The Professor at the Breakfast Table

Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.


Our landlady’s daughter is a young lady of some pretensions to gentility. She wears her bonnet well back on her head, which is known by all to be a mark of high breeding. She wears her trains very long, as the great ladies do in Europe. To be sure, their dresses are so made only to sweep the tapestried floors of chateaux and palaces; as those odious aristocrats of the other side do not go draggling through the mud in silks and satins, but, forsooth, must ride in coaches when they are in full dress. It is true, that, considering various habits of the American people, also the little accidents which the best-kept sidewalks are liable to, a lady who has swept a mile of them is not exactly in such a condition that one would care to be her neighbor. But then there is no need of being so hard on these slight weaknesses of the poor, dear women as our little deformed gentleman was the other day.

—There are no such women as the Boston women, Sir,—he said. Forty-two degrees, north latitude, Rome, Sir, Boston, Sir! They had grand women in old Rome, Sir,—and the women bore such men—children as never the world saw before. And so it was here, Sir. I tell you, the revolution the Boston boys started had to run in woman’s milk before it ran in man’s blood, Sir!

But confound the make-believe women we have turned loose in our streets! —where do they come from? Not out of Boston parlors, I trust. Why, there is n’t a beast or a bird that would drag its tail through the dirt in the way these creatures do their dresses. Because a queen or a duchess wears long robes on great occasions, a maid-of-all-work or a factory-girl thinks she must make herself a nuisance by trailing through the street, picking up and carrying about with her pah! —that’s what I call getting vulgarity into your bones and marrow. Making believe be what you are not is the essence of vulgarity. Show over dirt is the one attribute of vulgar people. If any man can walk behind one of these women and see what she rakes up as she goes, and not feel squeamish, he has got a tough stomach. I wouldn’t let one of ’em into my room without serving ’em as David served Saul at the cave in the wilderness,—cut off his skirts, Sir! cut off his skirts!

I suggested, that I had seen some pretty stylish ladies who offended in the way he condemned.

Stylish women, I don’t doubt,—said the Little Gentleman. —Don’t tell me that a true lady ever sacrifices the duty of keeping all about her sweet and clean to the wish of making a vulgar show. I won’t believe it of a lady. There are some things that no fashion has any right to touch, and cleanliness is one of those things. If a woman wishes to show that her husband or her father has got money, which she wants and means to spend, but doesn’t know how, let her buy a yard or two of silk and pin it to her dress when she goes out to walk, but let her unpin it before she goes into the house;—there may be poor women that will think it worth disinfecting. It is an insult to a respectable laundress to carry such things into a house for her to deal with. I don’t like the Bloomers any too well,—in fact, I never saw but one, and she—or he, or it—had a mob of boys after her, or whatever you call the creature, as if she had been a-----

The Little Gentleman stopped short,—flushed somewhat, and looked round with that involuntary, suspicious glance which the subjects of any bodily misfortune are very apt to cast round them. His eye wandered over the company, none of whom, excepting myself and one other, had, probably, noticed the movement. They fell at last on Iris,—his next neighbor, you remember.

—We know in a moment, on looking suddenly at a person, if that person’s eyes have been fixed on us.

Sometimes we are conscious of it before we turn so as to see the person. Strange secrets of curiosity, of impertinence, of malice, of love, leak out in this way. There is no need of Mrs. Felix Lorraine’s reflection in the mirror, to tell us that she is plotting evil for us behind our backs. We know it, as we know by the ominous stillness of a child that some mischief or other is going-on. A young girl betrays, in a moment, that her eyes have been feeding on. the face where you find them fixed, and not merely brushing over it with their pencils of blue or brown light.

