What's in a Name?
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
A most important event had occurred in the family of Mr. Pillsbury; an event long looked for with strange and doubtful feelings. Mr. Pillsbury, in his station, hardly knew what to do with himself; and Mrs. Pillsbury was so happy that she did nothing but smile all the time. She would have laughed outright at least a dozen times an hour, so exceedingly joyful did she feel, had it not been for a certain grave-faced, matronly personage, whose business it was to see that she did not get over-excited about anything, and thus endanger her health. But we are getting no nearer to what we are trying to say, than when we began. So we shall have to come bolt out with the truth, in plain, understandable English, and tell the reader that Mrs. Pillsbury had a baby. Being the first baby that had appeared in the family, of course it was the dearest little darling that ever blessed a mother's delighted eyes.
What a sensation did the little stranger's advent create! What new hopes and feelings were awakened! How the minds of the parents enlarged with higher views of their responsibility in life! They had never been so happy; had never regarded each other with so tender a love as now pervaded their bosoms. An hour, and, sometimes, two hours earlier than usual, would the father return from his store in the evening, and for no other reason than to gratify the desire he felt to see the baby. He was far more punctual at dinner-time than he had been, and rarely ever went out at night. Before the baby came, Mr. Pillsbury had acquired a rather bad habit of spending his evenings away from home.
The first few weeks that followed the baby's appearance were paradisaical in their peace and joy; and there is no telling how long this delightful state would have remained, had not the question been daily asked, by new and old visitors —
"What's its name?"
"Haven't you named the baby yet?"
"How do you call the little dear?"
And so on, in a hundred varied ways.
"Name it William," said one. "Call it Edward," suggested another. "Oh! Ferdinand is such a beauty of a name — call him Ferdinand," urged another. And so it went on, until almost name every in the whole catalogue had been brought forward.
But, of all the names that had been offered or suggested to her own mind, only one was considered by the mother as worthy of her baby. As for your common, unmeaning Johns and Henrys and Peters — she could not tolerate them. Mr. Pillsbury had different views.
"Give the child a good plain name. One that he will never be ashamed of as a boy or man. William is an excellent name; so is Henry; so is Edward; and so is Alfred. In fact, there are dozens of names, any one of which will sound as musical as a flute in a week's time."
But Mrs. Pillsbury shook her head in a most positive way at all these suggestions. No common Dicks, Toms, Bills, or Neds for her. On this subject she was, I am sorry to admit, positively rude, at times, to her husband. If she didn't say outright, she thought, "I reckon it's my baby; and I'll have some say in naming him." The "some" proved in the end, to be all the "say."
There was one name, it has been admitted, worthy, in the mind of Mrs. Pillsbury, to distinguish her baby from all other babies. Mrs. Pillsbury was a pious woman, and every Sabbath, when she could get to church, she sat under the teachings of the excellent and beloved person, King Crabtree. In her eyes, earth had never seen such a man as the good Mr. Crabtree; and, as name is significant of quality, Crabtree always fell upon her ears with a peculiar music, and brought to her mind images of things good and beautiful. To every suggestion of a name by her husband, of course Mrs. Pillsbury shook her head.
"What then, will you have him called?" at last asked Mr. Pillsbury, in despair.
"King Crabtree!" replied the young mother, firmly.
"Oh, dear!" There was pain in the expression of Mr. Pillsbury's voice. "Why, Emeline! Are you really beside yourself?"
"Not by any means," said the lady, drawing her lips firmly together. "I speak the words of truth and soberness. I wish him named King Crabtree, after our dear, good pastor."
"Horrible! horrible! Crab — tree — King! Why not call him Black Panther, or Snapping Turtle, at once, and be done with it? Oh, no, no, no! I'll never give in to that — never!"
