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HOMESICK AGAIN. BLUE, OH, SO BLUE!
The jaunt with Edgar and the excitement about old "Three-Legs" had distracted my thoughts for the time being, but had not cured me of homesickness. Two days later my mother sent me by mail my book of arithmetic, the one I had recently used at school; she thought that I might attend the district school in Maine and need it.
Now there is not usually much in a text-book of arithmetic that excites fond memories in a boy of thirteen. Often the reverse. But I had no sooner taken that well-thumbed book from its wrapping of brown paper, than another pang of homesickness went through me; and this time it was nostalgia in earnest.
If, at this moment, there is anywhere in the United States, or in the whole world, a boy or girl who is homesick, I know how to pity each and all of them. I do not suppose that my pity will do them much good. Nothing does much good. But I know exactly how they feel, and they have my heartiest sympathy.
Whoever ridicules and laughs at any one who is truly homesick must have a hard heart and a shallow mind. It is no laughing matter. Homesickness is something midway between a physical disease and a mental worry. It has a real, physiological cause, and is due to the inability of the brain to adapt itself, without a struggle, to the strangeness of new scenes and new surroundings; and that struggle is often a very painful one.
Homesickness had not fallen upon me at first, there were so many new things to see, so many new cousins and young neighbors to get acquainted with. For a time my attention was wholly taken up with the novelties of the place. The farm, the cattle, the birds, the work which we had to do, everything, in fact, was novel. Perhaps for that very reason, when the mental struggle to really adapt myself to it came, it was the more profound and severe.
That morning I had no sooner unwrapped this old book than the pang began again. I could not swallow a mouthful of breakfast. It really seemed to me that I should die right then and there if I did not get up and start for home.
Blue is no adequate word with which to describe what I suffered. It came upon me with a suddenness, too, which nearly took my breath with it. At the table were the bright, cheery faces of my cousins, and of the Old Squire and Gram; but for the moment, how saddening, poor and dreary everything looked to me! The thought of remaining there, month after month, gave me heart-sink like death.
Kind parent, if you have a boy or girl off at school, or anywhere at a distance, whom you wish to be happy and content, do not write very much to them, and above all things do not go on to tell them of home affairs, home scenes and familiar objects. It is mistaken kindness. It might possibly answer — if a boy — to speak of a woodpile soon to be sawn; or — if a girl — to allude to great heaps of dishes to be washed; but I would not even advise much of that, nor anything else in the least suggestive of home scenes; in fact, write as little as possible.
I remember, as I sat there at table, unable to eat, or even to swallow my coffee, that Cousin Theodora glanced compassionately at me, and Ellen and Addison curiously. They surmised what ailed me, from their own previous experience, but said nothing. The Old Squire and Gram, too, wisely forebore to stir me by foolishly expressed sympathy. How glad I was that they did not speak to me!
The day passed drearily enough, and as evening drew on, still gloomier shadows fell into my mind. I stole away to read my mother's letter again and be alone with my trouble. Billow after billow of the blackest misery broke over me. I went out into the garden, then around to the back side of the west barn; the darkening landscape was not more somber than my heart. How unspeakably dreary the dim, weathered old barn, the shadowy hills and forests looked to me! Not less dreary seemed my whole future. I felt exiled. It appeared to me that I should never know another happy moment, that I never could, by any possibility, enjoy myself again. I sat down on a stone, in the dark, put my head in my hands, and gave myself up to the most somber reflections. Cold despair crept into me at every pore. A fever of tears then filled my eyes. I laid wild plans to escape; I would run away that very night and go home. The distance, as I knew, was about five hundred miles; but I was sure that I could walk twenty miles per day, perhaps thirty. In twenty days I could reach home. I did not think much about food by the way; it did not appear to me that I should want to touch a mouthful of anything eatable till I reached home. If I did so far desire, I fancied that I might gather a few berries by the wayside. Then I began to plan the details of setting off. I would go indoors and put on my other suit of clothes, after the family were asleep; and not to be too mean and cause too much anxiety, I determined to write a few words on a bit of paper and slip it under Theodora's door, advising them all not to worry about me, as I had gone home, "for a time." These latter words I concluded to add, by way of breaking it a little more gently to them, not that I had the slightest intention of ever returning.
