Nonfiction > Lionel Strachey, et al., eds. > The World’s Wit and Humor > American
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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes.  1906.
Vols. I–V: American
 
Selections from the Experiences of the A. C.
By Bayard Taylor (1825–1878)
 
From The Atlantic Monthly, February, 1862

“BRIDGEPORT! Change cars for the Naugatuck Railroad!” shouted the conductor of the New York and Boston Express Train, on the evening of May 27, 1858.
  1
  Mr. Johnson, carpet-bag in hand, jumped upon the platform, entered the office, purchased a ticket for Waterbury, and was soon whirling in the Naugatuck train toward his destination.  2
  On reaching Waterbury, in the soft spring twilight, Mr. Johnson walked up and down in front of the station, curiously scanning the faces of the assembled crowd. Presently he noticed a gentleman who was performing the same operation upon the faces of the alighting passengers. Throwing himself directly in the way of the latter, the two exchanged a steady gaze.  3
  “Is your name Billings?” “Is your name Johnson?” were simultaneous questions, followed by the simultaneous exclamations, “Ned!” “Enos!”  4
  Then there was a crushing grasp of hands, repeated after a pause, in testimony of ancient friendship, and Mr. Billings, returning to practical life asked:  5
  “Is that all your baggage? Come, I have a buggy here: Eunice has heard the whistle, and she’ll be impatient to welcome you.”  6
  The impatience of Eunice (Mrs. Billings, of course) was not of long duration; for in five minutes thereafter she stood at the door of her husband’s chocolate-colored villa, receiving his friend.  7
  J. Edward Johnson was a tall, thin gentleman of forty-five.  8
  A year before, some letters, signed “Foster, Kirkup & Co., per Enos Billings,” had accidentally revealed to him the whereabouts of the old friend of his youth, with whom we now find him domiciled.  9
  “Enos,” said he, as he stretched out his hand for the third cup of tea (which he had taken only for the purpose of prolonging the pleasant table-chat), “I wonder which of us is most changed.”  10
  “You, of course,” said Mr. Billings, “with your brown face and big mustache. Your own brother wouldn’t have known you, if he had seen you last, as I did, with smooth cheeks and hair of unmerciful length. Why, not even your voice is the same!”  11
  “That is easily accounted for,” replied Mr. Johnson. “But in your case, Enos, I am puzzled to find where the difference lies. Your features seem to be but little changed, now that I can examine them at leisure; yet it is not the same face. But really, I never looked at you for so long a time, in those days. I beg pardon; you used to be so—so remarkably shy.”  12
  Mr. Billings blushed slightly, and seemed at a loss what to answer. His wife, however, burst into a merry laugh, exclaiming:  13
  “Oh, that was before the days of the A. C.!”  14
  He, catching the infection, laughed also; in fact, Mr. Johnson laughed, but without knowing why.  15
  “The ‘A. C.’!” said Mr. Billings. “Bless me, Eunice, how long it is since we have talked of that summer! I had almost forgotten that there ever was an A. C. Well, the A. C. culminated in ’45. You remember something of the society of Norridgeport, the last winter you were there? Abel Mallory, for instance?”  16
  “Let me think a moment,” said Mr. Johnson, reflectively. “Really, it seems like looking back a hundred years. Mallory—wasn’t that the sentimental young man, with wispy hair, a tallowy skin, and big, sweaty hands, who used to be spouting Carlyle on the ‘reading evenings’ at Shelldrake’s? Yes, to be sure; and there was Hollins, with his clerical face and infidel talk—and Pauline Ringtop, who used to say, ‘The Beautiful is the Good.’ I can still hear her shrill voice singing, ‘Would that I were beautiful, would that I were fair!’”  17
  There was a hearty chorus of laughter at poor Miss Ringtop’s expense. It harmed no one, however, for the tarweed was already thick over her Californian grave.  18
