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My First Love
from Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac by Eugene Field

At this moment, when I am about to begin the most important undertaking of my life, I recall the sense of abhorrence with which I have at different times read the confessions of men famed for their prowess in the realm of love. These boastings have always shocked me, for I reverence love as the noblest of the passions, and it is impossible for me to conceive how one who has truly fallen victim to its benign influence can ever thereafter speak flippantly of it.

Yet there have been, and there still are, many who take a seeming delight in telling you how many conquests they have made, and they not infrequently have the bad taste to explain with wearisome prolixity the ways and the means whereby those conquests were wrought; as, forsooth, an unfeeling huntsman is forever boasting of the game he has slaughtered and is forever dilating upon the repulsive details of his butcheries.

I have always contended that one who is in love (and having once been in love is to be always in love) has, actually, no confession to make. Love is so guileless, so proper, so pure a passion as to involve none of those things which require or which admit of confession. He, therefore, who surmises that in this exposition of my affaires du coeur there is to be any betrayal of confidences, or any discussion, suggestion, or hint likely either to shame love or its votaries or to bring a blush to the cheek of the fastidious---he is grievously in error.

Nor am I going to boast; for I have made no conquests. I am in no sense a hero. For many, very many years I have walked in a pleasant garden, enjoying sweet odors and soothing spectacles; no predetermined itinerary has controlled my course; I have wandered whither I pleased, and very many times I have strayed so far into the tangle-wood and thickets as almost to have lost my way. And now it is my purpose to walk that pleasant garden once more, inviting you to bear me company and to share with me what satisfaction may accrue from an old man's return to old-time places and old-time loves.

As a child I was serious-minded. I cared little for those sports which usually excite the ardor of youth. To out-of-door games and exercises I had particular aversion. I was born in a southern latitude, but at the age of six years I went to live with my grandmother in New Hampshire, both my parents having fallen victims to the cholera. This change from the balmy temperature of the South to the rigors of the North was not agreeable to me, and I have always held it responsible for that delicate health which has attended me through life.

My grandmother encouraged my disinclination to play; she recognized in me that certain seriousness of mind which I remember to have heard her say I inherited from her, and she determined to make of me what she had failed to make of any of her own sons---a professional expounder of the only true faith of Congregationalism. For this reason, and for the further reason that at the tender age of seven years I publicly avowed my desire to become a clergyman, an ambition wholly sincere at that time---for these reasons was I duly installed as prime favorite in my grandmother's affections.

As distinctly as though it were but yesterday do I recall the time when I met my first love. It was in the front room of the old homestead, and the day was a day in spring. The front room answered those purposes which are served by the so-called parlor of the present time. I remember the low ceiling, the big fireplace, the long, broad mantelpiece, the andirons and fender of brass, the tall clock with its jocund and roseate moon, the bellows that was always wheezy, the wax flowers under a glass globe in the corner, an allegorical picture of Solomon's temple, another picture of little Samuel at prayer, the high, stiff-back chairs, the foot-stool with its gayly embroidered top, the mirror in its gilt-and-black frame---all these things I remember well, and with feelings of tender reverence, and yet that day I now recall was well-nigh threescore and ten years ago!

Best of all I remember the case in which my grandmother kept her books, a mahogany structure, massive and dark, with doors composed of diamond-shaped figures of glass cunningly set in a framework of lead. I was in my seventh year then, and I had learned to read I know not when. The back and current numbers of the "Well-Spring" had fallen prey to my insatiable appetite for literature. With the story of the small boy who stole a pin, repented of and confessed that crime, and then became a good and great man, I was as familiar as if I myself had invented that ingenious and instructive tale; I could lisp the moral numbers of Watts and the didactic hymns of Wesley, and the annual reports of the American Tract Society had already revealed to me the sphere of usefulness in which my grandmother hoped I would ultimately figure with discretion and zeal. And yet my heart was free; wholly untouched of that gentle yet deathless passion which was to become my delight, my inspiration, and my solace, it awaited the coming of its first love.

