Words to Start With For Young Folks
( Originally Published 1877 )
THE coach had come in at half-past four by the old clock that stood in the corner of the hall, and which had a dumpling-like face of a moon that slid itself into sight, by halves and quarters, in a most wonderful way. Half-past four of the afternoon it was, else we should not have been there to see, — nor to see the coach, which was another wonderful thing to behold ; a round-bodied coach, hung upon enormous leathern thorough-braces, on which it went see-sawing over the bars upon the hill-sides of country roads. There was a door in the middle, with a miniature coach painted upon its panel, with horses in full trot (making faster time than the coach ever did in earnest), and over the painting was the legend, " Eclipse Line." There was a rival "Express Line ; " but the " Eclipse " was our favorite. It had the best horses, Harry said (he knew, Harry did) ; and the driver always saved a place upon the coach-roof, back of his seat, and this was what the " Express" driver never did, but bundled us inside, with the women. Therefore we patronized the " Eclipse " line.
A great gulf of leather, behind the coach, received the trunks, which were finished in that day with hairy skins. Will Warner (of our school) had one which he vowed was covered with a leopard-skin : it was certainly spotted. Then, under the driver's seat of the " Eclipse " was another cavernous recess for the carpet-bags and small parcels ; and again, upon the coach-roof, were hat-boxes and band-boxes, kept from sliding off the fearful height by a little iron railing of two bars, against which, when the coach-top was free, — in vacation time, — we planted our feet, and, with back to back, went swaying and rollicking over the turnpike roads. There are no such coach-loads now. I think there are no such coaches. The Troy coach, known of hotel people and of overland passengers, approaches it ; but I am strongly of opinion that the old New-England stage-coach had a dignity and a character of its own, quite unapproachable by any vehicle of these times. What ponderous curtains, with their odor of varnish and paint ! These all were buttoned close upon that December afternoon ; and the sturdy wheels had such accumulation of half-frozen mud over them, and around them, as to make them strongly resemble the richly embossed chariot-wheels that were figured in our book of Roman Antiquities.
And it is for us, on that day, a triumphal chariot. We know what that queer-shaped box means upon the coach-top, — not long enough, Harry hints, for bow and arrows, which he had set his heart upon ; but there is room in it for a Noah's ark, and balls, and battledoor, and a " Boys' Own Book," and lots beside. For uncle Ned never makes his Christmas visit without a good stock of such things.
And uncle Ned is in the coach. We see his earnest, kindly face, and his white locks floating round it like a glory, before we have guessed at all the riches that must lie packed away in the Christmas-box on the roof. He had a way of cuddling us youngsters in his lap we never forgot. There was aunt Effie too, with her queer old frontlet of curls, which she would persist in wearing—though it would never compare with her own sheen of silvery hair (we caught sight of her sometimes in her chamber—so we knew about that). She was a goodly, fat woman, — was aunt Effie, Harry said he loved fat women. Yet he has married since a woman as thin as a ghost : this is the way boyish opinions get overset in the hurly-burly of life.
But aunt Effie was as good as she was large. Every pat of her hand on our heads had the tender weight of all her heart in it. Not given to many words : perhaps because uncle Ned took all the talking to himself, for he fairly bubbled over with it.
We wondered if it was aunt Effie's way at home, by the privacy of her own fireside, to interject, as she did, into the swift current of uncle Ned's talk her approving or questioning "°EdwARDE ! " I have tried to make the types show, with their capitals, how she uttered it ; but even the capitals, rising in crescendo (you must look for that word in your Latin Dictionary), don't begin to figure the droll effect of her "EdwARDE ! "
Did these two dear old people ever love, — in the way of the story-books, — we wondered ? Was there any billing and cooing ? Had she ever a delicate little waist and golden ringlets, that " enraptured his regard " ? At this date, I don't doubt it,— however much we all doubted it then.
They were childless people ; perhaps that was the reason the big Christmas-box always came on time, and they with it. Aunt Effie, with all her love-pattings bestowed here and there, never failed to follow up the motions of uncle Ned, with a beaming eye ; and he, good soul, never failed to look sharply after aunt Effie's comfort, or to take grace or caution from her " EdwARDE ! " as she happened to pronounce it.
Well — these good old childless souls had come to us, as I said, on this December day (the one before Christmas), in the coach, which, with its rime of mud upon the wheels, was so like a Roman triumphal chariot ; and the Christmas-box (big enough for any thing, except the coveted bow and arrows) had been bestowed away for the morrow's opening, and a royal supper had been served, with a steaming dish of oysters from the creek near by, and a fire had been kindled as early as three in the afternoon in the great south sitting-room (Frank and I bringing in the back-logs) ; and by seven or eight o'clock we were all seated around it, waiting for uncle Ned to begin.
He always told us a story on these visits. He always had the same chair in the corner ; and when he demurred or halted at the start, or said he was old and rusty, aunt Effie, from her corner, broke out upon him with "EDWARDE ! "
With that, he began ; since the first story-telling of his I could remember — always with " Once upon a time." I told Kitty, —who was a roly-poly dumpling of a cousin, but very nice, — that it would be so now ; and so it was.
