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THE MAYPOLE OF MERRY MOUNT.
 
 
    There is an admirable foundation for a philosophic romance in
    the curious history of the early settlement of Mount Wollaston,
    or Merry Mount. In the slight sketch here attempted the facts
    recorded on the grave pages of our New England annalists have
    wrought themselves almost spontaneously into a sort of allegory.
    The masques, mummeries and festive customs described in the text
    are in accordance with the manners of the age. Authority on these
    points may be found in Strutt's _​Book of English Sports and
    Pastimes​_​.
 
Bright were the days at Merry Mount when the Maypole was the
banner-staff of that gay colony. They who reared it, should their
banner be triumphant, were to pour sunshine over New England's rugged
hills and scatter flower-seeds throughout the soil. Jollity and gloom
were contending for an empire. Midsummer eve had come, bringing deep
verdure to the forest, and roses in her lap of a more vivid hue than
the tender buds of spring. But May, or her mirthful spirit, dwelt all
the year round at Merry Mount, sporting with the summer months and
revelling with autumn and basking in the glow of winter's fireside.
Through a world of toil and care she flitted with a dream-like smile,
and came hither to find a home among the lightsome hearts of Merry
Mount.
 
Never had the Maypole been so gayly decked as at sunset on Midsummer
eve. This venerated emblem was a pine tree which had preserved the
slender grace of youth, while it equalled the loftiest height of the
old wood-monarchs. From its top streamed a silken banner colored like
the rainbow. Down nearly to the ground the pole was dressed with
birchen boughs, and others of the liveliest green, and some with
silvery leaves fastened by ribbons that fluttered in fantastic knots
of twenty different colors, but no sad ones. Garden-flowers and
blossoms of the wilderness laughed gladly forth amid the verdure, so
fresh and dewy that they must have grown by magic on that happy pine
tree. Where this green and flowery splendor terminated the shaft of
the Maypole was stained with the seven brilliant hues of the banner at
its top. On the lowest green bough hung an abundant wreath of
roses--some that had been gathered in the sunniest spots of the
forest, and others, of still richer blush, which the colonists had
reared from English seed. O people of the Golden Age, the chief of
your husbandry was to raise flowers!
 
But what was the wild throng that stood hand in hand about the
Maypole? It could not be that the fauns and nymphs, when driven from
their classic groves and homes of ancient fable, had sought refuge, as
all the persecuted did, in the fresh woods of the West. These were
Gothic monsters, though perhaps of Grecian ancestry. On the shoulders
of a comely youth uprose the head and branching antlers of a stag; a
second, human in all other points, had the grim visage of a wolf; a
third, still with the trunk and limbs of a mortal man, showed the
beard and horns of a venerable he-goat. There was the likeness of a
bear erect, brute in all but his hind legs, which were adorned with
pink silk stockings. And here, again, almost as wondrous, stood a real
bear of the dark forest, lending each of his forepaws to the grasp of
a human hand and as ready for the dance as any in that circle. His
inferior nature rose halfway to meet his companions as they stooped.
Other faces wore the similitude of man or woman, but distorted or
extravagant, with red noses pendulous before their mouths, which
seemed of awful depth and stretched from ear to ear in an eternal fit
of laughter. Here might be seen the salvage man--well known in
heraldry--hairy as a baboon and girdled with green leaves. By his
side--a nobler figure, but still a counterfeit--appeared an Indian
hunter with feathery crest and wampum-belt. Many of this strange
company wore foolscaps and had little bells appended to their
garments, tinkling with a silvery sound responsive to the inaudible
music of their gleesome spirits. Some youths and maidens were of
soberer garb, yet well maintained their places in the irregular throng
by the expression of wild revelry upon their features.
 
Such were the colonists of Merry Mount as they stood in the broad
smile of sunset round their venerated Maypole. Had a wanderer
bewildered in the melancholy forest heard their mirth and stolen a
half-affrighted glance, he might have fancied them the crew of Comus,
some already transformed to brutes, some midway between man and beast,
and the others rioting in the flow of tipsy jollity that foreran the
change; but a band of Puritans who watched the scene, invisible
themselves, compared the masques to those devils and ruined souls with
whom their superstition peopled the black wilderness.
 
