Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 12.djvu/51

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41
MODERN TROGLODYTES.

who has grown up in the pest atmosphere of our city tenements, school-rooms, and workshops, can forget the passionate yearnings of his childhood for the free air of the woods and mountains; the wild outcry of his instinct against the process that inoculated him with the seeds of death, and stunted the development of his most vital faculties. The remorselessness of the pagan Chinese, who smother the life-spark of their infants in the swift embrace of the river-god, is mercy itself compared to the cruelty of Christian parents who suffocate their children by the slow process of stinting their life-air, through years and years of confinement in dungeons to which an enlightened community would not even consign their malefactors.

Honest Jean Paul relates that he used to secure a seat in a certain corner of an overcrowded village schoolhouse, where a knot-hole in the wall established a communication with the outer world. Through this orifice he imbibed comfort and inspiration as from a flask, but conceived conscientious scruples against the practice, as he never could indulge without becoming conscious of a temptation to abandon his old parents and his home, and join a troop of wood-cutters or gypsies, not from any vagrant tendencies, or want of dutiful sentiments, but from an almost irresistible desire to make the luxury of fresh air a permanent blessing. "I knew they would charge me with black ingratitude, if I should run away," he says. "Good God ! how I longed to prove my affection by working for them in wind and weather, fetching in cord-wood from the woods and splitting it into the nicest, handiest pieces, carrying messages over the snow-covered mountains and be back in half the time any one else could make the trip—do anything that would save me—not from my books, but from that glowing Moloch of a big stove, and that stifling, soul-stifling smell of our dungeon!"

Even to the most inveterate believer in natural depravity this might suggest a doubt whether the repugnance of children to study may not be founded on a physical virtue rather than on moral perverseness. To whatever is really beneficent we are commonly drawn by natural attraction, and whatever appears violently repulsive to youthful minds may be justly suspected of containing more of evil than of good. The very disciple of Socrates who used to run sixteen miles a day to hear the ἆριστος ὶατρων (best of physicians), would have hesitated to purchase physic for his soul at the price of physical health; and we cannot blame our children for being unable to reconcile the precepts they hear with those they feel, and giving way now and then to the more consistent and more logical prompter.

The farmer's boy may look forward to each afternoon and each summer vacation as a refreshing interlude, and to the last term of his school-years as the last act of the tragedy; but in cities the end of the school-room bondage is too often the beginning of the endless slavery which awaits the young apprentice of the workshops, facto-