Mrs. Pillsbury had but one answer to make to this — but one weapon with which to fight her battle. A plentiful shower of tears came gushing over her cheeks, and turning her face from her husband, she commenced grieving and sobbing most piteously. Poor Mr. Pillsbury felt that the odds were against him. He already saw his beautiful boy with the millstone, King Crabtree, hung about his neck, and his heart sank within him. As for the parson, he had never been one of Mr. Pillsbury's favorites. In fact, he had little faith in him. But, in the eyes of Mrs. Pillsbury, and the major part of the ladies of his congregation, he was little less than a saint. Already some half a dozen young urchins had been named King Crabtree, and there was a fair prospect of a dozen more being blessed with the same beautiful name.
Well, the father stood out as long as a mortal could well endure the various influences brought to bear upon him. At last he withdrew his positive refusal to have the baby named after the good parson — and the baby had his name.
It was a long time before Mr. Pillsbury could say "Crabtree," although he heard the word sounded in his ears as often as fifty times a day. The best he could do was to "King" the little fellow, and that went terribly against the grain. But the child grew hourly more beautiful and interesting to the father, and by the time he was three years old, he almost forgot the unmusical name he bore, and could say "Crabtree" with the rest, and feel no unpleasant jarring of his nerves.
As for young King Crabtree, he had no fault to find with anyone on the subject of his name during the years of babyhood, nor for a certain period of time after the days of jacket-and-trousers came. To him, Crabtree was as good as any other name, and a little better, for it meant himself, and he entertained for himself, quite naturally, we must admit, a particularly good opinion. But, as his mind opened and he began to understand the meaning of words, and, moreover, began to come in contact with boys at school, he was made sensible that there was something wrong.
One sharp-witted lad called him, in a deriding way, "Crab," — another dignified him with the title of "Parson Crabtree," and a third cried after him, as he passed homeward from school, "Hallo there, Mr. Landcrab!" Grieved are we to record the fact, but it must be told — young King Crabtree Pillsbury had not fully attained the age of seven mature years, when he scandalized the name of the good parson after whom he had been called, by using the carnal weapons of fists and feet in kicking and cuffing a chap a year older than himself, for calling him "Crab-apple."
"Oh, Crabtree! Crabtree!" exclaimed the grieved mother, when she learned the fact, "what will our good parson say, when he hears this of you? You, who bear his name! Oh! it is dreadful!"
"Served the young rascal right!" murmured Mr. Pillsbury, aside. "Glad he's got some spirit in him. Hope the parson will hear it."
As for Crabtree himself, the reproof of his mother did not make a very deep impression, as was plain from the fact that, while she talked, he kept jerking his head over his left shoulder in a threatening way, and saying, "He called me 'Crab-apple,' so he did! and I won't stand it! The boys are always calling me names, so they are."
"What do they call you?" asked the mother.
"Why they call me 'lobster,' and 'crab,' and 'Parson Crabtree,' and everything."
"Just as I expected. Confound the name!" grumbled Mr. Pillsbury, in a low voice: not so low but that his words reached the ears of his wife, who cast upon him an offended look. As soon as they were alone, she tried to read him a little lecture, but he broke the ceremony short, by declaring that Crabtree was an awful name, and would curse their child through life.
"Beelzebub is nothing compared to it," he added by way of making his denunciation emphatic.
There was no way to meet this but by the old method of tears. As soon as Mr. Pillsbury saw the approach of these, he made a hasty retreat.
Long before Crabtree attained his twelfth year, he was known as the most fiery young belligerent in the town. It took a boy who could bear to stand a good blow, or one far over the size of this pugnacious lad, to venture upon the experiment of saying "crab," "lobster," or "parson," within reach of his ears.
"I'm sorry to hear bad accounts of you, my lad," said Parson Crabtree to the boy, in the presence of his mother.
Crabtree hung his head and bit his finger-nails.
"I'm told that you have a fight with some of the boys at school almost every day. This is very wicked. Why do you do this?"
"The boys won't let me alone," replied Crabtree, looking up.
"Won't let you alone?"
"What do they do to you?"
"They call me Parson Crabtree."
"Call you Parson Crabtree!" exclaimed the minister, a little taken by surprise.
"Well, they call me that, too; but I don't see any cause to fight about it," said the parson, recovering himself.
