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
 
Singing “China”
By Lewis William Mansfield (1816–1898)
 
[Born in Kent, Conn., 1816. Up-Country Letters. 1852.]

OUT of the south window I could look over a wide sweep of country, but the storm now fell so fast and furious that nothing could be seen. Very soon, looking out the window, a thousand little spirits seemed to be surrounding and wrapping me in some subtle influence, and in ten minutes, I suppose, from the time I took that chair, I was fast asleep. The unusual excitement was having its reaction; and I was gone. Nothing else slept. Not the wind. Not the northeaster. Not the cat: she was only on the borders of that land; for the moment she fancied I was asleep, she came up and took a seat on my right shoulder, and busied herself winking at the big fire. I saw it all through the glass on the mantel.
  1
  And now, Professor, if you ask what all this means, and what I was about, I could not have told you. I had not planned anything definitely. Perhaps I was now getting my frolic in this royal nap all alone, nearly, in an old house, and a storm outside that was perfectly pitiless in its character. What greater luxury can a man have than rest, when it is contrasted with tumult, and hurry, and fearful imaginings? What more exquisite folding in of the golden hours than this up at Frank’s, so utterly beyond the chances of intrusion? I suppose the keynote, however, was in that sharp wail of the wind outside. Let me get away, I may have said, where I can talk a little with that chap. From earliest childhood I have had a strange liking for sad and mournful sounds. They are a kind of nutriment to me; and when I feel happiest, I am most likely to break out in some dismal hymn, which, for some unaccountable reason, has for me, as I have said, this strange fascination. But right in the very climax of such a time, my wife will come up and beg me not to do so: for, strange to say, the effect upon her is not a happy one; and Joy even tosses her head at it. It is evident she has a gentle contempt for that kind of music. I had attempted one of the old Methodist tunes, when I first sat down,—being anxious to make the most of my time,—but failed, and, as aforesaid, napped instead.  2
  It was more than an hour after I fell asleep, that Tim came in, asking what I would have for dinner. “Why, bless me, Tim,” said I. “I’ve only just breakfasted.” “You breakfasted very late then, sir: it’s two o’clock, and will be dark directly.” “Tim,” said I, “can you get me a bit of chicken, that’s fat and hearty, and not too old, Tim, broiled gently, and just a little brown?” “That’s precisely what I have been doing, sir”; said the old man.—“for I remember that you always likes a broil.” “And Tim,” said I, “is there ever a bottle of famous old wine (ah, sir, never fear), that Mr. Bryars has left in some dusty corner (will make your mouth water, sir), or may be in some cupboard, or possibly in the garret, behind the north chimney, or may be you have the key,”—“Sure,” shouted Tim, who was nearly out of patience,—“I can find ye forty of them, if ye like,”—and disappeared again in the dark passage. He appeared again, shortly, with a white apron, and directly before the great fire arranged a little old-fashioned table, which might have been a large stand, except that it had legs like tables. Standing for a moment by this small affair, after the dinner was all complete, he asked, “Will your honor have your wine now?”—and uncorking a dusty bottle, the old servant departed again.  3
  Dinner, oh, Professor, is the great event, eh! Not often is it so with me: but for some reason, the little pullet which Tim had broiled for me had an unusual savor; or was it that choice old Burgundy, which they say can never be brought over seas, and yet here it was, sweet as nuts. There was also a little carafon of old port; and cigars I had found in a drawer of Frank’s secretary. Ah! what would T. say, what would Joy and Tidy say, what would my father say, at the sight of this broken down man dining in such Palais Royal style! The peculiar thing in the transaction being, you observe, that T., and Joy, and Tidy were not there. Hurra! Hurr-rr-ah! Ah, Professor, if you could have heard me sing “Jim Crack Corn,” it would have done your heart good. I began with “Jim Crack Corn,” and “Old Uncle Ned,” as being upon the outer borders of those sad strains, which I kept as bonnes bouches, and in which I could exhaust myself of this fatal passion. I was engaged in Dundee, when Tim came in and found me striding solemnly about the room, while Growler walked slowly up and down, and whenever the accent was peculiarly touching, the old dog howled, for a moment, and then ceased till I came around again to the same spot.  4
