Literary Lapses/Half-Hours with the Poets
I. Mr. Wordsworth and the Little Cottage Girl
"I met a little cottage girl, She was eight years old she said, Her hair was thick with many a curl That clustered round her head."
This is what really happened.
Over the dreary downs of his native Cumberland the aged laureate was wandering with bowed head and countenance of sorrow.
Times were bad with the old man.
In the south pocket of his trousers, as he set his face to the north, jingled but a few odd coins and a cheque for St. Leon water. Apparently his cup of bitterness was full.
In the distance a child moved--a child in form, yet the deep lines upon her face bespoke a countenance prematurely old.
The poet espied, pursued and overtook the infant. He observed that apparently she drew her breath lightly and felt her life in every limb, and that presumably her acquaintance with death was of the most superficial character.
"I must sit awhile and ponder on that child," murmured the poet. So he knocked her down with his walking-stick and seating himself upon her, he pondered.
Long he sat thus in thought. "His heart is heavy," sighed the child.
At length he drew forth a note-book and pencil and prepared to write upon his knee. "Now then, my dear young friend," he said, addressing the elfin creature, "I want those lines upon your face. Are you seven?"
"Yes, we are seven," said the girl sadly, and added, "I know what you want. You are going to question me about my afflicted family. You are Mr. Wordsworth, and you are collecting mortuary statistics for the Cottagers' Edition of the Penny Encyclopaedia."
"You are eight years old?" asked the bard.
"I suppose so," answered she. "I have been eight years old for years and years."
"And you know nothing of death, of course?" said the poet cheerfully.
"How can I?" answered the child.
"Now then," resumed the venerable William, "let us get to business. Name your brothers and sisters."
"Let me see," began the child wearily; "there was Rube and Ike, two I can't think of, and John and Jane."
"You must not count John and Jane," interrupted the bard reprovingly; "they're dead, you know, so that doesn't make seven."
"I wasn't counting them, but perhaps I added up wrongly," said the child; "and will you please move your overshoe off my neck?"
"Pardon," said the old man. "A nervous trick, I have been absorbed; indeed, the exigency of the metre almost demands my doubling up my feet. To continue, however; which died first?"
"The first to go was little Jane," said the child.
"She lay moaning in bed, I presume?"
"In bed she moaning lay."
"What killed her?"
"Insomnia," answered the girl. "The gaiety of our cottage life, previous to the departure of our elder brothers for Conway, and the constant field-sports in which she indulged with John, proved too much for a frame never too robust."
"You express yourself well," said the poet. "Now, in regard to your unfortunate brother, what was the effect upon him in the following winter of the ground being white with snow and your being able to run and slide?"
"My brother John was forced to go," answered she. "We have been at a loss to understand the cause of his death. We fear that the dazzling glare of the newly fallen snow, acting upon a restless brain, may have led him to a fatal attempt to emulate my own feats upon the ice. And, oh, sir," the child went on, "speak gently of poor Jane. You may rub it into John all you like; we always let him slide."
"Very well," said the bard, "and allow me, in conclusion, one rather delicate question: Do you ever take your little porringer?"
"Oh, yes," answered the child frankly--
- "'Quite often after sunset,
- When all is light and fair,
- I take my little porringer'--
"I can't quite remember what I do after that, but I know that I like it."
"That is immaterial," said Wordsworth. "I can say that you take your little porringer neat, or with bitters, or in water after every meal. As long as I can state that you take a little porringer regularly, but never to excess, the public is satisfied. And now," rising from his seat, "I will not detain you any longer. Here is sixpence--or stay," he added hastily, "here is a cheque for St. Leon water. Your information has been most valuable, and I shall work it, for all I am Wordsworth." With these words the aged poet bowed deferentially to the child and sauntered off in the direction of the Duke of Cumberland's Arms, with his eyes on the ground, as if looking for the meanest flower that blows itself.
II. How Tennyson Killed the May Queen
- "If you're waking call me early, call me early, mother dear."
As soon as the child's malady had declared itself the afflicted parents of the May Queen telegraphed to Tennyson, "Our child gone crazy on subject of early rising, could you come and write some poetry about her?"
Alfred, always prompt to fill orders in writing from the country, came down on the evening train. The old cottager greeted the poet warmly, and began at once to speak of the state of his unfortunate daughter.
"She was took queer in May," he said, "along of a sort of bee that the young folks had; she ain't been just right since; happen you might do summat."
With these words he opened the door of an inner room.
The girl lay in feverish slumber. Beside her bed was an alarm-clock set for half-past three. Connected with the clock was an ingenious arrangement of a falling brick with a string attached to the child's toe.
At the entrance of the visitor she started up in bed. "Whoop," she yelled, "I am to be Queen of the May, mother, ye-e!"
Then perceiving Tennyson in the doorway, "If that's a caller," she said, "tell him to call me early."
The shock caused the brick to fall. In the subsequent confusion Alfred modestly withdrew to the sitting-room.
"At this rate," he chuckled, "I shall not have long to wait. A few weeks of that strain will finish her."
Six months had passed.
It was now mid-winter.
And still the girl lived. Her vitality appeared inexhaustible.
She got up earlier and earlier. She now rose yesterday afternoon.
At intervals she seemed almost sane, and spoke in a most pathetic manner of her grave and the probability of the sun shining on it early in the morning, and her mother walking on it later in the day. At other times her malady would seize her, and she would snatch the brick off the string and throw it fiercely at Tennyson. Once, in an uncontrollable fit of madness, she gave her sister Effie a half-share in her garden tools and an interest in a box of mignonette.
