THE EXPERIENCES OF THE A. C.
“Bridgeport! Change cars for the Naugatuck Railroad! ” shouted the conductor of the New York and Boston Express Train, on the evening of May 27th, 1858. Indeed, he does it every night (Sundays excepted), for that matter; but as this story refers especially to Mr. J. Edward Johnson, who was a passenger on that train, on the aforesaid evening, I make special mention of the fact. Mr. Johnson, carpet-bag in hand, jumped upon the platform, entered the office, purchased a ticket for Waterbury, and was soon whirling in the Naugatuck train towards his destination.
On reaching Waterbury, in the soft spring twilight, Mr. Johnson walked up and down in front of the station, curiously scanning the faces of the assembled crowd. Presently he noticed a gentleman who was performing the same operation upon the faces of the alighting passengers. Throwing himself directly in the way of the latter, the two exchanged a steady gaze.
“Is your name Billings? ” “Is your name Johnson? ” were simultaneous questions, followed by the simultaneous exclamations— “Ned! ” “Enos! ”
Then there was a crushing grasp of hands, repeated after a pause, in testimony of ancient friendship, and Mr. Billings, returning to practical life, asked—
“Is that all your baggage? Come, I have a buggy here: Eunice has heard the whistle, and she'll be impatient to welcome you. ”
The impatience of Eunice (Mrs. Billings, of course, ) was not of long duration, for in five minutes thereafter she stood at the door of her husband's chocolate-colored villa, receiving his friend.
While these three persons are comfortably seated at the tea-table, enjoying their waffles, cold tongue, and canned peaches, and asking and answering questions helter-skelter in the delightful confusion of reunion after long separation, let us briefly inform the reader who and what they are.
Mr. Enos Billings, then, was part owner of a manufactory of metal buttons, forty years old, of middling height, ordinarily quiet and rather shy, but with a large share of latent warmth and enthusiasm in his nature. His hair was brown, slightly streaked with gray, his eyes a soft, dark hazel, forehead square, eyebrows straight, nose of no very marked character, and a mouth moderately full, with a tendency to twitch a little at the corners. His voice was undertoned, but mellow and agreeable.
Mrs. Eunice Billings, of nearly equal age, was a good specimen of the wide-awake New-England woman. Her face had a piquant smartness of expression, which might have been refined into a sharp edge, but for her natural hearty good-humor. Her head was smoothly formed, her face a full oval, her hair and eyes blond and blue in a strong light, but brown and steel-gray at other times, and her complexion of that ripe fairness into which a ruddier color will sometimes fade. Her form, neither plump nor square, had yet a firm, elastic compactness, and her slightest movement conveyed a certain impression of decision and self-reliance.
As for J. Edward Johnson, it is enough to say that he was a tall, thin gentleman of forty-five, with an aquiline nose, narrow face, and military whiskers, which swooped upwards and met under his nose in a glossy black mustache. His complexion was dark, from the bronzing of fifteen summers in New Orleans. He was a member of a wholesale hardware firm in that city, and had now revisited his native North for the first time since his departure. A year before, some letters relating to invoices of metal buttons signed, “Foster, Kirkup, & Co. , per Enos Billings, ” had accidentally revealed to him the whereabouts of the old friend of his youth, with whom we now find him domiciled. The first thing he did, after attending to some necessary business matters in New York, was to take the train for Waterbury.
“Enos, ” said he, as he stretched out his hand for the third cup of tea (which he had taken only for the purpose of prolonging the pleasant table-chat), “I wonder which of us is most changed. ”
“You, of course, ” said Mr. Billings, “with your brown face and big mustache. Your own brother wouldn't have known you if he had seen you last, as I did, with smooth cheeks and hair of unmerciful length. Why, not even your voice is the same! ”
“That is easily accounted for, ” replied Mr. Johnson. “But in your case, Enos, I am puzzled to find where the difference lies. Your features seem to be but little changed, now that I can examine them at leisure; yet it is not the same face. But, really, I never looked at you for so long a time, in those days. I beg pardon; you used to be so— so remarkably shy. ”
Mr. Billings blushed slightly, and seemed at a loss what to answer.
His wife, however, burst into a merry laugh, exclaiming—
“Oh, that was before the days of the A. C! ”
He, catching the infection, laughed also; in fact Mr. Johnson laughed, but without knowing why.
