From The Rise and Fall of the Mustache and Other “Hawk-eyetems.” by Robert J. Burdette, Illustrated by R. W. Wallis, Burlington, Iowa: Burlington Publishing Company, 1877; p. 9-58.
WE open our eyes in this living world around us, in a wonder land, peopled with dreams, and haunted with wonderful shapes; and every day dawns upon us in a medley of new marvels. We are awakened from these dreams by contact with hard, stubborn facts, not rudely and harshly, but gradually and tenderly. So much that is bright and beautiful, and full of romance and wonder, passes away with the earlier years of life, that by the time we are able to earn our first salary we hold in our hands only the crumpled, withered leaves of childhood’s simple creeds and loving superstitions. Year after year, the iconoclastic hand of earnest, real life, tears from the lofty pedestals upon which our loving fancy had enshrined them, the gods of gold that crumble into worthless clay at our feet. We live to lose faith, at last, in “Puss in Boots;” we cease to weep over the sad tragedy of “Cock Robin;” there comes a time when we can read “Arabian Nights,” and then go to bed without a tremor; with one heart-breaking pang at last we give up darling “Jack the Giant Killer,” and acknowledge 10 him to be the fraud he stands confessed; it is not long after that, we learn to look upon William Tell as a national myth, and then we come to know, in spite of all that orthodox theology has taught us to the contrary, that Adam was not the first man — that raised a mustached. Adam was too old — when he was born — to care very much about what our grander and more gradually developed civilization considers the crowning facial ornament. And after his natural human idleness got him into perfectly natural human trouble, he was kept too busy raising something to put under his lip, to think much about what grew above it. If Adam wore a mustache, he never raised it. It raised itself. It evolved itself out of its own inner consciousness, like a primordial germ. It grew, like the weeds on his farm, in spite of him, and to torment him. For Adam had hardly got his farm reduced to a kind of turbulent, weed producing, granger fighting, regular order of things — had scarcely settled down to the quiet, happy, care-free, independent life of a jocund farmer, with nothing under the canopy to molest or make him afraid, with every thing on the plantation going on smoothly and lovelily, with a little rust in the oats; army worm in the corn; Colorado beetles swarming up and down the potato patch; cutworms laying waste the cucumbers; curculio in the plums and borers in the apple trees; a new kind of bug that he didn’t know the name of desolating the wheat fields; dry weather burning up the wheat, wet weather blighting the corn; too cold for the melons, too dreadfully hot for the strawberries; chickens dying with the pip; hogs being gathered to their fathers with the cholera; sheep fading away with a complication of things that no man could remember; horses getting along as well as could be expected, with a little spavin, ring bone, wolf teeth, distemper, 11 heaves, blind staggers, collar chafes, saddle galls, colic now and then, founder occasionally, epizootic when there was nothing else; cattle going wild with the horn ail; moth in the bee hives; snakes in the milk house; moles in the kitchen garden — Adam had just about got through breaking wild land with a crooked stick, and settled down comfortably, when the sound of the boy was heard in the land.
Did it ever occur to you that Adam was probably the most troubled and worried man that ever lived? We have always pictured Adam as a care-worn looking man; a puzzled looking granger who could sigh fifty times a day, and sit down on a log and run his irresolute fingers through his hair while he wondered what under the canopy he was going to do with those boys, and whatever was going to become of them. We have thought too, that as often as our esteemed parent asked himself this conundrum, he gave it up. They must have been a source of constant trouble and mystification to him. For you see they were the first boys that was humanity ever had any experience with. And there was no one else in the neighborhood who had any boy, with whom Adam, in his moments of perplexity, could consult. There wasn’t a boy in the country with whom Adam’s boys were on speaking terms, and with whom they could play and fight. Adam, you see, labored under the most distressing disadvantages that ever opposed a married man and the father of a family. He had never been a boy himself, and what could he know about boy nature or boy troubles and pleasures? His perplexity began at an early date. Imagine, if you can, the celerity with which he kicked off the leaves, and paced up and down in the moonlight the first time little Cain made the welkin ring when he had the colic. How 12 did Adam know what ailed him? He couldn’t tell Eve that she had been sticking the baby full of pins. He didn’t even know enough to turn the vociferous infant over on his face and jolt him into serenity. If the fence corners on his farm had been overgrown with catnip, never an idea would Adam have had what to do with it. It is probable that after he got down on his knees and felt for thorns or snakes or rats in the bed, and thoroughly examined young Cain for bites or scratches, he passed him over to Eve with the usual remark, “There, take him and hush him up, for heaven’s sake,” and then went off and sat down under a distant tree with his fingers in his ears, and perplexity in his brain. And young Cain just split the night with the most hideous howls the little world had ever listened to. It must have stirred the animals up to a degree that no menagerie has ever since attained. There was no sleep in the vicinity of Eden that night for anybody, baby, beasts or Adam. And it is more than probable that the weeds got a long start of Adam the next day, while he lay around in shady places and slept in troubled dozes, disturbed, perhaps by awful visions of possible twins and more colic.
And when the other boy came along, and the boys got old enough to sleep in a bed by themselves, they had no pillows to fight with, and it is a moral impossibility for two brothers to go to bed without a fracas. And what comfort could two boys get out of pelting each other with fragments of moss or bundles of brush? What dismal views of future humanity Adam must have received from the glimpses of original sin which began to develop itself in his boys. How he must have wondered what put into their heads the thousand and one questions with which they plied their parents day after day. We wonder what 13 he thought when they first began to string buckeyes on the cat’s tail. And when night came, there was no hired girl to keep the boys quiet by telling them ghost stories, and Adam didn’t even know so much as an anecdote.
Cain, when he made his appearance, was the first and only boy in the fair young world. And all his education depended on his inexperienced parents, who had never in their lives seen a boy until they saw Cain. And there wasn’t an educational help in the market. There wasn’t an alphabet block in the county; not even a Centennial illustrated handkerchief. There were no other boys in the republic, to teach young Cain to lie, and swear, and smoke, and drink, fight, and steal, and thus develop the boy’s dormant statesmanship, and prepare him for the sterner political duties of his maturer years. There wasn’t a pocket knife in the universe that he could borrow — and lose, and when he wanted to cut his finger, as all boys must do, now and then, he had to cut it with a clam shell. There were no country relations upon whom little Cain could be inflicted for two or three weeks at a time, when his wearied parents wanted a little rest. There was nothing for him to play with. Adam couldn’t show him how to make a kite. He had a much better idea of angels’ wings than he had of a kite. And if little Cain had even asked for such a simple bit of mechanism as a shinny club, Adam would have gone out into the depths of the primeval forest and wept in sheer mortification and helpless, confessed ignorance. I don’t wonder that Cain turned out bad. I always said he would. For his entire education depended upon a most ignorant man, who couldn’t have known less if he had tried all his life on a high salary and had a man to help him. And the boy’s education had to be conducted entirely 14 upon the catechetical system; only, in this instance, the boy pupil asked the questions, and his parent teachers, heaven help them, tried to answer them. And they had to answer at them. For they could not take refuge from the steady stream of questions that poured in upon them day after day, by interpolating a fairy story, as you do when your boy asks you questions about something of which you never heard. For how could Adam bring, “Once upon a time,” when with one quick, incisive question, Cain could pin him right back against the dead wall of creation, and make him either specify exactly what time, or acknowledge the fraud? How could Eve tell him about “Jack and the bean stalk,” when Cain, fairly crazy for some one to play with, knew perfectly well there was not, and never had been, another boy on the plantation? And as day by day Cain brought home things in his hands about which to ask questions that no mortal could answer, how grateful his bewildered parents must have been that he had no pockets in which to transport his collections. For many generations came into the fair young world, got into no end of trouble, and died out of it, before a boy’s pocket solved the problem how to make the thing contained seven times greater than the container. The only thing that saved Adam and Eve from interrogational insanity was the paucity of language. If little Cain had possessed the verbal abundance of the language in which men are to-day talked to death, his father’s bald head would have gone down in shining flight to the ends of the earth to escape him, leaving Eve to look after the stock, save the crop, and raise her boy as best she could. Which would have been, 6,000 years ago, as to-day, just like a man.
Because, it was no off hand, absent-minded work answering questions about things in those spacious old 15 days, when there was crowds of room, and everything grew by the acre. When a placid, but exceedingly unanimous looking animal went rolling by, producing the general effect of an eclipse, and Cain would shout, “Oh, lookee, lookee pa! what’s that?” the patient Adam, trying to saw enough kitchen wood to last over Sunday, with a piece of flint, would have to pause and gather up words enough to say:
“That, my son? That is only a mastodon giganteus; he has a bad look, but a Christian temper.”
And then, presently:
“Oh, pop! pop! What’s that over yon?”
“Oh, bother,” Adam would reply; “it’s only a paleotherium, mammalia pachydermata.”
“Oh, yes; theliocomeafterus. Oh! lookee, lookee at this ’un!”
“Where, Cainny? Oh, that in the mud? That’s only an acephala lamelli branchiata. It won’t bite you, but you mustn’t eat it. It’s poison as politics.”
“Whee! See there! see, see, see! What’s him?”
“Oh, that? Looks like a plesiosaurus; keep out of his way; he has a jaw like your mother.”
