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AT WHITTIER'S BIRTHPLACE
The Homestead two Centuries Old and the Unspoiled Country about it
They lighted a fire for me in Whittier's fireplace. The day had been one of wilting July heat and sun glare till storm clouds from the New Hampshire hills brought sudden cool winds and black shadows. Twilight settled down in the wide, ancient living-room, bringing brooding darkness and mystery. The little light that came through the tiny, lilac-shaded windows seemed to half reveal ghosts of legends and romance, wrapped in darkness, slipping indistinctly from the black cavern of the fireplace, standing close before it and hiding it, and gathering in formless groups in the corners of the room. They whispered and the leaves on the trees outside rustled the tale, while echoes of warlock warfare rumbled in the sky above and witch fires flared. A witches' twilight had come down the Merrimac and brought under its blanket shades of all the mountain legends that had in times past trooped to the mind of the poet as he sat there with sensitive soul a-quiver to their touch, photographing them in black and white for the minds of all men forever. From the fireplace stalked Mogg Megone and the powwows of his tribe, bringing with them all the dusky people of the weird stories of his day. The wind wailed their lone songs outside, and in its deep throat the aged chimney mumbled to itself old, old tales of night and darkness.
Then a slender flame slipped upward from the hearth, showing the form of the caretaker faintly shadowed and edged with light against the black background, and if I saw not her but the outline of Whittier's mother bending to light the fire and drive from the minds of the children the fancies of the dusk it must have been because the witches' twilight still held the room under its spell. Between the fore and back logs the brush of hemlock and of pine crackled and sent incense across the gloom to me, and with the leap of the flame all the weird shadows wavered into the corner and vanished. In their stead trooped up river the cheery hearthside stories of the English settlers, sturdy tales and rough perhaps but with the glow of the hearth log flickering gleefully through them. The gusts drew whirling sparks upward, and in its deep throat the chimney, no longer aged but stout and strong with vigorous work to do, guffawed in cheerful content. The dancing firelight sent gleams of quiet laughter over tile face of Whittier himself, that before had looked so grimly from the frame over his ancient desk, and the room glowed with homey hospitality. If there were shades there they were golden ones of gentle maids and rollicking boys that we knew and loved so well, and though without the window opposite the fireplace and right through the shading lilac bushes a ghostly replica of the fireplace with its flickering flames appeared and vanished and reappeared, there was nothing sinister in its uncanniness, for
"under the tree When fire outside burns merrily,
Stormbound if not snowbound I sat for an hour by the hearth that was the heart of a home for two hundred years, watching the crane and pendent trammels show black against the blaze, seeing the Turk's heads on the andirons glow, reading by the firelight verses which the poet wrote in that same home room, and when the storm passed and I could go forth to his brook and his fields and hills it could not fail to be with something of his love for them in my heart. Some critic, whose visit must have been shortened by homesick memories of a steam-heated flat, has said that Whittier's birthplace is lonely and that its loneliness had its effect on his life and work. But how could such a place be lonely to a man who was born there? Here was the great living-room with its hearth, where the life of the home centered. Without was the wonderful rolling country with all its majesty of hill, whence he saw the crystal mountains to north and the blue lure of the sea to eastward, with all its gentle delights of ravines where brooks laughed, and meadows and swamps where they slipped peacefully along, mirroring the sky, watering all wild flowers and offering refuge to all wild creatures. Within this wide circle, with the house its core and the hearth its shrine, revolved the homely, cheerful, whole-hearted life of the farm. What chance for loneliness was there?
After the shower had passed I climbed the gentle slope of the hill back of the house, traversing the old garden where grow the plants that came over with pioneers from England, hollyhocks and sweet william, old-time poppies, marjoram and London pride, dear to every housewife's heart in the good old days when to wrest a farm from the forest and build a home on it was still an ambition for which a free-born New Englander need feel no shame. The witchery of the hour had not been for the hearth-side alone. The sooth of the rain had been for the hearts of these also, and the joy of their answering delight made all the fresh air sweet and kindly so far as the gentle winds blew. The perfume of an old-time garden after rain is made up of gracious memories. Wherever chance has taken their seeds or care has transported their roots a thousand generations of sweet-hearted, home-keeping mothers have tended these plants and loved their flowers and the very leaves and stalks on which they grew. The caress of the rain brings from each leaf and petal but the aromatic essence of such lives, welling within and flowing forth again through the unnumbered years.