"But I'm not a parson! And then they call me 'king-crab,' and 'land-crab,' and 'lobster,' 'crab-apple,' and everything. If they'd let me alone, I'd let them alone; but they won't."
The parson said no more on the subject. Something struck his mind at the moment, and he addressed himself to Crabtree's mother, on a matter concerning the welfare of the church.
For the first time, a dim impression that an error had been committed, stole into the mind of Mrs. Pillsbury. She saw that the name of her boy was, to some extent, at the bottom of his quarrelsome temper. "Quarrelsome" was the word that she, as well as others, applied to the boy's disposition to resent the many insults and indignities he almost daily suffered. Lads not half so amiable by nature, nor with half the good qualities he possessed, who were so fortunate as to be the only Charles, or Henry, or William, got on well enough. No one charged them with being quarrelsome. The fact was, they had little or no provocation. With half as much to provoke them as Crabtree suffered, they would have doubled their fists with the most hearty good-will.
Yes, the error was dimly seen. But, by the time King Crabtree reached his fifteenth year, it was seen far more clearly. For some time previously, a few "enemies" of Parson Crabtree, as they were called, had hinted at certain scandalous things, most disgraceful to the minister and the church. Once the parson had boldly demanded of his congregation that said allegations should be investigated; but his friends in the church said, that they prudently enough concluded, that the least said about a charge like the one offered against the parson, the better. And so all remained quiet for a time.
But, the "enemies" of the parson continued to grow bolder, and to gain daily in numbers. Things of a scandalous and wicked nature were boldly alleged to have been done by the gentleman; and hints of an intention to cite him before the civil courts were at length thrown out. The good people of his congregation could not longer shut their ears to what was passing. Common decency required them to sift the matter to the bottom; and so the leading and official men were called, the parson cited to appear, and witnesses, said to know of his delinquencies, called in and examined. Some pretty hard stories were told by some of the latter; but, as they were generally based upon what Mr. or Mrs. Such-and-such-a-one said, the eloquent parson, by virtue of his peculiar oral abilities, backed by tears at pleasure, succeeded in making it believed that he was a falsely persecuted and deeply injured man. He was fully acquitted of the evils laid to his charge.
This was a great triumph to the parson's friends. Still, the tongue of scandal was not hushed. Fretted at this, threats of prosecution for defamation of character were made; but these did not produce the silence expected. Two or three members of the congregation, who took the matter most seriously to heart, were actually about instituting proceedings against one of the busiest of their minister's defamers, when the whole town was electrified by the news that Parson Crabtree had been cited to appear before one of the civil courts, to answer for crimes of a most heinous character. What these crimes were, or at least a part of them, delicacy forbids us to state. But they were minutely detailed in evidence before the court, and spread, in newspaper reports, all over the country. The position of Parson Crabtree, not only as a preacher of the gospel, but as the author of one or two religious books, made him a conspicuous object to all. There was not a newspaper-reading man, woman, or child, in the whole country, who did not become familiar with his name and the offences charged against him.
The trial lasted for weeks, during which time the public mind, everywhere, continued to be greatly excited. At last, the court summed up the evidence, and the case was left with a jury of twelve men, four of whom were members of the parson's own congregation. In ten minutes, a unanimous verdict of "guilty" on all the charges was found; though the wretched criminal, under the influence of a false humanity, was recommended to the mercy of the court. Upon this recommendation, however, the court did not see that it was right to act. The position, standing, and influence of the culprit, rather increased than lessened the guilt of his offences. He was, therefore, sentenced to pay a certain amount of damages, and to be imprisoned at hard labor for the term of three years.
At the age of sixteen, the son of Mr. Pillsbury was sent to college. He entered as K.C. Pillsbury.
"What do these initials represent?" asked the president, on receiving the lad, and making a minute of his name. There was a slight hesitation, and then the boy replied —
"Indeed! Ah? I'm sorry you haven't a better name. I suppose you were called after that rascally parson who flourished in your town so many years?"
