Everything is Possible to Will
Chapter I. A Target
Chapter I. A Target.
We must not hope to be mowers,
And to gather the ripe gold ears,
Until we have first been sowers.
And water'd the furrows with tears.
It is not just as we take it—
This mystical world of ours;
Life's field will yield, as we make it,
A harvest of thorns or flowers!1
On a grassy knoll2 , beneath wide-spreading elms, sits Zela—or Zee, as she is commonly called—a girl of some nine or ten summers. She is in a brown study of no pleasing character, judging by the rueful expression of her countenance, as, gazing on vacancy with a rapt, see-nothing look, thoughts well up in her active, chaotic brain, so nimbly as to tread on each other's heels. A pile of books lies in her lap, and on them she muses, fitfully, in a truant hope of learning her lessons.
Hark! a rustling is heard among the dry leaves, and listening, with eyes and ears alert, the easily-diverted student espies a squirrel. Down go the books, and off bounds Zee, almost as swiftly as her friend, nor halts till she has reached the tall pine up which the squirrel has gone, and to him she calls, with many endearing names; but the rogue can set her at defiance from the tree-top, whence he looks perkily down into her upturned face.
Retracing her steps, she collects her scattered books, and indulging her habit of thinking aloud, she blurts out impetuously, as she flops down on the page 2 knoll: “What's the good of this big world, with nothing but lessons all the time? Why don't girls go to school out in the woods, such a lot of live lesson-books as there are here? If I were a bird or a butterfly, I'd spoil all the lesson-books I could find. Out here in the woods everything is plain, but nowhere else; I'm all in a muddle, and can't get out of it. Bother the lessons! there is no beginning, no end to them; no one will teach me how to learn them, because I'm a ‘dunce.'"3 Her head drops, and she weeps piteously, overweighted with grief for the time being. But the April sky soon clears, and furtively raising her eyes from her books, she is at her old work again, warring with her surroundings, fighting ghosts of her own creating, an unchildlike moodiness prompting her to hide away in a little world all to herself.
She has a genius for discovering fairy-bowers in the out-of-the-way nooks in which her native place abounds. The spot in which her acquaintance is made is one of her “parlors,” with “beautiful trees for walls;” the earth is carpeted with long grass; to her right is a sandy bank, dotted with primroses and violets and at her feet ripples a shallow brook, in which she ever and anon dabbles. The air is fragrant and full of melody, the birds are singing their “Goodnight” hymn. Well the songsters understand the laws of harmony, and wait on each other with exquisite taste; there is no discord, though a dozen small throats are swelling with joyful notes. A keen perception of the beautiful arrays Zee's fancy realm in rainbow hues; Nature is her inspiration, and, jumping into the good dame's triumphal car, Zee is whirled whither she will.
Beside her, laid reverently down, is a bunch of violets neatly fringed with their own green leaves, a peace-offering for Miss Pout on the morrow—the one of her two governesses, the Misses Smirke and Pout, of whom Zee is in mortal dread, though she knows no fear of bogie or of darkness. The pick of everything presentable which falls to her lot is laid with a lowly curtsey on the altar of her frowning deity; but Zee has to learn that such virtue is its own reward; Miss page 3 Pout is not to be bought—at least, by Zee; try how she would to win a smile, her offerings failed to propitiate; “black Monday”4 lasted all the week.
With one twentieth the labor her sisters acquitted themselves with honor, receiving from Miss Pout the coveted smile of approval; while on Zee fell cutting reproof, perhaps a ringing box on the ear or slap on the bare shoulders, making her every nerve vibrate under a sense of shame. School-days, with their hopes deferred and pains realised, are, it is said, our “happiest days;” a sorry look-out for a “dunce” like Zee, who breasted the full tide of her stupidity alone, for she could keep pace with no class, and was therefore relegated to assistant teachers. Miss Pout rarely condescended to notice “such a dunce,” but if she did tell Zee to “bring her books,” her name from those dread lips made an Irish stew of her lessons, and the girl stood before her governess like a scared silly goat. Out in the woods she could, now and then, repeat a lesson exultingly. But to look in that stern face and think of a word was out of the question, Miss Pout insisted, of course, that Zee had not looked at her lessons when, in truth, they had absorbed all her play-hours.