Out of homely love of the hearth, out of wild Indian legends that flowed down the Merrimac and English folk lore that flowered over seas and blew westward with a sniff of the brine in it, Whittier made his poems. But not out of these was born their greatness. That was distilled from his own fiber where it grew out of the rugged, honest, fearless life of generations whose home shrine had been that glowing hearth, whose love and tenderness welled within and overflowed like the scent of the old-time garden. To such a house and such a hearth sweetness climbs and nestles. To stand on the old door stone was to be greeted with dreams of meadows and lush fields, for wild mint has left the brookside and come shyly to the very door sill to toss its aroma to all comers. A spirit of the meadows that the barefoot boy loved thus dwells ever by his door and none may enter without its benediction. There is something Quaker-like in the wild mint, that dwells apart, unnoticed and wearing no flaunting colors, yet is so dearly fragrant and yields its sweetness most when bruised.
A stone's toss from the door I found his brook, its music muted by the summer drought so that you must bend the ear close to hear its song. With the foam brimming on its lip in spring the brook roars good fellowship, a stein song in which its brothers over nearby ridges join, filled with the potency which March brews from snow-steeped woods. Now, its March madness long passed, repentant and shriven by the kindly sun, it slips, a pure-souled hermit, from pool to pool, each pool so clear that in it the sky rests content, while water striders mark changing constellations on its surface. The pools are silent, only beneath the stones the passing water chirps to itself a little cheerful song which the vireos in the trees overhead faintly imitate. The trees love the brook's version best, for they bend their heads low to listen to it, beech and maple, white oak and red, yellow birch and white birch and black birch, hemlock and pine, dappling the pools with shade and interlocking arms across the glen in which the brook flows. In the dapple of shadow and sunlight beneath them ferns of high and low degree, royal and lady, cinnamon, interrupted and hay-scented, wade in the shallows and caress the deeps with their arching fronds. The blue flags that waved beside the water a month ago are gone, leaving only green pennants to mark their camp site for another year; and it is well that it is thus marked, else it were lost, for in the very brook bottom where the March flood crashed along have come to usurp it those tender annuals, the jewel weeds. Their stems almost transparent, their oval leaves so dark a green that it seems as if some of the dancing shadows found rest in them, they press in close groups into all shallow places and lean over the edges of the clear pools to admire the gold pendants that tinkle in their ears.
With these through the grassy shallows climb true forget-me-nots, slenderest of brook-side wanderers, each blue bloom a tiny turquoise for the setting of the jewel-weeds' gold. Thus shaded and carpeted the little ravine wanders down from the hills, and the brook goes with it, as if hand in hand, bringing to its side all sprightly life, a place filled with boyhood fancies and echoes of boyhood laughter. A chewink, singing on a treetop up the slope, voiced this feeling. Someone has called the chewink the tambourine bird. His song makes the name a deserved one. It consists of one clear, melodious call and then an ecstatic tinkling as of a tambourine skillfully shaken and dripping joyous notes. Always before the chewink's song has been without words to me. This one sang so clearly "Whittier; ting-a-ling-a-ling" that I knew the bird and his ancestors had made the glen home since the boyhood of the poet, learning to sing the name that rang oftenest through the tinkle of the brook.