“Oh, yes; a plenosserus. And what’s that fellow, poppy?”
“That’s a silurus malapterus. Don’t you go near him, for he has the disposition of a Georgia mule.”
“Oh, yes; a slapterus. And what’s this little one?”
“Oh, it’s nothing but an aristolochioid. Where did you get it? There now, quit throwing stones at that acanthopterygian; do you want to be kicked? And keep away from the nothodenatrichomanoides. My stars, Eve! where did he get that anonaceo-hydrocharideo-nymphæoid? Do you never look after him at all? Here, you Cain, get right away down from there, and chase that 16 megalosaurius out of the melon patch, or I’ll set the monopleuro branchian on you.”
Just think of it, Christian man with a family to support, with last year’s stock on your shelves, and a draft as long as a clothes-line to pay to-morrow! Think of it, woman with all a woman’s love and constancy, and a mother’s sympathetic nature, with three meals a day 365 times a year to think of, and the flies to chase out of the sitting-room; think, if your cherub boy was the only boy in the wide wide world, and all his questions which now radiate in a thousand directions among other boys, who tell him lies and help him to cut his eye-teeth, were focused upon you! Adam had only one consolation that has been denied his more remote descendants. His boy never belonged to a base ball club, and never teased his father from the first of November till the last of March for a pair of skates.
Well, you have no time to pity Adam. You have your own boy to look after. Or, your neighbor has a boy, whom you can look after much more closely than his mother does, and much more to your own satisfaction than to the boy’s comfort. Your boy is, as Adam’s boy was, an animal that asks questions. If there were any truth in the old theory of the transmigration of souls, when a boy died he would pass into an interrogation point. And he’d stay there. He’d never get out of it; for he never gets through asking questions. The older he grows the more he asks, and the more perplexing his questions are, and the more unreasonable he is about wanting them answered to suit himself. Why, the oldest boy I ever knew — he was fifty-seven years old, and I went to school to him — could and did ask the longest, hardest, crookedest questions, that no fellow, who used to trade off all his books for a pair of skates and a knife with a corkscrew 17 in it, could answer. And when his questions were not answered to suit him, it was his custom — a custom more honored in the breeches, we used to think, than in the observance — to take up a long, slender, but exceedingly tenacious rod, which lay ever near the big dictionary, and smite with it the boy whose naturally derived Adamic ignorance was made manifest. Ah me, if the boy could only do as he is done by, and ferule the man or the woman who fails to reply to his inquiries, as he is himself corrected for similar shortcomings, what a valley of tears, what a literally howling wilderness he could and would make of this world.
Your boy, asking to-day pretty much the same questions, with heaven knows how many additional ones, that Adam’s boy did, is told, every time he asks one that you don’t know any thing about, just as Adam told Cain fifty times a day, that he will know all about it when he is a man. And so from the days of Cain down to the present wickeder generation of boys, the boy ever looks forward to the time when he will be a man and know everything. That happy, far away, omniscient, unattainable manhood, which never comes to your boy; which would never come to him if he lived a thousand years; manhood, that like boyhood, ever looks forward from to-day to the morrow; still peering into the future for brighter light and broader knowledge; day after day, as its world opens before it, stumbling upon ever new and unsolved mysteries; manhood, whose wisdom is folly and whose light is often darkness, and whose knowledge is selfishness; manhood, that so often looks over its shoulder and glances backward toward boyhood, when its knowledge was at least always equal to its day; manhood, that after groping for years through tangled labyrinths of failing human theories and tottering human wisdom, at last 18 only rises to the sublimity of childhood, only reaches the grandeur of boyhood, and accepts the grandest, eternal truths of the universe, truths that it does not comprehend, truths that it can not, by searching, find out, accepting and believing them with the simple, unquestioning faith of childhood in Truth itself.
And now, your boy, not entirely ceasing to ask questions, begins to answer them, until you stand amazed at the breadth and depth of his knowledge. He asks questions and gets answers of teachers that you and the school board know not of. Day by day, great unprinted books, upon the broad pages of which the hand of nature has traced characters that only a boy can read, are spread out before him. He knows now where the first snowdrop lifts its tiny head, a pearl on the bosom of the barren earth, in the Spring; he knows where the last Indian pink lingers, a flame in the brown and rustling woods, in the autumn days. His pockets are cabinets, from which he drags curious fossils that he does not know the names of; monstrous and hideous beetles and bugs and things that you never saw before, and for which he has appropriate names of his own. He knows where there are three orioles’ nests, and so far back as you can remember, you never saw an oriole’s nest in your life. He can tell you how to distinguish the good mushrooms from the poisonous ones, and poison grapes from good ones, and how he ever found out, except by eating both kinds, is a mystery to his mother. Every root, bud, leaf, berry or bark, that will make any bitter, horrible, semi-poisonous tea, reputed to have marvelous medicinal virtues, he knows where to find, and in the season he does find, and brings home, and all but sends the entire family to the cemetery by making practical tests of his teas.
And as his knowledge broadens, his human superstition 19 develops itself. He has a formula, repeating which nine times a day, while pointing his finger fixedly toward the sun, will cause warts to disappear from the hand, or, to use his own expression, will “knock warts.” If the eight day clock at home tells him it is two o’clock, and the flying leaves of the dandelion declare it as half-past five, he will stand or fall with the dandelion. He has a formula, by which any thing that has been lost may be found. He has, above all things, a natural, infallible instinct for the woods, and can no more be lost in them than a squirrel. If the cow does not come home — and if she is a town cow, like a town man, she does not come home, three nights in the week — you lose half a day of valuable time looking for her. Then you pay a man three dollars to look for her two days longer, or so long as the appropriation holds out. Finally, a quarter sends a boy to the woods; he comes back at milking time, whistling the tune that no man every imitated, and the cow ambles contentedly along before him. He has one particular marble which he regards with about the same superstitious reverence that a pagan does his idol, and his Sunday-school teacher can’t drive it out of him, either. Carnelian, crystal, bull’s eye, china, pottery, boly, blood alley, or commie, whatever he may call it, there is “luck in it.” When he loses this marble, he sees panic and bankruptcy ahead of him, and retires from business prudently, before the crash comes, failing, in true centennial style, with both pockets and a cigar box full of winnings, and a creditors’ meeting in the back room. A boy’s world is open to no one but a boy. You never really revisit the glimpses of your boyhood, much as you may dream of it. After you get into a tail coat, and tight boots, you never again set foot in boy world. You lose this marvelous instinct for the woods, you can’t tell a pig-nut 20 tree from a pecan; you can’t make friends with strange dogs; you can’t make the terrific noises with your mouth, you can’t invent the inimitable signals or the characteristic catchwords of boyhood.
He is getting on, is your boy. He reaches the dime novel age. He wants to be a missionary. Or a pirate. So far as he expresses any preference, he would rather be a pirate, an occupation in which there are more chances for making money, and fewer opportunities for being devoured. He develops a yearning love for school and study about this time, also, and every time he dreams of being a pirate he dreams of hanging his dear teacher at the yard arm in the presence of the delighted scholars. His voice develops, even more rapidly and thoroughly than his morals. In the yard, on the house top, down the street, around the corner; wherever there is a patch of ice big enough for him to break his neck on, or a pond of water deep enough to drown in, the voice of your boy is heard. He whispers in a shout, and converses, in ordinary, confidential moments, in a shriek. He exchanges bits of back-fence gossip about his father’s domestic matters with the boy living in the adjacent township, to which interesting revelations of home life the intermediate neighborhood listens with intense satisfaction, and the two home circles in helpless dismay. He has an unconquerable hatred for company, and an aversion for walking down stairs. For a year or two his feet never touch the stairway in his descent, and his habit of polishing the stair rail by using it as a passenger tramway, soon breaks the other members of the family of the careless habit of setting the hall lamp or the water pitcher on the baluster post. He wears the same size boot as his father; and on the dryest, dustiest days in the year, always manages to convey some mud on 21 the carpets. He carefully steps over the door mat, and until he is about seventeen years old, he actually never knew there was a scraper at the front porch. About this time, bold but inartistic pencil sketches break out mysteriously on the alluring back ground of the wall paper. He asks, with great regularity, alarming frequency, and growing diffidence, for a new hat. You might as well buy him a new disposition. He wears his hat in the air and on the ground far more than he does on his head, and he never hangs it up that he doesn’t pull the hook through the crown; unless the hook breaks off or the hat rack pulls over. He is a perfect Robinson Crusoe in inventive genius. He can make a kite that will fly higher and pull harder than a balloon. He can, and, on occasion, will, take out a couple of the pantry shelves and make a sled that is amazement itself. The mousetrap he builds out of the water pitcher and the family bible is a marvel of mechanical ingenuity. So is the excuse he gives for such a selection of raw material. When suddenly, some Monday morning, the clothes line, without any just or apparent cause or provocation, shrinks sixteen feet, philosophy can not make you believe that Prof. Tice did it with his little barometer. Because, far down the dusty street, you can see Tom in the dim distance, driving a prancing team, six-in-hand, with the missing link. You sent him on an errand. There are three ladies in the parlor. You have waited, as long as you can, in all courtesy, for them to go. They have developed alarming symptoms of staying to tea. And you know there aren’t half enough strawberries to go around. It is only a three minutes’ walk to the grocery, however, and Tom sets off like a rocket, and you are so pleased with his celerity and ready good nature that you want to run after him and kiss him. He is gone a long 22 time, however. Ten minutes become fifteen, fifteen grow into twenty; the twenty swell into the half hour, and your guests exchange very significant glances as the half becomes three-quarters. Your boy returns at last. Apprehension in his downcast eyes, humility in his laggard step, penitence in the appealing slouch of his battered hat, and a pound and a half of shingle nails in his hands. “Mother,” he says, “what else was it you told me to get besides the nails?” And while you are counting your scanty store of berries to make them go round without a fraction, you hear Tom out in the back yard whistling and hammering away, building a dog house with the nails you never told him to get.
