Three Villages/1 Lexington
THE Bostonian spring being more than usually embittered against mankind the year 1882, we left our quarters in town very early, and went to pass the month of May in the pretty and historic village of Lexington. It lies ten or twelve miles inland; it is not only a little beyond the worst of the east wind, but is just a little too far from Boston to be strictly suburban in aspect; and thanks chiefly to an absence of water-power (a clear brown brook, that you may anywhere jump across, idles through the pastures unmolested by a mill-wheel), Lexington has not yet been overtaken by the unpicturesque prosperity which has befallen so many New England villages. It has no manufactures of any sort, neither shoes nor cotton, nor boxes, nor barrels, nor watches, nor furniture; it is still a farming-town, such as you find in the Massachusetts or New Hampshire hills, and is not yet a market-gardening town like those which lie nearer the city. The ancestral meadows are still mown by the great-great-grandchildren of those who cleared them of the primeval forest, and who, having begun to build into fences and bury in the earth the granite bowlders plentifully bestrewing its surface, invented rather than discovered their reluctant fertility. In many parts of New England the Western jokes about sharpening the sheep's noses for their greater convenience in getting at the herbage between the rocks, and about firing the seed-corn into the ground with a shot-gun, do not seem so grotesquely imaginative. More than once at nightfall, as I drove along country roads, the flocks and herds, lying under the orchard trees, have turned on nearer inspection to companies of bowlders; in the hill towns I have seen stone walls six feet wide, titanic barriers thrown up in the farmer's despair of otherwise getting rid of the stones scattered over his fields; and these gifts of the glacial period are often interred by the cord in pits dug for the purpose. It is said that the soil thus twice conquered from the wilderness is very rich and strong, and Lexington was by no means so barren originally as some other towns; but its fertility must once have been greater than it now is, or else people must once have been satisfied with less fertility to the acre than contents them at present, for I could not see any agricultural reason why Lexington should first have been known as Cambridge Farms. Doubtless the name did not imply that it was the fittest part of the township for farming; Beverly Farms and Salem Farms and Cambridge Farms must have all been so called because they were hamlets remote from the principal village. At any rate Lexington once formed part of our university town, but was set off long before the revolutionary days in which it achieved a separate celebrity.
In New England the “town” is the township, and there are some “towns” in which there is no village at all; but at Lexington there was early a little grouping of houses; and for two hundred and fifty years the local feeling has been growing more and more intense, until it can be said at last to be now somewhat larger than the place. This is not an uncommon result; as Dr. Holmes has remarked, American cities and villages all like to think of themselves as the “good old” this and that; but at Lexington more than anywhere else out of Italy I felt that the village was to its people the patria. With us the great Republic is repeated and multiplied in several smaller and diminishing republican governments, each subordinate to the larger, all over the land; and ever since its separation from Cambridge, Lexington has, like other New England towns, had its little autonomy. Twice a year the citizens convene and legislate in town meetings; and three Selectmen annually chosen see that the popular will is carried out and transact the whole business of the town government. This microcosm of democracy is the more interesting in Lexington because it is in many things an image of what the New England town was a hundred years ago, — a sufficiently remote antiquity with us. The Irish have their foothold there as everywhere; but they have not acquired much land; and though they remain faithful Catholics, they have Americanized in such degree that it is hard to know some of them from ourselves in their slouching and nasal speech. As for the Canadian French, who abound in the valley of the Connecticut, and in all the factory towns, I saw none of them in Lexington, and there are no Germans.
It is because of the typically New England character of Lexington village, as well as its historical note, that I ask English readers to be interested in it; and as we Americans are some times grieved by our cousins' imperfect recollection of family troubles, I make haste to remind them that at Lexington the first blood was shed in the war of American Independence. It has a powerful hold upon the American imagination for this reason; it has therefore overloaded the gazetteer with namesakes in every part of the Union, and its celebrity is chief part of the first historical knowledge imparted to American school-boys. But the village has such a charm for me from its actual loveliness and quaintness, that I should be sorry to bring that bloody spectre of the past into the foreground of any picture, and I shall blink it as long as I can.
It was a shrewish afternoon late in April when we arrived from Boston at the odd but very pleasant hotel where we spent our month of May. The season was very dry, and the bare landscape showed scarce a sign of spring. At that time there is usually a half-scared, experimental-looking verdure on our winter-beaten fields; but except where a forlorn hope of grass cowered in some damp hollow, the meadows were now as brown and haggard in aspect as they are when the great snows leave them in mid-March, and they lie gaunt and wasted under a high, vast blue sky, full of an ironical glitter of sunshine. The wind was sharp, and for many weary weeks yet there would be no buds on the elms that creaked overhead along the village street.
