Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
Iris
By Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894)
 
[The Professor at the Breakfast-Table. 1859.—Revised Edition. 1882.]

YOU remember, perhaps, in some papers published a while ago, an odd poem written by an old Latin tutor? He brought up at the verb amo, I love, as all of us do, and by and by Nature opened her great living dictionary for him at the word filia, a daughter. The poor man was greatly perplexed in choosing a name for her. Lucretia and Virginia were the first that he thought of; but then came up those pictured stones of Titus Livius, which he could never read without crying, though he had read them a hundred times.
  1
  —Lucretia sending for her husband and her father, each to bring one friend with him, and awaiting them in her chamber. To them her wrongs briefly. Let them see to the wretch,—she will take care of herself. Then the hidden knife flashes out and sinks into her heart. She slides from her seat, and falls dying. “Her husband and her father cry aloud.”—No,—not Lucretia.  2
  —Virginius,—a brown old soldier, father of a nice girl. She engaged to a very promising young man. Decemvir Appius takes a violent fancy to her,—must have her at any rate. Hires a lawyer to present the arguments in favor of the view that she was another man’s daughter. There used to be lawyers in Rome that would do such things.—All right. There are two sides to everything. Audi alteram partem. The legal gentleman has no opinion,—he only states the evidence.—A doubtful case. Let the young lady be under the protection of the Honorable Decemvir until it can be looked up thoroughly.—Father thinks it best, on the whole, to give in. Will explain the matter, if the young lady and her maid will step this way. That is the explanation,—a stab with a butcher’s knife, snatched from a stall, meant for other lambs than this poor bleeding Virginia!  3
  The old man thought over the story. Then he must have one look at the original. So he took down the first volume and read it over. When he came to that part where it tells how the young gentleman she was engaged to and a friend of his took up the poor girl’s bloodless shape and carried it through the street, and how all the women followed, wailing, and asking if that was what their daughters were coming to,—if that was what they were to get for being good girls,—he melted down into his accustomed tears of pity and grief, and, through them all, of delight at the charming Latin of the narrative. But it was impossible to call his child Virginia. He could never look at her without thinking she had a knife sticking in her bosom.  4
  Dido would be a good name, and a fresh one. She was a queen, and the founder of a great city. Her story had been immortalized by the greatest of poets,—for the old Latin tutor clove to “Virgilius Maro,” as he called him, as closely as ever Dante did in his memorable journey. So he took down his Virgil,—it was the smooth-leafed, open-lettered quarto of Baskerville,—and began reading the loves and mishaps of Dido. It wouldn’t do. A lady who had not learned discretion by experience, and came to an evil end. He shook his head, as he sadly repeated,
 “——misera ante diem, subitoque accensa furore;”
but when he came to the lines,
 “Ergo Iris croceis per cœlum roscida pennis
Mille trahens varios adverso Sole colores,”
he jumped up with a great exclamation, which the particular recording angel who heard it pretended not to understand, or it might have gone hard with the Latin tutor some time or other.
  5
  “Iris shall be her name!”—he said. So her name was Iris….  6
  ——The mother of little Iris was not called Electra, like hers of the old story, neither was her grandfather Oceanus. Her blood-name, which she gave away with her heart to the Latin tutor, was a plain old English one, and her water-name was Hannah, beautiful as recalling the mother of Samuel, and admirable as reading equally well from the initial letter forwards and from the terminal letter backwards. The poor lady, seated with her companion at the chess-board of matrimony, had but just pushed forward her one little white pawn upon an empty square, when the Black Knight, that cares nothing for castles or kings or queens, swooped down upon her and swept her from the larger board of life.  7
  The old Latin tutor put a modest blue stone at the head of his late companion, with her name and age and Eheu! upon it,—a smaller one at her feet, with initials; and left her by herself, to be rained and snowed on,—which is a hard thing to do for those whom we have cherished tenderly.  8