A certain involuntary adjustment assimilates us, you may also observe, to that upon which we look. Roses redden the cheeks of her who stoops to gather them, and buttercups turn little people’s chins yellow. When we look at a vast landscape, our chests expand as if we would enlarge to fill it. When we examine a minute object, we naturally contract, not only our foreheads, but all our dimensions. If I see two men wrestling, I wrestle too, with my limbs and features. When a country-fellow comes upon the stage, you will see twenty faces in the boxes putting on the bumpkin expression. There is no need of multiplying instances to reach this generalization; every person and thing we look upon puts its special mark upon us. If this is repeated often enough, we get a permanent resemblance to it, or, at least, a fixed aspect which we took from it. Husband and wife come to look alike at last, as has often been noticed. It is a common saying of a jockey, that he is "all horse"; and I have often fancied that milkmen get a stiff, upright carriage, and an angular movement of the arm, that remind one of a pump and the working of its handle.

All this came in by accident, just because I happened to mention that the Little Gentleman found that Iris had been looking at him with her soul in her eyes, when his glance rested on her after wandering round the company. What he thought, it is hard to say; but the shadow of suspicion faded off from his face, and he looked calmly into the amber eyes, resting his cheek upon the hand that wore the red jewel.

—If it were a possible thing,—women are such strange creatures! Is there any trick that love and their own fancies do not play them? Just see how they marry! A woman that gets hold of a bit of manhood is like one of those Chinese wood-carvers who work on any odd, fantastic root that comes to hand, and, if it is only bulbous above and bifurcated below, will always contrive to make a man—such as he is—out of it. I should like to see any kind of a man, distinguishable from a Gorilla, that some good and even pretty woman could not shape a husband out of.

—A child,—yes, if you choose to call her so, but such a child! Do you know how Art brings all ages together? There is no age to the angels and ideal human forms among which the artist lives, and he shares their youth until his hand trembles and his eye grows dim. The youthful painter talks of white-bearded Leonardo as if he were a brother, and the veteran forgets that Raphael died at an age to which his own is of patriarchal antiquity.

But why this lover of the beautiful should be so drawn to one whom Nature has wronged so deeply seems hard to explain. Pity, I suppose. They say that leads to love.

—I thought this matter over until I became excited and curious, and determined to set myself more seriously at work to find out what was going on in these wild hearts and where their passionate lives were drifting. I say wild hearts and passionate lives, because I think I can look through this seeming calmness of youth and this apparent feebleness of organization, and see that Nature, whom it is very hard to cheat, is only waiting as the sapper waits in his mine, knowing that all is in readiness and the slow-match burning quietly down to the powder. He will leave it by-and-by, and then it will take care of itself.

One need not wait to see the smoke coming through the roof of a house and the flames breaking out of the windows to know that the building is on fire. Hark! There is a quiet, steady, unobtrusive, crisp, not loud, but very knowing little creeping crackle that is tolerably intelligible. There is a whiff of something floating about, suggestive of toasting shingles. Also a sharp pyroligneousacid pungency in the air that stings one’s eyes. Let us get up and see what is going on. —Oh,—oh,—oh! do you know what has got hold of you? It is the great red dragon that is born of the little red eggs we call sparks, with his hundred blowing red manes, and his thousand lashing red tails, and his multitudinous red eyes glaring at every crack and key-hole, and his countless red tongues lapping the beams he is going to crunch presently, and his hot breath warping the panels and cracking the glass and making old timber sweat that had forgotten it was ever alive with sap. Run for your life! leap! or you will be a cinder in five minutes, that nothing but a coroner would take for the wreck of a human being!

If any gentleman will have the kindness to stop this run-away comparison, I shall be much obliged to him. All I intended to say was, that we need not wait for hearts to break out in flames to know that they are full of combustibles and that a spark has got among them. I don’t pretend to say or know what it is that brings these two persons together;—and when I say together, I only mean that there is an evident affinity of some kind or other which makes their commonest intercourse strangely significant, as that each seems to understand a look or a word of the other. When the young girl laid her hand on the Little Gentleman’s arm,—which so greatly shocked the Model, you may remember,—I saw that she had learned the liontamer’s secret. She masters him, and yet I can see she has a kind of awe of him, as the man who goes into the cage has of the monster that he makes a baby of.

