I. A Cambridge boyhood
In introducing the imaginary Chronicles of P. P., Clerk
of this Parish, the poet Pope
remarks that any such book might well be inscribed, “On the importance of a man to himself.”
Yet perhaps the first obstacle to be encountered by any autobiographer is the sudden sense of his own extreme unimportance.
Does each ant in an ant-hill yearn to bequeath to the universe his personal reminiscences?
When, at the dead of night, I hear my neighbors at the Harvard Observatory
roll away their lofty shutters, in preparation for their accustomed tryst with the stars, it seems as if one might well be content to keep silence in the presence of the Pleiades.
Yet, after all, the telescope need only be reversed to make the universe appear little, and the observer large; so that we may as well begin at the one end as at the other.
Man is one world, and hath
Another to attend him.
Probably, if the truth were known, nothing in the universe is really insignificant, not even ourselves.
When I think of the vast changes which every man of my time has seen, of the men and women whom I have known,--those who created American literature and who freed millions of slaves,--men and women whom, as the worldly-wise Lord Houghton once wrote me, “Europe
has learned to honor, and would do well to imitate,” then I feel that, whether I will or no, something worth chronicling may be included in the proposed chapters.
For the rest, the autobiographer has the least reason of all writers to concern himself about the portrayal of his own personality.
He is sure to reveal it, particularly if he tries to hide it. Confucius asked, “How can a man be concealed?”
Of all methods, certainly not by writing his reminiscences.
He can escape unobserved, or else mislead observers, only by holding his tongue; let him open his lips, and we have him as he is.
All the scenes and atmosphere of one's native village — if one is fortunate enough to have been born in such a locality — lie around the memory like the horizon line, unreachable,
Even a so-called cosmopolitan man has never seemed to me a very happy being, and a cosmopolitan child is above all things to be pitied.
To be identified in early memories with some limited and therefore characteristic region,--that is happiness.
No child is old enough to be a citizen of the world.
What denationalized Americans
hasten to stamp as provincial is for children, at least, a saving grace.
You do not call a nest provincial.
All this is particularly true of those marked out by temperament for a literary career.
The predestined painter or musician needs an early contact with the treasures and traditions of an older world, but literature needs for its material only men, nature, and books; and of these, the first two are everywhere, and the last are easily transportable, since you can pile the few supreme authors of the world in a little corner of the smallest log cabin.
of my boyhood--two or three thousand peopleafforded me, it now seems, all that human heart could ask for its elementary training.
Those who doubt it might, perchance, have been the gainers if they had shared it. “He despises me,” said Ben Jonson
, “because I live in an alley.
Tell him his soul lives in an alley.”
I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts
, on December 22,--1823, in a house built by my
father at the head of what was then called Professors' Row, and is now Kirkland Street, --the street down which the provincial troops marched to the battle of Bunker Hill
, after halting for prayer at the “gambrel-roofed house” where Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes
My father's house — now occupied by Mrs. F. L. Batchelder
--was begun in 1818, when the land was bought from Harvard College, whose official he had just become.
Already the Scientific School
and the Hemenway Gymnasium
crowd upon it, and the university will doubtless, one of these days, engulf it once more.
My father came of a line of Puritan
clergymen, officials, militia officers, and latterly East India
merchants, all dating back to the Rev. Francis Higginson
, who landed at Salem
in 1629, in charge of the first large party for the Massachusetts Bay
Colony, and who made that historic farewell recorded by Cotton Mather
, as his native shores faded away: “We will not say, as the Separatists said, Farewell, Rome
But we will say, Farewell, dear England
Farewell, the Christian church in England
, and all the Christian
My father had been, like his father before him,--also named Stephen Higginson
, and a member of the Continental Congress in 1783,
--among the leading merchants of Boston
, until Jefferson
's embargo brought a great change in his fortunes.
He had been unsurpassed in those generous philanthropies which have given Boston
merchants a permanent reputation; he was, indeed, frequently mentioned --as his cousin, John Lowell
, wrote of himas the Howard
or the Man of Ross
of his day. I still possess a fine oil painting of this last hero of Pope
's lay, a picture sent anonymously to the house, during my father's life, with the inscription that it was for a man who “so eminently Copys the Fair Original
Through inquiries very lately made at Ross
, I found with surprise that no picture of the original “Man of Ross
” remained in the village; and I was led to suspect that this might be one of the two portraits which were once there, but have disappeared.
Mine is certainly not that engraved in the “European
magazine” for 1786, but a far more attractive representation.
My father retained warm friends in his adversity, who bought for him the land where the Cambridge house
stood, and secured for him the position of steward of the college, the post now rechristened “bursar,” and one in which he did, as Dr. A. P. Peabody
tells us, most of the duties of treasurer.
In that capacity he planted, as I have
always been told, a large part of the trees in the college yard,--nobody in Cambridge
ever says “campus,” --and had also the wisdom to hang a lamp over each entrance to the yard, although these lamps were soon extinguished by the economical college.
