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entertaining book it was. But one of the heavy critics got hold of it,
and made Mandeville appear, even to himself, he confessed, like an
ass, because there was nothing in the volume about geology or mining
prospects, and very little to instruct the student of physical
geography. With alternate sarcasm and ridicule, he literally basted
the author, till Mandeville said that he felt almost like a depraved
scoundrel, and thought he should be held up to less execration if he had
committed a neat and scientific murder.

But I confess that I have a good deal of sympathy with the critics.
Consider what these public tasters have to endure! None of us, I fancy,
would like to be compelled to read all that they read, or to take into
our mouths, even with the privilege of speedily ejecting it with a
grimace, all that they sip. The critics of the vintage, who pursue their
calling in the dark vaults and amid mouldy casks, give their opinion,
for the most part, only upon wine, upon juice that has matured and
ripened into development of quality. But what crude, unrestrained,
unfermented - even raw and drugged liquor, must the literary taster put
to his unwilling lips day after day!





TENTH STUDY




I

It was my good fortune once to visit a man who remembered the rebellion
of 1745. Lest this confession should make me seem very aged, I will add
that the visit took place in 1851, and that the man was then one hundred
and thirteen years old. He was quite a lad before Dr. Johnson drank Mrs.
Thrale's tea. That he was as old as he had the credit of being, I have
the evidence of my own senses (and I am seldom mistaken in a person's
age), of his own family, and his own word; and it is incredible that so
old a person, and one so apparently near the grave, would deceive about
his age.

The testimony of the very aged is always to be received without
question, as Alexander Hamilton once learned. He was trying a land-title
with Aaron Burr, and two of the witnesses upon whom Burr relied were
venerable Dutchmen, who had, in their youth, carried the surveying
chains over the land in dispute, and who were now aged respectively one
hundred and four years and one hundred and six years. Hamilton gently
attempted to undervalue their testimony, but he was instantly put down
by the Dutch justice, who suggested that Mr. Hamilton could not be aware
of the age of the witnesses.

My old man (the expression seems familiar and inelegant) had indeed an
exaggerated idea of his own age, and sometimes said that he supposed he
was going on four hundred, which was true enough, in fact; but for the
exact date, he referred to his youngest son, - a frisky and humorsome
lad of eighty years, who had received us at the gate, and whom we had at
first mistaken for the veteran, his father. But when we beheld the old
man, we saw the difference between age and age. The latter had settled
into a grizzliness and grimness which belong to a very aged and stunted
but sturdy oak-tree, upon the bark of which the gray moss is thick and
heavy. The old man appeared hale enough, he could walk about, his sight
and hearing were not seriously impaired, he ate with relish, and his
teeth were so sound that he would not need a dentist for at least
another century; but the moss was growing on him. His boy of eighty
seemed a green sapling beside him.

He remembered absolutely nothing that had taken place within thirty
years, but otherwise his mind was perhaps as good as it ever was, for he
must always have been an ignoramus, and would never know anything if
he lived to be as old as he said he was going on to be. Why he was
interested in the rebellion of 1745 I could not discover, for he of
course did not go over to Scotland to carry a pike in it, and he only
remembered to have heard it talked about as a great event in the Irish
market-town near which he lived, and to which he had ridden when a boy.
And he knew much more about the horse that drew him, and the cart in
which he rode, than he did about the rebellion of the Pretender.

I hope I do not appear to speak harshly of this amiable old man, and if
he is still living I wish him well, although his example was bad in some
respects. He had used tobacco for nearly a century, and the habit has
very likely been the death of him. If so, it is to be regretted. For
it would have been interesting to watch the process of his gradual
disintegration and return to the ground: the loss of sense after sense,
as decaying limbs fall from the oak; the failure of discrimination, of
the power of choice, and finally of memory itself; the peaceful wearing
out and passing away of body and mind without disease, the natural
running down of a man. The interesting fact about him at that time was
that his bodily powers seemed in sufficient vigor, but that the mind
had not force enough to manifest itself through his organs. The complete
battery was there, the appetite was there, the acid was eating the zinc;
but the electric current was too weak to flash from the brain. And yet
he appeared so sound throughout, that it was difficult to say that
his mind was not as good as it ever had been. He had stored in it very
little to feed on, and any mind would get enfeebled by a century's
rumination on a hearsay idea of the rebellion of '45.

