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An essay by Elia W. Peattie


Title:     Fame
Author: Elia W. Peattie [More Titles by Peattie]

AS I remember the boys and girls who grew up with me, I think of them as artists, or actors, or travellers, or rich merchants. Each of us, by the time we were half through grammar school, had selected a career. So far as I recollect, this career had very little to do with our abilities. We merely chose something that suited us. Our energy and our vanity crystallised into particular shapes. There was a sort of religion abroad in the West at that time that a person could do almost anything he set out to do. The older people, as well as the children, had an idea that the world was theirs--they all were Monte Cristos in that respect.

As for me, I had decided to be an orator.

At the time of making this decision, I was nine years of age, decidedly thin and long drawn out, with two brown braids down my back, and a terrific shyness which I occasionally overcame with such a magnificent splurge that those who were not acquainted with my peculiarities probably thought me a shamefully assertive child.

I based my oratorical aspirations upon my having taken the prize a number of times in Sunday-school for learning the most New Testament verses, and upon the fact that I always could make myself heard to the farthest corner of the room. I also felt that I had a great message to deliver to the world when I got around it, though in this, I was in no way different from several of my friends. I had noticed a number of things in the world that were not quite right, and which I thought needed attention, and I believed that if I were quite good and studied elocution, in a little while I should be able to set my part of the world right, and perhaps even extend my influence to adjoining districts.

Meantime I practised terrible vocal exercises, chiefly consisting of a raucous "caw" something like a crow's favourite remark, and advocated by my teacher in elocution for no reason that I can now remember; and I stood before the glass for hours at a time making grimaces so as to acquire the "actor's face," till my frightened little sisters implored me to turn back into myself again.

It was a great day for me when I was asked to participate in the Harvest Home Festival at our church on Thanksgiving Day. I looked upon it as the beginning of my career, and bought crimping papers so that my hair could be properly fluted. Of course, I wanted a new dress for the occasion, and I spent several days in planning the kind of a one I thought best suited to such a memorable event. I even picked out the particular lace pattern I wanted for the ruffles. This was before I submitted the proposition to Mother, however. When I told her about it she said she could see no use in getting a new dress and going to all the trouble of making it when my white one with the green harps was perfectly good.

This was such an unusual dress and had gone through so many vicissitudes, that I really was devotedly attached to it. It had, in the beginning, belonged to my Aunt Bess, and in the days of its first glory had been a sheer Irish linen lawn, with tiny green harps on it at agreeable intervals. But in the course of time, it had to be sent to the wash-tub, and then, behold, all the little lovely harps followed the example of the harp that "once through Tara's hall the soul of music shed," and disappeared! Only vague, dirty, yellow reminders of their beauty remained, not to decorate, but to disfigure the fine fabric.

Aunt Bess, naturally enough, felt irritated, and she gave the goods to mother, saying that she might be able to boil the yellow stains out of it and make me a dress. I had gone about many a time, like love amid the ruins, in the fragments of Aunt Bess's splendour, and I was not happy in the thought of dangling these dimmed reminders of Ireland's past around with me. But mother said she thought I'd have a really truly white Sunday best dress out of it by the time she was through with it. So she prepared a strong solution of sodium and things, and boiled the breadths, and every little green harp came dancing back as if awaiting the hand of a new Dublin poet. The green of them was even more charming than it had been at first, and I, as happy as if I had acquired the golden harp for which I then vaguely longed, went to Sunday-school all that summer in this miraculous dress of now-you-see-them and-now-you-don't, and became so used to being asked if I were Irish that my heart exulted when I found that I might--fractionally--claim to be, and that one of the Fenian martyrs had been an ancestor. For a year, even, after that discovery of the Fenian martyr, ancestors were a favorite study of mine.

Well, though the dress became something more than familiar to the eyes of my associates, I was so attached to it that I felt no objection to wearing it on the great occasion; and, that being settled, all that remained was to select the piece which was to reveal my talents to a hitherto unappreciative--or, perhaps I should say, unsuspecting--group of friends and relatives. It seemed to me that I knew better than my teacher (who had agreed to select the pieces for her pupils) possibly could what sort of a thing best represented my talents, and so, after some thought, I selected "Antony and Cleopatra," and as I lagged along the too-familiar road to school, avoiding the companionship of my acquaintances, I repeated:

I am dying, Egypt, dying!
Ebbs the crimson life-tide fast,
And the dark Plutonian shadows
Gather on the evening blast.

Sometimes I grew so impassioned, so heedless of all save my mimic sorrow and the swing of the purple lines, that I could not bring myself to modify my voice, and the passers-by heard my shrill tones vibrating with:

As for thee, star-eyed Egyptian!
Glorious sorceress of the Nile!
Light the path to Stygian horrors
With the splendour of thy smile.

I wiped dishes to the rhythm of such phrases as "scarred and veteran legions," and laced my shoes to the music of "Though no glittering guards surround me."

Confident that no one could fail to see the beauty of these lines, or the propriety of the identification of myself with Antony, I called upon my Sunday-school teacher, Miss Goss, to report. I never had thought of Miss Goss as a blithe spirit. She was associated in my mind with numerous solemn occasions, and I was surprised to find that on this day she unexpectedly developed a trait of breaking into nervous laughter. I had got as far as "Should the base plebeian rabble--" when Miss Goss broke down in what I could not but regard as a fit of giggles, and I ceased abruptly.

