"Sir-sir, it is a boy!" "A boy," said my father, looking up from his book, and evidently much puzzled: "what is a boy?" Now my father did not mean by that interrogatory to challenge philosophical inquiry, nor to demand of the honest but unenlightened woman who had just rushed into his study, a solution of that mystery, physiological and psychological, which has puzzled so many curious sages, and lies still involved in the question, "What is man?" For as we need not look further than Dr. Johnson's Dictionary to know that a boy is "a male child,"-i.e., the male young of man,-so he who would go to the depth of things, and know scientifically what is a boy, must be able to ascertain "what is a man." But for aught I know, my father may have been satisfied with Buffon on that score, or he may have sided with Monboddo. He may have agreed with Bishop Berkeley; he may have contented himself with Professor Combe; he may have regarded the genus spiritually, like Zeno, or materially, like Epicurus. Grant that boy is the male young of man, and he would have had plenty of definitions to choose from.
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"Mr. Caxton, how on earth did you ever come to marry?" asked Mr. Squills, abruptly, with his feet on the hob, while stirring up his punch.
That was a home question, which many men might reasonably resent; but my father scarcely knew what resentment was.
"Squills," said he, turning round from his books, and laying one finger on the surgeon's arm confidentially,—"Squills," said he, "I myself should be glad to know how I came to be married."
Mr. Squills was a jovial, good–hearted man,—stout, fat, and with fine teeth, that made his laugh pleasant to look at as well as to hear. Mr. Squills, moreover, was a bit of a philosopher in his way,—studied human nature in curing its diseases; and was accustomed to say that Mr. Caxton was a better book in himself than all he had in his library. Mr. Squills laughed, and rubbed his hands.
My father resumed thoughtfully, and in the tone of one who moralizes:—
"There are three great events in life, sir,—birth, marriage, and death. None know how they are born, few know how they die; but I suspect that many can account for the intermediate phenomenon—I cannot."
"It was not for money, it must have been for love," observed Mr. Squills; "and your young wife is as pretty as she is good."
"Ha!" said my father, "I remember."
"Do you, sir?" exclaimed Squills, highly amused. "How was it?"
My father, as was often the case with him, protracted his reply, and then seemed rather to commune with himself than to answer Mr. Squills.
"The kindest, the best of men," he murmured,—"Abyssus Eruditionis. And to think that he bestowed on me the only fortune he had to leave, instead of to his own flesh and blood, Jack and Kitty,—all, at least, that I could grasp, deficiente manu, of his Latin, his Greek, his Orientals. What do I not owe to him?"
"To whom?" asked Squills. "Good Lord! what's the man talking about?"
"Yes, sir," said my father, rousing himself, "such was Giles Tibbets, M. A., Sol Scientiarum, tutor to the humble scholar you address, and father to poor Kitty. He left me his Elzevirs; he left me also his orphan daughter."
"Oh! as a wife—"
"No, as a ward. So she came to live in my house. I am sure there was no harm in it. But my neighbors said there was, and the widow Weltraum told me the girl's character would suffer. What could I do?—Oh, yes, I recollect all now! I married her, that my old friend's child might have a roof to her head, and come to no harm. You see I was forced to do her that injury; for, after all, poor young creature, it was a sad lot for her. A dull bookworm like me,—cochlea vitam agens, Mr. Squills,—leading the life of a snail! But my shell was all I could offer to my poor friend's orphan."
"Mr. Caxton, I honor you," said Squills, emphatically, jumping up, and spilling half a tumblerful of scalding punch over my father's legs. "You have a heart, sir; and I understand why your wife loves you. You seem a cold man, but you have tears in your eyes at this moment."
"I dare say I have," said my father, rubbing his shins; "it was boiling!"
"And your son will be a comfort to you both," said Mr. Squills, reseating himself, and, in his friendly emotion, wholly abstracted from all consciousness of the suffering he had inflicted; "he will be a dove of peace to your ark."
"I don't doubt it," said my father, ruefully; "only those doves, when they are small, are a very noisy sort of birds—non talium avium cantos somnum reducent. However, it might have been worse. Leda had twins."
"So had Mrs. Barnabas last week," rejoined the accoucheur. "Who knows what may be in store for you yet? Here's a health to Master Caxton, and lots of brothers and sisters to him."
"Brothers and sisters! I am sure Mrs. Caxton will never think of such a thing, sir," said my father, almost indignantly; "she's much too good a wife to behave so. Once in a way it is all very well; but twice—and as it is, not a paper in its place, nor a pen mended the last three days: I, too, who can only write cuspide duriuscula,—and the baker coming twice to me for his bill, too! The Ilithyiae, are troublesome deities, Mr. Squills."
"Who are the Ilithyiae?" asked the accoucheur.
"You ought to know," answered my father, smiling,—"the female daemons who presided over the Neogilos, or New–born. They take the name from Juno. See Homer, Book XI. By the by, will my Neogilos be brought up like Hector, or Astyanax—videlicet, nourished by its mother, or by a nurse?"
"Which do you prefer, Mr. Caxton?" asked Mr. Squills, breaking the sugar in his tumbler. "In this I always deem it my duty to consult the wishes of the gentleman."
"A nurse by all means, then," said my father. "And let her carry him upo kolpo, next to her bosom. I know all that has been said about mothers nursing their own infants, Mr. Squills; but poor Kitty is so sensitive that I think a stout, healthy peasant woman will be the best for the boy's future nerves, and his mother's nerves, present and future too. Heigh–ho! I shall miss the dear woman very much. When will she be up, Mr. Squills?"
