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
 
The Total Depravity of Inanimate Things
By Katharine Kent Child Walker (1833–1916)
 
I AM confident that, at the annunciation of my theme, Andover, Princeton, and Cambridge will skip like rams, and the little hills of East Windsor, Meadville, and Fairfax, like lambs. However divinity schools may refuse to “skip” in unison, and may butt and batter each other about the doctrine and origin of human depravity, all will join devoutly in the credo, I believe in the total depravity of inanimate things.  1
  The whole subject lies in a nutshell, or, rather, an apple-skin. We have clerical authority for affirming that all its miseries were let loose upon the human race by “them greenin’s” tempting our mother to curious pomological speculations; and from that time till now—Longfellow, thou reasonest well!—“things are not what they seem,” but are diabolically otherwise—masked batteries, nets, gins, and snares of evil.  2
  (In this connection I am reminded of—can I ever cease to remember?—the unlucky lecturer at our lyceum a few winters ago, who, on rising to address his audience, applauding him all the while most vehemently, pulled out his handkerchief, for oratorical purposes only, and inadvertently flung from his pocket three “Baldwins” that a friend had given to him on his way to the hall, straight into the front row of giggling girls.)  3
  My zeal on this subject received new impetus recently from an exclamation which pierced the thin partitions of the country parsonage, once my home, where I chanced to be a guest.  4
  From the adjoining dressing-room issued a prolonged “Y-ah!”—not the howl of a spoiled child, nor the protest of a captive gorilla, but the whole-souled utterance of a mighty son of Anak, whose amiability is invulnerable to weapons of human aggravation.  5
  I paused in the midst of toilet exigencies and listened sympathetically, for I recognized the probable presence of the old enemy to whom the bravest and sweetest succumb.  6
  Confirmation and explanation followed speedily in the half-apologetic, wholly wrathful declaration, “The pitcher was made foolish in the first place.” I dare affirm that, if the spirit of Lindley Murray himself were at that moment hovering over that scene of trial, he dropped a tear, or, better still, an adverbial ly upon the false grammar, and blotted it out forever.  7
  I comprehended the scene at once. I had been there. I felt again the remorseless swash of the water over neat boots and immaculate hose; I saw the perverse intricacies of its meanderings over the carpet, upon which the “foolish” pitcher had been confidently deposited; I knew, beyond the necessity of ocular demonstration, that, as sure as there were “pipe-holes” or cracks in the ceiling of the study below, those inanimate things would inevitably put their evil heads together and bring to grief the long-suffering Dominie, with whom, during my day, such inundations had been of at least bi-weekly occurrence, instigated by crinoline. The inherent wickedness of that “thing of beauty” will be acknowledged by all mankind, and by every female not reduced to the deplorable poverty of the heroine of the following veracious anecdote.  8
  A certain good bishop, on making a tour of inspection through a mission-school of his diocese, was so impressed by the aspect of all its beneficiaries that his heart overflowed with joy, and he exclaimed to a little maiden whose appearance was particularly suggestive of creature-comforts, “Why, my little girl! you have everything that heart can wish, haven’t you?” Imagine the bewilderment and horror of the prelate when the miniature Flora McFlimsey drew down the corners of her mouth lugubriously, and sought to accommodate the puffs and dimples of her fat little body to an expression of abject misery, as she replied, “No, indeed, sir! I haven’t got any—skeleton!”  9
  We who have suffered know the disposition of graceless “skeletons” to hang themselves on “foolish” pitchers, bureau-knobs, rockers, cobblestones, splinters, nails, and, indeed, any projection a tenth of a line beyond a dead level.  10
  The mention of nails is suggestive of voluminous distresses. Country parsonages, from some inexplicable reason, are wont to bristle all over with these impish assailants of human comfort.  11
  I never ventured to leave my masculine relatives to their own devices for more than twenty-four consecutive hours that I did not return to find that they had seemingly manifested their grief at my absence after the old Hebraic method (“more honored in the breach than the observance”), by rending their garments. When summoned to their account, the invariable defense has been a vehement denunciation of some particular nail as the guilty cause of my woes.  12
  By the way, O Christian woman of the nineteenth century, did it ever enter your heart to give devout thanks that you did not share the woe of those whose fate it was to “sojourn in Mesech, and dwell in the tents of Kedar?” that it did not fall to your lot to do the plain sewing and mending for some Jewish patriarch or prophet of yore?  13
