topics, I beg them to drop these trifles and read the
following lesson for the day.
THE TWO STREAMS.
Behold the rocky wall
That down its sloping sides
Pours the swift rain-drops, blending, as they fall,
In rushing river-tides!
Yon stream, whose sources run
Turned by a pebble's edge,
Is Athabasca, rolling toward the sun
Through the cleft mountain-ledge.
The slender rill had strayed,
But for the slanting stone,
To evening's ocean, with the tangled braid
Of foam-flecked Oregon.
So from the heights of Will
Life's parting stream descends,
And, as a moment turns its slender rill,
Each widening torrent bends,
From the same cradle's side,
From the same mother's knee,--
One to long darkness and the frozen tide,
One to the Peaceful Sea!
Our landlady's daughter is a young lady of some pretensions to
gentility. She wears her bonnet well back on her head, which is
known by all to be a mark of high breeding. She wears her trains
very long, as the great ladies do in Europe. To be sure, their
dresses are so made only to sweep the tapestried floors of chateaux
and palaces; as those odious aristocrats of the other side do not go
draggling through the mud in silks and satins, but, forsooth, must
ride in coaches when they are in full dress. It is true, that,
considering various habits of the American people, also the little
accidents which the best-kept sidewalks are liable to, a lady who
has swept a mile of them is not exactly in such a condition that one
would care to be her neighbor. But then there is no need of being
so hard on these slight weaknesses of the poor, dear women as our
little deformed gentleman was the other day.
--There are no such women as the Boston women, Sir,--he said.
Forty-two degrees, north latitude, Rome, Sir, Boston, Sir! They had
grand women in old Rome, Sir,--and the women bore such men--children
as never the world saw before. And so it was here, Sir. I tell
you, the revolution the Boston boys started had to run in woman's
milk before it ran in man's blood, Sir!
But confound the make-believe women we have turned loose in our
streets!--where do they come from? Not out of Boston parlors, I
trust. Why, there is n't a beast or a bird that would drag its tail
through the dirt in the way these creatures do their dresses.
Because a queen or a duchess wears long robes on great occasions, a
maid-of-all-work or a factory-girl thinks she must make herself a
nuisance by trailing through the street, picking up and carrying
about with her pah!--that's what I call getting vulgarity into your
bones and marrow. Making believe be what you are not is the essence
of vulgarity. Show over dirt is the one attribute of vulgar people.
If any man can walk behind one of these women and see what she rakes
up as she goes, and not feel squeamish, he has got a tough stomach.
I wouldn't let one of 'em into my room without serving 'em as David
served Saul at the cave in the wilderness,--cut off his skirts, Sir!
cut off his skirts!
I suggested, that I had seen some pretty stylish ladies who offended
in the way he condemned.
Stylish women, I don't doubt,--said the Little Gentleman.--Don't
tell me that a true lady ever sacrifices the duty of keeping all
about her sweet and clean to the wish of making a vulgar show. I
won't believe it of a lady. There are some things that no fashion
has any right to touch, and cleanliness is one of those things. If
a woman wishes to show that her husband or her father has got money,
which she wants and means to spend, but doesn't know how, let her
buy a yard or two of silk and pin it to her dress when she goes out
to walk, but let her unpin it before she goes into the house;--there
may be poor women that will think it worth disinfecting. It is an
insult to a respectable laundress to carry such things into a house
for her to deal with. I don't like the Bloomers any too well,--in
fact, I never saw but one, and she--or he, or it--had a mob of boys
after her, or whatever you call the creature, as if she had been
The Little Gentleman stopped short,--flushed somewhat, and looked
round with that involuntary, suspicious glance which the subjects of
any bodily misfortune are very apt to cast round them. His eye
wandered over the company, none of whom, excepting myself and one
other, had, probably, noticed the movement. They fell at last on
Iris,--his next neighbor, you remember.
--We know in a moment, on looking suddenly at a person, if that
person's eyes have been fixed on us.
Sometimes we are conscious of it before we turn so as to see the
person. Strange secrets of curiosity, of impertinence, of malice,
of love, leak out in this way. There is no need of Mrs. Felix
Lorraine's reflection in the mirror, to tell us that she is plotting
evil for us behind our backs. We know it, as we know by the ominous
stillness of a child that some mischief or other is going-on. A
young girl betrays, in a moment, that her eyes have been feeding on.
the face where you find them fixed, and not merely brushing over it
with their pencils of blue or brown light.
A certain involuntary adjustment assimilates us, you may also
observe, to that upon which we look. Roses redden the cheeks of her
who stoops to gather them, and buttercups turn little people's chins
yellow. When we look at a vast landscape, our chests expand as if
we would enlarge to fill it. When we examine a minute object, we
naturally contract, not only our foreheads, but all our dimensions.
If I see two men wrestling, I wrestle too, with my limbs and
features. When a country-fellow comes upon the stage, you will see
twenty faces in the boxes putting on the bumpkin expression. There
is no need of multiplying instances to reach this generalization;
every person and thing we look upon puts its special mark upon us.
If this is repeated often enough, we get a permanent resemblance to
it, or, at least, a fixed aspect which we took from it. Husband and
wife come to look alike at last, as has often been noticed. It is a
common saying of a jockey, that he is "all horse"; and I have often
fancied that milkmen get a stiff, upright carriage, and an angular
movement of the arm, that remind one of a pump and the working of
All this came in by accident, just because I happened to mention
that the Little Gentleman found that Iris had been looking at him
with her soul in her eyes, when his glance rested on her after
wandering round the company. What he thought, it is hard to say;
but the shadow of suspicion faded off from his face, and he looked
calmly into the amber eyes, resting his cheek upon the hand that
wore the red jewel.
--If it were a possible thing,--women are such strange creatures!
Is there any trick that love and their own fancies do not play them?