"Oh, in less than a fortnight!"
"And then the Neogilos shall go to school,—upo kolpo,—the nurse with him, and all will be right again," said my father, with a look of sly, mysterious humor which was peculiar to him.
"School! when he's just born?"
"Can't begin too soon," said my father, positively; "that's Helvetius' opinion, and it is mine too!"
That I was a very wonderful child, I take for granted; but nevertheless it was not of my own knowledge that I came into possession of the circumstances set down in my former chapters. But my father's conduct on the occasion of my birth made a notable impression upon all who witnessed it; and Mr. Squills and Mrs. Primmins have related the facts to me sufficiently often to make me as well acquainted with them as those worthy witnesses themselves. I fancy I see my father before me, in his dark–gray dressing–gown, and with his odd, half–sly, half–innocent twitch of the mouth, and peculiar puzzling look, from two quiet, abstracted, indolently handsome eyes, at the moment he agreed with Helvetius on the propriety of sending me to school as soon as I was born. Nobody knew exactly what to make of my father,—his wife excepted. The people of Abdera sent for Hippocrates to cure the supposed insanity of Democritus, "who at that time," saith Hippocrates, dryly, "was seriously engaged in philosophy." That same people of Abdera would certainly have found very alarming symptoms of madness in my poor father; for, like Democritus, "he esteemed as nothing the things, great or small, in which the rest of the world were employed." Accordingly, some set him down as a sage, some as a fool. The neighboring clergy respected him as a scholar, "breathing libraries;" the ladies despised him as an absent pedant who had no more gallantry than a stock or a stone. The poor loved him for his charities, but laughed at him as a weak sort of man, easily taken in. Yet the squires and farmers found that, in their own matters of rural business, he had always a fund of curious information to impart; and whoever, young or old, gentle or simple, learned or ignorant, asked his advice, it was given with not more humility than wisdom. In the common affairs of life he seemed incapable of acting for himself; he left all to my mother; or, if taken unawares, was pretty sure to be the dupe. But in those very affairs, if another consulted him, his eye brightened, his brow cleared, the desire of serving made him a new being,—cautious, profound, practical. Too lazy or too languid where only his own interests were at stake, touch his benevolence, and all the wheels of the clock–work felt the impetus of the master–spring. No wonder that, to others, the nut of such a character was hard to crack! But in the eyes of my poor mother, Augustine (familiarly Austin) Caxton was the best and the greatest of human beings; and she ought to have known him well, for she studied him with her whole heart, knew every trick of his face, and, nine times out of ten, divined what he was going to say before he opened his lips. Yet certainly there were deeps in his nature which the plummet of her tender woman's wit had never sounded; and certainly it sometimes happened that, even in his most domestic colloquialisms, my mother was in doubt whether he was the simple, straightforward person he was mostly taken for. There was, indeed, a kind of suppressed, subtle irony about him, too unsubstantial to be popularly called humor, but dimly implying some sort of jest, which he kept all to himself; and this was only noticeable when he said something that sounded very grave, or appeared to the grave very silly and irrational.
That I did not go to school—at least to what Mr. Squills understood by the word "school"—quite so soon as intended, I need scarcely observe. In fact, my mother managed so well—my nursery, by means of double doors, was so placed out of hearing—that my father, for the most part, was privileged, if he pleased, to forget my existence. He was once vaguely recalled to it on the occasion of my christening. Now, my father was a shy man, and he particularly hated all ceremonies and public spectacles. He became uneasily aware that a great ceremony, in which he might be called upon to play a prominent part, was at hand. Abstracted as he was, and conveniently deaf at times, he had heard such significant whispers about "taking advantage of the bishop's being in the neighborhood," and "twelve new jelly–glasses being absolutely wanted," as to assure him that some deadly festivity was in the wind. And when the question of godmother and godfather was fairly put to hire, coupled with the remark that this was a fine opportunity to return the civilities of the neighborhood, he felt that a strong effort at escape was the only thing left. Accordingly, having, seemingly without listening, heard the clay fixed and seen, as they thought, without observing, the chintz chairs in the best drawing–room uncovered (my dear mother was the tidiest woman in the world), my father suddenly discovered that there was to be a great book–sale, twenty miles off, which would last four days, and attend it he must. My mother sighed; but she never contradicted my father, even when he was wrong, as he certainly was in this case. She only dropped a timid intimation that she feared "it would look odd, and the world might misconstrue my father's absence,—had not she better put off the christening?"
"My dear," answered my father, "it will be my duty, by and by, to christen the boy,—a duty not done in a day. At present, I have no doubt that the bishop will do very well without me. Let the day stand, or if you put it off, upon my word and honor I believe that the wicked auctioneer will put off the book–sale also. Of one thing I am quite sure, that the sale and the christening will take place at the same time." There was no getting over this; but I am certain my dear mother had much less heart than before in uncovering the chintz chairs in the best drawing–room. Five years later this would not have happened. My mother would have kissed my father and said, "Stay," and he would have stayed. But she was then very young and timid; and he, wild man, not of the woods, but the cloisters, not yet civilized into the tractabilities of home. In short, the post–chaise was ordered and the carpetbag packed.
"My love," said my mother, the night before this Hegira, looking up from her work, "my love, there is one thing you have quite forgot to settle,—I beg pardon for disturbing you, but it is important!—baby's name: sha' n't we call him Augustine?"
