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V
Sweet-Scented Fern

There can be no reasonable doubt that the sense which is most closely linked with our powers of memory is the sense of smell. We are greatly puzzled sometimes to know what has suddenly brought to mind an event of long ago, a person whom we have not thought of for years, a scene that has been forgotten since childhood. Very often this sudden memory has been roused by a passing odor, the never-lost perfume of a flower, a handkerchief, a meadow. So subtle are the operations of the mind that we know little about them, and least of all about that stow-away place which we call memory. Neither you nor I know a hundred thousandth part of what we really do know, what we have learned, treasured, and now keep stored up; only it is like some things we have so carefully laid away that we can't find them when we want them, or have ceased to know that we possess them.

There was once a boy. It was a great while ago; that is, it seemed to him a long while to come, when he, a boy, looked forward to the old age he afterwards reached. But when he was an old man it did not seem such a great while ago that he was a boy, living in a small house, half log half clapboard, on the edge of a clearing in New Hampshire. This boy lived there very much alone; for though he had a father and a mother, it goes without saying that a small boy on a new farm leads a lonesome life when father and mother are at work all the waking hours. When he was ten years old he was a hard-working boy too. He had never been to school, never even learned to read. There was not a book, not so much as a Testament, in the house; and so far as he had ever heard, there were no books in the world, nor any God in it or over it. I wonder if you know, what is the solemn fact, that there are families, American families, with one, two, and many children, in New England States, of exactly this description.

Another family came into that part of the country, and another small house went up on the opposite bank of the lake; for the houses stood on a pond, or lake, which was a half-mile broad and two or three miles long, and the old forest was all around it except for the two clearings. Now came into that boy's life a new light, and he began to know the world; for there was a daughter in the other family, besides two sons; and what cannot a boy learn of the world from two other boys and one happy little girl. He learned more from her than from them. For somehow he learned from her to look into himself, and think about himself and what he was. That is a long step towards knowledge of the world when a boy gets into the way of studying himself thoughtfully. For almost all the joys, ambitions, and enjoyments; almost all the sins, labors, and sorrows of mature life are miniatured in the boy life. The little pleasures of the child are like in character to the great pleasures of the man. The triumph of a successful attack on a woodchuck's hole is the far-away antetype of a great operation in stocks or the brilliant capture of a large corporation.

Many a summer evening when his work was done he paddled his dug-out across the pond, and he and she drifted along the shore, and he sat silent while she told him stories of the town in which she had lived, and the people in that (to her) great assemblage of humanity. Many a Sunday they wandered together in the woods and out in the clearing along the bank of the lake, brushing through thick masses of fern that filled the sunny atmosphere with delicious odor.

After the first few months of their acquaintance, when he was twelve and she was ten years old, he had begun to regard her as the dependence of his life, and so to look to her for help. It was hard work to bring himself to confess to her that he did not know how to read; but he did it, and asked her to teach him. There was a rock among the sweet-scented fern by the shore, where in the pleasant Sunday mornings she gave him regularly a four-hours' lesson. She was not long in teaching him all she knew, and after that they progressed together.

They talked much and thought much. She told him Bible stories, and they were about the only stories she knew except two or three wonderful fairy stories which he and she mixed up with the Bible stories, until they grew wiser, as new settlers came and brought books, which they borrowed. Much they learned out of their own heads, reading together and giving each to the other, in childish wise ways, their deductions and reasonings about things visible and invisible, things of earth and things unearthly if not truly heavenly. Do you imagine their deductions were worthless? Nay, the ratiocinations of a boy and a girl about the infinite and invisible are about as valuable in result as are those of many of the philosophers which fill the thousand pages of modern books. They learned as much of final truth as you can learn from all the metaphysicians.

It needs not to say that he learned the old lesson of love at the same time, or even before he learned his letters among the ferns. So began his life. At seventeen he came out from his wild home into the crowded world. There is no space to tell of his method of farming his new farm. He went at it with the experience of the boy who had cleared a forest and rolled rocks out of the meadow land. It was a terrible piece of work, begun with semi-starvation, carried on with slow, steady determination. Starting as a day-laborer, he achieved in six years or so a superintendent's position with a living salary. Then he went back to the old farm and married Harriet, who had waited for him, and brought her to the city.