Poor Tom, he loves at this age quite as ardently as he makes mistakes and mischief. And he is repulsed quite as ardently as he makes love. If he hugs his sister, he musses her ruffle, and gets cuffed for it. Two hours later, another boy, not more than twenty-two or twenty-three years older than Tom, some neighbor’s Tom, will come in, and will just make the most hopeless, terrible, chaotic wreck of that ruffle that lace or footing can be distorted into. And the only reproof he gets is the reproachful murmur, “Must he go so soon?” when he doesn’t make a movement to go until he hears the alarm clock go off upstairs and the told gentleman in the adjoining room banging around building the morning fires, and loudly wondering if young Mr. Bostwick is going to stay to breakfast?
Tom is at this age set in deadly enmity against company, which he soon learns to regard as his mortal foe. He regards company as a mysterious and eminently respectable delegation that always stays to dinner, invariably crowds him to the second table, never leaves him any of the pie, and generally makes him late for 23 school. Naturally, he learns to love refined society, but in a conservative, non-committal sort of way, dissembling his love so effectually that even his parents never dream of its existence until it is gone.
Poor Tom, his life is not all comedy at this period. Go up to your boy’s room some night, and his sleeping face will preach you a sermon on the griefs and troubles that sometimes weigh his little heart down almost to breaking, more eloquently than the lips of a Spurgeon could picture them. The curtain has fallen on one day’s act in the drama of his active little life. The restless feet that all day long have pattered so far — down dusty streets, over scorching pavements, through long stretches of quiet wooded lanes, along the winding cattle paths in the deep, silent woods; that have dabbled in the cool brook where it wrangles and scolds over the shining pebbles, that have filled your house with noise and dust and racket, are till. The stained hand outside the sheet is soiled and rough, and the cut finger with the rude bandage of the boy’s own surgery, pleads, with a mute, effective pathos of its own, for the mischievous hand that is never idle. On the brown cheek the trace of a tear marks the piteous close of the day’s troubles, the closing scene in a troubled little drama; trouble at school with books that were too many for him; trouble with temptations to have unlawful fun that were too strong for him, as they are frequently too strong for his father; trouble in the street with boys that were too big for home; and at last, in his home, in his castle, his refuge, trouble has pursued him until, feeling utterly friendless and in everybody’s way, he has crawled off to the dismantled den, dignified usually by title of “the boy’s room,” and his overcharged heart has welled up into his eyes, and his last waking breath has broken into a sob, and just as he 24 begins to think that after all, life is only one broad sea of troubles, whose restless billows, in never-ending succession, break and beat and double and dash upon the short shore line of a boy’s life, he has drifted away into the wonderland of a boy’s sleep, where fairy fingers picture his dreams. How soundly, deeply, peacefully he sleeps. No mother, who has never dragged a sleepy boy off the lounge at 9 o’clock, and hauled him off up stairs to bed, can know with what a herculean grip a square sleep takes hold of a boy’s senses, nor how fearfully and wonderfully limp and nerveless it makes him; nor how, in direct antagonism to all established laws of anatomy, it develops joints that work both ways, all the way up and down that boy. And what pen can portray the wonderful enchantments of a boy’s dreamland! No marvelous visions wrought by the weird, strange power of hasheesh, no dreams that come to the sleep of jaded woman or tired man, no ghastly specters that dance attendance upon cold mince pie, but shrink into tiresome, stale, and trifling commonplaces compared with the marvelous, the grotesque, the wonderful, the terrible, the beautiful and the enchanting scenes and people of a boy’s dreamland. This may be owing, in a great measure, to the fact that the boy never relates his dream until all the other members of the family have related theirs: and then he comes in, like a back country, with the necessary majority; like the directory of a western city, following the census of a rival town.
Tom is a miniature Ishamaelite at this period of his career. His hand is against every man, and about every man’s hand, and nearly every woman’s hand, is against him, off and on. Often, and then the iron enters his soul, the hand that is against him holds the slipper. He wears his mother’s slipper on his jacket quite as often as 25 she wears it on her foot. And this is all wrong, unchristian and impolitic. It spreads the slipper and discourages the boy. When he reads in his Sunday-school lesson that the wicked stand in slippery places, he takes it as a direct personal reference, and he is affronted, and maybe the seeds of atheism are implanted in his breast. Moreover, this repeated application of the slipper not only sours his temper, and gives a bias to his moral ideas, but it sharpens his wits. How many a Christian mother, her soft eyes swimming in tears of real pain that plashed up from the depths of a loving heart, as she bent over her wayward boy until his heartrending wails and piteous shrieks drowned her own choking, sympathetic sobs, has been wasting her strength, and wearing out a good slipper, and pouring out all that priceless flood of mother love and duty and pity and tender sympathy upon a concealed atlas-back, or a Saginaw shingle.
It is a historical fact that no boy is ever whipped twice for precisely the same offense. He varies and improves a little on every repetition of the prank, until at last he reaches a point where detection is almost impossible. He is a big boy then, and glides almost imperceptibly from the discipline of his father, under the surveillance of the police.
By easy stages he passes into the uncomfortable period of boyhood. His jacket develops into a tail-coat. The boy of to-day, who is slipped into a hollow, abbreviated mockery of a tail-coat, when he is taken out of long dresses, has no idea — not the faintest conception of the grandeur, the momentous importance of the epoch in a boy’s life that was marked by the transition from the old-fashioned cadet roundabout to the tail-coat. It is an experience that heaven, ever chary of its choicest blessings, and mindful of the decadence of the race of boys, 26 has not vouchsafed to the untoward, forsaken boys of this wicked generation. When the roundabout went out of fashion, the heroic race of boys passed away from earth, and weeping nature sobbed and broke the moulds. The fashion that started a boy of six years on his pilgrimage of life in a miniature edition of his father’s coat, marked a period of retrogression in the affairs of men, and stamped a decaying and degenerate race. There are no boys now, or very few at least, such as peopled the grand old earth when the men of our age were boys. And that it is so, society is to be congratulated. The step from the roundabout to the tail-coat was a leap in life. It was the boy Iulus, doffing the prætexta and flinging upon his shoulders the toga virilis of Julius: Patroclus, donning the armor of Achilles, in which to go forth and be Hectored to death.
Tom is slow to realize the grandeur of that tail-coat, however, on its trial trip. How differently it feels from his good, snug-fitting, comfortable old jacket. It fits him too much in every direction, he knows. Every now and then he stops, with a gasp of terror, feeling positive, from the awful sensation of nothingness about the neck, that the entire collar has fallen off in the street. The tails are prairies, the pockets are caverns, and the back is one vast, illimitable stretching waste. How Tom sidles along as close to the fence as he can scrape, and what a wary eye he keeps in every direction for other boys. When he forgets the school, he is half tempted to feel proud of his toga; but when he thinks of the boys, and the reception that awaits him, his heart sinks, and he is tempted to go back home, sneak up stairs, and rescue his worn old jacket from the rag-bag. He glances in terror at his distorted shadow on the fence, and, confident that it is a faithful outline of his figure, he knows that he has 27 worn his father’s coat off by mistake. He tries various methods of buttoning his coat, to make it conform more harmoniously to his figure and his ideas of the eternal fitness of things. He buttons just the lower button, and immediately it flies all abroad at the shoulders, and he beholds himself an exaggerated mannikin of “Cap’n Cuttle.” Then he fastens just the upper button, and the frantic tails flap and flutter like a clothes-line in a cyclone. Then he buttons it all up, a la militaire, and tries to look soldierly, but the effect is so theological-studently that it frightens him until his heart stops beating. As he reaches the last friendly corner that shields him from the pitiless gaze of the boys he can hear howling and shrieking not fifty yards away, he pauses to give the final adjustment to the manly and unmanageable raiment. It is bigger and looser, flappier and wrinklier than ever. New and startling folds, and unexpected wrinkles, and uncontemplated bulges develop themselves, like masked batteries, just when and where their effect will be the most demoralizing. And a new horror discloses itself at this trying and awful juncture. He wants to lie down on the sidewalk and try to die. For the first time he notices the color of his coat. Hideous! He has been duped, swindled, betrayed — made a monstrous idiot by that silver-tongued salesman, who has palmed off upon him a coat 2,000 years old; a coat that the most sweetly enthusiastic and terribly misinformed women’s missionary society would hesitate to offer a wild Hottentot; and which the most benighted, old-fashioned Hottentot that ever disdained clothes, would certainly blush to wear in the dark, and would probably decline with thanks. Oh madness! The color is no color. It is all colors. It is a brindle — a veritable, undeniable brindle. There must have been a fabulous amount 28 of brindle cloth made up into boys’ first coats, sixteen or eighteen or nineteen years ago; because, out of 894 — I like to be exact in the use of figures, because nothing else in the world lends such an air of profound truthfulness to a discourse — out of 894 boys I knew in their first tail-coat period, 893 came to school in brindle coats. And the other one — the 894th boy — made his wretched debut in a bottle-green toga, with dreadful glaring brass buttons. He left school very suddenly, and we always believed that the angesl saw him in that coat, and ran away with him. But Tom, shivering with apprehension, and faint with mortification over the discovery of this new horror, gives one last despairing scrooch of his shoulders, to make the coat look shorter, and, with a final frantic tug at the tails, to make it appear longer, steps out from the protecting ægis of the corner, is stunned with a vocal hurricane of “Oh, what a coat!” and his cup of misery is as full as a rag-bag in three minutes.