There is a delicious vagueness about " once upon a time," that I think takes hold upon young listeners, — if it does not upon the elderly ones. If we have an old date in full, straightway the thing becomes historic, and is brought to fast anchorage outside of the shadowy realm into which it is so delightful — on Christmas Eve — to wander. Again, if the story have its start-point a few years ago, or a few months ago, it brings up the thought of newspapers and news-mongers, from all whose note-takings we cast loose delightsomely as we drift out over that misty and indeterminate current of gone-by years, which is shadowed forth darkly in—" once upon a time."
Once upon a time, then
But, bless you, I am not going to tell Uncle Ned's story here and now. I didn't promise it ; and I have only led you along towards this pitch of expectation to show how much the conditions under which a story is told serve to fix it in mind.
We always thought of Christmas and big fires, and the coach coming up, — sometimes it was a sleigh, to be sure, — and the gifts and the little listeners, when we thought of Uncle Ned's stories. And I think his stories — however humdrum they were (and I must confess, looking back upon them now, that some of them were terribly humdrum), were always the sweeter and the better for the surroundings under which they were told ; and that we relish the memory of them now far more, because we knew the surroundings, and knew him, and all about him, and how kindly his meaning was, and how aunt Effie pushed him up to the work of it.
Well, I am to tell you now about other story-tellers not known in our family only, but known all over the world, far as English books ever go ; and I want you to understand and remember some of the circumstances under which they told their stories ; and who helped them on by calling out to them, and how they looked. and in what times they lived, and why they told such stories as they did.
And I want to tell you this not only because a knowledge of it will interest you more in the work of the old story-tellers, but- because they were famous men and women, about whom you ought to know.
It is not much matter to learn if our uncle Ned came up on a coach, because his stories never reached very far, and he was not a man about whom the great world cares to know very much, — though they puzzle them-selves to learn trifling things about men not half so honest, and true, and kind as he. But when it comes to Oliver Goldsmith, who told a story in such a way that all the world read it, and French and German and Italian people turned it into their own language, — why, it is well for you to know if there was an aunt Effie in his case, and stage-coaches ; and if he lived in New England, or in Ireland ; and what children he had, if any ; and what became of him ; and where he lies buried.
So of Jonathan Swift, another man I shall have to tell you about, who was a stronger man, but not half so kind-hearted ; and was remembered by a great many people with a shudder; and yet who told a story so witty and so winning, about certain queer little folks, — not much larger than your thumb, — that you ought to know about him, and remember what his life was, when you read what he wrote.
Then, there are certain stories which in their way are very charming, about which we can't say positively just when they were written. But we can learn when they were first made generally known, and how they were handed down from year to year, and from generation to generation.
Of such are the fairy-stories belonging to all countries, and to the books of all nations, — stories to which children listen always with such open-eyed wonder.
Do the old people tell you there is harm in them ? Well, it is a harm that must be met and conquered. We cannot root them out. The House that Jack built, it is hard to pull down. The gossips will be gossips. The evening shadows will throw grotesque lines on the greensward, that children will change into queer shapes.
And while we tell of them, and of the colors which story-tellers have put upon these strange shapes of unreal things, we will try and pluck all the harm out of them, by treating them as we would treat any other unreal shadows of things which are actual.
Those fairy-stories which have held their ground longest and best have almost always some good common-sense point in them ; and in no one that I can call to mind, do indolence and conceit win greater rewards than industry ; or cunning and folly gain the battle over straightforward honesty.
Apollyon is a great, shining fellow in Bunyan's " Pilgrim's Progress ; " but the point of Christian's sword finds out the weak places in his harness of iron ; and under Great-Heart (which is a capital name for a hero), he goes down altogether, and is heard of no more.
Little Red Riding Hood may be eaten up by the wolf who has put on her grandmother's cap ; but the little Red Riding Hoods who are left will look all the sharper on those who are full of professions, and not judge people by their caps, and not believe the lying words of the strangers they meet upon the high-roads.
Such patient, quiet, steadfast toil as that of Cinderella, is apt to bring to those who are not fagged by it, and do not give it up, the most splendid of luck—slipper or no slipper. There may indeed be no marriage to a prince ; but there will be a marriage to Duty, which will be even grander and happier ; for Duty is always young, and never gets slip-shod, and never has bad humors.
Now, all these stories about which I have undertaken to tell you are printed stories ; and if there had been no way of printing them, you would never have heard of them or of the lesson of them ; and it is for this reason that I open my budget about the story-tellers, by saying something concerning the man who invented printing, and who, if he did not print the first book, certainly printed the first Bible.
You must not count upon great adventures and very extraordinary things as happening in all the chapters of this book : I dare say you will think some matters I have to talk about, very dull matters ; but I believe all the things I shall tell you will be worth your knowing, and will help your relish for the reading of the larger books which I shall speak of. You know we can't count upon a sunny day for every one of our summer picnics, nor always reckon upon a company of eager listeners for the stories we have to tell : it is very much to count on one.