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James Baldwin

My Day in Paradise

I T was very late in the morning when I awoke. The sun was shining into the room between the green slats of the "Venetian shutters," which I had mistaken for iron bars. I rubbed my eyes and lay still for some time, being not a little puzzled to remember where I was and how I had gotten into this strange mysterious place. Little by little, however, I succeeded in calling to memory the adventures of the preceding day and evening; and I realized that I was now the guest of the great good man, Isaac Wilson, and therefore must be very circumspect and well-behaved.

I looked for father, but he was not in the room. There were unmistakable signs, however, that some large person had been reposing on the bed beside me, and I was sure that it was none but he. No doubt he had risen early, according to his invariable custom, and was now waiting for me in the room below. I slipped out of bed, and hastily donned my few little articles of clothing. Then I completed my toilet by running my fingers through my hair, resolving that I would wash my face and hands as soon as I could discover the whereabouts of some well or spring-house where such ablutions were permitted.

There was a soft knock at the half-open door, and the red-haired woman with the white apron peeped in and said that whenever "the little laddie, was ready he might go down into the dining-room." She informed me that father had breakfasted more than an hour ago, and had gone out to the blacksmith's shop, leaving word that I was to remain in the house until his return at noon. Would the brave laddie go down with her now, or wait a little while longer?

I hesitated, abashed and hardly knowing what to say. But reflecting that probably I should never be able to find my way down alone, I finally muttered feebly that I would go with her at once. She led me down the wonderful stairs and into the room where we had eaten our suppers the night before. Another woman was there now—a tall and stately woman, very prettily dressed and very kind and well-mannered as I was soon to know. She greeted me with a smile, and said, "Good morning, Robert Dudley!"

I looked at her and trembled visibly, for I had never been in such a presence before, and my natural shyness overpowered me and made me appear very ridiculous. I contrived, however, to slide into the chair which she offered me by the table, and to dispose of my naked feet where their extreme size would not be so noticeable. Then the good woman poured out for me a cupful of delicious coffee; and my conscience smote me because I had not the courage to ask whether it was slave labor or free labor. She gave me a hot biscuit with butter, and placed before me a most beautiful chany plate, on which was a bit of fried ham and an egg cooked exactly as I liked it best. If she had been Cousin Sally in disguise, she could not have served me better. And all the time, she kept talking to me and asking me sly little questions and laughing softly at my answers, until I wholly forgot the strangeness of things, and my shyness fled away, and I felt as though I were really at home and talking to mother.

At length, after I had eaten more than was good for me, my hostess led me into another and smaller room which I had not seen before, and where the carpet was so soft and beautiful that I was afraid to touch it even when walking on my bare tiptoes.

"I have heard that you are a great lover of books," she said; "and so I am going to leave you here for a while to enjoy yourself. Don't be afraid, but take down any book that you choose; and look at the pictures, or read, just as pleases you best."

Then she went out, softly closing the door and leaving me in that beautiful place alone. I looked around. The chairs were so handsome and the cushions were so soft that I feared to sit down on even the poorest of them. I felt ill at ease, as though I had gotten into a place for which I was not fitted. But there were the books of which the woman had spoken—two long shelves full of them, and as many as a dozen others on the table. I had never seen so many volumes in a single collection, and I fancied that every one of them was looking at me in a very friendly, inviting way, and dumbly asking me to court its acquaintance.

I sidled noiselessly up to the table, being very careful of the carpet, and then, half-standing, half-reclining, I opened the first book that came to my hand. It was a strange kind of book. It was neither a journal nor a history, nor a geography, nor yet anything like a reader; for it seemed to be composed entirely of conversations between two or more persons. I had read several little dialogues in the Child's Instructor  and others of my books at home, and so I soon grasped the idea of various players speaking their parts and performing the acts ascribed to them in the explanatory lines that were interlarded with the text. After I had read four or five pages, I turned back to the beginning and read them a second time, more carefully and with a much better understanding. I seemed then to have the hang of the whole situation, and I immediately became absorbed in the entrancing story of Antonio, Shylock, Portia, the caskets, and the pound of flesh. A new world was opened to my bookish vision, and I read and reread one scene after another, fancying myself in Venice, on the Rialto, in the duke's palace—an actual spectator of all the acts in that most absorbing drama.

