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In My Youth by  James Baldwin
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EVENINGS AT HOME

[36]

D
IRECTLY beneath our bookcase there stood a little candlestand with three carved legs and a round top of wild cherry wood. Small as it was, it was the finest piece of furniture in the house, and upon it reposed the book that was best known and oftenest read, the Bible. I do not remember the time when my acquaintance with this volume began, but I have been told that it was often my companion in the cradle. Even before I could read I had acquired some notions about the Creation and the Flood, for these were the subjects which mother liked; and no "feeling free" to sing even to her child, she often found relief in crooning to herself and me certain favorite psalms and the first chapter of Genesis.

It was the rule and custom of our family to listen to a "Scripter readin'" every night, just before retiring to rest. When the labors of the day and evening were completed, we would assemble in a semicircle around the great clay hearth, each in his favorite place. Aunt Rachel sat as usual in her chimney corner, her pipe in her mouth, her knitting in her lap, her wrinkled face enwreathed by the frills of her snow-white cap. Although only an aunt of my mother's, she had been given a permanent home with us, and she seemed to me as necessary to the completeness of the family as did either of my parents. She was old, very old, and I sometimes [37] looked at her with awe, wondering if the angel of death had not somehow passed by and forgotten her.

Next to her on the hearth sat her granddaughter, an angular awkward maiden of uncertain age whom everybody called Cousin Mandy Jane. She had been adopted into our household at about the same time with myself, but in a different way, and had proved to be my mother's most efficient helper, being esteemed the best butter-maker, the best spinner, the best all-round housekeeper in the New Settlement. She had not much beauty, but she had a willing hand and a kind heart, and these go a great deal farther than a well-chiseled nose or a good-featured face.

A little back from the hearth, on a short bench against the wall, sat the two "big boys," David and Jonathan. They were twins, several years my seniors—burly husky fellows, the orphaned sons of a distant relative, whom father had undertaken to raise as his own. They had been in our family a shorter time than I, and yet I had always thought of them as my elder brothers. They were farmers and pioneers by nature; they liked to talk of horses and cattle and crops, but in book-learning they had never gone further than the rudiments. While they were father's willing helpers in the fields and clearings, they were his despair in matters pertaining to mental culture. The down on their lips and cheeks was fast taking on color and stiffness, and soon they would be big boys no longer, except in their artless simplicity.

Directly fronting the center of the fireplace was the easy rocking chair which my mother occupied—a seat of honor, as it were, where she might overlook not only the rest of the family but the usual objects of her industry, the pots and pans, the spinning-wheels and [38] the corner cupboard. Near her feet, so near that I might lay my head upon her lap when I was tired, was the three-legged stool which served me as a seat. It was low and narrow, but large enough for Inviz to come quite often and sit beside me; and he sat so quietly that no one but myself knew of his presence.

Lastly, in the place of dignity near the extreme right-hand corner of the hearth, sat father, thoughtful, solemn, with a heavy sense of life's duties and responsibilities resting upon him. When all were assembled in order and in becoming silence, he would say in the commanding tones of a patriarch:

"David, thee may fetch me the Book."

And David would rise from the bench, and going proudly round to the other side of the room, would pick up the little candlestand, with the Bible, a pair of snuffers and a lighted candle upon it, and carrying it across the hearth, would deposit it in the right position between the patriarchal knees. Then he would resume his place, and silence would again fall on the household.

Father would snuff the candle, put on his spectacles and open the book—I suspect with a little inarticulate prayer as he did so. Very deliberately he would turn the leaves until he came to a chapter or a passage which harmonized best with his feelings, or which in his judgment was best adapted to our instruction and edification. Sometimes he would read a penitential psalm, sometimes a narrative passage from Genesis or Ruth or Esther, and sometimes a selection from the Proverbs which seemed to strike home at certain of our own shortcomings and backslidings. He was better pleased, however, when reading a chapter from one of the old prophets pro- [39] claiming vengeance upon a wicked and idolatrous people; and he was at his very best when he opened the book at one of the gospels and read there of the doings and sayings of Him "who taught as never man taught."

