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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

A Shadow

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At this crisis the elder brother and sister departed for Mount Righi. "They were going to stay all night, and mamma and I stayed at home to take care of each other. I felt very bad about baby and about their going, too. After they went, mamma and I thought we would go to the little town and see what we could find." After many difficulties, a waxen head was discovered. "Mamma bought it, and we took it home and put it on baby; but I said it wasn't like my real baby, only it was better than having no child at all!"

This crushing bereavement, this reluctant acceptance of a child by adoption, to fill the vacant heart,--how real and formidable is all this rehearsal of the tragedies of maturer years! I knew an instance in which the last impulse of ebbing life was such a gush of imaginary motherhood.

A dear friend of mine, whose sweet charities prolong into a third generation the unbounded benevolence of old Isaac Hopper, used to go at Christmas-time with dolls and other gifts to the poor children on Randall's Island. Passing the bed of a little girl whom the physician pronounced to be unconscious and dying, the kind visitor insisted on putting a doll into her arms. Instantly the eyes of the little invalid opened, and she pressed the gift eagerly to her heart, murmuring over it and caressing it. The matron afterwards wrote that the child died within two hours, wearing a happy face, and still clinging to her new-found treasure.

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And beginning with this transfer of all human associations to a doll, the child's life interfuses itself readily among all the affairs of the elders. In its presence, formality vanishes, the most oppressive ceremonial is a little relieved when children enter. Their influence is pervasive and irresistible, like that of water, which adapts itself to any landscape,--always takes its place, welcome or unwelcome,--keeps its own level and seems always to have its natural and proper margin.

Out of doors how children mingle with nature, and seem to begin just where birds and butterflies leave off! Leigh Hunt, with his delicate perceptions, paints this well: "The voices of children seem as natural to the early morning as the voice of the birds. The suddenness, the lightness, the loudness, the sweet confusion, the sparkling gayety, seem alike in both. The sudden little jangle is now here and now there; and now a single voice calls to another, and the boy is off like the bird." So Heine, with deeper thoughtfulness, noticed the "intimacy with the trees" of the little wood-gatherer in the Hartz Mountains; soon the child whistled like a linnet, and the other birds all answered him; then he disappeared in the thicket with his bare feet and his bundle of brushwood.

"Children," thought Heine, "are younger than we, and can still remember the time when they were trees or birds, and can therefore understand and speak their language; but we are grown old, and have too many cares, and too much jurisprudence and bad poetry in our heads."

But why go to literature for a recognition of what one may see by opening one's eyes? Before my window there is a pool, two rods square, that is haunted all winter by children,--clearing away the snow of many a storm, if need be, and mining downward till they strike the ice. I look this morning from the window, and the pond is bare. In a moment I happen to look again, and it is covered with a swarm of boys; a great migrating flock has settled upon it, as if swooping down from parts unknown to scream and sport themselves here. The air is full of their voices; they have all tugged on their skates instantaneously, as it were by magic. Now they are in a confused cluster, now they sweep round and round in a circle, now it is broken into fragments and as quickly formed again; games are improvised and abandoned; there seems to be no plan or leader, but all do as they please, and yet somehow act in concert, and all chatter all the time. Now they have alighted, every one, upon the bank of snow that edges the pond, each scraping a little hollow in which to perch. Now every perch is vacant again, for they are all in motion; each moment increases the jangle of shrill voices,--since a boy's outdoor whisper to his nearest crony is as if he was hailing a ship in the offing,--and what they are all saying can no more be made out than if they were a flock of gulls or blackbirds. I look away from the window once more, and when I glance out again there is not a boy in sight. They have whirled away like snowbirds, and the little pool sleeps motionless beneath the cheerful wintry sun. Who but must see how gradually the joyous life of the animal rises through childhood into man,--since the soaring gnats, the glancing fishes, the sliding seals are all represented in this mob of half-grown boyhood just released from school.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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