Norwood, chapter 5

July 31, 2015

A heroine is born, and one of Beecher’s mouthpieces talks and talks.

NORWOOD;
OR,
VILLAGE LIFE IN NEW ENGLAND.
CHAPTER V.
THE WENTWORTHS.

The night on which Rose Wentworth was born was furnished out with all suitable auguries. It was more nearly morning than night. That was well, to be born as the day was breaking and morning was fresh all on the earth. The dew lay pure on all the ground, and the birds were singing.

The time was late in April, and the resurrection of the vegetable world was going on. If one feels the influence of the seasons upon his natal hour, it was fit that Dr. Wentworth’s first-born should come, not with the wan and waning months of autumn, but in the months of newness, when all things feel the touch of recreative power. The day before had been soft and showery. Southern winds filled the air with moisture and that fragrant smell of soil and the slight balsamic odor of opening buds, which to some sensitive persons is strangely exhilarating, and which stirs the mind with subtle suggestion, and, after the long imprisonment of winter, sets the tremulous imagination into wild delight.

In the afternoon there had been several peals of thunder, which at that early season awakened surprise in all, but which the Doctor accepted as a part of a happy conjunction of natural phenomena significant of his child’s life and fate.

Mother Taft had been waiting at the house for several days. She seemed gently stirred at the sound of thunder. But even thunder could not move her serene nature to more than quiet wonder. Half the children in the village called her Auntie, and grew up with the impression that she was blood kin to them. Her face was young for one of fifty years, white and smooth. Her blue eye never flashed, or glowed, or burned, or pierced, or did any of those violent things to which eyes are addicted. Sad eyes; pitying eyes! For years she had stood a door-keeper for this sad world, and all that came in had begun their life with cries and wails, as if to prophesy their future. Had pity for those born into sorrow and crying at last stamped itself in her very features?

When the thunder broke forth suddenly and rolled away in the distance with softened cadence, Mother Taft moved to the front door. Her walking was of that quiet kind that seems to have no more footsteps in it than has the shadow of a cloud that is gliding along the ground. Dr. Wentworth was coming through the door-yard, noting on every hand the condition of vegetation. The willows had thrown off their silly catkins, and were in leaf; the lilac buds were swollen large; the elm was covered with chocolate-colored blossoms; the pyrus japonica was reddening its clusters of crimson buds; the green-wooded forsythia was pushing yellow flowers; and the soft maple drew bees to its crimson tassels. In the border, peonies were breaking ground; snow-drops and crocuses were in bloom, as also hepaticas. The grass was becoming vividly green, and honeysuckles—especially over the trellis at the front door—were pushing new leaves. Yes, nature was fairly at work! The sap flowed again. Life was ocne more organizing myriads of curious textures and forms with silent forces infinite and almost omnipotent.

The Doctor searched not as one who would take, but only find. When the thunder sounded he bared his head as if he heard some message. His eye brightened with satisfaction, and, as Mother Taft opened the door, he said, softly but solemnly:

“She will hear God’s voice. Flowers live. All things are coming forth. Her time is come. But she must have her crown.”

Calling Pete, a great, black, clumsy-moving fellow, the Doctor said:

“Pete, I want some trailing arbutus; where does it blossom earliest?”

“What?” said Pete, looking perplexed.

“Where can you get the earliest Mayflower?”

“May-flowers—why, on Howlet’s Hill, of course,” said Pete, as if surprised that the Doctor did not know so plain a fact as that.

“Well, Pete, I haven’t been here as long as you have, and don’t know the ins and outs of the fields yet. But bring up the horses and drive me there. Don’t let grass grow under your feet.”

Passing through a pine wood, where no flowers were yet growing, and ascending the hill, through an open wood where hemlock and deciduous trees were mixed, they came near the top to a half cleared space, to the eye brown and barren, except here and there clumps of evergreen kalmias. Pete’s eye was seldom at fault.