Passing into the tail coat period, Tom awakens to a knowledge of the broad physical truth, that he has hands. He is not very positive in his own mind how many. At times he is ready to swear to an even two; one pair; good hand. Again, when cruel fate and the non-appearance of some one else’s brother has compelled him to accompany his sister to a church sociable, he can see eleven; and as he sits bolt upright in the grimmest of straight-back chairs, plastered right up against the wall, as the “sociable” custom is, or used to be, trying to find enough unoccupied pockets in which to sequester all his hands, he is dimly conscious that hands should come in pairs, and vaguely wonders, if he has only five pair of regularly ordained hands, where this odd hand came from. And hitherto, Tom has been content to 29 encase his feet in anything that would stay on them. Now, however, he has an eye for a glove-fitting boot, and learns to wreathe his face in smiles, hollow, heartless, deceitful smiles, while his boots are as full of agony as a broken heart, and his tortured feet cry out for vengeance upon the shoemaker, and make Tom feel that life is a hollow mockery and there is nothing real but soft corns and bunions.
And: His mother never cuts his hair again. Never. When Tom assumes the manly gown she has looked her last upon his head, with trimming ideas. His hair will be trimmed and clipped, barberously it may be, but she will not be acscissory before the fact. She may sometimes long to have her boy kneel down before her, while she gnaws around his terrified locks with a pair of scissors that were sharpened when they were made; and have since then cut acres of calico, and miles and miles of paper, and great stretches of cloth, and snarls and coils of string; and furlongs of damp wick; and have snuffed candles; and dug refractory corks out of the family ink bottle; and punched holes in skate straps; and trimmed the family nails; and have even done their level best, at the annual struggle, to cut stove-pipe lengths in two; and have successfully opened oyster and fruit cans; and pried up carpet tacks; and have many a time and oft gone snarlingly and toilsomely around Tom’s head, and made him an object of terror to the children in the street, and made him look so much like a yearling colt with the run of a bur pasture, that people have been afraid to approach him too suddenly, lest he should jump through his collar and run away.
He feels, too, the dawning consciousness of another grand truth in the human economy. It dawns upon his 30 deepening intelligence with the inherent strength and the unquestioned truth of a new revelation, that man’s upper lip was designed by nature for a mustache pasture. How tenderly reserved he is when he is brooding over this momentous discovery. With what exquisite caution and delicacy are his primal investigations conducted. In his microscopical researches, it appears to him that the down on his upper lip is certainly more determined down; more positive, more pronounced, more individual fuzz than that which vegetates in neglected tenderness upon his cheeks. He makes cautious explorations along the land of promise with the tip of his tenderest finger, delicately backing up the grade the wrong way, going always against the grain, that he may the more readily detect the slightest symptom of an uprising by the first feeling of velvety resistance. And day by day he is more and more firmly convinced that there is in his lip, the primordial germs, the protoplasm of a glory that will, in its full development, eclipse even the majesty and grandeur of his first tail coat. And in the first dawning consciousness that the mustache is there, like the vote, and only needs to be brought out, how often Tom walks down to the barber shop, gazes longingly in at the window, and walks past. And how often, when he musters up sufficient courage to go in, and climbs into the chair, and is just on the point of huskily whispering to the barber that he would like a shave, the entrance of a man with a beard like Frederick Barbarossa, frightens away his resolution, and he has his hair cut again. The third time that week, and it is so short that the barber has to hold it with his teeth while he files it off, and parts it with a straight edge and a scratch awl. Naturally, driven from the barber chair, Tom casts longing eyes upon the ancestral shaving machinery at 31 home. And who shall say by what means he at length obtains possession of the paternal razor? No one. Nobody knows. Nobody ever did know. Even the searching investigation that always follows the paternal demand for the immediate extradition of whoever opened a fruit can with that razor, which always follows Tom’s first shave, is always, and ever will be, barren of results. All that we know about it is, that Tom holds the razor in his hand about a minute, wondering what to do with it, before the blade falls across his fingers and cuts every one of them. First blood claimed and allowed, for the razor. Then he straps the razor furiously. Or rather, he razors the strap. He slashes and cuts that passive implement in as many directions as he can make motions with the razor. He would cut it oftener if the strap lasted longer. Then he nicks the razor against the side of the mug. Then he drops it on the floor and steps on it and nicks it again. They are small nicks, not so large by half as a saw tooth, and he flatters himself his father will never see them. Then he soaks the razor in hot water, as he has seen his father do. Then he takes it out, at a temperature anywhere under 980° Fahrenheit, and lays it against his cheek, and raise a blister there the size of the razor, as he never saw his father do, but as his father most assuredly did, many, many years before Tom met him. Then he makes a variety of indescribable grimaces and labial contortions in a frenzied effort to get his upper lip into approachable shape, and at last, the first offer he makes at his embryo mustache, he slashes his nose with a vicious upper cut. He gashes the corners of his mouth; wherever those nicks touch his cheek they leave a scratch apiece, and he learns what a good nick in a razor is for, and at last when he lays the blood stained weapon down, his gory lip looks 32 as though it has just come out of a long, stubborn, exciting contest with a straw cutter.
But he learns to shave, after a while — just before he cuts his lip clear off. He has to take quite a course of instruction, however, in that great school of experience about which the old philosopher had a remark to make. It is a grand old school; the only school at which men will study and learn, each for himself. One man’s experience never does another man any good; never did and never will teach another man anything. If the philosopher had said that it was a hard school, but that some man would learn at no other than this grand old school of experience, we might have inferred that all women, and most boys, and a few men were exempt from its hard teachings. But he used the more comprehensive term, if you remember what that is, and took us all in. We have all been there. There is no other school, in fact. Poor little Cain; dear, lonesome, wicked little Cain — I know it isn’t fashionable to pet him; I know it is popular to speak harshly and savagely about our eldest brother, when the fact is we resemble him more closely in disposition than any other member of the family — poor little Cain never knew the difference between his father’s sunburned nose and a glowing coal, until he had pulled the one and picked up the other. And Abel had to find out the difference in the same way, although he was told five hundred times, by his brother’s experience, that the coal would burn him and the nose wouldn’t. And Cain’s boy wouldn’t believe that fire was any hotter than an icicle, until he made a digital experiment, and understood why they called it fire. And so Enoch and Methusaleh, and Moses, and Daniel, and Solomon, and Cæsar, and Napoleon, and Washington, and the President, and the Governor, and the Mayor, and you and I have all 33 of us, at one time or another, in one way or another, burned our fingers at the same old fires that have scorched human fingers in the same monotonous old ways, at the same reliable old stands, for the past 6,000 years; and all the verbal instruction between here and the silent grave couldn’t teach us so much, or teach it so thoroughly, as one well directed singe. And a million of years from now — if this weary old world may endure so long — when human knowledge shall fall a little short of the infinite, and all the lore and erudition of this wonderful age will be but the primer of that day of light — the baby that is born into the world of knowledge and wisdom and progress, rich with all the years of human experience, will cry for the lamp, and, the very first time that opportunity favors it, will try to pull the flame up by the roots, and will know just as much as ignorant, untaught, stupid little Cain knew on the same subject. Year after year, century after unfolding century, how true it is that the lion on the fence is always bigger, fiercer, and more given to majestic attitudes and dramatic situations than the lion in the tent. And yet it costs us, often as the circus comes around, fifty cents to find that out.
But while we have been moralizing, Tom’s mustache has taken a start. It has attained the physical density, though not he color, by any means, of the Egyptian darkness — it can be felt; and it is felt, very soft felt. The world begins to take notice of the new-comer; and Tom, as generations of Toms before him have done, patiently endures dark hints from other members of the family about his face being dirty. He loftily ignores his experienced father’s suggestions that he should perform his tonsorial toilet with a spoonful of cream and the family cat. When his sisters, in meekly dissembled ignorance and innocence, inquire, “Tom, what have 34 you on your lip?” he is austere, as becomes a man annoyed by the frivolous small talk of women. And when his younger brother takes advantage of the presence of a numerous company in the house, to shriek over the baluster up stairs, apparently to any boy anywhere this side of China, “Tom’s a raisin’ mustashers!” Tom smiles, a wan, neglected-orphan smile; a smile that looks as though it had come up on his face to weep over the barrenness of the land; a perfect ghost of a smile, as compared with the rugged 7 X 9 smiles that play like animated crescents over the countenance of the company. But the mustache grows. It comes on apace; very short in the middle, very no longer at the ends, and very blonde all round. Whenever you see such a mustache, do not laugh at it; do not point at it the slow, unmoving finger of scorn. Encourage it; speak kindly of it; affect admiration for it; coax it along. Pray for it — for it is a first. They always come that way. And when, in the fullness of time, it has developed so far that it can be pulled, there is all the agony of making it take color. It is worse, and more obstinate, and more deliberate than a meerschaum. The sun, that tans Tom’s cheeks and blisters his nose, only bleaches his mustache. Nothing ever hastens its color; nothing does it any permanent good; nothing but patience, and faith, and persistent pulling.