“The 'A. C. '! ” said Mr. Billings. “Bless me, Eunice! how long it is since we have talked of that summer! I had almost forgotten that there ever was an A. C. ”
“Enos, COULD you ever forget Abel Mallory and the beer? — or that scene between Hollins and Shelldrake? — or” (here SHE blushed the least bit) “your own fit of candor? ” And she laughed again, more heartily than ever.
“What a precious lot of fools, to be sure! ” exclaimed her husband.
Mr. Johnson, meanwhile, though enjoying the cheerful humor of his hosts, was not a little puzzled with regard to its cause.
“What is the A. C. ? ” he ventured to ask.
Mr. and Mrs. Billings looked at each other, and smiled without replying.
“Really, Ned, ” said the former, finally, “the answer to your question involves the whole story. ”
“Then why not tell him the whole story, Enos? ” remarked his wife.
“You know I've never told it yet, and it's rather a hard thing to do, seeing that I'm one of the heroes of the farce— for it wasn't even genteel comedy, Ned, ” said Mr. Billings. “However, ” he continued, “absurd as the story may seem, it's the only key to the change in my life, and I must run the risk of being laughed at. ”
“I'll help you through, Enos, ” said his wife, encouragingly; “and besides, my role in the farce was no better than yours. Let us resuscitate, for to-night only, the constitution of the A. C. ”
“Upon my word, a capital idea! But we shall have to initiate Ned. ”
Mr. Johnson merrily agreeing, he was blindfolded and conducted into another room. A heavy arm-chair, rolling on casters, struck his legs in the rear, and he sank into it with lamb-like resignation.
“Open your mouth! ” was the command, given with mock solemnity.
“Now shut it! ”
And his lips closed upon a cigar, while at the same time the handkerchief was whisked away from his eyes. He found himself in Mr. Billing's library.
“Your nose betrays your taste, Mr. Johnson, ” said the lady, “and I am not hard-hearted enough to deprive you of the indulgence. Here are matches. ”
“Well, ” said he, acting upon the hint, “if the remainder of the ceremonies are equally agreeable, I should like to be a permanent member of your order. ”
By this time Mr. and Mrs. Billings, having between them lighted the lamp, stirred up the coal in the grate, closed the doors, and taken possession of comfortable chairs, the latter proclaimed—
“The Chapter (isn't that what you call it? ) will now be held! ”
“Was it in '43 when you left home, Ned? ” asked Mr. B.
“Well, the A. C. culminated in '45. You remember something of the society of Norridgeport, the last winter you were there? Abel Mallory, for instance? ”
“Let me think a moment, ” said Mr. Johnson reflectively. “Really, it seems like looking back a hundred years. Mallory— wasn't that the sentimental young man, with wispy hair, a tallowy skin, and big, sweaty hands, who used to be spouting Carlyle on the 'reading evenings' at Shelldrake's? Yes, to be sure; and there was Hollins, with his clerical face and infidel talk, — and Pauline Ringtop, who used to say, 'The Beautiful is the Good. ' I can still hear her shrill voice, singing, 'Would that I were beautiful, would that I were fair! '”
There was a hearty chorus of laughter at poor Miss Ringtop's expense. It harmed no one, however; for the tar-weed was already thick over her Californian grave.
“Oh, I see, ” said Mr. Billings, "you still remember the absurdities of those days. In fact, I think you partially saw through them then. But I was younger, and far from being so clear-headed, and I looked upon those evenings at Shelldrake's as being equal, at least, to the symposia of Plato. Something in Mallory always repelled me. I detested the sight of his thick nose, with the flaring nostrils, and his coarse, half-formed lips, of the bluish color of raw corned-beef. But I looked upon these feelings as unreasonable prejudices, and strove to conquer them, seeing the admiration which he received from others. He was an oracle on the subject of 'Nature. ' Having eaten nothing for two years, except Graham bread, vegetables without salt, and fruits, fresh or dried, he considered himself to have attained an antediluvian purity of health— or that he would attain it, so soon as two pimples on his left temple should have healed. These pimples he looked upon as the last feeble stand made by the pernicious juices left from the meat he had formerly eaten and the coffee he had drunk. His theory was, that through a body so purged and purified none but true and natural impulses could find access to the soul. Such, indeed, was the theory we all held. A Return to Nature was the near Millennium, the dawn of which we already beheld in the sky. To be sure there was a difference in our individual views as to how this should be achieved, but we were all agreed as to what the result should be.
