Methuselah by Eugene Field

Story type: Literature

The discussion now going on between our clergymen and certain unbelievers touching the question of Cain and his wife will surely result beneficially, for it will set everybody to reading his Bible more diligently. Still, the biography of Cain is one that we could never become particularly interested in; in short, of all the Old Testament characters none other interests us so much as does Methuselah, the man who lived 969 years. Would it be possible to find in all history another life at once so grand and so pathetic? One can get a faint idea of the awful magnitude of Methuselah’s career by pausing to recollect that 969 years represent 9.69 centuries, 96 decades, 11,628 months, 50,388 weeks, 353,928 days, 8,494,272 hours, 521,656,320 minutes, and 36,299,879,200 seconds!

How came he to live so long? Ah, that is easily enough explained. He loved life and the world,–both were beautiful to him. And one day he spoke his wish in words. “Oh, that I might live a thousand years!” he cried.

Then looking up straightway he beheld an angel, and the angel said: “Wouldst thou live a thousand years?”

And Methuselah answered him, saying: “As the Lord is my God, I would live a thousand years.”

“It shall be even so,” said the angel; and then the angel departed out of his sight. So Methuselah lived on and on, as the angel had promised.

How sweet a treasure the young Methuselah must have been to his parents and to his doting ancestors; with what tender solicitude must the old folks have watched the child’s progress from the innocence of his first to the virility of his later centuries. We can picture the happy reunions of the old Adam family under the domestic vines and fig-trees that bloomed near the Euphrates. When Methuselah was a mere toddler of nineteen years, Adam was still living, and so was his estimable wife; the possibility is that the venerable couple gave young Methuselah a birthday party at which (we can easily imagine) there were present these following, to-wit: Adam, aged 687; Seth, aged 557; Enos, aged 452; Cainan, aged 362; Mahalaleel, aged 292; Jared, aged 227; Enoch, aged 65, and his infant boy Methuselah, aged 19. Here were represented eight direct generations, and there were present, of course, the wives and daughters; so that, on the whole, the gathering must have been as numerous as it was otherwise remarkable. Nowhere in any of the vistas of history, of romance, or of mythology were it possible to find a spectacle more imposing than that of the child Methuselah surrounded by his father Enoch, his grandfather Jared, his great-grandfather Mahalaleel, his great-great-grandfather Cainan, his great-great-great-grandfather Enos, his great-great-great-great-grandfather Seth, and his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Adam, as well as by his great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Eve, and her feminine posterity for (say) four centuries! How pretty and how kindly dear old grandma Eve must have looked on that gala occasion, attired, as she must have been, in all the quaint simplicity of that primeval period; and how must the dear old soul have fretted through fear that little Methuselah would eat too many papaws, or drink too much goat’s milk. It is a marvel, we think, that in spite of the indulgence and the petting in which he was reared, Methuselah grew to be a good, kind man.

Profane historians agree that just about the time he reached the age of ninety-four Methuselah became deeply enamoured of a comely and sprightly damsel named Mizpah,–a young thing scarce turned seventy-six. Up to this period of adolescence his cautious father Enoch had kept Methuselah out of all love entanglements, and it is probable that he would not have approved of this affair with Mizpah had not Jared, the boy’s grandfather, counselled Enoch to give the boy a chance. But alas and alackaday for the instability of youthful affection! It befell in an evil time that there came over from the land of Nod a frivolous and gorgeously apparelled beau, who, with finely wrought phrases, did so fascinate the giddy Mizpah that incontinently she gave Methuselah the mitten, and went with the dashing young stranger of 102 as his bride.

This shocking blow so grievously affected Methuselah that for some time (that is to say, for a period of ninety-one years) he shunned female society. But having recovered somewhat from the bitterness of that great disappointment received in the callowness of his ninth decade, he finally met and fell in love with Adah, a young woman of 148, and her he married. The issue of this union was a boy whom they named Lamech, and this child from the very hour of his birth gave his father vast worriment, which, considering the disparity in their ages, is indeed most shocking of contemplation. The tableau of a father (aged 187) vainly coddling a colicky babe certainly does not call for our enthusiasm. Yet we presume to say that Methuselah bore his trials meekly, that he cherished and adored the baby, and that he spent weeks and months playing peek-a-boo and ride-a-cock-horse. In all our consideration of Methuselah we must remember that the mere matter of time was of no consequence to him.