It was possible with this man to fully test one's respect for age, which
is in all civilized nations a duty. And I found that my feelings were
mixed about him. I discovered in him a conceit in regard to his long
sojourn on this earth, as if it were somehow a credit to him. In the
presence of his good opinion of himself, I could but question the real
value of his continued life, to himself or to others. If he ever had any
friends he had outlived them, except his boy; his wives - a century of
them - were all dead; the world had actually passed away for him. He hung
on the tree like a frost-nipped apple, which the farmer has neglected to
gather. The world always renews itself, and remains young. What relation
had he to it?

I was delighted to find that this old man had never voted for George
Washington. I do not know that he had ever heard of him. Washington may
be said to have played his part since his time. I am not sure that he
perfectly remembered anything so recent as the American Revolution. He
was living quietly in Ireland during our French and Indian wars, and he
did not emigrate to this country till long after our revolutionary and
our constitutional struggles were over. The Rebellion Of '45 was the
great event of the world for him, and of that he knew nothing.

I intend no disrespect to this man, - a cheerful and pleasant enough
old person, - but he had evidently lived himself out of the world, as
completely as people usually die out of it. His only remaining value
was to the moralist, who might perchance make something out of him.
I suppose if he had died young, he would have been regretted, and his
friends would have lamented that he did not fill out his days in the
world, and would very likely have called him back, if tears and prayers
could have done so. They can see now what his prolonged life amounted
to, and how the world has closed up the gap he once filled while he
still lives in it.

A great part of the unhappiness of this world consists in regret for
those who depart, as it seems to us, prematurely. We imagine that if
they would return, the old conditions would be restored. But would it be
so? If they, in any case, came back, would there be any place for them?
The world so quickly readjusts itself after any loss, that the return
of the departed would nearly always throw it, even the circle most
interested, into confusion. Are the Enoch Ardens ever wanted?





II

A popular notion akin to this, that the world would have any room for
the departed if they should now and then return, is the constant
regret that people will not learn by the experience of others, that one
generation learns little from the preceding, and that youth never will
adopt the experience of age. But if experience went for anything, we
should all come to a standstill; for there is nothing so discouraging to
effort. Disbelief in Ecclesiastes is the mainspring of action. In that
lies the freshness and the interest of life, and it is the source of
every endeavor.

If the boy believed that the accumulation of wealth and the acquisition
of power were what the old man says they are, the world would very soon
be stagnant. If he believed that his chances of obtaining either were as
poor as the majority of men find them to be, ambition would die within
him. It is because he rejects the experience of those who have preceded
him, that the world is kept in the topsy-turvy condition which we all
rejoice in, and which we call progress.

And yet I confess I have a soft place in my heart for that rare
character in our New England life who is content with the world as he
finds it, and who does not attempt to appropriate any more of it to
himself than he absolutely needs from day to day. He knows from the
beginning that the world could get on without him, and he has never had
any anxiety to leave any result behind him, any legacy for the world to
quarrel over.

He is really an exotic in our New England climate and society, and his
life is perpetually misunderstood by his neighbors, because he shares
none of their uneasiness about getting on in life. He is even called
lazy, good-for-nothing, and "shiftless," - the final stigma that we put
upon a person who has learned to wait without the exhausting process of
laboring.