Further north, in Maine and Canada, the spring comes with a bound after the thaw; but the region of Boston seems to me the battle-ground of all the seasons when the spring is nominally in possession. On the 18th of May this year we had a soft, sunny morning, which clouded under an east wind; a cold rain set in before noon, with hail; it snowed the greater part of the after noon, and we had an Italian sunset to the singing of the robins. This was excessive; but usually after the first relenting days the winter returns, and whips the fields with sleet and snow, storm after storm; and this martyrdom follows upon a succession of frosts and thaws, which began before Thanksgiving in November. Finally the east wind comes in, fretting the nerves and chilling the marrow, throughout April and May; even when it does not blow it remains in the air, a sentiment of icebergs and freezing sea. It is worst, of course, on the shore, and delicate people who cannot live in it there are sent to Lexington, and thrive. The air is very dry and pure, and that is perhaps the reason why even the east wind is tolerable. Lexington Common, they say, is as high as the top of Bunker Hill Monument in Boston; and the locomotive pants with difficulty up the heavy grade of the road near the village. Perhaps there is something in the grouping of the low hills — in the embrace of which the village lies on an ample plain — that gives it peculiar shelter; it is certain that beyond the eastern range there is practically another climate. This is not saying that the winter is not long and dreary there; the snows lie deep in the hollows of those hills for months, and clog the long street on which the village houses are chiefly set.
Streets branch off from this thoroughfare to the right and left; but it is the newer houses which are built on these, and the more characteristic dwellings, as well as the old-fashioned shops, face the westward road along which Major Pitcairne's red-coats marched in the early April morning a hundred years ago to destroy the Provincial stores at Concord. Here and there before you reach the village is a large old mansion rambling with successive outhouses a hundred feet back from the road or beside it, all the buildings under one roof, and having a comfortable unity and snugness; but the dwellings in the village are small and very simple, generally of but two stories, and placed each in its separate little plot of ground. Where they pretend to the dignity of mansions, they stand
“Somewhat back from the village street,”
like the old-fashioned country-seat in Longfellow's poem, and have stately elms and burly maples about them; but they are mostly set close upon the road, as seems to have been everywhere the early custom in New England. They are all of wood, — there are but two brick buildings in Lexington, — and here and there one is still painted saffron, with Paris-green shutters and white window casings, — the color of Longfellow's house and the other colonial houses in Cambridge. When the paint is not too freshly renewed, they have a suggestion of antiquity which is pleasing and satisfactory in so new a world as ours. There is no attempt at ornamentation in these unassuming houses at Lexington; that is left to the later carpentry which has produced on the intersecting streets various examples, in one story and a half, of the mansard architecture so popular in our wood-built suburbs. There is also at one point of the principal street a wooden “block,” in emulation of the conventional American city block of brick or stone; but otherwise Lexington has escaped the ravages alike of “tasliness” and of enterprise, and is as plain and sober a little town as it was fifty years ago. There are old-fashioned shops in rows, quite different from the “block,” with wooden awnings to shelter their doorways, and with well-gnawed rails and horse-posts before them there is an old tavern dating from the days when all the transportation was by stage and wagon along the good hard roads; there are several churches of a decent and wholesome ugliness; and there are everywhere trees and grass and vines and flowers. The village is conscientiously clean; but except in midsummer the English reader must imagine a bareness impossible in an English hamlet. We have no evergreen vines; the spruces and firs which we plant about our houses only emphasize the nakedness of all the other trees in winter; in the clear, cold air the landscape is as blank and open as a good conscience. The village, when the leaves fall, will be honestly of whatever color it is painted, and its outlines will be as destitute of “atmosphere” as if they were in the moon. There is no soft discoloration of decay in roof or wall; at the best you will have a weather-beaten gray.
Lexington has a High-School house of wood upon the model of a Grecian temple; but the principal public building is the Town Hall, a shapely structure of brick, which has been put up within the last five or six years, and which unites under one roof a hall for town meetings, elections, and all sorts of civic, social, and artistic entertainments, the town offices, and the free town library. The number of books is uncommonly large and exceedingly well chosen, and the collection is the gift of a lady of the place. The library is named after her, but it is piously dedicated in an inscription over the door to the men of Lexington who fell in the first battle with the British in 1775, and in the many fields of our late civil war. Statues of John Hancock and Sam Adams, the patriots who had fled from arrest in Boston, and were in hiding at Lexington the night before the affair of 1775, occupy niches in the rotunda from which the library opens, and confront figures of a provincial Minute-Man and of a national volunteer beside the door. Three days in the week the library is open from one till nine o'clock, and then there is a continual coining and going of the villagers on foot, and the neighboring farmer-folks in buggies and carryalls. I noticed that these frequenters of the library, who thronged the reading-room, and kept the young lady at the desk incessantly busy recording the books they borrowed and returned, were mostly young people and mostly women. The women, in fact, are the miscellaneous readers in our country; they make or leave unmade most literary reputations; and I believe that it is usually by their advice when their work-worn fathers and husbands turn from their newspapers to the doubtful pleasure of a book. This is the case alike in city and country as regards lighter literature; and in small towns these devourers of novels and travels and magazines read so close to the bone, that sometimes being brought personally to book for my intentions in this or that passage, I have preferred to adopt their own interpretations; and when this copy of “Longman's Magazine” is laid upon the table of the town library at Lexington, I am aware that I shall not be safe from my readers in any tortuous subtlety of phrase, but that they will search me out to the finest meaning of my commas, and the last insinuation of my semicolons. But I have a good conscience and I am not afraid.