Just see how they marry! A woman that gets hold of a bit of manhood
is like one of those Chinese wood-carvers who work on any odd,
fantastic root that comes to hand, and, if it is only bulbous above
and bifurcated below, will always contrive to make a man--such as he
is--out of it. I should like to see any kind of a man,
distinguishable from a Gorilla, that some good and even pretty woman
could not shape a husband out of.
--A child,--yes, if you choose to call her so, but such a child! Do
you know how Art brings all ages together? There is no age to the
angels and ideal human forms among which the artist lives, and he
shares their youth until his hand trembles and his eye grows dim.
The youthful painter talks of white-bearded Leonardo as if he were a
brother, and the veteran forgets that Raphael died at an age to
which his own is of patriarchal antiquity.
But why this lover of the beautiful should be so drawn to one whom
Nature has wronged so deeply seems hard to explain. Pity, I
suppose. They say that leads to love.
--I thought this matter over until I became excited and curious, and
determined to set myself more seriously at work to find out what was
going on in these wild hearts and where their passionate lives were
drifting. I say wild hearts and passionate lives, because I think I
can look through this seeming calmness of youth and this apparent
feebleness of organization, and see that Nature, whom it is very
hard to cheat, is only waiting as the sapper waits in his mine,
knowing that all is in readiness and the slow-match burning quietly
down to the powder. He will leave it by-and-by, and then it will
take care of itself.
One need not wait to see the smoke coming through the roof of a
house and the flames breaking out of the windows to know that the
building is on fire. Hark! There is a quiet, steady, unobtrusive,
crisp, not loud, but very knowing little creeping crackle that is
tolerably intelligible. There is a whiff of something floating
about, suggestive of toasting shingles. Also a sharp pyroligneous-
acid pungency in the air that stings one's eyes. Let us get up and
see what is going on.--Oh,--oh,--oh! do you know what has got hold
of you? It is the great red dragon that is born of the little red
eggs we call sparks, with his hundred blowing red manes, and his
thousand lashing red tails, and his multitudinous red eyes glaring
at every crack and key-hole, and his countless red tongues lapping
the beams he is going to crunch presently, and his hot breath
warping the panels and cracking the glass and making old timber
sweat that had forgotten it was ever alive with sap. Run for your
life! leap! or you will be a cinder in five minutes, that nothing
but a coroner would take for the wreck of a human being!
If any gentleman will have the kindness to stop this run-away
comparison, I shall be much obliged to him. All I intended to say
was, that we need not wait for hearts to break out in flames to know
that they are full of combustibles and that a spark has got among
them. I don't pretend to say or know what it is that brings these
two persons together;--and when I say together, I only mean that
there is an evident affinity of some kind or other which makes their
commonest intercourse strangely significant, as that each seems to
understand a look or a word of the other. When the young girl laid
her hand on the Little Gentleman's arm,--which so greatly shocked
the Model, you may remember,--I saw that she had learned the lion-
tamer's secret. She masters him, and yet I can see she has a kind
of awe of him, as the man who goes into the cage has of the monster
that he makes a baby of.
One of two things must happen. The first is love, downright love,
on the part of this young girl, for the poor little misshapen man.
You may laugh, if you like. But women are apt to love the men who
they think have the largest capacity of loving;--and who can love
like one that has thirsted all his life long for the smile of youth
and beauty, and seen it fly his presence as the wave ebbed from the
parched lips of him whose fabled punishment is the perpetual type of
human longing and disappointment? What would become of him, if this
fresh soul should stoop upon him in her first young passion, as the
flamingo drops out of the sky upon some lonely and dark lagoon in
the marshes of Cagliari, with a flutter of scarlet feathers and a
kindling of strange fires in the shadowy waters that hold her
--Marry her, of course?--Why, no, not of course. I should think the
chance less, on the whole, that he would be willing to marry her
than she to marry him.
There is one other thing that might happen. If the interest he
awakes in her gets to be a deep one, and yet has nothing of love in
it, she will glance off from him into some great passion or other.
All excitements run to love in women of a certain--let us not say
age, but youth. An electrical current passing through a coil of
wire makes a magnet of a bar of iron lying within it, but not
touching it. So a woman is turned into a love-magnet by a tingling
current of life running round her. I should like to see one of them
balanced on a pivot properly adjusted, and watch if she did not turn
so as to point north and south,--as she would, if the love-currents
are like those of the earth our mother.
Pray, do you happen to remember Wordsworth's "Boy of Windermere"?
This boy used to put his hands to his mouth, and shout aloud,
mimicking the hooting of the owls, who would answer him
"with quivering peals,
And long halloos and screams, and echoes loud
Redoubled and redoubled."
When they failed to answer him, and he hung listening intently for
their voices, he would sometimes catch the faint sound of far
distant waterfalls, or the whole scene around him would imprint
itself with new force upon his perceptions.--Read the sonnet, if
you please;--it is Wordsworth all over,--trivial in subject, solemn
in style, vivid in description, prolix in detail, true meta-
physically, but immensely suggestive of "imagination," to use a mild
term, when related as an actual fact of a sprightly youngster.
All I want of it is to enforce the principle, that, when the door of
the soul is once opened to a guest, there is no knowing who will
come in next.
--Our young girl keeps up her early habit of sketching heads and
characters. Nobody is, I should think, more faithful and exact in
the drawing of the academical figures given her as lessons, but
there is a perpetual arabesque of fancies that runs round the margin
of her drawings, and there is one book which I know she keeps to run
riot in, where, if anywhere, a shrewd eye would be most likely to
read her thoughts. This book of hers I mean to see, if I can get at
I have never yet crossed the threshold of the Little Gentleman's
chamber. How he lives, when he once gets within it, I can only
guess. His hours are late, as I have said; often, on waking late in
the night, I see the light through cracks in his window-shutters on
the wall of the house opposite. If the times of witchcraft were not
over, I should be afraid to be so close a neighbor to a place from
which there come such strange noises. Sometimes it is the dragging
of something heavy over the floor, that makes me shiver to hear it,-
-it sounds so like what people that kill other people have to do now
and then. Occasionally I hear very sweet strains of music,--whether
of a wind or stringed instrument, or a human voice, strange as it
may seem, I have often tried to find out, but through the partition
I could not be quite sure. If I have not heard a woman cry and
moan, and then again laugh as though she would die laughing, I have
heard sounds so like them that--I am a fool to confess it--I have
covered my head with the bedclothes; for I have had a fancy in my
dreams, that I could hardly shake off when I woke up, about that so-
called witch that was his great-grandmother, or whatever it was,--a
sort of fancy that she visited the Little Gentleman,--a young woman
in old-fashioned dress, with a red ring round her white neck,--not a
neck-lace, but a dull-stain.