He was ardently interested in the early Unitarian
division, then pending, in the Congregational
body; organized the Harvard Divinity School,--not then, as now, undenominational; and seems to have been for some years a sort of lay bishop among the Unitarian parishes, distributing young ministers to vacant churches without fear or favor.
He liked to read theology, but was in no respect a scholar; indeed, Dr. Peabody
says that, on receiving for the institution its first supply of Hebrew Bibles, my father went to the president, Dr. Kirkland
, with some indignation, saying that the books must all be returned, since the careless printer had put all the title-pages at the wrong end. In his adversity as in his wealth, he was a man of boundless and somewhat impetuous kindness, and espoused with such ardor the cause of Miss Hannah Adams
, the historian, against her rival in that profession, the Rev. Dr. Morse
, that he was betrayed into a share in one or two vehement pamphlets, and very nearly into a law-suit.
He died when I was nine years old, and my chief training came consequently from my mother and my aunt Miss Anne G. Storrow
, then known to all the Cambridge
world as “Aunt Nancy,” who was to my mother like a second self in the rearing of her children.
My mother's early life was like a chapter in a romance.
Captain Thomas Storrow
, an English officer, being detained a prisoner in Portsmouth
during that war, fell in love with a Portsmouth maiden, who adventurously married him at the age of seventeen, in 1777, and sailed with him to England
These were my mother's parents.
The marriage had all the requisite elements of romance — youth, inexperience, two warring nations, and two deeply dissatisfied families.
The bride, Anne Appleton
, represented two of the best families in the then somewhat aristocratic province of New Hampshire
, the Appletons and the Wentworths; the latter, in particular, holding their heads so high that they were declared by a wicked Portsmouth
wit to speak habitually of Queen Elizabeth as “Cousin Betsy Tudor
This was the nest in which my grandmother had been reared.
She had lived from childhood in the house of her grandfather, Judge Wentworth
; her great-grandfather was the first of the three royal governors of that name, and the two others were her near kinsmen.
She might, indeed, have sat for the heroine of Whittier
's ballad, “Amy Wentworth
;” but it was a soldier, not a sailor, whom she married; and when she went to Englandfortunately under the proper escort of a kinswoman — she was apparently received, both by her husband's relatives and her own, with all the warmth that might have been expected — that is, with none at all. Yet she had sweet and winning qualities which finally triumphed over all obstacles; and her married life, though full of vicissitudes, was, on the whole, happy.
They dwelt in England
, in Jamaica
, in St. Andrews
, in Campobello, then in Jamaica
again, Captain Storrow
having in the meantime resigned his commission, and having died at sea on his passage to Boston
, in 1795.
My mother, Louisa Storrow
, had been born, meanwhile, at St. Andrews
, in 1786.
Among my mother's most vivid childish recollections was that of being led, a weeping child of nine, at the stately funeral of her father, who was buried in Boston
with military and Masonic honors.
After his death his young widow opened a private school in Hingham, Massachusetts
, and through the influence of kind friends in Boston
, had boarding pupils from that city, only twenty miles away, thus laying for my mother the foundation of some
This school has been praised by Mr. Barnard
, the historian of early American education, as one of the best of the dawning experiments toward the education of girls.
, however, died within a year and a half, and her little family were left orphans among strangers or very recent friends.
Their chief benefactor was my father, into whose family my mother was adopted, assisting in the care of his invalid wife and two little girls.
Nothing could at the time have been less foreseen than the ultimate outcome of this arrangement.
My mother was betrothed at fifteen or sixteen to a young man-Edward Cabot
— who was lost at sea; a year or two later her benefactress, my father's first wife, died, and my mother remained in the household as an adopted daughter, ultimately becoming, at the early age of nineteen, my father's second wife.
My father was sixteen years older than my mother, and into all his various interests she was at once thrown as the young Lady Bountiful
of the household.
She also had the care of two stepchildren, who all their lives thought of her as their mother.
My father lived in the then fashionable region of Mt.
Vernon Street, in all the habits of affluence; his hospitality was inconveniently unbounded, and the young
wife found herself presiding at large dinner-parties and at the sumptuous evening entertainments, then more in vogue than now. It was the recorded verdict of the Hon. George Cabot
, the social monarch of that day in Boston
, that “no one received company better than Mrs. Higginson
,” and those who knew the unfailing grace and sweetness of her later manner can well believe it. She had at this time in their freshness certain points of physical beauty which she retained unusually unimpaired until her latest years — a noble forehead, clear blue-gray eyes, a rose-tinted complexion, soft brown hair, a pliant figure, with slender hands and feet.
She had, in all, ten children of her own, of whom I was the youngest.
But before my birth the whole scene had suddenly changed.
My father's whole fortune went when Jefferson
's embargo came; his numerous vessels were captured or valueless.
