Rebecca Harding Davis
Boston in the Sixties
(Chapter 3 of her memoirs published in 1904, Bits of Gossip )
In the garden of our old house there were some huge cherry-trees,with low growing branches, and in one of them our nurse, Barbara, havingan architectural turn of mind, once built me a house. Really, even now, old as I am, and after I have seen St. James's and the Vatican, I can'timagine any house as satisfactory as Barbara's.
You went up as far as you could by a ladder to the dizzy height of twelve feet, and then you kicked the ladder down and climbed on,up and up, breathless with terror and triumph, and--there it was. All your own. Not a boy had ever heard of it. There was a plank nailed in the floor and another for a seat, and there was a secret box with a lid. You could hide your baby in that box, if there were danger of an attack by the Indians,or you could store your provisions in it in case you had been on a long journey in the wilderness, and had gained this refuge from the wolves in the jungle of currant bushes below. All around you, above and below, were the thick wall of green leaves and the red cherries. They were useful, in case there was danger of starving when the siege by the redskins or wild beasts lasted long.
After I had grown old enough to be ashamed of my dolls, or of looking for wolves in the currant bushes, I used to carry my two or three books up to the tree-house. There were but two or three books then for children; no magazines, nor Kiplings, nor Stevensons, nor any of the army of cheery storytellers who beset the young people to-day; only Bunyan and Miss Edgeworth and Sir Walter.
Still, when Apollyon roared in the celery pits below, and Mercy and Christiana sat under the locust-trees, and the tents and glittering legions of the crusaders stretched away to the hills, I don't know that any girl now, in a proper modern house, has better company than was mine in Barbara's lodge.
One day, I climbed up with a new book, the first cheap book, by the way, that I ever saw. It was in two volumes; the cover was of yellow paper and the name was "Moral Tales." The tales, for the most part, were thin and cheap as the paper; they commanded no enchanted company, bad or good, into the cherry-tree.
But among them were two or three unsigned stories which I read over so often that I almost know every line in them by heart now. One was a story told by a town pump, and another the account of the rambles of a little girl like myself, and still another a description of a Sunday morning in a quiet town like our sleepy village. There was no talk of enchantment in them. But in these papers the commonplace folk and things which I saw every day took on a sudden mystery and charm, and, for the first time, I found that they, too, belonged to the magic world of knights and pilgrims and fiends.
The publisher of "Moral Tales," whoever he was, had probably stolen these anonymous papers from the annuals in which they had appeared. Nobody called him to account. Their author was then, as he tells us somewhere, the "obscurest man of letters in America."
Years afterward, he was known as the greatest of living romancers, I opened his "Twice-Told Tales" and found there my old friends with a shock of delight as keen as if I had met one of my own kinsfolk in the streets of a foreign city. In the first heat of my discovery I wrote to Mr. Hawthorne and told him about Barbara's house and of what he had done for the child who used to hide there. The little story, coming from the backwoods, touched his fancy, I suppose, for I presently received a note from him saying that he was then at Washington, and was coming on to Harper's Ferry, where John Brown had died, and still farther to see the cherry-trees and--me. Me.
Well, I suppose Esther felt a little in that way when the king's scepter touched her.
I wish he had come to the old town. It would have seemed a different place forever after to many people. But we were in the midst of the Civil War, and the western end of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was seized just then by the Confederates, and he turned back.
A year later I saw him. It was during my first visit to New England, at the time when certain men and women were earning for Boston its claim to be called the modern Athens.
I wish I could summon these memorable ghosts before you as I saw them then and afterward. To the eyes of an observer, belonging to the commonplace world, they did not appear precisely as they do in the portraits drawn of them for posterity by their companions, the other Areopagites, who walked and talked with them apart - always apart from humanity.
That was the first peculiarity which struck an outsider in Emerson, Hawthorne, and the other members of the "Atlantic" coterie; that while they thought they were guiding the real world, they stood quite outside of it, and never would see it as it was.
For instance, during the Civil War, they had much to say of it, and all used the same strained high note of exaltation. It was to them "only the shining track," as Lowell calls it, where
. . . "heroes mustered in a gleaming row,
Beautiful evermore, and with the rays
Of morn on their white shields of expectation."
These heroes were their bravest and their best, gone to die for the slave or for their country. They were "the army" to them.