  About the time that the lichens, falling on the stone, like drops of water, had spread into fair, round rosettes, the tutor had starved into a slight cough. Then he began to draw the buckle of his black pantaloons a little tighter, and took in another reef in his never-ample waistcoat. His temples got a little hollow, and the contrasts of color in his cheeks more vivid than of old. After a while his walks fatigued him, and he was tired, and breathed hard after going up a flight or two of stairs. Then came on other marks of inward trouble and general waste, which he spoke of to his physician as peculiar, and doubtless owing to accidental causes; to all which the doctor listened with deference, as if it had not been the old story that one in five or six of mankind in temperate climates tells, or has told for him, as if it were something new. As the doctor went out, he said to himself,—“On the rail at last. Accommodation train. A good many stops, but will get to the station by and by.” So the doctor wrote a recipe with the astrological sign of Jupiter before it (just as your own physician does, inestimable reader, as you will see, if you look at his next prescription), and departed, saying he would look in occasionally. After this, the Latin tutor began the usual course of “getting better,” until he got so much better that his face was very sharp, and when he smiled, three crescent lines showed at each side of his lips, and when he spoke, it was in a muffled whisper, and the white of his eye glistened as pearly as the purest porcelain,—so much better, that he hoped—by spring—he——might be able—to—attend——to his class again.—But he was recommended not to expose himself, and so kept his chamber, and occasionally, not having anything to do, his bed. The unmarried sister with whom he lived took care of him; and the child, now old enough to be manageable, and even useful in trifling offices, sat in the chamber, or played about.  9
  Things could not go on so forever, of course. One morning his face was sunken and his hands were very, very cold. He was “better,” he whispered, but sadly and faintly. After a while he grew restless and seemed a little wandering. His mind ran on his classics, and fell back on the Latin grammar.  10
  “Iris!” he said,—“filiola mea!”—The child knew this meant my dear little daughter as well as if it had been English.—“Rainbow!”—for he would translate her name at times,—“come to me,—veni”—and his lips went on automatically, and murmured, “vel venito!”—The child came and sat by his bedside and took his hand, which she could not warm but which shot its rays of cold all through her slender frame. But there she sat, looking steadily at him. Presently he opened his lips feebly, and whispered, “Moribundus.” She did not know what that meant, but she saw that there was something new and sad. So she began to cry: but presently remembering an old book that seemed to comfort him at times, got up and brought a Bible in the Latin version, called the Vulgate. “Open it,” he said,—“I will read,—segnius irritant,—don’t put the light out,—ah! hæret lateri,—I am going, vale, vale, vale, good-bye, good-bye,—the Lord take care of my child!—Domine, audi——vel audito!” His face whitened suddenly, and he lay still, with open eyes and mouth. He had taken his last degree.  11
  ——Little Miss Iris could not be said to begin life with a very brilliant rainbow over her. in a worldly point of view. A limited wardrobe of man’s attire, such as poor tutors wear,—a few good books, principally classics,—a print or two, and a plaster model of the Pantheon, with some pieces of furniture which had seen service,—these, and a child’s heart full of tearful recollections and strange doubts and questions, alternating with the cheap pleasures which are the anodynes of childish grief; such were the treasures she inherited.—No,—I forgot. With that kindly sentiment which all of us feel for old men’s first children,—frost flowers of the early winter season,—the old tutor’s students had remembered him at a time when he was laughing and crying with his new parental emotions, and running to the side of the plain crib in which his alter ego, as he used to say, was swinging, to hang over the little heap of stirring clothes, from which looked the minute, red, downy, still, round face, with unfixed eyes and working lips—in that unearthly gravity which has never yet been broken by a smile, and which gives to the earliest moon-year or two of an infant’s life the character of a first old age, to counterpoise that second childhood which there is one chance in a dozen it may reach by and by. The boys had remembered the old man and young father at that tender period of his hard, dry life. There came to him a fair, silver goblet, embossed with classical figures, and bearing on a shield the graven words, Ex dono pupillorum. The handle on its side showed what use the boys had meant it for; and a kind letter in it, written with the best of feeling, in the worst of Latin, pointed delicately to its destination. Out of this silver vessel, after a long, desperate, strangling cry, which marked her first great lesson in the realities of life, the child took the blue milk, such as poor tutors and their children get, tempered with water, and sweetened a little, so as to bring it nearer the standard established by the touching indulgence and partiality of Nature,—who has mingled an extra allowance of sugar in the blameless food of the child at its mother’s breast, as compared with that of its infant brothers and sisters of the bovine race.  12
  But a willow will grow in baked sand wet with rain-water. An air-plant will grow by feeding on the winds. Nay, those huge forests that overspread great continents have built themselves up mainly from the air-currents with which they are always battling. The oak is but a foliated atmospheric crystal deposited from the aërial ocean that holds the future vegetable world in solution. The storm that tears its leaves has paid tribute to its strength, and it breasts the tornado clad in the spoils of a hundred hurricanes.  13
