John Marshall lived a short life, which touched few others and was remembered by almost none. This is a story of his single success, a great triumph forgotten even before he was. It was a triumph rejoiced over by few, but, by those, rejoiced over well.
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John was a beautiful baby, with a gleam in his eye and a blazing curiosity about the world and everything in it. He began talking at four months and was able to use sentences within another two. From that time on he incessantly asked questions. He wondered about everything and noticed everything and got into everything. He learned all he could, forming connections and drawing inferences before he could walk, his eyes wide with the wonder and joy of discovery. He did all this with a fearless sense of adventure his father, a Cambridge don, could only envy.
He grew rapidly. He wanted to understand the meanings of the words that appeared on his father’s papers, and began to read when he was two. He suddenly discovered the value of books. They were full of ideas and information. His father saw the look on his face when that realization struck him. He had the appearance of one who had found the map to a treasure. Seemingly endless seas of literature stood before him, enticing him to set sail. Ideas were jewels to this lad, and words gold, all waiting to be found and plucked from the depths of the oceans he would so joyously navigate. That day John Marshall’s little body swayed back and forth in excitement as he considered what vast bodies of knowledge awaited his exploration.
When John was three he caught a fever that nearly killed him. For three days there was a question whether he would live, as he struggled with the heat of the illness. He would not eat, drank little, could not rest, and was often delirious. He did live, but the price he paid for life was high. John lost his special spark to the disease. He was no longer the intensely curious lad he had been. He seldom communicated, and he seldom smiled. He showed no joy. He expressed no interest. His one faint pleasure was sitting in front of the fireplace, watching the glow of the embers with dull eyes, and this he did endlessly, motionlessly. All his father could do to bring him back was no good. In the end the man had to admit the doctors who examined the boy were right. He was, and would remain throughout his life, an idiot. His future had once seemed so bright, but he seemed now fated to suffer through life as the butt of the jokes of ignorant villagers.
It is fortunate for us today that much of the beauty that Cambridge had at that time remains. It was fortunate for John Marshall that he grew up in the pleasant surroundings he had. He grew as best he could into what was, simply, a person with a very dim intellect.
He benefited greatly from the birth, when he was eight, of his sister, Mary Jane. He was so taken by the small size of the nail on her little finger that some of his old feeling for life seemed to return to him. Whatever caused it, he soon spent much of his time caring for her, or, rather, watching her being cared for, and he began to act more and more like a person with vital interest in life. When Mary Jane was old enough to play outside, John was quite able to watch her well enough to be trusted with the job. He could not care for her quite the way a mother might, because there was much in raising an infant he could never understand. He could keep an eye on her well enough, however, and call his mother when attention was needed. Somehow he naturally understood the child’s need for tenderness.
When his little sister learned to walk, John looked after her with even greater attention. He was growing nearly as fast as she was, though few could see it because he was so far behind where he should have been. John and Mary Jane adored each other, and soon were off through the countryside together. She was full of the same curiosity that had once motivated him, and he was full of feeling for her. The time came, when she was nearly five, when Mary Jane began to take a more active part in deciding where they should go. She began to realize that she was smarter and better able to make some decisions than he, and after that she lead and he followed on their expeditions.
As they passed by the grounds of the University, one warm spring day, they heard a bit of a lecture that was taking place on a lawn. The speaker was talking on astronomy to a group of attentive students. At one point he quoted the Bible for effect. “And the Light was the Life of Man. And the Light shined in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it.”
John asked Mary Jane what all the young men were doing. She replied, “They are trying to discover the secret of the universe.” She had for them the kind of contempt that only the bright daughter of a professor could bear.
“What is the universe?”
“It is the world and the sky and the stars and everything.”
“Do you know the secret?”
Mary Jane smiled. “Now, if I knew that, John Marshall, we could tell them,” she said. “Isn’t that so?”
“Then they would be surprised,” said John with a sudden burst of awkward laughter. But he suddenly went quiet. Something he had heard did not make sense. A word seemed to have some meaning he could not understand, and so he asked, “What is Light?”
Visibly startled at the question, Mary Jane replied, “Why John! Light is what you can see, of course!” The answer did not help him understand, but he did not press the matter because there were many things, as he knew, he could never understand. Soon his mind turned to what was before him. They had reached the side of a canal they often visited. John would sit here, in his own private spot, watching the sunlight reflect off the water while Mary Jane played or read a book.
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John was separated from Mary Jane when he was fifteen. The time had come for him to be apprenticed to a trade. John’s father never imagined that he would ever be a journeyman, let alone a master, but it was necessary that the boy learn enough to survive on his own.
