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In My Youth by  James Baldwin
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FRAGMENTS

I. ANNIVERSARIES

[482]

T
HE day being near its close and the lamps not yet lighted, I had wheeled her into the library. She lay quietly back in her invalid's chair, looking up alternately at the rows of books which we both loved so much and at the face of the one who was bending over her.

"My merry Edith, do you know what day to-morrow will be?" I asked.

She was silent a little while, trying to recall her scattered memories; then she answered:

"I don't remember, Robert. It is hard to keep the days in mind, but I think it will be Thursday? Won't it?"

I saw that she did not understand, and I explained that to-morrow would be an anniversary of something. Did she know what is was?

She shook her head and sighed. She could not quite remember.

"It was just sixty years ago," I said, thinking to help her by suggestion.

"Just sixty years ago? And what was it that happened then?" And in those once glorious brown eyes—now none the less glorious to me—there was a far- [483] away look that told me her mind was traveling slowly back to that distant time which I wished to recall.

"Dear, merry Edith, do you remember the day that you surprised a bashful, barefooted, little boy in your father's library?"

"And we stood by the table and looked at pictures together?" Thank God! she was remembering. "The little boy was you, Robert; and I taught you to use the unplain language, didnít I? Oh, but you were so timid and so awkward. And how careful you were with your bare feet!" And she laughed that same little rippling, merry laugh that had overjoyed my heart so long ago, so long ago.

Her face brightened as I toyed with the thin gray locks, as dear to me now as were the golden brown curls that so thrillingly brushed my cheeks on that eventful morning, so long ago.

I saw that the mists were lifting and that the memories of the past were again making blessed sunshine in her heart, and I said, "Yes, merry Edith, I was shy and green; but that was my first day in paradise, and to-morrow it will be just sixty years—so long ago!"

Her mind was clear and strong now, for a brief space, and together we recalled the childish prattle and the innocent joys that were ours on that never-to-be-forgotten day. "I think it was only yesterday," she said, "and yet you and I have spent many, many days in paradise together since that first October morning—so long ago."

"True," I answered, "there have indeed been many such days; and I now have in mind the one that was the grandest and the loveliest of them all. It was an old-fashioned Sunday in the country, and we two went walking together through the orchard and underneath [484] the apple trees where the autumn leaves rustled about our feet. The air was mild and calm, and the haze of Indian summer obscured the sun. The world seemed so peaceful and so good a place to live in; and we were so young and hopeful. Do you remember that day, my Edith—so long ago?"

"How can I ever forget it? It was the day—the day of our betrothal. It was not long ago."

"And yet just half a century has gone by since then, and to-morrow will be a double anniversary."

The youthful look of my Angel of the Facin' Bench came back into her eyes, and her countenance glowed with sweetness as she exclaimed, "What is half a century? What is half a century to us, Robert —to us who have known each other so long, and have had so many anniversaries? It is as but a single day: The morning dawns, the noonday heightens, the evening falls, the night brings darkness and rest—but it is neither the beginning nor the end. And so I think it was only this morning—this blessed morning—that we walked together beneath the orchard trees."

She was not used to speaking so much, and she lay back in her chair silent for a while, exhausted by the unwonted effort. Then she added: "But now the night is near, and darkness."

I held one poor, helpless little hand in my own, while with the other she lovingly stroked my cheek. "Dear, merry Edith," I said, "let us take courage and be comforted. For, when the clouds pass that are now obscuring our sky, and when the darkness and the silence give way to another morning, we shall again in innocence bend our faces over the same picture books, and we shall [485] again walk, arm in arm, under the blessed fruitful trees, our youth renewed and glorified."

The light of day was fading fast. The night was close at hand. We spoke not another audible word, but we knew each other's thoughts—our souls were as one.

The light continued to fade; darkness fell and silence ensued; and still we sat there, sorrowing, believing, trusting, rejoicing.

To-morrow comes, a new day will dawn.


II. AN OLD FRIEND

I had a visitor yesterday.

The afternoon was warm, the air was bracing and I was strolling along a woodland pathway, far from the resorts of men. I walked slowly, enjoying for the first time in many years a full and sweet communion with nature. On my right, a wood thrush was calling; on my left, a gray squirrel (descendant perhaps of my Esau) was noisily scolding; young rabbits and chipmunks raced in the path before me. I fancied that, as in the days of my childhood, I could see the dryads and the wood nymphs peeping out from their secret bowers and smiling sweet recognition as I passed.

Suddenly, as I was entering a more open space among the trees, I felt a soft arm clasped around my neck, while a little hand was laid gently over my eyes.

"Guess who it is," said a sweet voice which I could not mistake.

"O Inviz! It is you!" I cried, submitting myself to his loving embrace. More than fifty years had passed since I last heard that voice, and yet I recognized it at once and it was music to my sorrowing soul.

[486] "Yes, it is I, and I have come to walk with you, just as I used to do," he answered.

His touch was as tender, his step was as light, his breath on my cheek was as soft as in those days of yore which now exist only as pleasant memories.

