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Life Alone

When I was a very young man, I had occasion to travel two hundred miles down the valley of the Connecticut River. I had just finished a delightful summer excursion in the service of the State of New Hampshire as a geologist,--and I left the other geological surveyors at Haverhill.

I remembered John Ledyard. Do you, dear Young America? John Ledyard, having determined to leave Dartmouth College, built himself a boat, or digged for himself a canoe, and sailed down on the stream reading the Greek Testament, or "Plutarch's Lives," I forget which, on the way.

Here was I, about to go down the same river. I had ten dollars in my pocket, be the same more or less. Could not I buy a boat for seven, my provant for a week for three more, and so arrive in Springfield in ten days' time, go up to the Hardings' and spend the night, and go down to Boston, on a free pass I had, the next day?

Had I been as young as I am now, I should have done that thing. I wanted to do it then, but there were difficulties.

First, whatever was to be done must be done at once. For, if I were delayed only a day at Haverhill, I should have, when I had paid my bill, but eight dollars and a half left. Then how buy the provant for three dollars, and the boat for six?

So I went at once to the seaport or maritime district of that flourishing town, to find, to my dismay, that there was no boat, canoe, dug-out, or batteau,--there was nothing. As I remember things now, there was not any sort of coffin that would ride the waves in any sort of way.

There were, however, many pundits, or learned men. They are a class of people I have always found in places or occasions where something besides learning was needed. They tried, as is the fashion of their craft, to make good the lack of boats by advice.

First, they proved that it would have been of no use had there been any boats. Second, they proved that no one ever had gone down from Haverhill in a boat at that season of the year,--ergo, that no one ought to think of going. Third, they proved, what I knew very well before, that I could go down much quicker in the stage. Fourth, with astonishing unanimity they agreed, that, if I would only go down as far as Hanover, there would be plenty of boats; the river would have more water in it; I should be past this fall and that fall, this rapid and that rapid; and, in short, that, before the worlds were, it seemed predestined that I should start from Hanover.

All this they said in that seductive way in which a dry-goods clerk tells you that he has no checked gingham, and makes you think you are a fool that you asked for checked gingham; that you never should have asked, least of all, should have asked him.

So I left the beach at Haverhill, disconcerted, disgraced, conscious of my own littleness and folly, and, as I was bid, took passage in the Telegraph coach for Hanover, giving orders that I should be called in the morning.

I was called in the morning. I mounted the stage-coach, and I think we came to Hanover about half past ten,--my first and last visit at that shrine of learning. Pretty hot it was on the top of the coach, and I was pretty tired, and a good deal chafed as I saw from that eyry the lovely, cool river all the way at my side. I took some courage when I saw White's dam and Brown's dam, or Smith's dam and Jones's dam, or whatever the dams were, and persuaded myself that it would have been hard work hauling round them.

Nathless, I was worn and weary when I arrived at Hanover, and was told there would be an hour before the Telegraph went forward. Again I hurried to the strand.

This time I found a boat. A poor craft it was, but probably as good as Ledyard's. Leaky, but could be caulked. Destitute of row-locks, but they could be made.

I found the owner. Yes, he would sell her to me. Nay, he was not particular about price. Perhaps he knew that she was not worth anything. But, with that loyalty to truth, not to say pride of opinion, which is a part of the true New-Englander's life, this sturdy man said, frankly, that he did not want to sell her, because he did not think I ought to go that way.

Vain for me to represent that that was my affair, and not his.

Clearly he thought it was his. Did he think I was a boy who had escaped from parental care?

Perhaps. For at that age I had not this mustache or these whiskers.

Had he, in the Laccadives Islands, some worthless son who had escaped from home to go a whaling? Did he wish in his heart that some other shipmaster had hindered him, as he now was hindering me? Alas, I know not! Only this I know, that he advised me, argued with me, nay, begged me not to go that way. I should get aground. I should be upset. The boat would be swamped. Much better go by the Telegraph.

Dear reader, I was young in life, and I accepted the reiterated advice, and took the Telegraph. It was one of about four prudent things which I have done in my life, which I can remember now, all of which I regret at this moment.

Now, why did I give up a plan, at the solicitation of an utter stranger, which I had formed intelligently, and had looked forward to with pleasure? Was I afraid of being drowned? Not I. Hard to drown in the upper Connecticut the boy who had, for weeks, been swimming three times a day in that river and in every lake or stream in upper or central New Hampshire. Was I afraid of wetting my clothes? Not I. Hard to hurt with water the clothes in which I had slept on the top of Mt. Washington, swam the Ammonoosuc, or sat out a thunder-shower on Mt. Jefferson.