The poet stayed doggedly on. In the chill of the morning twilight he broke the ice in his water-basin and cursed the girl. But he felt that he had broken the ice and he stayed.
On the whole, life at the cottage, though rugged, was not cheerless. In the long winter evenings they would gather around a smoking fire of peat, while Tennyson read aloud the Idylls of the King to the rude old cottager. Not to show his rudeness, the old man kept awake by sitting on a tin-tack. This also kept his mind on the right tack. The two found that they had much in common, especially the old cottager. They called each other "Alfred" and "Hezekiah" now.
Time moved on and spring came.
Still the girl baffled the poet.
"I thought to pass away before," she would say with a mocking grin, "but yet alive I am, Alfred, alive I am."
Tennyson was fast losing hope.
Worn out with early rising, they engaged a retired Pullman-car porter to take up his quarters, and being a negro his presence added a touch of colour to their life.
The poet also engaged a neighbouring divine at fifty cents an evening to read to the child the best hundred books, with explanations. The May Queen tolerated him, and used to like to play with his silver hair, but protested that he was prosy.
At the end of his resources the poet resolved upon desperate measures.
He chose an evening when the cottager and his wife were out at a dinner-party.
At nightfall Tennyson and his accomplices entered the girl's room.
She defended herself savagely with her brick, but was overpowered.
The negro seated himself upon her chest, while the clergyman hastily read a few verses about the comfort of early rising at the last day.
As he concluded, the poet drove his pen into her eye.
"Last call!" cried the negro porter triumphantly.
III. Old Mr. Longfellow on Board the Hesperus
- "It was the schooner Hesperus that sailed the wintry sea,
- And the skipper had taken his little daughter to bear him company."
There were but three people in the cabin party of the Hesperus: old Mr. Longfellow, the skipper, and the skipper's daughter.
The skipper was much attached to the child, owing to the singular whiteness of her skin and the exceptionally limpid blue of her eyes; she had hitherto remained on shore to fill lucrative engagements as albino lady in a circus.
This time, however, her father had taken her with him for company. The girl was an endless source of amusement to the skipper and the crew. She constantly got up games of puss-in-the-corner, forfeits, and Dumb Crambo with her father and Mr. Longfellow, and made Scripture puzzles and geographical acrostics for the men.
Old Mr. Longfellow was taking the voyage to restore his shattered nerves. From the first the captain disliked Henry. He was utterly unused to the sea and was nervous and fidgety in the extreme. He complained that at sea his genius had not a sufficient degree of latitude. Which was unparalleled presumption.
On the evening of the storm there had been a little jar between Longfellow and the captain at dinner. The captain had emptied it several times, and was consequently in a reckless, quarrelsome humour.
"I confess I feel somewhat apprehensive," said old Henry nervously, "of the state of the weather. I have had some conversation about it with an old gentleman on deck who professed to have sailed the Spanish main. He says you ought to put into yonder port."
"I have," hiccoughed the skipper, eyeing the bottle, and added with a brutal laugh that "he could weather the roughest gale that ever wind did blow." A whole Gaelic society, he said, wouldn't fizz on him.
Draining a final glass of grog, he rose from his chair, said grace, and staggered on deck.
All the time the wind blew colder and louder.
The billows frothed like yeast. It was a yeast wind.
The evening wore on.
Old Henry shuffled about the cabin in nervous misery.
The skipper's daughter sat quietly at the table selecting verses from a Biblical clock to amuse the ship's bosun, who was suffering from toothache.
At about ten Longfellow went to his bunk, requesting the girl to remain up in his cabin.
For half an hour all was quiet, save the roaring of the winter wind.
Then the girl heard the old gentleman start up in bed.
"What's that bell, what's that bell?" he gasped.
A minute later he emerged from his cabin wearing a cork jacket and trousers over his pyjamas.
"Sissy," he said, "go up and ask your pop who rang that bell."
The obedient child returned.
"Please, Mr. Longfellow," she said, "pa says there weren't no bell."
The old man sank into a chair and remained with his head buried in his hands.
"Say," he exclaimed presently, "someone's firing guns and there's a glimmering light somewhere. You'd better go upstairs again."
Again the child returned.
"The crew are guessing at an acrostic, and occasionally they get a glimmering of it."
Meantime the fury of the storm increased.
The skipper had the hatches battered down.
Presently Longfellow put his head out of a porthole and called out, "Look here, you may not care, but the cruel rocks are goring the sides of this boat like the horns of an angry bull."
The brutal skipper heaved the log at him. A knot in it struck a plank and it glanced off.
Too frightened to remain below, the poet raised one of the hatches by picking out the cotton batting and made his way on deck. He crawled to the wheel-house.
The skipper stood lashed to the helm all stiff and stark. He bowed stiffly to the poet. The lantern gleamed through the gleaming snow on his fixed and glassy eyes. The man was hopelessly intoxicated.
All the crew had disappeared. When the missile thrown by the captain had glanced off into the sea, they glanced after it and were lost.
At this moment the final crash came.
Something hit something. There was an awful click followed by a peculiar grating sound, and in less time than it takes to write it (unfortunately), the whole wreck was over.
As the vessel sank, Longfellow's senses left him. When he reopened his eyes he was in his own bed at home, and the editor of his local paper was bending over him.
"You have made a first-rate poem of it, Mr. Longfellow," he was saying, unbending somewhat as he spoke, "and I am very happy to give you our cheque for a dollar and a quarter for it."
"Your kindness checks my utterance," murmured Henry feebly, very feebly.