"Augustine," said my father, dreamily,—"why that name's mine."
"And you would like your boy's to be the same?"
"No," said my father, rousing himself. "Nobody would know which was which. I should catch myself learning the Latin accidence, or playing at marbles. I should never know my own identity, and Mrs. Primmins would be giving me pap."
My mother smiled; and putting her hand, which was a very pretty one, on my father's shoulder, and looking at him tenderly, she said: "There's no fear of mistaking you for any other, even your son, dearest. Still, if you prefer another name, what shall it be?"
"Samuel," said my father. "Dr. Parr's name is Samuel."
"La, my love! Samuel is the ugliest name—"
My father did not hear the exclamation; he was again deep in his books. Presently he started up: "Barnes says Homer is Solomon. Read Omeros backward, in the Hebrew manner—"
"Yes, my love," interrupted my mother. "But baby's Christian name?"
"Solomo,—shocking!" said my mother.
"Shocking indeed," echoed my father; "an outrage to common–sense." Then, after glancing again over his books, he broke out musingly: "But, after all, it is nonsense to suppose that Homer was not settled till his time."
"Whose?" asked my mother, mechanically. My father lifted up his finger.
My mother continued, after a short pause., "Arthur is a pretty name. Then there 's William—Henry—Charles Robert. What shall it be, love?"
"Pisistratus!" said my father (who had hung fire till then), in a tone of contempt,—"Pisistratus, indeed!"
"Pisistratus! a very fine name," said my mother, joyfully,—"Pisistratus Caxton. Thank you, my love: Pisistratus it shall be."
"Do you contradict me? Do you side with Wolfe and Heyne and that pragmatical fellow Vico? Do you mean to say that the Rhapsodists—"
"No, indeed," interrupted my mother. "My dear, you frighten me."
My father sighed, and threw himself back in his chair. My mother took courage and resumed.
"Pisistratus is a long name too! Still, one could call him Sisty."
"Siste, Viator," muttered my father; "that's trite!"
"No, Sisty by itself—short. Thank you, my dear."
Four days afterwards, on his return from the book–sale, to my father's inexpressible bewilderment, he was informed that Pisistratus was "growing the very image of him."
When at length the good man was made thoroughly aware of the fact that his son and heir boasted a name so memorable in history as that borne by the enslaver of Athens and the disputed arranger of Homer,—and it was asserted to be a name that he himself had suggested,—he was as angry as so mild a man could be. "But it is infamous!" he exclaimed. "Pisistratus christened! Pisistratus, who lived six hundred years before Christ was born! Good heavens, madam! you have made me the father of an Anachronism."
My mother burst into tears. But the evil was irremediable. An anachronism I was, and an anachronism I must continue to the end of the chapter.
"Of course, sir, you will begin soon to educate your son yourself?" said Mr. Squills.
"Of course, sir," said my father, "you have read Martinus Scriblerus?"
"I don't understand you, Mr. Caxton."
"Then you have not read Aiartinus Scriblerus, Mr. Squills!"
"Consider that I have read it; and what then?"
"Why, then, Squills," said my father, familiarly, "you son would know that though a scholar is often a fool, he is never a fool so supreme, so superlative, as when he is defacing the first unsullied page of the human history by entering into it the commonplaces of his own pedantry. A scholar, sir,—at least one like me,—is of all persons the most unfit to teach young children. A mother, sir,—a simple, natural, loving mother,—is the infant's true guide to knowledge."
"Egad! Mr. Caxton,—in spite of Helvetius, whom you quoted the night the boy was born,—egad! I believe you are right."
"I am sure of it," said my father,—"at least as sure as a poor mortal can be of anything. I agree with Helvetius, the child should be educated from its birth; but how? There is the rub: send him to school forthwith! Certainly, he is at school already with the two great teachers,—Nature and Love. Observe, that childhood and genius have the same master–organ in common,—inquisitiveness. Let childhood have its way, and as it began where genius begins, it may find what genius finds. A certain Greek writer tells us of some man who, in order to save his bees a troublesome flight to Hymettus, cut their wings, and placed before them the finest flowers he could select. The poor bees made no honey. Now, sir, if I were to teach my boy, I should be cutting his wings and giving him the flowers he should find himself. Let us leave Nature alone for the present, and Nature's loving proxy, the watchful mother."
Therewith my father pointed to his heir sprawling on the grass and plucking daisies on the lawn, while the young mother's voice rose merrily, laughing at the child's glee.
"I shall make but a poor bill out of your nursery, I see," said Mr. Squills.
Agreeably to these doctrines, strange in so learned a father, I thrived and flourished, and learned to spell, and make pot–hooks, under the joint care of my mother and Dame Primmins. This last was one of an old race fast dying away,—the race of old, faithful servants; the race of old, tale–telling nurses. She had reared my mother before me; but her affection put out new flowers for the new generation. She was a Devonshire woman; and Devonshire women, especially those who have passed their youth near the sea–coast, are generally superstitious. She had a wonderful budget of fables. Before I was six years old, I was erudite in that primitive literature in which the legends of all nations are traced to a common fountain,—Puss in Boots, Tom Thumb, Fortunio, Fortunatus, Jack the Giant–Killer; tales, like proverbs, equally familiar, under different versions, to the infant worshippers of Budh and the hardier children of Thor. I may say, without vanity, that in an examination in those venerable classics I could have taken honors!