He retired into the country, living on a beautiful sheep-farm in Bolton, Massachusetts
, placed at his disposal by a more fortunate friend, Mr. S. V. S. Wilder
There lies before me my mother's diary at this farm, which begins thus: “On Saturday, the 8th April, 1815, we left our home, endeared to us by a long and happy residence and by the society of many dear and kind friends, to make
trial of new scenes, new cares, and new duties; but though by this change we make some sacrifices and have some painful regrets, we are still experiencing the same goodness and mercy which have hitherto crowned our lives with happiness.”
“I always awake,” she adds, “calm and serene.
My children occupy my mind and my heart, and fill it with affection and gratitude.
They are healthy, innocent, and happy, and I enjoy every moment of their lives.
Books are my recreation, and, next to my children, my greatest source of pleasure.
I read Stewart
's ‘Philosophical Essays’ and the ‘Faerie Queene’ of Spenser
, usually in the evening, which is charmingly undisturbed.
This exemption from visitors is delightful to me; it gives me time to think and to read, and I only hope that I shall improve all my advantages.”
She was at this time in her thirtieth year, and in this sweet spirit laid down the utmost that the little New England
capital could then afford of luxury and fashion.
Another change came soon, when she and her flock were transferred, rather against her will, to Cambridge
, and placed in an official position.
My father's connection with the college, and the popular qualities of my mother and aunt, brought many guests to our house, including the most cultivated men in Boston
well as Cambridge
My earliest documentary evidence of existence on this planet is a note to my father, in Edward Everett
's exquisite handwriting, inquiring after the health of the “babe,” and saying that Mrs. Everett
was putting up some tamarinds to accompany the note.
The precise object of the tamarinds I have never clearly understood, but it is pleasant to think that I was, at the age of seven months, assisted toward maturity by this benefaction from a man so eminent.
Professor Andrews Norton
and George Ticknor
habitually gave their own writings; and I remember Dr. J. G. Palfrey
's bringing to the house a new book, Hawthorne
's “Twice-told tales,” and reading aloud “A Rill from the town Pump.”
Once, and once only, Washington Irving
came there, while visiting a nephew who had married my cousin.
, a plain, precocious, overgrown girl, but already credited with unusual talents, used to visit my elder sister, and would sometimes sit on a footstool at my mother's feet, gazing up at her in admiration.
A younger sister of Professor Longfellow
was a frequent guest, and the young poet himself came, in the dawning of his yet undeveloped fame.
My nurse was a certain Rowena Pratt
, wife of Dexter Pratt
, the “Village Blacksmith” of Longfellow
; and it is my impression that she was married from
It is amusing to remember that Professor Longfellow
once asked me, many years after, what his hero's name was. My special playmate, Charles Parsons
, was a nephew of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes
, who was in those years studying in Europe
; and in the elder Dr. Holmes
's house Charles Parsons
and I often “tumbled about in a library,” -indeed, in the very same library where the Autocrat
had himself performed the process he recommended.
Under these circumstances it seems very natural that a child thus moulded should have drifted into a literary career.
The period here described was one when children were taught to read very early, and this in all parts of our country.
The celebrated General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
, in South Carolina
, was reported by his mother in 1745 as “beginning to spell before he is two years old;” but he himself said, later, of this precocious teaching that it was “sad stuff,” and that “by haste to make him a clever fellow he had very nearly become a stupid one.”
My mother made a memorandum in regard to my elder sister, “She knows all her letters at three,” and of me that at four I had already “read a good many books.”
I still preserve a penciled note from a little playmate, the daughter of a professor, saying, “I am glad
you are six years old. I shall be four in March.”
My own daughter could not have written that note when she was seven, and yet she learned to read and write at that age almost without conscious effort.
I cannot see that my contemporaries either gained or lost anything by this precocious instruction; and perhaps, in the total development of a child's mind, the actual reading of books plays a much smaller part than we imagine.
Probably the thing of most importance, even with books, as an experienced Boston
teacher once said, is to have been “exposed to them,” to have unconsciously received their flavor, as a pan of milk takes the flavor of surrounding viands.
To have lain on the hearth-rug and heard one's mother read aloud is a liberal education.
When I remember that my mother actually read to us in the evenings every one of the Waverley Novels
, even down to “Castle dangerous,” I cannot but regard with pity the children of to-day who have no such privilege.
My father, in his days of affluence, had bought a great many books in London
, and had them bound under his own eye in the solid fashion of that day. Many of them were sold in his adversity, yet nearly a thousand volumes remained, chiefly of English literature and history of the eighteenth century; and most of
these I read.