Some friends, who compassionated the extremity of an author with an unfinished novel on his hands in the penetrating disquiet of a country hotel, lent me the keys to the Town Hall, and I had the library to myself on the days when it was not open to the public, and wrote there every morning amid the books, and the memorials of Lexington's great day, and every sort of colonial bric-a-brac. On one side of the door was the gun carried by a Provincial (whose name I read whenever I lifted my eyes from my work, and now marvel that I should have forgotten) during the fight, and which being “brought back from Concord busted,” was thriftily sawed off just short of the fracture and afterwards used by his descendants; on the other side was a musket taken from the body of a British soldier who fell in the retreat; the sign of the old Monroe Tavern, where Earl Percy made his headquarters when he came out to support Major Pitcairne's men, swung from the ceiling near these trophies; in glass cases on my right were collections of smaller relics, including shot from Percy's cannon, the tongue of the bell that called the villagers from their slumbers the night before the attack; the pistols, richly chased and mounted, from which Pitcairne fired the first bullet in the war that made us two peoples; the hanger worn by the sexton when he went to light the signal lantern for Paul Revere in the belfry of the Old North Church in Boston, and sent him galloping out on his midnight ride through the sleeping land with the news that the King's troops had begun their march on Concord; the broadside issued in the British interest, giving an account of the day's fight with divers shoe-buckles, rings, knives, platters, and profiles cut out of black paper, belonging to the colonial period. No motive of patriotism shall induce me to represent these collections as very rich, or in themselves very interesting, and I am aware that I cannot give them great adventitious importance by grouping them with the rude writing-desk of one of the old Puritan ministers of Lexington, or the foot-stove which one of his congregation probably carried to meeting and warmed his poor feet with while he thawed his imagination at the penal fires painted as the last end of sinners in the sermon; the sincere home-made lantern of a later date, and the spinning-wheel of an uncertain epoch do not commend themselves to me as much more hopeful material for an effective picture. But all the more pathetic from their paucity did I find these few and simple records of the hard, laborious past of the little town, which flowered after a century's toil and privation into an hour of supreme heroism. For whatever may be the several minds of my readers and myself concerning their right, there can be no question between us that it was sublime for forty unwarlike farmers to stand up and take the fire of six hundred disciplined troops in defence of what they believed their right: it was English to do that, it was American, and these plain martyr-folk were both. I own that I sympathized with the piety that has treasured every relic connected, however remotely, with that time; and that I took an increasing pleasure in showing off the trophies to such comers as tried the library door when nobody had any right there but myself. I was quite master to let them in or not, but I always opened, and waited for them to overcome their polite reluctance to disturb me at my writing. Their questions succeeded upon a proper interval of fidgeting and whispering, and then I confirmed orally all the written statements of the placards on the objects, and found my account in listening to the laudable endeavors of my visitors to connect their family history somehow with them. They were people of all ages and conditions; but they all had these facts by heart, and were proud of them, though with a pride unqualified by any foolish rancor. Most of all they were interested in the portrait of a young and handsome British officer in the uniform of the last century, whose sensitive face looks down from the library wall upon the records of the fight; and when I said that this was a portrait of Earl Percy, who commanded the British artillery, and explained (as I am afraid I have not the right to explain fully here) how it came to be given to a gentleman of Lexington by the present Duke of Northumberland, I elicited nothing but praises of the Earl's good looks or expressions of satisfaction that his portrait should be there. No one apparently regarded him as out of sympathy with themselves, and I believe indeed that this generous foe acted only as a soldier on that day, and thought the measures used against the Provincials neither wise nor just. One small boy dwelt upon the portrait with delays that passed even the patriotic patience of the cicerone, and left it at last with a sigh of gratified wonder. “And he was a Britisher !” I give his language because, contrary to the experience of English observers among us, I never heard any other American say Britisher; and this small boy was unmistakably of Irish parentage.
The hotel in which we stayed had a characteristically American history, though it could not relate itself in any way to the revolutionary fame of Lexington, as I fancied most buildings in Lexington would have liked to do. It was the house put up by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the use of its officers and agents at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, in Philadelphia. When the exhibition ended, the house was sold to a citizen of Lexington, who took it down piecemeal, and brought it round by ship to Boston, whence it was forwarded by rail to Lexington, and reconstructed there. This was a simpler and easier process than first appears, for the edifice was what we call a shell; it was not plastered, and the several portions being marked and numbered were easily put together again. I believe that as a speculation the removal and rebuilding did not pay; but when the house was rendered winter-proof, and heated with steam, it became at once the most picturesque and delightful country hotel. Outwardly it abounded in porches, in broken roofs and gables, and inwardly it was huge and rambling, with unexpected staircases and passages, and chambers of all manner of shapes and sizes, lit with transoms of colored glass; but its most charming feature was the vast hall, running the whole length of the building and occupying the greater part of the ground floor. You entered this from the street, and wandered about in it at will till some one in authority accidentally discovered you there, and having directed you to the hotel register lying open on the piano, assigned you a room; so vague and slight in everything was the conformity to ordinary hotel usage in that pleasant house. It was like arriving at some enchanted castle; or, if it were not, so much the worse for the enchanted castle. Enchanted castles, or even those of another sort, had not a railroad, as our hotel had, at their postern gate, — a railroad that was on domestic and almost affectionate terms with us all. When the trains came scuffling and wheezing up the incline from Boston, the sound was as if the friendly locomotive were mounting the back stairs, and might be expected to walk in without ceremony, and sit down at the fire like any other boarder. We could see the trains backing and filling at the station as we sat at breakfast, and such of us as were going to town could time ourselves to the last half-minute, and count upon some sympathetic delay when we were late. Saturday evening, the trains all drew in with the air of having done an honest week's work, and the engines having run their empty cars up the siding, found their way to the locomotive house at their leisure, as if they were going to wash up there for Sunday, while a Sabbath peace settled with the nightfall upon the village.