My dear mother had some little misgivings as to the solid benefit to be derived from such fantastic erudition, and timidly consulted my father thereon.
"My love," answered my father, in that tone of voice which always puzzled even my mother to be sure whether he was in jest or earnest, "in all these fables certain philosophers could easily discover symbolic significations of the highest morality. I have myself written a treatise to prove that Puss in Boots is an allegory upon the progress of the human understanding, having its origin in the mystical schools of the Egyptian priests, and evidently an illustration of the worship rendered at Thebes and Memphis to those feline quadrupeds of which they make both religious symbols and elaborate mummies."
"My dear Austin," said my mother, opening her blue eyes, "you don't think that Sisty will discover all those fine things in Puss in Boots!"
"My dear Kitty," answered my father, "you don't think, when you were good enough to take up with me, that you found in me all the fine things I have learned from books. You knew me only as a harmless creature who was happy enough to please your fancy. By and by you discovered that I was no worse for all the quartos that have transmigrated into ideas within me,—ideas that are mysteries even to myself. If Sisty, as you call the child (plague on that unlucky anachronism! which you do well to abbreviate into a dissyllable),—if Sisty can't discover all the wisdom of Egypt in Puss in Boots, what then? Puss in Boots is harmless, and it pleases his fancy. All that wakes curiosity is wisdom, if innocent; all that pleases the fancy now, turns hereafter to love or to knowledge. And so, my dear, go back to the nursery."
But I should wrong thee, O best of fathers! if I suffered the reader to suppose that because thou didst seem so indifferent to my birth, and so careless as to my early teaching, therefore thou wert, at heart, indifferent to thy troublesome Neogilos. As I grew older, I became more sensibly aware that a father's eye was upon me. I distinctly remember one incident, that seems to me, in looking back, a crisis in my infant life, as the first tangible link between my own heart and that calm great soul.
My father was seated on the lawn before the house, his straw hat over his eyes (it was summer), and his book on his lap. Suddenly a beautiful delf blue–and–white flower–pot, which had been set on the window–sill of an upper story, fell to the ground with a crash, and the fragments spluttered up round my father's legs. Sublime in his studies as Archimedes in the siege, he continued to read,—Impavidum ferient ruince!
"Dear, dear!" cried my mother, who was at work in the porch, "my poor flower–pot that I prized so much! Who could have done this? Primmins, Primmins!"
Mrs. Primmins popped her head out of the fatal window, nodded to the summons, and came down in a trice, pale and breathless.
"Oh!" said my mother, Mournfully, "I would rather have lost all the plants in the greenhouse in the great blight last May,—I would rather the best tea–set were broken! The poor geranium I reared myself, and the dear, dear flower–pot which Mr. Caxton bought for me my last birthday! That naughty child must have done this!"
Mrs. Primmins was dreadfully afraid of my father,—why, I know not, except that very talkative social persons are usually afraid of very silent shy ones. She cast a hasty glance at her master, who was beginning to evince signs of attention, and cried promptly, "No, ma'am, it was not the dear boy, bless his flesh, it was I!"
"You? How could you be so careless? and you knew how I prized them both. Oh, Primmins!" Primmins began to sob.
"Don't tell fibs, nursey," said a small, shrill voice; and Master Sisty, coming out of the house as bold as brass, continued rapidly—"don't scold Primmins, mamma: it was I who pushed out the flower–pot."
"Hush!" said nurse, more frightened than ever, and looking aghast towards my father, who had very deliberately taken off his hat, and was regarding the scene with serious eyes wide awake. "Hush! And if he did break it, ma'am, it was quite an accident; he was standing so, and he never meant it. Did you, Master Sisty? Speak!" this in a whisper, "or Pa will be so angry."
"Well," said my mother, "I suppose it was an accident; take care in future, my child. You are sorry, I see, to have grieved me. There's a kiss; don't fret."
"No, mamma, you must not kiss me; I don't deserve it. I pushed out the flower–pot on purpose."
"Ha! and why?" said my father, walking up.
Mrs. Primmins trembled like a leaf.
"For fun!" said I, hanging my head,—"just to see how you'd look, papa; and that's the truth of it. Now beat me, do beat me!"
My father threw his book fifty yards off, stooped down, and caught me to his breast. "Boy," he said, "you have done wrong: you shall repair it by remembering all your life that your father blessed God for giving him a son who spoke truth in spite of fear! Oh! Mrs. Primmins, the next fable of this kind you try to teach him, and we part forever!"
From that time I first date the hour when I felt that I loved my father, and knew that he loved me; from that time, too, he began to converse with me. He would no longer, if he met me in the garden, pass by with a smile and nod; he would stop, put his book in his pocket, and though his talk was often above my comprehension, still somehow I felt happier and better, and less of an infant, when I thought over it, and tried to puzzle out the meaning; for he had away of suggesting, not teaching, putting things into my head, and then leaving them to work out their own problems. I remember a special instance with respect to that same flower–pot and geranium. Mr. Squills, who was a bachelor, and well–to–do in the world, often made me little presents. Not long after the event I have narrated, he gave me one far exceeding in value those usually bestowed on children,—it was a beautiful large domino–box in cut ivory, painted and gilt. This domino–box was my delight. I was never weary of playing, at dominos with Mrs. Primmins, and I slept with the box under my pillow.
"Ah!" said my father one day, when he found me ranging the ivory parallelograms in the parlor, "ah! you like that better than all your playthings, eh?"
