As I looked, a film of shade kept appearing and disappearing with rhythmic regularity in a corner of the window, as if some one might be sitting in a low rocking-chair close by. Presently the motion ceased, and suddenly across the curtain came the shadow of a woman. She raised in her arms the shadow of a baby, and kissed it; then both disappeared, and I walked on.
What are Raphael's Madonnas but the shadow of a mother's love, so traced as to endure forever? In this picture of mine, the group actually moved upon the canvas. The curtains that hid it revealed it. The ecstasy of human love passed in brief, intangible panorama before me. It was something seen, yet unseen; airy, yet solid; a type, yet a reality; fugitive, yet destined to last in my memory while I live. It said more to me than would any Madonna of Raphael's, for his mother never kisses her child. I believe I have never passed over that road since then, never seen the house, never heard the names of its occupants. Their character, their history, their fate, are all unknown. But these two will always stand for me as disembodied types of humanity,--the Mother and the Child; they seem nearer to me than my immediate neighbors, yet they are as ideal and impersonal as the goddesses of Greece or as Plato's archetypal man.
I know not the parentage of that child, whether black or white, native or foreign, rich or poor. It makes no difference. The presence of a baby equalizes all social conditions. On the floor of some Southern hut, scarcely so comfortable as a dog-kennel, I have seen a dusky woman look down upon her infant with such an expression of delight as painter never drew. No social culture can make a mother's face more than a mother's, as no wealth can make a nursery more than a place where children dwell. Lavish thousands of dollars on your baby-clothes, and after all the child is prettiest when every garment is laid aside. That becoming nakedness, at least, may adorn the chubby darling of the poorest home.
I know not what triumph or despair may have come and gone through that wayside house since then, what jubilant guests may have entered, what lifeless form passed out. What anguish or what sin may have come between that woman and that child; through what worlds they now wander, and whether separate or in each other's arms,--this is all unknown. Fancy can picture other joys to which the first happiness was but the prelude, and, on the other hand, how easy to imagine some special heritage of human woe and call it theirs! "I thought of times when Pain might be thy guest, Lord of thy house and hospitality; And Grief, uneasy lover, might not rest Save when he sat within the touch of thee."
Nay, the foretaste of that changed fortune may have been present, even in the kiss. Who knows what absorbing emotion, besides love's immediate impulse, may have been uttered in that shadowy embrace? There may have been some contrition for ill-temper or neglect, or some triumph over ruinous temptation, or some pledge of immortal patience, or some heart-breaking prophecy of bereavement. It may have been simply an act of habitual tenderness, or it may have been the wild reaction toward a neglected duty; the renewed self-consecration of the saint, or the joy of the sinner that repenteth. No matter. She kissed the baby. The feeling of its soft flesh, the busy struggle of its little arms between her hands, the impatient pressure of its little feet against her knees,--these were the same, whatever the mood or circumstance beside. They did something to equalize joy and sorrow, honor and shame. Maternal love is love, whether a woman be a wife or only a mother. Only a mother!
The happiness beneath that roof may, perhaps, have never reached so high a point as at that precise moment of my passing. In the coarsest household, the mother of a young child is placed on a sort of pedestal of care and tenderness, at least for a time. She resumes something of the sacredness and dignity of the maiden. Coleridge ranks as the purest of human emotions that of a husband towards a wife who has a baby at her breast,--"a feeling how free from sensual desire, yet how different from friendship!" And to the true mother however cultivated, or however ignorant, this period of early parentage is happier than all else, in spite of its exhausting cares. In that delightful book, the "Letters" of Mrs. Richard Trench (mother of the well-known English writer), the most agreeable passage is perhaps that in which, after looking back upon a life spent in the most brilliant society of Europe, she gives the palm of happiness to the time when she was a young mother. She writes to her god-daughter: "I believe it is the happiest time of any woman's life, who has affectionate feelings, and is blessed with healthy and well-disposed children. I know at least that neither the gayeties and boundless hopes of early life, nor the more grave pursuits and deeper affections of later years, are by any means comparable in my recollection with the serene, yet lively pleasure of seeing my children playing on the grass, enjoying their little temperate supper, or repeating 'with holy look' their simple prayers, and undressing for bed, growing prettier for every part of their dress they took off, and at last lying down, all freshness and love, in complete happiness, and an amiable contest for mamma's last kiss."
That kiss welcomed the child into a world where joy predominates. The vast multitude of human beings enjoy existence and wish to live. They all have their earthly life under their own control. Some religions sanction suicide; the Christian Scriptures nowhere explicitly forbid it; and yet it is a rare thing. Many persons sigh for death when it seems far off, but the desire vanishes when the boat upsets, or the locomotive runs off the track, or the measles set in. A wise physician once said to me: "I observe that every one wishes to go to heaven, but I observe that most people are willing to take a great deal of very disagreeable medicine first. "The lives that one least envies--as of the Digger Indian or the outcast boy in the city--are yet sweet to the living. "They have only a pleasure like that of the brutes," we say with scorn. But what a racy and substantial pleasure is that! The flashing speed of the swallow in the air, the cool play of the minnow in the water, the dance of twin butterflies round a thistle-blossom, the thundering gallop of the buffalo across the prairie, nay, the clumsy walk of the grizzly bear; it were doubtless enough to reward existence, could we have joy like such as these, and ask no more. This is the hearty physical basis of animated life, and as step by step the savage creeps up to the possession of intellectual manhood, each advance brings with it new sorrow and new joy, with the joy always in excess.
There are many who will utterly disavow this creed that life is desirable in itself. A fair woman in a ball-room, exquisitely dressed, and possessed of all that wealth could give, once declared to me her belief--and I think honestly--that no person over thirty was consciously happy, or would wish to live, but for the fear of death. There could not even be pleasure in contemplating one's children, she asserted, since they were living in such a world of sorrow. Asking the opinion, within half an hour, of another woman as fair and as favored by fortune, I found directly the opposite verdict. "For my part I can truly say," she answered, "that I enjoy every moment I live." The varieties of temperament and of physical condition will always afford us these extremes; but the truth lies between them, and most persons will endure many sorrows and still find life sweet.
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