With all the comedy there is about it, however, this is the grand period of a boy’s life. You look at them, with their careless, easy, natural manners and movements in the streets and on the base ball ground, and their marvelous, systematic, indescribably, inimitable and complex awkwardness in your parlors, and do you never dream, looking at these young fellows, of the overshadowing destinies awaiting them, the mighty struggles mapped out in the earnest future of their lives, the thrilling conquests 35 in the world of arms, the grander triumphs in the realm of philosophy, the fadeless laurels in the empire of letters, and the imperishable crowns that he who giveth them the victory binds about their brows, that wait for the courage and ambition of these boys? Why, the world is at a boy’s feet; and power and conquest and leadership slumber in his rugged arms and care-free heart. A boy sets his ambition at whatever mark he will — lofty or groveling, as he may elect — and the boy who resolutely sets his heart on fame, on wealth, on power, on what he will; who consecrates himself to a life of noble endeavor, and lofty effort; who concentrates every faculty of his mind and body on the attainment of his one darling point; who brings to support his ambition courage and industry and patience, can trample on genius; for these are better and grander than genius; and he will begin to rise above his fellows as steadily and as surely as the sun climbs above the mountains. Hannibal, standing before the Punic altar fires and in the lisping accents of childhood swearing eternal hatred to Rome, was the Hannibal at twenty-four years commanding the army that swept down upon Italy like a mountain torrent, and shook the power of the mistress of the world, bid her defiance at her own gates, while affrighted Rome huddled and cowered under the protecting shadows of her walls. Napoleon, building snow forts at school and planning mimic battles with his playfellows, was the lieutenant of artillery at sixteen years, general of artillery and the victor of Toulon at twenty-four, and at last Emperor — not by the paltry accident of birth which might happen to any man, however unworthy, but by the manhood and grace of his own right arm, and his own brain, and his own courage and dauntless ambition — Emperor, with his foot on the throat of prostrate Europe. Alexander, 36 daring more in his boyhood than his warlike father could teach him, and entering upon his all conquering career at twenty-four, was the boy whose vaulting ambition only paused in its dazzling flight when the world lay at his feet. And the fair-faced soldiers of the Empire, they who rode down upon the bayonets of the English squares at Waterloo, when the earth rocked beneath their feet and the incense smoke from the altars of the battle god shut out the sun and sky above their heads, who, with their young lives streaming from their gaping wounds, opened their pallid lips to cry, “Vive L’Empereur,” as they died for honor and France, were boys — schoolboys — the boy conscripts of France, torn from their homes and their schools to stay the failing fortunes of the last grand army and the Empire that was tottering to its fall. You don’t know how soon these happy-go-lucky young fellows, making summer hideous with base ball slang, or gliding around a skating rink on their backs, may hold the state and its destinies in their grasp; you don’t know how soon these boys may make and write the history of the hour; how soon they alone may shape events and guide the current of public action; how soon one of them may run away with your daughter or borrow money of you.
Certain it is, there is one thing Tom will do, just about this period of his existence. He will fall in love with somebody before his mustache is long enough to wax.
Perhaps one of the earliest indications of this event, for it does not always break out in the same manner, is a sudden and alarming increase in the number and variety of Tom’s neck-ties. In his boxes and on his dressing case, his mother is constantly startled by the changing and increasing assortment of the display. Monday he encircles his tender throat with a lilac knot, 37 fearfully and wonderfully tied. A lavender tie succeeds the following day. Wednesday is graced with a sweet little tangle of pale, pale blue, that fades at a breath; Thursday is ushered in with a scarf of delicate pea green, of wonderful convolutions and sufficiently expansive, by the aid of a clean collar, to conceal any little irregularity in Tom’s wash day; Friday smiles on a sailor’s knot of dark blue, with a tangle of dainty forget-me-nots embroidered over it: Saturday tones itself down to a quiet, unobtrusive, neutral tint or shade, scarlet or yellow, and Sunday is deeply, darkly, piously black. It is difficult to tell whether Tom is trying to express the state of his distracted feelings by his neckties, or trying to find a color that will harmonize with his mustache, or match Laura’s dress.
And during the variegated necktie period of man’s existence how tenderly that mustaches is coaxed and petted and caressed. How it is brushed to make it lie down and waxed to make it stand out, and how he notes its slow growth, and weeps and mourns and prays and swears over it day after weary day. And now, if ever, and generally now, he buys things to make it take color. But he never repeats this offense against nature. He buys a wonderful dye, warranted to “produce a beautiful glossy black or brown at one application, without stain or injury to the skin.” Buys it at a little shabby, round the corner, obscure drug store, because he is not known there. And he tells the assassin who sells it him, that he is buying it for a sick sister. And the assassin knows that he lies. And in the guilty silence and solitude of his own room, with the curtains drawn, and the door locked, Tom tries the virtues of that magic dye. It gets on his fingers and turns them black, to the elbow. It burns holes in his handkerchief when he tries to rub the 38 malignant poison off his ebony fingers. He applies it to his silky mustache, real camel’s hair, very cautiously and very tenderly, and with some misgivings. It turns his lip so black it makes the room dark. And out of all the clouds and the darkness and the sable splotches that pall every thing else in Plutonian gloom, that mustache smiles out, grinning like some ghastly hirsute specter, gleaming like the moon through a rifted storm cloud, unstained, untainted, unshaded; a natural, incorruptible blonde. That is the last time anybody fools Tom on hair dye.
The eye he has for immaculate linen and faultless collars. How it amazes his mother and sisters to learn that there isn’t a shirt in the house fit for a pig to wear, and that he wouldn’t wear the best collar in his room to be hanged in.
And the boots he crowds his feet into! A Sunday-school room, the Sunday before the pic-nic or the Christmas tree, with its sudden influx of new scholars, with irreproachable morals and ambitious appetites, doesn’t compare with the overcrowded condition of those boots. Too tight in the instep; too narrow at the toes; too short at both ends; the only things about those boots that don’t hurt him, that don’t fill his very soul with agony, are the straps. When Tom is pulling them on, he feels that if somebody would kindly run over him three or four times, with a freight train, the sensation would be pleasant and reassuring and tranquilizing. The air turns black before his starting eyes, there is a roaring like the rush of many waters in his ears, he tugs at the straps that are cutting his fingers in two and pulling his arms out by the roots, and just before his bloodshot eyes shoot clear out of his head, the boot comes on — or the straps fall off. Then when he stands up, the 39 earth rocks beneath his feet, and he thinks he can faintly hear the angels calling him home. And when he walks across the floor the first time his standing in the church and the Christian community is ruined forever. Or would be if any once could hear what he says. He never, never, never gets to be so old that he can not remember those boots, and if it is seventy years afterward his feet curl up in agony at the recollection. The first time he wears them, he is vaguely aware, as he leaves his room that there is a kind of “fixy” look about him, and his sisters’ tittering is not needed to confirm this impression. He has a certain, half-defined impression that every thing he has on is a size too small for any other man of his size. That his boots are a trifle snug, like a house with four rooms for a family of thirty-seven. That the hat which sits so lightly on the crown of his head is jaunty but limited, like a junior clerk’s salary; that his gloves are a neat fit, and can’t be buttoned with a stump machine. Tom doesn’t know all this: he has only a general, vague impression that it may be so. And he doesn’t know that his sisters know every line of it. For he has lived many years longer, and got in ever so much more trouble, before he learns that one bright, good, sensible girl — and I believe they are all that — will see and notice more in a glance, remember it more accurately, and talk more about it, than twenty men can see in a week. Tom does not know, for his crying feet will not let him, how he gets from his room to the earthly paradise where Laura lives. Nor does he know, after he gets there, that Laura sees him trying to rest one foot by setting it up on the heel. And she sees him sneak it back under his chair, and tilt it up on the toe for a change. She sees him ease the other foot a little by tugging the heel of the boot at the leg of the chair. A 40 hazardous, reckless, presumptuous experiment. Tom tries it so far one night, and slides his heel so far up the leg of his boot, that his foot actually feels comfortable, and he thinks the angels must be rubbing it. He walks out of the parlor sideways that night, trying to hide the cause of the sudden elongation of one leg, and he hobbles all the way home in the same disjointed condition. But Laura sees that too. She sees all the littlie knobs and lumps on his foot, and sees him fidget and fuss, she sees the look of anguish flitting across his face under the heartless, deceitful, veneering of smiles, and she makes the mental remark that master Tom would feel much happier, and much more comfortable, and more like staying longer, if he had worn his father’s boots.