I remember listening during one long summer morning to Louisa Alcott's father as he chanted paeans to the war, the "armed angel which was wakening the nation to a lofty life unknown before."
We were in the little parlor of the Wayside, Mr. Hawthorne's house in Concord. Mr. Alcott stood in front of the fireplace, his long gray hair streaming over his collar, his pale eyes turning quickly from one listener to another to hold them quiet, his hands waving to keep time with rotund sentences which had a stale, familiar ring as if often repeated before. Mr. Emerson stood listening, his head sunk on his breast, with profound submissive attention, but Hawthorne sat astride of a chair, his arms folded on the back, his chin dropped on them, and his laughing, sagacious eyes watching us, full of mockery.
I had just come up from the border where I had seen the actual war; the filthy spewings of it; the political jobbery in Union and Confederate camps; the malignant personal hatreds wearing patriotic masks, and glutted by burning homes and outraged women; the chances in it, well improved on both sides, for brutish men to grow more brutish, and for honorable gentlemen to degenerate into thieves and sots. War may be an armed angel with a mission, but she has the personal habits of the slums. This would-be seer who was talking of it, and the real seer who listened, knew no more of war as it was, than I had done in my cherry-tree when I dreamed of bannered legions of crusaders debouching in the misty fields.
Mr. Hawthorne at last gathered himself up lazily to his feet, and said quietly: "We cannot see that thing at so long a range. Let us go to dinner," and Mr. Alcott suddenly checked the droning flow of his prophecy and quickly led the way to the dining-room.
Early that morning when his lank, gray figure had first appeared at the gate, Mr. Hawthorne said: "Here comes the Sage of Concord. He is anxious to know what kind of human beings come up from the back hills in Virginia. Now I will tell you," his eyes gleaming with fun, " what he will talk to you about. Pears. Yes. You may begin at Plato or the day's news, and he will come around to pears. He is now convinced that a vegetable diet affects both the body and soul, and that pears exercise a more direct and ennobling influence on us than any other vegetable or fruit. Wait. You'll hear presently."
When we went in to dinner, therefore, I was surprised to see the sage eat heartily of the fine sirloin of beef set before us. But with the dessert he began to advocate a vegetable diet and at last announced the spiritual influence of pears, to the great delight of his host, who laughed like a boy and was humored like one by the gentle old man.
Whether Alcott, Emerson, and their disciples discussed pears or the war, their views gave you the same sense of unreality, of having been taken, as Hawthorne said, at too long a range. You heard much sound philosophy and many sublime guesses at the eternal verities; in fact, never were the eternal verities so dissected and pawed over and turned inside out as they were about that time, in Boston, by Margaret Fuller and her successors. But the discussion left you with a vague, uneasy sense that something lacking, some back-bone of fact. Their theories were like beautiful bubbles blown from a child's pipe, floating overhead, with queer reflections on them of sky and earth and human beings, all in a glow of fairy color and all a little distorted.
Mr. Alcott once showed me an arbor which he had built with great pains and skill for Mr. Emerson to "do his thinking in." It was made of unbarked saplings and boughs, a tiny round temple, two storied, with chambers in which were seats, a desk, etc., all very artistic and complete, except that he had forgotten to make any door. You could look at it and admire it, but nobody could go in or use it. It seemed to me a fitting symbol for this guild of prophets and their scheme of life.
Mr. Alcott at that time was their oracle, appointed and held in authority by Emerson alone. His faith in the old man was so sincere and simple that it was almost painful to see it.
He once told me, "I asked Alcott the other day what he would do when he came to the gate, and St. Peter demanded his ticket. 'What have you to show to justify your right to live?' I said. 'Where is your book, your picture? You have done nothing in the world.' 'No,' he said, 'but somewhere on a hill up there will be Plato and Paul and Socrates talking, and they will say: 'Send Alcott over here, we want him with us.'" "And," said Emerson, gravely shaking his head, "he was right! Alcott was right."
Mr. Alcott was a tall, awkward, kindly old man, absolutely ignorant of the world, but with an obstinate faith in himself which would have befitted a pagan god. Hearing that I was from Virginia, he told me that he owed his education wholly to Virginia planters. He had traveled in his youth as a peddler through the State, and finding how eager he was to learn they would keep him for days in their houses, turning him loose in their libraries.