I dare say I shall not be able, in this much-served England, to make it plain that our Lexington hotel was charming almost in proportion to the wide freedom granted every comer of taking care of himself; yet it was largely on account of this rather slipshod ease that it was so pleasant In the end one was very comfortable: the beds were good, the rooms were clean, the table was plentiful; you had what you wanted if you would take the trouble to get it, and much more than half the time it was got for you. Moreover, you were brevetted partner in the enterprise with a hearty good-will that could not have been bought for money, and with so much amiability, and so much real regard for your welfare, that you must have been a very extraordinary American indeed if you did not willingly accept the situation as you found it. A fire was burning all the month of May in the prodigious fireplace midway of the hall at our hotel; and if neither host nor servitor came after a reasonable time to receive the stranger, some hospitable boarder rose from the circle about the hearth, and welcomed him to one of the great Shaker rocking-chairs before the fire, while he went in search of the housekeeper or hostler. The fireplace would take in a back-log big enough to smoulder and inwardly burn for days, and it had a stomach for the largest stumps from the neighboring fields, which it devoured together with all blocks and fragments too tough for the axe and wedge. Sometimes, as the landlord remarked, there was more wood than fire; but ordinarily a roaring blaze was not wanting, and with this, and the elk's head and antlers on the chimney-piece, the armor (brought home by one of the boarders from some joust with a bric-a-brac dealer abroad) on the opposite wall, and all the rude gothic of the architecture, which showed the beams and rafters as in a Venetian palace, we had very little difficulty in feeling baronial. It was probably a mistaken emotion; and I am not prepared to defend its genuineness against all comers. The ladies used to bring out their sewing or knitting, and chat round the fire; the men had their newspapers and cigars; as the evening wore on there was whist or euchre at the tables; sometimes people from the outside world dropped in; and if you went down late (as hours go with us in the country), you were likely to find the landlord and his brother smoking before the fire and telling stories of Lexington as they remembered it when boys. They were born on that spot, their family had owned the land for two hundred years, and they loved their native place with a tenderness very uncommon among Americans. I remember from those drowsy hours many stories, as of the frenzy of a family cat amidst the pyrotechnic rejoicings of a Fourth of July, and the unseemly behavior of a Lexington man's horse, who brought his owner to shame before a Boston audience by backing down stairs into a huckster's cellar in Dock Square; but I am withheld from repeating them here by that English scrupulosity regarding the facts of private life which I am naturally anxious to emulate in writing for an English magazine. I do not know whether I am bound by the same extreme of civilization not to speak of the old lantern which the landlord sometimes showed to guests of a very exacting patriotism as the very lantern which Paul Revere carried on his midnight ride from Boston to Concord. They found nothing odd in the suggestion that he should have carried a lantern, and no hesitation in receiving the relic as historical.
The hall was the boarders' drawing-room when they were alone; and it was only when a sleighing party drove out from Boston in the winter, or a bicycling party arrived in the spring, that they reluctantly abandoned it to the dancing, and to the anguish of the piano which must ensue with or without the dancing. Here by day as well as by night there was easy loitering and talking amongst us, as if we were all guests in the house, — as in fact we practically were; and here on one of those white, white Sunday mornings, when the humid warmth bursts from the suddenly open portals of the South, and under a sky all sun, every bud breaks into blossom with a bee in its heart, and the whole air quavers and tinkles with the notes of bluebirds and orioles, our languor was thrilled with the horror of the murder of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Mr. Burke in Dublin. The crime was then but a few hours old, and it seemed to stain that exquisite Sabbath purity with blood. I think that throughout America we all felt it personally as we did Garfield's death, and that whether we hoped or whether we doubted for Ireland, we were alike dismayed at the cruel stupidity of the deed. The feeling of the hour comes back to me again in vivid association with the sensuous memory of that peculiarly American weather, of which I should perhaps try in vain to give a definite impression. It comes after long days of chilly drought, when the dust flies in the bitter east; overnight the wind changes, a warm rain falls, which dries in the first hours of the sun climbing a lofty sky, absolutely with out cloud, of more than Italian blueness, and of such continental vastness as roofed the first home of our race on Asiatic plains. In such a day there is compensation for all that has gone before; the grass is thickly and brightly green; the cherry-trees and pear-trees whiten the world; the air is sweet with delicate scents, it palpitates with song. To-morrow may be like yesterday, but to-day is heavenly perfect.
