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Where the World Had Gilt Upon It

ISSUE:  Summer 1930

Anew england salt-water farm comes about as near Arcady as any piece of earth one can measure by feet and rods. Such a farm was the place where I and my cohort of brothers and sisters got our start in the old business of being happy though alive.

Because I should like to start with a fundamental impression, I had better begin with the old cellar back of the upper orchard. Every farm ought to have its grassy cellar-place to give one the impression that he is playing at a fine old game others played before him, a holy spot where others have lain under dripping eaves and heard their seeds singing in the earth. A cellar makes a farm into a cathedral with a green floor other feet have worn. My cellar had held the preserves and mince meat of a Colonial house said to have been burned by the Indians. We dug up bits of hand-painted crockery and pieced together quite a history of the tastes of the bygone household. I had in my own museum three-quarters of a wheat-sheaf platter and a pewter spoon of the sort Joel Barlow sings of in his American epic, in shape a quarter of a goose egg split longitudinally, as the ideal one for ladling into the mouth the molten manhood of hasty pudding. I wager that same spoon had accounted for acres of Indian corn. There was one deep and mysterious corner of the cellar we never dared to explore, where below tangles of cinnamon roses, which had at last entered the house they, had loved so long, large stones partly covered pools of dark rainwater. Ancient apple trees cross-stitched by the beaks of woodpeckers stood half in ruin about this empty heart of the farmstead. It was a place to hurry past after sundown as one drove home the cows along the winding trail their feet had sculptured out. It was a spot wilder for having known men.

Nearer home there were squash blossoms in the garden to trap bumble-bees in. You had to be careful in transferring them into the open neck of your bottle. Squashes make me think of the crickets that sang so around our stoop as the earliest stars winked. Mother told us that they were saying their prayers and so got us to say ours. They never seemed to get through. And the sound of crickets reminds me of the boiling suns which were the pendants of pitch-drops on the spruce trees where we had our swing hung. I was so expert at manipulating my muscles that it took all of half an hour for the old cat to die, for me to come to the full stop and so surrender my seat to the next passenger through the air. Swings bring back the faces I used to see in summer clouds. Clouds mean dragonflies reflected in the water of the Old Spring and the fear we all had that there might be something in the myth that one’s mouth might be sewn up by these Devil’s darning-needles if one’s mouth told lies. Besides the Old Spring there was the Well Pond, not drinkable, the kingdom of all the frogs. Early in spring it was nothing but jet beadings of spawn; later pollywogs and tadpoles in all stages of legs; then music that swelled out the throats of frog lovers into little balloons, and peepers in the April dusk with calls so thin and clean that there seemed to be holes in the sky letting the sound of the turning of crystal spheres through. We tried to get cunners and minnows and even undiscriminating jellyfish to live in the Well Pond. But they only made the water more foul with their decease.

Anemones go so far back into my memory that I remember how I thought them belated drops of snow taking stem. Lady-slippers we found made ideal ducks, for when off their stems they had the bills, the eyes, and the fleshly veinings of the waterfowls; you could even feed them chickweed through the opening back of their eyes; and they had the further advantage of being readily opened to see how the digestive process was going on. Peapods made fine canoes when they had been braced inside with seats made of sections of matches. Last year’s grasses furnished excellent trees for our indoor stage-sets when stuck up in spools. The leaves of poplar trees made good frying-pans on our toy stoves, for they were round and stiff and had stems exactly, like handles. I never have weaned my mind of the remarkable resemblance of podded violet seeds to pearls packed in a neat box. Horseshoe-crabs, coming in couples one on the tail of another, we harnessed together for chariot races on the beach. We tethered the fastest for the races of tomorrow by shoving their tails into the mud.

Moths. I remember our famous night of them. At every pane were the cold little moonstones of their eyes. Lunas, fragile swallows of the night, pale green and unreal as bits of Chinese lanterns. Some of the winged things got in and immolated themselves in the lamp chimney. My oldest sister was full of foreboding at this omen. Sure enough, in came my oldest brother, pitchfork in hand, to tell a tale of seeing a wild animal as big as an ox as he was bringing home the runaway cows. We had the kind of cows that always ran away. They waded around water-fences, they swam like cornered deer to get as far away from home as possible before darkness fell. They might stand knee-deep in red clover; but they yearned to be in the most distant swamps surrounded with mosquitoes or among the pathless hemlocks. If we heard the town-bells that dangled from their necks at all, they seemed to come from the other side of the world. If I have any stiffness in my backbone, I know how I got it; it was tramping benighted in the wildernesses looking for our barnyard truants, with heaven knew what soft-padded feet going along both sides of me in the woods.