You begin to climb Job's Hill right from the glen, passing from beneath its trees to stonewalled mowing fields where rudbeckias dance in the morning wind, their yellow sunbonnets flapping and flaring about homely black faces. I fancy these fields were white with ox-eye daisies in the spring. They are yellow now with the sunbonnets of these jolly wenches. It is like getting from Alabama to New England to step over the last wall which divides the fields of the hill's shoulder from its summit, which is a close-cropped cow pasture. Here the winds of all the world blow keen and free and you may look north to the crystal hills of New Hampshire whence come their strength. Eastward under the sun lies the pale rim of the sea. Kenoza Lake opens two wide blue eyes at your feet, and all along beneath you roll bare, round-topped hills sloping down to dark woods and scattered fields, as unspoiled by man as in Whittier's days. The making of farms does not spoil the beauty of a country; it adds to it. It is the making of cities that spells havoc and desolation. Through the pasture, up the steep slopes to the summit of job's Hill, that seems so bare at first glimpse, climb all the lovely pasture things to revel in the free winds. Foremost of these is the steeplebush, prim Puritan of the open wold, erect, trying to be just drab and green and precise, but blushing to the top of his steeple because the pink wild roses have insisted on dancing with him up the hill, their cheeks rosy with the wind, their arms twined round one another at first, then round him as well. Somehow this bachelor bush which would be so austere reminds one of the Quaker youth at the academy, surrounded by those rosy maidens of the world's, people, one of whom we suspect he loved, yet could no more tell it than can the steeplebush acknowledge how sweet is the companionship of the wild rose and how he hopes it may go on forever. Stray red cedars stroll about the lower slopes and climb gravely, while juniper, in close-set prickly clumps, seems to follow their leadership. The canny, chancy thistle holds its rosy pompons up to the bumble-bees, that fairly burrow in them for their Scotch honey, and the mullein would be even more erect and more Quakerly drab than the steeplebush if it could. It is erect and gray, but just as it means to look its grimmest dancing whorls of yellow sunshine blossom up its stalk in spirals, the last one fairly taking flight from the tip. Among all these strays the yarrow, whose aroma is as much a New England odor as that of sweet-fern or bayberry. The aromatic incense of this herb follows you tip the hill and seems to bring the pungent presence of the poet himself.
Job's steepest hillside drops you in one long swoop to the road which leads through woodland windings to the haunted bridge over Country Brook. The way itself is haunted by woodland fragrance and chant of birds innumerable, and in the freshness of the morning after the shower it seemed as if built new. The world is apt to be this way after rain. Yet if the vivid morning sun and exhilarating north wind had driven all ghosts away there had been necromancy at work. All the day before the blossoms on the staghorn sumac had been of that velvety pink that rivals the wild rose. Over night they had turned a warm, rich red. Autumn brings this richer, more stable color to the sumac blooms as they ripen toward seed time, but it does not do it in July, over night. The pukwudgies had been at work, painting with the rain, filling the sumac heads with it till they hung heavy. The water had massed the tiny pubescence of the blooms till pink had deepened into red and autumn had seemed to come for the sumacs in a night. It took the sun and the wind all day to dry them out and bring back the witchery of pink that the necromancy of the rain had banished. But the spell was not altogether broken, nor will it be till autumn has worked its will with the world about Country Brook. Out of the birches the fresh wind threshed here and there yellow leaves that fluttered like colias butterflies before it. There and here among the sumacs hung a crimson leaf, more vivid in its color than the blossoms or the berries could ever be, and as in the woodland all news flashes from shrub to shrub and from creature to creature, so it seemed as in the hint of autumn, first born, a simulacrum merely, in the wet sumac heads, had gone by birch leaf messengers to all distances. Along the way flashed out of invisibility the yellow of tall goldenrod heads and the blue and white of the earliest asters and, once materialized, remained.
August may bring vivid heat and wilting humidity if it will. The witches' twilight had brought down the Merrimac from the far north the flavor of autumn which is later to follow in full force, nor will it wholly leave us again. The ghostliest thing about Country Brook was a sound which seemed to come up it from the cool depths of the woods into which it flows. a soft breathing sigh, now regular, now intermittent, as if a spirit of the woodland slept peacefully for a little, then gasped with troubled dreams. Seeking to discover this ghost I found a little way along the road from the bridge a broad grassy avenue that led with a certain majesty in its sweep as if to some woodland castle whose people were so light-footed that they wore no paths in their broad green avenue. Yet after all it led me only to a wide meadow where the sighing I had heard was that of the grass going to sleep under the magic passes of a mower's scythe. No clatter of mowing machine was here, just the swish of a scythe such as the meadow has heard yearly since the pioneers came. There were deer tracks here along the margin of Country Brook, and all the gentle wild life of woods and meadows seemed to pass freely, without care or fear.
And so I found all the country about the Whittier homestead an epitome of the free, cheerful, country life of the New England of a century ago. They lighted a fire for me in Whittier's fireplace -- and as the rose glow on the walls of the old living-room brought back the hearth-cheer of bygone years, as the witches, daintily making tea without under the lilac bush, brought the romance and legend of the olden time to the threshold, so the crackling draft of the fire up the deep throat of the chimney seemed to draw in to the place the free, hearty, farming, wood-loving life of the men of the earlier centuries out of which the poet drew what was best in him, to be given out in unforgettable verse to us all. If such a place was ever lonely it was that gentle and desirable loneliness which great souls love.
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