previous next

A shadow.

I shall always remember one winter evening, a little before Christmas-time, when I took a long, solitary walk in the outskirts of the town. The cold sunset had left a trail of orange light along the horizon, the dry snow tinkled beneath my feet, and the early stars had a keen, clear lustre that matched well with the sharp sound and the frosty sensation. For some time I had walked toward the gleam of a distant window, and as I approached, the light showed more and more clearly through the white curtains of a little cottage by the road. I stopped, on reaching it, to enjoy the suggestion of domestic cheerfulness in contrast with the dark outside. I could not see the inmates, nor they me; but something of human sympathy came from that steadfast ray.

As I looked, a film of shade kept appearing and disappearing with rhythmic regularity in a [217] corner of the window, as if some one might be sitting in a low rocking-chair close by. Presently the motion ceased, and suddenly across the curtain came the shadow of a woman. She raised in her arms the shadow of a baby, and kissed it; then both disappeared, and I walked on.

What are Raphael's Madonnas but the shadow of a mother's love, so traced as to endure forever? In this picture of mine, the group actually moved upon the canvas. The curtains that hid it revealed it. The ecstasy of human love passed in brief, intangible panorama before me. It was something seen, yet unseen; airy, yet solid; a type, yet a reality; fugitive, yet destined to last in my memory while I live. It said more to me than would any Madonna of Raphael's, for his mother never kisses her child. I believe I have never passed over that road since then, never seen the house, never heard the names of its occupants. Their character, their history, their fate, are all unknown. But these two will always stand for me as disembodied types of humanity,--the Mother and the Child; they seem nearer to me than my immediate neighbors, yet they are as ideal and [218] impersonal as the goddesses of Greece or as Plato's archetypal man.

I know not the parentage of that child, whether black or white, native or foreign, rich or poor. It makes no difference. The presence of a baby equalizes all social conditions. On the floor of some Southern hut, scarcely so comfortable as a dog-kennel, I have seen a dusky woman look down upon her infant with such an expression of delight as painter never drew. No social culture can make a mother's face more than a mother's, as no wealth can make a nursery more than a place where children dwell. Lavish thousands of dollars on your baby-clothes, and after all the child is prettiest when every garment is laid aside. That becoming nakedness, at least, may adorn the chubby darling of the poorest home.

I know not what triumph or despair may have come and gone through that wayside house since then, what jubilant guests may have entered, what lifeless form passed out. What anguish or what sin may have come between that woman and that child; through what worlds they now wander, and whether separate or in each other's arms,--this is [219] all unknown. Fancy can picture other joys to which the first happiness was but the prelude, and, on the other hand, how easy to imagine some special heritage of human woe and call it theirs!

I thought of times when Pain might be thy guest,
Lord of thy house and hospitality;
And Grief, uneasy lover, might not rest
Save when he sat within the touch of thee.

Nay, the foretaste of that changed fortune may have been present, even in the kiss. Who knows what absorbing emotion, besides love's immediate impulse, may have been uttered in that shadowy embrace? There may have been some contrition for ill-temper or neglect, or some triumph over ruinous temptation, or some pledge of immortal patience, or some heart-breaking prophecy of bereavement. It may have been simply an act of habitual tenderness, or it may have been the wild reaction toward a neglected duty; the renewed self-consecration of the saint, or the joy of the sinner that repenteth. No matter. She kissed the baby. The feeling of its soft flesh, the busy struggle of its little arms between her hands, the impatient pressure of its little feet against her [220] knees,--these were the same, whatever the mood or circumstance beside. They did something to equalize joy and sorrow, honor and shame. Maternal love is love, whether a woman be a wife or only a mother. Only a mother!

The happiness beneath that roof may, perhaps, have never reached so high a point as at that precise moment of my passing. In the coarsest household, the mother of a young child is placed on a sort of pedestal of care and tenderness, at least for a time. She resumes something of the sacredness and dignity of the maiden. Coleridge ranks as the purest of human emotions that of a husband towards a wife who has a baby at her breast,--“a feeling how free from sensual desire, yet how different from friendship 1” And to the true mother however cultivated, or however ignorant, this period of early parentage is happier than all else, in spite of its exhausting cares. In that delightful book, the “Letters” of Mrs. Richard Trench (mother of the well-known English writer), the most agreeable passage is perhaps that in which, after looking back upon a life spent in the most brilliant society of Europe, she gives the palm of happiness [221] to the time when she was a young mother. She writes to her god-daughter: “I believe it is the happiest time of any woman's life, who has affectionate feelings, and is blessed with healthy and well-disposed children. I know at least that neither the gayeties and boundless hopes of early life, nor the more grave pursuits and deeper affections of later years, are by any means comparable in my recollection with the serene, yet lively pleasure of seeing my children playing on the grass, enjoying their little temperate supper, or repeating ‘with holy look’ their simple prayers, and undressing for bed, growing prettier for every part of their dress they took off, and at last lying down, all freshness and love, in complete happiness, and an amiable contest for mamma's last kiss.”