She pulled herself together after a moment or two, and said if I would follow her to the library she thought she could find something--here she hesitated, to conclude with, "more within the understanding of the other children." I saw that she thought my feelings were hurt, and as I passed a mirror I feared she had some reason to think so. My face was uncommonly flushed, and a look of indignation had crept, somehow, even into my braids, which, having been plaited too tightly, stuck out in crooks and kinks from the side of my head. Incidentally, I was horrified to notice how thin I was--thin, even for a dying Antony--and my frock was so outgrown that it hardly covered my knees. "Ridiculous!" I said under my breath, as I confronted this miserable figure--so shamefully insignificant for the vicarious emotions which it had been housing. "Ridiculous!"

I hated Miss Goss, and must have shown it in my stony stare, for she put her arm around me and said it was a pity I had been to all the trouble to learn a poem which was--well, a trifle too--too old--but that she hoped to find something equally "pretty" for me to speak. At the use of that adjective in connection with William Lytle's lines, I wrenched away from her grasp and stood in what I was pleased to think a haughty calm, awaiting her directions.

She took from the shelves a little volume of Whittier, bound in calf, handling it as tenderly as if it were a priceless possession. Some pressed violets dropped out as she opened it, and she replaced them with devotional fingers. After some time she decided upon a lyric lament entitled "Eva." I was asked to run over the verses, and found them remarkably easy to learn; fatally impossible to forget. I presently arose and with an impish betrayal of the poverty of rhyme and the plethora of sentiment, repeated the thing relentlessly.

O for faith like thine, sweet Eva,
Lighting all the solemn reevah [river],
And the blessings of the poor,
Wafting to the heavenly shoor [shore].

"I do think," said Miss Goss gently, "that if you tried, my child, you might manage the rhymes just a little better."

"But if you're born in Michigan," I protested, "how can you possibly make 'Eva' rhyme with 'never' and 'believer'?"

"Perhaps it is a little hard," Miss Goss agreed, and still clinging to her Whittier, she exhumed "The Pumpkin," which she thought precisely fitted for our Harvest Home festival. This was quite another thing from "Eva," and I saw that only hours of study would fix it in my mind. I went to my home, therefore, with "The Pumpkin" delicately transcribed in Miss Goss's running hand, and I tried to get some comfort from the foreign allusions glittering through Whittier's kindly verse. As the days went by I came to have a certain fondness for those homely lines:

O--fruit loved of boyhood!--the old days recalling,
When wood grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in the skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!

When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune,
Our chair a broad pumpkin--our lantern the moon,
Telling tales of the fairy who travelled like steam
In a pumpkin-shell coach, with two rats for her team!

On all sides this poem was considered very fitting, and I went to the festival with that comfortable feeling one has when one is moving with the majority and is wearing one's best clothes.

I sat rigid with expectancy while my schoolmates spoke their "pieces" and sang their songs. With frozen faces they faced each other in dialogues, lost their quavering voices, and stumbled down the stairs in their anguish of spirit. I pitied them, and thought how lucky it was that my memory never failed me, and that my voice carried so well that I could arouse even old Elder Waite from his slumbers.

Then my turn came. My crimps were beautiful; the green harps danced on my freshly-ironed frock, and I had on my new chain and locket. I relied upon a sort of mechanism in me to say: O greenly and fair in the lands of the sun, The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run.

In this seemly manner Whittier's ode to the pumpkin began. I meant to go on to verses which I knew would delight my audience--to references to the "crook-necks" ripening under the September sun; and to Thanksgiving gatherings at which all smiled at the reunion of friends and the bounty of the board.

What moistens the lip and brightens the eye!
What calls back the past like the rich pumpkin pie!

I was sure these lines would meet with approval, and having "come down to the popular taste," I was prepared to do my best to please.

After a few seconds, when the golden pumpkins that lined the stage had ceased to dance before my eyes, I thought I ought to begin to "get hold of my audience." Of course, my memory would be giving me the right words, and my facile tongue running along reliably, but I wished to demonstrate that "ability" which was to bring me favour and fame. I listened to my own words and was shivered into silence. I was talking about "dark Plutonian shadows"; I was begging "Egypt" to let her arms enfold me--I was, indeed, in the very thick of the forbidden poem. I could hear my thin, aspiring voice reaching out over that paralysed audience with:

Though my scarred and veteran legions
Bear their eagles high no more;
And my wrecked and scattered galleys
Strew dark Actium's fatal shore.

My tongue seemed frozen, or some kind of a ratchet at the base of it had got out of order. For a moment--a moment can be the little sister of eternity--I could say nothing. Then I found myself in the clutches of the instinct for self-preservation. I felt it in me to stop the giggles of the girls on the front seat; to take the patronising smiles out of the tolerant eyes of the grown people. Maybe my voice lost something of its piping insistence and was touched with genuine feeling; perhaps some faint, faint spark of the divine fire which I longed to fan into a flame did flicker in me for that one time. I had the indescribable happiness of seeing the smiles die on the faces of my elders, and of hearing the giggles of my friends cease.

I went to my seat amid what I was pleased to consider "thunders of applause," and by way of acknowledgment, I spoke, with chastened propriety, Whittier's ode to the pumpkin.

I cannot remember whether or not I was scolded. I'm afraid, afterward, some people still laughed. As for me, oddly enough, my oratorical aspirations died. I decided there were other careers better fitted to one of my physique. So I had to go to the trouble of finding another career; but just what it was I have forgotten.

[The end]
Elia W. Peattie's essay: Fame