But on his way to the house, despite the distraction of his crying feet, how many pleasant, really beautiful, romantic things Tom thinks up and recollects and compiles and composes to say to Laura, to impress her with his originality, and wisdom, and genius, and bright exuberant fancy and general superiority over all the rest of Tom kind. Real earnest things, you know; no hollow, conventional compliments, or nonsense, but such things, Tom flatters himself, as none of the other fellows can or will say. And he has them all in beautiful order when he gets at the foot of the hill. The remark about the weather, to begin with; not the stereotyped old phrase, but a quaint, droll, humorous conceit that no one in the world but Tom could think of. Then, after the opening overture about the weather, something about music and Beethoven’s sonata in B flat, and Hayden’s symphonies, and of course something about Beethoven’s grand old Fifth symphony, somebody else’s mass, in heaven knows how many flats; and then something about art, and a 41 profound thought or two on science and philosophy, and so on to poetry and from poetry to “business.”
But alas, when Tom reaches the gate, all these well ordered ideas display evident symptoms of breaking up; as he crosses the yard, he is dismayed to know that they are in the convulsions of a panic, and when he touches the bell knob, every, each, all and several of the ideas, original and compiled, that he has had on any subject during the past ten years, forsake him and return no more that evening. When Laura opened the door he had intended to say something real splendid about the imprisoned sunlight of something, beaming out a welcome upon the what you may call it of the night or something. Instead of which he says, or rather gasps: “Oh, ye, to be sure; to be sure; ho.” And then, conscious that he has not said anything particularly brilliant or original, or that most any of the other fellows could not say with a little practice, he makes one more effort to redeem himself before he steps into the hall, and adds, “Oh, good morning; good morning.” Feeling that even this is only a partial success, he collects his scattered faculties for one united effort and inquires: “How is your mother?” And then it strikes him that he has about exhausted the subject, and he goes into the parlor, and sits down, and just as soon as he has placed his reproachful feet in the least agonizing position, he proceeds to wholly, completely and successfully forget everything he ever knew in his life. He returns to consciousness to find himself, to his own amazement and equally to Laura’s bewilderment, conducting a conversation about the crops, and a new method of funding the national debt, subjects upon which he is about as well informed as the town clock. He rallies, and makes a successful effort to turn the conversation 42 into literary channels by asking her if she has read “Daniel Deronda,” and wasn’t it odd that George Washington Eliot should name her heroine “Grenadine,” after a dress pattern? And in a burst of confidence he assures her that he would not be amazed if it should rain before morning, (and he hopes it will, and that it may be a flood, and that he may get caught in it, without an ark nearer than Cape Horn.) And so, at last, the first evening passes away, and after mature deliberation and many unsuccessful efforts he rises to go. But he does not go. He wants to; but he doesn’t know how. He says good evening. Then he repeats it in a marginal reference. Then he puts it in a foot note. Then he adds the remark in an appendix, and shakes hands. By this time he gets as far as the parlor door, and catches hold of the knob and holds on to it as tightly as though some one on the other side were trying to pull it through the door and run away with it. And he stands there a fidgetty stature of the door holder. He mentions, for not more than the twentieth time that evening that he is passionately fond of music but he can’t sing. Which is a lie; he can. Did she go to the Centennial? “No.” “Such a pity” — he begins, but stops in terror, lest she may consider his condolence a reflection upon her financial standing. Did he go? Oh, yes; yes; he says, absently, he went. Or, that is to say, no, not exactly. He did not exactly go to the Centennial; he staid at home. In fact, he had not been out of town this Summer. Then he looks at the tender little face; he looks at the brown eyes, sparkling with suppressed merriment; he looks at the white hands, dimpled and soft, twin daughters of the snow; and the fairy pictures grows more lovely as he looks at it, until his heart outruns his fears; he must speak, he must say something impressive and ripe with meaning, for how can he 43 go away with this suspense in his breast? His heart trembles as does his hand; his quivering lips part, and — Laura deftly hides a vagrom yawn behind her fan. Good night, and Tom is gone.
There is a dejected droop to the mustache that night, when in the solitude of his own room Tom releases his hands from the despotic gloves, and tenderly soothes two of the reddest, puffiest feet that every crept out of boots not half their own size, and swore in mute, but eloquent anatomical profanity at the whole race of bootmakers. And his heart is nearly as full of sorrow and bitterness as his boots. It appears to him that he showed off to the worst possible advantage; he is dimly conscious that he acted very like a donkey, and he has the not entirely unnatural impression that she will never want to seem him again. And so he philosophically and manfully makes up his mind never, never, never, to think of her again. And then he immediately proceeds, in the manliest and most natural way in the world, to think of nothing and nobody else under the sun for the next ten hours. How the tender little face does haunt him. He pitches himself into bed with an aimless recklessness that tumbles pillows, bolster, and sheets into one shapeless, wild, chaotic mass, and he goes through the motions of going to sleep, like a man who would go to sleep by steam. He stands his pillow up on end, and pounds it into a wad, and he props his head upon it as though it were the guillotine block. He lays it down and smooths it out level, and pats all the wrinkles out of it, and there is more sleeplessness in it to the square inch than there is in the hungriest mosquito that ever sampled a martyr’s blood. He gets up and smokes like a patent stove, although not three hours ago he told Laura that he de - tes - ted tobacco.44
This is the only time Tom will ever go through this, in exactly this way. It is the one rare golden experience, the one bright, rosy dream of his life. He may live to be as old as an army overcoat, and he may marry as many wives as Brigham Young, singly, or in a cluster, but this will come to him but once. Let him enjoy all the delightful misery, all the ecstatic wretchedness, all the heavenly forlornness of it as best he can. And he does take good, solid, edifying misery out of it. How he does torture himself and hate Smith, the empty headed donkey, who can talk faster than poor Tom can think, and whose mustache is black as Tom’s boots, and so long that he can pull one end of it with both hands. And how he does detest that idiot Brown, who plays and sings, and goes up there every time Tom does, and claws over a few old forgotten five-finger exercises and calls it music; who comes up there, some night when Tom thinks he has the evening and Laura all to himself, and brings up an old, tuneless, voiceless, cracked guitar, and goes crawling around in the wet grass under the windows and makes night perfectly hideous with what he calls a serenade. And he speaks French, too, the beast. Poor Tom; when Brown’s lingual accomplishments in the language of Charlemagne are confined to — “aw — aw — er ah — vooly voo?” and on state occasions to the additional grandeur of “avy voo mong shapo?” But poor Tom who once covered himself with confusion by telling Laura that his favorite in “Robert le Diable” was the beautiful aria, “Robert toy que jam,” considers Brown a very prodigal in linguistic attainments; another Cardinal Mezzofanti; and hates him for it accordingly. And he hates Daubs, the artist, too, who was up there one evening and made an off hand crayon sketch of her in an album. The picture looked much more like Daubs’ 45 mother, and Tom knew it, but Laura said it was oh just delightfully, perfectly splendid, and Tom has hated Daubs most cordially ever since. In fact, Tom hates every man who has the temerity to speak to her, or whom she may treat with lady-like courtesy. Until there comes one night when the boots of the inquisition pattern sit more lightly on their suffering victims. When Providence has been on Tom’s side and has kept Smith and Daubs and Brown away, and has frightened Tom nearly to death by showing him no one in the little parlor with its old-fashioned furniture but himself and Laura and the furniture. When, almost without knowing how or why, they talk about life and its realities instead of the last concert or the next lecture; when they talk of their plans, and their day dreams and aspirations, and their ideals of real men and women; when they talk about the heroes and heroines of days long gone by, grey and dim in the ages that are ever made young and new by the lives of noble men and noble women who lived, and did, and never died in those grand old days, but lived and live on, as imperishable and fadeless in their glory as the glittering stars that sang at creation’s dawn. When the room seems strangely silent when their voices hush; when the flush of earnestness upon her face gives it a tinge of sadness that makes it more beautiful than ever; when the dream and picture of a home Eden, and home life, and home love, grows every moment more lovely, more entrancing to him until at last poor blundering, stupid Tom, speaks without knowing what he is going to say, speaks without preparation or, rehearsal, speaks, and his honest, natural, manly heart touches his faltering lips with eloquence and tenderness and earnestness that all the rhetoric in the world never did and never will inspire, and ——. That is all we know about 46 it. Nobody knows what is said or how it is done. Nobody. Only the silent stars or the whispering leaves, or the cat, or maybe Laura’s younger brother, or the hired girl, who generally bulges in just as Tom reaches the climax. All the rest of us know about it is, that Tom doesn’t come away so early that night, and that when he reaches the door he holds a pair of dimpled hands instead of the insensate door knob. He never clings to that door knob again; never. Unless ma, dear ma, has been so kind as to bring in her sewing and spend the evening with them. And Tom doesn’t hate anybody, nor want to kill anybody in the wide, wide world, and he feels just as good as though he had just come out of a six months’ revival; and is happy enough to borrow money of his worst enemy.
