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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

A Shadow

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There are many who will utterly disavow this creed that life is desirable in itself. A fair woman in a ball-room, exquisitely dressed, and possessed of all that wealth could give, once declared to me her belief--and I think honestly--that no person over thirty was consciously happy, or would wish to live, but for the fear of death. There could not even be pleasure in contemplating one's children, she asserted, since they were living in such a world of sorrow. Asking the opinion, within half an hour, of another woman as fair and as favored by fortune, I found directly the opposite verdict. "For my part I can truly say," she answered, "that I enjoy every moment I live." The varieties of temperament and of physical condition will always afford us these extremes; but the truth lies between them, and most persons will endure many sorrows and still find life sweet.

And the mother's kiss welcomes the child into a world where good predominates as well as joy. What recreants must we be, in an age that has abolished slavery in America and popularized the governments of all Europe, if we doubt that the tendency of man is upward! How much that the world calls selfishness is only generosity with narrow walls,--a too exclusive solicitude to maintain a wife in luxury or make one's children rich! In an audience of rough people a generous sentiment always brings down the house. In the tumult of war both sides applaud an heroic deed. A courageous woman, who had traversed alone, on benevolent errands, the worst parts of New York told me that she never felt afraid except in the solitudes of the country; wherever there was a crowd, she found a protector.

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A policeman of great experience once spoke to me with admiration of the fidelity of professional thieves to each other, and the risks they would run for the women whom they loved; when "Bristol Bill" was arrested, he said, there was found upon the burglar a set of false keys, not quite finished, by which he would certainly, within twenty-four hours, have had his mistress out of jail. Parent-Duchatelet found always the remains of modesty among the fallen women of Paris hospitals; and Mayhew, amid the London outcasts, says that he thinks better of human nature every day. Even among politicians, whom it is our American fashion to revile as the chief of sinners, there is less of evil than of good.

In Wilberforce's "Memoirs" there is an account of his having once asked Mr. Pitt whether his long experience as Prime Minister had made him think well or ill of his fellow-men. Mr. Pitt answered, "Well"; and his successor, Lord Melbourne, being asked the same question, answered, after a little reflection, "My opinion is the same as that of Mr. Pitt."

Let us have faith. It was a part of the vigor of the old Hebrew tradition to rejoice when a man-child was born into the world; and the maturer strength of nobler ages should rejoice over a woman-child as well. Nothing human is wholly sad, until it is effete and dying out. Where there is life there is promise. "Vitality is always hopeful," was the verdict of the most refined and clear-sighted woman who has yet explored the rough mining villages of the Rocky Mountains. There is apt to be a certain coarse virtue in rude health; as the Germanic races were purest when least civilized, and our American Indians did not unlearn chastity till they began to decay. But even where vigor and vice are found together, they still may hold a promise for the next generation. Out of the strong cometh forth sweetness. Parisian wickedness is not so discouraging merely because it is wicked, as from a suspicion that it is draining the life-blood of the nation. A mob of miners or of New York bullies may be uncomfortable neighbors, and may make a man of refinement hesitate whether to stop his ears or to feel for his revolver; but they hold more promise for the coming generations than the line which ends in Madame Bovary or the Vicomte de Camors.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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