“There’s some, Doctor, by that stump; and there’s some beyond, ever so much.” Clearing away the leaves he revealed the sweetest flower that opens to the northern sky. It is content, though lying upon the very ground. It braves the coldest winters. All the summers can not elaborate a perfume so sweet as that which seems to have been born of the very winter. It is like the breath of love. The pure white and pink blossoms, in sweet clusters, lie hidden under leaves, or grass, and often under untimely snows. Blessings on thee! Thou art the fairest, most modest and sweetest-breathed of all our flowers!

Enough for a wreath were soon gathered, and brought home—the fittest emblem wherewith to greet the little damsel.

Near twilight of the next morning, while the air was soft and balmy, and roots were swelling, and buds opening, and blossoms coming forth, and birds singing love-songs in all the trees, was born ROSE WENTWORTH.

Dr. Reuben Wentworth was born in the old town of Norwich, Connecticut, in one of the old pre-revolutionary houses, under the shade of old elms. What with the early colonial history, and the always romantic legends of the Indians, he found the whole region about his birthplace rich in historic incident.

His family originally came from the eastern part of Massachusetts, and to this circumstance, probably, it was owing, that he studied at Harvard University. A respectable student in the regular course, he had the reputation of being very busy with studies outside of the course. He early manifested a strong taste for Natural Science, but was never satisfied with that part which the books contain, but, with an instinct as strong as that which leads an infant to its mother’s breast for food, he turned from the dry descriptions and classifications to the living things themselves. At first, it was almost wholly an instinct, the sensibility of exquisite taste. But to this was added, by gradual unfolding, a rational element, and then a moral sympathy, until he found himself united to the organized system of nature with every part of his being.

This task did not detach him from the love of books, nor of society, nor of art and literature. He had warm sympathy for every thing human, and for all the proper works of man—but under and behind it, was a strong and silent sympathy and alliance with Nature; silent:—for, during all his education, Reuben Wentworth had a vague impression that his tastes, if fully disclosed, would render him liable to the charge of being a dreamer, and a poetical idealist.

The uncle, whose purse had carried him through college, was an old bachelor of fifty years—spry, lean, and chipper—Ebenezer by name. But people are usually overclothed with names; and as men in summer or at work, throw off their superfluous raiment till their arms are bare, so most folks dispense with a portion of their names; and Ebenezer Wentworth passed everywhere as Uncle Eb. He wrote his name Eb. Wentworth—tying them together with a long flourish, as if afraid they would get separated. He used to laugh at people’s names.

“Folks use their children as if they were garret pegs, to hang old clothes on—first a jacket, then a coat, and then another jacket. You have to take them all down to find either one. Our children go trudging all their lives with their load of names, as if they were old Jews returning with an assortment of clothes. People use their children as registers to preserve the names of aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, and so inscribe them with the names of the dead, as if tombstones were not enough.” and so he would run on for an hour, if any one would listen, and even if they did not; for he was a natural talker—talked nearly all the time when awake—no more if men listened to him, no less if they did not. Unlike the race of natural talkers, his conversation contained a great deal of good sense, and of shrewd observation. It was full of whims, too, and ludicrous exaggerations, particularly when any one opposed him. There was no excess and no absurdity which he would ot zealously defend, if some sober and literal man sought logically to corner him. He disputed axioms, refused to admit first principles, laughed at premises, and ran down conclusions, dogmatized and madly asserted, with the merriest and absurdest indifference to all consistency; for which there is no parallel, unless it be that of a very lively horse, in a very large pasture, with a very gouty man trying to catch him.

But this was superficial. At bottom Uncle Eb. was a stern moralist and loyal to the last degree in his conduct to honor and truth.

If you had a pet theory, or an assumptious argument, or a logical brat prigged up with pretentious authority, Uncle Eb. was the most dangerous of men to entrust it with. He was a sore trouble to theologians and a nuisance to theorists. But if you were dying, he was just the man to entrust your estate with. Punctual, exact, sharp, disinterested, but pragmatical, he neither would cheat nor allow cheating. There was no more vaporing, no more wild caracoles of the horse aforesaid, in open fields, but, like the horse in harness, he settled down to his work with edifying sobriety and regularity.

