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In My Youth by  James Baldwin
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THE FRIEND FROM ENGLAND

[142]

A
LL this while, the Friend from England, unconcious of the interest he had aroused, was sitting at the table in the big-house, partaking of the cold chicken and corn bread and pumpkin pie and multitudinous sweetmeats that were set before him. He had ridden far that day, and his appetite was excellent. He ate in an astonishing deliberate manner while at the same time conversing most charmingly with father and Senith Hunt and Barnabas the schoolmaster. And I, anxious to hear the words of the powerful man, made myself as small as possible, and by slow degrees crept up to a point of vantage just inside the door. I listened entranced, and wondered how it was possible that the world could hold two men so wise and good as my father and this Benjamin from over the sea.

The repast was in due time ended, but not so the conversation. The girls, entering the room on tiptoe, deftly removed the dinner things from the table, but our honored visiting Friends remained seated in their places; and between then and father, the feast of reason and the flow of soul continued uninterruptedly until long past our accustomed bedtime.

The humbler guest stood silently around the room, or sat on the door-steps, or hung about the windows—the masculine portion keeping religiously aloof from the frm- [143] inine. Sometimes they listened languidly to the conversation, and sometimes they indulged in irreverent whispered remarks concerning things which they should have regarded as sacred and above reproach. The younger women snickered as one of their number called attention to the love lock that hung so cunningly over Friend Benjamin's ear; and the query went round whether he was a bachelor or whether he had left a wife in England. Then the younger men nudged one another shyly and directed attention to the woman Friend from Carliny, who had the strange habit of constantly moving her jaws as though chewing her food a second time like a cow. And the men in the outer circle, out-of-doors, began to yawn and wonder where so many people were going to sleep. Not one in the entire company seemed able to understand, much less appreciate, any portion of the animated discussion that was going on within their hearing.

At length, however, as though wakened from a dream, father rose suddenly, looked at the clock on the mantelpiece and lighted a fresh candle.

"If Friends feel inclined to retire to their rest," he said, speaking very loudly, "we are now prepared to show them to their places."

This was the signal for a general dispersal of the company. The humbler people quickly vacated the settin'-room and retired into the moonlit yard to await further instructions, while the ministers and elders and Barnabas the schoolmaster rose and signified their willingness to seek their respective couches. Then father, candle in hand, opened the door of one of the tiny bedrooms, and said, "If Benjamin and Barnabas have a mind to do so, they may occupy the bed in this room." And mother likewise opening the other little room, made a similar an- [144] nouncement: "Senith Hunt and Huldy Estey and Becky Hobbs, if you think you can sleep three in a bed, you may take this room." Thus were the guests of honor disposed of in summary fashion.

As Friend Benjamin entered his chamber and cast a glance at the wonderful bed of two feather ticks and a straw mattress towering upward to a level with his head. I fancied that I saw a look of amusement—perhaps it was consternation— pass over his face; but with a kind word to father, which sounded strangely like "Good night," he closed the door gently behind him; and I felt queerly, as though the sun had suddenly set and the landscape was no longer visible.

Your grandmother, my dear Leona, would have been sorely puzzled, had she in her lifetime been required to find sleeping places for forty people in two small houses like ours. But your grandmother's grandmother, who was my mother, was accustomed to such emergencies, and it required only a few minutes for every one of our guests to be assigned to his appropriate place of repose. Some of the young women and girls were sent up the ladder into the cabin loft, which David and Jonathan had vacated for their use. The married women, with their babies, were told to make themselves comfortable in Cousin Mandy Jane's curtained corner and in my trundle-bed. As for our own two girls, they contented themselves very jollily on a pile of shavings in the weavin'-room.

The men-folks, whether old or young, were sent to the barn to bunk on the hay, or in the mangers, or anywhere they chose—and I, being a man in the making, was proud and at the same time very much abashed to be one of the masculine company. As I lay in a snug secluded corner of the hayloft, with sweet-smelling new hay be- [145] neath and around me. I could look through the cracks in the roof and see the stars twinkling joyously in the invisible sky; and I, too, felt a joyous sensation as though I were living in an atmosphere of perfect peace. Then my dear, long neglected Inviz, whom I had almost forgotten, came very softly and cuddled down beside me, just as he came very softly and cuddled down beside me, just as he had done once before when I was in extremest trouble. He put his cheek against my own and whispred:

"Don't thee wish thee had been raised in England?"

"I don't know," I answered. "I am afraid that even if I should be raised there twice I could never be such a man as Benjamin Seafoam."

And then, with Inviz lying lightly on my arm, I fell asleep.