One of two things must happen. The first is love, downright love, on the part of this young girl, for the poor little misshapen man. You may laugh, if you like. But women are apt to love the men who they think have the largest capacity of loving;—and who can love like one that has thirsted all his life long for the smile of youth and beauty, and seen it fly his presence as the wave ebbed from the parched lips of him whose fabled punishment is the perpetual type of human longing and disappointment? What would become of him, if this fresh soul should stoop upon him in her first young passion, as the flamingo drops out of the sky upon some lonely and dark lagoon in the marshes of Cagliari, with a flutter of scarlet feathers and a kindling of strange fires in the shadowy waters that hold her burning image?

—Marry her, of course?—Why, no, not of course. I should think the chance less, on the whole, that he would be willing to marry her than she to marry him.

There is one other thing that might happen. If the interest he awakes in her gets to be a deep one, and yet has nothing of love in it, she will glance off from him into some great passion or other. All excitements run to love in women of a certain—let us not say age, but youth. An electrical current passing through a coil of wire makes a magnet of a bar of iron lying within it, but not touching it. So a woman is turned into a love-magnet by a tingling current of life running round her. I should like to see one of them balanced on a pivot properly adjusted, and watch if she did not turn so as to point north and south,—as she would, if the love-currents are like those of the earth our mother.

Pray, do you happen to remember Wordsworth’s "Boy of Windermere"? This boy used to put his hands to his mouth, and shout aloud, mimicking the hooting of the owls, who would answer him

"with quivering peals,
And long halloos and screams, and echoes loud
Redoubled and redoubled."

When they failed to answer him, and he hung listening intently for their voices, he would sometimes catch the faint sound of far distant waterfalls, or the whole scene around him would imprint itself with new force upon his perceptions. —Read the sonnet, if you please;—it is Wordsworth all over,—trivial in subject, solemn in style, vivid in description, prolix in detail, true metaphysically, but immensely suggestive of "imagination," to use a mild term, when related as an actual fact of a sprightly youngster. All I want of it is to enforce the principle, that, when the door of the soul is once opened to a guest, there is no knowing who will come in next.

—Our young girl keeps up her early habit of sketching heads and characters. Nobody is, I should think, more faithful and exact in the drawing of the academical figures given her as lessons, but there is a perpetual arabesque of fancies that runs round the margin of her drawings, and there is one book which I know she keeps to run riot in, where, if anywhere, a shrewd eye would be most likely to read her thoughts. This book of hers I mean to see, if I can get at it honorably.

I have never yet crossed the threshold of the Little Gentleman’s chamber. How he lives, when he once gets within it, I can only guess. His hours are late, as I have said; often, on waking late in the night, I see the light through cracks in his window-shutters on the wall of the house opposite. If the times of witchcraft were not over, I should be afraid to be so close a neighbor to a place from which there come such strange noises. Sometimes it is the dragging of something heavy over the floor, that makes me shiver to hear it,- -it sounds so like what people that kill other people have to do now and then. Occasionally I hear very sweet strains of music,—whether of a wind or stringed instrument, or a human voice, strange as it may seem, I have often tried to find out, but through the partition I could not be quite sure. If I have not heard a woman cry and moan, and then again laugh as though she would die laughing, I have heard sounds so like them that—I am a fool to confess it—I have covered my head with the bedclothes; for I have had a fancy in my dreams, that I could hardly shake off when I woke up, about that socalled witch that was his great-grandmother, or whatever it was,—a sort of fancy that she visited the Little Gentleman,—a young woman in old-fashioned dress, with a red ring round her white neck,—not a neck-lace, but a dull-stain.