  “Now, Tim,” said I, pouring him a glass of wine, “we will drink to the health and long life of our friends over sea; and you shall sing me an ould-country song.” Tim, having already laid in a small supply of cider, was quite ready; and after tossing off his glass of port, he embarked in perhaps the most dismal and wind-shrieking song that Ould Ireland ever produced. It was positively dreadful; and I directly called to him to stop a moment, as I had something to suggest. “Tim,” I cried, and with no little excitement, “can you sing ‘China’?” (I had kept “China” as the event of the day: as after “China” there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that makes any approach to that depth of despair so desirable in this kind of music.) “Well,” said Tim, “it’s likely I can sing it. I’m convanient at most of those tunes of yours. Haven’t I heard you and Master Frank singing them, all alone to yourselves?”  5
  We started, therefore, with “China,” myself walking up and down, and rocking to and fro in the going-off spots, while Tim threw his arms about like a madman, and Growler now howled continually. Ah, Professor, it was very grand: it was more, it was glorious! or, as an old Connecticut friend of mine used to say, “grand, glorious, and magnificent.” But, in the very midst of it, and high over the highest reach of Tim’s voice, was now heard another—sharp and sky-piercing, and now, as we stopped to listen to it—low, and dying slowly away.  6
  “Tim,” said I, “do you hear that? Is any one upstairs, or in the garret, or maybe down cellar?”  7
  “Niver a soul in the house but us, yer honor”—and we proceeded again. “Why—should—we—mourn—de–par–ar–ted–da—” and again rose that cry, and now it said—if it said anything—“Zariar! Zariar! Mr. Pundison!” In a moment, I raised one of the south windows, and behold in the distance, oh, Professor, behold, I say—the round face of my blessed wife just above the snow, her arms hanging upon the surface, and all the rest of the lady entirely gone! It was a sight, sir! Just behind her was Joy, leaning back in the snow, and laughing her eyes out. Nearer was Rover, in a deep hole, his nose seen occasionally above it as he struggled to get out; and farther off, Pompey—who was entirely out of sight, in a deep cavity, and only known to be there by his barking incessantly. They had wandered a little from the way, into a ditch which had drifted full of soft snow.  8
  I jumped through the window, and cautiously approaching Mrs. P., threw my arms around her, and cried out, “Give me a kiss for good morning.” Then it was, sir, that I saw Mrs. P. had come out in…. This had been her ruin. She had dropped immediately through all the depths. It was only by spreading her arms that Mrs. Pundison kept herself afloat.  9
  And now, sir, shall I tell you how we escaped from those depths, and how those ladies insisted upon tasting the wine, and making little notes and memorandums (solemn things, sir, to a husband) of what had been going on? Under the circumstances, not more glad were they than I, to get back again to our old established home: to the round table, and the curtains, and the hall-stove, and the thermometers.  10
  T. has said, since, that it was plain the wine had got in my head; for immediately after tea I had gone to sleep in my chair, and did not wake till ten o’clock: and, besides, it was years since I had kissed her in the snow. I have been of opinion that it was the wind that made me so sleepy, but the fact, I suppose, is not to be doubted. As I awoke, and we all drew a little closer to the fire—for it was bitter cold—T. came up, and in that confiding way which a wife so well understands, asked me to say what it was that took me up to Frank Bryars’. “Will you promise,” I said, “never to mention the little incident—never, upon pain of the … and boots being produced?” All promised; and I expounded as follows:  11
  “You know, my children, that we all have our little ways: or, rather, our little ways have us; and we know it not. We are guided as by the wind, which goeth where it listeth.  12
  “I tell you, very solemnly, that when I started this morning, I had no conception of any special act, other than to go up to Frank’s; but, with equal solemnity, I tell you that I believe the whole motive—hidden and concealed away, like fine gold—from the very start, all through the walk in the snow, all through the household arrangements, through dinner, through everything, up to that piercing scream of yours—was to sing ‘China’!”  13
  T. smiled faintly as I said this; and Joy was on the verge of a laugh, which I checked instantly with a severe look; and immediately retired for the night.  14
  “Zarry dear,” said Mrs. P. just as I was going to sleep, “did you get through singing ‘China’?” “My dear wife,” said I, “I have exhausted ‘China’ for six months to come.”  15
 
 
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