"O Inviz, I am so glad!" and I was again the barefoot little Towhead driving home the cows, while he was my welcome companion.

"And I am glad, too," he chirped joyously, as he tripped along beside me. "This seems just like old times; doesnít it?"

"Indeed, indeed it does," and tears of happiness filled my eyes. "But tell me, Inviz, where have you been through all these many, many years?"

"Oh, I have been in various places and I have had numerous playmates since I bade you good-by that day just before they pulled the old log cabin down. A certain small boy is waiting for me now, over there on the other side of this woodland, and I must go to him soon."

"And do you lie down on the big hearth beside him, and look into the blazing fire, and dream dreams, just as you used to do with me?" I asked.

His arm trembled a little, and I fancied that I felt a tear fall upon my hand as he answered, "No, Robert, people don't live beside big hearths and blazing wood fires nowadays—except in a kind of make-believe senseless fashion; and when children are brought up on penny banks and toy automobiles, what can you expect? With most of them 'the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower' is of short duration, and that being ended, what further use can they have for me?"

We walked on silently for a little while, and then, com- [487] ing to a shady place where the grass was green and soft, we lay down, side by side, and, as in other days, amused ourselves by watching the summer clouds float lazily across the infinite sky. And there we remained through the greater part of that summer afternoon, recalling sweet memories of the days of innocence in the New Settlement and of the loved ones long departed.

"Robert, do you remember how we used to romp and wrestle under the old cherry trees?" at length asked Inviz.

"Oh, yes! and it was grand fun," I answered.

"Suppose we have a little tussle of the same sort right now," he said, rising and bantering me just as he used to do. "Come! I can beat you in a fair race to that old oak over there. Come, I dare you to run!"

I was on my feet in a moment, though not so quickly as I wished, and we were off like a flash. I strained every muscle, my breath came hard and quick, my heart thumped wildly—but in spite of all my efforts, Inviz outran me, two to one, and while I was yet toiling midway in the course, he reached the goal, and looking back laughed joyously but not tauntingly at my discomfiture.

"My legs are not what they used to be," I said, sitting down in despair. "I am afraid I am getting old."

"No, not you, Robert!" exclaimed my jolly companion, coming up and again putting his arm around me. "You, yourself, can never grow old—you are not made that way. But your legs, being only temporary affairs, may sometimes become wabbly through lack of nutrition. Your body, being a kind of machine and also chemical laboratory, will necessarily wear out, by and by, and become useless."

"And then, what?" I asked.

[488] "Then, when the right time comes, you shall be given another," he whispered very softly.

I lay quite still, thinking he would say more. Presently, I felt his arm withdrawn, and I missed the cheer of his warm breath upon my cheek.

"O Inviz, Inviz!" I cried. "Don't leave me. Stay with me till the end."

"It can not be," he answered, with not a touch of sadness. "The end is not yet, nor shall it ever be. In the new life that shall ere long be yours, I will again be your friend and playmate; we shall ramble side by side in sunny places, and we shall read the same books and dream the same dreams. But until then, farewell!"

I felt his kiss on my brow, but when I reached out to touch him, he was gone.

I lay there quietly in the grass, my face upturned, my arms folded helplessly across my breast. I knew nothing more until, the sun having set and night drawing near, I was roused by some one rudely shaking me and a rough voice shouting in my ear:

"Hello, there, old codger! Wake up! It's time you was gittin' toward home."

Old codger, indeed!


III. A VISION

Last summer, in my loneliness I made a brief flying visit to that part of the Wabash Country once known as the New Settlement, but now called by quite another and more high-sounding name. Oh, my heart! how changed was everything! I looked in vain for the old familiar landmarks, for the face of some one whom I might remember as friend and neighbor. All had disappeared, and most had been forgotten.

[489] That blessed spot which, in my innocence, I had fondly believed to be the center of the world, was scarcely recognizable. The roads and lanes were not in their former places but had been straightened and improved. The hills, where were they? The worm fences of ponderous rails had been removed or replaced by lines of barbed—yes, barbarous—wire. The buildings—even that grand new house, the triumph of father's architectural skill—had been obliterated. In their places I beheld a stately farmhouse of brick and stone, a modern barn of vast extent, a silo and a garage (things unknown and undreamed of in my day), and outhouses of many shapes and for many uses.

The spring-house was no more, and not a trace remained of the spring branch with its pellucid water and its forests of waving cattails. I looked for the cherry trees under which I had so often romped with Inviz or spent the summer hours in conning the pages of some loved book, and I found only a smooth grassless quadrangle with a net stretched through the middle, which they told me was a tennis-court. I gazed southward where once were deadenings and the big woods and the bottom, dotted with white-trunked sycamores; all were gone, and in their stead was nothing but one vast field of growing corn. Following a strange pathway, I went down through this field to see the "crick" where I had so often waded and fished for tiny shiners; and what do you suppose I found? Only a straight, muddy, ill-smelling ditch, with hardly a pretense of water at the bottom. Even the old swimmin' hole had been filled in and its place was known no more. Ah! how wonderful is progress!

