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OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
MY LAST WALK WITH THE SCHOOLMISTRESS *
(From The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table)
(A Parenthesis) I can't say just how many walks she and I had taken together before this one. I found the effect of going out every morning was decidedly favorable on her health. Two pleasing dimples, the places for which were just marked when she came, played, shadowy, in her freshening cheeks when she smiled and nodded good morning to me from the schoolhouse steps.
I am afraid I did the greater part of the talking. At any rate, if I should try to report all that I said during the first half-dozen walks we took together, I fear that I might receive a gentle hint from my friends the publishers that a separate volume, at my own risk and expense, would be the proper method of bringing them before the public.
-I would have a woman as true as Death. At the first real lie which works from the heart outward, she should be tenderly chloroformed into a better world, where she can have an angel for a governess, and feed on strange fruits which will make her all over again, even to her bones and marrow.-Whether gifted with the accident of beauty or not, she should have been moulded in the rose-red clay of Love, before the breath of life made a moving mortal of her. Love-capacity is
* Used by permission of Houghton, Mifflin Company, the authorized publishers of Holmes's works.
a congenital endowment; and I think, after a while, one gets to know the warm-hued natures it belongs to from the pretty pipe-clay counterfeits of them.-Proud she may be, in the sense of respecting herself; but pride, in the sense of contemning others less gifted than herself, deserves the two lowest circles of a vulgar woman's Inferno, where the punishments are Smallpox and Bankruptcy.-She who nips off the end of a brittle courtesy, as one breaks the tip of an icicle, to bestow upon those whom she ought cordially and kindly to recognize, proclaims the fact that she comes not merely of low blood, but of bad blood. Consciousness of unquestioned position makes people gracious in proper measure to all; but if a woman put on airs with her real equals, she had something about herself or her family she is ashamed of, or ought to be. Middle, and more than middle-aged people, who know family histories, generally see through it. An official of standing was rude to me once. Oh, that is the maternal grandfather,--said a wise old friend to me,-he was a boor.—Better too few words, from the woman we love, than too many: while she is silent, Nature is working for her; while she talks, she is working for herself.—Love is sparingly soluble in the words of men; therefore they speak much of it; but one syllable of woman's speech can dissolve more of it than a man's heart can hold.
- Whether I said any or all of these things to the schoolmistress, or not, whether I stole them out of Lord Bacon,-whether I cribbed them from Balzac, -whether I dipped them from the ocean of Tupperian * wisdom,-or whether I have just found them in my head, laid there by that solemn fowl, Experience (who, according to my observation, cackles oftener than she drops
* Tupperian, a reference to Martin F. Tupper, author of Proverbial Philosophy, a book of precepts and advice in verse.
real live eggs), I cannot say. Wise men have said more foolish things,-and foolish men, I don't doubt, have said as wise things. Anyhow, the schoolmistress and I had pleasant walks and long talks, all of which I do not feel bound to report.
-You are a stranger to me, Ma'am. I don't doubt you would like to know all I said to the schoolmistress.-I sha'n't do it;-I had rather get the publishers to return the money you have invested in these pages. Besides, I have forgotten a good deal of it. I shall tell only what I like of what I remember.
-My idea was, in the first place, to search out the picturesque spots which the city affords a sight of, to those who have eyes. I know a good many, and it was a pleasure to look at them in company with my young friend. There were the shrubs and flowers in the Franklin-Place front yards or borders: Commerce is just putting his granite foot upon them. Then there are certain small seraglio gardens, into which one can get a peep through the crevices of high fences,-one in Myrtle Street, or at the back of it, -here and there one at the North and South ends. Then the great elms in Essex Street. Then the stately horse-chestnuts in that vacant lot in Chambers Street, which hold their outspread hands over your head (as I said in my poem the other day), and look as if they were whispering, “May grace, mercy, and peace be with you !”-and the rest of that benediction. Nay, there are certain patches of ground, which, having lain neglected for a time, Nature, who always has her pockets full of seeds, and holes in all her pockets, has covered with hungry plebeian growths, which fight for life with each other, until some of them get broad-leaved and succulent, and you have a coarse vegetable tapestry which Raphael would not have disdained to spread over the foreground of his masterpiece. The Professor pretends that he found such a one in Charles Street, which, in its dare-devil impudence of rough-and-tumble vegetation, beat the pretty-behaved flower-beds of the Public Garden as ignominiously as a group of young tatterdemalions playing pitch-and-toss beats a row of Sundayschool boys with their teacher at their head.
But then the Professor had one of his burrows in that region, and puts everything in high colors relating to it. That is his way about everything.–I hold any man cheap,-he said,-of whom nothing stronger can be uttered than that all his geese are swans.—How is that, Professor ?-said I;—I should have set you down for one of that sort.-Sir,--said he,-I am proud to say, that Nature has so far enriched me, that I cannot own so much as a duck without seeing in it as pretty a swan as ever swam the basin in the garden of Luxembourg. And the Professor showed the whites of his eyes devoutly, like one returning thanks after a dinner of many courses.
I don't know anything sweeter than this leaking in of Nature through all the cracks in the walls and floors of cities. You heap up a million tons of hewn rocks on a square mile or two of earth which was green once. The trees look down from the hillsides and ask each other, as they stand on tiptoe,—"What are these people about ?” And the small herbs at their feet look up and whisper back,-“We will go and see.” So the small herbs Pack themselves up in the least possible bundles, and wait until the wind steals to them at night and whispers,– “Come with me.” Then they go softly with it into the great city-one to a cleft in the pavement, one to a spout on the roof, one to a seam in the marbles over a rich gentleman's bones, and one to the grave without a stone where nothing but a man is buried,--and there they grow, looking down on the generations of men from mouldy roofs, looking up from between the less-trodden
pavements, looking out through iron cemetery-railings. Listen to them, when there is only a light breath stirring, and you will hear them saying to each other, -"Wait awhile !” The words run along the telegraph of those narrow green lines that border the roads leading from the city, until they reach the slope of the hills, and the trees repeat in low murmurs to each other,—“Wait awhile !" By and by the flow of life in the streets ebbs, and the old leafy inhabitants—the smaller tribes always in front-saunter in, one by one, very careless seemingly, but very tenacious, until they swarm so that the great stones gape from each other with the crowding of their roots, and the feldspar begins to be picked out of the granite to find them food. At last the trees take up their solemn line of march, and never rest until they have encamped in the market-place. Wait long enough and you will find an old doting oak hugging a huge worn block in its yellow underground arms; that was the corner-stone of the State-House. Oh, so patient she is, this imperturbable Nature !
-Let us cry!
But all this has nothing to do with my walks and talks with the schoolmistress. I did not say that I would not tell you something about them. Let me alone, and I shall talk to you more than I ought to, probably. We never tell our secrets to people that pump for them.
Books we talked about, and education. It was her duty to know something of these, and of course she did. Perhaps I was somewhat more learned than she, but I found that the difference between her reading and mine was like that of a man's and a woman's dusting a library. The man flaps about with a bunch of feathers; the woman goes to work softly with a cloth. She does not raise half the dust, nor fill her own eyes and mouth with it,-but she goes into all the corners and attends to the leaves as