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Getting Home Again - The Atlantic

It is a good thing, said an aged Chinese Travelling Philosopher, for every man, sooner or later, to get back again to his own tea-cup. And Ling Ching Ki Hi Fum (for that was the name of the profound old gentleman who said it) was right. Travel may be "the conversion of money into mind,"—and happy the man who has turned much coin into that precious commodity,—but it is a good thing, after being tossed about the world from the Battery to Africa,—that dry nurse of lions, as Horace calls her,—to anchor once more beside the old familiar tea-urn on the old familiar tea-table. This is the only "steamy column" worth hailing with a glad welcome after long absence from home, and fully entitled to be heartily applauded for its "bubbling and loud-hissing" propensities.

We are not a Marco Polo or a William de Rubruquis, and we have no wonders to tell of the Great Mogul or the Great Cham. We did not sail for Messrs. Pride, Pomp, Circumstance, and Company; consequently, we have no great exploits to recount. We have been wrecked at sea only once in our many voyages, and, so far as we know our own tastes, do not care to solicit aid again to be thrown into the same awkward situation. But for a time we have been

"Placed far amid the melancholy main,"

and now we are among our own tea-cups. This is happiness enough for a cold winter's night. Mid-ocean, and mid tea-cups! Stupendous change, let us tell you, worthy friend, who never yet set sail where sharks and other strange sea-cattle bob their noses above the brine,—who never lived forty days in the bowels of a ship, unable to hold your head up to the captain's bluff "good morning" or the steward's cheery "good night." Sir Philip Sidney discourses of a riding-master he encountered in Vienna, who spoke so eloquently of the noble animal he had to deal with, that he almost persuaded Sir Philip to wish himself a horse. We have known ancient mariners expatiate so lovingly on the frantic enjoyments of the deep sea, that very youthful listeners have for the time resolved to know no other existence. If the author of the "Arcadia" had been permitted to become a prancing steed, he might, after the first exhilarating canter, have lamented his equine state. How many a first voyage, begun in hilarious impatience, has caused a bitter repentance! The sea is an overrated element, and we have nothing to say in its favor. Because we are out of its uneasy lap to-night, we almost resemble in felicity Richter's Walt, who felt himself so happy, that he was transported to the third heaven, and held the other two in his hand, that he might give them away. To-morrow morning we shall not hear that swashing, scaring sound directly overhead on the wet deck, which has so often murdered our slumbers. Delectable the sensation that we don't care a rope's-end "how many knots" we are going, and that our ears are so far away from that eternal "Ay, ay, Sir!" "The whales," says old Chapman, speaking of Neptune, "exulted under him, and knew their mighty king." Let them exult, say we, and be blowed, and all due honor to their salt sovereign! but of their personal acquaintance we are not ambitious. We have met them now and then in the sixty thousand miles of their watery playing-places we have passed over, and they are not pretty to look at. Roll on, et cetera, et cetera,—and so will we, for the present, at least, as far out of your reach as possible.

Yes, wise denizen of the Celestial Empire, it is a good, nay, a great thing, to return even to so small a home-object as an old tea-cup. As we lift the bright brim to our so long absent lips, we repeat it. As we pour out our second, our third, and our fourth, we say it again. Ling Ching, you were right!

And now, as the rest of the household have all gone up bed-ward, and left us with their good-night tones,

"Like flowers' voices, if they could but speak,"

we dip our pen into the cocked hat of the brave little bronze warrior who has fed us many a year with ink from the place where his brains ought to be. Pausing before we proceed to paper, we look around on our household gods. The coal bursts into crackling fits of merriment, as we thrust the poker between the iron ribs of the grate. It seems to say, in the jolliest possible manner of which it is capable, "Oh, go no more a-roaming, a-roaming, across the windy sea!" How odd it seems to be sitting here again, listening to the old clock out there in the entry! Often we seemed to hear it during the months that have flown away, when we knew that "our ancient" was standing sentinel for Time in another hemisphere. One night, dark and stormy on the Mediterranean, as we lay wakeful and watchful in the little steamer that was bearing us painfully through the noisy tempest towards Saint Peter's and the Colosseum, suddenly, above the tumult of the voyage, our household monitor began audibly and regularly, we thought, to mark the seconds. Then it must have been only fancy. Now it is something more, and we know that our mahogany friend is really wagging his brassy beard just outside the door. We remember now, as we lay listening that rough night at sea, how Milton's magic sounding line came to us beating a sad melody with the old clock's imagined tramp,—

"The Lars and Lemures moan with midnight plaint."

Let the waves bark to-night far out on "the desolate, rainy seas,"—the old clock is all right in the entry!