  Realize, if you can, the masculine aggravation and the feminine long-suffering of a period when the head of a family could neither go downtown, nor even sit at his tent-door, without descrying some wickedness in high places, some insulting placard, some exasperating war-bulletin, some offensive order from headquarters, which caused him to transform himself instantly into an animated rag-bag. Whereas in these women-saving days similar grievances send President Abraham into his cabinet to issue a proclamation, the Reverend Jeremiah into his pulpit with a scathing homily, Poet-Laureate David to the Atlantic with a burning lyric, and Major-General Joab to the privacy of his tent, there to calm his perturbed spirit with Drake’s Plantation Bitters. In humble imitation of another, I would state that this indorsement of the potency of a specific is entirely gratuitous, and that I am stimulated thereto by no remuneration, fluid or otherwise.  14
  Blessed be this day of sewing machines for women, and of safety-valves and innocent explosives for their lords!  15
  But this is a digression.  16
  I woke very early in life to the consciousness that I held the doctrine which we are considering.  17
  On a hapless day, when I was perhaps five years old, I was, in my own estimation, entrusted with the family dignity, when I was deposited for the day at the house of a lordly Pharisee of the parish, with solemnly repeated instructions in table manners and the like.  18
  One who never analyzed the mysteries of a sensitive child’s heart cannot appreciate the sense of awful responsibility which oppressed me during that visit. But all went faultlessly for a time. I corrected myself instantly each time I said, “Yes, ma’am” to Mr. Simon, and “No, sir” to madam, which was as often as I addressed them; I clinched little fists and lips resolutely, that they might not touch, taste, handle tempting bijouterie. I even held in check the spirit of inquiry rampant within me, and indulged myself with only one question to every three minutes of time.  19
  At last I found myself at the handsome dinner-table, triumphantly mounted upon two “Comprehensive Commentaries” and a dictionary, fearing no evil from the viands before me. Least of all did I suspect the vegetables of guile. But deep in the heart of a bland, mealy-mouthed potato lurked cruel designs upon my fair reputation.  20
  No sooner had I, in the most approved style of nursery good-breeding, applied my fork to its surface, than the hard-hearted thing executed a wild pirouette before my astonished eyes, and then flew on impish wings across the room, dashing out its malicious brains, I am happy to say, against the parlor door, but leaving me in a half-comatose state, stirred only by vague longings for a lodge with “proud Korah’s troop,” whose destination is unmistakably set forth in the “Shorter Catechism.”  21
  There is a possibility that I inherited my innate distrust of things from my maternal grandmother, whose holy horror at the profanity they once provoked from a bosom friend in her childhood was still vivid in her old age.  22
  It was on this wise: When still a pretty Puritan maiden my grandame was tempted irresistibly by the spring sunshine to the tabooed indulgence of a Sunday walk. The temptation was probably intensified by the presence of the British troops, giving unwonted fascination to village promenades. Her confederate in this guilty pleasure was a like-minded little saint; so there was a tacit agreement between them that their transgression should be sanctified by a strict adherence to religious topics of conversation. Accordingly they launched boldly upon the great subject which was just then agitating church circles in New England.  23
  Fortune smiled upon these criminals against the Blue Laws, until they encountered a wall surmounted by hickory rails. Without intermitting the discussion, Susannah sprang agilely up. Quoth she, balancing herself for one moment upon the summit, “No, no, Betsey, I believe God is the author of sin!” The next, she sprang toward the ground; but a salient splinter, a chip of depravity, clutched her Sunday gown and converted her, incontinently it seems, into a confessor of the opposing faith; for history records that, following the above-mentioned dogma, there came from hitherto unstained lips, “The devil!”  24
  Time and space would, of course, be inadequate to the enumeration of all the demonstrations of the truth of the doctrine of the absolute depravity of things. A few examples only can be cited.  25
  There is melancholy pleasure in the knowledge that a great soul has gone mourning before me in the path I am now pursuing. It was only to-day that, in glancing over the pages of Victor Hugo’s greatest work, I chanced upon the following: “Every one will have noticed with what skill a coin let fall upon the ground runs to hide itself, and what art it has in rendering itself invisible; there are thoughts which play us the same trick,” etc.  26
