Chapter V. I Start For College And My Uncle Jacob Advises Me

The time came at last when the sacred habit of intimacy with my mother was broken, and I was to leave her for college.

It was the more painful to her, as only a year before, my father had died, leaving her more than ever dependent on the society of her children.

My father died as he had lived, rejoicing in his work and feeling that if he had a hundred lives to live, he would devote them to the same object for which he had spent that one—the preaching of the Gospel. He left to my mother the homestead and a small farm, which was under the care of one of my brothers, so that the event of his death made no change in our family home center, and I was to go to college and fulfill the hope of his heart and the desire of my mother's life, in consecrating myself to the work of the Christian ministry.

My father and mother had always kept sacredly a little fund laid by for the education of their children; it was the result of many small savings and self-denials—but self-denials so cheerfully and hopefully encountered that they had almost changed their nature and become preferences. The family fund for this purpose had been used in turn by two of my older brothers, who, as soon as they gained an independent foothold in life, appropriated each his first earnings to replacing this sum for the use of the next.

It was not, however, a fund large enough to dispense with the need of a strict economy, and a supplemental self-helpfulness on our part.

The terms in some of our New England colleges are thoughtfully arranged so that the students can teach for three of the winter months, and the resources thus gained help out their college expenses. Thus at the same time they educate themselves and help to educate others, and they study with the maturity of mind and the appreciation of the value of what they are gaining, resulting from a habit of measuring themselves with the actual needs of life.

The time when the boy goes to college is the time when he feels manhood to begin. He is no longer a boy, but an unfledged, undeveloped man—a creature, half of the past and half of the future. Yet every one gives him a good word or a congratulatory shake of the hand on his entrance to this new plateau of life. It is a time when advice is plenty as blackberries in August, and often held quite as cheap—but nevertheless a young fellow may as well look at what his elders tell him at this time, and see what he can make of it.

As I was "our minister's son," all the village thought it had something to do with my going. "Hallo, Harry, so you've got into college! Think you'll be as smart a man as your dad?" said one. "Wa-al, so I hear you're going to college. Stick to it now. I could a made suthin ef I'd a had larnin at your age," said old Jerry Smith, who rung the meeting-house bell, sawed wood, and took care of miscellaneous gardens for sundry widows in the vicinity.

But the sayings that struck me as most to the purpose came from my Uncle Jacob.

Uncle Jacob was my mother's brother, and the doctor not only of our village, but of all the neighborhood for ten miles round. He was a man celebrated for medical knowledge through the State, and known by his articles in medical journals far beyond. He might have easily commanded a wider and more lucrative sphere of practice by going to any of the large towns and cities, but Uncle Jacob was a philosopher and preferred to live in a small quiet way in a place whose scenery suited him, and where he could act precisely as he felt disposed, and carry out all his little humors and pet ideas without rubbing against conventionalities.

He had a secret adoration for my mother, whom he regarded as the top and crown of all womanhood, and he also enjoyed the society of my father, using him as a sort of whetstone to sharpen his wits on. Uncle Jacob was a church member in good standing, but in the matter of belief he was somewhat like a high-mettled horse in a pasture,—he enjoyed once in a while having a free argumentative race with my father all round the theological lot. Away he would go in full career, dodging definitions, doubling and turning with elastic dexterity, and sometimes ended by leaping over all the fences, with most astounding assertions, after which he would calm down, and gradually suffer the theological saddle and bridle to be put on him and go on with edifying paces, apparently much refreshed by his metaphysical capers.

Uncle Jacob was reported to have a wonderful skill in the healing craft. He compounded certain pills which were stated to have most wonderful effects. He was accustomed to exact that, in order fully to develop their medical properties, they should be taken after a daily bath, and be followed immediately by a brisk walk of a specific duration in the open air. The steady use of these pills had been known to make wonderful changes in the cases of confirmed invalids, a fact which Uncle Jacob used to notice with a peculiar twinkle in the corner of his eye. It was sometimes whispered that the composition of them was neither more nor less than simple white sugar with a flavor of some harmless essence, but upon this subject my Uncle Jacob was impenetrable. He used to say, with the afore-mentioned waggish twinkle, that their preparation was his secret.

Uncle Jacob had always had a special favor for me, shown after his own odd and original manner. He would take me in his chaise with him when driving about his business, and keep my mind on a perpetual stretch with his odd questions and droll, suggestive remarks or stories. There was a shrewd keen quality to all that he said, that stimulated like a mental tonic, and none the less so for a stinging flavor of sarcasm and cynicism, that stirred up and provoked one's self-esteem. Yet as Uncle Jacob was companionable and loved a listener, I think he was none the less agreeable to me for this slight touch of his claws. One likes to find power of any kind—and he who shows that he can both scratch and bite effectively, if he holds his talons in sheath, comes in time to be regarded as a sort of benefactor for his forbearance: and so, though I got many a shrewd mental nip and gripe from my Uncle Jacob, I gave on the whole more heed to his opinion than that of anybody else that I knew.