I made his acquaintance last summer in the country, and I have not in
a long time been so well pleased with any of our species. He was a man
past middle life, with a large family. He had always been from boyhood
of a contented and placid mind, slow in his movements, slow in his
speech. I think he never cherished a hard feeling toward anybody, nor
envied any one, least of all the rich and prosperous about whom he liked
to talk. Indeed, his talk was a good deal about wealth, especially about
his cousin who had been down South and "got fore-handed" within a few
years. He was genuinely pleased at his relation's good luck, and pointed
him out to me with some pride. But he had no envy of him, and he evinced
no desire to imitate him. I inferred from all his conversation about
"piling it up" (of which he spoke with a gleam of enthusiasm in his
eye), that there were moments when he would like to be rich himself; but
it was evident that he would never make the least effort to be so, and I
doubt if he could even overcome that delicious inertia of mind and body
called laziness, sufficiently to inherit.

Wealth seemed to have a far and peculiar fascination for him, and I
suspect he was a visionary in the midst of his poverty. Yet I suppose he
had - hardly the personal property which the law exempts from execution.
He had lived in a great many towns, moving from one to another with his
growing family, by easy stages, and was always the poorest man in the
town, and lived on the most niggardly of its rocky and bramble-grown
farms, the productiveness of which he reduced to zero in a couple of
seasons by his careful neglect of culture. The fences of his hired
domain always fell into ruins under him, perhaps because he sat on
them so much, and the hovels he occupied rotted down during his placid
residence in them. He moved from desolation to desolation, but carried
always with him the equal mind of a philosopher. Not even the occasional
tart remarks of his wife, about their nomadic life and his serenity in
the midst of discomfort, could ruffle his smooth spirit.

He was, in every respect, a most worthy man, truthful, honest,
temperate, and, I need not say, frugal; and he had no bad
habits, - perhaps he never had energy enough to acquire any. Nor did
he lack the knack of the Yankee race. He could make a shoe, or build
a house, or doctor a cow; but it never seemed to him, in this brief
existence, worth while to do any of these things. He was an excellent
angler, but he rarely fished; partly because of the shortness of days,
partly on account of the uncertainty of bites, but principally because
the trout brooks were all arranged lengthwise and ran over so much
ground. But no man liked to look at a string of trout better than he
did, and he was willing to sit down in a sunny place and talk about
trout-fishing half a day at a time, and he would talk pleasantly and
well too, though his wife might be continually interrupting him by a
call for firewood.

I should not do justice to his own idea of himself if I did not add that
he was most respectably connected, and that he had a justifiable though
feeble pride in his family. It helped his self-respect, which no ignoble
circumstances could destroy. He was, as must appear by this time, a most
intelligent man, and he was a well-informed man; that is to say, he read
the weekly newspapers when he could get them, and he had the average
country information about Beecher and Greeley and the Prussian war
("Napoleon is gettin' on't, ain't he?"), and the general prospect of
the election campaigns. Indeed, he was warmly, or rather luke-warmly,
interested in politics. He liked to talk about the inflated currency,
and it seemed plain to him that his condition would somehow be improved
if we could get to a specie basis. He was, in fact, a little troubled
by the national debt; it seemed to press on him somehow, while his
own never did. He exhibited more animation over the affairs of the
government than he did over his own, - an evidence at once of his
disinterestedness and his patriotism. He had been an old abolitionist,
and was strong on the rights of free labor, though he did not care to
exercise his privilege much. Of course he had the proper contempt for
the poor whites down South. I never saw a person with more correct
notions on such a variety of subjects. He was perfectly willing that
churches (being himself a member), and Sunday-schools, and missionary
enterprises should go on; in fact, I do not believe he ever opposed
anything in his life. No one was more willing to vote town taxes and
road-repairs and schoolhouses than he. If you could call him spirited at
all, he was public-spirited.

And with all this he was never very well; he had, from boyhood, "enjoyed
poor health." You would say he was not a man who would ever catch
anything, not even an epidemic; but he was a person whom diseases would
be likely to overtake, even the slowest of slow fevers. And he was n't
a man to shake off anything. And yet sickness seemed to trouble him no
more than poverty. He was not discontented; he never grumbled. I am not
sure but he relished a "spell of sickness" in haying-time.

An admirably balanced man, who accepts the world as it is, and evidently
lives on the experience of others. I have never seen a man with less
envy, or more cheerfulness, or so contented with as little reason for
being so. The only drawback to his future is that rest beyond the grave
will not be much change for him, and he has no works to follow him.