  The similar tendency of pins and needles is universally understood and execrated—their base secretiveness when searched for, and their incensing intrusion when one is off guard.  27
  I know a man whose sense of their malignity is so keen that, whenever he catches a gleam of their treacherous luster on the carpet, he instantly draws his two and a quarter yards of length into the smallest possible compass, and shrieks until the domestic police come to the rescue and apprehend the sharp little villains. Do not laugh at this. Years ago he lost his choicest friend by the stab of just such a little dastard lying in ambush.  28
  So, also, every wielder of the needle is familiar with the propensity of the several parts of a garment in the process of manufacture to turn themselves wrong side out, and down side up; and the same viciousness cleaves like leprosy to the completed garment so long as a thread remains.  29
  My blood still tingles with a horrible memory illustrative of this truth.  30
  Dressing hurriedly and in darkness for a concert one evening, I appealed to the Dominie, as we passed under the hall lamp, for a toilet inspection.  31
  “How do I look, father?”  32
  After a sweeping glance came the candid statement:  33
  “Beau-tifully!”  34
  Oh, the blessed glamour which invests a child whose father views her with a critic’s eye!  35
  “Yes, of course, but look carefully, please; how is my dress?”  36
  Another examination of apparently severest scrutiny.  37
  “All right, dear. That’s the new cloak, is it? Never saw you look better. Come, we shall be late.”  38
  Confidingly I went to the hall; confidingly I entered; since the concert-room was crowded with rapt listeners to the Fifth Symphony, I gingerly, but still confidingly, followed the author of my days, and the critic of my toilet, to the very uppermost seat, which I entered, barely nodding to my finically fastidious friend, Guy Livingston, who was seated near us with a stylish-looking stranger, who bent eyebrows and glass upon me superciliously.  39
  Seated, the Dominie was at once lifted in the midst of the massive harmonies of the adagio; I lingered outside a moment in order to settle my garments and—that woman’s look. What! was that a partially suppressed titter near me? Ah! she has no soul for music! How such ill-timed merriment will jar upon my friend’s exquisite sensibilities!  40
  Shade of Beethoven! A hybrid cough and laugh, smothered decorously but still recognizable, from the courtly Guy himself! What can it mean?  41
  In my perturbation my eyes fell, and rested upon the sack whose newness and glorifying effect had been already noticed by my lynx-eyed parent.  42
  I here pause to remark that I had intended to request the compositor to “set up” the coming sentence in explosive capitals, by way of emphasis, but forbear, realizing that it already staggers under the weight of its own significance.  43
  That sack was wrong side out!  44
  Stern necessity, proverbially known as “the mother of invention,” and practically the stepmother of ministers’ daughters, had made me eke out the silken facings of the front, with cambric linings for the back and sleeves. Accordingly, in the full blaze of the concert-room, there sat I, “accoutered as I was,” in motley attire—my homely little economies patent to admiring spectators; on either shoulder budding wings composed of unequal parts of sarsenet-cambric and cotton-batting; and in my heart—parricide I had almost said, but it was rather the more filial sentiment of desire to operate for cataract upon my father’s eyes. But a moment’s reflection sufficed to transfer my indignation to its proper object, the sinful sack itself, which, concerting with its kindred darkness, had planned this cruel assault upon my innocent pride.  45
  A constitutional obtuseness renders me delightfully insensible to one fruitful source of provocation among inanimate things. I am so dull as to regard all distinctions between “rights” and “lefts” as invidious; but I have witnessed the agonized struggles of many a victim of fractious boots, and been thankful that “I am not as other men are,” in ability to comprehend the difference between my right and left foot. Still, as already intimated, I have seen wise men driven mad by a thing of leather and waxed-ends.  46
  A little innocent of three years, in all the pride of his first boots, was aggravated by the perversity of the right to thrust itself on to the left leg, to the utterance of a contraband expletive.  47
  When reproved by his horror-stricken mama he maintained a dogged silence.  48
  In order to pierce his apparently indurated conscience his censor finally said, solemnly:  49
  “Dugald! God knows that you said that wicked word.”  50
  “Does He?” cried the baby victim of total depravity in a tone of relief; “then He knows it was a doke” (Anglice, joke).  51
  But, mind you, the sin-tempting boot intended no “doke.”
