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The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 11, No. 63, January, 1863 online

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There is infinite talk of the dissipated illusions of youth, the paling
of bright, young dreams. Life, it is said, turns out to be different
from what was pictured. The rosy-hued morning fades away into the gray
and livid evening, the black and ghastly night. In especial cases it may
be so, but I do not believe it is the general experience. It surely need
not be. It should not be. I have found things a great deal better than I
expected. I am but one; but with all my oneness, with all that there is
of me, I protest against such shallow generalities. I think they are
slanderous of Him who ordained life, its processes and its vicissitudes.
He never made our dreams to outstrip our realizations. Every conception,
brain-born, has its execution, hand-wrought. Life is not a paltry
tin cup which the child drains dry, leaving the man to go weary and
hopeless, quaffing at it in vain with black, parched lips. It is a
fountain ever springing. It is a great deep, which the wisest has never
bounded, the grandest never fathomed.

It is not only idle, but stupid, to lament the departure of childhood's
joys. It is as if something precious and valued had been forcibly torn
from us, and we go sorrowing for lost treasure. But these things fall
off from us naturally; we do not give them up. We are never called upon
to give them up. There is no pang, no sorrow, no wrenching away of
a part of our lives. The baby lies in his cradle and plays with his
fingers and toes. There comes an hour when his fingers and toes no
longer afford him amusement. He has attained to the dignity of a rattle,
a whip, a ball. Has he suffered a loss? Has he not rather made a great
gain? When he passed from his toes to his toys, did he do it mournfully?
Does he look at his little feet and hands with a sigh for the joys that
once loitered there, but are now forever gone? Does he not rather feel a
little ashamed, when you remind him of those days? Does he not feel that
it trenches somewhat on his dignity? Yet the regret of maturity for its
past joys amounts to nothing less than this. Such regret is regret that
we cannot lie in the sunshine and play with our toes, - that we are no
longer but one remove, or but few removes, from the idiot. Away with
such folly! Every season of life has its distinctive and appropriate
enjoyments, which bud and blossom and ripen and fall off as the season
glides on to its close, to be succeeded by others better and brighter.
There is no consciousness of loss, for there is no loss. There is only a
growing up, and out of, and beyond.

Life does turn out differently from what was anticipated. It is an
infinitely higher and holier and nobler thing than our childhood
fancied. The world that lay before us then was but a tinsel toy to the
world which our firm feet tread. We have entered into the undiscovered
land. We have explored its ways of pleasantness, its depths of dole, its
mountains of difficulty, its valleys of delight, and, behold! it is very
good. Storms have swept fiercely, but they swept to purify. We have
heard in its thunders the Voice that woke once the echoes of the Garden.
Its lightnings have riven a path for the Angel of Peace.

Manhood discovers what childhood can never divine, - that the sorrows of
life are superficial, and the happinesses of life structural; and this
knowledge alone is enough to give a peace which passeth understanding.

Yes, the dreams of youth were dreams, but the waking was more glorious
than they. They were only dreams, - fitful, flitting, fragmentary visions
of the coming day. The shallow joys, the capricious pleasures, the
wavering sunshine of infancy have deepened into virtues, graces,
heroisms. We have the bold outlook of calm, self-confident courage, the
strong fortitude of endurance, the imperial magnificence of self-denial.
Our hearts expand with benevolence, our lives broaden with beneficence.
We cease our perpetual skirmishing at the outposts, and go inward to the
citadel. Down into the secret places of life we descend. Down among
the beautiful ones in the cool and quiet shadows, on the sunny summer
levels, we walk securely, and the hidden fountains are unsealed.

For those people who do nothing, for those to whom Christianity brings
no revelation, for those who see no eternity in time, no infinity in
life, for those to whom opportunity is but the handmaid of selfishness,
to whom smallness is informed by no greatness, for whom the lowly
is never lifted up by indwelling love to the heights of divine
performance, - for them, indeed, each hurrying year may well be a King of
Terrors. To pass out from the flooding light of the morning, to feel all
the dewiness drunk up by the thirsty, insatiate sun, to see the shadows
slowly and swiftly gathering, and no starlight to break the gloom,
and no home beyond the gloom for the unhoused, startled, shivering
soul, - ah! this indeed is terrible. The "confusions of a wasted youth"
strew thick confusions of a dreary age. Where youth garners up only such
power as beauty or strength may bestow, where youth is but the revel of
physical or frivolous delight, where youth aspires only with paltry and
ignoble ambitions, where youth presses the wine of life into the cup of
variety, there indeed Age comes, a thrice unwelcome guest. Put him off.
Thrust him back. Weep for the early days: you have found no happiness to
replace their joys. Mourn for the trifles that were innocent, since the
trifles of your manhood are heavy with guilt. Fight to the last. Retreat
inch by inch. With every step you lose. Every day robs you of treasure.
Every hour passes you over to insignificance; and at the end stands
Death. The bare and desolate decline drops suddenly into the hopeless,
dreadful grave, the black and yawning grave, the foul and loathsome
grave.