Lamech grew to boyhood, involving his father in all those ridiculous complications which parents nowadays do not heed so much, but which must have been of vast annoyance to a man of Methuselah’s advanced age and proper notions. Whittling with the old gentleman’s razor, hooking off from school, trampling down the neighbors’ rowen, tracking mud into the front parlor–these were some of Lamech’s idiosyncrasies, and of course they tormented Methuselah, who recalled sadly that boys were no longer what they used to be when he was a boy some centuries previous. But when he got to be 182 years old Lamech had sowed all his wild oats, and it was then he married a clever young girl of 98, who bore him a son whom they called Noah. Now if Methuselah had been worried and plagued by Lamech, he was more than compensated therefor by this baby grandson, whom he found to be, aside from all prejudices, the prettiest and the smartest child he had ever seen. Old father Adam, who was now turned of his ninth century, tottered over to see the baby, and he, too, allowed that it was an uncommonly bright child. And dear old grandma Eve declared that there was an expression about the upper part of the little Noah’s face that reminded her very much of the soft-eyed boy she lost 800 years ago. And dear old grandma Eve used to rock little Noah and sing to him, and cry softly to herself all the while.

Now, in good time, Noah grew to lusty youth, and although he was, on the whole, a joy to his grandsire Methuselah, he developed certain traits and predilections that occasioned the old gentleman much uneasiness. At the tender age of 265 Noah exhibited a strange passion for aquatics, and while it was common for other boys of that time to divert themselves with the flocks and herds, with slingshots and spears, with music and dancing, Noah preferred to spend his hours floating toy-ships in the bayous of the Euphrates. Every day he took his little shittim-wood boats down to the water, tied strings to them, and let them float hither and thither on the crystal bosom of the tide. Naturally enough these practices worried the grandfather mightily.

“May not the crocodiles compass him round about?” groaned Methuselah. “May not behemoth prevail against him? Or, verily, it may befall that the waves shall devour him. Woe is me and lamentation unto this household if destruction come to him through the folly of his fathers!”

So Methuselah’s age began to be full of care and trouble, and many a time he felt weary of living, and sometimes–yes, sometimes–he wished he were dead. People in those times were not afraid to die; they believed in the second and better life, because God spoke with them and told them it should be.

The last century of this good man’s sojourn upon earth was particularly pathetic. His ancestors were all dead; he alone remained the last living reminiscence of a time that but for him would have been forgotten. Deprived of the wise counsels of his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Adam and of the gentle admonitions of his great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Eve, Methuselah felt not only lonesome but even in danger of wrong-doing, so precious to him had been the teachings of these worthy progenitors. And what particularly disturbed Methuselah were the dreadful changes that had taken place in society since he was a boy. Dress, speech, customs, and morals were all different now from what they used to be.

When Methuselah was a boy,–ah, he remembered it well,–people went hither and thither clad only in simple fig-leaf garb; and they were content therewith.

When Methuselah was a boy, people spoke a plain, direct language, strong in its truth, its simplicity, and its honest vigor.

When Methuselah was a boy, manners were open and unaffected, and morals were pure and healthy.

But now all these things were changed. An evil called fashion had filled the minds of men and women with vanity. From the sinful land of Nod and from other pagan countries came divers tradesmen with purples and linens and fine feathers, whereby a wicked pride was engendered, and from these sinful countries, too, came frivolous manners that supplanted the guileless etiquette of the past.

Moreover, traffic and intercourse with the subtle heathen had corrupted and perverted the speech of Adam’s time: crafty phrases and false rhetorics had crept in, and the grand old Edenic idioms either were fast being debased or had become wholly obsolete. Such new-fangled words as “eftsoon,” “albeit,” “wench,” “soothly,” “zounds,” “whenas,” and “sithence” had stolen into common usage, making more direct and simpler speech a jest and a byword.

Likewise had prudence given way to extravagance, abstemiousness to intemperance, dignity to frivolity, and continence to lust; so that by these evils was Methuselah grievously tormented, and it repented him full sore that he had lived to see such exceeding wickedness upon earth. But in the midst of all these follies did Methuselah maintain an upright and godly life, and continually did he bless God for that he had held him in the path of rectitude.