There was a fine set of Dr. Johnson
's works in a dozen volumes, with an early edition of Boswell
; all of Hoole
's Tasso and Ariosto
; a charming little edition of the British
essayists, with pretty woodcuts; Bewick
's Birds and Quadrupeds; Raynal
's Indies; the Anti-Jacobin; Plutarch's Lives; Dobson
's Life of Petrarch
's and Bancroft
's Lives of Washington
; Miss Burney
's and Miss Edgeworth
's works; and “Sir Charles Grandison
There were many volumes of sermons, which my mother was fond of reading,--she was, I think, the last person who habitually read them,--but which I naturally avoided.
There were a good many pretty little Italian
books, belonging to one of my elder sisters, and a stray volume of Goethe
which had been used by another.
In out-of-the-way closets I collected the disused classical textbooks of my elder brothers, and made a little library to be preserved against that magic period when I too should be a “collegian.”
To these were to be added many delightful volumes of the later English poets, Collins
, and others, given at different times to my aunt by George Ticknor
In some of them --as in Byron
's “Giaour” --he had copied additional stanzas, more lately published; this was very fascinating, for it seemed like poetry
in the making.
Later, the successive volumes of Jared Sparks
's historical biographies — Washington
, and the “Library of American biography” --were all the gift of their kindly author, who had often brought whole parcels of Washington
's and Franklin
's letters for my mother and aunt to look over.
A set of Scott
's novels was given to my elder brother by his life-long crony, John Holmes
Besides all this, the family belonged to a book club,--the first, I believe, of the now innumerable book clubs: of this my eldest brother was secretary, and I was permitted to keep, with pride and delight, the account of the books as they came and went.
Add to this my mother's love of reading aloud, and it will be seen that there was more danger, for a child thus reared, of excess than of scarcity.
Yet as a matter of fact I never had books enough, nor have I ever had to this day.
Seeing the uniform respect with which my mother and aunt and elder sisters were treated by the most cultivated men around us, I cannot remember to have grown up with the slightest feeling that there was any distinction of sex in intellect.
Why women did not go to college was a point which did not suggest itself; but one of my sisters studied German with Professor Charles Follen
, while another took lessons
in Latin and Italian
from Professor Bachi
and in geometry from Professor Benjamin Peirce
I forget where this especial sister studied English
, but she wrote for me all the passages that were found worth applauding in my commencement oration.
Yet it is a curious fact that I owe indirectly to a single remark made by my mother all the opening of my eyes to the intellectual disadvantages of her sex. There came to Cambridge
a very accomplished stranger, Mrs. Rufus King
, of Cincinnati, Ohio
, -afterward Mrs. Peter
,--who established herself there about 1837, directing the college training of a younger brother, two sons, and two nephews.
No woman in Cambridge
was so highly educated; and once, as she was making some criticisms at our house upon the inequalities between the sexes, my mother exclaimed in her ardent way, “But only think, Mrs. King
, what an education you have obtained.”
“Yes,” was the reply, “but how did I obtain it?”
Then followed a tale almost as pathetic as that told in Mrs. Somerville
's autobiography, of her own early struggles for knowledge.
I cannot now recall what she said, but it sank into my heart, at the age of fifteen or thereabouts; and if I have ever done one thing to secure to women better justice in any direction, the first impulse came from that fortunate question and reply.
More important, however, than all this, to my enjoyment, at least, was the musical atmosphere that pervaded the house.
My youngest sister was an excellent pianist,--one of the first in this region to play Beethoven
Among the many students who came to the house there were three who played the flute well, and they practiced trios with her accompaniment.
One of them was John Dwight
, afterwards editor of the “Journal of music,” and long the leading musical critic of Boston
; another was Christopher Pearse Cranch
, poet and artist; and the third was William Habersham
, who had a silver flute, of which I remember John Dwight
's saying, when it first made its appearance, “It has a silver sound.”
When I read in later years the experiences of the music-loving boy in “Charles Auchester
,” it brought back vividly the happiness with which, when sent to bed at eight o'clock, I used to leave the door of my little bedroom ajar, in order that I might go to sleep to music.
Greater still were the joy and triumph when Miss Helen Davis
, who was the musical queen of our Cambridge
world, came and filled the house with her magnificent voice, singing in the dramatic style then in vogue the highly sentimental songs that rent my childish heart with a touch of romance that happily has never faded
away: “The breaking Waves Dashed high,” “The outward bound,” “Love not,” “Fairy Bells,” “The evening Gun,” and dozens of others, the slightest strain of which brings back to me, after sixty years, every thrill of her voice, every movement of her fine head.
Strange power of music, strange gift to be bestowed on one who, when once away from the piano, was simply a hearty, good-natured woman, without a trace of inspiration!
She was the sister of Lieutenant
, and his fine naval achievements at Port Royal
seemed only to put into “squadron-strophes” the magnificent triumphs of her song.
I still recall the enchantment with which I heard, one moonlit summer night, the fine old glee “To Greece
we give our Shining blades,” sung as a serenade under my sister's window, by a quartette consisting of Miss Davis
and her brother, of Miss Harriet Mills
, who afterwards became his wife, and of William Story.