Of course you don't suppose that I have any foolish superstitions
about the matter,--I, the Professor, who have seen enough to take
all that nonsense out of any man's head! It is not our beliefs that
frighten us half so much as our fancies. A man not only believes,
but knows he runs a risk, whenever he steps into a railroad car; but
it does n't worry him much. On the other hand, carry that man
across a pasture a little way from some dreary country-village, and
show him an old house where there were strange deaths a good many
years ago, and there are rumors of ugly spots on the walls,--the old
man hung himself in the garret, that is certain, and ever since the
country-people have called it "the haunted house,"--the owners
have n't been able to let it since the last tenants left on account
of the noises,--so it has fallen into sad decay, and the moss grows
on the rotten shingles of the roof, and the clapboards have turned
black, and the windows rattle like teeth that chatter with fear, and
the walls of the house begin to lean as if its knees were shaking,--
take the man who did n't mind the real risk of the cars to that old
house, on some dreary November evening, and ask him to sleep there
alone,--how do you think he will like it? He doesn't believe one
word of ghosts,--but then he knows, that, whether waking or
sleeping, his imagination will people the haunted chambers with
ghostly images. It is not what we believe, as I said before, that
frightens us commonly, but what we conceive. A principle that
reaches a good way if I am not mistaken. I say, then, that, if
these odd sounds coming from the Little Gentleman's chamber
sometimes make me nervous, so that I cannot get to sleep, it is not
because I suppose he is engaged in any unlawful or mysterious way.
The only wicked suggestion that ever came into my head was one that
was founded on the landlady's story of his having a pile of gold; it
was a ridiculous fancy; besides, I suspect the story of sweating
gold was only one of the many fables got up to make the Jews odious
and afford a pretext for plundering them. As for the sound like a
woman laughing and crying, I never said it was a woman's voice; for,
in the first place, I could only hear indistinctly; and, secondly,
he may have an organ, or some queer instrument or other, with what
they call the vox humana stop. If he moves his bed round to get
away from the window, or for any such reason, there is nothing very
frightful in that simple operation. Most of our foolish conceits
explain themselves in some such simple way. And, yet, for all that,
I confess, that, when I woke up the other evening, and heard, first
a sweet complaining cry, and then footsteps, and then the dragging
sound,--nothing but his bed, I am quite sure,--I felt a stirring in
the roots of my hair as the feasters did in Keats's terrible poem of
There is nothing very odd in my feeling nervous when I happen to lie
awake and get listening for sounds. Just keep your ears open any
time after midnight, when you are lying in bed in a lone attic of a
dark night. What horrid, strange, suggestive, unaccountable noises
you will hear! The stillness of night is a vulgar error. All the
dead things seem to be alive. Crack! That is the old chest of
drawers; you never hear it crack in the daytime. Creak! There's a
door ajar; you know you shut them all.
Where can that latch be that rattles so? Is anybody trying it
softly? or, worse than any body, is----? (Cold shiver.) Then a
sudden gust that jars all the windows;--very strange!--there does
not seem to be any wind about that it belongs to. When it stops,
you hear the worms boring in the powdery beams overhead. Then steps
outside,--a stray animal, no doubt. All right,--but a gentle
moisture breaks out all over you; and then something like a whistle
or a cry,--another gust of wind, perhaps; that accounts for the
rustling that just made your heart roll over and tumble about, so
that it felt more like a live rat under your ribs than a part of
your own body; then a crash of something that has fallen,--blown
over, very likely----Pater noster, qui es in coelis! for you are
damp and cold, and sitting bolt upright, and the bed trembling so
that the death-watch is frightened and has stopped ticking!
No,--night is an awful time for strange noises and secret doings.
Who ever dreamed, till one of our sleepless neighbors told us of it,
of that Walpurgis gathering of birds and beasts of prey,--foxes, and
owls, and crows, and eagles, that come from all the country round on
moonshiny nights to crunch the clams and muscles, and pick out the
eyes of dead fishes that the storm has thrown on Chelsea Beach? Our
old mother Nature has pleasant and cheery tones enough for us when
she comes in her dress of blue and gold over the eastern hill-tops;
but when she follows us up-stairs to our beds in her suit of black
velvet and diamonds, every creak of her sandals and every whisper of
her lips is full of mystery and fear.
You understand, then, distinctly, that I do not believe there is
anything about this singular little neighbor of mine which is as it
should not be. Probably a visit to his room would clear up all that
has puzzled me, and make me laugh at the notions which began, I
suppose, in nightmares, and ended by keeping my imagination at work
so as almost to make me uncomfortable at times. But it is not so
easy to visit him as some of our other boarders, for various reasons
which I will not stop to mention. I think some of them are rather
pleased to get "the Professor" under their ceilings.
The young man John, for instance, asked me to come up one day and
try some "old Burbon," which he said was A 1. On asking him what
was the number of his room, he answered, that it was forty-'leven,
sky-parlor floor, but that I shouldn't find it, if he did n't go
ahead to show me the way. I followed him to his habitat, being very
willing to see in what kind of warren he burrowed, and thinking I
might pick up something about the boarders who had excited my
Mighty close quarters they were where the young man John bestowed
himself and his furniture; this last consisting of a bed, a chair, a
bureau, a trunk, and numerous pegs with coats and "pants" and
"vests,"--as he was in the habit of calling waist-coats and
pantaloons or trousers,--hanging up as if the owner had melted out
of them. Several prints were pinned up unframed,--among them that
grand national portrait-piece, "Barnum presenting Ossian E. Dodge to
Jenny Lind," and a picture of a famous trot, in which I admired anew
the cabalistic air of that imposing array of expressions, and
especially the Italicized word, "Dan Mace names b. h. Major Slocum,"
and "Hiram Woodruff names g. m. Lady Smith." "Best three in five.