His own library was full of folios of his manuscripts. He had covered miles of paper with his inspirations, but when I first knew him no publisher had ever put a line of them into print. His house was bleak and bitter cold with poverty, his wife had always worked hard to feed him and his children. In any other town he would have been more respected if he had tried to put his poor carpentering skill to use to support them. But the homelier virtues were not, apparently, in vogue in Concord.
During my first visit to Boston in 1862, I saw at an evening reception a tall, thin young woman standing alone in a corner. She was plainly dressed, and had that watchful, defiant air with which the woman whose youth is slipping away is apt to face the world which has offered no place to her. Presently she came up to me.
" These people may say pleasant things to you," she said abruptly ; "but not one of them would have gone to Concord and back to see you, as I did to-day. I went for this gown. It's the only decent one I have. I'm very poor;" and in the next breath she contrived to tell me that she had once taken a place as "second girl." "My name," she added, "is Louisa Alcott."
Now, although we had never met, Louisa Alcott had shown me great kindness in the winter just past, sacrificing a whole day to a tedious work which was to give me pleasure at a time when every hour counted largely to her in her desperate struggle to keep her family from want. The little act was so considerate and fine, that I am still grateful for it, now when I am an old woman, and Louisa Alcott has long been dead. It was as natural for her to do such things as for a pomegranate-tree to bear fruit.
Before I met her I had known many women and girls who were fighting with poverty and loneliness, wondering why God had sent them into a life where apparently there was no place for them, but never one so big and generous in soul as this one in her poor scant best gown, the "claret-colored merino," which she tells of with such triumph in her diary. Amid her grim surroundings, she had the gracious instincts of a queen. It was her delight to give, to feed living creatures, to make them happy in body and soul.
She would so welcome you on her home to a butterless baked potato and a glass of milk that you would never forget the delicious feast. Or, if she had no potato or milk to offer, she would take you through the woods to the river, and tell you old legends of colony times, and be so witty and kind in the doing of it that the day would stand out in your memory ever after, differing from all other days, brimful of pleasure and comfort.
With this summer, however, the darkest hour of her life passed. A few months after I saw her she went as a nurse into the war, and soon after wrote her "Hospital Sketches." Then she found her work and place in the world.
Years afterward she came to the city where I was living and I hurried to meet her. The lean, eager, defiant girl was gone, and instead, there came to greet me a large, portly, middle-aged woman, richly dressed. Everything about her, from her shrewd, calm eyes to the rustle of her satin gown told me of assured success.
Yet I am sure fame and success counted for nothing with her except for the material aid which they enabled her to give to a few men and women whom she loved. She would have ground her bones to make their bread. Louisa Alcott wrote books which were true and fine, but she never imagined a life as noble as her own.
The altar for human sacrifices still stands and smokes in this Christianday of the world, and God apparently does not reject its offerings.
Of the group of famous people in Concord in 1862, Mr. Emerson was best known to the country at large. He was the typical Yankee in appearance. The tall, gaunt man, with the watchful, patient face and slightly dazed eyes, his hands clasped behind his back, that came slowly down the shady village street toward the Wayside that summer day, was Uncle Sam himself in ill-fitting brown clothes. I often wondered that none of his biographers have noticed the likeness. Voice and look and manner were full of the most exquisite courtesy, yet I doubt whether he was conscious of his courtesy or meant to be deferential. Emerson, first of all, was a student of man, an explorer into the dim, obscure regions of human intelligence. He studied souls, as a philologist does words, or an entomologist beetles. He approached each man with bent head and eager eyes. "What new thing shall I find here?" they said.
I went to Concord, a young woman from the backwoods, firm in belief that Emerson was the first of living men. He was the modern Moses who had talked with God apart and could interpret Him to us.
When I heard him coming into the parlor at the Wayside my body literally grew stiff and my tongue dry with awe. And in ten minutes I was telling him all that I had seen of the war, the words tumbling over each other, so convinced was I of his eagerness to hear. He was eager. If Edison had been there he would have been just as eager to wrench out of him the secret of electricity, or if it had been a freed slave he would have compelled him to show the scars on his back and lay bare his rejoicing, ignorant, half-animal soul, and an hour later he would have forgotten that Edison or the negro or I were in the world--having taken from each what he wanted.
