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HOME > Classical Novels > Being a Boy > XV THE HEART OF NEW ENGLAND
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It is a wonder that every New England boy does not turn out a poet, or a missionary, or a peddler. Most of them used to. There is everything in the heart of the New England hills to feed the imagination of the boy, and excite his longing for strange countries. I scarcely know what the subtle influence is that forms him and attracts him in the most fascinating and aromatic of all lands, and yet urges him away from all the sweet delights of his home to become a roamer in literature and in the world,—a poet and a wanderer. There is something in the soil and the pure air, I suspect, that promises more romance than is forthcoming, that excites the imagination without satisfying it, and begets the desire of adventure. And the prosaic life of the sweet home does not at all correspond to the boy's dreams of [Pg 124] the world. In the good old days, I am told, the boys on the coast ran away and became sailors; the country boys waited till they grew big enough to be missionaries, and then they sailed away, and met the coast boys in foreign ports.

John used to spend hours in the top of a slender hickory-tree that a little detached itself from the forest which crowned the brow of the steep and lofty pasture behind his house. He was sent to make war on the bushes that constantly encroached upon the pasture land; but John had no hostility to any growing thing, and a very little bushwhacking satisfied him. When he had grubbed up a few laurels and young treesprouts, he was wont to retire into his favorite post of observation and meditation. Perhaps he fancied that the wide-swaying stem to which he clung was the mast of a ship; that the tossing forest behind him was the heaving waves of the sea; and that the wind which moaned over the woods and murmured in the leaves, and now and then sent him a wide circuit in the air, as if he had been a blackbird on the tiptop of a [Pg 125] spruce, was an ocean gale. What life and action and heroism there was to him in the multitudinous roar of the forest, and what an eternity of existence in the monologue of the river which brawled far, far below him over its wide stony bed! How the river sparkled and danced and went on—now in a smooth amber current, now fretted by the pebbles, but always with that continuous busy song! John never knew that noise to cease, and he doubted not if he stayed here a thousand years that same loud murmur would fill the air.

On it went, under the wide spans of the old wooden, covered bridge, swirling around the great rocks on which the piers stood, spreading away below in shallows, and taking the shadows of a row of maples that lined the green shore. Save this roar, no sound reached him, except now and then the rumble of a wagon on the bridge, or the muffled, far-off voices of some chance passers on the road. Seen from this high perch, the familiar village, sending its brown roofs and white spires up through the green foliage, had a strange aspect, and [Pg 126] was like some town in a book, say a village nestled in the Swiss mountains, or something in Bohemia. And there, beyond the purple hills of Bozrah, and not so far as the stony pastures of Zoar, whither John had helped drive the colts and young stock in the spring, might be perhaps Jerusalem itself. John had himself once been to the land of Canaan with his grandfather, when he was a very small boy; and he had once seen an actual, no-mistake Jew, a mysterious person, with uncut beard and long hair, who sold scythe-snaths in that region, and about whom there was a rumor that he was once caught and shaved by the indignant farmers, who apprehended in his long locks a contempt of the Christian religion. Oh, the world had vast possibilities for John. Away to the south, up a vast basin of forest, there was a notch in the horizon and an opening in the line of woods, where the road ran. Through this opening John imagined an army might appear, perhaps British, perhaps Turks, and banners of red and of yellow advance, and a cannon wheel about and point its long nose and open on [Pg 127] the valley. He fancied the army, after this salute, winding down the mountain road, deploying in the meadows, and giving the valley to pillage and to flame. In which event his position would be an excellent one for observation and for safety. While he was in the height of this engagement, perhaps the horn would be blown from the back porch, reminding him that it was time to quit cutting brush and go for the cows. As if there were no better use for a warrior and a poet in New England than to send him for the cows!

John knew a boy—a bad enough boy, I dare say—who afterwards became a general in the war, and went to Congress and got to be a real governor, who used also to be sent to cut brush in the back pastures, and hated it in his very soul; and by his wrong conduct forecast what kind of a man he would be. This boy, as soon as he had cut about one brush, would seek for one of several holes in the ground (and he was familiar with several), in which lived a white-and-black animal that must always be nameless in a book, but an animal quite capable [Pg 128] of the most pungent defense of himself. This young aspirant to Congress would cut a long stick, with a little crotch in the end of it, and run it into the hole; and when the crotch was punched into the fur and skin of the animal, he would twist the stick round till it got a good grip on the skin, and then he would pull the beast out; and when he got the white-and-black just out of the hole so that his dog could seize him, the boy would take to his heels, and leave the two to fight it out, content to scent the battle afar off. And this boy, who was in training for public life, would do this sort of thing all the afternoon; and when the sun told him that he had spent long eno............
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