As it happened, there was a blacksmith a short way out of the city who was willing to try using him as a helper working the bellows, sweeping the floor, and doing such simple tasks. He soon found John was a tireless worker. He sat John down at the bellows, on the first day they were together. He told the boy to work them, and showed him how this was done. Getting the fire hot took a few minutes, since it had just been lighted, but John did not stop pumping once during this time. He was staring intently at the coals, his mind utterly motionless. The smith was an old man who had plied his trade for years, and he had seen people look the way John then looked once or twice before. He knew his problem with this boy would not be how to get him to keep working when he was tired, but how to get him to stop when the fire was hot enough. John was deeply, almost hypnotically, fascinated by anything that gave off light. He could not take his eyes off the fire.
John’s joys in life had multiplied. Mary Jane came to fetch him to church on Sunday mornings, so he saw her regularly. He was permitted to sit in front of the fire at the bellows nearly every day, if he was good and kept the floor clean and cut firewood and did his other chores. His bed was sufficiently soft and warm. The food was good, and the old smith was a kindly fellow. John probably would also have appreciated the illiterate old soul’s warm sense of humor had he been a bit brighter, but life was good as it was.
John worked for his master for several years. He always worked, patiently helping, as the man swung the hammer. Smithing is hard work and makes people develop physically, even those who only help. John grew stronger and stronger, until his shoulders were massive and his arms as thick as most men’s legs. He had enormous strength and durability. But as he grew large muscles, his smith only grew older, and older meant weaker. In time the business was a real struggle for the man. John’s father had done very well just finding a blacksmith who would take him. That was all anyone could expect. The fact that the man was old seemed not to be good, for John would have to go to someone else in time. His smith was well known and well liked by people in the trade, and there was good probability that John could find another position, but he could certainly not keep the one he had forever.
Fortune had a habit of smiling on John Marshall in a way no one appreciated. On the one hand, other people failed to see what good came his way because of their sorrow over the loss of his fine mind. On the other, John himself was quite incapable of understanding the idea of luck. For him, things just happened. And so it was when events brought John to a point that he was able to learn more of his trade.
The idea of retiring from the business had been playing on the smith’s mind for over a year when a day came he simply could no longer swing the heavy hammer he used to work the iron. He was doing a simple job at the time, shoeing a horse. Perhaps he had a cold that day, or his joints pained him more than usual, but in any event, he suddenly found he could not lift the hammer to bring it down. As dismay came to the old man’s face, John responded. They had worked together long enough that John understood many things without being told. He simply took the hammer out of the old man’s hand, bade him sit down, and began working the horseshoe. He had seen the job done many times before, intently watching the glowing iron, he had often been allowed to try his hand at simple tasks, and he knew with some accuracy how it was done.
As the old man watched in surprise, John toiled. John did not have the skill at working the metal that a master smith would have, but he knew from watching for years how to do the job. The old man stopped John from time to time to inspect his work. He told the young man corrections to make, and his orders were carried out to his satisfaction. When the time came to put the shoe on the horse, the smith did it himself. He could do this, for it was easier than the job that stopped him and he had had a rest.
In the end, the work was not as fine as what the smith would have provided, but the customer’s untrained eye would never notice the difference, and it would hold up as well as it should. After that, John did more and more smithing. He quickly gained skill with the hammer, and in time was able to do very fine work, indeed, though probably not, as the old man asserted, as fine as that of his master.
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The times became troubled in England. The differing religious ideas that had taken hold of the countryside were not easily reconciled with one another. In 1639, the Scots went into rebellion. Though Cambridge was far to the south of any place where action seemed imminent, many people prepared for war.
Somehow, in the course of all this, a sword that John had made fell into the hands of a wealthy young man who, in his religious zeal, hoped for a fight against the policies of the king. It was not a dainty or fancy sword, but he became so enchanted with its simplicity and quality that he and two of his friends rode out into the countryside to find the smith who had made it.
John was making a shovel when the three riders approached. He was not in a bad mood that day, but he had never learned to be properly polite. When he was handed the sword by the mounted man and asked whether he had made it, he simply took it, looked at it, and grunted. He remembered the sword. He had made it for an old man with white hair and a pleasant manner. The man had not said why he wanted a sword, but it was obvious that he was a good and kindly fellow, and John never gave it thought. Here, however, he was confronted with three arrogant young men trying to take up all his limited attention. When they demanded again to know whether he had made the sword, he handed it back to them, said, “Yes,” and returned to the tool.
The man holding the sword tapped him on the shoulder with it. “We want three swords just like this,” he said.
John turned around. He looked at them for a moment. “No,” he said, and he returned again to the shovel.
“What do you mean?” asked the man with the sword, tapping him again on the shoulder, but harder. John turned again toward them.
“You just want to hurt people,” he said. “I do not make swords so people can just hurt people. You go away now. I do not work for you.”
The horseman let out an oath as John turned back to his work and struck him hard on the side of his head with the flat of the sword. John picked up a large coal with his tongs and swung on the horseman.
The sword was being raised for another blow, but it had to be brought into play more quickly to defend the rider from John’s attack. It did stop the swinging tongs, and stood true to its maker’s skill. But the shock of the deflection and the pressure John applied to the handles caused the coal to break into hundreds of tiny pieces which flew into the rider’s face, blinding him for a while and setting his shirt on fire. John swung the hot tongs again, but this time into the haunches of the man’s horse. Rider and horse set immediately into a terrified flight across the countryside.