"Oh, yes, papa!"
"You would be very sorry if your mamma were to throw that box out of the window and break it for fun." I looked beseechingly at my father, and made no answer.
"But perhaps you would be very glad," he resumed, "if suddenly one of those good fairies you read of could change the domino–box into a beautiful geranium in a beautiful blue–and–white flower–pot, and you could have the pleasure of putting it on your mamma's window–sill."
"Indeed I would!" said I, half–crying.
"My dear boy, I believe you; but good wishes don't mend bad actions: good actions mend bad actions."
So saying, he shut the door and went out. I cannot tell you how puzzled I was to make out what my father meant by his aphorism. But I know that I played at dominos no more that day. The next morning my father found me seated by myself under a tree in the garden; he paused, and looked at me with his grave bright eyes very steadily.
"My boy," said he, "I am going to walk to ―," a town about two miles off: "will you come? And, by the by, fetch your domino–box. I should like to show it to a person there." I ran in for the box, and, not a little proud of walking with my father upon the high–road, we set out.
"Papa," said I by the way, "there are no fairies now."
"What then, my child?"
"Why, how then can my domino–box be changed into a geranium and a blue–and–white flower–pot?"
"My dear," said my father, leaning his hand on my shoulder, "everybody who is in earnest to be good, carries two fairies about with him,—one here," and he touched my heart, "and one here," and he touched my forehead.
"I don't understand, papa."
"I can wait till you do, Pisistratus. What a name!"
My father stopped at a nursery gardener's, and after looking over the flowers, paused before a large double geranium. "Ah! this is finer than that which your mamma was so fond of. What is the cost, sir?"
"Only 7s. 6d.," said the gardener.
My father buttoned up his pocket. "I can't afford it to–day," said he, gently, and we walked out.
On entering the town, we stopped again at a china warehouse. "Have you a flower–pot like that I bought some months ago? Ah! here is one, marked 3s. 6d. Yes, that is the price. Well; when your mamma's birthday comes again, we must buy her another. That is some months to wait. And we can wait, Master Sisty. For truth, that blooms all the year round, is better than a poor geranium; and a word that is never broken, is better than a piece of delf."
My head, which had drooped before, rose again; but the rush of joy at my heart almost stifled me.
"I have called to pay your little bill," said my father, entering the shop of one of those fancy stationers common in country towns, and who sell all kinds of pretty toys and knick–knacks. "And by the way," he added, as the smiling shopman looked over his books for the entry, "I think my little boy here can show you a much handsomer specimen of French workmanship than that work–box which you enticed Mrs. Caxton into raffling for, last winter. Show your domino–box, my dear."
I produced my treasure, and the shopman was liberal in his commendations. "It is always well, my boy, to know what a thing is worth, in case one wishes to part with it. If my young gentleman gets tired of his plaything, what will you give him for it?"
"Why, sir," said the shopman, "I fear we could not afford to give more than eighteen shillings for it, unless the young gentleman took some of these pretty things in exchange."
"Eighteen shillings!" said my father; "you would give that sum! Well, my boy, whenever you do grow tired of your box, you have my leave to sell it."
My father paid his bill and went out. I lingered behind a few moments, and joined him at the end of the street.
"Papa, papa," I cried, clapping my hands, "we can buy the geranium; we can buy the flower–pot." And I pulled a handful of silver from my pockets.
"Did I not say right?" said my father, passing his handkerchief over his eyes. "You have found the two fairies!"
Oh! how proud, how overjoyed I was when, after placing vase and flower on the window–sill, I plucked my mother by the gown and made her follow me to the spot.
"It is his doing and his money!" said my father; "good actions have mended the bad."
"What!" cried my mother, when she had learned all; "and your poor domino–box that you were so fond of! We will go back to–morrow and buy it back, if it costs us double."
"Shall we buy it back, Pisistratus?" asked my father.
"Oh, no—no—no! It would spoil all," I cried, burying my face on my father's breast.
"My wife," said my father, solemnly, "this is my first lesson to our child,—the sanctity and the happiness of self–sacrifice; undo not what it should teach to his dying day."
When I was between my seventh and my eighth year, a change came over me, which may perhaps be familiar to the notice of those parents who boast the anxious blessing of an only child. The ordinary vivacity of childhood forsook me; I became quiet, sedate, and thoughtful. The absence of play–fellows of my own age, the companionship of mature minds, alternated only by complete solitude, gave something precocious, whether to my imagination or my reason. The wild fables muttered to me by the old nurse in the summer twilight or over the winter's hearth,—the effort made by my struggling intellect to comprehend the grave, sweet wisdom of my father's suggested lessons,—tended to feed a passion for revery, in which all my faculties strained and struggled, as in the dreams that come when sleep is nearest waking. I had learned to read with ease, and to write with some fluency, and I already began to imitate, to reproduce. Strange tales akin to those I had gleaned from fairy–land, rude songs modelled from such verse–books as fell into my hands, began to mar the contents of marble–covered pages designed for the less ambitious purposes of round text and multiplication. My mind was yet more disturbed by the intensity of my home affections. My love for both my parents had in it something morbid and painful. I often wept to think how little I could do for those I loved so well. My fondest fancies built up imaginary difficulties for them, which my arm was to smooth. These feelings, thus cherished, made my nerves over–susceptible and acute. Nature began to affect me powerfully; and, from that affection rose a restless curiosity to analyze the charms that so mysteriously moved me to joy or awe, to smiles or tears. I got my father to explain to me the elements of astronomy; I extracted from Squills, who was an ardent botanist, some of the mysteries in the life of flowers. But music became my darling passion. My mother (though the daughter of a great scholar,—a scholar at whose name my father raised his hat if it happened to be on his head) possessed, I must own it fairly, less book–learning than many a humble tradesman's daughter can boast in this more enlightened generation; but she had some natural gifts which had ripened, Heaven knows how! into womanly accomplishments. She drew with some elegance, and painted flowers to exquisite perfection. She played on more than one instrument with more than boarding–school skill; and though she sang in no language but her own, few could hear her sweet voice without being deeply touched. Her music, her songs, had a wondrous effect on me. Thus, altogether, a kind of dreamy yet delightful melancholy seized upon my whole being; and this was the more remarkable because contrary to my early temperament, which was bold, active, and hilarious. The change in my character began to act upon my form. From a robust and vigorous infant, I grew into a pale and slender boy. I began to ail and mope. Mr. Squills was called in.