Landed, and all safe at last! our much-abused, lock-broken, unhinged portmanteau unpacked and laid ignobly to rest under the household eaves! Stay a moment,—let us pitch our inky passport into the fire. How it writhes and grows black in the face! And now it will trouble its owner no more forever. It was a foolish, extravagant companion, and we are glad to be rid of it. One little blazing fragment lifts itself out of the flame, and we can trace on the smouldering relic the stamp of Austria. Go back again into the grate, and perish with the rest, dark blot!

"We look round our quiet apartment, and wonder if it be all true, this getting home again. We stir the fire once more to assure ourself that we are not somewhere else,—that the street outside our window is not known as Jermyn Street in the Haymarket,—or the Via Babuino near the Pincio,—or Princes Street, near the Monument. How do we determine that we are not dreaming, and that we shall not wake up to-morrow morning and find ourself on the Arno? Perhaps we are not really back again where there are no

  "Eremites and friars,
  White, black, and gray, with all their trumpery."

Perhaps we are a flamingo, a banyan-tree, or a mandarin. But there stands the tea-cup, and our identity is sure!

Here at last, then, for a live certainty! But how strange it all seems, resting safely in our easy slippers, to recall some of the far-off scenes so lately present to us! Yesterday was it, or a few weeks ago, that this "excellent canopy," our modest roof, dwelt three thousand miles away to the westward of us? At this moment stowed away in a snuggery called our own; and then—how brief a period it seems! what a small parenthesis in time—putting another man's latch-key into another man's door, night after night, in a London fog, and feeling for the unfamiliar aperture with all the sensation of an innocent housebreaker! Muffled here in the oldest of dressing-gowns, that never lifted its blessed arms ten rods from the spot where it was born; and only a few weeks ago lolling out of C.R.'s college-window at Oxford, counting the deer, as they nibbled the grass, and grouped themselves into beautiful pictures on the sward of ancient Magdalen!

As we look into the red fire in the grate, we think of the scarlet coats we saw not long ago in Stratford,—when E.F., kindest of men and merriest of hosts, took us to the "meet." We gaze round the field again, and enjoy the enlivening scene. White-haired and tall, our kind-hearted friend walks his glossy mare up and down the turf. His stalwart sons, with sport imbrowned, proud of their sire, call our attention to the sparkle in the old man's eye. We are mounted on a fiery little animal, and are half-frightened at the thought of what she may do with us when the chase is high. Confident that a roll is inevitable, and that, with a dislocated neck, enjoyment would be out of the question, we pull bridle, and carefully dismount, hoping not to attract attention. Whereat all our jolly English cousins beg to inquire, "What's the row?" We whisper to the red-coated brave prancing near us, that "we have changed our mind, and will not follow the hunt to-day,—another time we shall be most happy,—just now we are not quite up to the mark,—next week we shall be all right again," etc., etc. One of the lithe hounds, who seems to have steel springs in his hind legs, looks contemptuously at the American stranger, and turns up his long nose like a moral insinuation. Off they fly! we watch the beautiful cavalcade bound over the brook and sweep away into the woodland passes. Then we saunter down by the Avon, and dream away the daylight in endless visions of long ago, when sweet Will and his merry comrades moved about these pleasant haunts. Returning to the hall, we find we have walked ten miles over the breezy country, and knew it not,—so pleasant is the fragrant turf that has been often pressed by the feet of Nature's best-beloved high-priest! Round the mahogany tree that night we hear the hunters tell the glories of their sport,—how their horses, like Homer's steeds,

"Devoured up the plain";

and we can hear now, in imagination, the voices of the deep-mouthed hounds rising and swelling among the Warwick glens.

Neither can we forget, as we sit here musing, whose green English carpet, down in Kent, we so lately rested on under the trees,—nor how we wandered off with the lord of that hospitable manor to an old castle hard by his grounds, and climbed with him to the turret-tops,—nor how we heard him repeople in fancy the aged ruin, as we leaned over the wall and looked into the desolate court-yard below. The world has given audience to this man, thought we, for many a year; but one who has never heard the sound of his laughing voice knows not half his wondrous power. When he reads his "Christmas Carol," go far to hear him, judicious friend, if you happen to be in England, and let us all hope together that we shall have that keen gratification next year in America. To know him is to love and esteem him tenfold more than if you only read of him.

Let us bear in mind, too, how happily the hours went by with us so recently in the vine-embowered cottage of dear L.H., the beautiful old man with silver hair,—

  "As hoary frost with spangles doth attire
  The mossy branches of an oak."

