An essay by Amber
Title: The Brook
Author: Amber [More Titles by Amber]
Lifting its chalice of sun-kissed foam
Murmuring over the mossy stones,
Orbing itself in a crystal lake
Silver flakes of tremulous light
Hastening onward through troubled ways,
Beyond where the forest's purple rim
In the fight we wage we do not fight by platoons or squads, under a common leader, a thousand at a charge. We enter the lists one by one and fight single handed. We choose our own colors and there is little of pageantry or show. When we fall we fall as travelers disappear who walk across a coast that is honeycombed with quicksand. We vanish, not in crowds like men who are jostled out of life by earthquakes or flooded like rats by tidal waves, but we slowly succumb to the inevitable in solitudes where only the stars watch us and the spaces of a dim, unsounded sea catch the fret of our mortal moan.
I have always thought that I should love to have the world come to an end, with a grand final bang, while I was yet living and sentient on the surface. I would like to be flashed out of being in the conglomerate of a mighty swarm, like the covey of birds a huntsman's rifle brings down or the multitude a Pompeiian doom overtakes. Such dying would be like riding out of an electric-lighted station, by the car full, rather than sneaking a place on the back platform like a tramp. But after all, death would not lose its awful individuality even then. Marshal the whole world, and aim a single bullet at a hundred million souls, with power to still each pulse beat in the same rifle flash of time, yet each man would die alone.
There is one final lesson to be gained through the doleful contemplation of the world's flood-tide of sorrow, and that is the lesson of how to bear our troubles so as to react as little as possible upon those with whom life throws us in daily contact. Because the goblin bee has stung our own souls, shall we seek to share the pain of its stateless sting with all we meet? No more than we should endeavor to carry contagion in our garments or put poison in our neighbor's well. I knew a man once, a gallant, light-hearted soldier, who honored the blue and brass of his country's uniform by wearing it. An awful sorrow suddenly smote his life, like an Indian sortie from an ambush. Wife and children were swept from his arms by a swift disaster and he was left alone. His friends said: "He is a wrecked man! He will never lift his head again!" How did he fulfill this prophecy of woe? He entered the chamber of his darkened home and denied himself to everyone. He neither ate nor slept. He fought by himself a greater battle than call of bugle ever summoned to any field. He mastered his own soul, and emerged from that chamber after a certain number of days a conqueror over his own sorrow. His smile was as ready, his heart as tender, his genial speech as welcome at home and abroad as it had ever been, and only when the goblin bee of memory stung him in the silence of the companionless night did he live over again the experience of his sorrow. None knew when that sting came, or how it tarried; he bore it silently like a soldier and a man. The trifling world called him light of love and easily consoled, but I think he was a grand, unselfish hero, a benefactor rather than a destroyer of mankind.
When we get so that we can hide our sorrow in a smile we attain that attitude that brings us closest to the divine. The man or the woman who goes up and down the ways of the world with a groan on his lips and a weed on his arm is an infliction worse than an out of tune hand organ. If the bee stings, hold still and bear the hurt by yourself as best you may, but don't talk it over with everyone you meet, like an old woman petitioning a recipe for a bad cough and flaunting her physical ailments forever in your face. When you have bright things to talk about and comforting things to say, talk; otherwise hold your peace. The reason, I think, why animals are never wrinkled and drawn of feature and gray like mankind is because they cannot talk. If they had the power of speech they would go around as humans do and disseminate unpleasant topics, as idle winds start thistle pollen. Silence is golden when you can find nothing better to do than to clamor your own troubles; speech only is blessed when, like a bird, it evolves a song or wings a feathered hope.
It seems hardly the thing to do, perhaps, to single out the unhappy folks in a present world so full of jollity and talk with them awhile to-day. This bright autumn weather is so crowded with sights and sounds to dazzle and enchant that to obtrude the leaf of rue within the garland or breathe a minor tone into the music seems almost out of place. And yet, for some reason or other, as I sit here at my desk to-day, the thought of the hearts that are heavy in the midst of all the world's fair pageant, and the eyes that cannot see the banners by reason of their tears, come to me with a strong and resistless force.