Within the ring of monsters appeared the two airiest forms that had
ever trodden on any more solid footing than a purple-and-golden cloud.
One was a youth in glistening apparel with a scarf of the rainbow
pattern crosswise on his breast. His right hand held a gilded
staff--the ensign of high dignity among the revellers--and his left
grasped the slender fingers of a fair maiden not less gayly decorated
than himself. Bright roses glowed in contrast with the dark and glossy
curls of each, and were scattered round their feet or had sprung up
spontaneously there. Behind this lightsome couple, so close to the
Maypole that its boughs shaded his jovial face, stood the figure of an
English priest, canonically dressed, yet decked with flowers, in
heathen fashion, and wearing a chaplet of the native vine leaves. By
the riot of his rolling eye and the pagan decorations of his holy
garb, he seemed the wildest monster there, and the very Comus of the
crew.
 
"Votaries of the Maypole," cried the flower-decked priest, "merrily
all day long have the woods echoed to your mirth. But be this your
merriest hour, my hearts! Lo! here stand the Lord and Lady of the May,
whom I, a clerk of Oxford and high priest of Merry Mount, am presently
to join in holy matrimony.--Up with your nimble spirits, ye
morrice-dancers, green men and glee-maidens, bears and wolves and
horned gentlemen! Come! a chorus now rich with the old mirth of Merry
England and the wilder glee of this fresh forest, and then a dance, to
show the youthful pair what life is made of and how airily they should
go through it!--All ye that love the Maypole, lend your voices to the
nuptial song of the Lord and Lady of the May!"
 
This wedlock was more serious than most affairs of Merry Mount, where
jest and delusion, trick and fantasy, kept up a continual carnival.
The Lord and Lady of the May, though their titles must be laid down at
sunset, were really and truly to be partners for the dance of life,
beginning the measure that same bright eve. The wreath of roses that
hung from the lowest green bough of the Maypole had been twined for
them, and would be thrown over both their heads in symbol of their
flowery union. When the priest had spoken, therefore, a riotous uproar
burst from the rout of monstrous figures.
 
"Begin you the stave, reverend sir," cried they all, "and never did
the woods ring to such a merry peal as we of the Maypole shall send
up."
 
Immediately a prelude of pipe, cittern and viol, touched with
practised minstrelsy, began to play from a neighboring thicket in such
a mirthful cadence that the boughs of the Maypole quivered to the
sound. But the May-lord--he of the gilded staff--chancing to look into
his lady's eyes, was wonder-struck at the almost pensive glance that
met his own.
 
"Edith, sweet Lady of the May," whispered he, reproachfully, "is yon
wreath of roses a garland to hang above our graves that you look so
sad? Oh, Edith, this is our golden time. Tarnish it not by any pensive
shadow of the mind, for it may be that nothing of futurity will be
brighter than the mere remembrance of what is now passing."
 
"That was the very thought that saddened me. How came it in your mind
too?" said Edith, in a still lower tone than he; for it was high
treason to be sad at Merry Mount. "Therefore do I sigh amid this
festive music. And besides, dear Edgar, I struggle as with a dream,
and fancy that these shapes of our jovial friends are visionary and
their mirth unreal, and that we are no true lord and lady of the May.
What is the mystery in my heart?"
 
Just then, as if a spell had loosened them, down came a little shower
of withering rose-leaves from the Maypole. Alas for the young lovers!
No sooner had their hearts glowed with real passion than they were
sensible of something vague and unsubstantial in their former
pleasures, and felt a dreary presentiment of inevitable change. From
the moment that they truly loved they had subjected themselves to
earth's doom of care and sorrow and troubled joy, and had no more a
home at Merry Mount. That was Edith's mystery. Now leave we the priest
to marry them, and the masquers to sport round the Maypole till the
last sunbeam be withdrawn from its summit and the shadows of the
forest mingle gloomily in the dance. Meanwhile, we may discover who
these gay people were.
 