Naturally Mr. Emerson valued the abnormal freaks among human souls most highly, just as the unclassable word and the mongrel beetle are dearest to the grammarian or the naturalist. The only man whose authority he bowed was Alcott, the vague, would-be prophet, whose ravings he did not pretend to fathom. He apparently shared in the popular belief that eccentricity was a sign of genius.
He said to me suddenly once, "I wish Thoreau had not died before you came. He was an interesting study."
"Why?" I asked.
"Why? Thoreau?" He hesitated, thinking, going apparently to the bottom of the matter, and said presently: "Henry often reminded me of an animal in human form. He had the eye of a bird, the scent of a dog, the most acute, delicate intelligence--but no soul. No," he repeated, shaking his head with decision, "Henry could not have had a human soul."
His own perception of character was an intuition. He felt a fine trait as he would a fine strain of music. Coming once to Philadelphia, he said, almost as soon as he entered the house, "So Philip Randolph has gone! That man had the sweetest moral nature I ever knew. There never was a man so lacking in self-consciousness. The other day I saw in the London 'Times' that 'the American, Randolph, one of the three greatest chess players in the world was dead.' I knew Philip intimately since he was a boy, and I never heard him mention the game. I did not even know that he played it. How fine that was!" he said, walking up and down the room. "How fine that was!"
Emerson himself was as little likely to parade his merits as Randolph, but not from any lack of self-appreciation. On the contrary, his interest in his Ego was so dominant that it probably never occurred to him to ask what others thought of him. He took from each man his drop of stored honey, and after that the man counted for no more to him than any other robbed bee. I do not think that even the worship which his disciples gave him interested him enough to either amuse or annoy him.
It was worship. No such homage has ever been paid to any American. His teaching influenced at once the trend of thought here and in England; the strongest men then living became promptly his disciples or his active antagonists.
But outside of this central circle of scholars and original thinkers, there were vast outlying provinces of intelligence where he reigned absolutely as does the unseen Grand Llama over his adoring votaries.
New England then swarmed with weak-brained, imitative folk who had studied books with more or less zeal, and who knew nothing of actual life. They were suffering under the curse of an education which they could not use; they were the lean, underfed men and women of villages and farms, who were trained enough to be lawyers and teachers in their communities, but who actually were cobblers, millhands, or tailoresses. They had revolted from Puritanism, not to enter any other live church, but to fall into a dull disgust, a nausea with all religion. To them came this new prophet with his discovery of the God within themselves. They hailed it with acclamation. The new dialect of the Transcendentalist was easily learned. They talked it as correctly as the Chinaman does his pigeon English. Up to the old grey house among the pines in Concord they went--hordes of wild-eyed Harvard undergraduates and lean, underpaid working-women, each with a disease of soul to be cured by the new Healer.
It is quite impossible to give the present generation an idea of the devout faith of these people. Keen-witted and scholarly as some of them were, it was as absolute as that of the poor Irishman tramping over the bogs in Munster to cure his ailments by a drink of the water of a holy well.
Outside of these circles of disciples there was then throughout the country a certain vague pride in Emerson as an American prophet. We were in the first flush of our triumph in the beginnings of a national literature. We talked much of it. Irving, Prescott, and Longfellow had been English, we said, but these new men--Holmes and Lowell and Hawthorne--were our own, the indigenous growth of the soil. In the West and South there was no definite idea as to what truth this Concord man had brought into the world. But in any case it was American truth and not English. Emerson's popularity, therefore, outside of New England was wide, but vague and impersonal.
It was very different with Dr. Holmes. Everybody who cared for books, whether in the New York clubs, California ranches, or Pennsylvania farms, loved and laughed with "the little doctor," as he was fondly called. They discussed his queer ways and quoted his last jokes as if he had been the autocrat at their own breakfast-table that morning. His output of occasional verses was enormous and constant. The present generation, probably, regard most of them as paste jewels, but they shone for us, the purest of gems. He was literally the autocrat of the young men and women of his time. He opened the depths of their own hearts to them as no one else had done, and they ran to him to pour out their secrets. Letters--hundreds in a day--rained down on him with confidences, tragic, pathetic, and ridiculous, but all true. The little man was alive with magnetism; it fired his feeblest verse, and drew many men and all women to him.