We were still the same company in our hotel, when one day our evening paper brought us, fully reprinted, Mr. Matthew Arnold's recent “Word about America.” It was a not wholly flattering word, but I do not think it could have been more amiably received if it had been so. The good-will of the writer was so evident that we all said it would not do to be vexed that he seemed not very well informed; the Americans are in fact so used to having their ribs walked over by foreigners in the heaviest boots of travel, that this slippered and rhythmic pace was like a sort of Hawaiian lomi-lomi to our toughened sensibilities; it tickled, it lulled us, it was almost a caress. The editor of our paper had warned us not to reject what truth there was in Mr. Arnold's “Word,” and we set ourselves dutifully to seek it. We could not quite maintain with our compatriot, whose declaration seemed to have evoked the Word, that there was in every little American town a circle of cultivated people; at the most we could assert that there was a circle of people who wished they were cultivated, and cordially and modestly and intelligently appreciated cultivation; but at the bottom of our hearts we were aware of not being Murdstones, or even in an ill sense Methodists. This conception of us appeared to us lamentably mistaken; we could not so readily have proved that we were not in a low condition from the national tendency to irreverent humor; we have certainly a bad habit of laughing at serious things, even our critics; but at the same time we could not see how we could be so generally wanting in sweetness and light, and yet be so often Mr. Arnold's readers and admirers. Given English middle-class Puritanism, we ought logically to have been what he imagines us; the camel could not complain that it had not been scientifically evolved from the philosopher's consciousness; and yet it felt itself, in its dumb helplessness, to be quite a different sort of beast. I suppose this must be always somewhat the case; and heaven knows how the ancient Greeks and Hebrews like Mr. Arnold's notions of them. I have myself attempted to say things of the English which have not been found just by the few English people who read them, and in fact I suppose it would be better to let the writers of each nation aggrieve their own. I shall not, therefore, presume to say that Mr. Arnold is right about the English middle class; but if we are like what he conceives of them, I should say yes, we are perhaps the English middle class, but with the lid off. This appears to me an advantage.
At any rate this was the sum of the talk over Mr. Arnold's paper among the boarders of the Massachusetts House in Lexington. It was a purely fortuitous assemblage of people, such as one is apt to encounter at summer hotels in New England. They were of various complexions as regarded creeds and callings; but neither their creeds nor callings appeared to characterize them; they kept their individualities free and apart from the accidents of business and belief, in a way that I own I should be somewhat at a loss to explain. There were Unitarians, Episcopalians, Swedenborgians, Orthodox Congregationalists, and, for all I know, Baptists among them, but I think no Methodists; and of that numerous and respectable sect there happens to be no congregation in Lexington. There is a Unitarian church, which was formerly the prevailing faith; the Orthodox church is earnest and growing; there is a large Irish Catholic church; but the greatest advance has been made by the Baptists, under the ministrations of a lay preacher, formerly a colonel in the Union army, who has lately reconstituted that body out of very perishing fragments, and made it strong and flourishing. I heard it said that he had done this by rendering the church “attractive to young people.” There is very little religious excitement of any sort in New England, now; the church in small places becomes more and more a social affair; and perhaps it was chiefly in the social way that the Baptist body was rehabilitated in Lexington.
It was our good fortune to be there on Decoration Day, the anniversary when all over the country the Americans of both sections decorate with flags and flowers the graves of those who fell in the Civil War, and the soldiers who have since died. In the cities the day is celebrated with civic pomp, with parades of militia and steam fire-engines; but in the villages its observance is an act of religion, of domestic piety; and it is touching, after the day is past, to see the garlands withering in the lonely country graveyards, and the little flags feebly fluttering about the graves till the weather quite wears them away. Every year the graves increase in number and the soldiers are fewer and fewer who come to lay the flowers on them; and it is in the country that this waste of life is most sorrow fully noticeable. At Lexington, two new graves had been added to those of the year before, and of the young men who went to the war from the town only a score of middle-aging veterans remained. These facts were touched upon in the address with which the ceremonies of the day were closed in the Town Hall at night, and the sad and glorious associations of the past were invoked by a speaker who had himself been part of those great events. He was now the Unitarian minister of the village, and he had been preceded in prayer by the Orthodox Congregational minister; the gentleman, by the way, through whom the Duke of Northumberland presented Lord Percy's portrait to the town. There was excellent singing by a choir of men's voices; and for the rest there was very earnest attention on the part of the people who filled the hall to overflowing. The audience was not of unmixed Yankee race; the Irish quarter of Lexington was duly represented, but all were one in a sense of the gravity of the occasion, and the whole assembly was subdued, old and young alike, to a Puritanic seriousness of demeanor. It is sometimes a little amusing to find how aptly the Irish settled in the rural communities of New England take on the prevailing type of manners; they are perhaps, with the Celtic conception of democracy, that “one man is as good as another and a dale better too,” a little more American in some things than the natives themselves; but it appears to be their ambition to conform as closely as possible to our social ideal. The imitation is by no means superficial; they are industrious and thrifty, and except that they unfailingly vote for whatever is illiberal and retrograde in politics, they are not bad citizens in such communities, whatever they are in the larger towns. I was not near enough to the veterans occupying the front benches to see how many were of Irish birth; but it is known how well they served in the army; and I dare say no one present took greater satisfaction in the expressions relating the second war for freedom to the part Lexington had borne in the struggle against England. The Revolution was remembered in the special decoration of the statues of Adams and Hancock and the Minute-Man with wreaths of hemlock and pine, which, in a season that denied the usual profusion of flowers, did duty for them throughout the day.