Of course you don’t suppose that I have any foolish superstitions about the matter,—I, the Professor, who have seen enough to take all that nonsense out of any man’s head! It is not our beliefs that frighten us half so much as our fancies. A man not only believes, but knows he runs a risk, whenever he steps into a railroad car; but it does n’t worry him much. On the other hand, carry that man across a pasture a little way from some dreary country-village, and show him an old house where there were strange deaths a good many years ago, and there are rumors of ugly spots on the walls,—the old man hung himself in the garret, that is certain, and ever since the country-people have called it "the haunted house,"—the owners have n’t been able to let it since the last tenants left on account of the noises,—so it has fallen into sad decay, and the moss grows on the rotten shingles of the roof, and the clapboards have turned black, and the windows rattle like teeth that chatter with fear, and the walls of the house begin to lean as if its knees were shaking,— take the man who did n’t mind the real risk of the cars to that old house, on some dreary November evening, and ask him to sleep there alone,—how do you think he will like it? He doesn’t believe one word of ghosts,—but then he knows, that, whether waking or sleeping, his imagination will people the haunted chambers with ghostly images. It is not what we believe, as I said before, that frightens us commonly, but what we conceive. A principle that reaches a good way if I am not mistaken. I say, then, that, if these odd sounds coming from the Little Gentleman’s chamber sometimes make me nervous, so that I cannot get to sleep, it is not because I suppose he is engaged in any unlawful or mysterious way. The only wicked suggestion that ever came into my head was one that was founded on the landlady’s story of his having a pile of gold; it was a ridiculous fancy; besides, I suspect the story of sweating gold was only one of the many fables got up to make the Jews odious and afford a pretext for plundering them. As for the sound like a woman laughing and crying, I never said it was a woman’s voice; for, in the first place, I could only hear indistinctly; and, secondly, he may have an organ, or some queer instrument or other, with what they call the vox humana stop. If he moves his bed round to get away from the window, or for any such reason, there is nothing very frightful in that simple operation. Most of our foolish conceits explain themselves in some such simple way. And, yet, for all that, I confess, that, when I woke up the other evening, and heard, first a sweet complaining cry, and then footsteps, and then the dragging sound,—nothing but his bed, I am quite sure,—I felt a stirring in the roots of my hair as the feasters did in Keats’s terrible poem of "Lamia."

There is nothing very odd in my feeling nervous when I happen to lie awake and get listening for sounds. Just keep your ears open any time after midnight, when you are lying in bed in a lone attic of a dark night. What horrid, strange, suggestive, unaccountable noises you will hear! The stillness of night is a vulgar error. All the dead things seem to be alive. Crack! That is the old chest of drawers; you never hear it crack in the daytime. Creak! There’s a door ajar; you know you shut them all.

Where can that latch be that rattles so? Is anybody trying it softly? or, worse than any body, is----? (Cold shiver.) Then a sudden gust that jars all the windows;—very strange!—there does not seem to be any wind about that it belongs to. When it stops, you hear the worms boring in the powdery beams overhead. Then steps outside,—a stray animal, no doubt. All right,—but a gentle moisture breaks out all over you; and then something like a whistle or a cry,—another gust of wind, perhaps; that accounts for the rustling that just made your heart roll over and tumble about, so that it felt more like a live rat under your ribs than a part of your own body; then a crash of something that has fallen,—blown over, very likely---- Pater noster, qui es in coelis! for you are damp and cold, and sitting bolt upright, and the bed trembling so that the death-watch is frightened and has stopped ticking!

No,—night is an awful time for strange noises and secret doings. Who ever dreamed, till one of our sleepless neighbors told us of it, of that Walpurgis gathering of birds and beasts of prey,—foxes, and owls, and crows, and eagles, that come from all the country round on moonshiny nights to crunch the clams and muscles, and pick out the eyes of dead fishes that the storm has thrown on Chelsea Beach? Our old mother Nature has pleasant and cheery tones enough for us when she comes in her dress of blue and gold over the eastern hill-tops; but when she follows us up-stairs to our beds in her suit of black velvet and diamonds, every creak of her sandals and every whisper of her lips is full of mystery and fear.