Time: 2.40, 2.46, 2.50."
That set me thinking how very odd this matter of trotting horses is,
as an index of the mathematical exactness of the laws of living
mechanism. I saw Lady Suffolk trot a mile in 2.26. Flora Temple
has trotted close down to 2.20; and Ethan Allen in 2.25, or less.
Many horses have trotted their mile under 2.30; none that I remember
in public as low down as 2.20. From five to ten seconds, then, in
about a hundred and sixty is the whole range of the maxima of the
present race of trotting horses. The same thing is seen in the
running of men. Many can run a mile in five minutes; but when one
comes to the fractions below, they taper down until somewhere about
4.30 the maximum is reached. Averages of masses have been studied
more than averages of maxima and minima. We know from the
Registrar-General's Reports, that a certain number of children--say
from one to two dozen--die every year in England from drinking hot
water out of spouts of teakettles. We know, that, among suicides,
women and men past a certain age almost never use fire-arms. A
woman who has made up her mind to die is still afraid of a pistol or
a gun. Or is it that the explosion would derange her costume?
I say, averages of masses we have, but our tables of maxima we owe
to the sporting men more than to the philosophers. The lesson their
experience teaches is, that Nature makes no leaps,--does nothing per
saltum. The greatest brain that ever lived, no doubt, was only a
small fraction of an idea ahead of the second best. Just look at
the chess-players. Leaving out the phenomenal exceptions, the nice
shades that separate the skilful ones show how closely their brains
approximate,--almost as closely as chronometers. Such a person is a
"knight-player,"--he must have that piece given him. Another must
have two pawns. Another, "pawn and two," or one pawn and two moves.
Then we find one who claims "pawn and move," holding himself, with
this fractional advantage, a match for one who would be pretty sure
to beat him playing even.--So much are minds alike; and you and I
think we are "peculiar,"--that Nature broke her jelly-mould after
shaping our cerebral convolutions. So I reflected, standing and
looking at the picture.
--I say, Governor,--broke in the young man John,--them bosses '11
stay jest as well, if you'll only set down. I've had 'em this year,
and they haven't stirred.--He spoke, and handed the chair towards
me,--seating himself, at the same time, on the end of the bed.
You have lived in this house some time?--I said,--with a note of
interrogation at the end of the statement.
Do I look as if I'd lost much flesh--said he, answering my question
No,--said I;--for that matter, I think you do credit to "the
bountifully furnished table of the excellent lady who provides so
liberally for the company that meets around her hospitable board."
[The sentence in quotation-marks was from one of those disinterested
editorials in small type, which I suspect to have been furnished by
a friend of the landlady's, and paid for as an advertisement. This
impartial testimony to the superior qualities of the establishment
and its head attracted a number of applicants for admission, and a
couple of new boarders made a brief appearance at the table. One of
them was of the class of people who grumble if they don't get
canvas-backs and woodcocks every day, for three-fifty per week. The
other was subject to somnambulism, or walking in the night, when he
ought to have been asleep in his bed. In this state he walked into
several of the boarders' chambers, his eyes wide open, as is usual
with somnambulists, and, from some odd instinct or other, wishing to
know what the hour was, got together a number of their watches, for
the purpose of comparing them, as it would seem. Among them was a
repeater, belonging to our young Marylander. He happened to wake up
while the somnambulist was in his chamber, and, not knowing his
infirmity, caught hold of him and gave him a dreadful shaking, after
which he tied his hands and feet, and so left him till morning, when
he introduced him to a gentleman used to taking care of such cases
If you, my reader, will please to skip backward, over this
parenthesis, you will come to our conversation, which it has
It a'n't the feed,--said the young man John,--it's the old woman's
looks when a fellah lays it in too strong. The feed's well enough.
After geese have got tough, 'n' turkeys have got strong, 'n' lamb's
got old, 'n' veal's pretty nigh beef, 'n' sparragrass 's growin'
tall 'n' slim 'n' scattery about the head, 'n' green peas are
gettin' so big 'n' hard they'd be dangerous if you fired 'em out of
a revolver, we get hold of all them delicacies of the season. But
it's too much like feedin' on live folks and devourin' widdah's
substance, to lay yourself out in the eatin' way, when a fellah 's
as hungry as the chap that said a turkey was too much for one 'n'
not enough for two. I can't help lookin' at the old woman. Corned-
beef-days she's tolerable calm. Roastin'-days she worries some, 'n'
keeps a sharp eye on the chap that carves. But when there's
anything in the poultry line, it seems to hurt her feelin's so to
see the knife goin' into the breast and joints comin' to pieces,
that there's no comfort in eatin'. When I cut up an old fowl and
help the boarders, I always feel as if I ought to say, Won't you
have a slice of widdah?--instead of chicken.
The young man John fell into a train of reflections which ended in
his producing a Bologna sausage, a plate of "crackers," as we Boston
folks call certain biscuits, and the bottle of whiskey described as
being A 1.
Under the influence of the crackers and sausage, he grew cordial and
It was time, I thought, to sound him as to those of our boarders who
had excited my curiosity.
What do you think of our young Iris?--I began.
Fust-rate little filly;-he said.--Pootiest and nicest little chap
I've seen since the schoolma'am left. Schoolma'am was a brown-
haired one,--eyes coffee-color. This one has got wine-colored
eyes,--'n' that 's the reason they turn a fellah's head, I suppose.
This is a splendid blonde,--I said,--the other was a brunette.
Which style do you like best?