Dear boys and girls, I was, by this time, afraid of myself. I was afraid of being alone.

This is a pretty long text. But it is the text for this paper. You see I had had this four or five hours' pull down on the hot stage-coach. I had been conversing with myself all the time, and I had not found it the best of company. I was quite sure that the voyage would cost a week. Maybe it would cost more. And I was afraid that I should be very tired of it and of myself before the thing was done. So I meekly returned to the Telegraph, faintly tried the same experiment at Windsor, for the last time, and then took the Telegraph for the night, and brought up next day at Greenfield.

"Can I, perhaps, give some hints to you, boys and girls, which will save you from such a mistake as I made then?"

I do not pretend that you should court solitude. That is all nonsense, though there is a good deal of it in the books, as there is of other nonsense. You are made for society, for converse, sympathy, and communion. Tongues are made to talk, and ears are made to listen. So are eyes made to see. Yet night falls sometimes, when you cannot see. And, as you ought not be afraid of night, you ought not be afraid of solitude, when you cannot talk or listen.

What is there, then, that we can do when we are alone?

Many things. Of which now it will be enough to speak a little in detail of five. We can think, we can read, we can write, we can draw, we can sing. Of these we will speak separately. Of the rest I will say a word, and hardly more.

First, we can think. And there are some places where we can do nothing else. In a railway carriage, for instance, on a rainy or a frosty day, you cannot see the country. If you are without companions, you cannot talk,--ought not, indeed, talk much, if you had them. You ought not read, because reading in the train puts your eyes out, sooner or later. You cannot write. And in most trains the usages are such that you cannot sing. Or, when they sing in trains, the whole company generally sings, so that rules for solitude no longer apply.

What can you do then? You can think. Learn to think carefully, regularly, so as to think with pleasure.

I know some young people who had two or three separate imaginary lives, which they took up on such occasions. One was a supposed life in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Robert used to plan the whole house and grounds; just what horses he would keep, what hounds, what cows, and other stock. He planned all the neighbors' houses, and who should live in them. There were the Fairfaxes, very nice, but rather secesh; and the Sydneys, who had been loyal through and through. There was that plucky Frank Fairfax, and that pretty Blanche Sydney. Then there were riding parties, archery parties, picnics on the river, expeditions to the Natural Bridge, and once a year a regular "meet" for a fox-hunt.

"Springfield, twenty-five minutes for refreshments," says the conductor, and Robert is left to take up his history some other time.

It is a very good plan to have not simply stories on hand, as he had, but to be ready to take up the way to plan your garden, the arrangement of your books, the order of next year's Reading Club, or any other truly good subjects which have been laid by for systematic thinking, the first time you are alone. Bear this in mind as you read. If you had been General Sullivan, at the battle of Brandywine, you are not quite certain whether you would have done as he did. No. Well, then, keep that for a nut to crack the first time you have to be alone. What would you have done?

This matter of being prepared to think is really a pretty important matter, if you find some night that you have to watch with a sick friend. You must not read, write, or talk there. But you must keep awake. Unless you mean to have the time pass dismally slow, you must have your regular topics to think over, carefully and squarely.

An imaginary conversation, such as Madame de Genlis describes, is an excellent resource at such a time.

Many and many a time, as I have been grinding along at night on some railway in the Middle States, when it was too early to sleep, and too late to look at the scenery, have I called into imaginary council a circle of the nicest people in the world.

"Let me suppose," I would say to myself, "that we were all at Mrs. Tileston's in the front parlor, where the light falls so beautifully, on the laughing face and shoulder of that Bacchante. Let me suppose that besides Mrs. Tileston, Edith was there, and Emily and Carrie and Haliburton and Fred. Suppose just then the door-bell rang, and Mr. Charles Sumner came up stairs fresh from Washington. What should we all say and do?

"Why, of course we should be glad to see him, and we should ask him about Washington and the Session,--what sort of a person Lady Bruce was,--and whether it was really true that General Butler said that bright thing about the Governor of Arkansas.

"And Mr. Sumner would say that General Butler said a much better thing than that. He said that m-m-m-m-m--

"Then Mrs. Tileston would say, 'O, I thought that s-s-s-s-s--'

"Then I should say, 'O no! I am sure that u-u-u-u--, &c.'