As I sat there with my hands over my face, planning, and brewing hot tears, I heard a step in the grass, and looking up, saw a tall, shadowy figure which I knew must be the Old Squire.
"Is that you, 'Edmund?'" he said, as I jumped up off the stone. He still called me that sometimes. "It is a close night, I declare," he continued. "I had about as lief be out here in the cool myself, as in the house abed. But the mosquitoes bite a little, don't they?".
I had neither noticed that the evening was hot, nor yet that there were any mosquitoes; I was quite insensible to ordinary physical influences.
The old gentleman lay down on the grass beside me. "Let's lay and talk a spell," said he. "I never come round back of the barn here, but that I think of the fox I shot when I was a young man. That fox had a 'brush' as big 'round as your leg, the biggest fox-tail I ever saw. He had been coming around the barns for some time; I used to hear him bark, mornings, about four o'clock."
The Old Squire then went on, at length, to tell me how he watched for the fox, and how he loaded the old "United-States-piece" musket for it, and how he finally fired and shot the fox, but that the gun nearly broke his collar-bone, he had loaded it so heavily. He was nigh half an hour telling me all about it, and in spite of myself, I grew somewhat interested.
"Why, how these mosquitoes do bite!" he finally exclaimed, giving one a rousing slap. "Let's go in before they eat us up, and go to bed."
I went in with him and went to bed, but my trouble had now cankered too deeply to be easily calmed. In the blackness of the bedchamber it beset me again. Like other maladies, nostalgia, when once set up, must run its course, I suppose. It never has appeared to me that I slept at all that night, yet perhaps I did. Long before daylight, however, I was again shedding hot tears and laying wild plans. But my thoughts had now taken on an even gloomier and more desperate shade. What was the use of my going home, I thought; my mother did not want me there. What was the use of living in such a hopelessly dreary world! Live there at the Old Squire's I could not, would not; of that I was certain. I never could endure it. The thought of existing there, as I then felt, week after week and month after month, was simply unbearable. Better die at once. I began to think of various cases of suicide of which I had heard, or read — in my happier days: the rope, poison, drowning. The latter I believed to be the easier method of death; and I thought of the Little Sea down where we washed the sheep and had begun to go in swimming on warm days. There was water enough there in the deepest place; — and once in, it would soon be over!
As the hours of the night dragged by, I began to take a morbid pleasure in thinking about it, as if I had fully decided the question. I really believed that I had as good as decided to drown myself; and when at length we were called at five o'clock, I rose to dress in a very unhealthy frame of mind.
"What's the matter with you?" exclaimed Halstead, as we were putting on our shoes.
"Nothing," said I, heavily.
"You look as if you had lost your best friend," said he, with an unsympathetic grin.
"I shall lose something more than that before long," I replied, with a miserable effort at mystery.
"You don't say!" cried he, ironically, and went out with an air of hard indifference, not at all flattering to my self-love.
How poor and undesirable the house, the farm, the whole world, looked to me that morning. I plodded about, assisting to do the early chores; I really had no appetite for my breakfast, and stole away from the table after a few moments. Gram called after me, to know if I were unwell; I did not dare trust myself to reply, lest I should burst forth weeping, and hastening out to the Balm o' Gilead trees, stood looking down the lane a moment, with a dreadful tumult of repressed misery raging within me. My mental malady had reached a crisis; I was wild with anguish. It appeared to me that I never could endure it. One thought only kept its place in my mind — the Little Sea! I stole away down the lane, crossed the road, then went on through the east field and pasture, till I reached the brook.