Alas, for the goblin bee that stings, yet all too often may not "state its sting"! We walk with a crowd, and yet are conscious that our way is not theirs. It lies apart, we know not why, and evermore dips into shadow and threads the dark defiles of gloom. There are so many more reasons for being sorry than for being glad, we think. Try to count the causes for laughter, and then, over against them, set the reasons for sorrow and see which way the balance falls. I take my seat on a bench out at the big show and watch the crowd for an hour. Do I see many faces that do not bear the scar of the "goblin bee"? From the little four-year-old who is bitterly crying because somebody has jostled its toy from its hand, to the woman whose eyes are sunken with sorrow because death has jostled the one whom she loved into his grave, everybody who passes, with but few exceptions, shows the scar of that stateless sting.
* * * * *
Look at my window-garden, yonder! The sunshine, stealing in from the south, has wooed a dozen pansies into bloom--"Johnny-jump-ups," they used to call them when I was a girl. How bright and cheery and chatty they look. We have those sort of faces (some of us) every day about our breakfast tables. The little folks, God bless 'em! with their shining hair, their bright eyes, and the soft velvet of their cheeks, are the blessed heartsease of our home. And there is a fuchsia, turbaned like a Turk, behind the pansies. Just such sumptuous, graceful women we see every day. Like the fuchsia, they are beautiful and that is all. They yield no fragrance. They attract the eye but fail to reach the heart. Who wouldn't rather have mignonette growing in the window? There is a yellow blossom in the window that reminds one of the patient shining of certain homely souls I know, making sunshine in humble homes; cheerful old maid aunts, sweet-hearted elder sisters, yielding the honey of their hearts to others. A cluster of fading violets sets me thinking of frail invalids and the host of "shut-in" ones, whose delicate and dying beauty fills our eyes with unstayed tears and our hearts with the shadow of coming sorrow.
* * * * *
There are gates that swing within your life and mine from day to day, letting in rare opportunities that tarry but a moment and are gone, like travelers bound for points remote. There is the opportunity to resist the temptation to do a mean thing; improve it, for it is in a hurry, like a man whose ticket is bought and whose time is up. It won't be back this way, either, for opportunities for good are not like tourists who travel on return tickets. There is the opportunity to say a pleasant word to your wife, sir, or you, madam, to your husband, instead of venting your temper and your "nerves" upon each other. Love's opportunity travels by lightning express and has no time to dawdle around the waiting-room. If you improve it at all it must be while the gate swings to let it through.
* * * * *
My dear, let me implore you, whatever else you let go, hold on to your enthusiasm. Grow old if you must; grow white-headed and bent and care-furrowed, if such must needs be the process of years, but don't grow to be a stick. If you must pass on from the green time of your freshness, change into sweet hay and keep your fragrance. If the cage must grow rusty and lose its brightness, there is a bird within, that it were a pity to strangle to keep it from singing to the end. I don't care how successful, or rich, or learned a man becomes, if he maintains a grim repression of all romance and enthusiasm, and what some hard old "Gradgrinds" call the "nonsense" within him, he is nothing more than a fine cage with a dead bird in it. When I hear a person say of another, "Oh, he is a substantial fellow; no nonsense about him!" I picture a gold-fish in a glass globe. A glittering cuticle that covers anything so bloodless as the anatomy of a fish is not worth much. There are a good many types of men to be detected, but the bloodless, emotionless, heart-paralytic, is the worst. Polish up a golden ball all you like. It may ornament your mantel, or serve as a useless bit of glitter in some corner, but when you begin to feel hungry and faint, and in need of solace and cheer, you will turn from the golden ball and pick up the veriest old rusty coat apple from an orchard's windfall, that has mellowed under summer noon, and sweetened in summer rains and dews, praising God for its flavor and its juices, even if you can buy forty bushels of its counterpart, for the price of one of your polished golden balls. Cultivate the "nonsense" in you, then, if it tends to enthusiasm of the right sort. It is the sympathy we get from people, the heartsomeness and cheer that keep our souls nourished, rather than the mere dazzle of intellectual attainment, or the greatness of any worldly achievement. Heart rather than head; nature rather than art; genuineness rather than pretense; romance rather than absolute realism; enthusiasm rather than petrifaction, will make a man rather than a gold fish, a juicy apple rather than a ball of metallic and glittering nothingness.