That kiss welcomed the child into a world where joy predominates. The vast multitude of human beings enjoy existence and wish to live. They all have their earthly life under their own control. Some religions sanction suicide; the Christian Scriptures nowhere explicitly forbid it; and yet it is a rare thing. Many persons sigh for death [222] when it seems far off, but the desire vanishes when the boat upsets, or the locomotive runs off the track, or the measles set in. A wise physician once said to me: “I observe that every one wishes to go to heaven, but I observe that most people are willing to take a great deal of very disagreeable medicine first.” The lives that one least envies — as of the Digger Indian or the outcast boy in the city — are yet sweet to the living. “They have only a pleasure like that of the brutes,” we say with scorn. But what a racy and substantial pleasure is that! The flashing speed of the swallow in the air, the cool play of the minnow in the water, the dance of twin butterflies round a thistle-blossom, the thundering gallop of the buffalo across the prairie, nay, the clumsy walk of the grizzly bear; it were doubtless enough to reward existence, could we have joy like such as these, and ask no more. This is the hearty physical basis of animated life, and as step by step the savage creeps up to the possession of intellectual manhood, each advance brings with it new sorrow and new joy, with the joy always in excess.

There are many who will utterly disavow this [223] creed that life is desirable in itself. A fair woman in a ball-room, exquisitely dressed, and possessed of all that wealth could give, once declared to me her belief-and I think honestly-that no person over thirty was consciously happy, or would wish to live, but for the fear of death. There could not even be pleasure in contemplating one's children, she asserted, since they were living in such a world of sorrow. Asking the opinion, within half an hour, of another woman as fair and as favored by fortune, I found directly the opposite verdict. “For my part I can truly say,” she answered, “that I enjoy every moment I live.” The varieties of temperament and of physical condition will always afford us these extremes; but the truth lies between them, and most persons will endure many sorrows and still find life sweet.

And the mother's kiss welcomes the child into a world where good predominates as well as joy. What recreants must we be, in an age that has abolished slavery in America and popularized the governments of all Europe, if we doubt that the tendency of man is upward! How much that the world calls selfishness is only generosity with [224] narrow walls,--a too exclusive solicitude to maintain a wife in luxury or make one's children rich! In an audience of rough people a generous sentiment always brings down the house. In the tumult of war both sides applaud an heroic deed. A courageous woman, who had traversed alone, on benevolent errands, the worst parts of New York told me that she never felt afraid except in the solitudes of the country; wherever there was a crowd, she found a protector. A policeman of great experience once spoke to me with admiration of the fidelity of professional thieves to each other, and the risks they would run for the women whom they loved;. when “Bristol Bill” was arrested, he said, there was found upon the burglar a set of false keys, not quite finished, by which he would certainly, within twenty-four hours, have had his mistress out of jail. Parent-Duchatelet found always the remains of modesty among the fallen women of Paris hospitals; and Mayhew, amid the London outcasts, says that he thinks better of human nature every day. Even among politicians, whom it is our American fashion to revile as the chief of sinners, there is less of evil than of good. [225] In Wilberforce's “Memoirs” there is an account of his having once asked Mr. Pitt whether his long experience as Prime Minister had made him think well or ill of his fellow-men. Mr. Pitt answered, “Well” ; and his successor, Lord Melbourne, being asked the same question, answered, after a little reflection, “M y opinion is the same as that of Mr. Pitt.”

Let us have faith. It was a part of the vigor of the old Hebrew tradition to rejoice when a man-child was born into the world; and the maturer strength of nobler ages should rejoice over a woman-child as well. Nothing human is wholly sad, until it is effete and dying out. Where there is life there is promise. “Vitality is always hopeful,” was the verdict of the most refined and clear-sighted woman who has yet explored the rough mining villages of the Rocky Mountains. There is apt to be a certain coarse virtue in rude health; as the Germanic races were purest when least civilized, and our American Indians did not unlearn chastity till they began to decay. But even where vigor and vice are found together, they still may hold a promise for the next generation. Out of [226] the strong cometh forth sweetness. Parisian wickedness is not so discouraging merely because it is wicked, as from a suspicion that it is draining the life-blood of the nation. A mob of miners or of New York bullies may be uncomfortable neighbors, and may make a man of refinement hesitate whether to stop his ears or to feel for his revolver; but they hold more promise for the coming generations than the line which ends in Madame Bovary or the Vicomte de Camors.