The sound of the poet's voice was like the musical fall of water in our ears, and every sentence he uttered then is still a melody. As we sit dreamily here, he speaks to us again of "life's morning march, when his bosom was young," and of his later years, when his struggles were many and keen, and only his pen was the lever which rolled poverty away from his door. We can hear him, as we pause over this leaf, as we heard the old clock that night at sea. He tells us of his cherished companions, now all gone,—of Shelley, and Keats, and Charles Lamb, whom he loved,—of Byron, and Coleridge, and the rest. As we sit at his little table, he hands us a manuscript, and says it is the "Endymion," John Keats's gift to himself. He reads to us from it some of his favorite lines, and the tones of his voice are very tender over his dead friend's poem. As we pass out of his door that evening, the moon falls on his white locks, his thin hand rests for a moment on our shoulder, and we hear him say very kindly, "God bless you!"

In London, not long after this, we meet again the bard of "Rimini," and his discourse is still sweet as any dulcimer. Another old man is with him, a poet also, whose songs are among the bravest in England's Helicon. We observe how these two friends love each other, and as they stand apart in the anteroom, the eldest with his arm around his brother bard, we think it is a very pleasant sight, and not to be forgotten ever. And when, a few months later, we are among the Alpine hills, and word comes to us that L.H. is laid to rest in Kensal Green Churchyard, we are grateful to have looked upon his cheerful countenance, and to have heard him say, "God bless you!"

We cry your mercy, gayest of cities, with your bright Bois de Boulogne, and your splendid café's! We do not much affect your shows, but we cannot dismiss forever the cheerful little room, cloud-environed almost, up to which we have so often toiled, after days of hard walking among the gaudy streets of the French capital. One pleasant scene, at least, rises unbidden, as we recall the past. It is a brisk, healthy morning, and we walk in the direction of the Tuileries. Bending our steps toward the Palace, (it is yet early, and few loiterers are abroad in the leafy avenues,) we observe a group of three persons, not at all distinguished in their appearance, having a roystering good time in the Imperial Garden. One of them is a little boy, with a chubby, laughing face, who shouts loudly to his father, a grave, thoughtful gentleman, who runs backwards, endeavoring to out-race his child. The mother, a fair-haired woman, with her bonnet half loose in the wind, strives to attract the boy's attention and win him to her side. They all run and leap in the merry morning-air, and, as we watch them more nearly, we know them to be the royal family out larking before Paris is astir. Play on, great Emperor, sweet lady, and careless boy-prince! You have hung up a picture in our gallery of memory, very pleasant to look at, this cold night in America. May you always be as happy as when you romped together in the garden!

The days that are fled still knock at the door and enter. We are walking on the banks of the Esk, toward a friendly dwelling in Lasswade,—Mavis Bush they call the pretty place at the foot of the hill. A slight figure, clad in black, waits for us at the garden-gate, and bids us welcome in accents so kindly, that we, too, feel the magic influence of his low, sweet voice,—an effect which Wordsworth described to us years before as eloquence set to music. The face of our host is very pale, and, when he puts his thin arm within ours, we feel how frail a body may contain a spirit of fire. We go into his modest abode and listen to his wonderful talk, wishing all the while that the hours were months, that we might linger there, spellbound, day and night, before the master of our English tongue. He proposes a ramble across the meadows to Roslin Chapel, and on the way he discourses of the fascinating drug so painfully associated with his name in literature,—of Christopher North, in whose companionship he delighted among the Lakes,—of Elia, whom he recalled as the most lovable man among his friends, and whom he has well described elsewhere as a Diogenes with the heart of a Saint John. In the dark evening he insists upon setting out with us on our return to Edinburgh. When it grows late, and the mists are heavy on the mountains, we stand together, clasping hands of farewell in the dim road, the cold Scotch hills looming up all about us. As the small figure of the English Opium-Eater glides away into the midnight distance, our eyes strain after him to catch one more glimpse. The Esk roars, and we hear his footsteps no longer.

The scene changes, as the clock strikes in the entry. We are lingering in the piazza of the Winged Lion, and the bronze giants in their turret overlooking the square raise their hammers and beat the solemn march of Time. As we float away through the watery streets, old Shylock shuffles across the bridge,—black barges glide by us in the silent canals,—groups of unfamiliar faces lean from the balconies,—and we hear the plashing waters lap the crumbling walls of Venice, with its dead Doges and decaying palaces.

Again we stir the fire, and feel it is home all about us. But we like to sit here and think of that rosy evening, last summer, when we came walking into Interlachen, and beheld the ghost-like figure of the Jungfrau issuing out of her cloudy palace to welcome the stars,—of a cool, bright, autumnal morning on the western battlements overlooking Genoa, the blue Mediterranean below mirroring the silent fleet that lay so motionless on its bosom,—of a midnight visit to the Colosseum with a band of German students, who bore torches in and out of the time-worn arches, and sang their echoing songs to the full moon,—of days, how many and how magical! when we awoke every morning to say, "We are in Rome!"

But it grows late, and it is time now to give over these reflections. So we wind up our watch, and put out the candle.