How long I remained there, my elbows on the table, my hands supporting my head, my mind oblivious to every thing save that wonderful book, I am unable to say—but it must have been for the greater part of the morning. My early training in the hardest kind of reading—George Fox's rhapsodies and William Penn's dry-as-dust essays, for example—had made it easy for me to master at sight all sorts of words and phrases; therefore, after I had once gotten a start, my progress was rapid. I was in the middle of the familiar and ever famous trial scene and was reading Portia's inspired address to Shylock—"The quality of mercy is not strained"—when a slight sound, as though some one were softly opening the door and entering the room, frightened me out of the duke's palace and brought me momentarily back to a sense of my surroundings. I listened, not daring to look around. My eyes were riveted upon the printed page, but my ears as well as my thoughts were directed backward to the supposed cause of the disturbance. No further sound however was heard, and I easily persuaded myself that perhaps my kind hostess had merely peeped in, very slyly, to see what I was doing. So I again leaned over the table, with my eyes a little closer to the book, and was soon back in Venice again.

Some minutes passed, and I had reached the beginning of the last act:

"The moon shines bright. On such a night as this,"—and just then I distinctly heard a rustling sound in the room; and immediately afterward a very little voice, if voice it might be called, gave utterance to an unmistakable but almost inaudible "Ahem!" I raised my head quickly, and as quickly closed the book.

O my Leonidas, my Leona, have patience with me! Had the gates of pearl been suddenly opened, inviting my poor bare feet to enter and traverse the gold-paved streets of the New Jerusalem, I could not have been more astonished, terrified, enraptured. For there by the window, sitting in one of those too-good-to-be-used chairs, was the creature of my dreams, the Angel of the Facin' Bench! She was gazing out into the street, and was seemingly oblivious of my presence.

I recognized her at once; for the world could hold no other person with countenance so angelic, with brownish golden curls so entrancingly lovely. And then the recollection flashed upon me that this was the home, not only of Isaac Wilson, but also of Henry Meredith his son-in-law, who, as Cousin Mandy Jane had once told me, was the father of my angel. How wonderful that a mere accident on the road should have thus brought me into her very home!

My ecstasy, however, was but momentary, and all these thoughts concerning her identity were as the lightning's flash. My shyness overwhelmed me, and I dropped my eyes toward the closed book, not daring to venture a second glance lest it should meet her own and I should be undone. My heart thumped loudly, and I wished, oh! I wished—no, I didn't wish—that I was safe at home with mother.

Moments of dreadful suspense followed, and then there was another sly little "Ahem!"—a little louder than before. Without moving my head, I glanced side-wise through the corners of my eyes. Yes, she was still in the same place, and if you will believe it, she was really looking toward me with those wonderfully expressive brown eyes. Oh, how uncomfortable I was! And then I began to feel very foolish, remembering what mother had taught me about being mannerly in the presence of strangers. Was it mannerly to sit there and say nothing? I couldn't think so. Being the only gentleman present, it was plainly my duty to speak first and thus open the way for some friendly conversation. But what ought I to say? I pondered and hesitated, resolved and faltered, feeling quite sure that her eyes were upon me and that she was impatiently waiting for me to make an advance. Finally, mustering all my fluctuating courage, I suddenly raised my head, turned my eyes full toward the ineffable creature, and with the energy of desperation muttered:


"Good morning, sir!" was the pretty answer.

Then there was another long silence, during which I was trying to make up a second proper speech. At length, after several efforts, I contrived to stammer:

"Yes, I think it is  a pretty good morning. How's thee and thine?"

The angel actually giggled, and the hot blushes overspread my face as I realized that I had made some sort of awkward blunder.

"I'm very well, I thank you," she answered between the giggles.

Then there was another long and most excruciating silence. I felt that I could never, never say another word in her presence, for if I attempted it I should be sure to make a mess of it and be laughed at, and lose her favor forever. Anything that I might try to do would only widen the gulf between us and make me more miserable. So I resolutely gazed at the bookshelves and wished that something might happen to ease my embarrassment.

Finally, the angel herself relieved the painful tension.

"My name is Edith Meredith," she said. "What is yours?"