One night we had a concert in the Town Hall, which was so curiously American as regards the artists that I wish I could give a thoroughly intelligible idea of the affair. They were all of one family, — father, mother, and nine children between nineteen and five years old, — two children younger still being left at home out of regard to their tender age. They were from utmost Oregon, and they had gone about the whole country, singing and playing, apparently ever since any of the children could walk. They had visited the White House in Washington, and had been very acceptable everywhere to Sunday schools and scrupulous pleasure-seekers because of the edifying character of their entertainments, which were certainly exemplary from the moral side. I cannot say much as to the artistic quality of their programme; it commended itself by dealing with those themes of domestic and obituary interest in which our balladry delights; it was varied with a very little very modest dancing, and sketches of infantine drama; but they were nevertheless gifted people, and while they conformed to the popular taste in their performances, they were all working hard at the science of their profession under a German master. They stopped at our hotel, and we had the advantage of seeing them in private as well as in public, and of witnessing the triumph of the family among them over the temptations of their difficult and hazardous experiment; the young people were quiet and well-mannered; the little ones far less spoiled than might have been expected of babes encored several times every night; and there was a spirit of mutual affection and of discipline manifest in them which I should like to claim as characteristic of the American family under less arduous conditions. The father talked freely of his theories for maintaining a home-life in his nomadic tribe; and the author sojourning in the hotel did not think the less of his methods when he said he had read the author's books, and introduced his children as versed in them. This author had long had his ideas of what those novels, those travels, those unsalable poems, those intheatricable dramas, rightly understood, might do for mankind, and here. . . .
I was very glad that the Lexington people gave the singing and playing family a good house, and I fancy that they do not refuse any fit occasions for amusing themselves. The young men seem not to go away from home so generally as they do from most country towns in New England; it is perhaps because their pleasant village is so near the city; at any rate they remain at home even after being graduated at Harvard. They have sleigh-rides, and dances at the Town Hall during the winter; I was told that the Lexington “germans” are not despised by the undergraduates of Cambridge; and “Oh, I tell you,” I heard it said by one of themselves, “the Lexington girls have a good time!” In the summer there are of course picnics, and of late horseback-riding has come greatly into vogue in the country all about Boston. The rigors of our winters and summers are against that pleasure, and hitherto it was almost unknown; but now, thanks largely to the importation of Texan riding-horses, it is especially prevalent at Lexington. These horses, which are small, are very strong and tough, and they look like little thoroughbreds. Like all Southern horses, they are broken to walk very rapidly, and they have in perfection that gait which in the Southwest is called a lope. When they are first brought North they sell for prices ranging from $40 to $100. Their popularity has revived the sport, almost obsolete in the North, of horse-racing at Lexington, where I once saw a race between gentlemen riders, which had apparently called out the greater part of the population. We drove through miles of the small pine forest, which, growing up all over New England on the exhausted lands, gives such an impression of wildness; and came at last to a space in the woods where a track had been newly laid out in the white birch scrub, or newly recovered from it, and where we found everything prepared for the sport in due form. The riders gave us all the gayety of jockey dress, as well as the race, for our money; the ground was thronged with carriages and buggies; there was a tally-ho coach which had been driven out from Boston; and I went about bewildered at this transformation of my poor New England, and fearfully hoping there was nothing wicked in so much apparent enjoyment with no apparent useful purpose, till I heard myself indicated in a whisper as “one of the horsemen.” Then I desperately abandoned myself to the common dissipation, for it was idle to be better than one seemed.
These Texan horses, which are not quite the mustangs of the prairies, are ridden with high-pommelled, wooden-stirruped Mexican saddles; and when a party of young people dashed by the hotel in the twilight, it was with a picturesqueness which the pig-skin of Anglo-Saxon civilization fails to impart to a man. But let me not give the impression of mere pleasure-taking on the part of these cavaliers; they were students at law or medicine, or they were young men of business recreating themselves after the close application of a day in town; by and by, when they were married, they would content themselves with their cigars and their newspapers, and leave others to ride with pretty girls in the dusk of the eyening, or chase the flying tennis-ball on the whitewashed lawn. Except perhaps at Newport, or the New York clubs, one sees few men of leisure with us, and the example of these few is not one to make the Republic pine for that leisure class which the Old World finds indispensable to its government and refinement. Women of leisure we certainly have; they distinguish and adorn us everywhere, advancing (as we understand) the standard of dress abroad, and absorbing and diffusing ideas of taste and culture at home. Wherever the pianoforte penetrates, lovely woman lifts her fingers from the needle, the broom-handle, and the washboard, and places them on its keys, never again to be restored to those odious implements; she finds that she has a mind, and she makes her husband or her father pay for it; she begins to have aims, to draw, to model, to decorate, to lecture, and to render herself self-supporting by every expensive device. This alone is enough to keep the men of her family busy, and to prevent the commonwealth from lapsing into decay; the civic virtues fall naturally to the care of the trained patriots who are “inside politics” . . .