  “Oh, I see!” said Mr. Billings, “you still remember the absurdities of those days. In fact, I think you partially saw through them then. But I was younger, and far from being so clear-headed, and I looked upon those evenings at Shelldrake’s as being equal, at least, to the symposia of Plato. Something in Mallory always repelled me. I detested the sight of his thick nose, with the flaring nostrils, and his coarse, half-formed lips, of the bluish color of raw corned beef. But I looked upon these feelings as unreasonable prejudices, and strove to conquer them, seeing the admiration which he received from others. He was an oracle on the subject of ‘Nature.’ Having eaten nothing for two years, except Graham bread, vegetables without salt, and fruits, fresh or dried, he considered himself to have attained an antediluvian purity of health—or that he would attain it, so soon as two pimples on his left temple should have healed. These pimples he looked upon as the last feeble stand made by the pernicious juices left from the meat he had formerly eaten and the coffee he had drunk. His theory was, that through a body so purged and purified none but true and natural impulses could find access to the soul. Such, indeed, was the theory we all held.  19
  “Shelldrake was a man of more pretense than real cultivation, as I afterward discovered. He was in good circumstances, and always glad to receive us at his house, as this made him virtually the chief of our tribe, and the outlay for refreshments involved only the apples from his own orchard, and water from his well.  20
  “Well, ’twas in the early part of ’45—I think in April—when we were all gathered together, discussing, as usual, the possibility of leading a life in accordance with Nature. Abel Mallory was there, and Hollins, and Miss Ringtop, and Faith Levis, with her knitting—and also Eunice Hazleton, a lady whom you have never seen, but you may take my wife as her representative.  21
  “I wish I could recollect some of the speeches made on that occasion. Abel had but one pimple on his temple (there was a purple spot where the other had been), and was estimating that in two or three months more he would be a true, unspoiled man. His complexion, nevertheless, was more clammy and whey-like than ever.  22
  “‘Yes,’ said he, ‘I also am an Arcadian! This false, dual existence which I have been leading will soon be merged in the unity of Nature. Our lives must conform to her sacred law. Why can’t we strip off these hollow Shams (he made great use of that word) and be our true selves, pure, perfect, and divine?’  23
  “Shelldrake, however, turning to his wife, said:  24
  “‘Elviry, how many up-stairs rooms is there in that house down on the Sound?’  25
  “‘Four—besides three small ones under the roof. Why, what made you think of that, Jesse?’ said she.  26
  “‘I’ve got an idea, while Abel’s been talking,’ he answered. ‘We’ve taken a house for the summer, down the other side of Bridgeport, right on the water, where there’s good fishing and a fine view of the Sound. Now, there’s room enough for all of us—at least, all that can make it suit to go. Abel, you and Enos, and Pauline and Eunice might fix matters so that we could all take the place in partnership, and pass the summer together, living a true and beautiful life in the bosom of Nature. There we shall be perfectly free and untrammeled by the chains which still hang around us in Norridgeport. You know how often we have wanted to be set on some island in the Pacific Ocean, where we could build up a true society, right from the start. Now here’s a chance to try the experiment for a few months, anyhow.’  27
  “Eunice clapped her hands (yes, you did!) and cried out:  28
  “‘Splendid! Arcadian! I’ll give up my school for the summer.’  29
  “Abel Mallory, of course, did not need to have the proposal repeated. He was ready for anything which promised indolence, and the indulgence of his sentimental tastes. I will do the fellow the justice to say that he was not a hypocrite. He firmly believed both in himself and his ideas—especially the former. He pushed both hands through the long wisps of his drab-colored hair, and threw his head back until his wide nostrils resembled a double door to his brain.  30
  “‘O Nature!’ he said, ‘you have found your lost children! We shall obey your neglected laws! we shall hearken to your divine whispers! we shall bring you back from your ignominious exile, and place you on your ancestral throne!’  31
  “The company was finally arranged to consist of the Shelldrakes, Hollins, Mallory, Eunice, Miss Ringtop, and myself. We did not give much thought, either to the preparations in advance, or to our mode of life when settled there. We were to live near to Nature: that was the main thing.  32
  “‘What shall we call the place?’ asked Eunice.  33
  “‘Arcadia!’ said Abel Mallory, rolling up his large green eyes.  34
  “‘Then,’ said Hollins, ‘let us constitute ourselves the Arcadian Club!’”  35
  ——“Aha!” interrupted Mr. Johnson, “I see! The A. C.!”  36