It is not my purpose, dear Leonidas, dear Leona, to weary you with any further account of that memorable quart'ly meetin', for I fancy that you have already had as much of that sort of thing as your decadent natures can absorb and appreciate. It is sufficient to say that those who ought to know described it afterwards as " a season of great refreshing wherein the walls of Zion were marvelously strengthened." At the end of the third day's session, all our guests, excepting only the Friend from England, bade us farewell and departed. Benjamin Seafoam still tarried with us. His itinerary was such that he was not obliged to hurry on to his next appointment, and so at father's urgent invitation he consented to protract his stay with us for at least five days.

And those five day! they were like a revelation to us. Our eyes were opened and we saw things of which we had not previously dreamed. For Friend Benjamin was a missionary of a very uncommon type. He preached no [145] dogmas. You might believe in Jesus, or in Buddha, or in Mohammed—it mattered not if only your life was pure and lovely and all your actions guided by that Inner Light which glows brightly or dimly in the heart of every thinking being. All his labors, therefore, were for the enlightenment of the ignorant, and for the upbuilding of character, of culture adn of good manner; and his teachings related not to a future life and unfathomable mysteries and old-world traditions, but to the duties, the amenities and the possibilities of the life that now is.

The greater part of that which he said in his pleasant but convincin way was entirely beyond my comprehension—for I was only a child. But later on, when the fruits of his teachings began to appear, I understood more and more, and my memory, which was seldom at fault, recalled many a word and many a wholesome truth.

"Stephen Dudley," he said, "I wonder that a broad-minded man like thee should know so little about what is going in the great world. Why don't thee subscribe for a newspaper, and keep in touch with the march of humanity?"

"Newspapers, so far as I can learn, have an evil influence," said father. "They tell of wars and murders and thefts and all sorts of debasing things and conditions from which we should keep our minds free. When I and other Friends came here to found this New Settlement, we came with the fixed determination to keep ourselves and our homes unspotted from the world. How then can I consent to bring into my house a vile newspaper to contaminate adn poison the minds of those who read it?"

I did not hear the answer nor any portion of the long conversation that followed it; but the result was, as I shall explain in a future chapter, that father, ere many [147] months, became a regular subscriber to The National Era, and an ardent admirer of good newspapers in general.

At another time the Friend form England remarked: "Doesn't it seem rather a selfish thing for a person or company of persons to try to withdraw from the rest of the world and live apart from their fellow men? Wouldn't it be better to mingle with others and try to lift them up to higher and nobler planes of living and thinking? Wouldn't it be better, instead of trying to keep out of the way of evil, to rise up valiantly and fight it with the weapons of truth? What does thee think, Stephen?"

"It was our hope when we came here," said father, rather dodging the question—"it was our hope when we came here that we might bring up our children in surroundings far removed from the besetting sins and temptations of the world."

And then there was another long and earnest discussion in which father was again worsted. Thus one citadel of narrowness after another was attacked with weapons of gentle argument, and utterly overthrown. One-sided opinions adn life-long errors of judgement and belief were one by one subjected to the light of reason. And all this was done so quietly and in a manner so matter-of-fact and convincing, that there was no room for suspicion, nor indeed for serious opposition. Thus, through the five days' influence of a wise and true man, father gained a broader outlook upon life and the world than all his twoscore and ten years of rigid adherence to dogma had been able to give him.

As for our womenfolks, they were influenced in quite a different way; for their sphere was the household, and although the Friend from England neither advised nor [148] argued nor showed any desire to change their ways of doing, yet his slightest acts set them to thinking and wondering.

"Aint's it funny how he always spreads a clean handkerchief in his lap when he's eatin' at the table?" remarked Cousin Mandy Jane.

"I axed him why he done it," said Cousin Sally, "and he told me that in England they always put one by each plate—a napkin, he said they call it. They use it to wipe their lips on afore they drink from a cup."

"Well, I declare!" exclaimed Aunt Rachel. "It's quite somethin' to be borned in England."

"And another funny thing," said Cousin Mandy Jane, "I notice that, no matter how hot the room is, he never comes to the table in his shirt-sleeves."

"Oh, well, I think it's kinder nice for him to sorter dress up that way," said Cousin Sally. "But did thee notice that he never pours his coffee into the sasser to drink it? He waits till it cools and then sips it from the cup. He says that everybody does that way in England."

"Well, it's a good thing that everybody ain't borned in England," muttered Aunt Nancy; "for if they was, there wouldn't be no use for sassers."

"The funniest thing of all," said Cousin Mandy Jane, "is the way he eats pie. He never cuts it with his knife, nor holds it in his fingers, but uses his fork to cut it and stick it into his mouth."