  Poor little Iris! What had she in common with the great oak in the shadow of which we are losing sight of her?—She lived and grew like that,—this was all. The blue milk ran into her veins and filled there with thin, pure blood. Her skin was fair, with a faint tinge, such as the white rosebud shows before it opens. The doctor who had attended her father was afraid her aunt would hardly be able to “raise” her,—“delicate child,”—hoped she was not consumptive,—thought there was a fair chance she would take after her father.  14
  A very forlorn-looking person, dressed in black, with a white neck-cloth, sent her a memoir of a child who died at the age of two years and eleven months, after having fully indorsed all the doctrines of the particular persuasion to which he not only belonged himself, but thought it very shameful that everybody else did not belong. What with foreboding looks and dreary death-bed stories it was a wonder the child made out to live through it. It saddened her early years, of course,—it distressed her tender soul with thoughts which, as they cannot be fully taken in, should be sparingly used as instruments of torture to break down the natural cheerfulness of a healthy child, or, what is infinitely worse, to cheat a dying one out of the kind illusions with which the Father of All has strewed its downward path.  15
  The child would have died, no doubt, and, if properly managed, might have added another to the long catalogue of wasting children who have been as cruelly played upon by spiritual physiologists, often with the best intentions, as ever the subject of a rare disease by the curious students of science.  16
  Fortunately for her, however, a wise instinct had guided the late Latin tutor in the selection of the partner of his life, and the future mother of his child. The deceased tutoress was a tranquil, smooth woman, easily nourished, as such people are,—a quality which is inestimable in a tutor’s wife,—and so it happened that the daughter inherited enough vitality from the mother to live through childhood and infancy and fight her way towards womanhood, in spite of the tendencies she derived from her other parent.  17
  ——Two and two do not always make four, in this matter of hereditary descent of qualities. Sometimes they make three, and sometimes five. It seems as if the parental traits at one time showed separate, at another blended,—that occasionally the force of two natures is represented in the derivative one by a diagonal of greater value than either original line of living movement,—that sometimes there is a loss of vitality hardly to be accounted for, and again a forward impulse of variable intensity in some new and unforeseen direction.  18
  So it was with this child. She had glanced off from her parental probabilities at an unexpected angle. Instead of taking to classical learning like her father, or sliding quietly into household duties like her mother, she broke out early in efforts that pointed in the direction of Art. As soon as she could hold a pencil she began to sketch outlines of objects round her with a certain air and spirit. Very extraordinary horses, but their legs looked as if they could move. Birds unknown to Audubon, yet flying, as it were, with a rush. Men with impossible legs, which did yet seem to have a vital connection with their most improbable bodies. By-and-by the doctor, on his beast,—an old man with a face looking as if Time had kneaded it like dough with his knuckles, with a rhubarb tint and flavor pervading himself and his sorrel horse and all their appurtenances. A dreadful old man! Be sure she did not forget those saddle-bags that held the detestable bottles out of which he used to shake those loathsome powders which, to virgin childish palates that find heaven in strawberries and peaches, are—— Well, I suppose I had better stop. Only she wished she was dead sometimes when she heard him coming. On the next leaf would figure the gentleman with the black coat and white cravat, as he looked when he came and entertained her with stories concerning the death of various little children about her age, to encourage her, as that wicked Mr. Arouet said about shooting Admiral Byng. Then she would take her pencil, and with a few scratches there would be the outline of a child, in which you might notice how one sudden sweep gave the chubby cheek, and two dots darted at the paper looked like real eyes.  19
  By-and-by she went to school, and caricatured the schoolmaster on the leaves of her grammars and geographies, and drew the faces of her companions, and, from time to time, heads and figures from her fancy, with large eyes, far apart, like those of Raffaelle’s mothers and children, sometimes with wild floating hair, and then with wings and heads thrown back in ecstasy. This was at about twelve years old, as the dates of these drawings show, and, therefore, three or four years before she came among us. Soon after this time, the ideal figures began to take the place of portraits and caricatures, and a new feature appeared in her drawing-books in the form of fragments of verse and short poems.  20
  It was dull work, of course, for such a young girl to live with an old spinster and go to a village school. Her books bore testimony to this; for there was a look of sadness in the faces she drew, and a sense of weariness and longing for some imaginary conditions of blessedness or other, which began to be painful.  21
 
 
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