The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner— Volume 1

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Author: Charles Dudley Warner

I

It was my good fortune once to visit a man who remembered the rebellion of 1745. Lest this confession should make me seem very aged, I will add that the visit took place in 1851, and that the man was then one hundred and thirteen years old. He was quite a lad before Dr. Johnson drank Mrs. Thrale’s tea. That he was as old as he had the credit of being, I have the evidence of my own senses (and I am seldom mistaken in a person’s age), of his own family, and his own word; and it is incredible that so old a person, and one so apparently near the grave, would deceive about his age.

The testimony of the very aged is always to be received without question, as Alexander Hamilton once learned. He was trying a land-title with Aaron Burr, and two of the witnesses upon whom Burr relied were venerable Dutchmen, who had, in their youth, carried the surveying chains over the land in dispute, and who were now aged respectively one hundred and four years and one hundred and six years. Hamilton gently attempted to undervalue their testimony, but he was instantly put down by the Dutch justice, who suggested that Mr. Hamilton could not be aware of the age of the witnesses.

My old man (the expression seems familiar and inelegant) had indeed an exaggerated idea of his own age, and sometimes said that he supposed he was going on four hundred, which was true enough, in fact; but for the exact date, he referred to his youngest son,—a frisky and humorsome lad of eighty years, who had received us at the gate, and whom we had at first mistaken for the veteran, his father. But when we beheld the old man, we saw the difference between age and age. The latter had settled into a grizzliness and grimness which belong to a very aged and stunted but sturdy oak-tree, upon the bark of which the gray moss is thick and heavy. The old man appeared hale enough, he could walk about, his sight and hearing were not seriously impaired, he ate with relish) and his teeth were so sound that he would not need a dentist for at least another century; but the moss was growing on him. His boy of eighty seemed a green sapling beside him.

He remembered absolutely nothing that had taken place within thirty years, but otherwise his mind was perhaps as good as it ever was, for he must always have been an ignoramus, and would never know anything if he lived to be as old as he said he was going on to be. Why he was interested in the rebellion of 1745 I could not discover, for he of course did not go over to Scotland to carry a pike in it, and he only remembered to have heard it talked about as a great event in the Irish market-town near which he lived, and to which he had ridden when a boy. And he knew much more about the horse that drew him, and the cart in which he rode, than he did about the rebellion of the Pretender.

I hope I do not appear to speak harshly of this amiable old man, and if he is still living I wish him well, although his example was bad in some respects. He had used tobacco for nearly a century, and the habit has very likely been the death of him. If so, it is to be regretted. For it would have been interesting to watch the process of his gradual disintegration and return to the ground: the loss of sense after sense, as decaying limbs fall from the oak; the failure of discrimination, of the power of choice, and finally of memory itself; the peaceful wearing out and passing away of body and mind without disease, the natural running down of a man. The interesting fact about him at that time was that his bodily powers seemed in sufficient vigor, but that the mind had not force enough to manifest itself through his organs. The complete battery was there, the appetite was there, the acid was eating the zinc; but the electric current was too weak to flash from the brain. And yet he appeared so sound throughout, that it was difficult to say that his mind was not as good as it ever had been. He had stored in it very little to feed on, and any mind would get enfeebled by a century’s rumination on a hearsay idea of the rebellion of ’45.

It was possible with this man to fully test one’s respect for age, which is in all civilized nations a duty. And I found that my feelings were mixed about him. I discovered in him a conceit in regard to his long sojourn on this earth, as if it were somehow a credit to him. In the presence of his good opinion of himself, I could but question the real value of his continued life) to himself or to others. If he ever had any friends he had outlived them, except his boy; his wives—a century of them—were all dead; the world had actually passed away for him. He hung on the tree like a frost-nipped apple, which the farmer has neglected to gather. The world always renews itself, and remains young. What relation had he to it?

I was delighted to find that this old man had never voted for George Washington. I do not know that he had ever heard of him. Washington may be said to have played his part since his time. I am not sure that he perfectly remembered anything so recent as the American Revolution. He was living quietly in Ireland during our French and Indian wars, and he did not emigrate to this country till long after our revolutionary and our constitutional struggles were over. The Rebellion Of ’45 was the great event of the world for him, and of that he knew nothing.

I intend no disrespect to this man,—a cheerful and pleasant enough old person,—but he had evidently lived himself out of the world, as completely as people usually die out of it. His only remaining value was to the moralist, who might perchance make something out of him. I suppose if he had died young, he would have been regretted, and his friends would have lamented that he did not fill out his days in the world, and would very likely have called him back, if tears and prayers could have done so. They can see now what his prolonged life amounted to, and how the world has closed up the gap he once filled while he still lives in it.

A great part of the unhappiness of this world consists in regret for those who depart, as it seems to us, prematurely. We imagine that if they would return, the old conditions would be restored. But would it be so? If they, in any case, came back, would there be any place for them? The world so quickly readjusts itself after any loss, that the return of the departed would nearly always throw it, even the circle most interested, into confusion. Are the Enoch Ardens ever wanted?

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Chicago: Charles Dudley Warner, "I," The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner— Volume 1, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner—Volume 1 (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed January 16, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=Q889EY1IL5AJ5HG.

MLA: Warner, Charles Dudley. "I." The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner— Volume 1, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner—Volume 1, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 16 Jan. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=Q889EY1IL5AJ5HG.

Harvard: Warner, CD, 'I' in The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner— Volume 1, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner—Volume 1, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 16 January 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=Q889EY1IL5AJ5HG.