King said yes, though he was sorry for it.
"Of course, it's no fault of yours, my lad," returned the president, encouragingly. "And as long as you have to carry the name about you, let it be your business to redeem it from disgrace."
This was a much harder task than the president supposed, at the moment he made the suggestion. A name once disgraced, and in a public and scandalous manner, cannot be redeemed in a single generation; often not in ages. It was soon known among the students that the newcomer's name was King Crabtree. Some said he was the parson's nephew; and others declared that he was actually the parson's son. Certain little persecutions followed, which fretted the boy's temper, and made him so unhappy that in six months he went home, and stubbornly refused to return to college.
His parents, who intended him for one of the learned professions, were greatly troubled at the perverseness of their son's temper. But neither threats, remonstrances, nor persuasions were of any avail. He remained firm to his declaration. Daily he was becoming more and more morbidly sensitive to the disgrace attached to his name; and rather than bear for a month longer what he had suffered at college, he would go to sea as a common sailor. This state of his feelings, he was bold to declare. It made not the slightest impression on him for his mother or father to say —
"Don't be so weak and foolish, King," — even they had dropped the Crabtree; "be more manly."
But young Crabtree knew where the shoe pinched; and felt the slightest pressure thereon as painful.
About this time, a good opening occurred in a shipping-house, in the town. A clerk had been sent out as a supercargo, thus leaving a vacancy in the establishment, which the partners were desirous of filling with a smart, intelligent lad. The situation was a most desirable one, and some friends of Mr. Pillsbury suggested to him that it was just the place for his boy, and said they would speak to Mr. Green, the principal member of the house, if he desired it. The father was much pleased at this prospect, and so was his son, when he heard of the place. Mr. Green was accordingly spoken to on the subject, and said that he would like to see the lad. So, King was sent to the store.
"You're the son of Mr. Pillsbury?" said the merchant, when the lad introduced himself.
"Yes, sir," was modestly replied.
"You're a fine-looking lad. And so you would like to be a merchant?"
"Well — let me see — what is your name?"
The color mounted to the boy's face, as he half stammered out —
"King Crabtree Pillsbury."
"King Crabtree. Hum — m — m. Rather an unfortunate name!"
The boy remained silent. Mr. Green sat and thought for some moments. Then he said —
"Very well, my lad. I will think about you. There are half-a-dozen applicants for the place, and we will not decide about it for a week to come."
The boy departed with a weight upon his feelings. He was satisfied that he would not get the place.
"I've seen Mr. Pillsbury's son," said Mr. Green, on meeting, shortly afterward, one of the individuals who had interested himself in the boy's favor.
"How do you like him?"
"Fine, smart-looking boy; but he has a dreadful bad name."
"Bad name! I never heard of it. Who says so?"
"Himself. Can you have a worse name than King Crabtree?"
"It may be prejudice; and, probably is; but I couldn't have anyone around me with that name. Besides, I understand the boy's mother is distantly related to the old rascally parson after whom she called her child."
"I never heard that."
"I reckon it will be found true. Be this, however, as it may, I can't take the lad. I never could like him or trust him with that name, and it's no use to try the experiment. His parents had better have drowned him at birth."
Mr. Pillsbury never guessed the reason why Mr. Green did not take his son; but King Crabtree understood it fully. For a year the unhappy boy loitered away his time, and then, almost in despair, accepted a place as mail-packer, in a printing-office, at a dollar a week. But he did not stay long in this situation. Some light remark about his name caused him to assault a small lad in the office, and this caused his dismissal. Disgusted and disheartened with everything, the poor lad next set his heart upon going to sea. This was opposed until opposition were itself out. Then he was permitted to go on board a vessel trading to South America. On the first voyage he behaved himself so well, that the captain took him for his clerk, in which capacity he sailed three times to Rio and back. During the last voyage home, one of the men took occasion, several times, to be rude to Crabtree. Repeating this rudeness in a more aggravated form than usual, one day, the young man caught up a handspike, and, in the heat of the moment, knocked the sailor down. The blow was heavier than Crabtree intended to give, and the result more disastrous than he expected. One of the sailor's arms was broken, and he was severely bruised by his fall over a piece of wood which lay on the deck.