Which do I like best, boiled mutton or roast mutton?--said the young
man John. Like 'em both,--it a'n't the color of 'em makes the
goodness. I 've been kind of lonely since schoolma'am went away.
Used to like to look at her. I never said anything particular to
her, that I remember, but---
I don't know whether it was the cracker and sausage, or that the
young fellow's feet were treading on the hot ashes of some longing
that had not had time to cool, but his eye glistened as he stopped.
I suppose she wouldn't have looked at a fellah like me,--he said,--
but I come pretty near tryin'. If she had said, Yes, though, I
shouldn't have known what to have done with her. Can't marry a
woman now-a-days till you're so deaf you have to cock your head like
a parrot to hear what she says, and so longsighted you can't see
what she looks like nearer than arm's-length.
Here is another chance for you,--I said.--What do you want nicer
than such a young lady as Iris?
It's no use,--he answered.--I look at them girls and feel as the
fellah did when he missed catchin' the trout.--'To'od 'a' cost more
butter to cook him 'n' he's worth,--says the fellah.--Takes a whole
piece o' goods to cover a girl up now-a-days. I'd as lief undertake
to keep a span of elephants,--and take an ostrich to board, too,--as
to marry one of 'em. What's the use? Clerks and counter-jumpers
ain't anything. Sparragrass and green peas a'n't for them,--not
while they're young and tender. Hossback-ridin' a'n't for them,--
except once a year, on Fast-day. And marryin' a'n't for them.
Sometimes a fellah feels lonely, and would like to have a nice young
woman, to tell her how lonely he feels. And sometimes a fellah,--
here the young man John looked very confidential, and, perhaps, as
if a little ashamed of his weakness,--sometimes a fellah would like
to have one o' them small young ones to trot on his knee and push
about in a little wagon,--a kind of a little Johnny, you know;--it's
odd enough, but, it seems to me, nobody can afford them little
articles, except the folks that are so rich they can buy everything,
and the folks that are so poor they don't want anything. It makes
nice boys of us young fellahs, no doubt! And it's pleasant to see
fine young girls sittin', like shopkeepers behind their goods,
waitin', and waitin', and waitin', 'n' no customers,--and the men
lingerin' round and lookin' at the goods, like folks that want to be
customers, but have n't the money!
Do you think the deformed gentleman means to make love to Iris?--I
What! Little Boston ask that girl to marry him! Well, now, that's
cumin' of it a little too strong. Yes, I guess she will marry him
and carry him round in a basket, like a lame bantam: Look here!--he
said, mysteriously;--one of the boarders swears there's a woman
comes to see him, and that he has heard her singin' and screechin'.
I should like to know what he's about in that den of his. He lays
low 'n' keeps dark,--and, I tell you, there's a good many of the
boarders would like to get into his chamber, but he don't seem to
want 'em. Biddy could tell somethin' about what she's seen when she
's been to put his room to rights. She's a Paddy 'n' a fool, but
she knows enough to keep her tongue still. All I know is, I saw her
crossin' herself one day when she came out of that room. She looked
pale enough, 'n' I heard her mutterin' somethin' or other about the
Blessed Virgin. If it had n't been for the double doors to that
chamber of his, I'd have had a squint inside before this; but,
somehow or other, it never seems to happen that they're both open at
What do you think he employs himself about? said I.
The young man John winked.
I waited patiently for the thought, of which this wink was the
blossom, to come to fruit in words.
I don't believe in witches,--said the young man John.
We were both silent for a few minutes.
--Did you ever see the young girl's drawing-books,--I said,
All but one,--he answered;--she keeps a lock on that, and won't show
it. Ma'am Allen, (the young rogue sticks to that name, in speaking
of the gentleman with the diamond,) Ma'am Allen tried to peek into
it one day when she left it on the sideboard. "If you please," says
she,--'n' took it from him, 'n' gave him a look that made him curl
up like a caterpillar on a hot shovel. I only wished he had n't,
and had jest given her a little sass, for I've been takin' boxin'-
lessons, 'n' I 've got a new way of counterin' I want to try on to
--The end of all this was, that I came away from the young fellow's
room, feeling that there were two principal things that I had to
live for, for the next six weeks or six months, if it should take so
long. These were, to get a sight of the young girl's drawing.
book, which I suspected had her heart shut up in it, and to get a
look into the Little Gentleman's room.
I don't doubt you think it rather absurd that I should trouble
myself about these matters. You tell me, with some show of reason,
that all I shall find in the young girl's--book will be some
outlines of angels with immense eyes, traceries of flowers, rural
sketches, and caricatures, among which I shall probably have the
pleasure of seeing my own features figuring. Very likely. But I'll
tell you what I think I shall find. If this child has idealized the
strange little bit of humanity over which she seems to have spread
her wings like a brooding dove,--if, in one of those wild vagaries
that passionate natures are so liable to, she has fairly sprung upon
him with her clasping nature, as the sea-flowers fold about the
first stray shell-fish that brushes their outspread tentacles,
depend upon it, I shall find the marks of it in this drawing-book of
hers,--if I can ever get a look at it,--fairly, of course, for I
would not play tricks to satisfy my curiosity.
Then, if I can get into this Little Gentleman's room under any fair
pretext, I shall, no doubt, satisfy myself in five minutes that he
is just like other people, and that there is no particular mystery
The night after my visit to the young man John, I made all these and
many more reflections. It was about two o'clock in the morning,--
bright starlight,--so light that I could make out the time on my
alarm-clock,--when I woke up trembling and very moist. It was the
heavy dragging sound, as I had often heard it before that waked me.
Presently a window was softly closed. I had just begun to get over
the agitation with which we always awake from nightmare dreams, when
I heard the sound which seemed to me as of a woman's voice,--the
clearest, purest soprano which one could well conceive of. It was
not loud, and I could not distinguish a word, if it was a woman's
voice; but there were recurring phrases of sound and snatches of
rhythm that reached me, which suggested the idea of complaint, and
sometimes, I thought, of passionate grief and despair. It died away
at last,--and then I heard the opening of a door, followed by a low,
monotonous sound, as of one talking,--and then the closing of a
door,--and presently the light on the opposite wall disappeared and
all was still for the night.