"Robert Dudley," I answered, trembling. I would have given the world to possess the coolness and courage which she displayed, and still another world to have had her good manners.

"Mother told me to come in and see if you were enjoying yourself," she said, turning her face and looking squarely into my eyes. "Do you like books?"

"Yes," I answered, still exceedingly sheepish.

"I like them, too," she said. "I suppose you have a fine library at home."

She spoke so pleasantly that I began to feel more at ease, and my courage slowly revived. "Yes, I have a dozen books of my own, and father has a very large library," I said.

The maiden slipped down from the great chair she was in, and tripping across the room, came and stood on the opposite side of the table.

"I see you have been reading Shakespeare," she said, pointing to the book that was lying under my hand. "Father says that I am not old enough to understand such books yet."

"No, no," I stammered. "This ain't Shakespeare; it's The Merchant of Venice. I've never read any of the Shakespeare books, and I don't think I want to."

She smiled, and kindly refrained from setting me right lest she should seem to be vaunting her superior knowledge; but she asked:

"Why don't you want to read them?"

"Well, I've heard that some of them are not true; and a man named Benjamin Seafoam once told me that they are nothing but plays for the idle diversion of worldly people."

This remark was greeted with another little giggle; but my courage had now so far revived that I was not seriously cast down by it.

"Well, I hope you liked The Merchant of Venice,"  she said. "How much of it did you read?"

"Nearly all of it," I answered, "and I like it almost as well as Robinson Crusoe. Did thee ever read Robinson Crusoe?"

"I began to read it once; but I didn't care much for it. It's a boy's story you know. The Merchant of Venice  is different. I've never read it, but I've seen it played."

"Played!" I exclaimed, failing to understand her meaning.

"Yes," she answered. "Last winter, just before we came from Philadelphia, father took me to the theater to see it played; and we liked it so much that he bought the book for me, so that I may read it when I grow older."

If, at that moment, the Old Feller himself had stepped into the room, my righteous indignation would not have boiled more hotly. "Theater!" I cried sharply. "Does thee mean to say that thee went to such a place as that?"

"Yes, I went with father. Why shouldn't I?" She spoke so calmly that I cooled off very rapidly and my self-assurance well-nigh deserted me. And so I answered very mildly:

"If thy father took thee, I reckon it's all right; but I wish thee hadn't gone. Our Society don't believe in theaters and places of idle diversion. Mother says that the Old Feller is after people that go to them."

"Did you ever see a theater?" she asked.

"No; and I hope I never shall," I said fervently. "They're very bad places; and I think thee ought to keep away from 'em."

There was another funny giggle in which I fancied I detected a tone of scorn, as though she really meant, "Mind your own business." Then there was a long, long silence while Edith turned her back toward me to adjust the books on the shelves, and I stood still, like a dunce, and toyed idly with the leaves of The Merchant of Venice. The little maid was evidently annoyed by my goody-goody, half-baked ideas; and I was so overcome with shame that I wished I might kick myself very hard for making so many foolish remarks—remarks which could only bring deserved ridicule upon my head. Oh, that I might hide my face, escape to some desert island, obliterate myself!

It seemed ages until the spell of awkwardness and silence was again broken. At length the little maid, as though seeking an excuse to turn our thoughts into other channels, took down a great heavy volume and laid it on the table before my eyes. It was gorgeously bound in blue and gold, and my first thought was of the fabulous price that must have been paid for so rare a book.

"Wouldn't you like to look at some beautiful pictures?" she asked very sweetly.

"Um-huh!" I grunted in the Hoosier dialect, scarcely raising my eyes. To this day I am overwhelmed with shame whenever I recall my unmannerliness, my unmitigated greenness at that particular moment.

But Edith didn't seem to notice it.

"Well, this book is chock-full of them," she said, "and if you don't mind, we'll look at them till dinner's ready."

I hesitated, feeling that I was sure to make a fool of myself, no matter what I might do or say.

"Sit down in that chair," said the maiden, "and I will turn the leaves."