But, there is no rose without a thorn. Although, I suppose, on an inside computation, there is, in this weary old world as much as, say a peck, or a peck and a half possibly, of thorns without their attendant roses. Just the raw, bare thorns. In the highest heaven of his newly found bliss, Tom is suddenly recalled to earth and its miseries by a question from Laura which falls like a plummet into the unrippled sea of the young man’s happiness, and fathoms its depth in the shallowest place. “Has her own Tom” — as distinguished from countless other Toms, nobody’s Toms, unclaimed Toms, to all intents and purposes swamp lands on the public matrimonial domain — “Has her own Tom said anything to pa?” “Oh, yes! pa;” Tom say, “To be sure; yes.” Grim, heavy browed, austere pa. The living embodiment of business. Wiry, shrewd, the life and mainspring of the house of Tare and Tret. “’M. Well. N’ no,” Tom had not exactly, as you might say, poured out his heart to pa. Somehow or other he had a rose-colored 47 idea that the thing was going to go right along in this way forever. Tom had an idea that the programme was all arranged, printed and distributed, rose-colored, gilt-edged, and perfumed. He was going to sit and hold Laura’s hands, pa was to stay down at the office, and ma was to make her visits to the parlor as much like angels’, for their rarity and brevity, as possible. But he sees, now that the matter has been referred to, that it is a grim necessity. And Laura doesn’t like to see such a spasm of terror pass over Tom’s face; and her coral lips quiver a little as she hides her flushed face out of sight on Tom’s shoulder, and tells him how kind and tender pa has always been with her, until Tom feels positively jealous of pa. And she tells him that he must not dread going to see him, for pa will be oh so glad to know how happy, happy, happy he can make his little girl. And as she talks of him, the hard working, old-fashioned, tender-hearted old man, who loves his girls as though he were yet only a big boy, her heart grows tenderer, and she speaks so earnestly and eloquently that Tom, at first savagely jealous of him, is persuaded to fall in love with the old gentleman — he calls him “Pa,” too, now, — himself.
But by the following afternoon this feeling is very faint. And when he enters the counting room of Tare & Tret, and stands before pa — Oh, land of love, how could Laura ever talk so about such a man. Stubbly little pa; with a fringe of the most obstinate and wiry gray hair standing all around his bald, bald head; the wiriest, grizzliest mustache bristling under his nose; a tuft of tangle beard under the sharp chin, and a raspy undergrowth of a week’s run on the thin jaws; business, business, business, in every line of the hard, seamed face, and profit and loss, barter and trade, dicker and bargain, in 48 every movement of the nervous hands. Pa; old business! He puts down the newspaper a little way, and looks over the top of it as Tom announces himself, glancing at the young man with a pair of blue eyes the peer through old-fashioned iron-bowed spectacles, that look as though they had known these eyes and done business with them ever since they wept over their A B C’s or peeped into the tall stone jar Sunday afternoon to look for the doughnuts.
Tom, who had felt all along there could be no inspiration on his part in this scene, has come prepared. At least he has his last true statement at his tongue’s end when he entered the counting room. But now, it seems to him that if he had been brought up in a circus, and cradled inside of a sawdust ring, and all his life trained to twirl his hat, he couldn’t do it better, nor faster, nor be more utterly incapable of doing anything else. At last he swallows a lump in his throat as big as a ballot box, and faintly gasps, “Good morning.” Mr. Tret hastens to recognize him. “Eh? oh; yes; yes; yes; I see; young Bostwick, from Dope &’ Middlerib’s. Oh yes. Well —?” “I have come, sir,” gasps Tom, thinking all around the word from Cook’s explorations to “Captain Riley’s Narrative,” for the first line of that speech that Tare & Tret have just scared out of him so completely that he doesn’t believe he ever knew a word of it. “I have come —” and he thinks if his lips didn’t get so dry and hot they make his teeth ache, that he could get along with it; “I have, sir, — come, Mr. Tret; Mr. Tret; sir — I have come — I am come —” “Yes, ye-es,” says Mr. Tret, in the wildest bewilderment, but in no very encouraging tones, thinking the young man probably wants to borrow money; “Ye-es; I see you’ve come. Well; that’s all right; glad to see you. Yes, you’ve 49 come?” Tom’s hat is now making about nine hundred and eighty revolutions per minute, and apparently not running up to half its full capacity. “Sir; Mr. Tret,” he resumes, “I have come, sir; Mr. Tret — I am here to — to sue — to sue, Mr. Tret — I am here to sue —” “Sue, eh?” the old man explodes sharply, with a belligerent rustle of the newspaper; “sue Tare & Tret, eh? Well, that’s right, young man; that’s right. Sue, and get damages. We’ll give you all the law you want.” Tom’s head is so hot, and his heart is so cold, that he thinks they must be about a thousand miles apart. “Sir,” he explains, “that isn’t it. It isn’t that. I only want to ask — I have long known — Sir,” he adds, as the opening lines of his speech come to him like a message from heaven, “Sir, you have a flower, a tender lovely blossom; chaste as the snow that crowns the mountain’s brow; fresh as the breath of morn; lovelier than the rosy-fingered hours that fly before Aurora’s car; pure as the lily kissed by dew. This precious blossom, watched by your paternal eyes, the object of your tender care and solicitude, I ask of you. I would wear it in my heart, and guard and cherish it — and in the —” “Oh-h, ye-es, yes, yes,” the old man says soothingly, beginning to see that Tom is only drunk, “Oh yes, yes, I don’t know much about them myself; my wife and the girls generally keep half the windows in the house littered up with them. Winter and Summer, every window so full of house plants the sun can’t shine it. Come up to the house, they’ll give you all you can carry away, give you a hat full of ’em.” “No, no, no; you don’t understand,” says poor Tom, and old Mr. Tret now observes that Tom is very drunk indeed. “It isn’t that, sir. Sir, that isn’t it. I — I — I want to marry your daughter!” And there it is at last, as bluntly as though Tom had wadded it into a gun 50 and shot it at the old man. Mr. Tret does not say any thing for twenty seconds. Tom tells Laura that evening that it was two hours and a half before her father opened his head. Then he says, “Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes; to be sure; to — be — sure.” And then the long pause is dreadful. “Yes, yes. Well, I don’t know. I don’t know about that, young man. Said any thing to Jennie about it?” “It isn’t Jennie,” Tom gasps, seeing a new Rubicon to cross; “its ——” “Oh, Julie, eh? well, I don’t ——” “No, sir,” interjects the despairing Tom, “it isn’t Julie, it’s ——” “Sophie, eh? Oh, well, Sophie ——” “Sir,” says Tom, “if you please, sir, it isn’t Sophie, its ——” “Not Minnie, surely? Why, Minnie is hardly — well, I don’t know. Young folks get along faster than ——” “Dear Mr. Tret,” breaks in the distracted lover, “it’s Laura.”
As they sit and stand there, looking at each other, the dingy old counting-room, with the heavy shadows lurking in every corner, with its time-worn heavy brown furnishings, with the scanty dash of sunlight breaking in through the dusty window, looks like an old Rubens painting; the beginning and the finishing of a race: the old man, nearly ready to lay his armor off, glad to be so nearly and so safely through with the race and the fight that Tom, in all his inexperience and with all the rash enthusiasm and conceit of a young man, is just getting ready to run and fight, or fight and run, you never can tell which until he is through with it. And the old man, looking at Tom, and through him, and past him, feels his old heart throb almost as quickly as does that of the young man before him. For looking down a long vista of happy, eventful years, bordered with roseate hopes and bright dreams and anticipations, he sees a tender face, radiant with smiles and kindled with blushes; he feels a 51 soft hand drop into his own with its timid pressure; he sees the vision open, under the glittering summer stars, down mossy hillsides, where the restless breezes, sighing through the rustling leaves, whispered their tender secret to the noisy katydids; strolling along the winding paths, deep in the bending wild grass, down in the star-lit aisles of the dim old woods; loitering where the meadow brook sparkles over the white pebbles or murmurs around the great flat stepping-stones; lingering on the rustic foot-bridge, while he gazes into eyes eloquent and tender in their silent love-light; up through the long pathway of years, flecked and checkered with sunshine and cloud, with storm and calm, through years of struggle, trial, sorrow, disappointment out at last into the grand, glorious, crowning beauty and benison of hard-won and well-deserved success, until he sees now this second Laura, re-imaging her mothers as she was in the dear old days. And he roused from his dream with a start, and he tells Tom he’ll “Talk it over with Mrs. Tret, and see him again in the morning.”
And so they are duly and formally engaged; and the very first thing they do, they make the very sensible, though very uncommon, resolution to so conduct themselves that no one will ever suspect it. And they succeed admirably. No one ever does suspect it. They come into church in time to hear the benediction — every time they come together. They shun all other people when church is dismissed, and are seen to go home alone the longest way. At pic-nics they are missed not more than fifty times a day, and are discovered sitting under a tree, holding each other’s hands, gazing into each other’s eyes and saying — nothing. When he throws her shawl over her shoulders, he never looks at what he is doing, but looks straight into her starry eyes, throws the shawl right 52 over her natural curls, and drags them out by the hairpins. If, at sociable or festival, they are left alone in a dressing-room a second and a half, Laura emerges with her ruffle standing around like a railroad accident; and Tom has enough complexion on his shoulder to go around a young ladies’ seminary. When they drive out, they sit in a buggy with a seat eighteen inches wide, and there is two feet of unoccupied room at either end of it. Long years afterward, when they drive, a street car isn’t too wide for them; and when they walk you could drive four loads of hay between them.