III

This Yankee philosopher, who, without being a Brahmin, had, in an
uncongenial atmosphere, reached the perfect condition of Nirvina,
reminded us all of the ancient sages; and we queried whether a world
that could produce such as he, and could, beside, lengthen a man's years
to one hundred and thirteen, could fairly be called an old and
worn-out world, having long passed the stage of its primeval poetry and
simplicity. Many an Eastern dervish has, I think, got immortality
upon less laziness and resignation than this temporary sojourner in
Massachusetts. It is a common notion that the world (meaning the people
in it) has become tame and commonplace, lost its primeval freshness and
epigrammatic point. Mandeville, in his argumentative way, dissents from
this entirely. He says that the world is more complex, varied, and a
thousand times as interesting as it was in what we call its youth, and
that it is as fresh, as individual and capable of producing odd and
eccentric characters as ever. He thought the creative vim had not in any
degree abated, that both the types of men and of nations are as sharply
stamped and defined as ever they were.

Was there ever, he said, in the past, any figure more clearly cut and
freshly minted than the Yankee? Had the Old World anything to show more
positive and uncompromising in all the elements of character than the
Englishman? And if the edges of these were being rounded off, was there
not developing in the extreme West a type of men different from all
preceding, which the world could not yet define? He believed that the
production of original types was simply infinite.

Herbert urged that he must at least admit that there was a freshness of
legend and poetry in what we call the primeval peoples that is wanting
now; the mythic period is gone, at any rate.

Mandeville could not say about the myths. We couldn't tell what
interpretation succeeding ages would put upon our lives and history and
literature when they have become remote and shadowy. But we need not go
to antiquity for epigrammatic wisdom, or for characters as racy of the
fresh earth as those handed down to us from the dawn of history. He
would put Benjamin Franklin against any of the sages of the mythic or
the classic period. He would have been perfectly at home in ancient
Athens, as Socrates would have been in modern Boston. There might have
been more heroic characters at the siege of Troy than Abraham Lincoln,
but there was not one more strongly marked individually; not one his
superior in what we call primeval craft and humor. He was just the man,
if he could not have dislodged Priam by a writ of ejectment, to have
invented the wooden horse, and then to have made Paris the hero of some
ridiculous story that would have set all Asia in a roar.

Mandeville said further, that as to poetry, he did not know much
about that, and there was not much he cared to read except parts of
Shakespeare and Homer, and passages of Milton. But it did seem to him
that we had men nowadays, who could, if they would give their minds to
it, manufacture in quantity the same sort of epigrammatic sayings and
legends that our scholars were digging out of the Orient. He did not
know why Emerson in antique setting was not as good as Saadi. Take for
instance, said Mandeville, such a legend as this, and how easy it would
be to make others like it:

The son of an Emir had red hair, of which he was ashamed, and wished
to dye it. But his father said: "Nay, my son, rather behave in such a
manner that all fathers shall wish their sons had red hair."

This was too absurd. Mandeville had gone too far, except in the opinion
of Our Next Door, who declared that an imitation was just as good as an
original, if you could not detect it. But Herbert said that the closer
an imitation is to an original, the more unendurable it is. But nobody
could tell exactly why.

The Fire-Tender said that we are imposed on by forms. The nuggets of
wisdom that are dug out of the Oriental and remote literatures would
often prove to be only commonplace if stripped of their quaint setting.
If you gave an Oriental twist to some of our modern thought, its value
would be greatly enhanced for many people.

I have seen those, said the Mistress, who seem to prefer dried fruit to
fresh; but I like the strawberry and the peach of each season, and for
me the last is always the best.

Even the Parson admitted that there were no signs of fatigue or decay in
the creative energy of the world; and if it is a question of Pagans, he
preferred Mandeville to Saadi.





