It is an exaggerated compliment to women when we ascribe to them alone this natural sympathy with childhood. It is an individual, not a sexual trait, and is stronger in many men than in many women. It is nowhere better exhibited in literature than where the happy Wilhelm Meister takes his boy by the hand, to lead him "into the free and lordly world." Such love is not universal among the other sex, though men, in that humility which so adorns their natures, keep up the pleasing fiction that it is. As a general rule any little girl feels some glimmerings of emotion towards anything that can pass for a doll, but it does not follow that, when grown older, she will feel as ready an instinct toward every child. Try it. Point out to a woman some bundle of blue-and-white or white-and-scarlet in some one's arms at the next street corner. Ask her, "Do you love that baby?" Not one woman in three will say promptly, "Yes." The others will hesitate, will bid you wait till they are nearer, till they can personally inspect the little thing and take an inventory of its traits; it may be dirty, too; it may be diseased. Ah! but this is not to love children, and you might as well be a man. To love children is to love childhood, instinctively, at whatever distance, the first impulse being one of attraction, though it may be checked by later discoveries. Unless your heart commands at least as long a range as your eye, it is not worth much. The dearest saint in my calendar never entered a railway car that she did not look round for a baby, which, when discovered, must always be won at once into her arms. If it was dirty, she would have been glad to bathe it; if ill, to heal it. It would not have seemed to her anything worthy the name of love, to seek only those who were wholesome and clean. Like the young girl in Holmes's most touching poem, she would have claimed as her own the outcast child whom nurses and physicians had abandoned. "'Take her, dread Angel! Break in love This bruised reed and make it thine!' No voice descended from above, But Avis answered, 'She is mine!'"
When I think of the self-devotion which the human heart can contain--of those saintly souls that are in love with sorrow, and that yearn to shelter all weakness and all grief--it inspires an unspeakable confidence that there must also be an instinct of parentage beyond this human race, a heart of hearts, cor cordium. As we all crave something to protect, so we long to feel ourselves protected. We are all infants before the Infinite; and as I turned from that cottage window to the resplendent sky, it was easy to fancy that mute embrace, that shadowy symbol of affection, expanding from the narrow lattice till it touched the stars, gathering every created soul into the armsof Immortal Love.
All round the shores of the island where I dwell there runs a winding path. It is probably as old as the settlement of the country, and has been kept open with pertinacious fidelity by the fishermen whose right of way it represents. In some places, as between Fort Adams and Castle Hill, it exists in its primitive form, an irregular track above rough cliffs, whence you look down upon the entrance to the harbor and watch the white-sailed schooners that glide beneath. Elsewhere the high-road has usurped its place, and you have the privilege of the path without its charm. Along our eastern cliffs it runs for some miles in the rear of beautiful estates, whose owners have seized on it, and graded it, and gravelled it, and made stiles for it, and done for it everything that landscape-gardening could do, while leaving it a footpath still. You walk there with croquet and roses on the one side, and with floating loons and wild ducks on the other. In remoter places the path grows wilder, and has ramifications striking boldly across the peninsula through rough moorland and among great ledges of rock, where you may ramble for hours, out of sight of all but some sportsman with his gun, or some truant-boy with dripping water-lilies. There is always a charm to me in the inexplicable windings of these wayward tracks; yet I like the path best where it is nearest the ocean. There, while looking upon blue sea and snowy sails and floating gulls, you may yet hear on the landward side the melodious and plaintive drawl of the meadow-lark, most patient of summer visitors, and, indeed, lingering on this island almost the whole year round.
But who cares whither a footpath leads? The charm is in the path itself, its promise of something that the high-road cannot yield. Away from habitations, you know that the fisherman, the geologist, the botanist may have been there, or that the cows have been driven home and that somewhere there are bars and a milk-pail. Even in the midst of houses, the path suggests school-children with their luncheon-baskets, or workmen seeking eagerly the noonday interval or the twilight rest. A footpath cannot be quite spoiled, so long as it remains such; you can make a road a mere avenue for fast horses or showy women, but this humbler track keeps its simplicity, and if a queen comes walking through it, she comes but as a village maid. On Sunday, when it is not etiquette for our fashionables to drive, but only to walk along the cliffs, they seem to wear a more innocent and wholesome aspect in that novel position; I have seen a fine lady pause under such circumstances and pick a wild-flower; she knew how to do it. A footpath has its own character, while that of the high-road is imposed upon it by those who dwell beside it or pass over it; indeed, roads become picturesque only when they are called lanes and make believe that they are but paths.