You understand, then, distinctly, that I do not believe there is anything about this singular little neighbor of mine which is as it should not be. Probably a visit to his room would clear up all that has puzzled me, and make me laugh at the notions which began, I suppose, in nightmares, and ended by keeping my imagination at work so as almost to make me uncomfortable at times. But it is not so easy to visit him as some of our other boarders, for various reasons which I will not stop to mention. I think some of them are rather pleased to get "the Professor" under their ceilings.

The young man John, for instance, asked me to come up one day and try some "old Burbon," which he said was A 1. On asking him what was the number of his room, he answered, that it was forty-’leven, sky-parlor floor, but that I shouldn’t find it, if he did n’t go ahead to show me the way. I followed him to his habitat, being very willing to see in what kind of warren he burrowed, and thinking I might pick up something about the boarders who had excited my curiosity.

Mighty close quarters they were where the young man John bestowed himself and his furniture; this last consisting of a bed, a chair, a bureau, a trunk, and numerous pegs with coats and "pants" and "vests,"—as he was in the habit of calling waist-coats and pantaloons or trousers,—hanging up as if the owner had melted out of them. Several prints were pinned up unframed,—among them that grand national portrait-piece, "Barnum presenting Ossian E. Dodge to Jenny Lind," and a picture of a famous trot, in which I admired anew the cabalistic air of that imposing array of expressions, and especially the Italicized word, "Dan Mace names b. h. Major Slocum," and "Hiram Woodruff names g. m. Lady Smith." "Best three in five. Time: 2.40, 2.46, 2.50."

That set me thinking how very odd this matter of trotting horses is, as an index of the mathematical exactness of the laws of living mechanism. I saw Lady Suffolk trot a mile in 2.26. Flora Temple has trotted close down to 2.20; and Ethan Allen in 2.25, or less. Many horses have trotted their mile under 2.30; none that I remember in public as low down as 2.20. From five to ten seconds, then, in about a hundred and sixty is the whole range of the maxima of the present race of trotting horses. The same thing is seen in the running of men. Many can run a mile in five minutes; but when one comes to the fractions below, they taper down until somewhere about 4.30 the maximum is reached. Averages of masses have been studied more than averages of maxima and minima. We know from the Registrar-General’s Reports, that a certain number of children—say from one to two dozen—die every year in England from drinking hot water out of spouts of teakettles. We know, that, among suicides, women and men past a certain age almost never use fire-arms. A woman who has made up her mind to die is still afraid of a pistol or a gun. Or is it that the explosion would derange her costume?

I say, averages of masses we have, but our tables of maxima we owe to the sporting men more than to the philosophers. The lesson their experience teaches is, that Nature makes no leaps,—does nothing per saltum. The greatest brain that ever lived, no doubt, was only a small fraction of an idea ahead of the second best. Just look at the chess-players. Leaving out the phenomenal exceptions, the nice shades that separate the skilful ones show how closely their brains approximate,—almost as closely as chronometers. Such a person is a "knight-player,"—he must have that piece given him. Another must have two pawns. Another, "pawn and two," or one pawn and two moves. Then we find one who claims "pawn and move," holding himself, with this fractional advantage, a match for one who would be pretty sure to beat him playing even. —So much are minds alike; and you and I think we are "peculiar,"—that Nature broke her jelly-mould after shaping our cerebral convolutions. So I reflected, standing and looking at the picture.

—I say, Governor,—broke in the young man John,—them bosses ’11 stay jest as well, if you’ll only set down. I’ve had ’em this year, and they haven’t stirred. —He spoke, and handed the chair towards me,—seating himself, at the same time, on the end of the bed.

You have lived in this house some time?—I said,—with a note of interrogation at the end of the statement.

Do I look as if I’d lost much flesh—said he, answering my question by another.

No,—said I;—for that matter, I think you do credit to "the bountifully furnished table of the excellent lady who provides so liberally for the company that meets around her hospitable board."