"Tonics!" said Mr. Squills; "and don't let him sit over his book. Send him out in the air; make him play. Come here, my boy: these organs are growing too large;" and Mr. Squills, who was a phrenologist, placed his hand on my forehead. "Gad, sir, here's an ideality for you; and, bless my soul, what a constructiveness!"
My father pushed aside his papers, and walked to and fro the room with his hands behind him; but he did not say a word till Mr. Squills was gone.
"My dear," then said he to my mother, on whose breast I was leaning my aching ideality—"my dear, Pisistratus must go to school in good earnest."
"Bless me, Austin!—at his age?"
"He is nearly eight years old."
"But he is so forward."
"It is for that reason he must go to school."
"I don't quite understand you, my love. I know he is getting past me; but you who are so clever—"
My father took my mother's hand: "We can teach him nothing now, Kitty. We send him to school to be taught—"
"By some schoolmaster who knows much less than you do—"
"By little schoolboys, who will make him a boy again," said my father, almost sadly. "My dear, you remember that when our Kentish gardener planted those filbert–trees, and when they were in their third year, and you began to calculate on what they would bring in, you went out one morning, and found he had cut them down to the ground. You were vexed, and asked why. What did the gardener say? 'To prevent their bearing too soon.' There is no want of fruitfulness here: put back the hour of produce, that the plant may last."
"Let me go to school," said I, lifting my languid head and smiling on my father. I understood him at once, and it was as if the voice of my life itself answered him.
A year after the resolution thus come to, I was at home for the holidays.
"I hope," said my mother, "that they are doing Sisty justice. I do think he is not nearly so quick a child as he was before he went to school. I wish you would examine him, Austin."
"I have examined him, my dear. It is just as I expected; and I am quite satisfied."
"What! you really think he has come on?" said my mother, joyfully.
"He does not care a button for botany now," said Mr. Squills.
"And he used to be so fond of music, dear boy!" observed my mother, with a sigh. "Good gracious, what noise is that?"
"Your son's pop–gun against the window," said my father. "It is lucky it is only the window; it would have made a less deafening noise, though, if it had been Mr. Squills's head, as it was yesterday morning."
"The left ear," observed Squills; "and a very sharp blow it was too. Yet you are satisfied, Mr. Caxton?"
"Yes; I think the boy is now as great a blockhead as most boys of his age are," observed my father with great complacency.
"Dear me, Austin,—a great blockhead?"
"What else did he go to school for?" asked my father.
And observing a certain dismay in the face of his female audience, and a certain surprise in that of his male, he rose and stood on the hearth, with one hand in his waistcoat, as was his wont when about to philosophize in more detail than was usual to him.
"Mr. Squills," said he, "you have had great experience in families."
"As good a practice as any in the county," said Mr. Squills, proudly; "more than I can manage. I shall advertise for a partner."
"And," resumed my father, "you must have observed almost invariably that in every family there is what father, mother, uncle, and aunt pronounce to be one wonderful child."
"One at least," said Mr. Squills, smiling.
"It is easy," continued my father, "to say this is parental partiality; but it is not so. Examine that child as a stranger, and it will startle yourself. You stand amazed at its eager curiosity, its quick comprehension, its ready wit, its delicate perception. Often, too, you will find some faculty strikingly developed. The child will have a turn for mechanics, perhaps, and make you a model of a steamboat; or it will have an ear tuned to verse, and will write you a poem like that it has got by heart from 'The Speaker;' or it will take to botany (like Pisistratus), with the old maid its aunt; or it will play a march on its sister's pianoforte. In short, even you, Squills, will declare that it is really a wonderful child."
"Upon my word," said Mr. Squills, thoughtfully, "there's a great deal of truth in what you say. Little Tom Dobbs is a wonderful child; so is Frank Stepington—and as for Johnny Styles, I must bring him here for you to hear him prattle on Natural History, and see how well he handles his pretty little microscope."
"Heaven forbid!" said my father. "And now let me proceed. These thaumata, or wonders, last till when, Mr. Squills?—last till the boy goes to school; and then, somehow or other, the thaumata vanish into thin air, like ghosts at the cockcrow. A year after the prodigy has been at the academy, father and mother, uncle and aunt, plague you no more with his doings and sayings: the extraordinary infant has become a very ordinary little boy. Is it not so, Mr. Squills?"
