Comfort, by John Greenleaf Whittier
Tales and Sketches
For the last few days the fine weather has lured me away from books and
papers and the close air of dwellings into the open fields, and under
the soft, warm sunshine, and the softer light of a full moon. The
loveliest season of the whole year—that transient but delightful
interval between the storms of the "wild equinox, with all their wet,"
and the dark, short, dismal days which precede the rigor of winter—is
now with us. The sun rises through a soft and hazy atmosphere; the
light mist-clouds melt gradually away before him; and his noontide light
rests warm and clear on still woods, tranquil waters, and grasses green
with the late autumnal rains. The rough-wooded slopes of Dracut,
overlooking the falls of the river; Fort Hill, across the Concord, where
the red man made his last stand, and where may still be seen the trench
which he dug around his rude fortress; the beautiful woodlands on the
Lowell and Tewksbury shores of the Concord; the cemetery; the Patucket
Falls,—all within the reach of a moderate walk,—offer at this season
their latest and loveliest attractions.
One fine morning, not long ago, I strolled down the Merrimac, on the
Tewksbury shore. I know of no walk in the vicinity of Lowell so
inviting as that along the margin of the river for nearly a mile from
the village of Belvidere. The path winds, green and flower-skirted,
among beeches and oaks, through whose boughs you catch glimpses of
waters sparkling and dashing below. Rocks, huge and picturesque,
jut out into the stream, affording beautiful views of the river and
the distant city.
Half fatigued with my walk, I threw myself down upon the rocky slope
of the bank, where the panorama of earth, sky, and water lay clear and
distinct about me. Far above, silent and dim as a picture, was the
city, with its huge mill-masonry, confused chimney-tops, and church-
spires; nearer rose the height of Belvidere, with its deserted burial-
place and neglected gravestones sharply defined on its bleak, bare
summit against the sky; before me the river went dashing down its rugged
channel, sending up its everlasting murmur; above me the birch-tree hung
its tassels; and the last wild flowers of autumn profusely fringed the
rocky rim of the water. Right opposite, the Dracut woods stretched
upwards from the shore, beautiful with the hues of frost, glowing with
tints richer and deeper than those which Claude or Poussin mingled, as
if the rainbows of a summer shower had fallen among them. At a little
distance to the right a group of cattle stood mid-leg deep in the river;
and a troop of children, bright-eyed and mirthful, were casting pebbles
at them from a projecting shelf of rock. Over all a warm but softened
sunshine melted down from a slumberous autumnal sky.
My revery was disagreeably broken. A low, grunting sound, half bestial,
half human, attracted my attention. I was not alone. Close beside me,
half hidden by a tuft of bushes, lay a human being, stretched out at
full length, with his face literally rooted into the gravel. A little
boy, five or six years of age, clean and healthful, with his fair brown
locks and blue eyes, stood on the bank above, gazing down upon him with
an expression of childhood's simple and unaffected pity.
"What ails you?" asked the boy at length. "What makes you lie there?"
The prostrate groveller struggled half-way up, exhibiting the bloated
and filthy countenance of a drunkard. He made two or three efforts to
get upon his feet, lost his balance, and tumbled forward upon his face.
"What are you doing there?" inquired the boy.
"I'm taking comfort," he muttered, with his mouth in the dirt.
Taking his comfort! There he lay,—squalid and loathsome under the
bright heaven,—an imbruted man. The holy harmonies of Nature, the
sounds of gushing waters, the rustle of the leaves above him, the wild
flowers, the frost-bloom of the woods,—what were they to him?
Insensible, deaf, and blind, in the stupor of a living death, he lay
there, literally realizing that most bitterly significant Eastern
malediction, "May you eat dirt!"
In contrasting the exceeding beauty and harmony of inanimate Nature with
the human degradation and deformity before me, I felt, as I confess I
had never done before, the truth of a remark of a rare thinker, that
"Nature is loved as the city of God, although, or rather because, it has
no citizen. The beauty of Nature must ever be universal and mocking
until the landscape has human figures as good as itself. Man is fallen;
Nature is erect."—[Emerson.] As I turned once more to the calm blue
sky, the hazy autumnal hills, and the slumberous water, dream-tinted by
the foliage of its shores, it seemed as if a shadow of shame and sorrow
fell over the pleasant picture; and even the west wind which stirred the
tree-tops above me had a mournful murmur, as if Nature felt the
desecration of her sanctities and the discord of sin and folly which
marred her sweet harmonies.
God bless the temperance movement! And He will bless it; for it is His
work. It is one of the great miracles of our times. Not Father Mathew
in Ireland, nor Hawkins and his little band in Baltimore, but He whose
care is over all the works of His hand, and who in His divine love and
compassion "turneth the hearts of men as the rivers of waters are
turned," hath done it. To Him be all the glory.