[The sentence in quotation-marks was from one of those disinterested editorials in small type, which I suspect to have been furnished by a friend of the landlady’s, and paid for as an advertisement. This impartial testimony to the superior qualities of the establishment and its head attracted a number of applicants for admission, and a couple of new boarders made a brief appearance at the table. One of them was of the class of people who grumble if they don’t get canvas-backs and woodcocks every day, for three-fifty per week. The other was subject to somnambulism, or walking in the night, when he ought to have been asleep in his bed. In this state he walked into several of the boarders’ chambers, his eyes wide open, as is usual with somnambulists, and, from some odd instinct or other, wishing to know what the hour was, got together a number of their watches, for the purpose of comparing them, as it would seem. Among them was a repeater, belonging to our young Marylander. He happened to wake up while the somnambulist was in his chamber, and, not knowing his infirmity, caught hold of him and gave him a dreadful shaking, after which he tied his hands and feet, and so left him till morning, when he introduced him to a gentleman used to taking care of such cases of somnambulism.]

If you, my reader, will please to skip backward, over this parenthesis, you will come to our conversation, which it has interrupted.

It a’n’t the feed,—said the young man John,—it’s the old woman’s looks when a fellah lays it in too strong. The feed’s well enough. After geese have got tough, ’n’ turkeys have got strong, ’n’ lamb’s got old, ’n’ veal’s pretty nigh beef, ’n’ sparragrass ’s growin’ tall ’n’ slim ’n’ scattery about the head, ’n’ green peas are gettin’ so big ’n’ hard they’d be dangerous if you fired ’em out of a revolver, we get hold of all them delicacies of the season. But it’s too much like feedin’ on live folks and devourin’ widdah’s substance, to lay yourself out in the eatin’ way, when a fellah ’s as hungry as the chap that said a turkey was too much for one ’n’ not enough for two. I can’t help lookin’ at the old woman. Cornedbeef-days she’s tolerable calm. Roastin’-days she worries some, ’n’ keeps a sharp eye on the chap that carves. But when there’s anything in the poultry line, it seems to hurt her feelin’s so to see the knife goin’ into the breast and joints comin’ to pieces, that there’s no comfort in eatin’. When I cut up an old fowl and help the boarders, I always feel as if I ought to say, Won’t you have a slice of widdah?—instead of chicken.

The young man John fell into a train of reflections which ended in his producing a Bologna sausage, a plate of "crackers," as we Boston folks call certain biscuits, and the bottle of whiskey described as being A 1.

Under the influence of the crackers and sausage, he grew cordial and communicative.

It was time, I thought, to sound him as to those of our boarders who had excited my curiosity.

What do you think of our young Iris?—I began.

Fust-rate little filly;-he said. —Pootiest and nicest little chap I’ve seen since the schoolma’am left. Schoolma’am was a brownhaired one,—eyes coffee-color. This one has got wine-colored eyes,—’n’ that ’s the reason they turn a fellah’s head, I suppose.

This is a splendid blonde,—I said,—the other was a brunette. Which style do you like best?

Which do I like best, boiled mutton or roast mutton?—said the young man John. Like ’em both,—it a’n’t the color of ’em makes the goodness. I ’ve been kind of lonely since schoolma’am went away. Used to like to look at her. I never said anything particular to her, that I remember, but---

I don’t know whether it was the cracker and sausage, or that the young fellow’s feet were treading on the hot ashes of some longing that had not had time to cool, but his eye glistened as he stopped.

I suppose she wouldn’t have looked at a fellah like me,—he said,— but I come pretty near tryin’. If she had said, Yes, though, I shouldn’t have known what to have done with her. Can’t marry a woman now-a-days till you’re so deaf you have to cock your head like a parrot to hear what she says, and so longsighted you can’t see what she looks like nearer than arm’s-length.