I obeyed her, being very uncomfortable with the thought that my poor clothing might do damage to the elegant cushion which was certainly never designed to be pressed by a common person like myself. Then, to my increased trepidation, Edith came and stood beside me and opened the great book. It was, if I remember rightly, a volume of the London Art Journal,  very rich in copperplate impressions and fine woodcuts, with now and then an elegant engraving on steel. We do not make such pictures nowadays, Leonidas. The Sunday "funny paper" is the art journal that appeals most strongly to the masses and to the young people of our advanced civilization. Ours is an age of caricatures and "movies" and machine-made pictures. I hope that yours will be different.

And so she stood beside me and turned the leaves, while both of us looked, read the titles, and made comments not so much upon the quality of each picture as upon the subject which it illustrated. In an amazingly short time I was myself again, at home in the contemplation of bookish things, and entirely at my ease in the presence of a superior being. Before ten minutes had elapsed, I began to think of merry Edith Meredith as a playmate and companion whom I had known ages and ages ago—as a friend tried and true who had now come back to me after a long, long absence.

With our heads not very far apart, we leaned over the big volume and lost ourselves in admiration of its rare pictorial treasures. It was as if Inviz were beside me, only it was a thousand times better; for here was a companion whom I could see, a flesh-and-blood playmate whose goings and comings were, like my own, regulated by natural law. Occasionally, when she became very deeply interested in explaining something to me, a golden-brown curl would dangle over and tickle my cheek, and a thrill of joy, unexplainable, indescribable, would course through my being. These sensations were not because she was a girl and I a boy—as you might think, dear Leona—for, concerning all thoughts or knowledge of the distinctions of sex, we were both as innocent as are the angels in Heaven. It was that sort of ecstasy which comes to you, perhaps once in a lifetime—perhaps less often—upon meeting and recognizing and touching a kindred spirit, a soul divine whose destiny is mysteriously linked with your own.

The pictures, as you will understand, were of a varied character. There were landscapes, imaginary scenes, historical representations, copies of famous works of art, portraits, and decorative pieces. Concerning the most of these, Edith had a much broader knowledge than I; for her father, whose tastes were artistic, had told her much about them. But the most of our comments and criticisms were, as you might expect, crude and childish. I remember that toward the middle of the volume we came upon a group of pictures which recalled our earlier unhappy discussion of matters theatrical. Here was a view of Stratford-on-Avon, the home of Shakespeare; and it was followed by portraits of the immortal dramatist, done by different hands and representing him perhaps at different periods of life. Last of all was the picture of a famous bust of Shakespeare which had lately been set up in Westminster Abbey, or somewhere else.

"Ha!" I cried out. "This is the last picture of him, and they have punched out his eyes. I suppose the good people did that to punish him for writing untrue stories and wicked plays for the theaters. The bad people used to do the same way to the martyrs because the martyrs—"

"I don't think anybody ever put his eyes out," she interrupted. "This is the picture of a bust, and a bust is made of stone, and how could eyes be properly made in stone?"

Such talk was very puerile—as you will certainly agree—but you must not expect the conversation of two children to be either scholarly or philosophical, especially when one is a greenhorn of the deepest dye who has seen absolutely nothing of the world.

We turned presently to the portrait of a beautiful girl—I think it was a copy of one of Joshua Reynolds's famous paintings—and I gazed at it enraptured.

"Oh, it looks just like thee!" I cried, glancing first at the picture and then at the living face so near to my own. "It looks like thee!"

"Thee! thee!"  she exclaimed with emphasis, and there was bitter sarcasm in her tones. "Why do you always say thee?  Why don't you talk like other people, and say you?"

"Don't thy grandmother say thee?"  I asked.

"Yes; but she is a Friend and wears a plain bonnet and a cap with a frill—and it sounds all right to hear her say it. But you are only a boy."

"Yes, but I'm a Friend, too," I answered. "I've always said thee when talking to one person—that's the way I was taught—and all our folks and nearly all the people in the New Settlement talk the same way. It's what we call the plain language."

"Well," said Edith very decidedly, "I prefer the unplain  language, myself."

"That's because thee was brought up that way," I answered. "I like the plain language because it sounds kinder. It's all right to say you to a horse or a cow, but when I'm talking to mother or Cousin Mandy Jane or thee, it seems a lot more genteel to say thee."

"Well, I don't like it. It sounds queer for a boy."

