The Promised Land Part 24

CHAPTER XX

THE HERITAGE

One of the inherent disadvantages of premature biography is that it cannot go to the natural end of the story. This difficulty threatened me in the beginning, but now I find I do not need to tax my judgment to fix the proper stopping-place. Sudden qualms of reluctance warn me where the past and present meet. I have reached a point where my yesterdays lie in a quick heap, and I cannot bear to prod and turn them and set them up to be looked at. For that matter, I am not sure that I should add anything really new, even if I could force myself to cross the line of discretion. I have already shown what a real thing is this American freedom that we talk about, and in what manner a certain cla.s.s of aliens make use of it. Anything that I might add of my later adventures would be a repet.i.tion, in substance, of what I have already described. Having traced the way an immigrant child may take from the ship through the public schools, pa.s.sed on from hand to hand by the ready teachers; through free libraries and lecture halls, inspired by every occasion of civic consciousness; dragging through the slums the weight of private disadvantage, but heartened for the effort by public opportunity; welcomed at a hundred open doors of instruction, initiated with pomp and splendor and flags unfurled seeking, in American minds, the American way, and finding it in the thoughts of the n.o.ble,--striving against the odds of foreign birth and poverty, and winning, through the use of abundant opportunity, a place as enviable as that of any native child,--having traced the footsteps of the young immigrant almost to the college gate, the rest of the course may be left to the imagination. Let us say that from the Latin School on I lived very much as my American schoolmates lived, having overcome my foreign idiosyncrasies, and the rest of my outward adventures you may read in any volume of American feminine statistics.

But lest I be reproached for a sudden affectation of reserve, after having trained my reader to expect the fullest particulars, I am willing to add a few details. I went to college, as I proposed, though not to Radcliffe. Receiving an invitation to live in New York that I did not like to refuse, I went to Barnard College instead. There I took all the honors that I deserved; and if I did not learn to write poetry, as I once supposed I should, I learned at least to think in English without an accent. Did I get rich? you may want to know, remembering my ambition to provide for the family. I can reply that I have earned enough to pay Mrs. Hutch the arrears, and satisfy all my wants. And where have I lived since I left the slums? My favorite abode is a tent in the wilderness, where I shall be happy to serve you a cup of tea out of a tin kettle, and answer further questions.

And is this really to be the last word? Yes, though a long chapter of the romance of Dover Street is left untold. I could fill another book with anecdotes, telling how I took possession of Beacon Street, and learned to distinguish the lord of the manor from the butler in full dress. I might trace my steps from my bare room overlooking the lumber-yard to the satin drawing-rooms of the Back Bay, where I drank afternoon tea with gentle ladies whose hands were as delicate as their porcelain cups. My journal of those days is full of comments on the contrasts of life, that I copied from my busy thoughts in the evening, after a visit to my aristocratic friends. Coming straight from the cushioned refinement of Beacon Street, where the maid who brought my hostess her slippers spoke in softer accents than the finest people on Dover Street, I sometimes stumbled over poor Mr.

Casey lying asleep in the corridor; and the shock of the contrast was like a searchlight turned suddenly on my life, and I pondered over the revelation, and wrote touching poems, in which I figured as a heroine of two worlds.

I might quote from my journals and poems, and build up the picture of that double life. I might rehea.r.s.e the names of the gracious friends who admitted me to their tables, although I came direct from the reeking slums. I might enumerate the priceless gifts they showered on me; gifts bought not with gold but with love. It would be a pleasant task to recall the high things that pa.s.sed in the gilded drawing-rooms over the afternoon tea. It would add a splendor to my simple narrative to weave in the portraits of the distinguished men and women who busied themselves with the humble fortunes of a school-girl. And finally, it would relieve my heart of a burden of grat.i.tude to publish, once for all, the amount of my indebtedness to the devoted friends who took me by the hand when I walked in the paths of obscurity, and led me, by a pleasanter lane than I could have found by myself, to the open fields where obstacles thinned and opportunities crowded to meet me. Outside America I should hardly be believed if I told how simply, in my experience, Dover Street merged into the Back Bay. These are matters to which I long to testify, but I must wait till they recede into the past.