I had never before heard the song, and it made me feel, in Keats
's phrase, as if I were going to a tournament.
I went to a woman's school till I was eight; then walked daily, for five years, from the age of eight to that of thirteen, to the private school of William Wells
, an institution which was then regarded as being — with the possible
exception of the Boston Latin School--the best place in which to fit for Harvard College, and which was therefore much sought by the best Boston
was an Englishman of the old stamp, erect, vigorous, manly, who abhorred a mean or cowardly boy as he did a false quantity.
The school was a survival of a type which still lingers, I fancy, in the British
provinces,--honest and genuine, mainly physical in its discipline, and somewhat brutal as to its boyish life and ways.
Being a day-scholar only, I escaped something of the coarseness and actual demoralization which existed there; and thanks to an elder brother, the strongest boy in the school, I went free of the frequent pommeling visited by the larger boys on the smaller.
I will not go so far as my schoolmate, the late Charles C. Perkins
, who used simply to say of it, when questioned by his young sons, “My dears, it was hell;” but even as a day-scholar I recall some aspects of it with hearty dislike, and am glad that it was my happy lot to have come no nearer.
The evil was, however, tempered by a great deal of wholesome athletic activity, which Mr. Wells
encouraged: there was perpetual playing of ball and of fascinating running games; and we were very likely to have an extra half-holiday when skating or coasting was good.
There was no real cruelty in the discipline of the school,--though I have sometimes seen this attributed to it, as in Adams
's “Life of Richard Dana
,” --but Mr. Wells
carried always a rattan in his hand, and it descended frequently on back and arm. Being very fond of study and learning easily, I usually escaped the rod; but I can see now that its very presence was somewhat degrading to boyish nature.
taught us absolutely nothing but Latin and Greek
, yet these he inculcated most faithfully, and I have heretofore described, in an essay “On an old Latin text book,” the joy I took in them.
I well remember that on first being promoted to translating English into Greek
, I wrote on and on, purely for pleasure, doing the exercises for days in advance.
I should add that he taught us to write from copies set by himself in a clear and beautiful handwriting, and that we were supposed to learn something of history by simply reading aloud in class from Russell
's “Modern Europe
;” this being, after all, not so bad a way. It must not be forgotten that he bestowed a positive boon upon us by producing a Latin grammar of his own, so brief and simple that when I was afterwards called upon to administer to pupils the terrible manual of Andrews
, it seemed to me, as indeed it has always since seemed, a burden
too intolerable to be borne.
French was taught by his eldest daughter, an excellent woman, though she sometimes had a way of tapping little boys on the head with her thimble; and mathematics we received from a succession of Harvard
For a time, one fair girl, Mary Story — William Story's sister, and afterwards Mrs. George Ticknor Curtis
--glided in to her desk in the corner, that she might recite Virgil with the older class.
But in general the ill effect of a purely masculine world was very manifest in the school, and my lifelong preference for co-education was largely based upon what I saw there.
I could not help noticing-and indeed observed the same thing in another boarding-school, where I taught at a later day — the greater refinement, and I may say civilization, of the day-scholars, who played with their sisters at home, as compared with those little exiles who had no such natural companionship.
I must not forget one almost romantic aspect of the school in the occasional advent of Spanish boys, usually from Porto Rico
, who were as good as dime novels to us, with their dark skins and sonorous names,--Victoriano Rosello
, Magin Rigual
, Pedro Mangual
They swore superb Spanish oaths, which we naturally borrowed; and they once or twice drew knives upon one another, with
an air which the “Pirates' own book” offered nothing to surpass.
Nor must I forget that there were also in the school certain traditions, superstitions, even mechanical contrivances, which were not known in the world outside.
There were mechanisms of pulleys for keeping the desk-lid raised; the boys made for themselves little two-wheeled trucks to ride upon, and every seat in the school was perforated with two small holes for needles, to be worked by a pulley, for the sudden impaling of a fellow student, or even of the mathematical usher.
Enormous myths existed as to what had been done, in the way of rebellion, by the pupils of a previous generation; and the initials of older students still remained carved in vast confusion on the end of the woodshed, like the wall which commemorates Canning
Above all, a literature circulated under the desks, to be read surreptitiously,--such books as those to which Emerson
records his gratitude at the Latin School; fortunately nothing pernicious, yet much that was exciting, including little dingy volumes of “Baron Trenck
,” and “Rinaldo Rinaldini
,” and “The three Spaniards,” and “The Devil on two sticks.”
Can these be now found at any bookstore, I wonder, or have the boys of the present generation ever heard of them?
But the most important portion of a boy's life is perhaps his outdoor training, since to live out of doors is to be forever in some respects a boy. “Who could be before me, though the palace of the Caesars crackt and split with emperors, while I, sitting in silence on a cliff of Rhodes
, watcht the sun as he swang his golden censer athwart the heavens?”
