From The Wit and Humor of America, edited by Marshall P. Wilder, Volume III, New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls and Company, 1911; pp. 454-463.
BY LUCRETIA P. HALE
Elizabeth Eliza joined the Circumambient Club with the idea that it would be a long time before she, a new member, would have to read a paper. She would have time to hear the other papers read, and to see how it was done; and she would find it easy when her turn came. By that time she would have some ideas; and long before she would be called upon, she would have leisure to sit down and write out something. But a year passed away, and the time was drawing near. She had, meanwhile, devoted herself to her studies, and had tried to inform herself on all subjects by way of preparation. She had consulted one of the old members of the Club as to the choice of a subject.
“Oh, write about anything,” was the answer, — “anything you have been thinking of.”
Elizabeth Eliza was forced to say she had not been thinking lately. She had not had time. The family had moved, and there was always an excitement about something, that prevented her sitting down to think.
“Why not write on your family adventures?” asked the old member.
Elizabeth Eliza was sure her mother would think it made them too public; and most of the Club papers, she observed, had some thought in them. She preferred to find an idea.
So she set herself to the occupation of thinking. She 455 went out on the piazza to think; she stayed in the house to think. She tried a corner of the china-closet. She tried thinking in the cars, and lost her pocket-book; she tried it in the garden, and walked into the strawberry bed. In the house and out of the house, it seemed to be the same, — she could not think of anything to think of. For many weeks she was seen sitting on the sofa or in the window, and nobody disturbed her. “She is thinking about her paper,” the family would say, but she only knew that she could not think of anything.
Agamemnon told her that many writers waited till the last moment, when inspiration came, which was much finer than anything studied. Elizabeth Eliza thought it would be terrible to wait till the last moment, if the inspiration should not come! She might combine the two ways, — wait till a few days before the last, and then sit down and write anyhow. This would give a chance for inspiration, while she would not run the risk of writing nothing.
She was much discouraged. Perhaps she had better give it up? But, no; everybody wrote a paper: if not now, she would have to do it some time!
And at last the idea of a subject came to her! But it was as hard to find a moment to write as to think. The morning was noisy, till the little boys had gone to school; for they had begun again upon their regular course, with the plan of taking up the study of cider in October. And after the little boys had gone to school, now it was one thing, now it was another, — the china-closet to be cleaned, or one of the neighbors in to look at the sewing-machine. She tried after dinner, but would fall asleep. She felt that evening would be the true time, after the cares of the day were over.
The Peterkins had wire mosquito-nets all over the 456 house, — at every door and every window. They were as eager to keep out the flies as the mosquitoes. The doors were all furnished with strong springs, that pulled the doors to as soon as they were opened. The little boys had practised running in and out of each door, and slamming it after them. This made a good deal of noise, for they had gained great success in making one door slam directly after another, and at times would keep up a running volley of artillery, as they called it, with the slamming of the doors. Mr. Peterkin, however, preferred it to flies.
So Elizabeth Eliza felt she would venture to write of a summer evening with all the windows open.
She seated herself one evening in the library, between two large kerosene lamps, with paper, pen, and ink before her. It was a beautiful night, with the smell of the roses coming in through the mosquito-nets, and just the faintest odor of kerosene by her side. She began upon her work. But what was her dismay! She found herself immediately surrounded with mosquitoes. They attacked her at every point. They fell upon her hand as she moved it to the inkstand; they hovered, buzzing, over her head; they planted themselves under the lace of her sleeve. If she moved her left hand to frighten them off from one point, another band fixed themselves upon her right hand. Not only did they flutter and sting, but they sang in a heathenish manner, distracting her attention as she tried to write, as she tried to waft them off. Nor was this all. Myriads of June-bugs and millers hovered round, flung themselves into the lamps, and made disagreeable funeral-pyres of themselves, tumbling noisily on her paper in their last unpleasant agonies. Occasionally one darted with a rush toward Elizabeth Eliza’s head.
If there was anything Elizabeth Eliza had a terror of it was a June-bug. She had heard that they had a tendency 457 to get into the hair. One had been caught in the hair of a friend of hers, who had long, luxuriant hair. But the legs of the June-bug were caught in it like fish-hooks, and it had to be cut out, and the June-bug was only extricated by sacrificing large masses of the flowing locks.
