At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: July 16, 1892


       Now in the midsummer heats, when the roar and discord of cities become unbearable, and hard thought and reading are almost an impossibility, the spirit of life, if it calls at all, beckons to us with illusive finger from the far-off hill-countries or breezy shores. Under the open sky is the suitable place for summer existence whenever it can drop for a space the fetters of toil. The country-ways and shady lanes, the clover-scented meadows melodious with song of birds, and drowsy tinkle or gurgle of brooks, under the grasses, where the bumble bee soars with a dreamy hum, or the greedy dragon-fly skims the lazy air—all call us with their drowsy suggestions and somnolent sounds. Happy is the man who can throw off his age and responsibility with his office clothes and city cares, and hie him to the shores of some rushing river or some pebbly lake, and dream or ruminate as best may please him, and let the winds of heaven and the glad sunlight drench him, body and soul, and blow out all the sickly fancies from heart and brain. The far summer hazes, the far summer sounds, that quiet tired nerves and revive jaded energies, are better than all the elixirs discovered by man. But many of us are not contented to study and drink in nature's draughts and nature's voices alone; we need a companion from the world, and we often choose a book as one the least liable to bore us, as it can be taken up and laid down at leisure. We want something that will charm and soothe, rather than worry and excite. It is a difficult thing to recommend books to readers nowadays, the taste for the new sensational is so strong, and I, for one, prefer the old-time books to the new. For delightful and self-forgetting charm, give me Washington Irving, especially his legend of the Hudson River and his Tales of the Alhambra. Another charming writer who was of his day and had something akin to Irving in his genius was Donald G. Mitchell, who, by-the-bye, still lives. His pen name is Ike Marvell, and his earlier essays had a charm all their own. Another delightful American writer is John Burroughs, whose works many have read. For those who love nature and nature's studies Burroughs is a never-dying friend. He is a hunter of the woods and fields and the companion of birds and trees. A delightful out-door writer of to-day, who is a poet, is Maurice Thompson. He is much akin to Burroughs, but adds the additional charm of song to his great love of the common mother. But most of us are not contented with nature alone, in either field or sky or book. We may turn our backs on dull care, but we cannot forget our human brother, and even in our books he is of enduring interest; so the story, the drama of to-day, be it realistic or romantic, must claim our attention. Here I would ask those of this spirit if they have read the remarkable tales of Bjornsterne, the great Norse writer of to-day. Any young and thoughtful reader who has not done so will find a freshness and charm, a strength and simplicity not found in any other writer. He mirrors Norway, her mountains and deep fjords, her strong, rugged and intellectual people, who are so much akin to us, and yet so much grander in their desire for supreme attainment. Bjornsterne's stories read like beautiful poems. They have an epic quality and a dramatic strength that is unique. Arne is a very beautiful tale, and like all the rest of his work is in contradistinction to all other European works, close to nature, human, hopeful and inspiring. It is fitting reading for young men and young women. Where there is pathos it is the pathos of reality. A beautiful, a strong, a human writer is the great poet and novelist of the north, and the reader will find his work in keeping with the out-door life, as in his pages he will find the strength of the hills, the beauty of the skies and waters, and the freshness and hope of the morning.

       My dear Francesca—I am glad you have resolved to keep a journal. The word sounds more portentous than "diary," and is a sign that you are in earnest. I suppose every one sooner or later makes up his or her mind to keep either one or the other; the sense of it being a duty takes hold upon one very strongly, and may be a survival from the time when it was certainly a social duty, if not a moral one; and then the feeling that we all have that our lives are slipping away and leaving no visible trace urges us to write day by day the things we have been thinking and doing. We feel a sort of consternation when we reflect that we cannot tell where we were this time two years ago, or what we thought at the time of the Northwest Rebellion, and we take refuge in the pages of our every-day book, and hope to escape the imputation that we have not lived. Many of us never find time to complete the good intention that blossomed in our youth, and go down without a chronicle of our deeds or misdeeds, and the excuse that so many of us make, "want of time," is really the death of many another pleasant occupation. That you have time and the will to undertake the writing of a journal, or "Gurnal," as Sir Walter used to spell it, is really a piece with your general good fortune, and you must succeed or bear the blame of having failed when every wind and tide were with you. There must be something pleasant about the occupation you have resolved upon, for truly it is an occupation, and I hope you will never allow it to descend to anything less. At present we expect posterity to get an idea of our age from the novels we write, and from our newspapers, but I do not imagine the image will be a faithful one. Our novels have hardly any true pictures of social life, and our papers have none; to judge from the one we are merely thinking machines, with our eyes fixed, like the monks of Athos, upon the centre of our beings, and our daily journals give the idea more and more strongly that the contemplation by each man of his neighbor's vice is the chiefest of our pleasures. So you have just as good a chance to make a lively picture of manners and customs as had Pepys or Cellini, and the manners and customs will be of as much interest to the succeeding age. And so you have a chance for fame, and your effort will be of the most disinterested kind, for no one except myself and a few others will have any idea of your labors, and you can never reach any tangible reward unless it be that all the while you will be enjoying the laugh, as it were, upon your own age. I need not advise you as to the sort of thing to write; you have read Pepys, Benvenuto, Cellini, Walpole, and Sir Walter so you will easily see that everything, no matter how personal, may have an interest if it is set down properly. You need not even omit to tell us that on Tuesday last you made twenty pots of strawberry jam, and you might even preserve the recipe in order that coming generations may test the quality of your confection.

       The greatest difficulty that a man meets with in life is generally that which faces him at the very outset: the question of deciding upon an occupation. It means the wasting or the saving of a life. A life spent in an occupation out of harmony with one's natural bent can never be quite happy or genuinely faithful even in the most fortunate circumstances; while a life of congenial labor, unsubjected to any exceeding pressure, is really the supreme happiness. Each man has been gifted by nature with some special inclination, more or less marked, which points him to his life pursuit. Unhappily this original and individual bent is very often not sufficiently urgent, not imperious enough in its call, to induce the young man to throw himself confidently upon it, trusting to its genuineness. He yields to the dictation, or persuasion, or example of others, or else blindly enters upon the first offered field of activity without considering whether it corresponds in any degree with that irrepressible vision in his own soul. It is well for a man not to be idle, and to lay hold of any honorable pursuit rather than be so; but he should never allow himself to consider any occupation permanent but the one that is naturally his. He should never rest for a moment till he has found and claimed his appointed place. Each life is a force intended by nature to be exerted upon some particular line. If it is set to work on any other its usefulness is dissipated, often totally annulled. Such a life is in abeyance, and its possessor may be truly said not to have lived. A great responsibility in this matter rests upon parents, who frequently have it in their power to vine and educate and make clear the way for their children's special talents. We know how often they are blind enough to do the very reverse, not only neglecting to render any assistance to this natural inclination, but even endeavoring to guide or force the minds of their children into such paths as appear desirable or honorable to them. Such parents are responsible for a fair proportion of the mental or moral ruin we see about us.