But why those who are Christians and not Pagans, who believe that death
is not an eternal sleep, who wrest from life its uses and gather from
life its beauty, - why they should dally along the road, and cling
frantically to the old landmarks, and shrink fearfully from the
approaching future, I cannot tell. You are getting into years. True.
But you are getting out again. The bowed frame, the tottering step, the
unsteady hand, the failing eye, the heavy ear, the tremulous voice, they
will all be yours. The grasshopper will become a burden, and desire
shall fail. The fire shall be smothered in your heart, and for passion
you shall have only peace. This is not pleasant. It is never pleasant to
feel the inevitable passing away of priceless possessions. If this were
to be the culmination of your fate, you might indeed take up the wail
for your lost youth. But this is only for a moment. The infirmities of
age come gradually. Gently we are led down into the valley. Slowly, and
not without a soft loveliness, the shadows lengthen. At the worst these
weaknesses are but the stepping-stones in the river, passing over which
you shall come to immortal vigor, immortal fire, immortal beauty. All
along the western sky flames and glows the auroral light of another
life. The banner of victory waves right over your dungeon of defeat. By
the golden gateway of the sunsetting,

"Through the dear might of Him who walked
the waves,"

you shall pass into the "cloud-land, gorgeous land," whose splendor is
unveiled only to the eyes of the Immortals. Would you loiter to your
inheritance?

You are "getting into years." Yes, but the years are getting into
you, - the ripe, rich years, the genial, mellow years, the lusty,
luscious years. One by one the crudities of your youth are falling off
from you, - the vanity, the egotism, the isolation, the bewilderment, the
uncertainty. Nearer and nearer you are approaching yourself. You are
consolidating your forces. You are becoming master of the situation.
Every wrong road into which you have wandered has brought you, by the
knowledge of that mistake, so much closer to the truth. You no longer
draw your bow at a venture, but shoot straight at the mark. Your
possibilities concentrate, and your path is cleared. On the ruins of
shattered plans you find your vantage-ground. Your broken hopes, your
thwarted purposes, your defeated aspirations become a staff of strength
with which you mount to sublimer heights. With self-possession and
self-command return the possession and the command of all things. The
title-deed of creation, forfeited, is reclaimed. The king has come to
his own again. Earth and sea and sky pour out their largess of love.
All the past crowds down to lay its treasures at your feet. Patriotism
stands once more in the breach at Thermopylae, - bears down the serried
hosts of Bannockburn, - lays its calm hand in the fire, still, as if it
felt the pressure of a mother's lips, - gathers to its heart the points
of opposing spears, to make a way for the avenging feet behind. All that
the ages have of greatness and glory your hand may pluck, and every year
adds to the purple vintage. Every year comes laden with the riches of
the lives that were lavished on it. Every year brings to you softness
and sweetness and strength. Every year evokes order from confusion, till
all things find scope and adjustment. Every year sweeps a broader circle
for your horizon, grooves a deeper channel for your experience. Through
sun and shade and shower you ripen to a large and liberal life.

Yours is the deep joy, the unspoken fervor, the sacred fury of the
fight. Yours is the power to redress wrong, to defend the weak, to
succor the needy, to relieve the suffering, to confound the oppressor.
While vigor leaps in great tidal pulses along your veins, you stand in
the thickest of the fray, and broadsword and battle-axe come crashing
down through helmet and visor. When force has spent itself, you withdraw
from the field, your weapons pass into younger hands, you rest under
your laurels, and your works do follow you. Your badges are the scars
of your honorable wounds. Your life finds its vindication in the deeds
which you have wrought.

The possible to-morrow has become the secure yesterday. Above the tumult
and the turbulence, above the struggle and the doubt, you sit in the
serene evening, awaiting your promotion.