* * * * *
We were gathered at the Norfolk Station awaiting the train that was to carry us over the marshes to Virginia Beach and the sea. The crowd that surrounded us was very different from a Chicago crowd. There was no pushing, no bold assertiveness, no elbows. There were lots of pretty women, and as for me everybody knows I simply adore the open sky, a tree in blossom and a pretty woman. There were young girls with velvety brown eyes within whose dusky shadows one might look fathom deep as into a well of limpid water; girls with blue eyes like fringed gentians; women with grand free curves of figure that would have made Hebe look commonplace; women with shapely shoulders and long, aristocratic hands, tinted at the finger-tips as though fresh from picking ripe strawberries; girls all in white (for the day was warm), like June lilies; women with snowy teeth and adorable smiles to disclose them; little tots of girls with braided hair and soft, questioning eyes; queenly girls, like tulips in bloom, all chatting together in subdued but merry tones and laughing as delicately and airily as thrushes sing. Oh, I lost my heart to you, my pretty southern maidens, and count the time well spent I devoted to the contemplation of your many graces away down in that little station by the torrid bay.
* * * * *
If I was a liar and wanted to reform I shouldn't quit lying all at once. I would start out with a covenant to occasionally tell the truth. By and by this spasmodic truth-telling, like the grain blown by the wind among stones, would, perhaps, yield sufficient harvest to send me not quite empty-handed up to St. Peter's gate. If I drank whisky I would commence to reform by swearing off on one glass out of three, and perhaps the manhood within me, having so much more chance to grow, would elbow its way into heaven. If I was a gossip I would try to hold my tongue from speaking evil half the time, and in that blissful interval perhaps my dwarfed soul would get a start skyward. It is not by sudden achievement that we consummate a long journey. It is step by step and mile by mile over a stony road that brings us to the goal, and it is not by mere resolving that we renounce the old and attain unto the new. He who travels but a few steps and keeps his face heavenward is on the way, and every small decision for the right, faithfully adhered to, is a notable step toward a consummated journey.
* * * * *
I am often struck with the selfishness displayed by people who are fortunate enough to be provided with umbrellas in time of sudden showers. They calmly behold hosts of unhappy beings battling their way through the storm, drenched to the bone, and with ruined garments, yet never think of saying, "Accept a share of my umbrella," or "Walk with me as far as our ways lie together." If I should hear such a speech I might drop senseless with surprise, but all the same I should hail it as the bugle note that heralded a new era of courteous kindness.
We are not put into the world to be suspicious of one another. We were put here to make the world pleasanter for our tarrying, and to cultivate a fellowship with souls. If the guests at a mountain inn, sojourning together for a stormy night, spend the time in reviling one another, or in calling attention to each other's blemishes, we write them down as snobs; but what shall we call the tenants of transitory time who spend the span of mortal life in doing all they can to make one another uncomfortable? We have only a watch in the night to tarry together; let us try to make that hour a profitable one and a pleasant memory for others when we have journeyed on.
I have often wondered how Christian people got round the gospel command, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." It doesn't say love him (or her) after a proper introduction, or if agreeable, or congenial, or of good family and established reputation--it simply gives the command on general principles. I don't pretend to be good enough to obey the mandate myself, for I honestly think it is a species of hypocrisy to say you love everybody. One might as well say one were fond of all fruit alike, whether specked, wormy or rotten. But let my good orthodox professor put this in his pipe and smoke it. Let him remember it next time he sees his neighbor plunged into an extremity, or handicapped by an annoyance of any kind. If we love our neighbor we are bound to help him, and neighbor in this sense means anyone who chances to be near us, whether black or white, raggedly disreputable or sanctimoniously frilled.
There is more selfishness perpetrated in the world under guise of family ties than in almost any other way. The man who does good and unselfish deeds only for his own children and for the immediate circle housed beneath his roof, forgetful of the claims of the great, tormented, harassed and struggling world, is a selfish man and accountable to heaven for a great deal of meanness. I don't care how much he puts on his children's backs, or how many luxuries he surrounds them with, the Lord will not hold him guiltless if he does nothing for the stranger who tugs by him in the stress of life's uncertain weather, or for the neighbor who sits disconsolate outside his gates.