Late at night and at early morn she pored over her books, sleeping on them, in a vague hope that some beneficent fairy would whisper her lessons to her in her dream; but, alas, with sunrise came the horrid drudgery of learning them as best she could. Time faileth us to tell how many of her “gay and girlish hours” were spent in the stocks, holding the backboard, or swinging the dumb-bells as punishment for “returned lessons;” whereas, to learn “disgrace lessons” she was “kept in” on bread and water. Imagine an awkwardly shy girl standing in the stocks, in the middle of a large schoolroom, with a plate of dry bread and a mug of cold water in her hands, of which bread and water she was to eat and drink, and to pick up every crumb she might chance to drop. Ah, how she longed to cram the bread down Miss Pout's throat, wishing, the while, it might choke her. Zee knew, too, that page 4 some seventy-odd pairs of mischievous eyes were enjoying a giggle at her expense; as nudging and twitting her unmercifully, the owners of the all-seeing eyes asked on the sly: “How d'you like dunces' fare?” The flash of Zee's eye and the color of her cheek may be guessed; but, tiny-tit in the talons of the hawk, she took it all quietly, if not meekly.
Her troubles, moreover, followed her home, whither she carried a note from Miss Pout, requesting that her “downright obstinacy” might receive further chastisement from her father. A broad hint was given as to the purport of the note, but goosie never dreamed of losing it; nor, indeed, would it have served her turn, since her sisters received strict injunctions to tell their parents what Zee's “conduct” had been. So, note in hand, the girl slunk alone under the shaow of the houses, feeling certain that “you're in disgrace” was printed in capital letters all over her. After a severe reprimand from her father, such days ended in her being sent to bed, drowned in tears, on a bread and water supper. Her sisters made satisfactory progress, hence the faith of her parents in her lady teachers, whose school was unequalled for well twining youthful twigs, was boundless. Indeed, so busy was the home in which Zee's lot was cast, that there was no time to note that the shoe pinched any one particular child.
Zee could scramble through hedges and up trees of a come-at-able size in quest of a nest; why not up the tree of knowledge? No thought of young ladyism deterred her, she only wished that girls dressed like boys; frocks would tell tales of climbing. But, oh, dear! if a nest of young birds were secured, the wee pets invariably died in the night of the “pinch.” Plying mamma with questions as to what the “pinch” might mean, boy and girls contemplated the fate of their unfledged darlings with blank dismay; little did they think, simple souls, that the father was the medicineman. Then, too, Zee could make-believe in the storyline more than a little; her perceptions being the clearer through not being over much clogged with learning, her ways of looking at things and her ideas page 5 generally were wholly a matter of intuition, although, despite her duncehood, she revelled in the choice juvenile literature of her day—“Jack-the-Giant-Killer,”5 and such like stories, she devoured wholesale. One or other of these books might have been found thrust down the bosom of her dress, above which the too-obtrusive volume peeping, not unfrequently betrayed the heedless girl to Miss Pout, who levied black-mail instanter.
Some folk cannot see an inch before them; Zee, on the contrary, sees too much, and seeing at a glance how much is required of her, the little she might have accomplished became impossible. She was never told that, little by little, day by day, the whole would gradually be acquired; she could have given the sense of her lessons, as do the youth of to-day, though she could not sufficiently focalise her powers to commit words, possessing no meaning to her dormant faculties, to memory; there was, in fact, too little of the parrot about her to learn readily by rote; and yet, she evidenced a surprising aptitude in garnering information from all which transpired around her.
Frisky and tricky, withal, much of the wrong in the school may have been laid at her door; yet never was there a more innocent scapegoat. She liked Miss Pout too well at a distance to play pranks with her or her belongings; there was no chance of stealing a march upon her; indeed, suspicious of evil, she sniffed mischief in the air, and nipped it in the bud. One article of her creed, suggestive of cunning and duplicity, in reference to culprits, was: “No one is ever found out the first time.” Thus, by scenting Lucifer6 a long way off, her young ladies were in danger of being “possessed;” yet were they models of propriety compared to the modern miss in-her-teens
Deep down out of sight, Zee nursed the conviction that Miss Pout delighted to heap insult and indignity upon her, but she really may have caused her more anxious thought than did any other scholar; it was impossible to look in the bright, young face, and write her down an “idiot.” Being ignorant of all modes of developing natural gifts, Miss Pout page 6 elie ve in the cramming system; and, in refusing to be crammed, Zee left her at her wit's end. Nevertheless, bend or break was this lady's inflexible decree, and to have to deal with a sapling tough enough to rebound under the high pressure brought to bear upon it was a new and bitter experience doubtless; and resenting the failure of her belauded “system” of moulding the young idea, Miss Pout may have emptied the vials of her wrath on the head of the hapless Zela.
For Miss Smirke, Zee had a grain of respect; though she, too, believed in the cramming system, she was less cruel with it; there was, however, one threat she held over the girl's head with torturing effect. Pointing to a mysterious parcel on the top of a corner cupboard in the schoolroom, she would say, with alarming emphasis: “I'll have the steel collar taken down and fastened round your neck, miss; you incorrigible dunce!” This was misery's climax, for a notion obtained among the girls that the neck came out of the steel collar all awry, the head hind-side foremost. This star-chamber implement had never been seen; the girls believed in it nevertheless, nor could Lucifer himself have tempted one of them to have touched that mysterious parcel. Furthermore, Miss Smirke repeatedly upbraided Zee before the whole school with “picking her father's pocket by being such an incorrigible dunce”—a taunt that cut Zee to the quick; yet even while she winced, she was inwardly ready with the retort: “You, not I, are the pick-pocket. I could learn if you would but teach me in the right way.”
After having been kept perseveringly at school for many long years, Zee's parents were told by Miss Smirke that “it was simply picking their pockets to keep such a dunce at school,” which really meant that the square girl would not fit the round hole. So the Misses Smirke and Pout washed their hands of her with loud-sounding regrets, being denied the gratification of pointing to Zee as “finished in our seminary.” The light that was in her concerning book-lore was darkness which could be page 7 felt; she failed to learn because her mind was already full to repletion.
Zee's is a dual nature strongly marked; will it prove gold or dross? Would you like to see her, poor timid fawn, with all a tiger's fierceness? She is no doll-cherub, but living, quivering flesh and blood, with long gaunt limbs that will come too far through her frocks. She is a tall “dunce;” so much the worse for her. Her head is small, and over a good open brow, too lofty for a woman, waves glossy black hair, falling in natural curls round her well-formed shoulders; hazel eyes, full of fire and frolic, express the ever-varying emotions of the soul, and her nut-brown complexion is healthfully rosy. But, alas! that we must confess it, she has no nose, or, to say the least, it is like herself, “peculiar.” Hence, those who admire Vauxhall7 misses of wafer-like superficiality and skin-deep prettiness will dismiss Zee with a shrug, since, to this shallow age, a nose is as necessary as a grandmother of ancient pedigree. Zee can boast of the latter, though not of the former. Nose or no nose, however, our cottage girl is to be presented with rustic simplicity. We have seen gardens laid out with patrician state, but to us they are not half so sweet as the cotter's8 well-kept plot of ground, where the cabbage and the lily grow side by side.
We envy not the clods of earth who can see no form nor comeliness in Zee's mind. Mind, indeed! those who know her best doubt whether she has one, and to such her mind is a sealed book; yet hers is no barren soul: she is open to impressions, though not to instruction, as then imparted. As shaggy without and within as a Shetland pony, she is a forlorn hope to herself and to her friends, who can make nothing of the inexplicable girl of the untamable soul. Put on her mettle, she goes great lengths, yet an instinctive sense of right pulls her up, so that she is not more often betrayed into youthful excesses than are her more proper sisters, who make a smooth path to their feet by smilingly accepting all things as they are. Whereas Zee's path page 8 is strewn with sharp flints, which she fretfully hurls at others because they cut her own feet; yet would she not knowingly set foot upon a worm. Her one fault to the artificial is, that she has more faith in herself than in others; nevertheless, the shrine at which she offers sacrifice is as shapeless and ruthless as an Indian's. Singular in all she says and does, she is seasonable in nothing, yet asks to be appreciated as she is, without a hope of being understood, because of a prevailing disingenuous-ness, against which her fiery young soul revolts with fierce impatience. Defiance flashing in her eye and attitude, nothing shapes itself to her liking, and she bows to conventionalism with ill grace, provoking hostility, instead of winning love. “Dunce” though she was, had she been less intractable she would have doubtless received more consideration at the hands of all.
Because soulless children are easily managed, parents elect to have their children as much alike as peas in a pod; an ignoble self-love, as deep-rooted as virulent, refusing to die to self sufficiently to make variety welcome. And it is unthankful work to disturb conventionalism's despotic sway; men of little faith look with evil eye on the angel that agitates the pool; yet are myriads of the mentally impotent now waiting for the troubling of the waters of a higher, truer, life for youth and age; into which waters they will presently plunge and bring up gems from the ocean of thought, Living seed shall never die, however slow of growth. Sow it broadcast! the fertilising sun and shower shall produce its harvest of rich fruit.
Zee did not make herself; God knows what he is about; the twists and curls of character, so hateful to the superficial, are wisely intwined; so excellent, indeed, that it were unwise to rule off the irregularities; the very knots are beautiful when polished, and in the polishing of them the child who is to carve his own niche in the temple of life will need the encouragement of warmest sympathy. And there are so few, even at this hour, able to discriminate between the child who can learn but will not, and the child page 9 who would learn but cannot, that the latter is too often sadly persecuted.
Take heart of grace, little dunce, wherever thou art; let not discouragement's icy touch congeal the warm current of thy blood and give thee heart-sickness. Use thy brains, child; look at life with wide-open eyes; ask the reason why of everything, and above all think—think earnestly about what thou art doing and find out the best way of doing it; then, though books be a dead language to thee, other and better knowledge than is possessed by the majority of men shall furnish that upper story of thine. With thine every sense alive to heaven's beauties and earth's deformities thou canst not glide down stream, as do others, singing to thyself sweet lullaby; in the yet future thy forceful nature shall help to dethrone the despot “custom,” whose senseless denomination blocks the path of progress more hopelessly than do the snowy Alps. “Custom”e.g., unreasoning self-love, makes our hoards of thought and of things so entirely our own, that we stand by error and retard truth, to the sacrifice of all which should be most precious. But be not daunted, little Zee; thou aimest at too much, little ant, thy one grain of corn is burden too heavy for thee still; do well thy work, and thou shalt hearten some weary one plodding life's thorny highway, thorniest always to those whom the gentle Shepherd9 takes into his special training.
1 An obscure poem by German poet and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), titled both ‘Perseverance’ and ‘As a Man Soweth.’ It suggests that one will only reap what they first work hard to sow.
2 A small rounded hill; a mound.
3 One who is considered unable to learn.
4 A colloquial term referring to the first day back after a vacation.
5 A traditional English fairy-tale about a boy called Jack who uses his own intelligence, as well as his physical strength, to outsmart and defeat giants.
6 Lucifer, the rebel archangel whose fall from heaven was supposedly referenced in Isaiah XIV 12-14. Also colloquially known as Satan, or the Devil.
7 Vauxhall Garden was a pleasure garden in Kennington, now a district in South London, from the 17th till the 19th century. Enormously popular for its time, the garden exhibited contemporary musicians, artwork and fashion, and was lit at night with thousands of lamps. Vauxhall Garden admitted all classes, and its paths were notorious for romantic liaisons.
8 A peasant who owns a cottage belonging to a farm (sometimes with land attached), for which they work on the farm at a fixed rate when required.
9 Another term for God, referenced in Isaiah 40:11 (King James Bible): “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”