's hero was not happier than my playmate, Charles Parsons
, and myself, as we lay under Lowell
's willows “at the causey's end,” after a day at Mount Auburn
,--then Sweet Auburn
still,to sort out our butterflies in summer or divide our walnuts in autumn, while we chanted uproariously the “Hunter
's chorus:” --
We roam through the forest and over the mountain;
No joy of the court or banquet like this.
We always made a pause after the word “court,” and supposed ourselves to be hurling defiance at monarchies.
Every boy of active tastes — and mine were eminently such — must become the one thing or the other, either a sportsman or a naturalist; and I have never regretted that it was my lot to become the latter.
My fellow townsman, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes
, describes himself as wandering along our native stream “with reeking sandal and superfluous gun.”
My sandals suffered, also, but I went with butterfly-net and
tin botanical box. Perhaps these preoccupied me before I yearned after field-sports, or perhaps there was no real yearning.
I can remember that as a child I sometimes accompanied an elder brother or cousin to pick up the birds he shot, though he rarely seemed to shoot any; but there occurred an event which, slight as it was, damped all longing to emulate him. Coming down what is now Divinity Avenue with an older boy, George Ware
, who rejoiced in a bow and arrow, we stopped under the mulberry-tree which still stands at the entrance of the street, and he aimed at a beautiful crested cedar-bird which was feeding on the mulberries.
By some extraordinary chance he hit it, and down came the pretty creature, fluttering and struggling in the air, with the cruel arrow through its breast.
I do not know whether the actual sportsman suffered pangs of remorse, but I know that I did, and feel them yet. Afterwards I read with full sympathy Bettine Brentano
's thoughts about the dead bird: “God gives him wings, and I shoot him down; that chimes not in tune.”
I later learned from Thoreau
to study birds through an opera-glass
It may appear strange that with this feeling about birds I seemed to have no such vivid feeling about fishes or insects.
Perhaps it was because they are so much farther from the
human, and touch the imagination less.
I could then fish all day by the seashore and could collect insects without hesitation,--always being self-limited in the latter case to two specimens of each species.
Since the Civil War
, however, I find that I can do neither of these things without compunction, and was pleased to hear from that eminent officer and thoroughly manly man, General Francis A. Walker
, that the war had a similar effect on him. “Dulce bellum inexpertis.
It has been a source of happiness for life to have acquired such early personal acquaintance with the numberless little people of the woods and mountains.
Every spring they come out to meet me, each a familiar friend, unchanged in a world where all else changes; and several times in a year I dream by night of some realm gorgeous with gayly tinted beetles and lustrous butterflies.
Wild flowers, also, have been a lasting delight, though these are a little less fascinating than insects, as belonging to a duller life.
Yet I associate with each ravaged tract in my native town the place where vanished flowers once grew,--the cardinal flowers and gentians in the meadows, the gay rhexia by the woodside, and the tall hibiscus by the river.
Being large and tolerably strong, I loved all kinds of athletic exercises, and learned to swim
in the river near where Professor Horsford
's active imagination has established the “Lief's booths” of the Norse legends.
There have been few moments in life which ever gave a sense of conquest and achievement so delicious as when I first clearly made my way through water beyond my depth, from one sedgy bank to another.
Skating was learned on Craigie's Pond, now drained, and afterwards practiced on the beautiful black ice of Fresh Pond
We played baseball and football, and a modified cricket, and on Saturdays made our way to the tenpin alleys at Fresh Pond
or Porter's Tavern.
My father had an old white pony which patiently ambled under me, and I was occasionally allowed to borrow Dr. Webster
's donkey, the only donkey I had ever seen.
Sometimes we were taken to Nahant
for a day by the seaside, and watched there the swallows actually building their nests in Swallows' Cave, whence they have long since vanished.
Perhaps we drove down over the interminable beach, but we oftener went in the steamboat; and my very earliest definite recollection is that of being afraid to go down into the cabin for dinner because a black waiter — the first I ever saw — had just gone down, and I was afraid.
Considering how deeply I was to cast in my lot with the black race in later years, it seems curious that the
acquaintance should have begun with this unsubstantial and misplaced alarm.
Probably the fact was fixed firmly in memory by the resulting hunger.
It was a great advantage for-outdoor training that my school was a mile off, and I paced the distance to and fro, twice a day, through what was then a rural region interspersed with a few large houses of historical associations.
The great colonial residences on Tory Row, of which Craigie House was only one, always impressed the imagination.
Sometimes I had companions, -my elder brother for a time, and his classmates, Lowell
I remember treading along close behind them once, as they discussed Spenser
's “Faerie Queene,” which they had been reading, and which led us younger boys to christen a favorite play-place “the Bower of Blisse.”