Another night is framed in lightning, and in the green glare of it I can see the painted, black curls of a doll I loved even in the face of my brothers’ sneers until I was long past seven. We were huddled together in the dark on the cellar stairs; our parents and older brothers were away. And it was a fine purple tale we had to tell them, when they came back, of a ball of lightning that came in through the mosquito-bar without singeing a thread of it and rolled back and forth on the floor and at last went up the fireplace! Again a tornado shook the house on a night when shattered limbs of trees hurtled past the windows and we could hear between the crashing of riven poplars my father whistling calmly “Joy, 0 joy„ behold the Saviour.” From a very distant year I recall a bed so high I could look down on the table’s top and dreamed of being blown away over trees and people running far below. Again my father is putting in laths and building the very room I am living in, and the curly hairs of wood-shavings are all about underfoot. To know the beauty and security of a house one ought to grow , up in one being built. A ladder turns into stairs; something solid and like peace is closed up away from the loneliness of the stars. . . . Isaiah Gordon’s lion. He was before our time; yet we fancied we heard the footfalls of this catamount of the past as we waited, as far out on the rocks away from the dark pinewoods as we could get, for father to come to ferry us home from school. As a boy, my father had seen the catamount one morning when he was driving his ox-team to town. Ahead was old Abram Scott, and between the two travellers on the early morning road a tawny beast crept on his belly like a great cat, stalking the old man and unaware of the younger. Father tore up a big stone and ran towards the beast with a shout. The catamount wheeled, snarled, and melted over a stonewall in the twinkling of an eye. Abram turned to see only a young man rushing towards him with a rock. Abram took to his heels from this evidently insane person who was so bent on manslaughter. So they raced. A sight to see at daybreak on a forest road! It was all as real and close to us as our fingers and toes.

My first fish was an iridescent cunner grazing with a cowlike movement of his purple jaws at a little park of rock-weed near the shore. I hardly dared to breathe as I presented him a hook buried in a whole clam. A tremendous jerk, and he lay gasping at my big-toes; and a rainbow melted from the world, for his iridescence vanished and he was just a dull, dying creature out of water. My first game-bird was another vanishing rainbow. He was a spoon-bill plover teetering along a round mirror of a salt-pond that reflected a clump of white birches. I had Long Tom, muzzle-loader bored out from a rifle of the Mexican War and the family heirloom of our firearms, a foot longer than the four feet of myself. I had to rest it on a dead tree to draw my bead. Even then the muzzle was weaving tremendous circles with the ecstasy of my body, It seemed I did not breathe for some hours. Then I fired and saw stars and heard the world turn into pealing bells as I lay on my back knocked clean over by the kick of my five-fingers of destruction. But there lay the bird, too, His wings were like delicate fans spread open on the mire. His long bill slanted uselessly across his breast. Behind it two soft eyes of jet and amber were growing dull. My brother found me sobbing with a dead bird clenched in my fist. But other hunting, when I had shed my. milk teeth, brought thrills without the tears. Lanterns set in aureoles wandering through the lacework of frosty bushes like descended stars; and hounds far off baying the treed raccoon through a November night. Marsh-hens crossing and recrossing the silver path on the moonlit tide like black and lost souls. An antlered buck, his crested neck set in the fine diamonds of rippling water, swimming a bay with hounds yearning in hissing furrows after. A doe with two fawns holding her head high and stepping along on lacework legs so delicately that she did not stir the blue, October gentians. There was that memorable day when I stood up in knee pants among mustached crack-shots and put ten markers in the target and brought home the Thanksgiving goose from the shooting-match where two taller brothers went empty-handed for all their skill. Days like that come but once in a lifetime.