“Well, Reuben, you graduate this summer. What next? What are you going to do? You are pretty well stuffed with trash. It will take several years to forget what you ought not to have learned, and to get rid of the evil effects of foolish instruction. But that will come pretty much of itself. College learning is very much like snow, and the more a man has of it the less can the soil produce. It’s not till practical life melts it that the ground yields anything. Men get over it quicker in some kinds of business than in others. The college sticks longest on ministers and schoolmasters: next, to lawyers; not much to doctors; and none at all to merchants and gentlemen. You can’t afford to be a gentleman, and so you must choose among other callings.”

“Can’t a man, Uncle Eb., be a gentleman in any respectable calling?”

“Oh, dear, no. My gentleman must take all his time to it, spend his life at it, be jealous of everything else. He is a kind of perfect man, a sort of chronometer, for other men to keep time by. One is enough for a whole town. One is enough—two would be a superfluity, and a class of them simply a nuisance. A gentleman should have feeling—but should hide it. People of much sentiment are like fountains, whose overflow keeps a disagreeable puddle about them. He should have knowledge, but not like your educated men of our day whose knowledge sings and crows and cackles with every achievement. His knowledge should be like apples in autumn hanging silently on the bows [sic]—rich, ripe and still. A gentleman should be business-like by instinct. Affairs in his hands come to pass silently and without ado, as nature compasses her results—the vastest range and round of spring work making less noise than one store or shop. I tell you, Reuben, a gentleman is a rare specimen. He requires so much in the making that few are made.”

“But people consider you a gentleman, Uncle Eb.”

“Tut, tut—no ridicule, young man! I am gentlemanly. That’s another thing. I have worked too hard,—showing that I had not enough power. Power works easily. I have fretted too much. Fretting is a perpetual confession of weakness. It says, ‘I want to, and can’t.’ Fretting is like a little dog pawing and whining at a door because he can’t get in. No, no. A gentleman is like a fine piece of statuary, and must not be used, like a caryatide, to hold up porticos or cornices. He must be so fine that he accomplishes more while doing nothing than other men at the start, or he will grow rough in trying to mend matters, and so be like the best of common men, who only succeed in getting ready to live when it is time for them to die.”

“Is not Squire Perkins a gentleman?”

“Good and polite! But not my gentleman. His grain is not fine. His mother was a sailor’s widow, hearty and good-natured, but coarse in substance. All that Judge Perkins can claim is good nature, which is a mere matter of health. Good digestion—you are good-natured; bad digestion—you are morose! One of these days men will call things by their right names. Then they won’t say: he’s of a good disposition; but, he has a good stomach. Half the grace that’s going is nothing but food. Paul said the kingdom was not meat and drink. Very likely not hereafter. But it is here. Good steak and light bread is benevolence. Coffee is inspiration and humor. Good tea is tenderness and sprightliness—facts very humbling of our excellences. But they’re facts. Perkins is a good fellow. But if he was old, had the rheumatism, and was to have his money stolen, he would be as sour as a crab-apple.”

Young Wentworth was amused at his uncle’s crotchets, and loved to oppose him just enough to keep the old gentlem[a]n on the edge of extravagance, without being fairly driven over into absurdity.

“No, Reuben, gentlemen are fore-ordained from all eternity. They can’t be hurried up and put together on order, like a box of shoes for the southern market. A gentleman must see everybody without looking, and know everybody without inquiry, and say just the right thing to everybody without trying to; and, above all, he must make everybody in his presence do the best things they know how to do. That’s the touchstone. I’ve seen men come almost up to it. But then they would let people get angry; they would suffer them to say and do disagreeable things. That will never do. The gentleman is a natural king. He has the intuition of people’s nature, and can tough just the spot in them that is sweetest, and get out of them what they would never have wrought out of themselves. One or two gentlemen are enough for a town. They are steeples, which we put on churches, not on dwelling-houses.”

“Very well, uncle, I will give up being a gentleman. Such a brilliant exception to good and well-bred men I was not born to be. What next?”

