I have often thought that Lord Bacon might have known even more about revenge than he did, if he had observed it in children. For, being a kind of “wild justice,” its features are clearest before they have been blurred by the conventions of a society wherein justice is supposed to have been tamed, if not actually domesticated.
Instances of the juvenile type have attracted my notice from time to time, and I am moved to record three of them, for the use of some future philosopher.
One was a scheme planned by a practical-minded little boy, to take effect against his mother. He spent one entire afternoon, and enlisted the services of his friends, in making what he called “dirt-traps” along the garden walk, a system of simple levers so arranged that any person who passed would strike the foot against one end of a stick, making the other end fly up and fling a little bunch of earth into his face. Of course the person passing was to be the unnatural mother; after so much industry on his part, Providence would surely take care of that. I forget whether Providence did, but as I look back, I like the boy’s attitude of mind. He has since become a scientist, with a good grasp of the concrete.
Of quite another type was the revenge carried out by a little girl I knew. She had a big brother who teased, and a bigger brother who didn’t, because he was too big. Now and then she could pay back some of her scores, but the accumulation of those unpaid touched her soul with gloom. At last the children gave a play, wherein she, as the Princess Ariel, rejected Prince Percival (big brother) and eloped with a poor suitor (bigger brother). At a certain point in the play Percival was repulsed with the words, “I spurn thee, villain! hence! away!” During the rehearsals it was suggested by the coach that the princess might accentuate her scorn by touching the kneeling youth with the toe of her slipper. She did so, gently, tasting the pleasure of this new kind of revenge. But on the night of the performance, excitement unseated such powers of restraint as a short life had furnished her with; the wild justice burst forth, and the gilt-slippered little foot did not gently spurn, it hotly kicked. The princely lover, unprepared, tumbled over on his side and rolled beautifully “down center.” The audience applauded such spirited acting, and per haps only one of those present guessed how in that moment the wrongs of years had been wiped out by a vengeance that was satisfying because at once public, concrete, and symbolic.
But that which I admire most of all was planned by a little country boy he became a successful city man whose heart was filled with bitterness toward his school teacher. Not for him were the crass forms of immediate retaliation, but at recess, as he ate his apple, he thought, and the gray eyes grew dark and intent. The apple was eaten, but the seeds—ah, they were shut tight in the small fist until an unmolested moment came. Then each little brown speck was care fully pushed under the edge of the school- house and jammed down, by black-nailed fingers, into the earth. The boy went back to his books, but the poet’s brain behind the gray eyes saw into the years to come, saw the unrighteous teacher still at her desk, the hateful little schoolhouse still standing, while, outside, those little seeds were bursting, rooting downward, and stretching upward; saw the young shoots gaining strength, bracing and straining at the house timbers, till they stirred and cracked; saw the house wrenched and tottering, the teacher grasping her reeling desk, and then ruins, with blooming apple trees rising in triumph over them! And meantime, the gray eyes were bent on the book, content to wait until the future should right the past. Magnificent!
It is true that the movements of young children are quick, but a very little attention would prove how many apparent disconnexions there are between the lively motion and the first impulse; it is not the brain that is quick.
We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been, and must wait upon the tedious shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have existence, and a name.
Quotidiana is an online anthology of "classical" essays, from antiquity to the early twentieth century. All essays and images are in the public domain. Commentaries are copyrighted, but may be used with proper attribution. Special thanks to the BYU College of Humanities and English Department for funding, and to Joey Franklin and Lara Burton, for tireless research assisting.