The sea was a fact everywhere in our lives. Squadroned fogs marched in like Roman legions along the lanes of bays. Seguin’s fog-horn boomed through the nights. I stood on the stern seat of a boat and speared at the hummocks with two protuding eyes; trails of puffy riles told me when I missed the flounder. I emptied out wicker eelpots with yellow-bellied eels writhing among the ballast stones. I learned to pick up crabs by their little, last claws, to plug lobsters’ jaws shut with wedges of white pine, to mine for clams where their fountains played thickest about my bare legs. The rockweed in December showed one’s footsteps as livid fire, and the myriads of infant jellyfish were flakes of phosphorescence, too. Honeypots, specimen of the acidity of New England humor in their name, engulfed one to the middle in blue, liquid clay. Marsh rosemary stitched with azure stars. There was a noble smell of tar in September, and the seines reeking from the huge cauldrons spoiled the grass for acres. After the tarring, came the shoals of fish on the wharves and silver flakes on everything. The taste of baby bluefish fried in butter and smelts baked with crisscrossed scraps of salt pork! One day we discovered squids. That was in a hedge at low tide, and my cousin was so horrified when she attempted to dip up these creatures that were all arms and mournful eyes that she fell over into the water among them when they shot out their ink at her. The richness of the smoke from the herring-house I shall not soon forget. Nor the evil light of the ignis fatuus which hung like a mysterious lantern over the marsh. The flotsam of the spring high tides was a treasure-trove to us, boxes and bottles full of romance, though likely enough they held nothing but kerosene or excelsior. Sea-gulls sat along the floating ice-cakes; I can never see a group of eight-oared shells without thinking of them. They turned the mussel-beds to snow. Skating on salt-water ice was ticklish business, for there were the rifts of dark and dangerous water to get over when you wished to go ashore. Nights there were of strange silences and the light of lanterns when I sat among pallid turnips and floated in a gunlow through a universe of stars above and below; afterwards, firelight from a cracked old stove played on the belly, of an ancient and enormous jug hung among the rafters.

Why do I associate the firelight on my mother’s lustre pitcher with the sound of bees and the foundations for their combs in the shed loft? The Bristol pitcher was all gold with faded blue borders of shy forget-me-nots; and a herd of deer with noses embossed and pointing straight out at you wandered through a forest on the pitcher’s sides. Why does a tale of Hans Andersen make me think of a certain place back of the kitchen where wild strawberries hung and rhubarb sent up its plumes? Why should wild strawberries bring back the design on my mother’s paisley shawl? And what connection is there between high drifts of snow loop-holed with a broomstick and Ben Franklin? I only feel that there were times when we must have lived close to the secrets the poets discover and felt the kinship of the soughing pines behind the barn with the heroes of Homer.

The sound of a train far off in the night brings back the whole beauty and mystery of the farm attic. Sounds of voices strangely altered as they come to me through a floor can accomplish the same thing. There were old Sunday newspapers in the attic to turn through and find colored pictures. Once we came on a chest full of boxes of gilt, gold, silver, red, green. I remember my, breeches twinkled with sprinkled stars. One rummaged through boxes with a catch in the breath, unearthed hoop-skirts and bustle frames, which were no good as life-preservers as we found when we tried them, and a flute one’s grandfather had played. One’s grandparents retreat last to the attic; after that they go out like sparks. Children in an attic play among opened graves. The sound of rain brings back a tale I read once in a yellowed Sunday supplement of a robber who shot himself through the brain with a pistol cartridge loaded with a rare diamond and left a cryptogram referring to Shakespeare’s lines,

Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

Bags of buttons and a sense of awe and security. There were yawning chasms between joists that swallowed down our treasures, if we dropped them, into the bowels of the house, I should like to be around when that house is torn down; perhaps, then, I might recover a certain glory that the world had hung around it when I held again in my hands that glass-alley that had little pieces of the moon floating inside it. The houses of the wasps and beams of slanting light swimming with flakes of gold. . . . Poets ought to be brought up through childhood in attics.

Or in a haunted house—haunted because it is in New England and abandoned and so is full of the little presences which nature sends out like vedettes into the places she intends to take back into her lap. The swallows nesting on the mantel of such a house as we had within footing distance are only the vanguard of a more mysterious set of entities. One hears them moving in a wall where mice have long since fled. There is a quiet that is not a quiet to finer ears. Cinnamon roses seem lonely in such a place. One has vistas of upstairs rooms ceilinged with clouds; stairs go up to the blue sky; lathing and plaster seem like unburied bones craving the oblivion of dark earth. Old wallpaper seems like grasses under a stone. Two worlds meet in such a spot. Our haunted house was the more impressive since our father had been one of its tenants years before and had told us of a high laughter he had heard there late and lonely, one night and of a local tradition which pointed out in a ledge back of the house the mark that countryfolks declared was the hoof-print of the Evil One. Why does the New Englander always have cat-nine-tails in a jar in the side hall? Is it to make friends with the outdoors, which may be so dangerous to folks living lonely?— Answer me that, and I shall tell you why I like to sit in the mow of a big New England barn when I want to be utterly at peace. I read of Hector first on a haymow, and of Arthur, too, I think. Down-cellar is another likely springboard into places that never were. Our cellar had rows on rows of bottles opalescent and full of an eerie half-light. The mind swung out free of the body in this cool unreality.