"Indeed you are right, sir. How did you come to be so observant? You never seem to—"
"Hush!" interrupted my father; and then, looking fondly at my mother's anxious face, he said soothingly: "Be comforted; this is wisely ordained, and it is for the best."
"It must be the fault of the school," said my mother, shaking her head.
"It is the necessity of the school, and its virtue, my Kate. Let any one of these wonderful children—wonderful as you thought Sisty himself—stay at home, and you will see its head grow bigger and bigger, and its body thinner and thinner—eh, Mr. Squills?—till the mind take all nourishment from the frame, and the frame, in turn, stint or make sickly the mind. You see that noble oak from the window. If the Chinese had brought it up, it would have been a tree in miniature at five years old, and at a hundred, you would have set it in a flowerpot on your table, no bigger than it was at five,—a curiosity for its maturity at one age; a show for its diminutiveness at the other. No! the ordeal for talent is school; restore the stunted mannikin to the growing child, and then let the child, if it can, healthily, hardily, naturally, work its slow way up into greatness. If greatness be denied it, it will at least be a man; and that is better than to be a little Johnny Styles all its life,—an oak in a pill–box."
At that moment I rushed into the room, glowing and panting, health on my cheek, vigor in my limbs, all childhood at my heart. "Oh, mamma, I have got up the kite—so high Come and see. Do come, papa!"
"Certainly," said my father; "only don't cry so loud,—kites make no noise in rising; yet, you see how they soar above the world. Come, Kate. Where is my hat? Ah!—thank you, my boy."
"Kitty," said my father, looking at the kite, which, attached by its string to the peg I had stuck into the ground, rested calm in the sky, "never fear but what our kite shall fly as high; only, the human soul has stronger instincts to mount upward than a few sheets of paper on a framework of lath. But observe that to prevent its being lost in the freedom of space,—we must attach it lightly to earth; and observe again, my dear, that the higher it soars, the more string we must give it."
When I had reached the age of twelve, I had got to the head of the preparatory school to which I had been sent. And having thus exhausted all the oxygen of learning in that little receiver, my parents looked out for a wider range for my inspirations. During the last two years in which I had been at school, my love for study had returned; but it was a vigorous, wakeful, undreamy love, stimulated by competition, and animated by the practical desire to excel.
My father no longer sought to curb my intellectual aspirings. He had too great a reverence for scholarship not to wish me to become a scholar if possible; though he more than once said to me somewhat sadly, "Master books, but do not let them master you. Read to live, not live to read. One slave of the lamp is enough for a household; my servitude must not be a hereditary bondage."
My father looked round for a suitable academy; and the fame of Dr. Herman's "Philhellenic Institute" came to his ears.
Now, this Dr. Herman was the son of a German music–master who had settled in England. He had completed his own education at the University of Bonn; but finding learning too common a drug in that market to bring the high price at which he valued his own, and having some theories as to political freedom which attached him to England, he resolved upon setting up a school, which he designed as an "Era in the History of the Human Mind." Dr. Herman was one of the earliest of those new–fashioned authorities in education who have, more lately, spread pretty numerously amongst us, and would have given, perhaps, a dangerous shake to the foundations of our great classical seminaries, if those last had not very wisely, though very cautiously, borrowed some of the more sensible principles which lay mixed and adulterated amongst the crotchets and chimeras of their innovating rivals and assailants.
Dr. Herman had written a great many learned works against every pre–existing method of instruction; that which had made the greatest noise was upon the infamous fiction of Spelling–Books: "A more lying, roundabout, puzzle–headed delusion than that by which we Confuse the clear instincts of truth in our accursed systems of spelling, was never concocted by the father of falsehood." Such was the exordium of this famous treatise. For instance, take the monosyllable Cat. What a brazen forehead you must have when you say to an infant, c, a, t,—spell Cat: that is, three sounds, forming a totally opposite compound,—opposite in every detail, opposite in the whole,—compose a poor little monosyllable which, if you would but say the simple truth, the child will learn to spell merely by looking at it! How can three sounds, which run thus to the ear, see–eh–tee, compose the sound cat? Don't they rather compose the sound see–eh–te, or ceaty? How can a system of education flourish that begins by so monstrous a falsehood, which the sense of hearing suffices to contradict? No wonder that the horn–book is the despair of mothers! From this instance the reader will perceive that Dr. Herman, in his theory of education, began at the beginning,—he took the bull fairly by the horns. As for the rest, upon a broad principle of eclecticism, he had combined together every new patent invention for youthful idea–shooting. He had taken his trigger from Hofwyl; he had bought his wadding from Hamilton; he had got his copper–caps from Bell and Lancaster. The youthful idea,—he had rammed it tight! he had rammed it loose! he had rammed it with pictorial illustrations! he had rammed it with the monitorial system! he had rammed it in every conceivable way, and with every imaginable ramrod! but I have mournful doubts whether he shot the youthful idea an inch farther than it did under the old mechanism of flint and steel! Nevertheless, as Dr. Herman really did teach a great many things too much neglected at schools; as, besides Latin and Greek, he taught a vast variety in that vague infinite nowadays called "useful knowledge;" as he engaged lecturers on chemistry, engineering, and natural history; as arithmetic and the elements of physical science were enforced with zeal and care; as all sorts of gymnastics were intermingled with the sports of the playground,—so the youthful idea, if it did not go farther, spread its shots in a wider direction, and a boy could not stay there five years without learning something: which is more than can be said of all schools! He learned at least to use his eyes and his ears and his limbs; order, cleanliness, exercise, grew into habits; and the school pleased the ladies and satisfied the gentlemen,—in a word, it thrived; and Dr. Herman, at the time I speak of, numbered more than one hundred pupils. Now, when the worthy man first commenced the task of tuition, he had proclaimed the humanest abhorrence to the barbarous system of corporal punishment. But alas! as his school increased in numbers, he had proportionately recanted these honorable and anti–birchen ideas. He had—reluctantly, perhaps, honestly, no doubt; but with full determination—come to the conclusion that there are secret springs which can only be detected by the twigs of the divining–rod; and having discovered with what comparative ease the whole mechanism of his little government could be carried on by the admission of the birch–regulator, so, as he grew richer and lazier and fatter, the Philhellenic Institute spun along as glibly as a top kept in vivacious movement by the perpetual application of the lash.