I wish that vagabond and his dog who were brought before a west side justice yesterday for vagrancy would travel up my way. I like that sort of thing that leads a man to be faithful to his dog. It goes without saying that the dog is faithful to the man, but it is not often that the master shows the same spirit to the fond and steadfast brute. If the two should journey my way I think they would have one white day in the calendar. Good heavens, my dear, do you ever stop long enough in the midst of your golf-playing and your tennis tournaments, your yachtings and your outings to think what it is to be a tramp? To be unable to find a stroke of work; to be sick and starved and homeless! Like "poor Joe," to be told to "move on" every time you stop to rest; to eat the grudgingly given crust of charity, and have no friend under the sun, moon or stars but a flea-bitten dog? Did you ever stop to think, my Christian friend, that that tramp is a neighbor whom you are to love? And if you are going to love him I will love his dog! No doubt the latter is the better man of the two.
* * * * *
Did you ever read of a battle siege in olden times? There were the full-armored warriors, resplendent in shining metal and plumed crests; there were the mighty battering rams, and the flash of battle axes, the thunder of advancing feet and the trumpet call before the gates. But more potent than all else in the doomed city's destruction was the secret work of the sappers and miners--the patient forces which wrought their work out of sight and hearing. And I have been thinking to-night, as I sit here, where the firelight weaves its delicate tapestry within the beautiful walls of home, that it is not going to be the pompous ones who shall march triumphant at last into the "City of Gold," but they who have worked patiently and humbly out of sight and with no need of praise. The man who has held to the dictates of his own conscience, not conforming to the company he marched with; the man who has dared to be himself in a world where men are labeled in lots; the man who has held it high honor to suffer for a principle or to be loyal to an unpopular friend or cause; the man who has erected a standard made up between his own heart and heaven, and, independent of the world's verdict of praise or blame, followed it to the end, is going to wear a crown by and by, when the epauletted general and the pompous staff are forgotten. Prayer is not always a genuflexion and an address. It is oftener hard work. The farmer praying at his weeds, the pilot praying from every spoke of his wheel, the mother whose daily life of unselfish toil and far-reaching influence is a prayer, do more to stir the divine heart, to keep the world's prow headed for heaven than half the solicitations or apologetic addresses made in our churches under the name of prayer.
* * * * *
When you and I get rich, my dear, as some day we surely shall, what are we going to do with all our money? We will hunt up some of the improvident ones, those who could never make the two ends meet, those who through good heartedness, or lack of forethought or unselfish desire to make other folks happy, have never laid by a cent, and we will give those silly people such a good time they will carry its impress all through their after lives, as a pat of butter carries the print. We will slyly pay the bills for improvident ones who have grown gray in the effort to make a decent funeral for dead horses. They shall forget how to spell "care" and their new and happy dialect shall know no such words as "monthly payments," "righteous dues" or "can't afford it." I am convinced that as a rule it is not the sweet-hearted people who take on this world's gain. There is many a poor beggar with not a change of linen to his back who would make a more royal host, had the smiling face of fortune turned his way, than the rightful owner of the vast estates at whose gate he stands and begs. The big hearts too often go with the empty purse, and the little, wizened, skin-flint souls, that it would take a thousand of to crowd the passage through the eye of a needle, gain all the golden favors of the god of plenty.
* * * * *
After dinner I said to the little folks, "Behold, I will buy me a pair of stockings and hire a bathing suit, and the afternoon shall be devoted to frolic and thee." So we went to the small booth, where an exceedingly meek young man sold ginger pop and fancy shells, and paralyzed him with a demand for ladies' hose. He didn't know what we meant until I came out boldly and unblushingly and asked for women's stockings. He said he didn't keep 'em. "Have you a mother?" said I. "No." "Have you a sister? Or is there a nearer one yet and a dearer, from whom I could buy or borrow a pair of stockings that I may go in bathing?" He didn't understand that either, but finally, with the aid of lucre, I made the matter clear so that he got me a pair of canary-striped woolen hose, evidently laid by for some farmer's winter use, and I bought them for a sum that made his eyes grow dim with rapture. We went down to the beach, and after a season of prayer with the young person to induce her to put on some horrid tights, we all went in and enjoyed such a dip as only salt water yields. In the midst of it we had to go on shore several times to stand the boy on his head and pump the ocean out of him, as he was constantly getting drowned in the surf, and one of my expensive and expansive stockings was captured out at sea and brought back by a son of Belial, who seemed greatly affected by its size, but in spite of such small drawbacks we had a glorious time.
* * * * *
"What is the matter, my darling?" asked John, the newly married, to the wife of his bosom.
"Nothing whatever," replied Mrs. John.
"But you look like a funeral," exclaimed he.