But behind that cottage curtain, at any rate, a new and prophetic life had begun. I cannot foretell that child's future, but I know something of its past. The boy may grow up into a criminal, the woman into an outcast, yet the baby was beloved. It came “not in utter nakedness.” It found itself heir of the two prime essentials of existence,--life and love. Its first possession was a woman's kiss; and in that heritage the most important need of its career was guaranteed. “An ounce of mother,” says the Spanish proverb, “is worth a pound of clergy.” Jean Paul says that in life every successive influence affects us less and less, so that the circumnavigator of the globe is [227] less influenced by all the nations he has seen than by his nurse. Well may the child imbibe that reverence for motherhood which is the first need of man. Where woman is most a slave, she is at least sacred to her son. The Turkish Sultan must prostrate himself at the door of his mother's apartments, and were he known to have insulted her, it would make his throne tremble. Among the savage African Touaricks, if two parents disagree, it is to the mother that the child's obedience belongs. Over the greater part of. the earth's surface, the foremost figures in all temples are the Mother and Child. Christian and Buddhist nations, numbering together two thirds of the world's population, unite in this worship. Into the secrets of the ritual that baby in the window had already received initiation.

And how much spiritual influence may in turn have gone forth from that little one! The coarsest father gains a new impulse to labor from the moment of his baby's birth; he scarcely sees it when awake, and yet it is with him all the time. Every stroke he strikes is for his child. New social aims, new moral motives, come vaguely up to him. The [228] London costermonger told Mayhew that he thought every man would like his son or daughter to have a better start in the world than his own. After all, there is no tonic like the affections. Philosophers express wonder that the divine laws should give to some young girl, almost a child, the custody of an immortal soul. But what instruction the baby brings to the mother! She learns patience, self-control, endurance; her very arm grows strong, so that she can hold the dear burden longer than the father can. She learns to understand character, too, by dealing with it. “In training my first children,” said a wise mother to me, “I thought that all were born just the same, and that I was wholly responsible for what they should become. I learned by degrees that each had a temperament of its own, which I must study before I could teach it.” And thus, as the little ones grow older, their dawning instincts guide those of the parents; their questions suggest new answers, and to have loved them is a liberal education.

For the height of heights is love. The philosopher dries into a skeleton like that he investigates, unless love teaches him. He is blind among his [229] microscopes, unless he sees in the humblest human soul a revelation that dwarfs all the world beside. While he grows gray in ignorance among his crucibles, every girlish mother is being illuminated by every kiss of her child. That house is so far sacred, which holds within its walls this new-born heir of eternity. But to dwell on these high mysteries would take us into depths beyond the present needs of mother or of infant, and it is better that the greater part of the baby-life should be that of an animated toy.

Perhaps it is well for all of us that we should live mostly on the surfaces of things and should play with life, to avoid taking it too hard. In a nursery the youngest child is a little more than a doll, and the doll is a little less than a child. What spell does fancy weave on earth like that which the one of these small beings performs for the other? This battered and tattered doll, this shapeless, featureless, possibly legless creature, whose mission it is to be dragged by one arm, or stood upon its head in the bathing-tub, until it finally reverts to the rag-bag whence it came,what an affluence of breathing life is thrown around [230] it by one touch of dawning imagination! Its little mistress will find all joy unavailing without its sympathetic presence, will confide every emotion to its pen-and-ink ears, and will weep passionate tears if its extremely soiled person is pricked when its clothes are mended. What psychologist, what student of the human heart, has ever applied his subtile analysis to the emotions of a child toward her doll?

I read lately the charming autobiography of a little girl of eight years, written literally from her own dictation. Since “Pet Marjorie” I have seen no such actual self-revelation on the part of a child. In the course of her narration she describes, with great precision and correctness, the travels of the family through Europe in the preceding year, assigning usually the place of importance to her doll, who appears simply as “My baby.” Nothing can be more grave, more accurate, more serious than the whole history, but nothing in it seems quite so real and alive as the doll. “When w.e got to Nice, I was sick. The next morning the doctor came, and he said I had something that was very much like scarlet fever. Then I had Annie [231] take care of baby, and keep her away, for I was afraid she would get the fever. She used to cry to come to me, but I knew it would n't be good for her.”

