"On the Uplands." The Congregationalist and Christian World, 14 June 1902, p. 584.

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"On the Uplands." The Congregationalist and Christian World, 14 June 1902, p. 584.


"On the Uplands"

I SUPPOSE that the only way for us to find out the men among us who dwell in the uplands of life, and breathe habitually a purer air than that of the market place, is to note those, who, when the chance comes for a noble deed--great or small--do it, simply and naturally, without any preparation. It is a real king's business to be kingly, and when the chance comes to him for his own work, he does it and goes on his way, and says nothing about it.

The lion, old Falstaff[1] tells us, knows the true prince. But we human beings are duller of sight than the lion in this thing. We think that we recognize kings among our great political leaders or money-makers bowing and smiling to wondering, shouting crowds. And presently some grimy engineer or Negro porter in the crowd does some great deed for his fellowmen--gives his life for them, perhaps, and we find out that he was the man of kingly birth--too late.

For example, there was a lean, freckled boy who a year or two ago ran the elevator up and down in an old shackly office building in Philadelphia. I often went up in it, but certainly I never suspected "Billy" of any noble quality which raised him above other boys, high as was Saul[2] among his brethren.

But one day the old house began to shudder and groan to its foundations, and then one outer wall after another fell amid shouts of dismay from the crowds in the streets. And Billy, as these walls came crashing down, ran his old lift up to the topmost story and back again, crowded with terrified men and women. He did this nine times. Only one side of the building was now standing. The shaft of the elevator was left bare, and swayed to and fro. The police tried to drag the boy out of it, and the mass of spectators yelled with horror as he pulled the chain and began to rise again above their heads.

"Ther's two women up ther yet," said Billy stolidly, and went on up to the top facing a horrible death each minute and knowing that he faced it. Presently through the cloud of dust the lift was seen coming jerkily down with three figures on it. As it touched the ground the whole building fell with a crash. The women and boy came out on the street unhurt and a roar of triumph rose from the mob.

But it was six o'clock and Billy slipped quietly away in the dusk and went home to his supper. For your real hero does not care for the shouts and clapping of hands.

One of the most real of heroes was a poor Swiss laborer whose name nobody knows. He was standing one day at noon in the crowd who were looking down at the bears in the great pit at Berne. There were two savage fellows there, freshly caught. A nursemaid, leaning over, held the child that she carried loosely in her arms. It gave a sudden wrench and fell. The huge beasts clutched it. In an instant this workman flung himself down, and, catching the baby in one hand, struck at the bears with a small knife that he carried in the other. Twice he was clawed down by them. It was a desperate fight. But at last ropes were lowered and he was drawn up, bleeding, but holding the child high and safe.

In the confusion he escaped through the crowd and could not be found. He never has been found to this day. The father of the child, a wealthy Englishman, offered a large reward to any one who would find him. The Humane Society voted him a gold medal. But the medal and the money are waiting still unclaimed. I suppose that workman is going up and down the streets of Berne today in his blue overalls, and nobody suspecting his royal blood. But how warm his secret must have kept his heart in all these years!

I remember a queer little incident that once happened on one of the great liners bound to an English port. It seems to have a bearing on this subject.

Our stewardess was a Scotch woman, a clean, tidy little body whose worn face and whitening hair told that she was past middle age. But her dark blue eyes and soft voice were still young and winning. We were wretchedly ill,but "Jessy" tended us so wisely and kindly that we presently took a pride in our misery and in her.

She had no other patients, and during the long days of watching we grew to be friends; and, silent and Scotch as she was, she opened up her whole life to us. She had been for many years a nurse in an English family, but at last had to give up her little charge to governesses and tutors. She showed us his photograph. "That is my boy," she said, proudly, her chin quivering, the real mother look in her eyes. She was past the age for a child or lover of her own to come into her life. But she had a great plan and hope in it.

"I'm not strong," she said, "and I'm tired out. I took this place because it brings money to me fast. In another year I hope to quit work and go home to my mother. We can go back to our old cottage near Aberdeen. We had to leave it when my father died. We had to sell the cow. That was a sore hurt. She was a dun, Ayrshire, my mother reared her from a calf. We'll buy her back, and we'll have a field, and ducks and hens, and some flowers. My mother's fond of flowers. We'll have enough to bide there the rest of our lives, and"--

She looked out to the tossing sea, her eyes full of happy tears, forgetting to end her sentence.