Upon one of those shelves yonder---it is the third shelf from the top, fourth compartment to the right---is that old copy of the "New England Primer," a curious little, thin, square book in faded blue board covers. A good many times I have wondered whether I ought not to have the precious little thing sumptuously attired in the finest style known to my binder; indeed, I have often been tempted to exchange the homely blue board covers for flexible levant, for it occurred to me that in this way I could testify to my regard for the treasured volume. I spoke of this one day to my friend Judge Methuen, for I have great respect for his judgment.

"It would be a desecration," said he, "to deprive the book of its original binding. What! Would you tear off and cast away the covers which have felt the caressing pressure of the hands of those whose memory you revere? The most sacred of sentiments should forbid that act of vandalism!"

I never think or speak of the "New England Primer" that I do not recall Captivity Waite, for it was Captivity who introduced me to the Primer that day in the springtime of sixty-three years ago. She was of my age, a bright, pretty girl---a very pretty, an exceptionally pretty girl, as girls go. We belonged to the same Sunday-school class. I remember that upon this particular day she brought me a russet apple. It was she who discovered the Primer in the mahogany case, and what was not our joy as we turned over the tiny pages together and feasted our eyes upon the vivid pictures and perused the absorbingly interesting text! What wonder that together we wept tears of sympathy at the harrowing recital of the fate of John Rogers!

Even at this remote date I cannot recall that experience with Captivity, involving as it did the wood-cut representing the unfortunate Rogers standing in an impossible bonfire and being consumed thereby in the presence of his wife and their numerous progeny, strung along in a pitiful line across the picture for artistic effect---even now, I say, I cannot contemplate that experience and that wood-cut without feeling lumpy in my throat and moist about my eyes.

How lasting are the impressions made upon the youthful mind! Through the many busy years that have elapsed since first I tasted the thrilling sweets of that miniature Primer I have not forgotten that "young Obadias, David, Josias, all were pious"; that "Zaccheus he did climb the Tree our Lord to see"; and that "Vashti for Pride was set aside"; and still with many a sympathetic shudder and tingle do I recall Captivity's overpowering sense of horror, and mine, as we lingered long over the portraitures of Timothy flying from Sin, of Xerxes laid out in funeral garb, and of proud Korah's troop partly submerged.

So runs one of the couplets in this little Primer-book, and right truly can I say that from the springtime day sixty-odd years ago, when first my heart went out in love to this little book, no change of scene or of custom, no allurement of fashion, no demand of mature years, has abated that love. And herein is exemplified the advantage which the love of books has over the other kinds of love. Women are by nature fickle, and so are men; their friendships are liable to dissipation at the merest provocation or the slightest pretext.

Not so, however, with books, for books cannot change. A thousand years hence they are what you find them to-day, speaking the same words, holding forth the same cheer, the same promise, the same comfort; always constant, laughing with those who laugh and weeping with those who weep.

Captivity Waite was an exception to the rule governing her sex. In all candor I must say that she approached closely to a realization of the ideals of a book---a sixteenmo, if you please, fair to look upon, of clear, clean type, well ordered and well edited, amply margined, neatly bound; a human book whose text, as represented by her disposition and her mind, corresponded felicitously with the comeliness of her exterior. This child was the great-great-granddaughter of Benjamin Waite, whose family was carried off by Indians in 1677. Benjamin followed the party to Canada, and after many months of search found and ransomed the captives.

The historian has properly said that the names of Benjamin Waite and his companion in their perilous journey through the wilderness to Canada should "be memorable in all the sad or happy homes of this Connecticut valley forever." The child who was my friend in youth, and to whom I may allude occasionally hereafter in my narrative, bore the name of one of the survivors of this Indian outrage, a name to be revered as a remembrancer of sacrifice and heroism.

 

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