I perceive too late that by an infrangible chain of reasoning I have been proving that we too are governed and refined by a leisure class, and that there is only the trifling difference of sex between the American and the European aristocracies. At the same time I have got rather far away from Lexington, where life seemed to be still very unambitious and old-fashioned. I wish I could say that it was cheap; but this is not the case in the suburbs of any of our Atlantic cities. House rent is certainly less, but the railroad fares and the expressman's charges go far to equalize that with the city rate; about Boston the suburban taxes are sometimes greater than the city taxes; provisions and service are a little costlier, and unless one conforms quite strictly to the local standard of simplicity, one is apt to live quite as expensively as in town. It would cost as much to live with the same ease in Lexington as in Boston; that is to say, a third more than in London. But one is not obliged to live with “ease” there, and he may live in comfort for a reasonable sum. It struck me that the place had studied convenience scientifically, and that in a modest way it was entirely sufficient to itself, with its good schools, its admirable library, its well-kept streets and roads; its sociable little line of railroad connecting it with the city by ten or twelve trains a day; its well-stocked provision stores, and its variety of other shops. There cannot be many more than a thousand people in the village, including the Irish hamlet by the railroad side; but it is lighted with gas, and they are talking of water-works. I dare say they will soon have drainage and malaria.
The village of Lexington, however, is not one of those examples of rapid growth with which we like to astonish the world. I doubt if it can be more than twice as populous as when a hundred years ago it became the scene of the brief conflict which has made it memorable. Our hotel fronted the road along which the King's troops had marched in the twilight of the morning of April 19, 1775, and on which they retreated in the afternoon. The common where the encounter with the Provincials took place was but a minute's walk away, and with the relics of the library close at hand, we dwelt, as it were, in the midst of heroic memories. One pleasant forenoon, when the May had remitted its worst rigors, and nature was making the most, with birds and sunshine, of a respite from the east wind, we strolled up to the pretty green, and leaning upon the rail that encloses it, listened to the story of the fight from one who had all but been present in his careful and enthusiastic studies of its details.
The green is an irregular triangle fronted by the village churches and dwellings, and the historic fact is commemorated by a rude monument erected at the close of the last century, with an inscription by the minister of the village: a good man who seemed to have learned his rhetoric from the French Republic, then distributing equality and fraternity to the reluctant peoples of Europe at the point of the bayonet. The stone is “sacred to liberty, independence, and the rights of man;” it rehearses in swelling terms the wrongs endured from British tyranny by the colonists, and their resort to arms. “The contest was long, bloody, and affecting: righteous Heaven approved the solemn appeal,” and the sovereignty of the States was the final conse quence. The great-grandchildren of those who fell there look from their windows upon the consecrated spot; not far up a street to the northward the house yet stands in which Adams and Hancock were hiding, with a price set on their heads by the British commandant in Boston, while Major Pitcairne's troops were marching up the Concord road; and three of the houses that witnessed the bloodshed on the green seem to be still strong and sound, and good for another hundred years. They are all interesting as specimens of the early village architecture of New England, and one is especially quaint and picturesque, with a pretty, old-fashioned garden beside it, where the flowers defied the May in a sort of embattled bloom. This was the Buckner Tavern at the time of the fight, and it was even then an old house, — of the seventeenth century, as the beams in the parlor ceiling still show. It afforded a rendezvous for the Provincials when the alarm of the British approach was first sounded by Paul Revere, and there most of the men lingered and waited subject to their captain's orders, after he had begun to doubt the truth of the rumor. The interval must have been trying to those unwarlike men, but they all answered the drum when a messenger galloped up with the news that the King's troops were right upon them. Some of them had gone to bed again in their homes beside the green, and they left their wives and children sleeping almost within sound of a whisper from the spot where they loosely formed on the grass before their doors. They were very simple and quiet folks, with no long perspective of national glory to embolden and sustain them in the resistance they were about to offer their King: a name at which we do not trouble ourselves to laugh now, but which was then to be feared next to God's. Independence was scarcely dreamt of; all that the villagers were clear of was their right as Englishmen, and they stood there upon that, with everything else around them in a dark far thicker than the morning gloom out of which the red-coats flashed at the other corner of the green. Major Pitcairne called a halt at some thirty rods, and riding forward swore at the damned rebels, and bade them disperse. They stood firm, and he ordered his men to fire; the soldiers hesitated; but when he drew his pistols and emptied them at the Provincials, they discharged a volley, and eight of our people fell. They were not a tithe of the enemy in number, and it is doubtful if they returned the fire; their captain called a retreat, and those who were unhurt made their escape, to join later in the long running fight through which the Provincials all day harassed the flight of the British from Concord back to Boston. Major Pitcairne had dispersed a riot, and had shed the first blood in a seven years' war. The dead men lay on the grass where their children had played a few hours before; one, shot through the breast, dragged himself a little space to his own threshold and died there in the arms of his wife.
