Imatges de pÓgina
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

calmness as if they belonged to a previous century; not at all deceived, I think, by the temporary notoriety and power which frequently attend the political bustler, quite positive, indeed, that many of our "great men were far inferior to multitudes in private life. Webster he respected greatly, and used to regret that his fortune was not commensurate with his tastes. Like a true poet, he believed devoutly in native genius, considered it something inimitable and incommunicable, and worshipped it whereever he found it.

Percival was indifferent and even disinclined to female society. There is a common story that he had conceived an aversion to the whole sex in consequence of a youthful disappointment in love. I know nothing concerning this alleged chagrin, but I am confident that he cherished no such antipathy. He never, in my hearing, said a hard thing of any woman, or of the sex; and I remember distinctly the flattering and even poetic appreciation with which he spoke of individual ladies. Of one who has since become a distinguished authoress of the South, he said, that "her conversation had as great an intellectual charm for him as that of any scholar among his male acquaintances." Of a lady still resident in New Haven, he observed, that "there was a mysterious beauty in her thoughtful face and dark eyes which reminded him of a deep and limpid forestfountain." But although he did not hate women, he certainly was disinclined to their society, an oddity, I beg leave to say, in any man, and a most surprising eccentricity in a poet. Constitutional timidity may have founded this habit during youth; for, as I have already observed, his modesty was sensitive and almost morbid. Then came his multitudinous studies, which absorbed him utterly, and in which, unfortunately for Percival, if not for the ladies, these last took so little interest that conversation was not mutually desirable. A remark he made to a scientific friend, who had just been married, will, perhaps, throw some

light on the subject. "How is this?" said he; "I thought you were wedded to science." This was all the felicitation he had to offer; and without asking for the bride, he plunged into the discussion which was the object of the visit.

In 1835 commenced the geological survey of Connecticut, and I became Percival's companion in labor. To him was intrusted the geology proper, and to myself the mineralogy and its economical applications. During the first season, we prosecuted our investigations together, travelling in a one-horse wagon, which carried all our necessary implements, and visiting, before the campaign ended, every parish in the State. Great was the wonder our strange outfit and occupation excited in some rustic neighborhoods; and very often were we called upon to enlighten the popular mind with regard to our object and its uses. This was never a pleasant task to Percival. He did not relish long confabulations with a sovereign people somewhat ignorant of geology; and, moreover, his style of describing our business was so peculiar, that it rarely failed to transfer the curiosity to himself, and lead to tiresome delays. In New Milford, an inquisitive farmer requested us, in a somewhat ungracious manner, to give an account of ourselves. Percival replied, that we were acting under a commission from the Governor to ascertain the useful minerals of the State; whereupon our utilitarian friend immediately demanded to be informed how the citizens at large, including himself, were to be benefited by the undertaking,-putting question on question in a fashion which was most pertinacious and almost impertinent. Percival became impatient, and tried to hur ry away. "I demand the information," exclaimed the New Milfordite; "I demand it as my right. You are only servants of the people; and you are paid, in part, at least, out of my pocket." I'll tell you what we'll do," said Percival; "we can't stop, but we'll refund. Your portion of the geological tax, let me

[ocr errors]

see, it must be about two cents. We prefer handing you this to encountering a further delay." Our agricultural friend and master did not take the money, although he did the hint,-and in sulky silence withdrew from our company.

Driving through the town of Warren, we stopped a farmer to inquire the way to certain places in the vicinity. He gave us the information sought, staring at us meanwhile with a benevolently inquisitive expression, and, at last, volunteering the remark, that, if we wanted a job, we had better stop at the factory in the hollow. We thanked him for his goodness, and thought, perhaps, of Sedgewick geologizing by the road-side, and getting a charitable half-crown flung at him by a noble lady who was on her way to dine in his company at the house of a mutual acquaintance.

Let us grant here one brief parenthesis of respect and astonishment to the scientific knowledge and philological acumen of a distinguished graduate of Yale College, and member of Congress, whom we encountered on our travels. Hearing us speak of mosaic granite, a rock occurring in Woodbridge, to which we had given this name, from the checkerlike arrangement of its felspathic ingredient, he concluded that we attributed its formation to the era of Moses, and asked Percival what evidence he had for such an opinion. Small blame to him, perhaps, for the blunder, but it seemed a very droll one to geologists.

In Greenwich, the extreme southwestern town of the State, we encountered an incident to which my companion would sometimes refer with a slight degree of merriment. In general, he was no joker, no anecdotist, and had but a feeble appreciation of droll sayings or humorous matters of any kind. But in Greenwich he heard a memorable phrase. Among the tavern-loungers was a man who had evidently seen better days, and who, either for that reason or because of the large amount of rum he had swallowed, entertained a lofty opinion of himself, and discoursed de omnibus rebus

in a most consequential fashion. He soon made himself a sort of medium between ourselves and his fellow-loafers. Overhearing us say that we wished to pass the New York frontier for the sake of tracing out the strata then under examination, he proceeded with much pomposity to declare to his deeply curious auditory, that "it was his opinion that the Governor of the State should confer upon these gentlemen discretionary powers to pass the limits of Connecticut, whenever and wherever, in the prosecution of their labors, the interests of science required them so to do." After this, we rarely crossed the State line but Percival observed, "We are now taking advantage of our discretionary powers."