"Maybe it does sound that way to thee, for thee ain't used to it. And so if thee would rather have me speak the unplain language to thee, I'll try to learn how."

"Oh, do!" she cried earnestly. "It will be so nice to hear you talk like other people."

"Then I'll begin right away," I said. "See that picture, Edith. It looks just like—you, you, you!"

At this, my first yielding to the sin of worldly ways of speaking, we both laughed; and I resolved in my heart that if the Old Feller wanted to scorch me in his fire for so small a transgression as that, he was welcome to do it. I would then, there and forever afterward when talking to Edith Meredith, use the unplain language, simply because she liked it.

"Oh, here is a picture of Adam and Eve in the Garden!" she said, turning a leaf.

"Did they look like that?" I queried. "Well, all I can say is that I wish I was Adam and that thee—no, you, you—was—Eve!"

And then there was another laugh.

"We can make believe that we are in the Garden, anyway," she said.

"Thee's right—no, I mean you  are right," I answered.

We still lacked a hundred pages of being through the volume when we were interrupted by the sudden entrance of Edith's mother, my tall stately hostess, who bade us come out at once to dinner. She told me that father had sent word to her not to expect him till evening; for he had already completed the new axletree and with the blacksmith's aid, had put the wagon into good shape; and having been invited to dine with Judge Davis, he would spend the afternoon with friends at the courthouse.

"And what did he say for me to do?" I asked, wondering.

"You must remain right here with me," she answered.

After dinner we finished our examination of the picture book, and then Edith's mother proposed that the little maiden should go down to the store to carry a message to her father. "And perhaps Robert would like to go with you and see the town," she added.

At first thought, this suggestion was very pleasing—yes, I should indeed like to go. Then I began to reflect that never in all my life had I walked out with a girl—except Cousin Sally and Cousin Mandy Jane, and they were young women old enough to be my mothers. And here, I was to be the escort of a very stylish maiden no bigger than myself, but a thousand times wiser! How should I behave? And what would people say?

"Would you like to go, Robert?" she asked very kindly.

"Well—I—yes, I—I—will go with thee—with you,  I mean—if you don't mind," I stammered; but in truth, I felt like praying for the ground to open and swallow me up.

And now for the first time in my life I was conscious of my odd appearance and my awkward manners, and was well-nigh overcome with shame. As we went out into the street, I looked at my course, ill-fitting garments, so strangely contrasting with her elegant attire; and at my great, sprawling bare feet, while hers were daintily encased in store shoes and long black stockings to match—and I fancied that all Dashville, yes, all the world was gazing and smiling derisively. But merry Edith didn't observe these things at all; she didn't even notice my great shock of towy hair or my nondescript knitted cap which looked certainly very poor and ridiculous by the side of her indescribable little head-gear with the big feathers overtopping it. And as we walked side by side along the street, she talked so prettily and told so many interesting little stories that I soon forgot all about myself, I forgot even that I was walking with a girl, and thought only of what she was saying. The few people whom we met did not seem at all amused at my appearance; they spoke to us kindly and passed on, as if they were accustomed to seeing shock heads and bare feet and awkward country boys every day of their lives. And this, indeed, was true.

Presently Edith directed my attention to a pretty little white building which stood at some distance from the main street. Its roof was surmounted by a slender spire that pointed heavenward, and as I had seen pictures of similar edifices I was at no loss to guess that it was a house of worship.

"That's the Methodist church," said Edith.

"Our folks would call it a meetin'-house," I answered. "It's prettier than the one at Dry Forks."

"Yes, it is, indeed," said Edith. "I remember your old meeting-house and your funny meeting. I was there with Grandmother Wilson one day last summer."

"Oh, yes, I saw thee—I mean you,"  I returned; "and you can't guess what I thought thee—you—was."

"What did you think?"

"I thought you were an angel right out of the good place; and I—I—I—still think it."

"O Robert, how foolish!" was the woman-like response; and then she changed the subject by saying: "There is a beautiful bell in the steeple, and when they ring it for the people to come to church it sounds like real music."

"Well, we don't have any such things in our meetin'-house," I answered. "Our folks don't approve of bells or music or steeples. George Fox preached against steeple-houses, as he called them; and he said that they were the Old Feller's delight. I hope thee—I mean you—ain't a Methodist."