From the time that I had been detected with my self-invented manuscript, up to the period of my going to college, the expression of my thoughts by writing had always been a passion with me, and from year to year my mind had been busy with its own creations, which it was a solace and amusement for me to record.

Of course there was ever so much crabbed manuscript, and no less confused, immature thought. I wrote poems, essays, stories, tragedies, and comedies. I demonstrated the immortality of the soul. I sustained the future immortality of the souls of animals. I wrote sonnets and odes, in whole or in part on almost everything that could be mentioned in creation.

My mother advised me to make Uncle Jacob my literary mentor, and the best of my productions were laid under his eye.

"Poor trash!" he was wont to say, with his usual kindly twinkle. "But there must be poor trash in the beginning. We must all eat our peck of dirt, and learn to write sense by writing nonsense." Then he would pick out here and there a line or expression which he assured me was "not bad." Now and then he condescended to tell me that for a boy of my age, so and so was actually hopeful, and that I should make something one of these days, which was to me more encouragement than much more decided praise from any other quarter.


"So you are going to college, boy! Well, away with you; there's no use advising you; you'll do as all the rest do. In one year you'll know more than your father, your mother, or I, or all your college officers—in fact, than the Lord himself."

We all notice that he who is reluctant to praise, whose commendation is scarce and hard-earned, is he for whose good word everybody is fighting; he comes at last to be the judge in the race. After all, the fact which Uncle Jacob could not disguise, that he had a certain good opinion of me, in spite of his sharp criticisms and scant praises, made him the one whose dicta on every subject were the most important to me.

I went to him in all the glow of satisfaction and the tremble of self-importance that a boy feels who is taking the first step into the land of manhood.

I have the image of him now, as he stood with his back to the fire, and the newspaper in his hand, giving me his last counsels. A little wiry, keen-looking man, with a blue, hawk-like eye, a hooked nose, a high forehead, shadowed with grizzled hair, and a cris-cross of deeply lined wrinkles in his face.

"So you are going to college, boy! Well, away with you; there's no use advising you; you'll do as all the rest do. In one year you'll know more than your father, your mother, or I, or all your college officers—in fact, than the Lord himself. You'll have doubts about the Bible, and think you could have made a better one. You'll think that if the Lord had consulted you he could have laid the foundations of the earth better, and arranged the course of nature to more purpose. In short, you'll be a god, knowing good and evil, and running all over creation measuring everybody and everything in your pint cup. There'll be no living with you. But you'll get over it,—it's only the febrile stage of knowledge. But if you have a good constitution, you'll come through with it."

I humbly suggested to him that I should try to keep clear of the febrile stage; that forewarned was forearmed.

"Oh, tut! tut! you must go through your fooleries. These are the regular diseases, the chicken-pox, measles, and mumps of young manhood; you'll have them all. We only pray that you may have them light, and not break your constitution for all your life through, by them. For instance, you'll fall in love with some baby-faced young thing, with pink cheeks and long eyelashes, and goodness only knows what abominations of sonnets you'll be guilty of. That isn't fatal, however. Only don't get engaged. Take it as the chicken-pox—keep your pores open, and don't get cold, and it'll pass off and leave you none the worse."

"And she!" said I, indignantly. "You talk as if it was no matter what became of her—"

"What, the baby? Oh, she'll outgrow it, too. The fact is, soberly and seriously, Harry, marriage is the thing that makes or mars a man; it's the gate through which he goes up or down, and you shouldn't pledge yourself to it till you come to your full senses. Look at your mother, boy; see what a woman may be; see what she was to your father, what she is to me, to you, to every one that knows her. Such a woman, to speak reverently, is a pearl of great price; a man might well sell all he had to buy her. But it isn't that kind of woman that flirts with college boys. You don't pick up such pearls every day."

Of course I declared that nothing was further from my thoughts than anything of that nature.