And yet, as carefully as they guard their precious little secret, and as cautious and circumspect as they are in their walk and behavior, it gets talked around that they are engaged. People are so prying and suspicious.
And so the months of their engagement run on; never before, or since, time flies so swiftly — unless, it may be, some time when Tom has an acceptance in bank to meet in two days, that he can’t lift one end of — and the wedding day dawns, fades, and the wedding is over. Over, with its little circle of delighted friends, with hits ripples of pleasure and excitement, with its touches of home love and home life, that leave their lasting impress upon Laura’s heart, although Tom, with man-like blindness, never sees one of them. Over, with ma, with the thousand and one anxieties attendant on the grand event in her daughter’s life hidden away under her dear old smiling face, down, away down under the tender, glistening eyes, deep in the loving heart; ma, hurrying here and fluttering there, in the intense excitement of something strangely made up of happiness and grief, of apprehension and hope; ma, with her sudden disappearances and flushed reappearances, indicating struggles and triumphs in the turbulent world down stairs; ma, 53 with the new-fangled belt, with the dinner-plate buckles, fastened on wrong side foremost, and the flowers dangling down the wrong side of her head, to Sophie’s intense horror and pantomimic telegraphy; ma, flying here and there, seeing that every thing is going right, from kitchen to dressing-rooms; looking after everything and everybody, with her hands and heart just as full as they will hold, and more voices calling “ma,” from every room in the house, than you would think one hundred mas could answer. But she answers them all, and she sees after everything, and just in the nick of time prevents Mr. Tret from going down stairs and attending the ceremony in a loud-figured dressing-gown and green slippers; ma, who, with the quivering lip and glistening eyes, has to be cheerful, and lively, and smiling; because, if, as she thinks of the dearest and best of her flock going away from her fold, to put her life and her happiness into another’s keeping, she gives way for one moment, a dozen reproachful voices cry out, “Oh-h ma!” How it all comes back to Laura, like the tender shadows of a dream, long years after the dear, dear face, furrowed with marks of patient suffering and loving care, rests under the snow and the daisies; when the mother love that glistened in the tender eyes has closed in darkness on the dear old home; and the nerveless hands, crossed in dreamless sleep upon the pulseless breast, can never again touch the children’s heads with caressing gestures; how the sweet vision comes to Laura, as it shone on her wedding morn, rising in tenderer beauty through the blinding tears her own excess of happiness calls up, as the rainbow spans the cloud only through the mingling of the golden sunshine and the falling rain.
And pa, dear old shabby pa, whose clothes will not fit him as they fit other men; who always dresses just a 54 year and a half behind the style; pa, wandering up and down through the house, as though he were lost in his own home, pacing through the hall like a sentinel, blundering aimlessly and listlessly into rooms where he has no business, and being repelled therefrom by a chorus of piercing shrieks and hysterical giggling; pa, getting off his well worn jokes with an assumption of merriment that seems positively real; pa, who creeps away by himself once in a while, and leans his face against the window, and sighs, in direct violation of all strict household regulations, right against the glass, as he thinks of his little girl going away to-day from the home whose love and tenderness and patience she has known so well. Only yesterday, it seems to him, the little baby girl, bringing the fist music of baby prattle into his home; then a little girl in short-dresses, with school-girl troubles and school-girl pleasures; then an older little girl, out of school and into society, but a little girl to pa still. And then ——. But, somehow, this is as far as pa can get; for he sees, in the flight of this, the first, the following flight of the other fledglings; and he thinks how silent and desolate the old nest will be when they have all mated and flown away. He thinks, when their flight shall have made other homes bright and cheery and sparkling, with music and prattle and laughter, how it will leave the old home hushed and quiet and still. How, in the long, lonesome afternoons, mother will sit by the empty cradle that rocked them all, murmuring the sweet old cradle songs that brooded over all their sleep, until the rising tears check the swaying cradle and choke the song — and back, over river and prairie and mountain, that roll and stretch and rise between the old home and the new ones, comes back the prattle of her little ones, the rippling music of their laughter, the tender cadences 55 of their songs, until the hushed old home is haunted by memories of its children — gray and old they may be, with other children clustering about their knees; but to the dear old home they are “the children” still. And dreaming thus, when pa for a moment finds his little girl alone — his little girl who is going away out of the home whose love she knows, into a home whose tenderness and patience are all untried — he holds her in his arms and whispers the most fervent blessing that ever throbbed from a father’s heart; and Laura’s wedding day would be incomplete and unfeeling without her tears. So is the pattern of our life made up of smiles and tears, shadow and sunshine. Tom sees none of these background pictures of the wedding day. He sees none of its real, heartfelt earnestness. He sees only the bright, sunny tints and happy figures that the tearful, shaded background throws out in golden relief; but never stops to think that, without the shadows, the clouds, and the somber tints of the background, the picture would be flat, pale, and lusterless.
And then, the presents. The assortment of brackets, serviceable, ornamental, and — cheap. The French clock, that never went, that does not go, that never will go. And then nine potato mashers. The eight mustard spoons. The three cigar stands. Eleven match safes; assorted patterns. A dozen tidies, charity fair styles, blue dog on a yellow background, barking at a green boy climbing over a red fence, after seal brown apples. The two churns, old pattern, straight handle and dasher, and they have as much thought of keeping a cow as they have of keeping a section of artillery. Five things they didn’t know the names of, and never could find any body who could tell what they were for. And a nickel plated pocket corkscrew, that Tom, in a fine burst of indignation, 56 throws out of the window, which Laura says is just like her own impulsive Tom. And not long after her own impulsive Tom catches his death of cold and ruins the knees of his best trowsers crawling around in the wet grass hunting for that same corkscrew. Which is also just like her own impulsive Tom.
And then, the young people go to work and buy e-v-e-r-y thing they need, the day they go to housekeeping. Every thing. Just as well, Tom says, to get every thing at once and have it delivered right up at the house, as to spend five or six or ten or twenty years in stocking up a house, as his father did. And Laura thinks so too, and she wonders that Tom should know so much more than his father. This worries Tom himself, when he thinks of it, and he never rightly understands how it is, until he is forty-five or fifty years old and has a Tom of his own to direct and advise him. So they make out a list, and revise it, and rewrite it, until they have every thing down, complete, and it isn’t until supper is ready the first day, that they discover there isn’t a knife, a fork, or a plate or a spoon in the new house. And the first day the washerwoman comes, and the water is hot, and the clothes are all ready, it is discovered that there isn’t a wash-tub nearer than the grocery. And further along in the day the discovery is made that while Tom has bought a clothes line that will reach to the north pole and back, and then has to be coiled up a mile or two in the back yard, there isn’t a clothes pin in the settlement. And in the course of a week or two, Tom slowly awakens to the realization of the fact that he has only begun to get. And if he should live two thousand years, which he rarely odes, and possibly may not, he would think, just before he died, of something they had wanted the worst way for five centuries, and had either been too poor 57 to get, or Tom had always forgotten to bring up. So long as he lives, Tom goes on bringing home things that they need — absolute, simple necessities, that were never so much as hinted at in that exhaustive list. And old Time comes along, and knowing that the man in that new house will never get through bringing things up to it, helps him out and comes around and brings things, too. Brings a gray hair now and then, to stick in Tom’s mustache, which has grown too big to be ornamental, and too wayward and unmanageable to be comfortable. He brings little cares and little troubles, and little trials and little butcher bills, and little grocer’s bills, and little tailor bills, and nice large millinery bills, that pluck at Tom’s mustache and stroke it the wrong way and make it look more and more as pa’s did the first time Tom saw it. He brings, by and by, the prints of baby fingers and pats them around on the dainty wall paper. Brings, some times, a voiceless messenger that lays its icy fingers on the baby lips, and hushes their dainty prattle, and in the baptism of its first sorrow, the darkened little home has its dearest and tenderest tie to the upper fold. Brings, by and by, the tracks of a boy’s muddy boots, and scatters them all up and down the clean porch. Brings a messenger, one day, to take the younger Tom away to college. And the quiet the boy leaves behinds is so much harder to endure than his racket, that old Tom is tempted to keep a brass band in the house until the boy comes back. But old Time brings him home at last, and it does make life seem terribly real and earnest to Tom, and how the old laugh rings out and ripples all over Laura’s face, when they see old Tom’s first mustached budding and struggling into second life on young Tom’s face.
And still old Time comes round, bringing each year 58 whiter frosts to scatter on the whitening mustache, and brighter gleams of silver to glint the brown of Laura’s hair. Bringing the blessings of peaceful old age and a lovelocked home to crown those noble, earnest, real human lives, bristling with human faults, marred with human mistakes, scarred and seamed and rifted with human troubles, and crowned with the compassion that only perfection can sent upon imperfection. Comes, with happy memories of the past, and quiet confidence for the future. Comes, with the changing scenes of day and night; with winter’s storm and summer’s calm; comes, with the sunny peace and the backward dreams of age; comes, until one day, the eye of the relentless old reaper rests upon old Tom, standing right in the swarth, amid the golden corn. The sweep of the noiseless scythe that never turns its edge. Time passes on, old Tom steps out of young Tom’s way, and the cycle of a life is complete.