Physically, he was a very small man, holding himself stiffly erect--his face insignificant as his figure, except for a long, obstinate upper lip ("left to me," he said one day, "by some ill-conditioned great-grandmother"), and eyes full of a wonderful fire and sympathy. No one on whom Dr. Holmes had once looked with interest ever forgot the look--or him. He attracted all kinds of people as a brilliant, excitable child would attract them. But nobody, I suspect, ever succeeded in being familiar with him. Americans at that time seldom talked of distinction of class or descent. You were only truly patriotic if you had a laborer for a grandfather and were glad of it. But the Autocrat was patrician enough to represent the descent of a damio, with two thousand years of ancestry behind him. He was the finest fruit of that Brahmin order of New England which he first had classified and christened. He had too keen an appreciation of genius not to recognize his own. He enjoyed his work as much as his most fervent admirers, and openly enjoyed, too, their applause. I remember one evening that he quoted one of his poems, and I was forced stupidly to acknowledge that I did not know it. He fairly jumped to the book-cases, took out the volume and read the verses, standing in the middle of the room, his voice trembling, his whole body thrilling with their meaning.
"There!" he cried at the end, his eyes flashing, "could anybody have said that better? Ah-h!" with a long, indrawn breath of delight as he put the book back.
He had the fervor, the irritability, the tenderness of a woman, and her whimsical fancies, too. He was, unlike women, eager to help you out with your unreasonable whims. One day I happened to confess to a liking for old graveyards and the strange bits of human history to be found or guessed at in them. The result was that he became my cicerone the next day at Mount Auburn. It was an odd bit of luck to fall to a young woman from the hills that she would have the Autocrat, to whom the whole country was paying homage, all to herself for a whole summer morning. He took me to none of the costly monuments, nor graves of famous folk, but wandered here and there among the trees, his hands clasped behind him, stopping now and then at a green mound, while he told me curious fragments of the life which was ended below. He mentioned no names--they would have meant nothing to me of he had--but he wrested the secret meaning out of each life, pouncing on it, holding it up with a certain racy enjoyment in his astuteness. It was a marvelous monologue, full of keen wit and delicate sympathy and acrid shrewdness. I must confess that I think he forgot the country and its homage and me that morning, and talked simply for his own pleasure in his own pathos and fun, just as a women might take out her jewels when she was alone, to hold up the glittering strings and take delight in their shining. Once, I remember, he halted by a magnificent shaft and read the bead roll of he virtues of the man who lay beneath: "A devoted husband, a tender father, a noble citizen--dying triumphant in the Christian faith."
"Now this dead man," he said, in a high, rasping tone, "was a prize fighter, a drunkard and a thief. He beat his wife. But she puts up this stone. He had money!"
Then he hurried me across the slopes to an obscure corner where a grave was hidden by high, wild grasses. He knelt and parted the long branches. Under them was a little headstone with the initials "M. H.," and underneath the verse:--
She lived unknown and few could know When Mary ceased to be, But she is gone, and Oh!
"Do you see this?" he asked in a whisper.
"Do you know who she was?" I asked.
"No, I wouldn't try to find out. I'd like to know, but I couldn't uncover that grave. No, no! I couldn't do that."
He put back the leaves reverently so as to hide the stone again and rose, and as he turned away I saw that the tears stood in his eyes.
As we drove home he said: "I believe that I know every grave in the old villages within a radius of thirty miles from Boston. I search out the histories of these forgotten folk in records and traditions, and sometimes I find strange things--oh, very strange things! When I have found out all about them they seem like my own friends, lying there forgotten. But I know them! And every spring, as soon as the grass begins to come up, I go my rounds to visit them and see how my dead men do!"
But with all his whims Dr. Holmes was no unpractical dreamer like his friends in Concord. He was far in advance of his time in certain shrewd, practical plans for the bettering of the conditions of American life.
One of his hobbies was a belief in a hobby as an escape valve in the over-heated, over-driven career of a brain worker.
The doctrine was almost new then. The pace of life was as yet tranquil and moderate compared to the present headlong American race. But the doctor foresaw what was coming--both the danger and its remedy.
His camera and violin were two of his own doors of escape from work and worry. Under his library table, too, was a little box, furnished with jig-saw, lathe, etc. It ran in and out on grooves, like a car on a railway.
He showed it one day with triumph. "I contrived that!" he said. "But only my friends know about it. People think I am shut in here, hard at work, writing poetry or lectures. And I am making jim-cracks. But if any of the dunces make their way in, I give it a shove -- so! Away it goes under the table and I am discovered--Poet or Professor, in character--pen in hand!" and he chuckled like a naughty boy over his successful trick.
