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James Baldwin

Something from the Saddle-Bags

T HE next morning we were all in a bustle of excitement, for our Friend from England was about to take his departure. Two brother ministers had ridden over from the White Lick Settlement and, together with Barnabas the schoolmaster, would accompany him on his journey. It was his intention to visit the settlements on the Wabash and to carry a message of love and fellowship to the Friends in Vermillion (wherever that might be). His horse was brought, saddled and bridled, from the stable—a borrowed horse which was to be returned next month in care of Barnabas and the White Lick ministers.

The great man himself was so busy that he had scarcely time to notice the barefooted awkward urchin who had been his companion of the day before. But, at length, after the other men had gone out and were waiting at the gate, he called softly to me and said:

"Robert Dudley, I think I have something in my saddle-bags for thee. Come and get it."

I followed him into the settin'-room of the big-house. He opened one end of the leather bags that had already been packed for the journey, and drew forth a thin, paper-covered, large-paged book, which he put into my hands.

"I think thee will enjoy this," he said; "and thee may add it to thy library. It is the latest work of one of our most charming writers, and thee will learn much from it concerning the history of our country. And now, farewell, Robert. I shall not likely see thee again, but I have great hopes that I may live to hear much about thee. Make good use of thy gifts, and above all, be sure to keep the light burning. Farewell, and may the Lord bless thee!"

He shook my hand heartily, lovingly, picked up his saddle-bags and hurried out. On his way past the cabin door, where the rest of the family were waiting to bid him farewell, he met father, and I overheard him say:

"Give the little lad a chance, Stephen. Don't quench the light."

Then there were handshakings and kind words and earnest farewells all round; and the three ministers and the schoolmaster mounted their steeds and rode away on their long journey of love. And we watched them until they disappeared among the trees.

"That there Benjamin Seafoam, he's jist bully!" exclaimed David, slapping his thigh to give vent to his emotions. "Why, he ain't a bit like a preacher; he's more like one of us big boys."

"That's so," said Jonathan. "He never said a word to us about religion; but somehow it always made me feel better jist to see him. He ain't always a-preachin' to a feller, like Old Joel Sparker."

"It's my 'pinion," marked Cousin Mandy Jane, "that Benjamin Seafoam has got more sense in his little finger than that there Old Joel Sparker ever had in his hull dried-up body."

"Well, 'tain't everybody that can be borned in England," sighed good old Aunt Rachel, as she tottered back to her easy chair.

As soon as I could safely do so, I sought the seclusion of the back yard to examine my new book. Sitting in my favorite place under the biggest cherry tree, I opened the volume and read the title-page: "A Child's History of England,  by Charles Dickens." As I afterward learned, it was probably only an advance copy of the first of the three volumes, or parts, in which that masterpiece of its kind was originally issued. It is doubtful if at that time the remaining two parts had been printed; but this made little difference to me, since the book seemed complete in itself.

I turned to the first page and began the delightful task of reading it through. Imagine, if you can, the pleasures that were mine during the remainder of that day! I threw myself flat on the grass, my elbows upon the ground, my head resting upon my hands, the wonderful book before me. And soon all other things of time and sense were forgotten in the absorbing story of England's origin. The impressions that were then made upon my imagination have not yet been effaced although the mental accumulations of threescore years have been superimposed upon them. To this day, at the mere mention of the book, familiar visions present themselves of the white-cliffed island with the stormy sea roaring round it and the bleak winds blowing over its forests; of good King Alfred, the bravest, the humblest, the noblest of all the monarchs that have ruled over the English people; of the Conqueror, master of two realms and wielder of the world's destiny, deserted by his own children and denied a grave wherein to hide his loathsome remains; of the lion-hearted Richard, minstrel, poet, beast, who, if he had not been born a prince, might have been a worthy leader of honest men; and of John, the vilest of all those useless creatures, signing the Magna Charta, and then cursing and swearing, gnawing his finger-nails, and drinking hard cider till he died like a fool.

And there the book ended.

But why need I dwell upon these early literary impressions, O my Leonidas, my Leona? They have little in common with any experiences that you can ever have. At ten years of age you will have passed through the primary grades of a great modern school, receiving your instruction from a teacher trained in all the mysteries of scientific pedagogy. Your reading will have consisted mainly of nursery tales, of barbarous folk stories and of various classical productions mutilated and adapted so as not to overburden your infant understandings. You can have no sympathy with my random excursions into the field of literature—unguided, unaided, groping as it were in the darkness. And when you have reached (as I have) the last stage of slippered caducity, what sort of reminiscences will remain to you of childish literary joys? Your bookish memories will not hark back to white-cliffed islands and real live kings and world-shaping events, but they will recall certain dim impressions concerning the house that Jack built and the pig that wouldn't go over the stile, with other "literary legacies" equally improving and civilizing.

Forgive me this digression.