*        *        *        *        *
  52
  The toilet, with its multiform details and complicated machinery, is a demon whose surname is Legion.  53
  Time would fail me to speak of the elusiveness of soap, the knottiness of strings, the transitory nature of buttons, the inclination of suspenders to twist, and of hooks to forsake their lawful eyes and cleave only unto the hairs of their hapless owner’s head. (It occurs to me as barely possible that in the last case the hooks may be innocent, and the sinfulness may lie in capillary attraction.)  54
  And, oh my brother or sister in sorrow, has it never befallen you, when bending all your energies to the mighty task of “doing” your back hair, to find yourself gazing inanely at the opaque back of your brush, while the hand-mirror, which had maliciously insinuated itself into your right hand for this express purpose, came down upon your devoted head with a resonant whack?  55
  I have alluded, parenthetically, to the possible guilt of capillary attraction, but I am prepared to maintain against the attraction of gravitation the charge of total depravity. Indeed, I should say of it, as did the worthy exhorter of the Dominie’s old parish in regard to slavery, “It’s the wickedest thing in the world, except sin!”  56
  It was only the other day that I saw depicted upon the young divine’s countenance, from this cause, thoughts “too deep for tears,” and, perchance, too earthly for clerical utterance.  57
  From a mingling of sanitary and economic considerations, he had cleared his own sidewalk after a heavy snow-storm. As he stood leaning upon his shovel, surveying with smiling complacency his accomplished task, the spite of the arch-fiend Gravitation was raised against him, and, finding the impish slates (hadn’t Luther something to say about “as many devils as tiles?”) ready to cooperate, an avalanche was the result, making the last state of that sidewalk worse than the first, and sending the divine into the house with a battered hat, and an Article of Faith supplementary to the orthodox Thirty-nine.  58
  Prolonged reflection upon a certain class of grievances has convinced me that mankind has generally ascribed them to a guiltless source. I refer to the unspeakable aggravation of “typographical errors,” rightly so-called—for, in nine cases out of ten, I opine it is the types themselves which err.  59
  I appeal to fellow-sufferers if the substitutions and false combinations of letters are not often altogether too absurd for humanity.  60
  Take as one instance the experience of a friend who, in writing in all innocency of a session of the Historical Society, affirmed mildly in manuscript, “All went smoothly,” but weeks after was made to declare in blatant print, “All went snoringly!”  61
  As among men, so in the alphabet, one sinner destroyeth much good.  62
  The genial Senator from the Granite Hills told me of an early aspiration of his own for literary distinction which was beheaded remorselessly by a villain of this type. By way of majestic peroration to a pathetic article he had exclaimed, “For what would we exchange the fame of Washington?”—referring, I scarcely need say, to the man of fragrant memory, and not to the odorous capital. The black-hearted little dies, left to their own devices one night, struck dismay to the heart of the aspirant author by propounding in black and white a prosaic inquiry as to what would be considered a fair equivalent for the farm of the Father of his Country!  63
  Among frequent instances of this depravity in my own experience, a flagrant example still shows its ugly front on a page of a child’s book. In the latest edition of “Our Little Girls” (good Mr. Randolph, pray, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest) there occurs a description of a christening, wherein a venerable divine is made to dip “his head” into the consecrating water and lay it upon the child.  64
  Disembodied words are also sinners and the occasions of sin. Who has not broken the Commandments in consequence of the provocation of some miserable little monosyllable eluding his grasp in the moment of his direst need, or of some impertinent interloper thrusting itself in, to the utter demoralization of his well-organized sentences? Who has not been covered with shame at tripping over the pronunciation of some perfectly simple word like “statistics,” “inalienable,” “inextricable,” etc.?  65
  Whose experience will not empower him to sympathize with that unfortunate invalid who, on being interrogated by a pious visitor in regard to her enjoyment of means of grace, informed the horror-stricken inquisitor, “I have not been to church for years, I have been such an infidel,” and then, moved by a dim impression of wrong somewhere, as well as by the evident shock inflicted upon her worthy visitor, but conscious of her own integrity, repeated still more emphatically: “No; I have been a confirmed infidel for years.”  66
  But a peremptory summons from an animated nursery forbids my lingering longer in this fruitful field. I can only add an instance of corroborating testimony from each member of the circle originating this essay.  67