Come, then, O dreaded years! Your brows are awful, but not with frowns.
I hear your resonant tramp far off, but it is sweet as the May-maidens'
song. In your grave prophetic eyes I read a golden promise. I know that
you bear in your bosom the fulness of my life. Veiled monarchs of
the future, shining dim and beautiful, you shall become my vassals,
swift-footed to bear my messages, swift-handed to work my will.
Nourished by the nectar which you will pour in passing from your crystal
cups, Death shall have no dominion over me, but I shall go on from
strength to strength and from glory to glory.

* * * * *


THE PROMISE OF THE DAWN.

A CHRISTMAS STORY.


A winter's evening. Do you know how that comes here among the edges of
the mountains that fence in the great Mississippi valley? The sea-breath
in the New-England States thins the air and bleaches the sky, sucks
the vitality out of Nature, I fancy, to put it into the brains of the
people: but here, the earth every day in the year pulses out through
hill or prairie or creek a full, untamed animal life, - shakes off the
snow too early in spring, in order to put forth untimed and useless
blossoms, wasteful of her infinite strength. So when this winter's
evening came to a lazy town bedded in the hills that skirt Western
Virginia close by the Ohio, it found that the December air, fiercely
as it blew the snow-clouds about the hill-tops, was instinct with a
vigorous, frosty life, and that the sky above the clouds was not wan and
washed-out, as farther North, but massive, holding yet a sensuous yellow
languor, the glow of unforgotten autumn days.

The very sun, quite certain of where he would soonest meet with
gratitude, gave his kindliest good-night smile to the great valley of
the West, asleep under the snow: very kind to-night, just as calm and
loving, though he knew the most plentiful harvest which the States had
yielded that year was one of murdered dead, as he gave to the young,
untainted world, that morning, long ago, when God blessed it, and saw
that it was good. Because, you see, this was the eve of a more helpful,
God-sent day than that, in spite of all the dead: Christmas eve.
To-morrow Christ was coming, - whatever he may be to you, - Christ. The
sun knew that, and glowed as cheerily, steadily, on blood as water. Why,
God had the world! Let them fret, and cut each other's throats, if they
would. God had them: and Christ was coming. But one fancied that the
earth, not quite so secure in the infinite Love that held her, had
learned to doubt, in her six thousand years of hunger, and heard the
tidings with a thrill of relief. Was the Helper coming? Was it the true
Helper? The very hope, even, gave meaning to the tender rose-blush on
the peaks of snow, to the childish sparkle on the grim rivers. They
heard and understood. The whole world answered.

One man, at least, fancied so: Adam Craig, hobbling down the frozen
streets of this old-fashioned town. He thought, rubbing his bony hands
together, that even the wind knew that Christmas was coming, the day
that Christ was born: it went shouting boisterously through the great
mountain-gorges, its very uncouth soul shaken with gladness. The city
itself, he fancied, had caught a new and curious beauty: this winter
its mills were stopped, and it had time to clothe the steep streets in
spotless snow and icicles; its windows glittered red and cheery out into
the early night: it looked just as if the old burgh had done its work,
and sat down, like one of its own mill-men, to enjoy the evening, with
not the cleanest face in the world, to be sure, but with an honest,
jolly old heart under all, beating rough and glad and full. That was
Adam Craig's fancy: but his head was full of queer fancies under the
rusty old brown wig: queer, maybe, yet as pure and childlike as the
prophet John's: coming, you know, from the same kinship. Adam had kept
his fancies to himself these forty years. A lame old chap, cobbling
shoes day by day, fighting the wolf desperately from the door for the
sake of orphan brothers and sisters, has not much time to put the
meanings God and Nature have for his ignorant soul into words, has he?
But the fancies had found utterance for themselves, somehow: in his
hatchet-shaped face, even, with its scraggy gray whiskers; in the quick,
shrewd smile; in the eyes, keen eyes, but childlike, too. In the very
shop out there on the creek-bank you could trace them. Adam had cobbled
there these twenty years, chewing tobacco and taking snuff, (his
mother's habit, that,) but the little shop was pure: people with brains
behind their eyes would know that a clean and delicate soul lived there;
they might have known it in other ways too, if they chose: in his gruff,
sharp talk, even, full of slang and oaths; for Adam, invoke the Devil
often as he might, never took the name of Christ or a woman in vain. So
his foolish fancies, as he called them, cropped out. It must be so, you
know: put on what creed you may, call yourself chevalier or Sambo, the
speech your soul has held with God and the Devil will tell itself in
every turn of your head, and jangle of your laugh: you cannot help that.