Here is another chance for you,—I said. —What do you want nicer than such a young lady as Iris?

It’s no use,—he answered. —I look at them girls and feel as the fellah did when he missed catchin’ the trout. —’To’od ’a’ cost more butter to cook him ’n’ he’s worth,—says the fellah. —Takes a whole piece o’ goods to cover a girl up now-a-days. I’d as lief undertake to keep a span of elephants,—and take an ostrich to board, too,—as to marry one of ’em. What’s the use? Clerks and counter-jumpers ain’t anything. Sparragrass and green peas a’n’t for them,—not while they’re young and tender. Hossback-ridin’ a’n’t for them,— except once a year, on Fast-day. And marryin’ a’n’t for them. Sometimes a fellah feels lonely, and would like to have a nice young woman, to tell her how lonely he feels. And sometimes a fellah,— here the young man John looked very confidential, and, perhaps, as if a little ashamed of his weakness,—sometimes a fellah would like to have one o’ them small young ones to trot on his knee and push about in a little wagon,—a kind of a little Johnny, you know;—it’s odd enough, but, it seems to me, nobody can afford them little articles, except the folks that are so rich they can buy everything, and the folks that are so poor they don’t want anything. It makes nice boys of us young fellahs, no doubt! And it’s pleasant to see fine young girls sittin’, like shopkeepers behind their goods, waitin’, and waitin’, and waitin’, ’n’ no customers,—and the men lingerin’ round and lookin’ at the goods, like folks that want to be customers, but have n’t the money!

Do you think the deformed gentleman means to make love to Iris?—I said.

What! Little Boston ask that girl to marry him! Well, now, that’s cumin’ of it a little too strong. Yes, I guess she will marry him and carry him round in a basket, like a lame bantam: Look here!—he said, mysteriously;—one of the boarders swears there’s a woman comes to see him, and that he has heard her singin’ and screechin’. I should like to know what he’s about in that den of his. He lays low ’n’ keeps dark,—and, I tell you, there’s a good many of the boarders would like to get into his chamber, but he don’t seem to want ’em. Biddy could tell somethin’ about what she’s seen when she ’s been to put his room to rights. She’s a Paddy ’n’ a fool, but she knows enough to keep her tongue still. All I know is, I saw her crossin’ herself one day when she came out of that room. She looked pale enough, ’n’ I heard her mutterin’ somethin’ or other about the Blessed Virgin. If it had n’t been for the double doors to that chamber of his, I’d have had a squint inside before this; but, somehow or other, it never seems to happen that they’re both open at once.

What do you think he employs himself about? said I.

The young man John winked.

I waited patiently for the thought, of which this wink was the blossom, to come to fruit in words.

I don’t believe in witches,—said the young man John.

Nor I.

We were both silent for a few minutes.

—Did you ever see the young girl’s drawing-books,—I said, presently.

All but one,—he answered;—she keeps a lock on that, and won’t show it. Ma’am Allen, (the young rogue sticks to that name, in speaking of the gentleman with the diamond,) Ma’am Allen tried to peek into it one day when she left it on the sideboard. "If you please," says she,—’n’ took it from him, ’n’ gave him a look that made him curl up like a caterpillar on a hot shovel. I only wished he had n’t, and had jest given her a little sass, for I’ve been takin’ boxin’- lessons, ’n’ I ’ve got a new way of counterin’ I want to try on to somebody.

—The end of all this was, that I came away from the young fellow’s room, feeling that there were two principal things that I had to live for, for the next six weeks or six months, if it should take so long. These were, to get a sight of the young girl’s drawing. book, which I suspected had her heart shut up in it, and to get a look into the Little Gentleman’s room.