“You should never make a clergyman of yourself. You are not bad, but then you’re not good. A man should be born to the pulpit. A musician is one whose brain naturally secretes musical ideas; a poet thinks in blossoms just as naturally as honeysuckles do; an inventor’s head is made to work out mechanical combinations. Men are like trees, each one must put forth the leaf that is created in him. Education is only like good culture—it changes the size but not the sort. The men that ought to preach should be ordained in birth. The laying on of hands can’t make an empty head full, nor a cold heart warm, nor a silent nature vocal. A minister is a genius in moral ideas, as a poet is in beautiful ideas, and an inventor in physical ideas.”

“But are not all men born with moral natures, and may not cultivation develop them?”

“So, many trees have sweet sap besides the maple, but the maple only is so sweet as to be profitable for sugar. Corn-stalks have saccharine matter as well as sugar-cane. But we plant one for grain and the other for sugar, just because it is so easy for one to bear grain, and so hard for it to make sugar; and so easy for the other to yield sugar, and so impossible to give grain. Find out whether a man’s head is fertile in moral ideas. It is not enough that he should know what is right when he sees it. He should see it before it exists. New good, new truth, better justice should suggest itself to him on every side. He is an inventor of better good than men now possess. Your head, Reuben, does not run clear; you think a matter is right if only it is beautiful, with a little touch of wildness in it. Besides, the office of a minister won’t agree with your natural carriage. You would run when you were expected to walk. You have no respect for rules. You would scare every body once a month with some naturalistic notions gathered in your rambling in the fields. Theology, like old Isaac, always puts its nose on its children to see if the smell of the fields is upon them. Isaac blessed Jacob because it was; theology blesses Jacob only when it is not! Natural religion is generally considered as poor stuff. Imported is thought more of than home-made—broadcloth proves better than linsey-woolsey. The church thinks that it will not do to make religion too easy; folks might take it up of themselves. You were not born for a pulpit. Few men are. Pulpits are queer places—candlesticks whose candles won’t burn—learned men, but can’t speak, like deep wells and a pump that won’t fetch water.”

“Ah, uncle, you don’t like ministers, I am afraid. All that I have ever known were capital fellows—manly and sincere. But, as you say, I don’t think I am good enough, and so I promise you upon my honor, that I won’t be a clergyman.”

In early life Uncle Eb. had been deeply wounded in a love affair, and saw his treasure borne off by a young minister. He had never married, and he never quite forgave the profession. But it is only just to say, that while he made cynical speeches about ministers in general, he had conceived the warmest attachment to many clergymen in particular.

“Perhaps you think I’d better be a lawyer?”

“There’s worse things than that. But you would never make your bread at that business. It’s a hot and drastic profession. You will see men chiefly on the selfish side. You will be always making a porridge of somebody’s dirt. Pretty good fellows, lawyers are; but I wonder at it.”

“I declare, uncle, I believe you mean to make a schoolmaster of me.”

“No, sir; a man should never be a schoolmaster. That’s a woman’s business. Be a professor or nothing! Even then it’s a poor business. Who ever heard of a college professor that was not poor? They dry up in pocket like springs after the wood is cut off from the hills. They are apt to get very dry in other ways, too. A man that teaches cannot afford to know too much. A teacher is like a needle. He should be small and sharp. If large, he cannot run easily through the garments to be made. The College President ought to be a great man—a sort of specimen,—something for the boys to remember as a pattern of a man.”

“Well, uncle, as I am not a born gentleman, and can’t make a good minister, am too good to be a lawyer, and must not be a schoolmaster; as I am too fat to be a professor, and not grand enough for a president,—I am afraid I shall have to go to sea for a living; for I am not fit to work, and should sell myself out of house and home, if I was a merchant.”

“There is just one thing left, and a business proper for you; you should be a doctor! You love nature. You love chemistry and botany. You are fond of all curious insearch and occult functions. A doctor, it is true, is everybody’s servant. But you will be left to think and reason, without any master. And the riding, especially in the country, will suit your desultory nature.”

“And, to sum it all up, uncle, you want me to be a doctor, because your father was one, and his father, and your brother, and for fear a link should be missing, you want me to study medicine. That you want it, is enough.”

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