A Holy Land by Eliot Gregory
Story type: Essay
Not long ago an article came under my notice descriptive of the neighborhood around Grant’s tomb and the calm that midsummer brings to that vicinity, laughingly referred to as the “Holy Land.”
As careless fingers wandering over the strings of a violin may unintentionally strike a chord, so the writer of those lines, all unconsciously, with a jest, set vibrating a world of tender memories and associations; for the region spoken of is truly a holy land to me, the playground of my youth, and connected with the sweetest ties that can bind one’s thoughts to the past.
Ernest Renan in his Souvenirs d’Enfance, tells of a Brittany legend, firmly believed in that wild land, of the vanished city of “Is,” which ages ago disappeared beneath the waves. The peasants still point out at a certain place on the coast the site of the fabled city, and the fishermen tell how during great storms they have caught glimpses of its belfries and ramparts far down between the waves; and assert that on calm summer nights they can hear the bells chiming up from those depths. I also have a vanished “Is” in my heart, and as I grow older, I love to listen to the murmurs that float up from the past. They seem to come from an infinite distance, almost like echoes from another life.
At that enchanted time we lived during the summers in an old wooden house my father had re-arranged into a fairly comfortable dwelling. A tradition, which no one had ever taken the trouble to verify, averred that Washington had once lived there, which made that hero very real to us. The picturesque old house stood high on a slope where the land rises boldly; with an admirable view of distant mountain, river and opposing Palisades.
The new Riverside drive (which, by the bye, should make us very lenient toward the men who robbed our city a score of years ago, for they left us that vast work in atonement), has so changed the neighborhood it is impossible now for pious feet to make a pilgrimage to those childish shrines. One house, however, still stands as when it was our nearest neighbor. It had sheltered General Gage, land for many acres around had belonged to him. He was an enthusiastic gardener, and imported, among a hundred other fruits and plants, the “Queen Claude” plum from France, which was successfully acclimated on his farm. In New York a plum of that kind is still called a “green gage.” The house has changed hands many times since we used to play around the Grecian pillars of its portico. A recent owner, dissatisfied doubtless with its classic simplicity, has painted it a cheerful mustard color and crowned it with a fine new Mansard roof. Thus disfigured, and shorn of its surrounding trees, the poor old house stands blankly by the roadside, reminding one of the Greek statue in Anstey’s “Painted Venus” after the London barber had decorated her to his taste. When driving by there now, I close my eyes.
Another house, where we used to be taken to play, was that of Audubon, in the park of that name. Many a rainy afternoon I have passed with his children choosing our favorite birds in the glass cases that filled every nook and corner of the tumble-down old place, or turning over the leaves of the enormous volumes he would so graciously take down from their places for our amusement. I often wonder what has become of those vast in-folios, and if any one ever opens them now and admires as we did the glowing colored plates in which the old ornithologist took such pride. There is something infinitely sad in the idea of a collection of books slowly gathered together at the price of privations and sacrifices, cherished, fondled, lovingly read, and then at the owner’s death, coldly sent away to stand for ever unopened on the shelves of some public library. It is like neglecting poor dumb children!
An event that made a profound impression on my childish imagination occurred while my father, who was never tired of improving our little domain, was cutting a pathway down the steep side of the slope to the river. A great slab, dislodged by a workman’s pick, fell disclosing the grave of an Indian chief. In a low archway or shallow cave sat the skeleton of the chieftain, his bows and arrows arranged around him on the ground, mingled with fragments of an elaborate costume, of which little remained but the bead-work. That it was the tomb of a man great among his people was evident from the care with which the grave had been prepared and then hidden, proving how, hundreds of years before our civilization, another race had chosen this noble cliff and stately river landscape as the fitting framework for a great warrior’s tomb.
This discovery made no little stir in the scientific world of that day. Hundreds came to see it, and as photography had not then come into the world, many drawings were made and casts taken, and finally the whole thing was removed to the rooms of the Historical Society. From that day the lonely little path held an awful charm for us. Our childish readings of Cooper had developed in us that love of the Indian and his wild life, so characteristic of boyhood thirty years ago. On still summer afternoons, the place had a primeval calm that froze the young blood in our veins. Although we prided ourselves on our quality as “braves,” and secretly pined to be led on the war-path, we were shy of walking in that vicinity in daylight, and no power on earth, not even the offer of the tomahawk or snow-shoes for which our souls longed, would have taken us there at night.
A place connected in my memory with a tragic association was across the river on the last southern slope of the Palisades. Here we stood breathless while my father told the brief story of the duel between Burr and Hamilton, and showed us the rock stained by the younger man’s life- blood. In those days there was a simple iron railing around the spot where Hamilton had expired, but of later years I have been unable to find any trace of the place. The tide of immigration has brought so deep a deposit of “saloons” and suburban “balls” that the very face of the land is changed, old lovers of that shore know it no more. Never were the environs of a city so wantonly and recklessly degraded. Municipalities have vied with millionaires in soiling and debasing the exquisite shores of our river, that, thirty years ago, were unrivalled the world over.
The glamour of the past still lies for me upon this landscape in spite of its many defacements. The river whispers of boyish boating parties, and the woods recall a thousand childish hopes and fears, resolute departures to join the pirates, or the red men in their strongholds–journeys boldly carried out until twilight cooled our courage and the supper-hour proved a stronger temptation than war and carnage.
When I sat down this summer evening to write a few lines about happy days on the banks of the Hudson, I hardly realized how sweet those memories were to me. The rewriting of the old names has evoked from their long sleep so many loved faces. Arms seem reaching out to me from the past. The house is very still to-night. I seem to be nearer my loved dead than to the living. The bells of my lost “Is” are ringing clear in the silence.