Not that I now believe there was much likelihood of my drowning myself. Even if I had been wretched enough to jump in, the first spoonful of cold water in my nose would probably have sent me scrambling out, as would have been the case with hundreds who have really drowned themselves, if only they had not jumped into too deep water. But I wanted to do something or other very desperate, what, I hardly knew myself. As I ran, I debated whether I should take off my clothes, or drown with them on; I did not remember reading how suicides of hydropathic tendencies had managed that detail. The boys would find my body Sunday morning when they came down to bathe, I thought. Yet some one else might find me; and it seemed more decent and proper to drown with them on. I walked around the Little Sea and singled out the deepest place in it, where there was four or five feet of water. It looked to be fully sufficient.
There was now nothing to prevent my going ahead with my project; but since I had looked into the water and saw how aqueous it appeared, considered as a place to spend from that morning on till Sunday in, haste did not seem altogether so desirable, and I was not in nearly so great a hurry. I sat down on a stone to think it over once more. It would be unbecoming, I recollected, to take such a step without mental preparation.
Still, I actually did half believe that when I rose from that stone, I should plunge into the pond. I imagine that I sat there for more than half an hour, and very likely should have remained much longer had the Old Squire not made his appearance, glancing curiously over the dam, a few rods below me.
It struck me as a little singular that he should be there so early and so very soon after breakfast. He had an axe on his shoulder, however, and it occurred to me that it might possibly be that he was there to mend the pasture fence. When he saw me sitting there, he smiled broadly, and coming nearer said, "Oh, this isn't nearly so good a brook for fishing as the other one on the west side."
"'Fishing!'" thought I. "How little he knows what brought me here! Can he not see that I haven't a pole?"
"Don't know exactly why," he continued, retrospectively, "but there never were nearly so many trout here as in the west brook. I meant to have given you and Addison a day to go over there before now, but work has been rather pressing ever since you came."
I rose from the stone, thinking — and not wholly sorry to think — that suicide must necessarily be postponed for that day, at least; for I could not, of course, harrow the old gentleman's feelings by plunging into the Little Sea before his very eyes. He seemed so guileless, too, and so wholly unsuspecting of my fell design!
As we walked away, he told me of great trout which he had caught when a boy, particularly of one big three-pound trout which he had captured at a deep hole in the west brook, down near the lake.
My mind was still too much disturbed to enjoy these piscatorial reminiscences, however; and noting this, after a time, Gramp opened another subject with me.
"A man has lately made an offer for my farm and timber lands here," said he. "I do not know that I shall accept it; but I have had some thoughts of selling and moving out West. If I should, I suppose you would have to go back to Philadelphia. If I went West to look for a farm, I should call at Philadelphia on my way. You and I would make the trip there together."
It is astonishing what an effect that last remark of grandfather's produced upon me. The whole world changed from deepest, darkest blue to rose color in one minute; and I said, provisionally, to myself that even if he did not sell so that we could start for a month, I could perhaps endure it.
Observing the cheerier light in my face, probably, the old gentleman laughed good-naturedly. He had not forgotten what it is to be a boy and feel a boy's intense sorrows as well as joys; and he went on to say that a journey to Philadelphia was a mere nothing nowadays. Why, one might start, as for instance, that morning and be at Philadelphia the next morning at eleven o'clock!
But how glad I was that he did not notice that I was homesick! He did not even appear to mistrust such a thing. And as for drowning myself, well, the less said or thought about that now the better.
I walked back to the house with the Old Squire; and I got him to let me carry the axe, for I wanted Addison and Halse to think that Gramp and I had been off mending fence together.
At intervals, however, for a month or more, I continued to be afflicted by transient spasms of homesickness, but none of them were as severe as these first ones, and they gradually ceased altogether.
Dear boys and girls who are homesick, it is astonishing sometimes how quickly the spasm will pass off, and how bright and cheery life will look again a few moments later. So don't jump into deep water without waiting a bit to think it over. It is a hard old world to live in. I don't pretend to tell you that it isn't; yet life has a great many pleasant spots, after all, if only we will have a little patience and courage to wait and look for them. Scores of poor, desperate young people have actually drowned themselves, from one cause or another, who would have scrambled out and lived happily for years afterwards, if only they had not jumped in where the water was so deep! A safe rule in all these cases is never try to commit suicide by drowning till after you have learned to swim.