"Why do you hope so?" and there was a little ripple of laughter.

"Because—because," I answered in some confusion—"because I should like for thee—"

"You! you!"

"Yes, because I should like for you to belong to our meetin'."

"And what good would that do?"

"Well, I—I think that if—that if you were in our meetin' instead of the Methodist church, as they call it—you—you would stand a better chance of going to the good place."

She laughed again. "If I belonged to your meetin', as you call it, I would have to speak the plain language, wouldn't I?" she asked.

"Yes, I am afraid thee—you would," I answered, much downcast.

"Well, then let's both of us be Methodisters—for they get converted and go to the good place without making half so much worry about it as your folks do."

But why prolong this chapter by relating more of these infantile remarks and experiences? Let us suppose that this, my day in Paradise, has ended amid clouds of sunset glory; that Sixth-day morning, with fog and drizzle and David and the fillies, has arrived; and that the time for taking our homeward departure is at hand.

In accordance with the custom of our people, I went to each member of the family, beginning with Isaac Wilson as the eldest, and holding out my hand, said, "Farewell!" And each one, in return, bade me a kind "Good-by!" adding thereto some pertinent remark as to the great pleasure I had given them during my somewhat extended visit. Finally, I came to the little maiden, standing beside her mother and holding her mother's hand. A great trembling came over me, the blood rushed into my cheeks, and an unaccountable mist floated before my eyes as I stammered, "Farewell, Edith!"

And she, shrinking coyly behind her mother's embracing arm, failed to see my proffered hand, but with eyes downcast answered sweetly, "Good-by, Mr. Robert!" In confusion, I turned to follow father from the room, stumbling ingloriously over the rug by the door and no doubt appearing very ridiculous as I made my exit. But I had gone scarcely six paces from the door-step when I heard her voice calling:

"Mr. Robert!"

I paused and in a very unmannerly manner answered curtly, "What?"

She ran down the steps and placed a little package in my hand.

"Take this," she said. "Mother says you may have it to add to your library. I know you will like it."

I glanced at it. It was a book; it was The Merchant of Venice,  which I had been reading with such indescribable pleasure. My heart filled with gratitude. I gave vent to my feelings in an expression that I had never been taught to use, had never dared to use before: "Thank thee—thank you,  Edith."

"Good-by, Mr. Robert!" a second time—and she was back in the house and out of sight.

It was past noon when we arrived at home. What had happened to the old place since I had last seen it? How poor and crude was everything! The homely log cabin, formerly so dear, had lost its charms. Even the big-house, with its fine home-made Windsor chairs and its lofty white beds, seemed very inferior and unattractive. For the first time in life, discontentment and sad unrest found lodgment in my heart. Never, never again was I to experience the joy, the pride, "the glory and the dream" of living very, very near to the center of the world. The age of innocence was drawing to an end, the "shades of the prison house were beginning to close upon the growing lad."

Very kind were the greetings that I received when I opened the cabin door and made my way silently to the old, familiar, cheer-giving hearth. Mother did not say that she was glad to see me; but she made me sit down in the warmest corner by the side of good Aunt Rachel, and gave me a cup of delicious pennyroyal tea to break up the bad cold that would otherwise be sure to result from my long ride in the chilly drizzle. Cousin Mandy Jane brought me a hot doughnut, still sizzling in its grease, and informed me while I ate it that she had fried it specially for me, and nobody else. And Aunt Rachel, after fumbling very unnecessarily in her work-bag, brought forth a wonderful pair of soft warm mittens and laid them on my knee with the information that she had knitted them to keep my hands warm when the time came for me to go to school.

These attentions and gifts somewhat mollified my churlish feelings. The blood, warming up in my veins, sent a cheerful glow to my heart, and I began to feel that, after all, the ugly, smoke-begrimed old cabin was not so bad a place as it might have been. Nevertheless, I remained for some time in a sulky mood, seldom speaking except to answer a question, morose, moody, and discontented.

"I don't think it done Robert any good to go to that there moral show," remarked Cousin Mandy Jane.

"Well, I had my doubts of it all the time," said mother.

And thereupon she prepared another cupful of tea and made me bathe my feet and legs in hot water seasoned with mustard.