"I've noticed that, too," said Cousin Sally. "One day I thought maybe he didn't see his knife, and so I says, 'Here's thy knife to eat thy pie with. The fork's sorter dull,' I says. And he looked at me and says, 'I thank thee, Sally; I prefer to use the fork.' After that, we got to talkin' about knives and forks, and I told him that I [149] noticed he never took the victuals on his knife. 'Oh, no!' he says, kinder funny like. 'In our country the young ladies would faint if they seen a person put a knife to his mouth.'"

"Laws a me!" ejaculated Aunt Rachel from the midst of a cloud of smoke. "Well, I'm glad we hain't got none of them young ladies here in the New Settlement. We can git along without 'em. But after all, it's kinder nice to be borned in England."

Then mother, who had thus far been a silent listener, ventured to offer her kindly comments: "What gits me more than anything else, is his compliments. If he passes betwixt me and the fire, he says, 'Please excuse me.' If I hand him the bread and he don't want any, he don't just answer with a plain 'No,' but he says, 'I thank thee." Now, how is anybody goin' to know what he means by all then unnecessary compliments?"

"Well, I've always heerd it said that compliments was like an empty bag," remarked Aunt Nancy. "There ain't never anything in 'em. For my part, I b'lieve in the plain yes-and-no language."

"Yes," muttered old Aunt Rachel. "Compliments is good for them that's borned in England; but as for me, give me the plain yea, yea and nay, nay."

"That's right, Aunt Rachel, for it's in the Bible," piously ejaculated Cousin Sally. "It's my 'pinion that all them Englishers are cram-jam full of queer ideas. Why! don't thee know? Benjamin Seafoam, he hain't slept on a feather tick nary night since he's been here. Every morning when I go in to make up the bed, what does thee s'pose? There's the two feather ticks packed up in the corner, and nothin' on the bedstid but the straw tick with the sheets pulled over it."

[150] "And he shaves hisself every day," cried Cousin Mandy Jane, anxious to have the last word in this delectable conversation. "Then he has a kind of shiny stuff that he puts on his boots instid of taller; and he always takes off his hat when he comes in the house; and he never eats pie for breakfast; and when he wants another hot cake he don't jist reach over and git it, but he says, 'Mandy Jane, I'll thank thee for another one of those fine bisquits.'"

"Oh, well, he's queer—he's queer," softly murmured old Aunt Rachel. "Yes, he was borned in England," kindly responded Aunt Nancy.

And thus, seated around the great cabin hearth, they went on, wondering, finding fault, admiring, pitying—carding wool, spinning flax, knitting, baking corn dodgers. All were busy.

You may smile, my dear Leona; but do you, yourself, talk more sensibly, act more wisely? The times, the manners, all change; dynasties flourish and decay, empires rise and perish, kings play their brief games and turn to dust—but the tongues of women wag on in the same way forever.

As for myself, it was my settled policy to keep at a distance form our honored visitor lest he speak to me and I be overcome with bashfulness. I especially feared that, being a preacher, he might ask me about the state of my soul, and in that case I could have no alternative but to tell a sneaking lie. So, I hung around the door, or concealed myself in a corner, or peeped through a crack in the wall—always burning to see and to hear, and yet so shy that I was always in fear of being seen. The great man kindly pretended not to notice me, for he un- [151] derstood my shyness and respected it. Sometimes, when he detected me in a stratagem to excape him, he would nod his head and smile pleasantly, allowing me to go my way. Sometimes he would utterly ignore my presence as though I were no better than a dog; and this, while it relieved my timid soul, wounded my pride most dreadfully.

One morning, however—it was the next to the last day of his stay—he fairly captured me. I was sitting under a cherry tree reading a lesson in my Parley Book, and very much absorbed in the brief account therein given of the heathenish Chinese and the great wall that was built around their country. I felt quite secure from any untoward interruption, for I supposed that Benjamin Seafoam was in the deadenin', helping David and Jonathan with the log heaps; but just as I was in the midst of a most interesting passage, a shadow fell on my book. I looked up. The Friend from England was standing over me; he was so close that escape was impossible. I trembled and shut the volume, bidding fairwell to hope.

"Well, Robert," said the pleasant voice, "I'm told that thee is a lover of books and that thee has started quite a little library. What book is thee reading now?"

My tongue, for the moment, was paralyzed, and I could not speak; but my sense of propriety made me show him the title-page of the geography. And then I shrank into myself and thought that I would give the world and all if mother would only call me to do some wearisome task—to carry water, to split wood, yes even to do the churning. But my hour of doom had arrived.