  The Dominie loq.—“Sha’n’t have anything to do with it! It’s a wicked thing! To be sure, I do remember, when I was a little boy, I used to throw stones at the chip-basket when it upset the cargo I had just laded, and it was a great relief to my feelings, too. Besides, you’ve told stories about me which were anything but true. I don’t remember anything about that sack.”  68
  Lady Visitor loq.—“The first time I was invited to Mr. ——’s (the Hon. ——’s, you know) I was somewhat anxious, but went home flattering myself I had made a creditable impression. Imagine my consternation when I came to relieve the pocket of my gala gown, donned for the occasion, at discovering among its treasures a tea-napkin marked gorgeously with the Hon. ——’s family crest, which had maliciously crept into its depths in order to bring me into disgrace. I have never been able to bring myself to the point of confession, in spite of my subsequent intimacy with the family. If it were not for Joseph’s positive assertion to the contrary, I should be of the opinion that his cup of divination conjured itself deliberately and sinfully into innocent Benjamin’s sack.”  69
  Student loq. (Testimony open to criticism.)—“Met pretty girl on the street yesterday. Sure I had on my ‘Armstrong’ hat when I left home—sure as fate; but when I went to pull it off—by the crown, of course—to bow to pretty girl, I smashed in my beaver! How it got there, don’t know. Knocked it off. Pretty girl picked it up and handed it to me. Confounded things, anyway!”  70
  Young Divine loq.—“While I was in the army, I was in Washington on ‘leave’ for two or three days. One night at a party I became utterly bewildered in an attempt to converse, after long desuetude, with a fascinating woman. I went stumbling on, amazing her more and more, until finally I covered myself with glory by the categorical statement that in my opinion General McClellan could ‘never get across the Peninsula without a fattle—I beg pardon, madam! what I mean to say is, without a bight.’”  71
  Schoolgirl loq.—“When Uncle —— was President, I was at the White House at a state dinner one evening. Senator —— came rushing in frantically after we had been at table some time. No sooner was he seated than he turned to aunt to apologize for his delay; and being very much heated, and very much embarrassed, he tugged away desperately at his pocket, and finally succeeded in extracting a huge blue stocking, evidently of home manufacture, with which he proceeded to wipe his forehead very energetically and very conspicuously. I suppose the truth was that the poor man’s handkerchiefs were ‘on a strike,’ and thrust forward this homespun stocking to bring him to terms.”  72
  Schoolgirl No. 2, loq.—“My last term at F. I was expecting a box of ‘goodies’ from home. So when the message came, ‘An express package for you, Miss Fanny,’ I invited all my specials to come and assist at the opening. Instead of the expected box, there appeared a misshapen bundle, done up in yellow wrapping-paper. Four such dejected-looking damsels were never seen before as we, standing around the ugly old thing. Finally Alice suggested:  73
  “‘Open it!’  74
  “‘Oh, I know what it is,’ I said; ‘it is my old Tibet, that mother has had made over for me.’  75
  “‘Let’s see,’ persisted Alice.  76
  “So I opened the package. The first thing I drew out was too much for me.  77
  “‘What a funny-looking basque!’ exclaimed Alice. All the rest were struck dumb with disappointment.  78
  “No, not a basque at all, but a man’s black satin waistcoat! and next came objects about which there could be no doubt—a pair of dingy old trousers and a swallow-tailed coat! Imagine the chorus of damsels!  79
  “The secret was that two packages lay in father’s office, one for me, the other for those everlasting freedmen. John was to forward mine. He had taken up the box to write my address on it when the yellow bundle tumbled off the desk at his feet and scared the wits out of his head. So I came in for father’s second-hand clothes, and the Ethiopians had the ‘goodies!’”  80
  Repentant Dominie loq.—“I don’t approve of it at all; but then, if you must write the wicked thing, I heard a good story for you to-day. Doctor —— found himself in the pulpit of a Dutch Reformed Church the other Sunday. You know he is one who prides himself on his adaptation to places and times. Just at the close of the introductory service a black gown lying over the arm of the sofa caught his eye. He was rising to deliver his sermon when it forced itself on his attention again.  81
  “‘Sure enough,’ thought he, ‘Dutch Reformed clergymen do wear gowns. I might as well put it on.’  82
  “So he solemnly thrust himself into the malicious (as you would say) garment, and went through the services as well as he could, considering that his audience seemed singularly agitated, and, indeed, on the point of bursting out into a general laugh throughout the entire service. And no wonder! The good Doctor, in his zeal for conformity, had attired himself in the black cambric duster in which the pulpit was shrouded during week-days, and had been gesticulating his eloquent homily with his arms thrust through the holes left for the pulpit lamps!”  83
 
 
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