By George! this gets interesting,--I said, as I got out of bed for
a change of night-clothes.
I had this in my pocket the other day, but thought I would n't read
it at our celebration. So I read it to the boarders instead, and
print it to finish off this record with.
ROBINSON OF LEYDEN.
He sleeps not here; in hope and prayer
His wandering flock had gone before,
But he, the shepherd, might not share
Their sorrows on the wintry shore.
Before the Speedwell's anchor swung,
Ere yet the Mayflower's sail was spread,
While round his feet the Pilgrims clung,
The pastor spake, and thus he said:--
"Men, brethren, sisters, children dear!
God calls you hence from over sea;
Ye may not build by Haerlem Meer,
Nor yet along the Zuyder-Zee.
"Ye go to bear the saving word
To tribes unnamed and shores untrod:
Heed well the lessons ye have heard
From those old teachers taught of God.
"Yet think not unto them was lent
All light for all the coming days,
And Heaven's eternal wisdom spent
In making straight the ancient ways.
"The living fountain overflows
For every flock, for every lamb,
Nor heeds, though angry creeds oppose
With Luther's dike or Calvin's dam."
He spake; with lingering, long embrace,
With tears of love and partings fond,
They floated down the creeping Maas,
Along the isle of Ysselmond.
They passed the frowning towers of Briel,
The "Hook of Holland's" shelf of sand,
And grated soon with lifting keel
The sullen shores of Fatherland.
No home for these!--too well they knew
The mitred king behind the throne;
The sails were set, the pennons flew,
And westward ho! for worlds unknown.
--And these were they who gave us birth,
The Pilgrims of the sunset wave,
Who won for us this virgin earth,
And freedom with the soil they gave.
The pastor slumbers by the Rhine,--
In alien earth the exiles lie,--
Their nameless graves our holiest shrine,
His words our noblest battle-cry!
Still cry them, and the world shall hear,
Ye dwellers by the storm-swept sea!
Ye have not built by Haerlem Meer,
Nor on the land-locked Zuyder-Zee!
There has been a sort of stillness in the atmosphere of our
boarding-house since my last record, as if something or other were
going on. There is no particular change that I can think of in the
aspect of things; yet I have a feeling as if some game of life were
quietly playing and strange forces were at work, underneath this
smooth surface of every-day boardinghouse life, which would show
themselves some fine morning or other in events, if not in
catastrophes. I have been watchful, as I said I should be, but have
little to tell as yet. You may laugh at me, and very likely think
me foolishly fanciful to trouble myself about what is going on in a
middling-class household like ours. Do as you like. But here is
that terrible fact to begin with,--a beautiful young girl, with the
blood and the nerve-fibre that belong to Nature's women, turned
loose among live men.
Very terrible. Nothing more so. Do you forget the angels who lost
heaven for the daughters of men? Do you forget Helen, and the fair
women who made mischief and set nations by the ears before Helen was
born? If jealousies that gnaw men's hearts out of their bodies,--if
pangs that waste men to shadows and drive them into raving madness
or moping melancholy,--if assassination and suicide are dreadful
possibilities, then there is always something frightful about a
lovely young woman.--I love to look at this "Rainbow," as her
father used sometimes to call her, of ours. Handsome creature that
she is in forms and colors,--the very picture, as it seems to me, of
that "golden blonde" my friend whose book you read last year fell in
love with when he was a boy, (as you remember, no doubt,)--handsome
as she is, fit for a sea-king's bride, it is not her beauty alone
that holds my eyes upon her. Let me tell you one of my fancies, and
then you will understand the strange sort of fascination she has for
It is in the hearts of many men and women--let me add children--that
there is a Great Secret waiting for them,--a secret of which they
get hints now and then, perhaps oftener in early than in later
years. These hints come sometimes in dreams, sometimes in sudden
startling flashes,--second wakings, as it were,--a waking out of the
waking state, which last is very apt to be a half-sleep. I have
many times stopped short and held my breath, and felt the blood
leaving my cheeks, in one of these sudden clairvoyant flashes. Of
course I cannot tell what kind of a secret this is, but I think of
it as a disclosure of certain relations of our personal being to
time and space, to other intelligences, to the procession of events,
and to their First Great Cause. This secret seems to be broken up,
as it were, into fragments, so that we find here a word and there a
syllable, and then again only a letter of it; but it never is
written out for most of us as a complete sentence, in this life. I
do not think it could be; for I am disposed to consider our beliefs
about such a possible disclosure rather as a kind of premonition of
an enlargement of our faculties in some future state than as an
expectation to be fulfilled for most of us in this life. Persons,
however, have fallen into trances,--as did the Reverend William
Tennent, among many others,--and learned some things which they
could not tell in our human words.
Now among the visible objects which hint to us fragments of this
infinite secret for which our souls are waiting, the faces of women
are those that carry the most legible hieroglyphics of the great
mystery. There are women's faces, some real, some ideal, which
contain something in them that becomes a positive element in our
creed, so direct and palpable a revelation is it of the infinite
purity and love. I remember two faces of women with wings, such as
they call angels, of Fra Angelico,--and I just now came across a
print of Raphael's Santa Apollina, with something of the same
quality,--which I was sure had their prototypes in the world above
ours. No wonder the Catholics pay their vows to the Queen of
Heaven! The unpoetical side of Protestantism is, that it has no
women to be worshipped.
But mind you, it is not every beautiful face that hints the Great
Secret to us, nor is it only in beautiful faces that we find traces
of it. Sometimes it looks out from a sweet sad eye, the only beauty
of a plain countenance; sometimes there is so much meaning in the
lips of a woman, not otherwise fascinating, that we know they have a
message for us, and wait almost with awe to hear their accents. But
this young girl has at once the beauty of feature and the unspoken
mystery of expression. Can she tell me anything?