But it was Christmas eve. Adam took that in with keener enjoyment, in
every frosty breath he drew. Different from any Christmas eve before:
pulling off his scuffed cap to feel the full strength of the "nor'rer."
Whew! how it blew! straight from the ice-fields of the Pole, he thought.
So few people there were up there to be glad Christ was coming! But
those filthy little dwarfs up there needed Him all the same: every man
of them had a fiend tugging at his soul, like us, was lonely, wanted
a God to help him, and - a wife to love him. Adam stopped short here a
minute, something choking in his throat. "Jinny!" he said, under
his breath, turning to some new hope in his heart, with as tender,
awe-struck a touch as one lays upon a new-born infant. "Jinny!" praying
silently with blurred eyes. I think Christ that moment came very near
to the woman who was so greatly loved, and took her in His arms, and
blessed her. Adam jogged on, trying to begin a whistle, but it ended in
a miserable grunt: his heart was throbbing under his smoke-dried skin,
silly as a woman's, so light it was, and full.

"Get along, Old Dot, and carry one!" shouted the boys, sledding down the
icy sidewalk.

"Yip! you young devils, you!" stopping to give them a helping shove and
a cheer; loving little children always, but never as to-day.

Surely there never was such a Christmas eve before! The frozen air
glistened grayly up into heaven itself, he thought; the snow-covered
streets were alive, noisy, - glad into their very cellars and shanties;
the sun was sorry to go away. No wonder. His heartiest ruby-gleam
lingered about the white Virginia heights behind the town, and across
the river quite glorified the pale stretch of the Ohio hills. Free and
slave. (Adam was an Abolitionist.) Well, let that be. God's hand of
power, like His sunlight, held the master and the slave in loving
company. To-morrow was the sign.

The cobbler stopped on the little swinging foot-bridge that crosses the
creek in the centre of the city. The faint saffron sunset swept from the
west over the distant wooded hills, the river, the stone bridge below
him, whose broad gray piers painted perpetual arches on the sluggish,
sea-colored water. The smoke from one or two far-off foundries hung just
above it, motionless in the gray, in tattered drifts, dyed by the sun,
clear drab and violet. A still picture. A bit of Venice, poor Adam
thought, who never had been fifty miles out of Wheeling. The quaint
American town was his world: he brought the world into it. There were
relics of old Indian forts and mounds, the old times and the new. The
people, too, though the cobbler only dimly saw that, were as much the
deposit and accretion of all dead ages as was the coal that lay bedded
in the fencing hills. Irish, Dutch, whites, blacks, Moors, old John
Bull himself: you can find the dregs of every day of the world in any
mill-town of the States. Adam had a dull perception of this. Christmas
eve came to all the world, coming here.

Leaning on the iron wires, while the unsteady little bridge shook under
him, he watched the stunned beams of the sun urging themselves through
the smoke-clouds. He thought they were like "the voice of one crying
in the wilderness, 'Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths
straight.'" It wakened something in the man's hackneyed heart deeper
even than the thought of the woman he had prayed for. A sudden vision
that a great Peace held the world as did that glow of upper light: he
rested in its calm. Up the street a few steps rose the walls of the old
theatre, used as a prison now for captured Confederates: it was full
now; he could see them looking out from behind the bars, grimy and
tattered. Far to the north, on Mount Woods, the white grave-stones stood
out clear in the darkening evening. His enemies, the busy streets, the
very war itself, the bones and souls of the dead yonder, - the great
Peace held them all. We might call them evil, but they were sent from
God, and went back to God. All things were in Him.

I tell you, that when this one complete Truth got into this poor
cobbler's brain, - in among its vulgar facts of North and South, and
patched shoes, and to-morrow's turkey, - a great poet-insight looked out
of his eyes for the minute. Saint John looked thus as he wrote that
primitive natal word, "God is love." Cobblers, as well as Saint John,
or the dying Herder, need great thoughts, and water from God to refresh
them, believe me.