What firm judgment is here, what tenderness without weakness, what discreet motherhood! When Christmas came, it appears that baby hung up her stocking with the rest. Her devoted parent had bought for her a slate with a real pencil. Others provided thimble and scissors and bodkin and a spool of thread, and a travelling-shawl with a strap, and a cap with tarletan ruffles. “I found baby with the cap on, early in the morning, and she was so pleased she almost jumped out of my arms.” Thus in the midst of visits to the Coliseum and St. Peters, the drama of early affection goes always on. “I used to take her to hear the band, in the carriage, and she went everywhere I did.”

But the love of all dolls, as of other pets, must end with a tragedy, and here it comes. “The next place we went to was Lucerne. There was a lovely lake there, but I had a very sad time. One day I thought I'd take baby down to breakfast, and, as I was going up stairs, my foot slipped and [232] baby broke her head. And O, I felt so bad! and I cried out, and I ran up stairs to Annie, and mamma came, and O, we were all so sorry! And mamma said she thought I could get another head, but I said, ‘It won't be the. same baby.’ And mamma said, maybe we could make it seem so.”

At this crisis the elder brother and sister departed for Mount Righi. “They were going to stay all night, and mamma and I stayed at home to take care of each other. I felt very bad about baby and about their going, too. After they went, mamma and I thought we would go to the little town and see what we could find.” After many difficulties, a waxen head was discovered. “Mamma bought it, and we took it home and put it on baby; but I said it was n't like my real baby, only it was better than having no child at all!”

This crushing bereavement, this reluctant acceptance of a child by adoption, to fill the vacant heart,--how real and formidable is all this rehearsal of the tragedies of maturer years! I knew an instance in which the last impulse of ebbing life was such a gush of imaginary motherhood. [233] A dear friend of mine, whose sweet charities prolong into a third generation the unbounded benevolence of old Isaac Hopper, used to go at Christmas-time with dolls and other gifts to the poor children on Randall's Island. Passing the bed of a little girl whom the physician pronounced to be unconscious and dying, the kind visitor insisted on putting a doll into her arms. Instantly the eyes of the little invalid opened, and she pressed the gift eagerly to her heart, murmuring over it and caressing it. The matron afterwards wrote that the child died within two hours, wearing a happy face, and still clinging to her newfound treasure.

And beginning with this transfer of all human associations to a doll, the child's life interfuses itself readily among all the affairs of the elders. In its presence, formality vanishes the most oppressive ceremonial is a little relieved when s children enter. Their influence is pervasive and irresistible, like that of water, which adapts itself to any landscape,--always takes its place, welcome or unwelcome,--keeps its own level and seems always to have its natural and proper margin. [234] Out of doors how children mingle with nature, and seem to begin just where birds and butterflies leave off! Leigh Hunt, with his delicate perceptions, paints this well: “The voices of children seem as natural to the early morning as the voice of the birds. The suddenness, the lightness, the loudness, the sweet confusion, the sparkling gayety, seem alike in both. The sudden little jangle is now here and now there; and now a single voice calls to another, and the boy is off like the bird.” So Heine, with deeper thoughtfulness, noticed the “intimacy with the trees” of the little wood-gatherer in the Hartz Mountains; soon the child whistled like a linnet, and the other birds all answered him; then he disappeared in the thicket with his bare feet and his bundle of brushwood. “Children,” thought Heine, “are younger than we, and can still remember the time when they were trees or birds, and can therefore understand and speak their language; but we are grown old, and have too many cares, and too much jurisprudence and bad poetry in our heads.”