As soon as the vessel arrived in port, the sailor made complaint against Crabtree, who was arrested and placed on trial. The prosecutor made out a very clear case, and the young man was found guilty of the assault charged. The court ordered him to pay five hundred dollars damages, and to suffer an imprisonment of sixty days.
"Were this your first offence, King Crabtree Pillsbury," said the judge, in passing sentence, "your age, and the provocation alleged to have been received, would have inclined the court to visit your conduct with a lighter penalty. But though young in years, you come before this court as an old offender. In the hope that you may be led to change your evil courses, I give you sixty days imprisonment, as a time for sober reflection."
Utterly confounded by such a declaration on the part of the judge, the unhappy young man was taken from the court-room and conveyed to prison. The captain with whom he had sailed, and who was much attached to him, was present during the trial, and at its conclusion. He was no less confounded than Pillsbury, at the strange assumption of the judge. As soon as the court adjourned, he called upon the judge, and said to him —
"You appear to be laboring under some error in regard to the young man you committed to prison?"
"What young man?" inquired the judge. "The one arraigned on the charge of beating a sailor?"
"In what respect?"
"You spoke of him as an old offender."
"And so he is. Already he has been before this court twice, for outrages on the rights of others."
"King Crabtree Pillsbury!"
"Depend upon it, you are in error, Judge."
"Oh, no! Do you think I could ever forget that name, rendered infamous by a certain parson who is still, I trust, in the penitentiary?"
"Are you certain that the offender of whom you speak was named Pillsbury?"
The judge thought a few moments.
"Not absolutely certain," he replied. "But surely there cannot be found another man on the face of the earth with such a name?"
"It is barely possible, Judge. Of one thing I am very sure, my clerk has not been before this court, nor any other in the United States, within the time you mention."
"You are positive of that?"
"The docket of cases tried will show," said the judge.
Accordingly there was an examination made, when it turned out that the previous culprit was named King Crabtree Parker. He was from the same town with Pillsbury, and had been named in compliment to the good Parson Crabtree. His name had doubtless proved his ruin.
This discovery altered the case entirely. The unhappy young man was brought before the court, and the sentence commuted to a fine of one hundred dollars.
"And now, young man," said the judge, in dismissing him, "take my advice and petition the legislature to change your name; for, depend upon it, while you bear the one you now have, no good can ever find you in this world. It is as bad as the mark upon the forehead of Cain."
This piece of advice was acted upon by Pillsbury immediately. The legislature being in session, he sent up a petition, and in less than four weeks he was plain John Pillsbury. From that time he felt like a new man, and when he wrote his name, he did so without the sense of disgrace that had for years haunted him like a blasting specter. He became more cheerful, and companionable, and more confident as he looked into the future. In a year or two, he became mate of the vessel, and, in a few years afterwards, on the captain's retiring, was elevated to his place. About this time he married. On the birth of his first child, its young mother had a fancy to name the boy after an uncle for whom she had a warm affection, and proposed to call him Lloyd Erskine.
"No, no," said the father most positively, "let it be Tom, Dick, or Harry, just as you please. Any plain, common name is good enough, and will carry him safely through life. But I wouldn't call a child of mine after the angel Gabriel."
"Why not?" innocently inquired the wife.
"Simply because, if the angel Gabriel were to fall and disgrace his name, my boy would have to bear a part of the stigma. No — no. Never name a child after anybody; for all are human, and therefore liable to fall into evil. Benedict Arnold was once thought to be an honorable man; and, during this period of his life, some relative or friend may have called a child after him. If so, how deeply disgraced must that second-hand bearer of the name, Benedict Arnold, have felt through his whole life. No — no. Let it be plain John, William, or Edward, as you desire; but nothing more."
And so the child was called James Pillsbury. We will simply remark, in conclusion, that, unlike his father, he was never ashamed of his name.