The May-Pole of Merry Mount
 
 

          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 dreamlike 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 fore paws to the grasp of a human hand, and as ready for the
          dance as any in that circle. His inferior nature rose half way, 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 noble 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 morris-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, cithern, 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? O, 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 beads, 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 colonists of
          Merry Mount. Their leaders were men who had sported so long with life,
          that when Thought and Wisdom came, even these unwelcome guests
          were led astray by the crowd of vanities which they should have put to
          flight. Erring Thought and perverted Wisdom were made to put on
          masques, and play the fool. The men of whom we speak, after losing the
          heart's fresh gayety, imagined a wild philosophy of pleasure, and came
          hither to act out their latest day-dream. They gathered followers from all
          that giddy tribe whose whole life is like the festal days of soberer men. In
          their train were minstrels, not unknown in London streets: wandering
          players, whose theatres had been the halls of noblemen; mummers,
          rope-dancers, and mountebanks, who would long be missed at wakes,
          church ales, and fairs; in a word, mirth makers of every sort, such as
          abounded in that age, but now began to be discountenanced by the rapid
          growth of Puritanism. Light had their footsteps been on land, and as lightly
          they came across the sea. Many had been maddened by their previous
          troubles into a gay despair; others were as madly gay in the flush of youth,
          like the May Lord and his Lady; but whatever might be the quality of their
          mirth, old and young were gay at Merry Mount. The young deemed
          themselves happy. The elder spirits, if they knew that mirth was but the
          counterfeit of happiness, yet followed the false shadow wilfully, because
          at least her garments glittered brightest. Sworn triflers of a lifetime, they
          would not venture among the sober truths of life not even to be truly blest.

          All the hereditary pastimes of Old England were transplanted hither. The
          King of Christmas was duly crowned, and the Lord of Misrule bore
          potent sway. On the Eve of St. John, they felled whole acres of the forest
          to make bonfires, and danced by the blaze all night, crowned with
          garlands, and throwing flowers into the flame. At harvest time, though
          their crop was of the smallest, they made an image with the sheaves of
          Indian corn, and wreathed it with autumnal garlands, and bore it home
          triumphantly. But what chiefly characterized the colonists of Merry Mount
          was their veneration for the Maypole. It has made their true history a
          poet's tale. Spring decked the hallowed emblem with young blossoms and
          fresh green boughs; Summer brought roses of the deepest blush, and the
          perfected foliage of the forest; Autumn enriched it with that red and
          yellow gorgeousness which converts each wildwood leaf into a painted
          flower; and Winter silvered it with sleet, and hung it round with icicles, till
          it flashed in the cold sunshine, itself a frozen sunbeam. Thus each alternate
          season did homage to the Maypole, and paid it a tribute of its own richest
          splendor. Its votaries danced round it, once, at least, in every month;
          sometimes they called it their religion, or their altar; but always, it was the
          banner staff of Merry Mount.

          Unfortunately, there were men in the new world of a sterner faith than
          these Maypole worshippers. Not far from Merry Mount was a settlement
          of Puritans, most dismal wretches, who said their prayers before daylight,
          and then wrought in the forest or the corn-field till evening made it prayer
          time again. Their weapons were always at hand to shoot down the
          straggling savage. When they met in conclave, it was never to keep up the
          old English mirth, but to hear sermons three hours long, or to proclaim
          bounties on the heads of wolves and the scalps of Indians. Their festivals
          were fast days, and their chief pastime the singing of psalms. Wo to the
          youth or maiden who did but dream of a dance! The selectman nodded to
          the constable; and there sat the light-heeled reprobate in the stocks; or if
          he danced, it was round the whipping-post, which might be termed the
          Puritan Maypole.

          A party of these grim Puritans, toiling through the difficult woods, each
          with a horseload of iron armor to burden his footsteps, would sometimes
          draw near the sunny precincts of Merry Mount. There were the silken
          colonists, sporting round their Maypole; perhaps teaching a bear to
          dance, or 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 grizzly 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 forever. 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 morris-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! 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. Wo unto them that would defile it! And first, for
          this flower-decked abomination, the altar of thy worship!"

          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 mirth makers, amongst us
          and our posterity. Amen, saith John Endicott."

          *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.

          "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 wo 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.