Holmes, Longfellow, Emerson, and George Ticknor, all chiefs of differing literary clans, formed a fraternity then in New England which never since has found its parallel in America.
There can be no doubt that their success as individuals or as a body in influencing American thought was largely due to their friend and neighbor, James T. Fields, the shrewdest of publishers and kindest of men. He was the wire that conducted the lightning so that it never struck amiss.
His little brown house in Charles Street, with the pretty garden sloping to the river, was then the shelter to which hied all wandering men of letters, from Thackeray and Dickens down to starving poets from the western prairies.
They were wisely counseled and sent upon the right path, but not until they had been warmed and fed in body and mind. Mr. Fields was a keen man of business, but he had a kindly, hospitable soul.
Hawthorne was in the Boston fraternity but not of it. He was an alien among these men, not of their kind. He belonged to no tribe. I am sure that wherever he went during his whole life, from the grassy streets of Salem to the docks of Liverpool, on Parisian boulevards or in the olive groves of Bellosguardo, he was always a foreigner, different from his neighbors. He probably never knew that he was different. He knew and cared little about Nathaniel Hawthorne, or indeed about the people around him. The man next door interested him no more than the man in Mozambique. He walked through life talking and thinking to himself in a language which we did not understand.
It has happened to me to meet many of the men of my day whom the world agreed to call great. I have found that most of these royalties seem to sink into ordinary citizens at close approach. You will find the poet who wrings the heart of the world, or the foremost captain of his time, driving a bargain or paring a potato, just as you would do. You are disappointed in every word and look from them. You expect to see the divine light shining through their talk to the office-boy or the train-man, and you never catch a glimmer of it; you are aggrieved because their coats and trousers have not something of the cut of kingly robes.
Hawthorne only, of them all, always stood aloof. Even in his own house he was like Banquo's ghost among the thanes at the banquet.
There is an old Cornish legend that a certain tribe of mountain spirits were once destroyed by the trolls, all except one, who still wanders through the earth looking for his own people and never finding them. I never looked at Hawthorne without remembering the old story.
Personally he was a rather short, powerfully built man, gentle and low voiced, with a sly, elusive humor gleaming sometimes in his watchful gray eyes. The portrait with which we are all familiar--a curled barbershop head--gives no idea of the singularly melancholy charm of his face. There was a mysterious power in it which I never have seen elsewhere in picture, statue, or human being.
Wayside, the home of the Hawthornes in Concord, was a comfortable little house on a shady, grassy road. To please his wife he had built an addition to it, a tower into which he could climb, locking out the world below, and underneath, a little parlor, in whose dainty new furnishings Mrs. Hawthorne took a womanish delight. Yet, somehow, gay Brussels rugs and gilded frames were not the background for the morbid, silent recluse.
Mrs. Hawthorne, however, made few such mistakes. She was soft, affectionate, feminine little woman, with intuitions subtle enough to follow her husband into his darkest moods, but with, too, a cheerful, practical Yankee "capacity" which fitted her to meet baker and butcher. Nobody could have been better fitted to stand between Hawthorne and the world. She did it effectively. When I was at Wayside, they had been living there for two years--ever since their return from Europe, and I was told that in that time he had never once been seen on the village street.
This habit of seclusion was a family trait. Hawthorne's mother had managed to live the life of a hermit in busy Salem, and her sister, meeting a disappointment in early life, had gone into her chamber, and for more than twenty years shut herself up from her kind, and dug into her own soul to find there what truth and life she could. During the years in which Nathaniel, then a young man, lived with these two women, he, too, chose to be alone, going out of the house only at night, and finding his food on a plate left at his locked door. Sometimes weeks passed during which the three inmates of the little gray wooden house never saw each other.
Hawthorne was the product of generations of solitude and silence. No wonder that he had the second sight and was naturalized into the world of ghosts and could interpret for us their speech.
America may have great poets and novelists, but she will never have more than one necromancer.
The natural feeling among healthy, commonplace people toward the solitary man was a tender sympathy such as they would give a sick child.
"Nathaniel," an old blacksmith in Salem once said to me, "was queer even as a boy. He certainly was queer. But you humored him. You wanted to humor him."