  “Yes, you see the A. C. now, but to understand it fully, you should have had a share in those Arcadian experiences…. It was a lovely afternoon in June when we first approached Arcadia…. Perkins Brown, Shelldrake’s boy-of-all-work, awaited us at the door. He had been sent on two or three days in advance to take charge of the house, and seemed to have had enough of hermit life, for he hailed us with a wild whoop, throwing his straw hat halfway up one of the poplars. Perkins was a boy of fifteen, the child of poor parents, who were satisfied to get him off their hands, regardless as to what humanitarian theories might be tested upon him. As the Arcadian Club recognized no such thing as caste, he was always admitted to our meetings, and understood just enough of our conversation to excite a silly ambition in his slow mind….  37
  “Our board, that evening, was really tempting. The absence of meat was compensated to us by the crisp and racy onions, and I craved only a little salt, which had been interdicted as a most pernicious substance. I sat at one corner of the table, beside Perkins Brown, who took an opportunity, while the others were engaged in conversation, to jog my elbow gently. As I turned toward him, he said nothing, but dropped his eyes significantly. The little rascal had the lid of a blacking-box, filled with salt, upon his knee, and was privately seasoning his onions and radishes. I blushed at the thought of my hypocrisy, but the onions were so much better with salt that I couldn’t help dipping into the lid with him.  38
  “‘Oh,’ said Eunice, ‘we must send for some oil and vinegar! This lettuce is very nice.’  39
  “‘Oil and vinegar?’ exclaimed Abel.  40
  “‘Why, yes,’ said she, innocently; ‘they are both vegetable substances.’  41
  “Abel at first looked rather foolish, but quickly recovering himself, said:  42
  “‘All vegetable substances are not proper for food; you would not taste the poison-oak or sit under the upas-tree of Java.’  43
  “‘Well, Abel,’ Eunice rejoined, ‘how are we to distinguish what is best for us? How are we to know what vegetables to choose, or what animal and mineral substances to avoid?’  44
  “‘I will tell you,’ he answered, with a lofty air. ‘See here!’ pointing to his temple, where the second pimple—either from the change of air, or because, in the excitement of the last few days, he had forgotten it—was actually healed. ‘My blood is at last pure. The struggle between the natural and the unnatural is over, and I am beyond the depraved influences of my former taste. My instincts are now, therefore, entirely pure also. What is good for man to eat, that I shall have a natural desire to eat; what is bad will be naturally repelled. How does the cow distinguish between the wholesome and the poisonous herbs of the meadow? And is man less than a cow, that he cannot cultivate his instincts to an equal point? Let me walk through the woods and I can tell you every berry and root which God designed for food, though I know not its name, and have never seen it before. I shall make use of my time, during our sojourn here, to test, by my purified instinct, every substance, animal, mineral, and vegetable, upon which the human race subsists, and to create a catalogue of the True Food of Man!’…  45
  “Our lazy life during the hot weather had become a little monotonous. The Arcadian plan had worked tolerably well, on the whole, for there was very little for any one to do—Mrs. Shelldrake and Perkins Brown excepted. Our conversation, however, lacked spirit and variety. We were, perhaps unconsciously, a little tired of hearing and assenting to the same sentiments. But, one evening, about this time, Hollins struck upon a variation, the consequences of which he little foresaw. We had been reading one of Bulwer’s works (the weather was too hot for Psychology), and came upon this paragraph, or something like it:  46
  “‘Ah, Behind the Veil! We see the summer smile of the Earth—enameled meadow and limpid stream—but what hides she in her sunless heart? Caverns of serpents, or grottoes of priceless gems? Youth, whose soul sits on thy countenance, thyself wearing no mask, strive not to lift the masks of others! Be content with what thou seest; and wait until Time and Experience shall teach thee to find jealousy behind the sweet smile, and hatred under the honeyed word!’  47
  “This seemed to us a dark and bitter reflection; but one or another of us recalled some illustration of human hypocrisy, and the evidences, by the simple fact of repetition, gradually led to a division of opinion—Hollins, Shelldrake, and Miss Ringtop on the dark side, and the rest of us on the bright. The last, however, contented herself with quoting from her favorite poet Gamaliel J. Gawthrop:
 “‘I look beyond thy brow’s concealment!
I see thy spirit’s dark revealment!
Thy inner self betrayed I see:
Thy coward, craven, shivering ME!’