I don’t doubt you think it rather absurd that I should trouble myself about these matters. You tell me, with some show of reason, that all I shall find in the young girl’s—book will be some outlines of angels with immense eyes, traceries of flowers, rural sketches, and caricatures, among which I shall probably have the pleasure of seeing my own features figuring. Very likely. But I’ll tell you what I think I shall find. If this child has idealized the strange little bit of humanity over which she seems to have spread her wings like a brooding dove,—if, in one of those wild vagaries that passionate natures are so liable to, she has fairly sprung upon him with her clasping nature, as the sea-flowers fold about the first stray shell-fish that brushes their outspread tentacles, depend upon it, I shall find the marks of it in this drawing-book of hers,—if I can ever get a look at it,—fairly, of course, for I would not play tricks to satisfy my curiosity.

Then, if I can get into this Little Gentleman’s room under any fair pretext, I shall, no doubt, satisfy myself in five minutes that he is just like other people, and that there is no particular mystery about him.

The night after my visit to the young man John, I made all these and many more reflections. It was about two o’clock in the morning,— bright starlight,—so light that I could make out the time on my alarm-clock,—when I woke up trembling and very moist. It was the heavy dragging sound, as I had often heard it before that waked me. Presently a window was softly closed. I had just begun to get over the agitation with which we always awake from nightmare dreams, when I heard the sound which seemed to me as of a woman’s voice,—the clearest, purest soprano which one could well conceive of. It was not loud, and I could not distinguish a word, if it was a woman’s voice; but there were recurring phrases of sound and snatches of rhythm that reached me, which suggested the idea of complaint, and sometimes, I thought, of passionate grief and despair. It died away at last,—and then I heard the opening of a door, followed by a low, monotonous sound, as of one talking,—and then the closing of a door,—and presently the light on the opposite wall disappeared and all was still for the night.

By George! this gets interesting,—I said, as I got out of bed for a change of night-clothes.

I had this in my pocket the other day, but thought I would n’t read it at our celebration. So I read it to the boarders instead, and print it to finish off this record with.


He sleeps not here; in hope and prayer His wandering flock had gone before, But he, the shepherd, might not share Their sorrows on the wintry shore.

Before the Speedwell’s anchor swung, Ere yet the Mayflower’s sail was spread, While round his feet the Pilgrims clung, The pastor spake, and thus he said:—

"Men, brethren, sisters, children dear! God calls you hence from over sea; Ye may not build by Haerlem Meer, Nor yet along the Zuyder-Zee.

"Ye go to bear the saving word To tribes unnamed and shores untrod: Heed well the lessons ye have heard >From those old teachers taught of God.

"Yet think not unto them was lent All light for all the coming days, And Heaven’s eternal wisdom spent In making straight the ancient ways.

"The living fountain overflows For every flock, for every lamb, Nor heeds, though angry creeds oppose With Luther’s dike or Calvin’s dam."

He spake; with lingering, long embrace, With tears of love and partings fond, They floated down the creeping Maas, Along the isle of Ysselmond.

They passed the frowning towers of Briel, The "Hook of Holland’s" shelf of sand, And grated soon with lifting keel The sullen shores of Fatherland.

No home for these! —too well they knew The mitred king behind the throne; The sails were set, the pennons flew, And westward ho! for worlds unknown.

—And these were they who gave us birth, The Pilgrims of the sunset wave, Who won for us this virgin earth, And freedom with the soil they gave.

The pastor slumbers by the Rhine,— In alien earth the exiles lie,— Their nameless graves our holiest shrine, His words our noblest battle-cry!

Still cry them, and the world shall hear, Ye dwellers by the storm-swept sea! Ye have not built by Haerlem Meer, Nor on the land-locked Zuyder-Zee!


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Chicago: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., "VII," The Professor at the Breakfast Table, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in The Professor at the Breakfast Table (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909), Original Sources, accessed December 11, 2023,

MLA: Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Sr. "VII." The Professor at the Breakfast Table, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in The Professor at the Breakfast Table, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909, Original Sources. 11 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Holmes, OW, 'VII' in The Professor at the Breakfast Table, ed. . cited in 1909, The Professor at the Breakfast Table, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 11 December 2023, from