Elizabeth Eliza flung her handkerchief over her head. Could she sacrifice what hair she had to the claims of literature? She gave a cry of dismay.
The little boys rushed in a moment to the rescue. They flapped newspapers, flung sofa-cushions; they offered to stand by her side with fly-whisks, that she might be free to write. But the struggle was too exciting for her, and the flying insects seemed to increase. Moths of every description — large brown moths, small, delicate white millers — whirled about her, while the irritating hum of the mosquito kept on more than ever. Mr. Peterkin and the rest of the family came in to inquire about the trouble. It was discovered that each of the little boys had been standing in the opening of a wire door for some time, watching to see when Elizabeth Eliza would have made preparations and would begin to write. Countless numbers of dorbugs and winged creatures of every description had taken occasion to come in. it was found that they were in every part of the house.
“We might open all the blinds and screens,” suggested Agamemnon, “and make a vigorous onslaught and drive them all out at once.”
“I do believe there are more inside than out now,” said Solomon John.
“The wire nets, of course,” said Agamemnon, “keep them in now.”
“We might go outside,” proposed Solomon John, “and drive in all that are left. Then to-morrow morning, when 458 they are all torpid, kill them and make collections of them.”
Agamemnon had a tent which he had provided in case he should ever go to the Adirondacks, and he proposed using it for the night. The little boys were wild for this.
Mrs. Peterkin thought she and Elizabeth Eliza would prefer trying to sleep in the house. But perhaps Elizabeth Eliza would go on with her paper with more comfort out of doors.
A student’s lamp was carried out, and she was established on the steps of the back piazza, while screens were all carefully closed to prevent the mosquitoes and insects from flying out. But it was no use. There were outside still swarms of winged creatures that plunged themselves about her, and she had not been there long before a huge miller flung himself into the lamp and put it out. She gave up for the evening.
Still the paper went on. “How fortunate,” exclaimed Elizabeth Eliza, “that I did not put it off till the last evening!” Having once begun, she persevered in it at every odd moment of the day. Agamemnon presented her with a volume of “Synonymes,” which was a great service to her. She read her paper, in its various stages, to Agamemnon first, for his criticism, then to her father in the library, then to Mr. and Mrs. Peterkin together, next to Solomon John, and afterward to the whole family assembled. She was almost glad that the lady from Philadelphia was not in town, as she wished it to be her own unaided production. She declined all invitations for the week before the night of the Club. And on the very day she kept her room with eau sucrée, that she might save her voice. Solomon John provided her with Brown’s Bronchial Troches when the evening came, and Mrs. 459 Peterkin advised a handkerchief over her head, in case of June-bugs.
It was, however, a cool night. Agamemnon escorted her to the house.
The Club met at Ann Maria Bromwick’s. No gentlemen were admitted to the regular meetings. There were what Solomon John called “occasional annual meetings,” to which they were invited, when all the choicest papers of the year were re-read.
Elizabeth Eliza was placed at the head of the room, at a small table, with a brilliant gas-jet on one side. It was so cool the windows could be closed. Mrs. Peterkin, as a guest, sat in the front row.
This was her paper, as Elizabeth Eliza read it, for she frequently inserted fresh expressions: —
It is impossible that much can be known about it. This is why we have taken it up as a subject. We mean the sun that lights us by day and leaves us by night. In the first place, it is so far off. No measuring-tapes could reach it; and both the earth and the sun are moving about us, that it would be difficult to adjust ladders to reach it, if we could. Of course, people have written about it, and there are those who have told us how many miles off it is. But it is a very large a number, with a great many figures in it; and though it is taught in most if not all of our public schools, it is a chance if any one of the scholars remembers exactly how much it is.
It is the same with its size. We can not, as we have said, reach it by ladders to measure it; and if we did reach it, we should have no measuring-tapes large enough, and those that shut up with springs are difficult to use in a high 460 place. We are told, it is true, in a great many of the school-books, the size of the sun; but, again, very few of those who have learned the number have been able to remember it after they have recited it, even if they remembered it then. And almost all of the scholars have lost their school-books, or have neglected to carry them home, and so they are not able to refer to them, — I mean, after leaving school. I must say that is the case with me, I should say with us, though it was different. The older ones gave their school-books to the younger ones, who took them back to school to lose them, or who have destroyed them when there were no younger ones to go to school. I should say there are such families. What I mean is, the fact that in some families there are no younger children to take off the school-books. But even then they are put away on upper shelves, in closets or in attics, and seldom found if wanted, — if then, dusty.