Of the few stories Percival told me, here is one. In one of our countryplaces, a plain, shrewd townsman fell into chance conversation with him, and entertained him with some account of a neighbor who had been seized with a mania for high Art, and had let loose his frenzy upon canvas in a deluge of oilcolors. If I mistake not, Percival was invited to inspect these productions of untaught and perhaps unteachable genius. They were vast attempts at historical scenes, in which the heads and legs of heroes were visible, but played a very secondary part in the interest, compared with a perfect tempest of drapery, which rolled in ungovernable masses, like the

clouds of a thunder-storm.

"What do you think of them?" inquired Percival.

"Well, I don't claim to be a judge of such things," replied his cicerone; “but the fact is, (and I told the painter so,) that, when I look at 'em, about the only thing I can think of is a resurrection of old clothes."

In the town of Lebanon, an incident occurred which affected us rather more seriously. Turning a corner suddenly, we came upon an old man digging up cobble-stones by the road-side and breaking them in pieces with an axe. "A brother-geologist," was our first impression. At that moment the old man

[merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small]

"Why, he has got several boxes of jewels; and I gave an advertisement in the paper."

"Whose are they?"
66 King Jerome's."
"And who is he?"

"The king of the world!" shouted the maniac, still advancing with a menacing air, and so near the wagon by this time that he might almost have hit Percival with his axe.

Without pausing to hear more about the jewels, a sudden blow to the horse barely enabled us to escape the reach of our fellow-laborer before he had time to use his axe on our own formations.

In the following year, when Percival was pursuing the survey by himself, on horseback, some of the elements of this adventure were repeated, but reversed after a very odd fashion. The late Dr. Carrington, of Farmington, who told me the tale, being ten miles from home on a professional excursion, drove up to a tavern and found himself welcomed with extraordinary emphasis by the innkeeper. The Doctor was just the person he wanted to see; the Doctor's opinion was very much needed about that strange man out there; he wished the Doctor to have a talk with him, and see whether he was crazy or not. The fellow had been there a day or two, picking up stones about the lots; and some of the boys had been sent to watch him, but could get nothing out of him. This morning he wanted to go away, and ordered his horse; but the neighbors wouldn't let it be brought up, for they said he was surely some mad chap who had taken another man's horse. Thus talking, the landlord pointed out Percival, surrounded by a group of villagers, who, quietly, and under pretence of conversation, were holding him under a sort of arrest. The

Doctor rushed into the circle, addressed his friend Percival by name, spoke of the survey, and thus satisfied the bystanders, who, guessing their mistake, dispersed silently. No open remonstrance was needed, and perhaps Percival never understood the adventure in which he thus unconsciously formed the principal char

acter.

While we were in Berlin, the native town of Percival, he related to me several incidents of his earlier life. His father was discussing some geographical question with a neighbor; and the future geologist, then a boy of seven or eight, sat by listening until the ignorance of his elders tempted him to speak. "Where did you learn that?" they asked, in astonishment. With timid reluctance, he confessed that he had been reading clandestinely Morse's large geography, of which there was a copy in a society-library kept at his father's house. The book, he added, had an indescribable attraction for him; and even at that almost infantile age he was familiar with its contents. It was this reading of Morse, perhaps, which determined his taste for those geographical studies in which he subsequently became so distinguished. With him, as with Humboldt and Guyot, geography was a term of wide signification. Far from confining it to the names and boundaries of countries, seas, and lakes, to the courses of rivers and the altitudes of mountains, he connected with it meteorology, natural history, and the leading facts of human history, ethnology, and archæology. He knew London as thoroughly as most Americans know New York or Philadelphia, and yet he had never crossed the Atlantic.

An instance of the minuteness of his geographical information was related to me by the Rev. Mr. Adam, a Scottish clergyman, long resident at Benares, but subsequently settled over the Congregational Church in Amherst, Massachusetts. On his way to visit me at New Haven, he met in the stage-coach a countryman of his, who soon opened a controversy with him respecting the course of a cer

tain river in Scotland. The discussion had continued for some time, when another passenger offered a suggestion which opened the eyes of the debaters to the fact (not unfrequently the case in such controversies) that they were both wrong.

[ocr errors]

How long since you were there, Sir?" they asked; and the reply was, "I never was in Scotland.” “Who are you, Sir?' Mr. Adam wanted to ask, but kept the question until he could put it to me. I did not feel much hesitation in telling him that the stranger must have been Percival; and Percival it was, as I afterwards learned by questioning him of the circumstance.