Among the passengers was a troop of soubrettes[3] of the lowest class--loud-talking, giggling, perfumed women, whose soiled, ragged clothes were pieced out with bits of tawdry lace and ribbons. It was amusing to watch the decent little Scotch woman when they came near on deck; even her neat starched gown shuddered as they passed and in her face was the fierce antagonism of generations of her godly ancestors to the devil and all his works.

One day two of these women became violently ill with an eruptive disease. The doctor said aloud, "measles," but whispered to the captain, "smallpox of the most malignant kind." There was on this ship--as there may be on all ocean-going steamers, for aught I know--a stateroom deep in the hold of the vessel, a hospital cell for the use of quarantined patients, shut off from the world by a six-inch oak door, which, when it was once closed, was not opened until the voyage was over. To this cell the patients were hurried. The captain summoned the three stewardesses and told them the truth about the women. "At all cost," he said, "the matter must be kept secret from the crew and passengers, or we shall have a panic. One of you must take charge of them. Your meals and the medicine will be passed to you through a trap in the door. You cannot leave the cell whether your patients live or die until we reach the other side. Which of you will go?"

The two older women began to cry and protest loudly. Jessy stood silent, staring into the captain's face.

"I know!" he cried. "They're hardly worth it! But we can't let them die like dogs. One of you must go."

"It must be me, then," she said. "I have no children depending on me. These others have. There's my mother--I thought--But there's others to care for her. No. It's for me to go."

The captain said afterwards that he saw that she was sure that she never would leave the cell alive. "I thought it, too," he said. "She was a weakly body at best and every drop of her blood rose against the women and the work."

She went to her cabin to make ready and one of the other women presently found her there writing.

"Them poor wretches are calling for you," she said.

"Let them call," said Jessy, fiercely. "I'll write to my mother, first." But Jessy was not to be a martyr after all. When the ship was cleared of her passengers at Liverpool the oak door opened and she came out with her red, scarred patients. She was thin and gray like a ghost. But she laughed merrily, and was very kind and tender to the poor friendless women.

When I saw her a year or two later, she was in the snug little cottage and the dun cow was in the paddock and her old mother sat knitting by the kitchen fire.

These are but common homely stories you think? Why, that is the comfort, the triumph in them--that such things are now common among us. Every day we read of physicians, firemen, engineers or nurses giving up ambition, health and life itself to help others. Today it is a Negro workman who stands back to let the women all pass out of the burning building until it is too late for him to follow them; yesterday it was an English surgeon, mortally wounded, who, hearing the shrieks of a dying soldier whose leg had been torn off, dragged himself closer, gave him a hypodermic injection of morphine and in a moment lay dead beside him.

Now these deeds are done without the stimulus of a great cause or the rage of battle or the hope of applause. Men who do them are often illiterate and ignorant. The hope of fame never could be an influence in their lives.

But we may be sure that the man who in the imminent moment of death sees the right thing to do and does it, has in life habitually done the right thing. The man who nobly dies has nobly lived.

The modern American has his vices, but he is apt to have in him a dogged loyalty to his duty, whether that duty be to run an engine or to nurse a case of diphtheria[4]. He has, too, a hearty wish to help his neighbor, which comes to him from Christ, though he may not know it, and may call himself an agnostic or a Buddhist there is the human stuff out of which modern heroes are made.

Let us be glad that there is so much of it and that so many more folk than we know are living on the uplands.



1. A reference to Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I in which Sir John Falstaff differentiates between a king and a prince by making an analogy to a lion and a lion's whelp.

2. Possibly a reference to the first king of a united Kingdom of Israel and Judah, according to the Hebrew Bible.

3. A female stock character in opera and theatre.

4. A bacterial disease of the upper respiratory tract.


Dan Graham
University of Connecticut



Dan Graham University of Connecticut, “"On the Uplands." The Congregationalist and Christian World, 14 June 1902, p. 584.,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed November 27, 2022, http://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/49.

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