Of course, we all know of a class of persons called astronomers, who might be able to give us information on the subject in hand, and who probably do furnish what information is found in school-books. It should be observed, however, that these astronomers carry on their observations always in the night. Now, it is well known that the sun does not shine in the night. Indeed, that is one of the peculiarities of the night, that there is no sun to light us, so we have to go to bed as long as there is nothing else we can do without its light, unless we use lamps, gas, or kerosene, which is very well for the evening, but would be expensive all night long; the same with candles. How, then, can we depend upon their statements, if not made from their own observation, — I mean, if they never saw the sun?
We can not expect that astronomers should give us any valuable information with regard to the sun, which they 461 never see, their occupation compelling them to be up at night. It is quite likely that they never see it; for we should not expect them to sit up all day as well as all night, as, under such circumstances, their lives would not last long.
Indeed, we are told that their name is taken from the word aster, which means “star;” the word is “aster — know — more.” This, doubtless, means that they know more about the stars than other things. We see, therefore, that their knowledge is confined to the stars, and we can not trust what they have to tell us of the sun.
There are other asters which should not be mixed up with these, — we mean those growing by the wayside in the fall of the year. The astronomers, from their nocturnal habits, can scarcely be acquainted with them; but as it does not come without our province, we will not inquire.
We are left then, to seek our own information about the sun. But we are met with a difficulty. To know a thing, we must look at it. How can we look at the sun? It is so very bright that our eyes are dazzled in gazing upon it. We have to turn away, or they would be put out, — the sight, I mean. It is true, we might use smoked glass, but that is apt to come off on the nose. How, then, if we can not look at it, can we find out about it? The noonday would seem to be the better hour, when it is the sunniest; but, besides injuring the eyes, it is painful to the neck to look up for a long time. It is easy to say that our examination of sis heavenly body should take place at sunrise, when we could look at it more on a level, without having to endanger the spine. But how many people are up at sunrise? Those who get up early do it because they are compelled to, and have something else to do than look at the sun.
The milkman goes forth to carry the daily milk, the 462 ice-man to leave the daily ice. But either of these would be afraid of exposing their vehicles to the heating orb of day, — the milkman afraid of turning the milk, the ice-man timorous of melting his ice — and they probably avoid those directions where they shall meet the sun’s rays. The student, who might inform us, has been burning the midnight oil. The student is not in the mood to consider the early sun.
There remains to us the evening, also, — the leisure hour of the day. But, alas! our houses are not built with an adaptation to this subject. They are seldom made to look toward the sunset. A careful inquiry and close observation, such as have been called for in preparation of this paper, have developed the fact that not a single house in this town faces the sunset! There may be windows looking that way, but in such a case there is always a barn between. I can testify to this from personal observations, because, with my brothers, we have walked through the several streets of this town with note-books, carefully noting every house looking upon the sunset, and have found none from which the sunset could be studied. Sometimes it was the next house, sometimes a row of houses, or its own wood-house, that stood in the way.
Of course a study of the sun might be pursued out of doors. But in summer, sunstroke would be likely to follow; in winter, neuralgia and cold. And how could you consult your books, your dictionaries, your encyclopædias? There seems to be no hour of the day for studying the sun. You might go to the East to see it as its rising, or to the West to gave upon its setting, but — you don’t.
Here Elizabeth Eliza came to a pause. She had written five different endings, and had brought them all, thinking, when the moment came, she would choose one of 50 them. She was pausing to select one, and inadvertently said, to close the phrase, “you don’t.” She had not meant to use the expression, which she would not have thought sufficiently imposing, — it dropped out unconsciously, — but it was received as a close with rapturous applause.
She had read slowly, and now that the audience applauded at such a length, she had time to feel she was much exhausted and glad of an end. Why not stop there, though there were some pages more? Applause, too, was heard from the outside. Some of the gentlemen had come, — Mr. Peterkin, Agamemnon, and Solomon John, with others, — and demanded admission.
“Since it is all over, let them in,” said Ann Maria Bromwick.
Elizabeth Eliza assented, and rose to shake hands with her applauding friends.