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.
And the mother's kiss welcomes the child into a world where good predominates as well as joy. What recreants must we be, in an age that has abolished slavery in America and popularized the governments of all Europe, if we doubt that the tendency of man is upward! How much that the world calls selfishness is only generosity with narrow walls,--a too exclusive solicitude to maintain a wife in luxury or make one's children rich! In an audience of rough people a generous sentiment always brings down the house. In the tumult of war both sides applaud an heroic deed. A courageous woman, who had traversed alone, on benevolent errands, the worst parts of New York told me that she never felt afraid except in the solitudes of the country; wherever there was a crowd, she found a protector.
A policeman of great experience once spoke to me with admiration of the fidelity of professional thieves to each other, and the risks they would run for the women whom they loved; when "Bristol Bill" was arrested, he said, there was found upon the burglar a set of false keys, not quite finished, by which he would certainly, within twenty-four hours, have had his mistress out of jail. Parent-Duchatelet found always the remains of modesty among the fallen women of Paris hospitals; and Mayhew, amid the London outcasts, says that he thinks better of human nature every day. Even among politicians, whom it is our American fashion to revile as the chief of sinners, there is less of evil than of good.
In Wilberforce's "Memoirs" there is an account of his having once asked Mr. Pitt whether his long experience as Prime Minister had made him think well or ill of his fellow-men. Mr. Pitt answered, "Well"; and his successor, Lord Melbourne, being asked the same question, answered, after a little reflection, "My opinion is the same as that of Mr. Pitt."
Let us have faith. It was a part of the vigor of the old Hebrew tradition to rejoice when a man-child was born into the world; and the maturer strength of nobler ages should rejoice over a woman-child as well. Nothing human is wholly sad, until it is effete and dying out. Where there is life there is promise. "Vitality is always hopeful," was the verdict of the most refined and clear-sighted woman who has yet explored the rough mining villages of the Rocky Mountains. There is apt to be a certain coarse virtue in rude health; as the Germanic races were purest when least civilized, and our American Indians did not unlearn chastity till they began to decay. But even where vigor and vice are found together, they still may hold a promise for the next generation. Out of the strong cometh forth sweetness. Parisian wickedness is not so discouraging merely because it is wicked, as from a suspicion that it is draining the life-blood of the nation. A mob of miners or of New York bullies may be uncomfortable neighbors, and may make a man of refinement hesitate whether to stop his ears or to feel for his revolver; but they hold more promise for the coming generations than the line which ends in Madame Bovary or the Vicomte de Camors.
But behind that cottage curtain, at any rate, a new and prophetic life had begun. I cannot foretell that child's future, but I know something of its past. The boy may grow up into a criminal, the woman into an outcast, yet the baby was beloved. It came "not in utter nakedness." It found itself heir of the two prime essentials of existence,--life and love. Its first possession was a woman's kiss; and in that heritage the most important need of its career was guaranteed. "An ounce of mother," says the Spanish proverb, "is worth a pound of clergy." Jean Paul says that in life every successive influence affects us less and less, so that the circumnavigator of the globe is less influenced by all the nations he has seen than by his nurse. Well may the child imbibe that reverence for motherhood which is the first need of man. Where woman is most a slave, she is at least sacred to her son. The Turkish Sultan must prostrate himself at the door of his mother's apartments, and were he known to have insulted her, it would make his throne tremble. Among the savage African Touaricks, if two parents disagree, it is to the mother that the child's obedience belongs. Over the greater part of the earth's surface, the foremost figures in all temples are the Mother and Child. Christian and Buddhist nations, numbering together two thirds of the world's population, unite in this worship. Into the secrets of the ritual that baby in the window had already received initiation.
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