Many stories are told of the peaceful inexperience of these people who had defied a mighty empire. A few of them had been in what we call the Old French War, and had served under Wolfe at the taking of Quebec; but it was so little understood generally that war meant fighting, that some boys came to the common that morning as to a sort of muster, and only retired when the bullets whistled over their heads. After the encounter at Concord, where an hour or two later —
“The embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world,”
the popular education in the art of war proceeded rapidly; though even then one of our men who was unsuspiciously firing from behind a stone wall at the British column in the road, had the surprise and mortification to be himself shot in the back by a flanking party. Before noon the retreat from Concord had become a rout, that was not arrested till Earl Percy arrived at Lexington with twelve hundred men and two pieces of cannon. The whole country side was up; the Minute-Men from Acton, Concord, Menotomy, Lexington, and Cambridge were joined by those of Woburn, Billerica, and even some of the seaboard towns, in pursuing the King's troops. The season was so unusually advanced that the cherry-trees were in bloom; the day was one of that sudden and sickening heat that sometimes occurs in our spring; and when the troops met Percy's supporting column at the Monroe Tavern, many of them fell down in the dust, “with their tongues lolling out like dogs'.” They had fought a running fight for ten miles, and they had marched in all nearly thirty since they left Boston the night before. Percy's cannon scared away the riflemen who hung upon their rear, and his men, scattering over the country, fired the farmhouses that might be supposed to afford shelter to the Minute-Men. Some of the houses were beyond gunshot, and the sick and old who were here and there bayoneted in them would perhaps now have been spared. The word had gone about that the Americans were scalping the English dead, and something had to be done in retaliation. No soldiers were found scalped, but a good many farmhouses were burned; for when Percy began to retire, the shooting from the walls and the woods along the road began again, and continued throughout the retreat. At different points on the route stones have been set up to commemorate the acts of reprisal committed by the soldiers: here stood a house burned by the British; in another house three Americans were massacred; in another twelve; and so forth. One of these monuments, in Arlington (then Menotomy), celebrates the valor and final per severance of one of the patriots in terms that used to amuse me in spite of the gravity of the facts. “On this spot, Samuel Whittemore, aged 81, killed three British soldiers. He was shot, beaten, bayoneted, and left for dead, but recovered, and lived to be 98 years old.” My readers may differ with me as to the political principles of this hoary man, but there can be but one opinion concerning his resolution and physical toughness.
We have counted it all joy in our annals that we were able to embitter defeat to the British in the pursuit from Concord to Boston, and have of course made the most of their reprisals. But perhaps these did not appear to them such enormities. To be fired on from every covert by the roadside, and helplessly slaughtered by a people they despised, was a thing that must have had its exasperations; and they responded in the way that might have been expected. “War is cruel, madam,” General Sherman explained to the lady who came out from Atlanta to reproach him for bombarding a town where so many non-combatants must suffer; and our race, whether English or American, has never “made war with water of roses.” The British had succeeded in the object of their expedition; they had destroyed the Provincial stores at Concord; but they lost that day more men than it cost them to capture Quebec. The day is only a chapter of history now. We are tender and proud of it, because it is our own, and because it vindicated us, and proved us after the fashion of war in the right. But if there have been griefs between the two countries that no dilution of “the language of Shakespeare and Milton” can wash out the memory of, there is scarcely a pang in them any more. Meanwhile we are still very far apart, and after all that cables and steamships can do, there are three thousand miles of sea, and immeasurable gulfs of democracy between us. With a few exceptions on either side, we heartily dislike and distrust each other's civic and social ideas. England Americanizes in some respects, in some respects America Anglicizes; but the most of that amounts to very little, I suspect; and for our part, whatever outcry we make over our own follies and sins and errors, we do not believe that it is less democracy, but more, that is to help us. Mere contiguity might do something to reconcile the ideals of the two countries, but it could not do everything. The four millions of Canada are not affected by the proximity of our fifty millions; they cling all the more closely to the English ideal, or what they imagine it to be, and shudder at the spectre of annexation, which exists only in their own nervous abhorrence.
At the same time, there is apt to be so much kindness between us personally when we meet on any common ground, that it is difficult to realize the national alienation, and impossible to account for it. We seem so very much alike, — I necessarily speak only for the American half of the impression, — that we feel like asserting an indisputable brotherhood. Upon reflection we have our reserves, our doubts, our fears; but for the time the illusion is delightfully perfect. It occurs with Americans, sometimes not only upon acquaintance or speech with Englishmen, but at the mere sight of their faces, which have a kindred look, whatever their calling or degree; and I think we are never less wrapped in the national flag than when we encounter English soldiers. The other day I was walking through one of the Parks when I came upon some sort of little barrack, where two or three privates, being temporarily debarred from flirtation with the nursery maids by the duty they were on, presented themselves purely and simply as my traditional enemies. But so far from wishing to offer them battle, I could only think of that whimsical and remorseful passage of Hawthorne's “Septimius Felton,” in which he describes Pitcairne's men as they marched into Concord after the affair at Lexington, dusty, wearied, and footsore, but “needing only a half-hour's rest, a good breakfast, and a pot of beer apiece, to make them ready to face the world. Nor did their faces look in any way rancorous, but at the most only heavy, cloddish, good-natured, and humane. ‘Oh, heavens, Mr. Felton!’ whispered Rose; ‘why should we shoot these men, or they us? They look kind, if homely.’ ‘It is the strangest thing in the world that we should think of killing them,’ said Septimius.”
Indeed it was monstrous. I realized then as never before the tremendous moral disadvantage a democracy is at in any war with a royal or oligarchic power; for whereas a portion of the Republican idea is slain in every American who perishes on the field, the poor fellows who fall on the other side personally express nothing, while the real enemy remains safe at home. It was no longer a question of shooting at the King and his ministers from behind stone walls, as it had been hitherto, but of picking off such amiable and friendly-looking folk as those I saw. Something in my heart — no doubt the brother plebeian — stirred in their presence with a novel pain; and if I could have hoped to make these honest men in anywise cognizant of April 19, 1775, I might have wished to excuse it to them.
- Reprinted from “Longman's (London) Magazine.”