“I can laugh over those days now, Ned; but they were really happy while they lasted. We were the salt of the earth; we were lifted above those grovelling instincts which we saw manifested in the lives of others. Each contributed his share of gas to inflate the painted balloon to which we all clung, in the expectation that it would presently soar with us to the stars. But it only went up over the out-houses, dodged backwards and forwards two or three times, and finally flopped down with us into a swamp. ”
“And that balloon was the A. C. ? ” suggested Mr. Johnson.
“As President of this Chapter, I prohibit questions, ” said Eunice. “And, Enos, don't send up your balloon until the proper time. Don't anticipate the programme, or the performance will be spoiled. ”
“I had almost forgotten that Ned is so much in the dark, ” her obedient husband answered. “You can have but a slight notion, ” he continued, turning to his friend, “of the extent to which this sentimental, or transcendental, element in the little circle at Shelldrake's increased after you left Norridgeport. We read the 'Dial, ' and Emerson; we believed in Alcott as the 'purple Plato' of modern times; we took psychological works out of the library, and would listen for hours to Hollins while he read Schelling or Fichte, and then go home with a misty impression of having imbibed infinite wisdom. It was, perhaps, a natural, though very eccentric rebound from the hard, practical, unimaginative New-England mind which surrounded us; yet I look back upon it with a kind of wonder. I was then, as you know, unformed mentally, and might have been so still, but for the experiences of the A. C. ”
Mr. Johnson shifted his position, a little impatiently. Eunice looked at him with laughing eyes, and shook her finger with a mock threat.
“Shelldrake, ” continued Mr. Billings, without noticing this by-play, "was a man of more pretence than real cultivation, as I afterwards discovered. He was in good circumstances, and always glad to receive us at his house, as this made him, virtually, the chief of our tribe, and the outlay for refreshments involved only the apples from his own orchard and water from his well. There was an entire absence of conventionality at our meetings, and this, compared with the somewhat stiff society of the village, was really an attraction. There was a mystic bond of union in our ideas: we discussed life, love, religion, and the future state, not only with the utmost candor, but with a warmth of feeling which, in many of us, was genuine. Even I (and you know how painfully shy and bashful I was) felt myself more at home there than in my father's house; and if I didn't talk much, I had a pleasant feeling of being in harmony with those who did.
“Well, 'twas in the early part of '45— I think in April, — when we were all gathered together, discussing, as usual, the possibility of leading a life in accordance with Nature. Abel Mallory was there, and Hollins, and Miss Ringtop, and Faith Levis, with her knitting, — and also Eunice Hazleton, a lady whom you have never seen, but you may take my wife at her representative— ”
“Stick to the programme, Enos, ” interrupted Mrs. Billings.
"Eunice Hazleton, then. I wish I could recollect some of the speeches made on that occasion. Abel had but one pimple on his temple (there was a purple spot where the other had been), and was estimating that in two or three months more he would be a true, unspoiled man. His complexion, nevertheless, was more clammy and whey-like than ever.
"'Yes, ' said he, 'I also am an Arcadian! This false dual existence which I have been leading will soon be merged in the unity of Nature. Our lives must conform to her sacred law. Why can't we strip off these hollow Shams, ' (he made great use of that word, ) 'and be our true selves, pure, perfect, and divine? '
"Miss Ringtop heaved a sigh, and repeated a stanza from her favorite poet:
"'Ah, when wrecked are my desires
On the everlasting Never,
And my heart with all its fires
In the cradle of Creation
Finds the soul resuscitation!
"Shelldrake, however, turning to his wife, said—
"'Elviry, how many up-stairs rooms is there in that house down on the Sound? '
"'Four, — besides three small ones under the roof. Why, what made you think of that, Jesse? ' said she.
"'I've got an idea, while Abel's been talking, ' he answered. 'We've taken a house for the summer, down the other side of Bridgeport, right on the water, where there's good fishing and a fine view of the Sound. Now, there's room enough for all of us— at least all that can make it suit to go. Abel, you and Enos, and Pauline and Eunice might fix matters so that we could all take the place in partnership, and pass the summer together, living a true and beautiful life in the bosom of Nature. There we shall be perfectly free and untrammelled by the chains which still hang around us in Norridgeport. You know how often we have wanted to be set on some island in the Pacific Ocean, where we could build up a true society, right from the start. Now, here's a chance to try the experiment for a few months, anyhow. '
"Eunice clapped her hands (yes, you did! ) and cried out—
"'Splendid! Arcadian! I'll give up my school for the summer. '
"Miss Ringtop gave her opinion in another quotation:
"'The rainbow hues of the Ideal
Condense to gems, and form the Real! '
"Abel Mallory, of course, did not need to have the proposal repeated. He was ready...