The great man, the possessor of the old home place [490] and of ten times as much land as my father ever dreamed of owning, was very kind to me—very condescending in his evident pity of my ignorance and great antiquity. His name was Dobson, and I learned that his grandfather had been Jacob Dobson—the same Jake with whom I had done some disastrous swapping sixty years before. He carried me in his automobile to the spot which I had once known as Dry Forks. It was Dry Forks no longer, but a young and growing city known by a very different name, and its chief asset was natural gas.

"We have now a population of five thousand and we confidently expect it to reach fifty thousand within the next decade," said the pompous postmaster.

But where was the meetin'-house once the center of social activities and of religious culture?

In its place I was shown a fine modern structure with stained-glass windows and a little steeple pointing toward the sky.

"We don't call it a meetin'-house any more," said my friend the landholder. "We call it a church, and there ain't any building of the kind anywhere in this part of the state that can come up to it in genuine comfort and style."

It was Sunday morning. The door was open, and I was told that "services" were going on inside. We paused within the little vestibule, and I looked in. The single large assembly-room was handsomely decorated. There were no "shetters" to separate the sexes, no backless benches (not even a facin' bench), no galleries for the ministers and elders. But there were soft-cushioned pews, all facing the same way, wherein men and women sat together and were not at all ashamed; and beyond [491] these there was an elegant little pulpit with a gilt-edged Bible reposing on it. Behind this pulpit, there was a pretty little sofa on which a sleek-haired minister was reposing his weary limbs; and on the right-hand side of it (oh, ye shades of John Woolman and Joel Sparker!) stood a modest cabinet organ on which a young lady in fashionable attire was attuning a hymn.

"Do you have music in your meetings?" I whispered to my friend.

"Oh, certainly! We have the best that's goin'. That organ cost five hundred and forty dollars, and it's a good one. Sometimes we have a cornetist to come and play at the evening services—and that's just bully to draw a crowd."

"But I suppose that you occasionally have silent meetings, to wait for the moving of the spirit, and to meditate concerning the good place, just as we used to have when I was a boy?"

"Well, not gener'lly. We have a reg'lar program, and go through it without stopping. The minister, he conducts the service, and there ain't much time for silence.

"Do your young people ever get married in meeting?"

"They used to, but they've mostly quit it nowadays. They say it's a leetle mite too slow; and so the minister, he does the business privately at his home or at the bride's residence."

I looked at the congregation. Some of the men wore cutaway coats, but I sought in vain for a single plain garment of the collarless, shadbelly variety such as father and all good members of Our Society used to wear. The only broad-brimmed hats that I saw were those worn by the ladies. Far over in one of the free pews, how- [492] ever, I recognized a single plain bonnet of dove-colored silk—modest and neat, a relic of ancient times. I felt strongly moved to go forward and shake hands with its wearer and say, "Howdy, mother. How is thee and thine?"

"I see that you have done away with plain clothes, the ancient and honorable insignia of Our Society," I said to my friend Dobson; "but certainly there are some who still adhere to the use of the plain language?"

"Plain language! Well, I don't know. What is it?"

"The use of the pronoun 'thee' instead of the singular pronoun 'you,' and generally the avoidance of all unnecessary expletives and compliments."

"Well, I recollect that my grandfather and some of the other old ones did used to say 'thee' and 'thy' and 'First-day,' and that sort of thing. But most everybody's got out of the way of talking so now. They don't see no use in sich language."

"It was the language of George Fox," I ventured.

"Well, maybe it was. Grandfather used to talk right smart about an old Enick Fox that owned part of my farm, a long while ago. He went out to Kansas, way back in war times—and I never seen him. Maybe it's him you are thinking of."

"Very likely," I answered.

The hymn was ended, the organ was hushed, and the minister rose to announce the next number of the "program." Leaving my friend and guide at the door, I went forward and sat down in a vacant pew which a kindly usher showed me. The minister was addressing his congregation, but I did not hear him. My mind was far away, busied with thoughts of other days, and I was soon oblivious to all that was going on around me. [493] Presently, however, I ventured to raise my head and look up. What do you suppose I saw?

There, directly in front of me, was the old comfortless gallery, with my father sitting at the head of the meeting and the elders, including Joel Sparker and Levi T., ranged in order beside him. Very solemn and saintly they appeared, with their broad-brimmed beaver hats on their heads and their toil-worn hands crossed resignedly upon their knees. And there also was the women's gallery, with mother in her plain silk bonnet, sitting meekly and not altogether comfortably by the side of holy Margot Duberry. And just a little way below them was the women's facin' bench, and oh, joy! there was my Angel just as I had seen her on that ever-blessed First-day morning, more than threescore years before Her golden-brown curls were surmounted by that same wonderful hat with the big feather in it, and her dainty little feet, with real shoes and stocking on them, were dangling midway between the bench and the floor. . . . And then . . . as I looked . . . she turned her glorious eyes toward me . . . and beckoned . . . and smiled.

O my Leonidas, my Leona! There is nothing more to be said.


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