But why go to literature for a recognition of what one may see by opening one's eyes? Before [235] my window there is a pool, two rods square, that is haunted all winter by children,--clearing away the snow of many a storm, if need be, and mining downward till they strike the ice. I look this morning from the window, arid the pond is bare. In a moment I happen to look again, and it is covered with a swarm of boys; a great migrating flock has settled upon it, as if swooping down from parts unknown to scream and sport themselves here. The air is full of their voices; they have all tugged on their skates instantaneously, as it were by magic. Now they are in a confused cluster, now they sweep round and round in a circle, now it is broken into fragments and as quickly formed again; games are improvised and abandoned; there seems to be no plan or leader, but all do as they please, and yet somehow act in concert, and all chatter all the time. Now they have alighted, every one, upon the bank of snow that edges the pond, each scraping a little hollow in which to perch. Now every perch is vacant again, for they are all in motion; each moment increases the jangle of shrill voices,--since a boy's outdoor whisper to his nearest crony is as if [236] he was hailing a ship in the offing,--and what they are all saying can no more be made out than if they were a flock of gulls or blackbirds. I look away from the window once more, and when I glance out again there is not a boy in sight. They have whirled away like snowbirds, and the little pool sleeps motionless beneath the cheerful wintry sun. Who but must see how gradually the joyous life of the animal rises through childhood into man,--since the soaring gnats, the glancing fishes, the sliding seals are all represented in this mob of half-grown boyhood just released from school.

If I were to choose among all gifts and qualities that which, on the whole, makes life pleasantest, I should select the love of children. No circumstance can render this world wholly a solitude to one who has that possession. It is a freemasonry. Wherever one goes, there are the little brethren and sisters of the mystic tie. No diversity of race or tongue makes much difference. A smile speaks the universal language. “If I value myself on anything,” said the lonely Hawthorne, “it is on having a smile that children love.” They are [237] such prompt little beings; they require so little prelude; hearts are won in two minutes,. at that frank period, and so long as you are true to them they will be true to you. They need no argument, no bribery. They have a hearty appetite for gifts, no doubt, but it is not for these that they love the giver. Take the wealth of the world and lavish it with counterfeited affection: I will win all the children's hearts away from you by empty-handed love. The gorgeous toys will dazzle them for an hour; then their instincts will revert to their natural friends. In visiting a house where there are children I do not like to take them presents: it is better to forego the pleasure of the giving than to divide the welcome between yourself and the gift. Let that follow after you are gone.

It is an exaggerated compliment to women when we ascribe to them alone this natural sympathy with childhood. It is an individual, not a sexual trait, and is stronger in many men than in many women. It is nowhere better exhibited in literature than where the happy Wilhelm Meister takes his boy by the hand, to lead him “into the free [238] and lordly world.” Such love is not universal among the other sex, though men, in that humility which so adorns their natures, keep up the pleasing fiction that it is. As a general rule any little girl feels some glimmerings of emotion towards anything that can pass for a doll, but it does not follow that, when grown older, she will feel as ready an instinct toward every child. Try it. Point out to a woman some bundle of blue-and-white or white-and-scarlet in some one's arms at the next street corner. Ask her, “Do you love that baby?” Not one woman in three will say promptly, “Yes.” The others will hesitate, will bid you wait till they are nearer, till they can personally inspect the little thing and take an inventory of its traits; it may be dirty, too; it may be diseased. Ah! but this is not to love children, and you might as well be a man. To love children is to love childhood, instinctively, at whatever distance, the first impulse being one of attraction, though it may be checked by later discoveries. Unless your heart commands at least as long a range as your eye, it is not worth much. The dearest saint in my calendar never entered a railway car that she did not [239] look round for a baby, which, when discovered, must always be won at once into her arms. If it was dirty, she would have been glad to bathe it; if ill, to heal it. It would not have seemed to her anything worthy the name of love, to seek only those who were wholesome and clean. Like the young girl in Holmes's most touching poem, she would have claimed as her own the outcast child whom nurses and physicians had abandoned.

‘Take her, dread Angel! Break in love
This bruised reed and make it thine!’
No voice descended from above,
But Avis answered, “She is mine!”

When I think of the self-devotion which the human heart can contain — of those saintly souls that are in love with sorrow, and that yearn to shelter all weakness and all grief — it inspires an unspeakable confidence that there must also be an instinct of parentage beyond this human race, a heart of hearts, cor cordium. As we all crave something to protect, so we long to feel ourselves protected. We are all infants before the Infinite; and as I turned from that cottage window to the resplendent sky, it was easy to fancy that mute [240] embrace, that shadowy symbol of affection, expanding from the narrow lattice till it touched the stars, gathering every created soul into the arms of Immortal Love.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Randalls Island (Montana, United States) (1)
Lucerna (Switzerland) (1)
Department de Ville de Paris (France) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Pitt (3)
Mayhew (2)
Heine (2)
Wilberforce (1)
Richard Trench (1)
Plato (1)
Jean Paul (1)
Leigh Hunt (1)
Isaac Hopper (1)
Holmes (1)
Coleridge (1)
Christmas (1)
Bovary (1)
Avis (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
December 25th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: