The Life of Benjamin R. Tucker

Disclosed by Himself

2. Childhood in Padanaram.

The first thing that I can remember in my life is the day when I was four years old, which seemed to me a great event; but I am told that several things happened at an earlier date. For instance, it is a matter of tradition that I could read fairly well when I was two years old; but my literary taste seems to have confined itself at that period to the perusal of an enormous Family Bible, weighing more than seventeen pounds, which used to be placed wide open, upon a lounge, before which I stood to decipher the text. This volume is still in my possession. In fact, beyond my fleshly wrappings, it contains, so far as I know, the only evidence extant that I was ever born at all and as such it has stood me in good stead.

Miraculous Power of the Bible.

In 1910, when I was living in Le Vesinet, near Paris, I had occasion to visit the local police station to comply with certain formalities required by French law. The official asked me for my birth certificate. I explained that in 1854, when I was born, it was not the habit in the United States to give birth certificates, and that scarcely any one of my age possessed one. "That is not my affair," he answered. "A certificate I must have." I bethought me of the Bible. "Bring it," said he, with an air of finality. I went to my villa, found the volume and, under the burden of its size and weight, staggered through the streets for half a mile, back to the police office. Out of breath, I planted it before the stubborn man. Open it nearly covered his desk. It was his turn to stagger. I pointed my finger at the entry of my name. He could not read the English, but he pretended to do so and straightway wilted. In his eyes anything so formidable must be valid. Without further assistance, he signed all the necessary documents. And I staggered home again, thinking as I went: "After all, good does come out of Nazareth sometimes." Being and Egoist, scripture in general has for me no sacred quality. But, since the Le Vesinet experience, my reverence for this particular piece of scripture has been something akin to idolatry. With its Family Registry, written in my father's hand from 1838 to 1873, in my mother's from 1873 to 1878, and in my own thereafter, I am determined that it shall stay with me, as a talisman, until the end.

But where was I? I must get back from France to Padanaram, where I was studying the Sacred Book. At the age of four I had become so familiar with its contents that, being taken by my parent to call at the home of my father's half-sister in Smith Mills, I was asked by the young ladies of the household, who were Episcopalians, to read from their prayer-book. Doing so, I came upon a passage that startled me by its inaccuracy. I stoutly asserted that it appeared to come from the Bible, but was erroneously quoted; to which the young ladies answered that I must be wrong. A Bible was produced and I had no difficulty in demonstrating that I was right. Which demonstration established me as a prodigy.

In Padanaram, my family attended the Congregational Church, and there too, in the Sunday School, I learned things that made me still more famous. I am told that it was a habit of my father to stand me on the counter of his village store, from which point of vantage I informed the villagers assembled around the fire, with a confidence that I have since lost, that the Lord was my shepherd and I should not want, concluding with the assurance that I should dwell in the house of the Lord forever. At the age of five or six, one is prone to be credulous.

Rebellion in the Tucker Blood.

At this point I imagine the reader wondering how the family happened to be sitting under Congregational preaching in this Quaker community where my father and his ancestors had been "Friends" for generations. The explanation is simple. My father, in violation of the denominational law forbidding marriage outside the fold, had committed a grievous sin in marrying my mother, who, though by no means gay or giddy, did not wear a poke bonnet of the prescribed type. Because of this, he was expelled from the Meeting. True, in the course of time the elders offered to restore him to membership, if he would say that he was sorry, but this offer he refused. Evidently rebellion was latent in the Tucker blood. I doubt if he was more Congregationalist than Quaker. In fact, I am not at all sure that he entertained any religious views whatever. As to that, I can say only that at a later period, after our Unitarian Church, I never heard him give utterance to any kind of religious belief, until one day at the table, when I was about seventeen years of age, the conversation having turned upon the existence of God, he, who up to that point had taken no part, suddenly remarked, in a very commonplace tone, that he never had been able to see any reason for believing in such a being. I looked at him with some amazement, and the conversation ended there, but I remember that the declaration greatly impressed itself on my mind. I may add that I had already arrived at his conclusion, but was greatly surprised to learn that he had even considered the subject.

Whether an atheist or not, my father certainly was an optimist, and his optimism was often not a little annoying both to my mother, who generally looked upon the dark side, and to his business partner. It is told that, on one occasion, when one of the firm's whaling ships, after a voyage of some years' duration, had returned to port with empty casks, my father, walking on the pier and surveying the unpleasant situation, disgusted his partner by saying: "Well, Charles, we shall not have to buy any new casks for the next voyage." The remark was characteristic of his entire life.

Watching the return of the whalers was one of the diversions of the Padanaram home, whose rear windows commanded a view of Buzzards Bay, an arm of the Atlantic ten or fifteen miles wide stretching between the Dartmouth shore and the Elizabeth Islands. Through this expanse of water passed the whalers en route for New Bedford. Near one of the widows a long spy-glass was kept, and, when a vessel was in sight, there was a grand rush for first possession. As each owner had a special flag, it was often possible to identify the new arrival, which in those days was apt to be unheralded; and, as a result, there was must exerted speculation concerning the good or bad fortune of those immediately interested.

A return of quite another sort one day brought mingled consternation and joy to the household. Some months earlier my half-brother, Henry, who was proving rather unruly, had been shipped on a whaling voyage by his father as a means of discipline. One afternoon (probably Sunday, for I seem to remember my astonished father in the picture), when Henry was supposed by all the family to be thousands of miles away, he came walking up the flagging leading to the back piazza. I believe that he had escaped from his vessel at San Francisco where the whalers often stopped, and had secured return passage by another. The details of the greeting have passed from my mind, but surely all were glad to see him, regardless of the disciplinary failure. It is safe to say, however, that my father did not kill the fatted calf, or even the freak -- the chicken with four necks -- as is recorded in a modern version of the prodigal's return.

One of the New Bedford whalers, and one of the last to go out of service, was named for our father. The New Bedford Sunday Standard of May 10, 1925, printed a large reproduction of a photograph of the A.R. Tucker at its pier, accompanied by this comment: "A whaler whose stern recalls the old witticism that whale ships were built by the mile and cut up in lengths to suit."

First Lesson in French.

With Henry's return the household, exclusive of domestics, again became six in number, a figure originally attained through the birth of my sister Julia in January 1858, -- an event which I scarcely remember. But this was really the case only during the vacations enjoyed by my half-sister Sarah, who was receiving her education at Wheaton Female Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts. Of her, during those years, but a single remembrance remains vivid. In the course of my play, my handkerchief had fallen to the floor. Sarah, naturally proud of her superior learning, remarked, "Il y a votre mouchoir." I was beginning to wonder if her reason had departed when she relieved me by explaining that the words were French for the expression: "There is your handkerchief." My wonder changed promptly into admiration. It was my first lesson in the language the reading knowledge of which was to become so important a factor in my later life. Telling this story recently to my daughter Oriole, who having lived in France since the age of six weeks, speaks the language like a native, I was reminded by her (it was her turn to be proud) that Sarah's words had established merely the existence of the handkerchief rather than the position in the room, and that her French would have been more idiomatic has she said: "Viola votre mouchoir!" I humbly accepted the correction, but with the further amendment (for it was my turn to be proud) that, since Sarah was addressing her little brother, her French would have been simply perfect had she exclaimed: "Voila ton mouchoir!" Thus, between my earliest French lesson and my latest, nearly seventy years have passed, and it must be confessed that in that period I have learned none too much, considering the unusual opportunities that I have enjoyed. It is true that as a translator of non-technical French into written English I may properly be counted among the best. It is also true that I can read such French to myself with great rapidity and with some approach to instant and perfect comprehension. Nor is it an exaggeration to say that I can read aloud to others, from any ordinary French book or newspaper that I may pick up, at sight and in English, with fluency not common. My pronunciation of French is far from good, but by no means ridiculous; and I think that I could make a creditable record at a French spelling-bee. But to this day I cannot converse in French for two minutes without getting into a hopeless muddle, nor can I write in French with any ease or assurance of accuracy. If a Frenchman speaks to me at a rate exceeding twenty words a minute, I do well if I catch two words out of the twenty. If, on the other hand I chance to catch a complete sentence, I rarely fail to see the meaning, and in one direction at least I have attained a degree of proficiency that enables me at the Monaco market, which I attend almost daily, to dodge successfully the wiles of the dealers, regardless of sex. In fact, in the bosom of my family I am continually chaffed about my lady friends at the market. I should not have been thus explicit in defining my linguistic limitations but for the fact that the newspapers very often credit me, kindly but erroneously, with a thorough knowledge of French.

My Musical Repertory.

All the other secular knowledge that I have acquired in Padanaram days must have been imparted by may mother (though my mind carries no picture of her as teacher and myself as pupil), and must have covered a large part of the ground included in a New England primary school course. Nothing else was attempted. For instance, nothing musical, for there was no music in the family. Neither of my parents could distinguish one tune from another, and a discord had to be very violent to cause me the least disturbance. But there was one good voice among the Cummingses, -- the soprano of my Aunt Louise. She sometimes came to Padanoram to pass a few days, and her singing I enjoyed, probably because of the character of her selections. Up to the age of four I spelt in the ground-floor chamber of my parents, but after Julia's birth an up-stairs room was assigned to me, where I spelt by myself. Such was my appreciation of Aunt Louise's lullabies that during her visits I used to beg that she might put me to bed. In my early childhood I heard little other singing except of the familiar hymns of the orthodox sects, which rang in my ears not only at Sunday services, but in the home of my father's sister, who lived in Westport, a town adjoining Dartmouth on the west, -- a home in which I had five cousins, and where I sometimes visited for a week. Here was another case of violation of the Quaker marriage code. But I never heard that my Aunt Rebecca suffered expulsion from the Meeting in consequence. Or did she perhaps, less rebellious than her brother Abner, consent to say that she was sorry, and thus regain her standing! In any case, she was a faithful attendant, theeing and thouing to the last day of her life. But she married an Episcopalian. Their surname was Church, and they did not steal it. It appropriateness made it their own. At the beginning of each meal the father said a short grace consisting of fifteen or twenty stereotyped words, opening with the phrase: "O Lord, we thank Thee for these provisions of Thy bounty." And very frequently in the evening the children gathered around the piano (or perhaps an organ), prepared to exhaust the following repertory: "Yes, we shall gather at the river," "For oh we stand on Jordan's strand," "Rock of Ages, cleft for me," "There is rest for the weary," "From Greenland's icy mountains," "Watchman, tell us of the night," "Oh, wonderful love," and the Doxology. Lacking ear and voice, I could not join, but gradually I caught the swing of the music and swiftly absorbed the words. Since those days I have arrived at a high appreciation of the dramatic, the emotional, and, to an extent, the tuneful content of the best music. But for myself I rarely attempt anything beyond the repertory of my infancy, supplemented by a few similar selections of later date, such as "Nearer, My God to Three" and "Hold the fort, for I am coming." Were I to venture anything more ambitious, my presence, I fear, would not long be tolerated. As it is, with second childhood imminent, I lie on my lounge, or pace up and down my apartment, pouring forth my soul. Said Jim Lefferts to Elmer Gantry: "You certainly can make that hymn sound as if it meant something." Well, so can I. I deliver it with clear enunciation, shaded emphasis, and much gusto. In "There is rest for the weary" I seem to make a special hit, possibly by the suggestion of an opposite conclusion. Up to a certain point the other members of the family maintain a charitable composure, but at last a huge outburst of unappreciative, not to say mocking, laughter greets me, perhaps quieting me for the moment; soon, however, nothing daunted, I soar again upon the winds of song. The outpour begins when I am dressing in the morning, and, but for the fact that I sit up till nearly midnight and live in a thickly-settled and well-regulated community, would continue when I am undressing in the evening. Ought I not to stop it altogether? Already the fear begins to haunt one that the religious, after my death, may seize upon this innocent habit as evidence of recantation of my atheism. It is hardly likely that my Monegascan neighbors understand the words. Still, one never knows. Once more, then, let these pages serve to head the liars off.

Aunt Louise was not the only visitor at Padanoram. Cousins came also; generally boys from one to four years older than myself. The place had its attractions. Besides the lawn, the flower garden, the vegetable garden, the orchard, the stable, and a considerable expanse of meadow,-- perhaps an acre or more, in all, -- there was the seashore, within five or ten minutes' walk of the house; and, when all else failed, there was still a timid cousin to tease. One of the favorite amusements was to entice and aid me to the hay-loft and leave the descent to my own resources, which were not fertile. It was oftener my lungs than my limbs that brought me release from my predicament. This species of torture must have been inflicted in the summer of 1860, and before another summer arrived the hay-loft had become in my life thing of the past. I do not know what induced my parent to remove to New Bedford. Perhaps the business of Tucker & Cummings was in the decline. Whatever the reason, the removal occurred, early in 1861. My father sold his residence, -- for twelve thousand dollars, I believe. Whether the land is still intact, I do not know. Nearly thirty years have passed since I laid eyes upon it. It must now be a very valuable property, as the entire region for miles around ahs become a summer stamping-ground for the "dead swells" of America and even of foreign parts, and the population of the adjacent city of New Bedford has increased more than five fold. The buyer was Charles Tucker, a brother of my father's first wife; and his son, Arthur L. Tucker, still occupies the premises, if I am not mistaken. Though my father, who, be it remembered married a Tucker not related to himself, was related to Charles Tucker only by marriage, Charles Tucker's son Arthur is my cousin. How so? Simply because Charles Tucker also married a Tucker not related to himself but a cousin of my father. Hoping that these complications have not led me into error, and leaving the reader to find his way out of the labyrinth, I pass on to New Bedford, taking with me as souvenir a photograph of myself at the age of two, which, in an oval gilt frame, still hangs upon my wall in Monaco. The first experiments with collodion dry plates were described in La Lumiere on April 22, 1854, -- just five days after my birth. This photograph, then, taken in 1856, must be one of the very early products of the photographic art, and seems to me a creditable piece of work.

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