I can conjure up no better symbol of the genuine, practical equality of all our citizens than the Hale House Natural History Club, which played an important part in my final emanc.i.p.ation from the slums. For all I was regarded as a plaything by the serious members of the club, the attention and kindness they lavished on me had a deep significance. Every one of those earnest men and women unconsciously taught me my place in the Commonwealth, as the potential equal of the best of them. Few of my friends in the club, it is true, could have rightly defined their benevolence toward me. Perhaps some of them thought they befriended me for charity's sake, because I was a starved waif from the slums. Some of them imagined they enjoyed my society, because I had much to say for myself, and a gay manner of meeting life. But all these were only secondary motives. I myself, in my unclouded perception of the true relation of things that concerned me, could have told them all why they spent their friendship on me. They made way for me because I was their foster sister. They opened their homes to me that I might learn how good Americans lived. In the least of their attentions to me, they cherished the citizen in the making.

The Natural History Club had spent the day at Nahant, studying marine life in the tide pools, scrambling up and down the cliffs with no thought for decorum, bent only on securing the starfish, limpets, sea-urchins, and other trophies of the chase. There had been a merry luncheon on the rocks, with talk and laughter between sandwiches, and strange jokes, intelligible only to the practising naturalist. The tide had rushed in at its proper time, stealing away our seaweed cushions, drowning our transparent pools, spouting in the crevices, booming and hissing, and tossing high the snowy foam.

[Ill.u.s.tration: THE TIDE HAD RUSHED IN, STEALING AWAY OUR SEAWEED CUSHIONS]

From the deck of the jolly excursion steamer which was carrying us home, we had watched the rosy sun dip down below the sea. The members of the club, grouped in twos and threes, discussed the day's successes, compared specimens, exchanged field notes, or watched the western horizon in sympathetic silence.

It had been a great day for me. I had seen a dozen new forms of life, had caught a hundred fragments of the song of nature by the sea; and my mind was seething with meanings that crowded in. I do not remember to which of my learned friends I addressed my questions on this occasion, but he surely was one of the most learned. For he took up all my fragments of dawning knowledge in his discourse, and welded them into a solid structure of wisdom, with windows looking far down the past and a tower overlooking the future. I was so absorbed in my private review of creation that I hardly realized when we landed, or how we got into the electric cars, till we were a good way into the city.

At the Public Library I parted from my friends, and stood on the broad stone steps, my jar of specimens in my hand, watching the car that carried them glide out of sight. My heart was full of a stirring wonder. I was hardly conscious of the place where I stood, or of the day, or the hour. I was in a dream, and the familiar world around me was transfigured. My hair was damp with sea spray; the roar of the tide was still in my ears. Mighty thoughts surged through my dreams, and I trembled with understanding.

I sank down on the granite ledge beside the entrance to the Library, and for a mere moment I covered my eyes with my hand. In that moment I had a vision of myself, the human creature, emerging from the dim places where the torch of history has never been, creeping slowly into the light of civilized existence, pushing more steadily forward to the broad plateau of modern life, and leaping, at last, strong and glad, to the intellectual summit of the latest century.

What an awful stretch of years to contemplate! What a weighty past to carry in memory! How shall I number the days of my life, except by the stars of the night, except by the salt drops of the sea?

But hark to the clamor of the city all about! This is my latest home, and it invites me to a glad new life. The endless ages have indeed throbbed through my blood, but a new rhythm dances in my veins. My spirit is not tied to the monumental past, any more than my feet were bound to my grandfather's house below the hill. The past was only my cradle, and now it cannot hold me, because I am grown too big; just as the little house in Polotzk, once my home, has now become a toy of memory, as I move about at will in the wide s.p.a.ces of this splendid palace, whose shadow covers acres. No! it is not I that belong to the past, but the past that belongs to me. America is the youngest of the nations, and inherits all that went before in history. And I am the youngest of America's children, and into my hands is given all her priceless heritage, to the last white star espied through the telescope, to the last great thought of the philosopher. Mine is the whole majestic past, and mine is the shining future.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

_To my mother who bore me; to my father who endowed me; to my brothers and sisters who believed in me; to my friends who loved me; to my teachers who inspired me; to my neighbors who befriended me; to my daughter who enlarged me; to my husband who opened the door of the greater life for me;--to all these who helped to make this book, I give my thanks._

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