"Then Edith would laugh and say, 'Why, no, Mr. Hale. I am sure that, &c., &c., &c., &c.'"

You will find that the carrying out an imaginary conversation, where you really fill these blanks, and make the remarks of the different people in character, is a very good entertainment,--what we called very good fun when you and I were at school,--and helps along the hours of your watching or of your travel greatly.

Second, as I said, there is reading. Now I have already gone into some detail in this matter. But under the head of solitude, this is to be added, that one is often alone, when he can read. And books, of course, are such a luxury. But do you know that if you expect to be alone, you had better take with you only books enough, and not too many? It is an "embarrassment of riches," sometimes, to find yourself with too many books. You are tempted to lay down one and take up another; you are tempted to skip and skim too much, so that you really get the good of none of them.

There is no time so good as the forced stopping-places of travel for reading up the hard, heavy reading which must be done, but which nobody wants to do. Here, for two years, I have been trying to make you read Gibbon, and you would not touch it at home. But if I had you in the mission-house at Mackinaw, waiting for days for a steamboat, and you had finished "Blood and Thunder," and "Sighs and Tears," and then found a copy of Gibbon in the house, I think you would go through half of it, at least, before the steamer came.

Walter Savage Landor used to keep five books, and only five, by him, I have heard it said. When he had finished one of these, and finished it completely, he gave it away, and bought another. I do not recommend that, but I do recommend the principle of thorough reading on which it is founded. Do not be fiddling over too many books at one time.

Third, "But, my dear Mr. Hale, I get so tired, sometimes, of reading." Of course you do. Who does not? I never knew anybody who did not tire of reading sooner or later. But you are alone, as we suppose. Then be all ready to write. Take care that your inkstand is filled as regularly as the wash-pitcher on your washstand. Take care that there are pens and blotting-paper, and everything that you need. These should be looked to every day, with the same care with which every other arrangement of your room is made. When I come to make you that long-promised visit, and say to you, before my trunk is open, "I want to write a note, Blanche," be all ready at the instant. Do not have to put a little water into the inkstand, and to run down to papa's office for some blotting-paper, and get the key to mamma's desk for some paper. Be ready to write for your life, at any moment, as Walter, there, is ready to ride for his.

"Dear me! Mr. Hale, I hate to write. What shall I say?"

Do not say what Mr. Hale has told you, whatever else you do. Say what you yourself may want to see hereafter. The chances are very small that anybody else, save some dear friend, will want to see what you write.

But, of course, your journal, and especially your letters, are matters always new, for which the day itself gives plenty of subjects, and these two are an admirable regular resort when you are alone.

As to drawing, no one can have a better drawing-teacher than himself. Remember that. And whoever can learn to write can learn to draw. Of all the boys who have ever entered at the Worcester Technical School, it has proved that all could draw, and I think the same is true at West Point. Keep your drawings, not to show to other people, but to show yourself whether you are improving. And thank me, ten years hence, that I advised you to do so.

You do not expect me to go into detail as to the method in which you can teach yourself. This is, however, sure. If you will determine to learn to see things truly, you will begin to draw them truly. It is, for instance, almost never that the wheel of a carriage really is round to your eye. It is round to your thought. But unless your eye is exactly opposite the hub of the wheel in the line of the axle, the wheel does not make a circle on the retina of your eye, and ought not to be represented by a circle in your drawing. To draw well, the first resolution and the first duty is to see well. Second, do not suppose that mere technical method has much to do with real success. Soft pencil rather than hard; sepia rather than India ink. It is pure truth that tells in drawing, and that is what you can gain. Take perfectly simple objects, at a little distance, to begin with. Yes, the gate-posts at the garden gate are as good as anything. Draw the outline as accurately as you can, but remember there is no outline in nature, and that the outline in drawing is simply conventional; represent--which means present again, or re-present--the shadows as well as you can. Notice is the shadow under the cap of the post deeper than that of the side. Then let it be re-presented so on your paper. Do this honestly, as well as you can. Keep it to compare with what you do next week or next month. And if you have a chance to see a good draughtsman work, quietly watch him, and remember. Do not hurry, nor try hard things at the beginning. Above all, do not begin with large landscapes.

As for singing, there is nothing that so lights up a whole house as the strain, through the open windows, of some one who is singing alone. We feel sure, then, that there is at least one person in that house who is well and is happy.

Edward Everett Hale

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