ELEVENTH STUDY


It happened, or rather, to tell the truth, it was contrived, - for I have
waited too long for things to turn up to have much faith in "happen,"
that we who have sat by this hearthstone before should all be together
on Christmas eve. There was a splendid backlog of hickory just beginning
to burn with a glow that promised to grow more fiery till long past
midnight, which would have needed no apology in a loggers' camp, - not so
much as the religion of which a lady (in a city which shall be nameless)
said, "If you must have a religion, this one will do nicely."

There was not much conversation, as is apt to be the case when people
come together who have a great deal to say, and are intimate enough to
permit the freedom of silence. It was Mandeville who suggested that we
read something, and the Young Lady, who was in a mood to enjoy her own
thoughts, said, "Do." And finally it came about that the Fire Tender,
without more resistance to the urging than was becoming, went to his
library, and returned with a manuscript, from which he read the story of


MY UNCLE IN INDIA

Not that it is my uncle, let me explain. It is Polly's uncle, as I
very well know, from the many times she has thrown him up to me, and
is liable so to do at any moment. Having small expectations myself, and
having wedded Polly when they were smaller, I have come to feel the full
force, the crushing weight, of her lightest remark about "My Uncle in
India." The words as I write them convey no idea of the tone in which
they fall upon my ears. I think it is the only fault of that estimable
woman, that she has an "uncle in India" and does not let him quietly
remain there. I feel quite sure that if I had an uncle in Botany Bay, I
should never, never throw him up to Polly in the way mentioned. If
there is any jar in our quiet life, he is the cause of it; all along of
possible "expectations" on the one side calculated to overawe the other
side not having expectations. And yet I know that if her uncle in India
were this night to roll a barrel of "India's golden sands," as I feel
that he any moment may do, into our sitting-room, at Polly's feet, that
charming wife, who is more generous than the month of May, and who has
no thought but for my comfort in two worlds, would straightway make
it over to me, to have and to hold, if I could lift it, forever and
forever. And that makes it more inexplicable that she, being a woman,
will continue to mention him in the way she does.

In a large and general way I regard uncles as not out of place in this
transitory state of existence. They stand for a great many possible
advantages. They are liable to "tip" you at school, they are resources
in vacation, they come grandly in play about the holidays, at which
season mv heart always did warm towards them with lively expectations,
which were often turned into golden solidities; and then there is always
the prospect, sad to a sensitive mind, that uncles are mortal, and, in
their timely taking off, may prove as generous in the will as they
were in the deed. And there is always this redeeming possibility in a
niggardly uncle. Still there must be something wrong in the character of
the uncle per se, or all history would not agree that nepotism is such a
dreadful thing.

But, to return from this unnecessary digression, I am reminded that the
charioteer of the patient year has brought round the holiday time. It
has been a growing year, as most years are. It is very pleasant to see
how the shrubs in our little patch of ground widen and thicken and bloom
at the right time, and to know that the great trees have added a laver
to their trunks. To be sure, our garden, - which I planted under Polly's
directions, with seeds that must have been patented, and I forgot to
buy the right of, for they are mostly still waiting the final
resurrection, - gave evidence that it shared in the misfortune of the
Fall, and was never an Eden from which one would have required to have
been driven. It was the easiest garden to keep the neighbor's pigs and
hens out of I ever saw. If its increase was small its temptations
were smaller, and that is no little recommendation in this world of
temptations. But, as a general thing, everything has grown, except our
house. That little cottage, over which Polly presides with grace enough
to adorn a palace, is still small outside and smaller inside; and if it
has an air of comfort and of neatness, and its rooms are cozy and sunny
by day and cheerful by night, and it is bursting with books, and not
unattractive with modest pictures on the walls, which we think do well
enough until my uncle - (but never mind my uncle, now), - and if, in the
long winter evenings, when the largest lamp is lit, and the chestnuts
glow in embers, and the kid turns on the spit, and the house-plants are
green and flowering, and the ivy glistens in the firelight, and Polly
sits with that contented, far-away look in her eyes that I like to see,


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Online LibraryCharles Dudley WarnerBacklog Studies → online text (page 11 of 12)