My dear Leonidas, my dear Leona, it was worth being born in a log cabin to be privileged to sit upon that little three-legged stool and listen to those wonderful readings. Very rich and full was father's voice, and at times exceedingly melodious. He began softly, in tones somewhat deliberate and slow; then soon he seemed to forget everything else and to throw his whole soul into the semi-musical rendition of the text before him. To me it was much like going to the opera will be to you, Leona, but I suspect that the impressions were somewhat different. I had never heard any one really sing, I had never seen a musical instrument; and if it had been suggested to father that there was aught of music in his readings he would have been overwhelmed with shame and a sense of wrong-doing. The hosts of Heaven might sing around the Throne, the psalmist might play upon the psaltery and the harp, but such diversions were not for Friends and common folks in the New Settlement; in these degenerate times the tendency of all music was to worldliness, and worldliness only.

When at length the reading was finished, father closed the Book, snuffed the candle again and pushed the candlestand a few inches away. A brief moment of silence followed, and then each member of the family began to prepare for retiring. Aunt Rachel covered the fire, father wound the clock, mother filled the teakettle, the boys brought in an armload of kindlings, Cousin Mandy Jane set the chairs in their places, and I—well, I pulled [40] my little trundle-bed out from behind the green curtains in the corner, crept into it, with Inviz beside me, and was soon oblivious to all the world.

My dear Leonidas, does this remind you of anything? Perhaps not; but there was once a Scottish poet, much loved and admired, who wrote a description of a similar scene in his own home almost a century earlier—a description which puts my own efforts to shame. I trust that you will find that poem and read it, and that you will especially give thought to a particular stanza which I committed to memory at an age when you will scarcely have heard of the name of Robert Burns:

"From scenes like these, old Scotia's grandeur springs,

That makes her lov'd at home, rever'd abroad:

Princes and lords are but the breath of kings,

An honest man's the noblest work of God."

One day, when I was a very small boy, father said to me, "Robert, how many pages are in the Bible?"

I looked at the figures on the last page, and answered, "Eight hundred and twenty."

"Well," said he, "if thee will begin at the first chapter and read three pages every day, thee can read it through in less than a year. Do this, and I promise to give thee a new book for thy library."

I was overjoyed. To win so valuable a prize by performing a task that appeared to be in itself so pleasant—who could have desired anything better? I began at once with "In the beginning," and persevered, day after day, until I had read every chapter, every work, to the "Amen" at the end of the Apocalypse. There was, of course, a great deal that I could not comprehend—in fact, the major portion of it consisted of words and [41] phrases that conveyed no distinct meaning to my mind; but I knew that there were pages and pages in that book which father himself could not comprehend, just as I now know that there are chapters and chapters which have so little relation to our present-day needs that they are scarcely worth reading. I found many passages, however, which seemed full of meaning even to my childish mind, and there were some narratives that were so full of the spirit of adventure that I read and reread them with ever increasing relish.

I found, also, episodes and stories which, if printed separately in modern English, would now be banned from good society and from the United States mails—very improper reading for young boys and pretty maidens, people would say; but I stumbled through all these things with the utmost innocence, reverently believing that they were entirely good and proper "because they were in the Bible." In fact, in those early years, the Bible was a fetish which I worshiped blindly and without reason, just as a good many older people do to this day. I believed that whatever was contained between the lids of our family volume was absolutely and undeniably true. If some one had written on the margin of one of the pages that "White is black," or that "Robert Dudley is a hundred years old to-day," I should have regarded it a sin to deny those statements; for I believed that it was utterly impossible to write or print an untruth anywhere inside of that holy volume.

You smile at my simplicity; but let me say to you that there are millions of grown-up people living to-day who pin their hopes of salvation on beliefs equally as childish and opposed to reason and good sense. The race has so long been fed upon articles of faith, that [42] credulity has become an instinct; and it often happens that those doctrines which are most directly opposed to the evidence of the senses secure the adherence of the largest number of converts.

It was a great accomplishment—that reading of the entire Book from beginning to end—and I should have faltered more than once had it not been for the promised reward. But at length it was finished, the "Amen" pronounced, and the Book returned to its place on the candlestand.

"Robert," said father, "thee has been very faithful, and thee has persevered wonderfully for a boy of thy age. If thee feels inclined to read the Book a second time, I shall not discourage thee."

Then from the small box under the bed, wherein he kept his treasures, he drew forth a brand-new book, a beautiful little volume bound in green paper boards with gilt lettering on its back.

"Here is thy reward, Robert," he said. "I bought it for thee when I was in Nopplis last week."

He put it in my hands, and I opened it. It was a Boy's Book of Animals

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