Story was then a conspicuously handsome boy, with a rather high-bred look, and overflowing with fun and frolic, as indeed he was during his whole life.
was at that time of much more ordinary appearance, short and freckled, and a secondary figure beside Story; yet in later life, with his fine eyes and Apollo-like brow, he became much the more noticeable of the two, as he was certainly far superior in genius.
Oftener I went alone.
Sometimes I made
up stories as I went, usually magnifying little incidents or observations of my own into some prolonged tale with a fine name, having an imaginary hero.
For a long time his name was D'Arlon, from the person of that name in Taylor
's “Philip van Artevelde
,” which my mother was reading to us. In these imaginings all the small wrongs and failures of my life were retrieved.
D'Arlon went through the same incidents with myself, but uniformly succeeded where I had failed, and came out of the crisis with the unerring certainty of one of Stanley Weyman
One of my chief playmates, Thornton Ware
, a handsome boy with curly black hair, the admiration of all little girls, might easily distance me in their regard, but had no chance whatever against the imaginary D'Arlon
At other times I had no material for a story, but watched the robins, the bluebirds, and above all the insects, acquiring an eagle eye for a far-off moth or beetle on fence or wall.
I remember that at the corner where Craigie Street now turns off from Brattle Street, there was a clump of milkweed, where every day there was some new variety of spotted ladybird (coccinella
); and I remember pondering, as I compared them, with pre-Darwinian wonder, whether they were all created from the beginning as separate species,
or were somehow developed from one another.
On other days I played a game of football a mile long, trying to kick before me some particular stone or horse-chestnut for the whole distance from the school door to my own gate; sometimes betting heavily with myself, and perhaps losing manfully, like Dick Swiveller
at his solitary cribbage.
Then in winter there was always the hope of “punging,” getting a ride on the runners of a sleigh, or hitching my sled behind some vehicle; and in spring that of riding with the driver of an empty ice-cart or walking beside a full one, and watching the fine horses that then, in endless procession, drew heavy wagons bearing the winter harvest of Fresh Pond
to be shipped to distant lands.
My most immediate playmate was the next-door neighbor, already mentioned, who in later life was a medical professor in Brown University.
He was a prim, grave little boy, and was called “old-fashioned;” he was very precocious, and though only three months older than myself was a year before me in college, graduating at just seventeen,--each of us being the youngest in our respective classes.
There was between our houses only the field now occupied by the Hemenway Gymnasium
and the Scientific School
; and while we were not schoolmates,
we were almost constantly together out of school hours.
Many an hour we spent poring over the pictures in the large old Rees
' Cyclopaedia; afterwards, when weary, piling up the big volumes for fortifications, to be mutually assailed by cannonading apples from a perpetual barrel in the closet.
Meanwhile, the kindly old grandfather, working away at his sermons or his “American Annals,” never seemed disturbed by our romping; and I remember vividly one winter evening, when he went to the window, and, scratching with his knife-blade through the thick frost, shaped the outlines of rough brambles below, and made a constellation of stars above, with the added motto, “Per aspera ad astra,
”--then explaining to us its meaning, that through difficulties we must seek the stars.
It is a mistake to suppose that we did not have, sixty years ago in New England
, associations already historic.
At home we had various family portraits of ancestors in tie-wigs or powdered hair.
We knew the very treasures which Dr. Holmes
describes as gathered in his attic, and never were tired of exploring old cupboards and hunting up traditions.
We delighted to pore over the old flat tombstones in the Old Cambridge cemetery
, stones with long Latin inscriptions, on which even the language
is dead, celebrating virtues ending in issimus
. The most impressive of all was the Vassall monument, raised on pillars above the rest, and bearing no words, only the carved goblet and sun (Vas — sol),--the monument beneath which lie, according to tradition, the bodies of two slaves:--
At her feet and at her head
Lies a slave to attend the dead,
But their dust is white as hers.
This poem was not yet written, but Holmes
's verses on this churchyard were familiar on our lips, and we sighed with him over his sister's grave, and over the stone where the French
exile from Honfleur was buried and his epitaph was carved in French
Moreover, the “ever-roaming girls” whom Holmes
exhorted to bend over the wall and “sweep the simple lines” with the floating curls then fashionable,--these were our own neighbors and sweethearts, and it all seemed in the last degree poetic and charming.
More suggestive than all these were the eloquent fissures in the flat stones where the leaden coats of arms had been pried out to be melted into bullets for the Continental
And it all so linked us with the past that when, years after, I stood outside the Temple Church
, and, looking casually down, saw beneath my feet the name of Oliver Goldsmith
it really gave no more sense of a dignified historic past than those stones at my birthplace.
Nor did it actually carry me back so far in time.
In the same way, our walks, when not directed toward certain localities for rare flowers or birds or insects,--as to Mount Auburn
sands, now included in the cemetery of that name, or the extensive jungle north of Fresh Pond
, where the herons of Longfellow
's poem had their nests,--were more or less guided by historic objects.