  48
  “‘We think we know one another,’ exclaimed Hollins; ‘but do we? We see the faults of others, their weaknesses, their disagreeable qualities, and we keep silent. How much we should gain, were candor as universal as concealment! Then each one, seeing himself as others see him, would truly know himself. How much misunderstanding might be avoided, how much hidden shame be removed, hopeless because unspoken love made glad, honest admiration cheer its object, uttered sympathy mitigate misfortune—in short, how much brighter and happier the world would become, if each one expressed, everywhere and at all times, his true and entire feeling! Why, even Evil would lose half its power!’  49
  “There seemed to be so much practical wisdom in these views that we were all dazzled and half-convinced at the start. So, when Hollins, turning toward me, as he continued, exclaimed, ‘Come, why should not this candor be adopted in our Arcadia? Will any one—will you, Enos—commence at once by telling me now—to my face—my principal faults?’ I answered, after a moment’s reflection, ‘You have a great deal of intellectual arrogance, and you are, physically, very indolent.’  50
  “He did not flinch from the self-invited test, though he looked a little surprised.  51
  “‘Well put,’ said he,’ though I do not say that you are entirely correct. Now, what are my merits?’  52
  “‘You are clear-sighted,’ I answered, ‘an earnest seeker after truth, and courageous in the avowal of your thoughts.’  53
  “This restored the balance, and we soon began to confess our own private faults and weaknesses. Though the confessions did not go very deep—no one betraying anything we did not all know already—yet they were sufficient to strengthen Hollins in his new idea, and it was unanimously resolved that Candor should thenceforth be the main charm of our Arcadian life.  54
  “The next day, Abel, who had resumed his researches after the True Food, came home to supper with a healthier color than I had before seen on his face.  55
  “‘Do you know,’ said he, looking shyly at Hollins, ‘that I begin to think Beer must be a natural beverage? There was an auction in the village to-day, as I passed through, and I stopped at a cake-stand to get a glass of water, as it was very hot. There was no water, only beer; so I thought I would try a glass, simply as an experiment. Really, the flavor was very agreeable. And it occurred to me, on the way home, that all the elements contained in beer are vegetable. Besides, fermentation is a natural process. I think the question has never been properly tested before.’  56
  “‘But the alcohol!’ exclaimed Hollins.  57
  “‘I could not distinguish any, either by taste or smell. I know that chemical analysis is said to show it; but may not the alcohol be created, somehow, during the analysis?’  58
  “‘Abel,’ said Hollins, in a fresh burst of candor, ‘you will never be a Reformer, until you possess some of the commonest elements of knowledge.’  59
  “The rest of us were much diverted; it was a pleasant relief to our monotonous amiability.  60
  “Abel, however, had a stubborn streak in his character. The next day he sent Perkins Brown to Bridgeport for a dozen bottles of ‘Beer.’ Perkins, either intentionally or by mistake (I always suspected the former), brought pint bottles of Scotch ale, which he placed in the coolest part of the cellar. The evening happened to be exceedingly hot and sultry; and, as we were all fanning ourselves and talking languidly, Abel bethought him of his beer. In his thirst, he drank the contents of the first bottle, almost at a single draft.  61
  “‘The effect of beer,’ said he, ‘depends, I think, on the commixture of the nourishing principle of the grain with the cooling properties of the water. Perhaps, hereafter, a liquid food of the same character may be invented, which shall save us from mastication and all the diseases of the teeth.’  62
  “Hollins and Shelldrake, at his invitation, divided a bottle between them, and he took a second. The potent beverage was not long in acting on a brain so unaccustomed to its influence. He grew unusually talkative and sentimental in a few minutes.  63
  “‘Oh, sing, somebody!’ he sighed in hoarse rapture; ‘the night was made for Song.’  64
  “Miss Ringtop, nothing loath, immediately commenced, ‘When stars are in the quiet skies’; but scarcely had she finished the first verse before Abel interrupted her.  65
  “‘Candor’s the order of the day, isn’t it?’ he asked.  66
  “‘Yes!’ ‘Yes!’ two or three answered.  67
  “‘Well, then,’ said he, ‘candidly, Pauline, you’ve got the darn’dest squeaky voice——’  68
  “Miss Ringtop gave a faint little scream of horror.  69
  “‘Oh, never mind!’ he continued. ‘We act according to impulse, don’t we? And I’ve the impulse to swear; and it’s right. Let Nature have her way. Listen! Damn, damn, damn, damn! I never knew it was so easy. Why, there’s a pleasure in it! Try it, Pauline! try it on me!’  70
  “‘Oh-ooh!’ was all Miss Ringtop could utter.  71
  “‘Abel! Abel!’ exclaimed Hollins, ‘the beer has got into your head.’  72
  “‘No, it isn’t Beer, it’s Candor!’ said Abel. ‘It’s your own proposal, Hollins. Suppose it’s evil to swear; isn’t it better I should express it, and be done with it, than keep it bottled up, to ferment in my mind? Oh, you’re a precious, consistent old humbug, you are!’  73
  “And therewith he jumped off the stoop, and went dancing awkwardly down toward the water, singing in a most unmelodious voice, ‘’Tis home where’er the heart is.’…  74