The very irregularity of a footpath makes half its charm. So much of loitering and indolence and impulse have gone to its formation, that all which is stiff and military has been left out. I observed that the very dikes of the Southern rice plantations did not succeed in being rectilinear, though the general effect was that of Tennyson's "flowery squares." Even the country road, which is but an enlarged footpath, is never quite straight, as Thoreau long since observed, noting it with his surveyor's eye. I read in his unpublished diary: "The law that plants the rushes in waving lines along the edge of a pond, and that curves the pond shore itself, incessantly beats against the straight fences and highways of men, and makes them conform to the line of beauty at last." It is this unintentional adaptation that makes a footpath so indestructible. Instead of striking across the natural lines, it conforms to them, nestles into the hollow, skirts the precipice, avoids the morass. An unconscious landscape-gardener, it seeks the most convenient course, never doubting that grace will follow. Mitchell, at his "Edgewood" farm, wishing to decide on the most picturesque avenue to his front door, ordered a heavy load of stone to be hauled across the field, and bade the driver seek the easiest grades, at whatever cost of curvature. The avenue followed the path so made.
When a footpath falls thus unobtrusively into its place, all natural forces seem to sympathize with it, and help it to fulfil its destiny. Once make a well-defined track through a wood, and presently the overflowing brooks seek it for a channel, the obstructed winds draw through it, the fox and woodchuck travel by it, the catbird and robin build near it, the bee and swallow make a high-road of its convenient thoroughfare. In winter the first snows mark it with a white line; as you wander through you hear the blue-jay's cry, and see the hurrying flight of the sparrow; the graceful outlines of the leafless bushes are revealed, and the clinging bird's-nests, "leaves that do not fall," give happy memories of summer homes. Thus Nature meets man half-way. The paths of the wild forest and of the rural neighborhood are not at all the same thing; indeed, a "spotted trail," marked only by the woodman's axe-marks on the trees, is not a footpath. Thoreau, who is sometimes foolishly accused of having sought to be a mere savage, understood this distinction well. "A man changes by his presence," he says in his unpublished diary, "the very nature of the trees. The poet's is not a logger's path, but a woodman's,--the logger and pioneer have preceded him, and banished decaying wood and the spongy mosses which feed on it, and built hearths and humanized nature for him. For a permanent residence, there can be no comparison between this and the wilderness. Our woods are sylvan, and their inhabitants woodsmen and rustics; that is, a selvaggia and its inhabitants salvages." What Thoreau loved, like all men of healthy minds, was the occasional experience of untamed wildness. "I love to see occasionally," he adds, "a man from whom the usnea (lichen) hangs as gracefully as from a spruce."
Footpaths bring us nearer both to nature and to man. No high-road, not even a lane, conducts to the deeper recesses of the wood, where you hear the wood-thrush. There are a thousand concealed fitnesses in nature, rhymed correspondences of bird and blossom, for which you must seek through hidden paths; as when you come upon some black brook so palisaded with cardinal-flowers as to seem "a stream of sunsets"; or trace its shadowy course till it spreads into some forest-pool, above which that rare and patrician insect, the Agrion dragon-fly, flits and hovers perpetually, as if the darkness and the cool had taken wings. The dark brown pellucid water sleeps between banks of softest moss; white stars of twin-flowers creep close to the brink, delicate sprays of dewberry trail over it, and the emerald tips of drooping leaves forever tantalize the still surface. Above these the slender, dark-blue insect waves his dusky wings, like a liberated ripple of the brook, and takes the few stray sunbeams on his lustrous form. Whence came the correspondence between this beautiful shy creature and the moist, dark nooks, shot through with stray and transitory sunlight, where it dwells? The analogy is as unmistakable as that between the scorching heats of summer and the shrill cry of the cicada. They suggest questions that no savant can answer, mysteries that wait, like Goethe's secret of morphology, till a sufficient poet can be born. And we, meanwhile, stand helpless in their presence, as one waits beside the telegraphic wire, while it hums and vibrates, charged with all fascinating secrets, above the heads of a wondering world.
It is by the presence of pathways on the earth that we know it to be the habitation of man; in the barest desert, they open to us a common humanity. It is the absence of these that renders us so lonely on the ocean, and makes us glad to watch even the track of our own vessel. But on the mountain-top, how eagerly we trace out the"road that brings places together," as Schiller says. It is the first thing we look for; till we have found it, each scattered village has an isolated and churlish look, but the glimpse of a furlong of road puts them all in friendly relations. The narrower the path, the more domestic and familiar it seems.
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