One person, however, had no mind to humor him. This was Miss Elizabeth Peabody, Mrs. Hawthorne's sister. She was the mother of the kindergarten in this country, and gave to its cause, which seemed to her first in importance, a long and patient life of noble self-sacrifice. She was a woman of wide research and a really fine intelligence, but she had the discretion of a six-year-old child. She loved to tell the details of Hawthorne's courtship of her sister, and of how she herself had unearthed him from the tomb of the little gray house in Salem, and "brought him into Sophia's presence." She still regarded him as a demi-god, but a demi-god who required to be fed, tutored, and kept in order. It was her mission, she felt, to bring him out from solitudes where he walked apart, to the broad ways of common sense. I happened to be present at her grand and last coup to this end.
One evening I was with Mrs. Hawthorne in the little parlor when the children brought in their father. The windows were open, and we sat in the warm twilight quietly talking or silent as we chose. Suddenly Miss Peabody appeared in the doorway. She was a short, stout little woman, with her white stockinged feet thrust into slippers, her hoop skirt swaying from side to side, and her gray hair flying in the winds.
She lighted the lamp, went out and brought in more lamps, and then sat down and waited with an air of stern resolution.
Presently Mr. Emerson and his daughter appeared, then Louisa Alcott and her father, then two gray old clergymen who were formally presented to Mr. Hawthorne, who now looked about him with terrified dismay. We saw other figures approaching in the road outside.
"What does this mean Elizabeth?" Mrs. Hawthorne asked her aside.
"I did it. I went around and asked a few people in to meet our friend here. I ordered some cake and lemonade, too."
Her blue eyes glittered with triumph as Mrs. Hawthorne turned away. "They've been here two years," she whispered, "and nobody has met Mr. Hawthorne. People talk. It's ridiculous! There's no reason why Sophia should not go into society. So I just made an excuse of your visit to bring them in."
Miss Elizabeth has been for many years among the sages and saints on the heavenly hills, but I have not yet quite forgiven her the misery of that moment.
The little room was quite full when there rustled in a woman who came straight to Mr. Hawthorne, as a vulture to its prey. I never heard her name, but I knew her at sight as the intellectual woman of the village, the Intelligent Questioner who cows you into idiocy by her fluent cleverness. "So delighted to meet you at last!" she said, seating herself beside him. "I have always admired your books Mr .Hawthorne. I was one of the very first to recognize your power. And now I want you to tell me about your methods of work. I want to hear all about it."
But at that moment his wife came up and said that he was wanted outside, and he escaped. A few moments later I heard his steps on the floor overhead, and knew that he was safe in the tower for the night.
* * * * * * *
He did not hold me guilty in the matter, for the next morning he joined his wife and me in a walk through the fields. We went to the Old Manse where they had lived when they were first married, and then wandered on to the wooded slopes of the Sleepy Hollow Valley in which the Concord people had begun to lay away their dead.
It was a cool morning, with soft mists rolling up the hills, and flashes between of sudden sunlight. The air was full of pungent woody smells, and the undergrowth blushed pink with blossoms. There was no look of a cemetery about the place. Here and there, in a shady nook, was a green hillock like a bed, as if some tired traveler had chosen a quiet place for himself and lain down to sleep.
Mr. Hawthorne sat down in the deep grass and then, clasping his hands about his knees, looked up laughing. "Yes," he said, "we New Englanders begin to enjoy ourselves--when we are dead."
As we walked back the mists gathered and the day darkened overhead. Hawthorne, who had been joking like a boy, grew suddenly silent, and before we reached home the cloud had settled down again upon him, and his steps lagged heavily.
Even the faithful woman who kept always close to his side with her laughing words and anxious eyes did not know that day how fast the last shadows wer closing in upon him.
In a few months he was lying under the deep grass, at rest, near the very spot where he sat and laughed, looking up at us. I left Concord that evening and never saw him again. He said good-by, hesitated shyly, and then, holding out his hand, said:-- "I am sorry you are going away. It seems as if we had known you always." The words were nothing. I suppose he forgot them and me as he turned into the house. And yet, because perhaps of the child in the cherry-tree, and the touch which the magician laid upon her, I have never forgotten them. They seemed to take me, too, for one moment, into his enchanted country. Of the many pleasant things which have come into my life, this was one of the pleasantest and best.