Is her life a complement of mine, with the missing element in it
which I have been groping after through so many friendships that I
have tired of, and through--Hush! Is the door fast? Talking loud
is a bad trick in these curious boarding-houses.
You must have sometimes noted this fact that I am going to remind
you of and to use for a special illustration. Riding along over a
rocky road, suddenly the slow monotonous grinding of the crushing
gravel changes to a deep heavy rumble. There is a great hollow
under your feet,--a huge unsunned cavern. Deep, deep beneath you in
the core of the living rock, it arches its awful vault, and far away
it stretches its winding galleries, their roofs dripping into
streams where fishes have been swimming and spawning in the dark
until their scales are white as milk and their eyes have withered
out, obsolete and useless.
So it is in life. We jog quietly along, meeting the same faces,
grinding over the same thoughts, the gravel of the soul's highway,--
now and then jarred against an obstacle we cannot crush, but must
ride over or round as we best may, sometimes bringing short up
against a disappointment, but still working along with the creaking
and rattling and grating and jerking that belong to the journey of
life, even in the smoothest-rolling vehicle. Suddenly we hear the
deep underground reverberation that reveals the unsuspected depth of
some abyss of thought or passion beneath us.
I wish the girl would go. I don't like to look at her so much, and
yet I cannot help it. Always that same expression of something that
I ought to know,--something that she was made to tell and I to
hear,--lying there ready to fall off from her lips, ready to leap
out of her eyes and make a saint of me, or a devil or a lunatic, or
perhaps a prophet to tell the truth and be hated of men, or a poet
whose words shall flash upon the dry stubble-field of worn-out
thoughts and burn over an age of lies in an hour of passion.
It suddenly occurs to me that I may have put you on the wrong track.
The Great Secret that I refer to has nothing to do with the Three
Words. Set your mind at ease about that,--there are reasons I could
give you which settle all that matter. I don't wonder, however,
that you confounded the Great Secret with the Three Words.
I LOVE YOU is all the secret that many, nay, most women have to
tell. When that is said, they are like China-crackers on the
morning of the fifth of July. And just as that little patriotic
implement is made with a slender train which leads to the magazine
in its interior, so a sharp eye can almost always see the train
leading from a young girl's eye or lip to the "I love you" in her
heart. But the Three Words are not the Great Secret I mean. No,
women's faces are only one of the tablets on which that is written
in its partial, fragmentary symbols. It lies deeper than Love,
though very probably Love is a part of it. Some, I think,--
Wordsworth might be one of them,--spell out a portion of it from
certain beautiful natural objects, landscapes, flowers, and others.
I can mention several poems of his that have shadowy hints which
seem to me to come near the region where I think it lies. I have
known two persons who pursued it with the passion of the old
alchemists,--all wrong evidently, but infatuated, and never giving
up the daily search for it until they got tremulous and feeble, and
their dreams changed to visions of things that ran and crawled about
their floor and ceilings, and so they died. The vulgar called them
I told you that I would let you know the mystery of the effect this
young girl's face produces on me. It is akin to those influences a
friend of mine has described, you may remember, as coming from
certain voices. I cannot translate it into words,--only into
feelings; and these I have attempted to shadow by showing that her
face hinted that revelation of something we are close to knowing,
which all imaginative persons are looking for either in this world
or on the very threshold of the next.
You shake your head at the vagueness and fanciful
incomprehensibleness of my description of the expression in a young
girl's face. You forget what a miserable surface-matter this
language is in which we try to reproduce our interior state of
being. Articulation is a shallow trick. From the light Poh! which
we toss off from our lips as we fling a nameless scribbler's
impertinence into our waste-baskets, to the gravest utterances which
comes from our throats in our moments of deepest need, is only a
space of some three or four inches. Words, which are a set of
clickings, hissings, lispings, and so on, mean very little, compared
to tones and expression of the features. I give it up; I thought I
could shadow forth in some feeble way, by their aid, the effect this
young girl's face produces on my imagination; but it is of no use.
No doubt your head aches, trying to make something of my
description. If there is here and there one that can make anything
intelligible out of my talk about the Great Secret, and who has
spelt out a syllable or two of it on some woman's face, dead or
living, that is all I can expect. One should see the person with
whom he converses about such matters. There are dreamy-eyed people
to whom I should say all these things with a certainty of being
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me
To him my tale I teach.
--I am afraid some of them have not got a spare quarter of a dollar
for this August number, so that they will never see it.
--Let us start again, just as if we had not made this ambitious
attempt, which may go for nothing, and you can have your money
refunded, if you will make the change.
This young girl, about whom I have talked so unintelligibly, is the
unconscious centre of attraction to the whole solar system of our
breakfast-table. The Little Gentleman leans towards her, and she
again seems to be swayed as by some invisible gentle force towards
him. That slight inclination of two persons with a strong affinity
towards each other, throwing them a little out of plumb when they
sit side by side, is a physical fact I have often noticed. Then
there is a tendency in all the men's eyes to converge on her; and I
do firmly believe, that, if all their chairs were examined, they
would be found a little obliquely placed, so as to favor the
direction in which their occupants love to look.
That bland, quiet old gentleman, of whom I have spoken as sitting
opposite to me, is no exception to the rule. She brought down some
mignonette one morning, which she had grown in her chamber. She
gave a sprig to her little neighbor, and one to the landlady, and
sent another by the hand of Bridget to this old gentleman.
--Sarvant, Ma'am I Much obleeged,--he said, and put it gallantly in
his button-hole.--After breakfast he must see some of her drawings.
Very fine performances,--very fine!--truly elegant productions,
truly elegant!--Had seen Miss Linwood's needlework in London, in
the year (eighteen hundred and little or nothing, I think he said,)-
patronized by the nobility and gentry, and Her Majesty,--elegant,
truly elegant productions, very fine performances; these drawings
reminded him of them;--wonderful resemblance to Nature; an
extraordinary art, painting; Mr. Copley made some very fine pictures
that he remembered seeing when he was a boy. Used to remember some
lines about a portrait Written by Mr. Cowper, beginning,
"Oh that those lips had language! Life has pass'd
With me but roughly since I heard thee last."