"The fact is, Harry, you can't afford fooleries," said my uncle. "You have your own way to make, and nothing to make it with but your own head and hands, and you must begin now to count the cost of everything. You have a healthy, sound body; see that you take care of it. God gives you a body but once. He don't take care of it for you, and whatever of it you lose, you lose for good. Many a chap goes into college fresh as you are, and comes out with weak eyes and crooked back, yellow complexion and dyspeptic stomach. He has only himself to thank for it. When you get to college they'll want you to smoke, and you'll want to, just for idleness and good fellowship. Now, before you begin, just calculate what it'll cost you. You can't get a good cigar under ten cents, and your smoker wants three a day, at the least. There go thirty cents a day, two dollars and ten cents a week, or a hundred and nine dollars and twenty cents a year. Take the next ten years at that rate, and you can invest over a thousand dollars in tobacco smoke. That thousand dollars, invested in a savings bank, would give a permanent income of sixty dollars a year,—a handy thing, as you'll find, just as you are beginning life. Now, I know you think all this is prosy; You are amazingly given to figures of rhetoric, but, after all, you've got to get on in a world where things go by the rules of arithmetic."

"Well, uncle," I said, a little nettled, "I pledge you my word that I won't smoke or drink. I never have done either, and I don't know why I should."

"Good for you! your hand on that, my boy. You don't need either tobacco or spirits any more than you need water in your shoes. There's no danger in doing without them, and great danger in doing with them; so let's look on that as settled.

"Now, as to the rest. You have a faculty for stringing words together, and a hankering after it, that may make or spoil you. Many a fellow comes to naught because he can string pretty phrases and turn a good line of poetry. He gets the notion that he's to be a poet, or orator, or genius of some sort, and neglects study. Now, Harry, remember that an empty bag can't stand upright; and that if you are ever to be a writer you must have something to say, and that you've got to dig for knowledge as for hidden treasure. A genius for hard work is the best kind of genius. Look at great writers, and see how many had it. What a student Milton was, and Goethe! Great fellows, those!—like trees that grow out in a pasture lot, with branches all round. Composition is the flowering out of a man's mind. When he has made growth, all studies and all learning, all that makes woody fibre, go into it. Now, study books; observe nature; practice. If you make a good firm mental growth, I hope to see some blossoms and fruits from it one of these days. So go your ways, and God bless you!"

The last words were said as Uncle Jacob slipped into my hand an envelope, containing a sum of money. "You'll need it," he said, "to furnish your room; and hark'e! if you get into any troubles that you don't want to burden your mother with, come to me."

There was warmth in the grip with which these last words were said, and a sort of misty moisture came over his keen blue eye,—little signs which meant as much from his shrewd and reticent nature as a caress or an expression of tenderness might from another.

My mother's last words, after hours of talk over the evening fire, were these: "I want you to be a good man. A great many have tried to be great men, and failed; but nobody ever sincerely tried to be a good man, and failed."

I suppose it is about the happiest era in a young fellow's life, when he goes to college for the first time.

The future is all a land of blue distant mists and shadows, radiant as an Italian landscape. The boundaries between the possible and the not possible are so charmingly vague! There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow forever waiting for each new comer. Generations have not exhausted it!

De Balzac said, of writing his novels, that the dreaming out of them was altogether the best of it. "To imagine," he said, "is to smoke enchanted cigarettes; to bring out one's imaginations into words,—that is work!"

The same may be said of the romance of one's life. The dream-life is beautiful, but the rendering into reality quite another thing.

I believe every boy who has a good father and mother, goes to college meaning, in a general way, to be a good fellow. He will not disappoint them.—No! a thousand times, no! In the main, he will be a good boy,—not that he is going quite to walk according to the counsels of his elders. He is not going to fall over any precipices—not he—but he is going to walk warily and advisedly along the edge of them, and take a dispassionate survey of the prospect, and gather a few botanical specimens here and there. It might be dangerous for a less steady head than his; but he understands himself, and with regard to all things he says, "We shall see." The world is full of possibilities and open questions. Up sail, and away; let us test them!

As I scaled the mountains and descended the valleys on my way to college, I thought over all that my mother and Uncle Jacob had said to me, and had my own opinion of it.

Of course I was not the person to err in the ways he had suggested. I was not to be the dupe of a boy and girl flirtation. My standard of manhood was too exalted, I reflected, and I thought with complacency how little Uncle Jacob knew of me.

To be sure, it is a curious kind of a thought to a young man, that somewhere in this world, unknown to him, and as yet unknowing him, lives the woman that is to be his earthly fate,—to affect, for good or evil, his destiny.

We have all read the pretty story about the Princess of China and the young Prince of Tartary, whom a fairy and genius in a freak of caprice showed to each other in an enchanted sleep, and then whisked away again, leaving them to years of vain pursuit and wanderings. Such is the ideal image of somebody, who must exist somewhere, and is to be found sometime, and when found, is to be ours.

"Uncle Jacob is all right in the main," I said; "but if I should meet the true woman even in my college days, why that, indeed, would be quite another thing."

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