Two hundred years ago, and more, the Old World and its inhabitants
became mutually weary of each other. Men voyaged by thousands to the
West--some to barter glass and such like jewels for the furs of the
Indian hunter, some to conquer virgin empires, and one stern band to
pray. But none of these motives had much weight with the striving to
communicate their mirth to the grave Indian, or masquerading in the
skins of deer and wolves which they had hunted for that especial
purpose. Often the whole colony were playing at Blindman's Buff,
magistrates and all with their eyes bandaged, except a single
scapegoat, whom the blinded sinners pursued by the tinkling of the
bells at his garments. Once, it is said, they were seen following a
flower-decked corpse with merriment and festive music to his grave.
But did the dead man laugh? In their quietest times they sang ballads
and told tales for the edification of their pious visitors, or
perplexed them with juggling tricks, or grinned at them through
horse-collars; and when sport itself grew wearisome, they made game of
their own stupidity and began a yawning-match. At the very least of
these enormities the men of iron shook their heads and frowned so
darkly that the revellers looked up, imagining that a momentary cloud
had overcast the sunshine which was to be perpetual there. On the
other hand, the Puritans affirmed that when a psalm was pealing from
their place of worship the echo which the forest sent them back seemed
often like the chorus of a jolly catch, closing with a roar of
laughter. Who but the fiend and his bond-slaves the crew of Merry
Mount had thus disturbed them? In due time a feud arose, stern and
bitter on one side, and as serious on the other as anything could be
among such light spirits as had sworn allegiance to the Maypole. The
future complexion of New England was involved in this important
quarrel. Should the grisly saints establish their jurisdiction over
the gay sinners, then would their spirits darken all the clime and
make it a land of clouded visages, of hard toil, of sermon and psalm
for ever; but should the banner-staff of Merry Mount be fortunate,
sunshine would break upon the hills, and flowers would beautify the
forest and late posterity do homage to the Maypole.
 
After these authentic passages from history we return to the nuptials
of the Lord and Lady of the May. Alas! we have delayed too long, and
must darken our tale too suddenly. As we glance again at the Maypole a
solitary sunbeam is fading from the summit, and leaves only a faint
golden tinge blended with the hues of the rainbow banner. Even that
dim light is now withdrawn, relinquishing the whole domain of Merry
Mount to the evening gloom which has rushed so instantaneously from
the black surrounding woods. But some of these black shadows have
rushed forth in human shape.
 
Yes, with the setting sun the last day of mirth had passed from Merry
Mount. The ring of gay masquers was disordered and broken; the stag
lowered his antlers in dismay; the wolf grew weaker than a lamb; the
bells of the morrice-dancers tinkled with tremulous affright. The
Puritans had played a characteristic part in the Maypole mummeries.
Their darksome figures were intermixed with the wild shapes of their
foes, and made the scene a picture of the moment when waking thoughts
start up amid the scattered fantasies of a dream. The leader of the
hostile party stood in the centre of the circle, while the rout of
monsters cowered around him like evil spirits in the presence of a
dread magician. No fantastic foolery could look him in the face. So
stern was the energy of his aspect that the whole man, visage, frame
and soul, seemed wrought of iron gifted with life and thought, yet all
of one substance with his headpiece and breastplate. It was the
Puritan of Puritans: it was Endicott himself.
 
"Stand off, priest of Baal!" said he, with a grim frown and laying no
reverent hand upon the surplice. "I know thee, Blackstone![1] Thou art
the man who couldst not abide the rule even of thine own corrupted
Church, and hast come hither to preach iniquity and to give example of
it in thy life. But now shall it be seen that the Lord hath sanctified
this wilderness for his peculiar people. Woe unto them that would
defile it! And first for this flower-decked abomination, the altar of
thy worship!"
 
[Footnote 1: Did Governor Endicott speak less positively, we should
suspect a mistake here. The Rev. Mr. Blackstone, though an eccentric,
is not known to have been an immoral man. We rather doubt his identity
with the priest of Merry Mount.]
 
And with his keen sword Endicott assaulted the hallowed Maypole. Nor
long did it resist his arm. It groaned with a dismal sound, it
showered leaves and rosebuds upon the remorseless enthusiast, and
finally, with all its green boughs and ribbons and flowers, symbolic
of departed pleasures, down fell the banner-staff of Merry Mount. As
it sank, tradition says, the evening sky grew darker and the woods
threw forth a more sombre shadow.
 
"There!" cried Endicott, looking triumphantly on his work; "there lies
the only Maypole in New England. The thought is strong within me that
by its fall is shadowed forth the fate of light and idle mirthmakers
amongst us and our posterity. Amen, saith John Endicott!"
 
"Amen!" echoed his followers.
 
But the votaries of the Maypole gave one groan for their idol. At the
sound the Puritan leader glanced at the crew of Comus, each a figure
of broad mirth, yet at this moment strangely expressive of sorrow and
dismay.
 
"Valiant captain," quoth Peter Palfrey, the ancient of the band, "what
order shall be taken with the prisoners?"
 
"I thought not to repent me of cutting down a Maypole," replied
Endicott, "yet now I could find in my heart to plant it again and give
each of these bestial pagans one other dance round their idol. It
would have served rarely for a whipping-post."
 
"But there are pine trees enow," suggested the lieutenant.
 