I believe that the school did not suffer in reputation from this sad apostasy on the part of the head–master; on the contrary, it seemed more natural and English,—less outlandish and heretical. And it was at the zenith of its renown when, one bright morning, with all my clothes nicely mended, and a large plum–cake in my box, I was deposited at its hospitable gates.
Amongst Dr. Herman's various whimsicalities there was one to which he had adhered with more fidelity than to the anti–corporal punishment articles of his creed; and, in fact, it was upon this that he had caused those imposing words, "Philhellenic Institute," to blaze in gilt capitals in front of his academy. He belonged to that illustrious class of scholars who are now waging war on our popular mythologies, and upsetting all the associations which the Etonians and Harrovians connect with the household names of ancient history. In a word, he sought to restore to scholastic purity the mutilated orthography of Greek appellatives. He was extremely indignant that little boys should be brought up to confound Zeus with Jupiter, Ares with Mars, Artemis with Diana,—the Greek deities with the Roman; and so rigidly did he inculcate the doctrine that these two sets of personages were to be kept constantly contradistinguished from each other, that his cross–examinations kept us in eternal confusion.
"Vat," he would exclaim to some new boy fresh from some grammar–school on the Etonian system—"Vat do you mean by dranslating Zeus Jupiter? Is dat amatory, irascible, cloud–compelling god of Olympus, vid his eagle and his aegis, in the smallest degree resembling de grave, formal, moral Jupiter Optimus Maximus of the Roman Capitol?—a god, Master Simpkins, who would have been perfectly shocked at the idea of running after innocent Fraulein dressed up as a swan or a bull! I put dat question to you vonce for all, Master Simpkins." Master Simpkins took care to agree with the Doctor. "And how could you," resumed Dr. Herman majestically, turning to some other criminal alumnus,—"how could you presume to dranslate de Ares of Homer, sir, by the audacious vulgarism Mars?—Ares, Master Jones, who roared as loud as ten thousand men when he was hurt; or as you vill roar if I catch you calling him Mars again?—Ares, who covered seven plectra of ground? Confound Ares, the manslayer, with the Mars or Mavors whom de Romans stole from de Sabines!—Mars, de solemn and calm protector of Rome! Master Jones, Master Jones, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!" And then waxing enthusiastic, and warming more and more into German gutturals and pronunciation, the good Doctor would lift up his hands, with two great rings on his thumbs, and exclaim: "Und Du! and dou, Aphrodite,—dou, whose bert de seasons vel–coined! dou, who didst put Atonis into a coffer, and den tid durn him into an anemone! dou to be called Venus by dat snivel–nosed little Master Budderfield!—Venus, who presided over Baumgartens and funerals and nasty tinking sewers!—Venus Cloacina, O mein Gott! Come here, Master Budderfield: I must flog you for dat; I must indeed, liddle boy!" As our Philhellenic preceptor carried his archaeological purism into all Greek proper names, it was not likely that my unhappy baptismal would escape. The first time I signed my exercise I wrote "Pisistratus Caxton" in my best round–hand. "And dey call your baba a scholar!" said the Doctor, contemptuously. "Your name, sir, is Greek; and, as Greek, you vill be dood enough to write it, vith vat you call an e and an o,—P,e,i,s,i,s,t,r,a,t,o,s. Vat can you expect for to come to, Master Caxton, if you don't pay de care dat is proper to your own dood name,—de e, and de o? Ach? let me see no more of your vile corruptions! Mein Gott! Pi! ven de name is Pei!"
The next time I wrote home to my father, modestly implying that I was short of cash, that a trap–bat would be acceptable, and that the favorite goddess amongst the boys (whether Greek or Roman was very immaterial) was Diva Moneta, I felt a glow of classical pride in signing myself "your affectionate Peisistratos." The next post brought a sad damper to my scholastic exultation. The letter ran thus:—
My Dear Son,—I prefer my old acquaintances Thucydides and Pisistratus to Thoukudides and Peisistratos. Horace is familiar to me, but Horatius is only known to me as Cocles. Pisistratus can play at trap–ball; but I find no authority in pure Greek to allow me to suppose that that game was known to Peisistratos. I should be too happy to send you a drachma or so, but I have no coins in my possession current at Athens at the time when Pisistratus was spelt Peisistratos.—Your affectionate father, A. CAXTON.
Verily, here indeed was the first practical embarrassment produced by that melancholy anachronism which my father had so prophetically deplored. However, nothing like experience to prove the value of compromise in this world. Peisistratos continued to write exercises, and a second letter from Pisistratus was followed by the trap–bat.
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