The Comforting Answer
The house was set on a side hill, or rise, on a corner where the street began and climbed a near-by height. It was large and quaint, had two entrances equally important; and the family rooms seemed to stretch into spaciousness. There were quaint chambers unused, opening out of the long shed, and there was a big stable, and a wonderful garret of wide spaces under the sloping roof. The fine old furnishings were everywhere striking, and good food, ample providing, and gay company marked life in the old home-stead in that New England village of soft bloom, with the whole landscape green and bronze and gold. There were fields and forests near, and shining rivers, and horizons of dense blue where the landmarks seemed to dissolve. The great sweep of surrounding country seemed saturated in light. I loved its beauty, and can remember the exquisite landscapes that pictured so much to my youth.
Sometimes it comes back to me in dreams, in waking ones, as indivisible as my waking life. To my young heart the main effect when there was of radical well-being a dynamic zest in happiness. I lived so careless of the moment; alert and gleeful, someway always twinkling joyously from point to point of easy mirth. A certain spirit of delight rushed on to discovery, and childhood is a mystery, as some writer has put it - "Visited by revelation." There is often such a distance in childhood from the alien lives about it, and half comprehended impulses kept me silent over certain thronging fancies whenever I was with my young Aunts. I had ever since the experience of hearing and retailing that sentimentally absurd and ridiculously phrased offer of marriage, had the uncomfortable sensation of the discovered Eavesdropper, ands looking back with uneasy self-scorn, without as yet any of the humour of the performance, only at my own ignorance and breaches of taste, I had ever since avoided telling things I overheard.
Sitting there, looking at my silent Grandfather, a half sentimental though insistent instinct made me long to open the door and disclose myself on certain points and feelings, lately growing stronger while listening to my Grandmother's (Susan Fulton Gray 1795-1885) reminiscences and her frequent and particular remarks to the others about me. Now, believing in his sympathy, the barriers dropping, - "Grandfather, I burst forth, aren't the Sumner's nice?" He turned and looked me over quizzically - I was embarrassed for the moment and suddenly shy, but not ashamed for his countenance lightened, and his deep-set eyes had genial kindness instead of amusement or tolerance, and I felt as if I saw the accumulated wisdom of generations.
"Nice" he queried, "Yes and clever too, a good stock your father came from - Who has been talking to you?" They say they don't see any Gray in me - They say I am all Sumner - and I am always reminding Grandmother of Aria Sumner (c1842-c1870); and, you know, growing more confidential, when I hear "Handsome is that Handsome does," and that I am only smart like Aria, it won't matter how I look, and that I don't look like any of you at all, I feel sorry - I am afraid - Grandfather, don't you think I am some pretty? The last words just slipped from me, and I looked away out of the near window with something misty in my eyes. There was a tumult and a certain recoil in my hurt soul, an opening consciousness oppressed by the realities of the flesh.
Clear as if illustrated in some highly colored picture the moment stands out when my Grandfather, the so-called stern man, held out his hand and smiled while he answered dryly, "Well! If you want to see a pretty woman, look at your Mother! They are not as plentiful as blackberries. Grandmother needn't mind that you don't favor the Grays. I have heard some of the Sumners were decent looking, and they have got brains. You are not half bad looking! You have got your Father's eyes, and you are awfully proud of those long curls of yours; You know your hair is pretty, and you are going to look like your Father and I should think that was enough. Aria has her tongue hung in the middle , and looks - well - no matter - she never stops talking, and I hope you won't keep on when you are grown up till everybody is tired out! Forget the things you hear about your looks, I like them, - and now I am going to give you a present." Oh Grandfather! - and all woes were forgotten as I danced upstairs to the old Secretary in his room, and brought down as directed a whole shelf full of small books bound in old leather, the type so old and queer, and the paper coarse and almost brown with age. "Ossian's Poems" in two little volumes, and all of "Moore's" in six. "The Scottish Chief's" the "Hungarian Brothers," "The Mysteries of Udolpho" and other quaint works in that fascinating size and binding. How I jumped for joy! I had suspicion of the compassionate something that was in his face, and I could hardly believe in my riches. "Begin your Library, child, since your hobby is reading; you can have all of my books to look at, and those you like best to carry away with you."
Much water has passed under the bridge since then, and memory has become vague in recalling what I pored over longest, and the many that I appropriated to the displeasure of some of the other members of the family, but with my Grandfather's full consent. I ignored cheerfully, in the sunshine of his felt approval, criticisms that pronounced me a "spoiled child," and likely to be a very selfish one."
But I was absorbed in a world of fiction, and incredible as it is, I feel sometimes the same terror that paralyzed me then over certain farcical tragic stories; fantastic, and to me, terrible like "The Mysteries of Udolpho," and "The Vale of Cedars," "The Torture of the Heretics;" stories of "The Inquisition" and "Accounts of the Martyrdom of the Saints.
It is easy for the very young to substitute books for life as sources of information and resources of amusement; or the entertainment towards which inclination pulls; and I found Grandfather's Library enthralling, the romances; the impossible stories; the histories and the thrill of wonderful events recorded; and the world of print became more and more exciting and made for book-hunger. To this day I remember some startling incidents as steps to learning, for much of what was pored over at that age made deep impressions; often twisted ones that still persist. There was no guidance to reading which was rapidly becoming both occupation and recreation. Fortunately, I never had to read surreptitiously; but I had often believed that advise, suggestion or direction would have made me climb enough to help myself to Literature.
I never asked for special "Works," I knew so little; and was merely influenced by environment and whatever I could lay my hands on - and I had no difficulty in accepting trash for truth, because things imagined became true; and I never suffered from Pilate's difficulty in recognizing "truth," since whatever was printed must be true!
It was often a barren field, and, a certain Puritan inheritance it may have been - for something made me, even when not interested, feel that a book if begun should be read to its end. Mine is a heart that cherishes memory, and nourishes itself on memories and revelations which but for the impetuosity of my youth would have long since dissolved into forgetfulness.
From the Sanctuary of remembrance into which one can retreat at will, I draw out the old sense of relief at my Grandfather's words. They comforted me - They took me out of myself. My Grandfather had played Guardian and benefactor. There were no two ways in his speech, all way clear. "You are not half-bad" - All was well enough. I had the most extraordinary sense of being taken for granted, as looking "Well enough" - "Not half-bad looking."
There was gladness in me again. That chapter at any rate, I thought ended. Life was as bright as ever.