But we must return to Berlin, in order to hear one more of Percival's stories. Passing a field, half a mile from his early home, he told an incident connected with it, and related to his favorite study of natural history. The field had belonged to his father, who, besides being the physician of Berlin, indulged a taste for agriculture. Just before the harvest season, it became palpable that this field, then waving with wheat, was depredated upon to a wasteful extent by some unknown subjects of the animal kingdom. Having watched for the pilferers in vain by day, the proprietor resolved to mount guard by night, and accordingly ambushed himself in the invaded territory. Near midnight, he saw his own flock of geese, hitherto considered so trustworthy, approach silently in single file, make their entry between the rails, and commence transferring the wheat-crop into their own crops, after a ravenous fashion. Having eaten their fill, they re-formed their column of march, with a venerable gander at the head, and trudged silently homeward, cautiously followed by their owner, who noticed, that, on regaining his door-yard, they set up a vociferous cackle, such as he had repeatedly heard from them before at about the same hour. It was a most evident attempt to establish an alibi; it was as much as to say, "If you miss any wheat, we didn't take it; we are honest birds, and stay at home o'

[blocks in formation]

nights, Dr. Percival." The next morning, however, a general decapitation overtook the flock of feathered hypocrites. "It was a curious instance of the domestic goose reverting to its wild habit of nocturnal feeding," remarked my narrator, dwelling characteristically upon the natural-history aspect of the fact.

Percival was almost incapable of an irrelevancy. The survey was the business in hand, and he rarely discoursed much of things disconnected with it, except, perhaps, when we were retracing our routes, or when the labors of the day were over. Of poets and poetry he was not inclined to speak. I never heard him quote a line, either his own or another's, nor indulge in a single poetic observation concerning the objects which met us in our wanderings. Indeed, he confessed that he no longer felt disposed to write verses, being satisfied that his productions were not acceptable to the prevailing taste; although he admitted that he composed a few stanzas occasionally, in order to make trial of some unusual measure or new language. He told me that he had versified in thirteen languages; and I have heard from others that he had imitated all the Greek and German metres.

Of politics, foreign and domestic, he talked frequently, but always philosophically and dispassionately, much as if he were speaking of geological stratification. His views of humanity were deduced from a most extensive survey of the race in all its historical and geographical relations. He distinctly recognized the fact of its steady advance from one stage to another, in accordance with a plan of intellectually organic development, as marked as that detected by the geologist in the gradual preparation of the earth for the abode of our species. The slowness and seeming vacillation of man's upward movement could not stagger his faith; for if it had taken thousands of ages to make earth habitable, why should it not take thousands more to bring man to his completeness? Equally free was he from misgiving on account of the re

maining presence of so much misery and wretchedness; for these he considered as the indispensable stimuli to progress. Even war, he used to say, is sometimes necessary to the welfare of nations, as sickness and sorrow plainly are to that of individuals; although, to his moral sense, the human authors of this scourge were no more admirable than the devisers of any private calamity. Improvements in knowledge he regarded as the only elements of real progress; and these he looked upon as true germinal principles, bound up organically in the constitution of the human soul. Indeed, that philosophical calmness which was characteristic of him seemed to flow in some measure from his settled persuasion that the same matchless wisdom and benevolence he recognized throughout Nature wrought with a still higher providence and a more earnest love for man and would make all things finally conduce to his welfare. It was clear that he drew a profound tranquillity from the thought that he was a part of the vast and harmonious whole.

Concerning his religious views he was exceedingly taciturn. He had no taste for metaphysical or theological discussions, although his library contained a large number of standard works on these subjects. Religion itself he never alluded to but with the deepest respect. Talking to me of Christianity, he quoted the observation of Goethe, that "it had brought into the world a light never to be extinguished." He spoke of Jesus with poetic, if not with Christian fervor. He contrasted his teachings and deeds with the prevailing maxims and practice of the people among whom he appeared, with the dead orthodoxy of its religious teachers, and with the general ignorance and hypocrisy of the masses. "Had I lived in such a state of society," he said, "I am certain that it would have driven me mad."

He expressed an earnest esteem for the doctrines of the Evangelical clergy, and even approved, though more moderately, the religious awakenings which oc

[blocks in formation]

He attended church but once with me while we were engaged in the survey. We heard a discourse from a Rev. Dr. E—, upon the conduct of the young ruler who inquired his duty of Christ. The speaker argued from the sacred narrative a universal obligation to devote our possessions to religious purposes, and upheld, as an example to all men, the seli-devotion of a young missionary (then somewhat known) who had despised a splendid fortune, offered him on condition of his remaining at home, and had consecrated himself to the Christianization of Africa.

"How did you like the sermon ?" I inquired of Percival.

"I consider it an animating and probably useful performance," he replied; "but it does not accord with comprehensive conceptions of humanity, inasmuch as its main inference was drawn from the exception, and not from the rule. There always have been, and probably always will be, men possessed of the self-immolating or martyr spirit. Such instances are undoubtedly useful, and have my admiration; but they cannot become general, and never were meant to be."

During the survey, we were invited to pass an evening in a family remarkable for its musical talent, and I remem

« AnteriorContinua »