"I am not aware that I look more than usually unamiable; I certainly never felt better," replied his wife, placidly folding down meanwhile the hem to a distracting little apron she is making. John seizes his hat, pushes it down over his eyes and rushes forth distracted with the conjecture as to what terrible thing he has been guilty of to make his wife look so like an injured martyr. For the time being love is dead, joy wiped from the face of the earth, hope crucified and peace assassinated, all because of bottled thunder. A word would have explained all, a look has ruined everything.
"Don't put on your fresh muslin this afternoon," suggests the prudent mother.
"But why not?" replied the sprightly Jane; "it is the only endurable dress this warm weather."
"Oh, very well, do as you like, of course," meekly replied the parent in a tone that suggests a serpent's fang, a hoary head and a broken heart all in one.
Now, in my opinion it is not conducive to domestic harmony to have too much of this sort of repression. It is like living in an exhaust chamber. One would be certain to choke up and burst very soon. Self-control does not consist in forever keeping one's mouth shut, alone. A look, a sneer, a drooping mouth, a tilted nose, will do as much mischief as a loosened tongue. Why I should go about like a disagreeable old martyr or like a sneering Saul of Tarsus, and call myself pleasant to live with, simply because I don't talk, is something not easily understood.
I would far rather be a target for flying saucepans every time I popped my head into the kitchen than have a cook there who never says a word, but is sullen and ugly enough to carve me up like cold meat. I would rather be a constant attendant at funerals, a nurse in a fever-ward, a girl in a circus, or a street car horse, than live with proper folks who never make blunders, or commit indiscretions either of speech or manner, but look at you every time you sneeze as though your featherheadedness was the only thing that made life unbearable. Out with it then if you have cause for offense. Don't let the clouds hang a single hour, but turn on the weather faucet and let it rain. If your neighbor has insulted you, either ask her why or ignore it. Ten to one the fancied insult is only a wind cloud, and sunshine will break it away. If you feel mad sail right in for a tempest and have done with it. Thunder and lighten, blow and hail if you want to, but don't be a non-committal dog-day. Bottled thunder is a bad thing to keep on the family shelves. It is likely to turn sour on your hands, and before you get through with it, you will wish you had died young.
* * * * *
Yonder goes a small and worthless yellow dog. He is young; you can tell that from the abnormal size of his paws, and a certain remnant of wistful trust in human kind, which displays itself in the furtive wag of his tail and the cock of his limp and discouraged ear. He is as absolutely friendless as anything to which God has granted life can be. Of his existence there is no thought in the mind of any man or woman beneath the stars. The boys grow mindful of him now and then, though, and their manifested interest has made of his life one terrible specter of cringing fear. He hears the hurrah of their cruel chase in every tone of sudden speech; he sees the menace of a blow in every shadow. Do you know, my dear, that I never spoke a truer word in all my life than when I say that underneath the hide of that forlorn and friendless little yellow dog there is something more valuable than beats under the broadcloth vests and silken waists of many of the men and women who pass him by! A grateful heart mindful of the smallest kindnesses, a faithful instinct which keeps dogs loyal even to cruel masters. I sometimes think I would rather take my chances with honest dogs than with half the men who own them. They may not be able to pass up the stamped ticket which transfers the human passenger from the earthly to the celestial railroad and carries him through on the passport of an immortal soul; but no ticket at all is quite as good as a forged or fraudulent one, as some of us will find out, I am thinking, when we hand up our worthless checks!
* * * * *
Which would you rather be in the orchestra of human life, a flute or a trombone? To be sure, the latter is heard the farthest, but the quality of the flute tone reaches deeper down into the soul and awakens there dreams without which a man's life is like bread without leaven, or a laid fire without tinder. I don't like noisy people, do you? People who talk and bluster and swagger. People who remind us of bladders filled to the point of explosion with wind. We like sensitive people, quiet-voiced, deep-hearted, earnest people, with the quality of the flute rather than that of the fog-horn in their make-up. And yet how much greater demand there is for bluster than there is for force. Sometimes I am inclined to think that life is a farce played with an earthly setting for the delectation of the angels, as we serve minstrel shows and burlesques. It isn't the shy and the timid who get the applause; the clown in tinsel and the end man in cork divide easy honors. And yet, thank God for flutes! Thank God the orchestra isn't entirely composed of trombones and bass drums.
GO TO TOP OF SCREEN