Fifty years went along, and neither he nor she ever again saw the north country. He accumulated property, and they were good members of their social circle, regular in daily life and Sunday churchgoing. They had changed, and yet had not changed. Their young lives had been devoid of romance, and there was no romance or sentiment in growing rich or growing old. Practically they had forgotten their youth. Certainly they never thought or talked of it. I said their youth was without romance. Yet beyond doubt the forming period in their lives had been when the unspeakable beauty of a boy's and a girl's love hallowed those sunshiny days. They did not know that there was any romance in young love on the silver lake in the mountain moonlight. They did not know there was any romance when he lay in the ferns at her feet and listened while she taught him that b-o-y spells boy and g-i-r-l spells girl and l-o-v-e spells love. Therefore there was no romance about it. It was simple matter of fact. They lived matter-of-fact lives when poor, and the same when rich and when surrounded with all the luxuries and elegancies which great wealth commands. They lived, in short, very much as many rich people live who have few resources for mental occupation, who are not given to much reading or much thinking in fact, just living along, and keeping at the old daily routine of employments. There are many who live in this way, having neither past to enjoy in retrospect nor future to enjoy in prospect, only comfortable in the monotonous present.

He was growing feeble. His brain was weary or worn. It hurts the brain to use it forever on one line of employment. His had been used for nothing but business work now a half-century, and whether in memory, judgment, or looking to the future, no thought had occupied it except thought of property, buying and selling and getting gain. He had not for years been at three minutes' distance from a telegraph-station. His idea of a summer vacation was to go to a hotel where stock bulletins were always kept up, and stock operations were the day and evening subjects of discussion. No wonder that there came a time when he began to grow strangely silent, sometimes as if drowsy, sometimes morose. Then he suddenly seemed to forget everything, and neither spoke nor wrote, nor went to his private telegraphic instrument; for he had made his house an annex to his office and the Exchange, and had lived practically day and night in the street.

They said his brain was done with work, and his end was near. Still he walked and rode around, but never alone. One day he was riding with his wife in the carriage along an up-town road, silent, unobservant, apparently in a stupor, when suddenly he exclaimed, "How sweet the ferns smell in this sunshine, Harriet." She turned to him, and saw that his eyes were closed. She took him home, and after that he lay, week after week, quiet, but apparently without knowing or noticing anything or any one. But sometimes they saw a smile spread over his pale face, as if pleasant thoughts were in the old brain. After months of this, one evening in the twilight he reached out his hand to her and said, "How sweet the ferns are, Hattie." Then he seemed perplexed about it, and said, "How sweet the ferns were, Hattie," and then after a little he came into his right mind.

If in the other life, which is alongside of this our life, close to us, but invisible to us, there are, as we are taught by some serious teachers, angels appointed to each of us, who are sometimes able to influence our thoughts, it would seem sometimes as if those angels held in their hands the ghosts of things that are gone, the shades of our lost objects of delight, and somehow made us sensible of their nearness. Did his angel and her angel hold in their hands fragrant ghostly ferns gathered long ago, with subtle odors, sensible not to the actual sense, but quite so to the mental sense? Or did they bring fronds that grow in elysian fields, which bear odors like those that are here associated with our purest recollections? Why not? There are rivers there, and why not golden-rod on their banks, and fragrant mints and ferns? It must have been from heaven, with attendant benediction, that the odor of the ferns came often to him. For now they two, old man and old wife, lived again together for many weeks and even months the young life. All its old unrecognized romance and all its ample delight and happy peace of mind came back to them. They talked now of every tree and rock and flower-bed, of every odor of field and forest. You know we cannot describe an odor; we can only say how sweet or disagreeable it was; but always their saying was, "Do you remember how the air was full of the fragrant everlasting that September day when we did so and so?"and they talked over the old stories; and now she found them in books and read them to him, and the truth that was in them seemed very true. For were they not both rapidly nearing the world whereof they had talked so much and thought so much, and were they not soon to see Moses and David and Zaccheus and Bartimeus? For a year or more they were as happy as two children, happy as they had been when children; happier, I think, for their old hearts went rioting around in the memories of those days, and all the pains of them were gone. Once in the summer-time he said he wished when he should be dead she would send and get a great deal of sweet-scented fern and cover him with it. And she did so. And two or three years after that she died. Do you believe there will be ferns in heaven, sweet ferns, whose odors fill the air and help to memories of young life here? The old song of the Church says, "There cinnamon and sugar grow, there nard and balm abound." If they reach heaven, and ferns grow there, they two will be found often on some fern-bank. To them that would add much to what Gregory called "the sweet solemnity of those who are come home from the sad labor of this wandering."


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