"True, good ancient," said the leader. "Wherefore bind the heathen
crew and bestow on them a small matter of stripes apiece as earnest of
our future justice. Set some of the rogues in the stocks to rest
themselves so soon as Providence shall bring us to one of our own
well-ordered settlements where such accommodations may be found.
Further penalties, such as branding and cropping of ears, shall be
thought of hereafter."
 
"How many stripes for the priest?" inquired Ancient Palfrey.
 
"None as yet," answered Endicott, bending his iron frown upon the
culprit. "It must be for the Great and General Court to determine
whether stripes and long imprisonment, and other grievous penalty, may
atone for his transgressions. Let him look to himself. For such as
violate our civil order it may be permitted us to show mercy, but woe
to the wretch that troubleth our religion!"
 
"And this dancing bear?" resumed the officer. "Must he share the
stripes of his fellows?"
 
"Shoot him through the head!" said the energetic Puritan. "I suspect
witchcraft in the beast."
 
"Here be a couple of shining ones," continued Peter Palfrey, pointing
his weapon at the Lord and Lady of the May. "They seem to be of high
station among these misdoers. Methinks their dignity will not be
fitted with less than a double share of stripes."
 
Endicott rested on his sword and closely surveyed the dress and aspect
of the hapless pair. There they stood, pale, downcast and
apprehensive, yet there was an air of mutual support and of pure
affection seeking aid and giving it that showed them to be man and
wife with the sanction of a priest upon their love. The youth in the
peril of the moment, had dropped his gilded staff and thrown his arm
about the Lady of the May, who leaned against his breast too lightly
to burden him, but with weight enough to express that their destinies
were linked together for good or evil. They looked first at each other
and then into the grim captain's face. There they stood in the first
hour of wedlock, while the idle pleasures of which their companions
were the emblems had given place to the sternest cares of life,
personified by the dark Puritans. But never had their youthful beauty
seemed so pure and high as when its glow was chastened by adversity.
 
"Youth," said Endicott, "ye stand in an evil case--thou and thy
maiden-wife. Make ready presently, for I am minded that ye shall both
have a token to remember your wedding-day."
 
"Stern man," cried the May-lord, "how can I move thee? Were the means
at hand, I would resist to the death; being powerless, I entreat. Do
with me as thou wilt, but let Edith go untouched."
 
"Not so," replied the immitigable zealot. "We are not wont to show an
idle courtesy to that sex which requireth the stricter discipline.--What
sayest thou, maid? Shall thy silken bridegroom suffer thy share of the
penalty besides his own?"
 
"Be it death," said Edith, "and lay it all on me."
 
Truly, as Endicott had said, the poor lovers stood in a woeful case.
Their foes were triumphant, their friends captive and abased, their
home desolate, the benighted wilderness around them, and a rigorous
destiny in the shape of the Puritan leader their only guide. Yet the
deepening twilight could not altogether conceal that the iron man was
softened. He smiled at the fair spectacle of early love; he almost
sighed for the inevitable blight of early hopes.
 
"The troubles of life have come hastily on this young couple,"
observed Endicott. "We will see how they comport themselves under
their present trials ere we burden them with greater. If among the
spoil there be any garments of a more decent fashion, let them be put
upon this May-lord and his Lady instead of their glistening vanities.
Look to it, some of you."
 
"And shall not the youth's hair be cut?" asked Peter Palfrey, looking
with abhorrence at the lovelock and long glossy curls of the young
man.
 
"Crop it forthwith, and that in the true pumpkin-shell fashion,"
answered the captain. "Then bring them along with us, but more gently
than their fellows. There be qualities in the youth which may make him
valiant to fight and sober to toil and pious to pray, and in the
maiden that may fit her to become a mother in our Israel, bringing up
babes in better nurture than her own hath been.--Nor think ye, young
ones, that they are the happiest, even in our lifetime of a moment,
who misspend it in dancing round a Maypole."
 
And Endicott, the severest Puritan of all who laid the rock-foundation
of New England, lifted the wreath of roses from the ruin of the
Maypole and threw it with his own gauntleted hand over the heads of
the Lord and Lady of the May. It was a deed of prophecy. As the moral
gloom of the world overpowers all systematic gayety, even so was their
home of wild mirth made desolate amid the sad forest. They returned to
it no more. But as their flowery garland was wreathed of the brightest
roses that had grown there, so in the tie that united them were
intertwined all the purest and best of their early joys. They went
heavenward supporting each other along the difficult path which it was
their lot to tread, and never wasted one regretful thought on the
vanities of Merry Mount.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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