There was the picturesque old Revolutionary Powder Mill
in what is now Somerville
, or the remains of redoubts on Winter Hill
, where we used to lie along the grassy slopes and repel many British onslaughts.
Often we went to the fascinating wharves of Boston
, then twice as long as now, and full of sea-smells and crossed yards and earringed sailors.
A neighbor's boy had the distinction of being bad enough to be actually sent to sea for a dubious reformation; and though, when he came back, I was forbidden to play with him, on the ground that he not only swore, but carried an alleged pistol, yet it was something to live on the same street with one so marked out from the list of common boys, and to watch him from afar exhibiting to youths of laxer training what seemed to be the
I may here add that the only other child with whom I was forbidden to play became in later life an eminent clergyman.
Once we undertook to go as far as Bunker Hill
, and were ignominiously turned back by a party of Charlestown
pigs,” as they were then usually and affectionately called,--who charged us with being “Port chucks” (that is, from Cambridgeport
) or “Pointers” (that is, from Lechmere Point, or East Cambridge), and ended with the mild torture of taking away our canes.
Or we would visit the ruins of the Ursuline Convent
, whose flames I had seen from our front door in Cambridge
, standing by my mother's side; all that I had read of persecutions not implanting so lasting a love of liberty as that one spectacle.
I stood by her also the day after, when she went out to take the gauge of public opinion in consultation with the family butcher, Mr. Houghton
; and I saw here checkmated by his leisurely retort, “Wal, I dunno, Mis' Higginson; I guess them biships are pretty dissipated characters.”
The interest was enhanced by the fact that a youthful Cambridge
neighbor, Maria Fay
, was a pupil in the school at the time, and was held up by the terrified preceptress to say to the rioters, “My father is a judge, and if you don't go away he will put you
all in jail” The effect of the threat may have been somewhat impaired by the fact that her parent was but a peaceful judge of probate, and could only have wreaked his vengeance on their last wills and testaments.
At any rate, there stood the blackened walls for many years, until the bricks were used in building the inside walls of the cathedral towers in Boston
; and there was no other trace of the affray, except the inscription “Hell to the Pope
,” scrawled in charcoal on a bit of lingering plaster.
We gazed at it with awe, as if it were a memorial of Bloody Mary — with a difference.
Greatly to my bliss, I escaped almost absolutely all those rigors of the old New England
theology which have darkened the lives of so many.
I never heard of the Five Points
of Calvinism until maturity; never was converted, never experienced religion.
We were expected to read the New Testament, but there was nothing enforced about the Old
, and we were as fortunate as a little girl I have since known, who was sure that there could be no such place as hell, because their minister had never mentioned it. Even Sunday brought no actual terrors.
I have the sweetest image of my mother sitting ready dressed for church, before my sisters had descended, and usually bearing a flower in her hand.
In winter we commonly
drove to the parish church in an open sleigh, and once had an epoch-making capsize into a snow-drift.
As I was seized by the legs and drawn forth, I felt like the hero of one of the Waverley novels, and as if I had been in Rob Roy
No doubt we observed the Sabbath after a mild fashion, for I once played a surreptitious game of ball with my brother behind the barn on that day, and it could not have made me so very happy had it not been, as Emerson
says, “drugged with the relish of fear and pain.”
Yet I now recall with pleasure that while my mother disapproved of all but sacred music on Sunday, she ruled that all good music was sacred; and that she let us play on Sunday evening a refreshing game of cards,geographical cards,--from which we learned that the capital of Dahomey
Compared with the fate of many contemporaries, what soothing and harmless chains were these!
In all these early recollections there has been small mention of the other sex, and yet that sweet entity was to me, and in fact to all of us boys, a matter of most momentous importance.
We were all, it now seems to me, a set of desperate little lovers, with formidable rivalries, suspicions, and jealousies; and we had names of our own devising for each juvenile maiden,
by which she could be mentioned without peril of discovery.
One of the older boys, being of a peculiarly inventive turn, got up a long and imaginary wooing of a black-eyed damsel who went to school in Cambridge
He showed us letters and poems, and communicated all the ups and downs of varying emotion.
They were finally separated, amid mutual despair, and I do not suppose that she had ever known him by sight.
We had our share of dancing-schools, always in private houses, taught sometimes by the elder Papanti
, and sometimes by a most graceful woman, Miss Margaret Davis
, sister of the songstress I have described.
We had Mayday parties, usually at Mount Auburn
, and showed in the chilly May mornings that heroic courage which Lowell
plaintively attributes to children on these occasions.
But all this sporting with Amaryllis soon became secondary for us, being Cambridge
boys, to the great realm of academical life, to which no girls might then aspire.
That vast mysterious region lies always before the boy who is bred in a college town, alluring, exciting, threatening, as the sea lies before the sailor's son. One by one he sees his elder playmates glide away upon it, until at last his turn comes; and before I was fourteen
I myself was launched.