Now when Methuselah was in the 964th summer of his sojourn he was called upon to mourn the death of his son Lamech, whom an inscrutable Providence had cut off in what in those days was considered the flower of a man’s life,–namely, the eighth century thereof. Lamech’s untimely decease was a severe blow to his doting father, who, forgetting all his son’s boyish indiscretions, remembered now only Lamech’s good and lovable traits and deeds. It is reasonable to suppose, however, that the old gentleman was somewhat beguiled from his grief by the lively dispositions and playful antics of Lamech’s grandsons, Noah’s sons, and his own great-grandsons,–Shem, Ham, and Japheth,–who at this time had attained to the frolicsome ages of ninety-five, ninety-two, and ninety-one, respectively. These boys inherited from their father a violent penchant for aquatics, and scarcely a day passed that they did not paddle around the bayous and sloughs of the Euphrates in their gopher-wood canoes.

“Gran’pa,” Noah used to say, “the conduct of those boys causes me constant vexation. I have no time to follow them around, and I am haunted continually by the fear that they will be drowned, or that the crocodiles will get them if they don’t watch out!”

But Methuselah would smiling answer: “Possess thy soul in patience and thy bowels in peace; for verily is it not written ‘boys will be boys!’”

Now Shem, Ham, and Japheth were very fond of their great-grandpa, and to their credit be it said that next to paddling over the water privileges of the Euphrates they liked nothing better than to sit in the old gentleman’s lap, and to hear him talk about old times. Marvellous tales he told them, too; for his career of nine and a half centuries had been well stocked with incident, as one would naturally suppose. Howbeit, the admiration which these callow youths had for Methuselah was not shared by a large majority of the people then on earth. On the contrary, we blush to admit it, Methuselah was held in very trifling esteem by his frivolous fellow-citizens, who habitually referred to him as an “old ‘wayback,” “a barnacle,” an “old fogy,” a “mossback,” or a “garrulous dotard,” and with singular irreverence they took delight in twitting him upon his senility and in pestering him with divers new-fangled notions altogether distasteful, not to say shocking, to a gentleman of his years.

It was perhaps, however, at the old settlers’ picnics, which even then were of annual occurrence, that Methuselah most enjoyed himself; for on these occasions he was given the place of prominence and he was deferred to in everything, since he antedated all the others by at least three centuries. The historians and the antiquarians of the time found him of much assistance to them in their labors, since he was always ready to provide them with dates touching incidents of the remote period from which he had come down unscathed. He remembered vividly how, when he was 186 years of age, the Euphrates had frozen over to a depth of seven feet; the 209th winter of his existence he referred to as “the winter of the deep snow;” he remembered that when he was a boy the women had more character than the women of these later years; he had a vivid recollection of the great plague that prevailed in the city of Enoch during his fourth century; he could repeat, word for word, the address of welcome his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Adam delivered to an excursion party that came over from the land of Nod one time when Methuselah was a mere child of eighty-seven,–oh, yes, poor old Methuselah was full of reminiscence, and having crowded an active career into the brief period of 969 years, it can be imagined that ponderous tomes would not hold the tales he told whenever he was encouraged.

One day, however, Methuselah’s grandson Noah took the old gentleman aside and confided into his ear-trumpet a very solemn secret which must have grieved the old gentleman immensely, for he gnashed his gums and wrung his thin, bony hands and groaned dolorously.

“The end of all flesh is at hand,” said Noah. “The earth is filled with violence through them, and God will destroy them with the earth. I will make an ark of gopher-wood, the length thereof 300 cubits, the breadth of it 50 cubits, and the height of it 30 cubits, and I will pitch it within and without with pitch. Into the ark will I come, and my sons and my wife, and my sons’ wives, and certain living beasts shall come, and birds of the air, and we and they shall be saved. Come thou also, for thou art an austere man and a just.”

But as Methuselah sate alone upon his couch that night he thought of his life: how sweet it had been,–how that, despite the evil now and then, there had been more of happiness than of sorrow in it. He even forgot the wickedness of the world and remembered only its good and its sunshine, its kindness and its love. He blessed God for it all, and he prayed for the death-angel to come to him ere he beheld the destruction of all he so much loved.

Then the angel came and spread his shadow about the old man.

And the angel said: “Thy prayer is heard, and God doth forgive thee the score-and-ten years of the promised span of thy life.”

And Methuselah gathered up his feet into the bed, and prattling of the brooks, he fell asleep; and so he slept with his fathers.

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