And with this the old gentleman fell to thinking about a dead mother
of his that he remembered ever so much younger than he now was, and
looking, not as his mother, but as his daughter should look. The
dead young mother was looking at the old man, her child, as she used
to look at him so many, many years ago. He stood still as if in a
waking dream, his eyes fixed on the drawings till their outlines
grew indistinct and they ran into each other, and a pale, sweet face
shaped itself out of the glimmering light through which he saw them.
--What is there quite so profoundly human as an old man's memory of
a mother who died in his earlier years? Mother she remains till
manhood, and by-and-by she grows to be as a sister; and at last,
when, wrinkled and bowed and broken, he looks back upon her in her
fair youth, he sees in the sweet image he caresses, not his parent,
but, as it were, his child.
If I had not seen all this in the old gentleman's face, the words
with which he broke his silence would have betrayed his train of
--If they had only taken pictures then as they do now!--he said.
--All gone! all gone! nothing but her face as she leaned on the arms
of her great chair; and I would give a hundred pound for the poorest
little picture of her, such as you can buy for a shilling of anybody
that you don't want to see.--The old gentleman put his hand to his
forehead so as to shade his eyes. I saw he was looking at the dim
photograph of memory, and turned from him to Iris.
How many drawing-books have you filled,--I said,--since you began to
take lessons?--This was the first,--she answered,--since she was
here; and it was not full, but there were many separate sheets of
large size she had covered with drawings.
I turned over the leaves of the book before us. Academic studies,
principally of the human figure. Heads of sibyls, prophets, and so
forth. Limbs from statues. Hands and feet from Nature. What a
superb drawing of an arm! I don't remember it among the figures
from Michel Angelo, which seem to have been her patterns mainly.
From Nature, I think, or after a cast from Nature.--Oh!
--Your smaller studies are in this, I suppose,--I said, taking up
the drawing-book with a lock on it,--Yes,--she said.--I should like
to see her style of working on a small scale.--There was nothing in
it worth showing,--she said; and presently I saw her try the lock,
which proved to be fast. We are all caricatured in it, I haven't
the least doubt. I think, though, I could tell by her way of
dealing with us what her fancies were about us boarders. Some of
them act as if they were bewitched with her, but she does not seem
to notice it much. Her thoughts seem to be on her little neighbor
more than on anybody else. The young fellow John appears to stand
second in her good graces. I think he has once or twice sent her
what the landlady's daughter calls bo-kays of flowers,--somebody
has, at any rate.--I saw a book she had, which must have come from
the divinity-student. It had a dreary title-page, which she had
enlivened with a fancy portrait of the author,--a face from memory,
apparently,--one of those faces that small children loathe without
knowing why, and which give them that inward disgust for heaven so
many of the little wretches betray, when they hear that these are
"good men," and that heaven is full of such.--The gentleman with
the diamond--the Koh-i-noor, so called by us--was not encouraged, I
think, by the reception of his packet of perfumed soap. He pulls
his purple moustache and looks appreciatingly at Iris, who never
sees him, as it should seem. The young Marylander, who I thought
would have been in love with her before this time, sometimes looks
from his corner across the long diagonal of the table, as much as to
say, I wish you were up here by me, or I were down there by you,--
which would, perhaps, be a more natural arrangement than the present
one. But nothing comes of all this,--and nothing has come of my
sagacious idea of finding out the girl's fancies by looking into her
Not to give up all the questions I was determined to solve, I made
an attempt also to work into the Little Gentleman's chamber. For
this purpose, I kept him in conversation, one morning, until he was
just ready to go up-stairs, and then, as if to continue the talk,
followed him as he toiled back to his room. He rested on the
landing and faced round toward me. There was something in his eye
which said, Stop there! So we finished our conversation on the
landing. The next day, I mustered assurance enough to knock at his
door, having a pretext ready.--No answer.--Knock again. A door,
as if of a cabinet, was shut softly and locked, and presently I
heard the peculiar dead beat of his thick-soled, misshapen boots.
The bolts and the lock of the inner door were unfastened,--with
unnecessary noise, I thought,--and he came into the passage. He
pulled the inner door after him and opened the outer one at which I
stood. He had on a flowered silk dressing-gown, such as
"Mr. Copley" used to paint his old-fashioned merchant-princes in;
and a quaint-looking key in his hand. Our conversation was short,
but long enough to convince me that the Little Gentleman did not
want my company in his chamber, and did not mean to have it.
I have been making a great fuss about what is no mystery at all,--a
schoolgirl's secrets and a whimsical man's habits. I mean to give
up such nonsense and mind my own business.--Hark! What the deuse
is that odd noise in his chamber?
--I think I am a little superstitious. There were two things, when
I was a boy, that diabolized my imagination,--I mean, that gave me a
distinct apprehension of a formidable bodily shape which prowled
round the neighborhood where I was born and bred. The first was a
series of marks called the "Devil's footsteps." These were patches
of sand in the pastures, where no grass grew, where the low-bush
blackberry, the "dewberry," as our Southern neighbors call it, in
prettier and more Shakspearian language, did not spread its clinging
creepers,--where even the pale, dry, sadly-sweet "everlasting" could
not grow, but all was bare and blasted. The second was a mark in
one of the public buildings near my home,--the college dormitory
named after a Colonial Governor. I do not think many persons are
aware of the existence of this mark,--little having been said about
the story in print, as it was considered very desirable, for the
sake of the Institution, to hush it up. In the northwest corner,
and on the level of the third or fourth story, there are signs of a
breach in the walls, mended pretty well, but not to be mistaken. A
considerable portion of that corner must have been carried away,
from within outward. It was an unpleasant affair; and I do not care
to repeat the particulars; but some young men had been using sacred
things in a profane and unlawful way, when the occurrence, which was
variously explained, took place. The story of the Appearance in the
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