I never could understand how it came about, but within ten minutes we two were sitting side by side, our heads close together and our hearts beating as one, while we [152] looked at that wonderful geography. Benjamin turned the leaves and made running comments on the various illustrations, and I volunteered many brief remarks on things which had appealed most strongly to my fancy. When we came to the map of England, we paused quite a while, and Benjamin with the point of a pin showed me the exact spot where his home was located. It seemed to me a very small place to hold so great a man, and I told him so. He laughed merrily, and then began to tell me about other things.

He told me of the vastness of the city of London, but I, having never seen so much as a village, could not comprehend his simplest description. He told me of Queen Victoria, whom everybody loved, and of her little son, who was exactly my own age and who would probably at some future day be the king of England.

"We all hope that he will grow up to be a wise and good man, in every way worthy to wear the crown," said Benjamin.

Then we turned back and looked at the picture of Queen Elizabeth, and laughed at the strange immense collar that stood up from her shoulders and encircled her neck. And Benjamin told me briefly of some of the famous men of Elizabeth's reign—of Drake and Raleigh the heroes of the sea, of Bacon the philosopher, of Spenser the poets' poet, and of William Shakespeare who wrote playing pieces wonderful in language and conception, but in their purpose rather beneath what would be expected from a gentleman and a scholar. He told me also of my great namesake, that other Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, a lordly villain who had aspired to become the queen's husband.

"I trust that when thee becomes a man," said Friend [153] Benjamin, "thee will add honor to the name which the unworthy earl so shamelessly dishonored."

At length, having come to the end of the volume, he suggested that I show him the rest of my library; and with happy feet I ran and brought out all my treasures, not forgetting even the humble Emerson's Primer.

Oh, what a red-letter morning that was! The horn for dinner sounded while yet we were in the midst of our intellectual feast; and my mother's call to run down to the spring and fetch up a pail of clear cool water was by no means so welcome as it might have been had it occurred a few hours earlier.

That afternoon my new-found friend and I took a long stroll through the deadenings and the greenwoods. I pointed out the trees upon which Esau and Jacob had built their summer homes, and on one of these trees we espied the two ungrateful ex-pets themselves, now grown quite wild and disdainful of their former master. Then, walking on, I showed him the spot where a quail had but lately hatched seventeen little ones, and the deserted nest of some robins in an old thorn tree, and the burrow of a ground squirrel which always came out, chipping, to greet me as I passed. Then, to my intense delight and Benjamin's also, we saw a humming-bird flitting in and out among some blossoming shrubs, and we paused for some minutes watching its strange erratic movements from flower to flower. It was the first one of these tiny creatures that our Friend from England had ever seen, and he appeared to be more overjoyed that if he had stumbled upon a bag of gold.

As we strolled homeward, he told me of some English birds that are unknown in our country—of the cuckoo and her cunning habit of avoiding the anxieties [154] and trials of motherhood; of the true robin redbreast that stays in his favorite haunts all winter, shivering and starving and yet hoping; and of the skylark and its marvelous song flight to the blue gate of Heaven.

Talk about fairy tales, my dear Leonidas! I am quite sure that you will never hear any that are half so entrancing as were the true stories of birds and beasts that my new-found playmate related to me on that memorable afternoon. Then, as we passed through a grove of giant trees, he told me of the beautiful belief among certain peoples, ages and ages ago, that every tree and bush and shrub was inhabited by a gentle spirit, a wood nymph or dryad, who was invisible to mortal eyes.

I listened enraptured, and then forgetting my customary caution, I cried out, "Oh, yes! I've seen them often in these very woods. They're all around ys now."

Friend Benjamin smiled gently and then by degrees changed the subject. Perhaps, like our home-folks, he thought I was telling a foolish fib; but as I looked upward I could see on every ash and oak and elm a fairy-like creature swinging back and forth in the evening breeze and looking benignly down upon us. The vision was as real to me as the presence of the trees or of my companion himself; yet I kept silent, fearing to be still further misunderstood.

It was very late when we reached the house, and mother was losing her temper because the supper was getting cold. Friend Benjamin apologized for our tardiness, washed his hands and face at the spring, put on his coat, and took his accustomed place at the table. There was no supper for me, and I hurried out to the barnyard where Cousin Mandy Jane was milking. She was fuss- [155] ing and fuming because I had not arrived earlier to help her.

"I tell thee what, Towhead!" she said, "that Friend from England ain't worth shucks. Jist to think of a grown-up male man like him a-traipsin' through the woods a whole afternoon with a little shaver like thee! Why, he ain't right in his noggin'! Now, thee hump it, and git the fodder for the cows while I finish the milkin'."

I made no reply, for I was content. I had found a kindred spirit; I had for the time being forgotten my baleful shyness; I had had a happy day.


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