  “We had an unusually silent breakfast the next morning. Abel scarcely spoke, which the others attributed to a natural feeling of shame, after his display of the previous evening. Hollins and Shelldrake discussed Temperance, with a special view to his edification, and Miss Ringtop favored us with several quotations about ‘the maddening bowl’—but he paid no attention to them….  75
  “The forenoon was overcast, with frequent showers. Each one occupied his or her room until dinner-time, when we met again with something of the old geniality. There was an evident effort to restore our former flow of good feeling. Abel’s experience with the beer was freely discussed. He insisted strongly that he had not been laboring under its effects, and proposed a mutual test. He, Shelldrake, and Hollins were to drink it in equal measures, and compare observations as to their physical sensations. The others agreed—quite willingly, I thought—but I refused….  76
  “There was a sound of loud voices, as we approached the stoop. Hollins, Shelldrake and his wife, and Abel Mallory were sitting together near the door. Perkins Brown, as usual, was crouched on the lowest step, with one leg over the other, and rubbing the top of his boot with a vigor which betrayed to me some secret mirth. He looked up at me from under his straw hat with the grin of a malicious Puck, glanced toward the group, and made a curious gesture with his thumb. There were several empty pint bottles on the stoop.  77
  “‘Now, are you sure you can bear the test?’ we heard Hollins ask, as we approached.  78
  “‘Bear it? Why, to be sure!’ replied Shelldrake; ‘if I couldn’t bear it, or if you couldn’t, your theory’s done for. Try! I can stand it as long as you can.’  79
  “‘Well, then,’ said Hollins, ‘I think you are a very ordinary man. I derive no intellectual benefit from my intercourse with you, but your house is convenient to me. I’m under no obligations for your hospitality, however, because my company is an advantage to you. Indeed, if I were treated according to my deserts, you couldn’t do enough for me.’  80
  “Mrs. Shelldrake was up in arms.  81
  “‘Indeed,’ she exclaimed, ‘I think you get as good as you deserve, and more too.’  82
  “‘Elvira,’ said he, with a benevolent condescension, ‘I have no doubt you think so, for your mind belongs to the lowest and most material sphere. You have your place in Nature, and you fill it; but it is not for you to judge of intelligences which move only on the upper planes.’  83
  “‘Hollins,’ said Shelldrake, ‘Elviry’s a good wife and a sensible woman, and I won’t allow you to turn up your nose at her.’  84
  “‘I am not surprised,’ he answered, ‘that you should fail to stand the test. I didn’t expect it.’  85
  “‘Let me try it on you!’ cried Shelldrake. ‘You, now, have some intellect—I don’t deny that—but not so much, by a long shot, as you think you have. Besides that, you’re awfully selfish in your opinions. You won’t admit that anybody can be right who differs from you. You’ve sponged on me for a long time; but I suppose I’ve learned something from you, so we’ll call it even. I think, however, that what you call acting according to impulse is simply an excuse to cover your own laziness.’  86
  “‘Gosh! that’s it!’ interrupted Perkins, jumping up; then, recollecting himself, he sank down on the steps again, and shook with a suppressed ‘Ho! ho! ho!’  87
  “Hollins, however, drew himself up with an exasperated air.  88
  “‘Shelldrake,’ said he, ‘I pity you. I always knew your ignorance, but I thought you honest in your human character. I never suspected you of envy and malice. However, the true Reformer must expect to be misunderstood and misrepresented by meaner minds. That love which I bear to all creatures teaches me to forgive you. Without such love, all plans of progress must fail. Is it not so, Abel?’  89
  “Shelldrake could only ejaculate the words, ‘Pity!’ ‘Forgive!’ in his most contemptuous tone; while Mrs. Shelldrake, rocking violently in her chair, gave utterance to that peculiar clucking ‘ts, ts, ts, ts,’ whereby certain women express emotions too deep for words.  90
  “Abel, roused by Hollins’s question, answered, with a sudden energy:  91
  “‘Love! there is no love in the world. Where will you find it? Tell me, and I’ll go there. Love! I’d like to see it! If all human hearts were like mine, we might have an Arcadia; but most men have no hearts. The world is a miserable, hollow, deceitful shell of vanity and hypocrisy. No; let us give up. We were born before our time; this age is not worthy of us.’  92
  “Hollins stared at the speaker in utter amazement. Shelldrake gave a long whistle, and finally gasped out:  93
  “‘Well, what next?’  94
  “None of us were prepared for such a sudden and complete wreck of our Arcadian scheme. The foundations had been sapped before, it is true; but we had not perceived it; and now, in two short days, the whole edifice tumbled about our ears. Though it was inevitable, we felt a shock of sorrow, and a silence fell upon us. Only that scamp of a Perkins Brown, chuckling and rubbing his boot, really rejoiced. I could have kicked him.  95
  “We all went to bed, feeling that the charm of our Arcadian life was over…. In the first revulsion of feeling, I was perhaps unjust to my associates. I see now, more clearly, the causes of those vagaries, which originated in a genuine aspiration, and failed from an ignorance of the true nature of Man, quite as much as from the egotism of the individuals. Other attempts at reorganizing Society were made about the same time by men of culture and experience, but in the A. C. we had neither. Our leaders had caught a few half-truths, which, in their minds, were speedily warped into errors.”  96
 
 
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