Trotting on, hardly needing his hickory stick, Adam could see the little
brown shop yonder on the creek-bank. All dark: but did you ever see
anything brighter than the way the light shone in the sitting-room,
behind the Turkey-red curtains? Such a taste that little woman had! Two
years ago the cobbler finished his life-work, he thought: he had been
mother and father both to the orphans left with him, faithful to them,
choking down the hungry gnawing within for something nearer than brother
or sister. Two years ago they had left him, struck out into the world
for themselves.

"Then, you see," Adam used to say, "I was settlin' down into an old man;
dryin' up, d' ye see? thinkin' the Lord had forgotten me, when He said
to other men, 'Come, it's _your_ turn now for home and lovin'.' Them
young ones was dear enough, but a man has a cravin' for somethin' that's
his own. But it was too late, I thought. Bitter; despisin' the Lord's
eyesight; thinkin' He didn't see or care what would keep me from hell. I
believed in God, like most poor men do, thinkin' Him cold-blooded, not
hearin' when we cry out for work, or a wife, or child. _I_ didn't cry.
_I_ never prayed. But look there. Do you see - _her_? Jinny?" It was
to the young Baptist preacher Adam said this, when he came to make a
pastoral visit to Adam's wife. "That's what He did. I'm not ashamed to
pray now. I ask Him every hour to give me a tight grip on her so that
I kin follow her up, and to larn me some more of His ways. That's my
religious 'xperience, Sir."

The young man coughed weakly, and began questioning old Craig as to
his faith in immersion. The cobbler stumped about the kitchen a minute
before answering, holding himself down. His face was blood-red when he
did speak, quite savage, the young speaker said afterward.

"I don't go to church, Sir. My wife does. I don't say _now_, 'Damn the
churches!' or that you, an' the likes of you, an' yer Master, are all
shams an' humbugs. I know Him now. He's 'live to me. So now, when I
see you belie Him, an' keep men from Him with yer hundreds o' wranglin'
creeds, an' that there's as much honest love of truth outside the Church
as in it, I don't put yer bigotry an' foulness on Him. I on'y think
there's an awful mistake: just this: that the Church thinks it is
Christ's body an' us uns is outsiders, an' we think so too, an' despise
Him through you with yer stingy souls an' fights an' squabblins; not
seein' that the Church is jes' an hospital, where some of the sickest of
God's patients is tryin' to get cured."

The preacher never went back; spoke in a church-meeting soon after of
the prevalence of Tom Paine's opinions among the lower classes. Half
of our sham preachers take the vague name of "Paine" to cover all of
Christ's opponents, - not ranking themselves there, of course.

Adam thought he had won a victory. "Ef you'd heard me flabbergast the
parson!" he used to say, with a jealous anxiety to keep Christ out of
the visible Church, to shut his eyes to the true purity in it, to the
fact that the Physician was in His hospital. To-night some more infinite
gospel had touched him. "Good evenin', Mr. Pitts," he said, meeting
the Baptist preacher. "Happy Christmas, Sir!" catching a glance of
his broken boots. "Danged ef I don't send that feller a pair of shoes
unbeknownst, to-morrow! He's workin' hard, an' it's not for money."

The great Peace held even its erring Church, as Adam dully saw. The
streets were darkening, but full even yet of children crowding in and
out of the shops. Not a child among them was more busy or important, or
keener for a laugh than Adam, with his basket on his arm and his hand in
his pocket clutching the money he had to lay out. The way he had worked
for that! Over-jobs, you know, done at night when Jinny and the baby
were asleep. It was carrying him through splendidly, though: the basket
was quite piled up with bundles: as for the turkey, hadn't he been
keeping that in the back-yard for weeks, stuffing it until it hardly
could walk? That turkey, do you know, was the first thing Baby ever took
any notice of, except the candle? Jinny was quite opposed to killing it,
for that reason, and proposed they should have ducks instead; but as old
Jim Farley and Granny Simpson were invited for dinner, and had been told
about the turkey, matters must stay as they were.

"Poor souls, they'll not taste turkey agin this many a day, I'm
thinkin', Janet. When we give an entertainment, it's allus them-like
we'll ask. That's the Master's biddin', ye know."

But the pudding was yet to buy. He had a dirty scrap of paper on which
Jinny had written down the amount. "The hand that woman writes!" He
inspected it anxiously at every street-lamp. Did you ever see anything
finer than that tongue, full of its rich brown juices and golden fat? or


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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 11, No. 63, January, 1863 → online text (page 2 of 22)