What did the many-colored earth we built into mountains and farmsteads in the garden mean to me that I remember it all these years? Why should a meadow newly gilded with dandelions burst always into my mind when I hear good news? One spot on the farm was the holy of holies, and I never went there save when I felt myself to be good. I know no reason why I felt this way; but I remember that star-flowers blossomed there, trailing arbutus, and, later, bird-on-the-wing. Caraway seeds were somewhere near. The pith of the best cookies, it may be, could not suffer the presence of wickedness.

Our farm gave us all sorts of things to do. There was the garnet rock where we dug out stones that seem now to have been as large as a thumbnail. But they always crumbled. I had once a bottle one-third full of pearls I got out of the sort of mussels which kelps love to use as anchors; yet they, too, went the way of Excalibur and Achilles’ shield. I think we showed scientific leanings. We liked to dig up the bodies of the dolls we had decently buried in our dolls’ graveyard to see how well they were getting on with their decay. We played the Stone Age game of pottery. We covered a long board pile with clay dishes we made. A sister of mine always did groups of cranes, one with his neck forever aloft, the other with his bill in the mud; she never varied. I had a passion for owls; they looked well with white beads set in for eyes. Like the best artists, the Greeks who took a rank weed and immortalized it in the acanthus border and the New Englanders who put acorns on their butter-pats, we copied the life at hand. We tried to bake our crockery and sculpture into immortality in the oven; but not even a soup tureen remains today. We soused a Jonathan Swift sort of a cousin in the Well Pond in a boat of our making, Lord Fauntleroy suit and all. He was a thorn forever in our flesh. He took great pains to do everything from playing the piano to playing chequers better than we could; and he was so smart that he defeated all his achievements by the manifest brilliance of his methods. He could ruin a perfect cause simply by defending it. Christianity, was not for us if he was going in for it.

We all had playhouses; but mine was the poorest, since I was the youngest in my triad of brothers and sisters. We came, you see, by threes. My sea-pond, too, was the smallest; and my hermit-crabs had shallower water in which to manoeuvre their portable mansions than my brothers’, my mussel-shell fleets had a minor sea to command. The tide came the sooner into my pond and set my shrimps adrift. It was I who had to do the blowing up of the coals in the bonfire we had lucklessly kindled on the spot where we had been making fire-crackers all day out of blasting powder. And it was my face that suffered for our parents’ failure to provide us with materials for the Fourth of July when the whole earth blew up. But it was excellent discipline that I got for the War later by being the youngest in my triad. And I had to take refuge so often in books to find independence that I grew more than the others into bookish ways. I can understand why the youngest sons and daughters in the ballads win true loves and kingdoms and have all the luck; it is all so unlike life.

But no catalogue of amber days can ever tell more than half of the story of my farm. When I was first learning to read, I had a nest of boxes telling the old and very sad tale j of Cock Robin. The pictures were probably crude; but there was something magical about the story as one went on inward to its heart, something over and above the flat lithographs of the kite and the bull and the fly. The four-sided character of the affair helped to suggest a fourth dimension. There was an overtone. My farm was like that. To the outsider my days would have seemed ordinary. They often seemed so to me. Yet there were moments of another sort, when I thought I saw around corners and saw white horses pulling my hours and my concerns along. At such times those holes in the sliding bank of the middle pasture would be more than holes down into the roots of trees; they would be stairways down to crystal wheels. And the patches of bark on the Norway pines nearby took on the shapes of dragons and griffins and werewolves. The place may seem rather usual now when I visit it. But there was a time, when my feet were bare and I could shin trees for crows’ nests, the world had gilt upon it. That was when I was still the right size for my father to hold me on his knees by the hearthside and sing until the horizons grew vast,

As we rolled and pitch-poled In the Bay. of Biscay-O.


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