Out of the corner of his eye, John saw another weapon rising against him. The second rider had John close on his right side, and was right handed, so the sword went nearly straight up. John dodged, with unaccustomed agility, under the horse and came up on the other side. The man followed him with the sword blow and was, at that point, badly off balance. His left leg stuck out almost straight to keep him from falling out of the saddle. John grasped his foot and pushed it hard, sending him into the air.
As the second rider fell, he instinctively reached for the hand of his friend, who was close by. But he pulled that man out of his saddle too, and in a second both of them were lying on the ground stunned, one with cracked ribs, and the other badly bruised.
By the time they regained their senses, both horses were running off, and John had retrieved both their swords and placed their hilt ends into his fire, making them useless. They looked at him and saw he had already raised a large oak bench high over his head and was ready to bring it crashing down on them the moment they moved.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!” The voice, which fairly boomed despite its high pitch, surprised even John. It was Mary Jane. She had come out to the smithy for no particular reason, something she rarely did, and had witnessed the entire fight from the time that horrible man had brought his sword down on her unsuspecting brother. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, attacking a poor, unarmed, defenseless man with his back turned. You with your swords and your horses! You should be ashamed! Do you call yourselves Christian? You Heathen! You Heathen!”
The men’s horrified glances went from John to Mary Jane, back to John, who seemed to be holding the bench even higher, if that were possible, and back to Mary Jane. When the girl, who was, at the age of twelve, still very much a little girl in appearance, furiously stamped her foot on the ground, it was more than their tremulous hearts could bear. They chased after their animals. They were as ashamed at being labeled heathen by an English country girl as they were at being defeated by an unarmed man, but they were even more frightened than ashamed. About two hundred yards away, one of them did manage to capture a mount, and upon that he fled, without looking back and without his wailing companion, whose horse it was.
John was not unhurt. He had a heavily bleeding cut on his ear from the blow he had received. He also had cuts on his hands from the swords, which were sharp, and which he had grabbed without the care they required. He had been burned a bit by flying embers. He was not badly off, however, and his sister was able to bandage him easily. Mary Jane took John back home. She and their mother tended him there and kept him for several weeks. They were afraid the men who had attacked John would want to see the poor fellow who had run counter to their wills punished. In time it was obvious their concern was not necessary. The three were never willing to tell the truth about what had happened to them. One of them had been burned, and one suffered bone breaks. They had lost one horse and three swords, none of which was ever recovered. When at first they decided to tell their story, they asked a local person for information on the blacksmith. Their question was answered with another question, “Do you mean the old man or the idiot?”
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That was the summer of John’s great triumph. After all the turmoil had subsided, but before it seemed safe for him to return to the smithy, John and Mary Jane had the chance to relive the joys of their walks together through the countryside. Mary Jane, who found that John could only very dimly remember those walks, was, nevertheless, encouraged by the discovery that he was more alert and brighter than she had remembered.
As they wandered by the grounds of the university, she heard him say something she could never have expected, “Someday, maybe, I will find the secret they are looking for, and then won’t they be surprised?”
That same day Mary Jane had to see a friend, so she left John at his old private place by the canal. In the bright light of summer, he sat and stared at the water. The ripples glistened and brilliant points of light slowly melted for him into a single glow. His mind, that simple mind that had always been fascinated by anything that gave him light, was soon fixed upon the water.
For a moment he snapped back to thoughts of the present. There were scents of flowers and the damp leaves of last fall that rested just above the edge of the canal. His attention was taken by a sunbeam, coming down to the water at an angle from above. It hung there as though suspended from the trees through which it passed, gently, hazily, glowing. It gave its bright light to the water below, and on the water the light danced in a brilliant and joyous mass of great stars, like the brightest coals he had seen, but delightfully small and cool. Once again, on this, a calm, lazily calm, warm, luscious summer day, the lights melted together. Once again he sat there, silent, untroubled, his mind as still as the surface of the water.
He had no thought in his head whatever. He only saw the light on the water. An insect flew by, but no hint of its existence entered his consciousness. He only saw the light. The light was everything. He was the light. The entire universe was the light. Light came from things that were hot. It was reflected by the water. It passed through space and into his eyes and became part of him, part of what he called himself. Immaterial, without substance, it nonetheless became part of hard physical matter. He suddenly saw, in all that light, that the light was all that was. Somehow, everything that was, was light.
Deep down, inside the calm pool of water that formed his mind, though it barely made the surface rise, there was a vast explosion. At first there was nearly no indication of it. There was not yet a ripple. Slowly, however, inexorably, a change came over that surface. It took on a new shape, rising with the thought that rose from the deepest reaches of his subconsciousness. The center of that narrow pool, without the slightest visible disturbance, gently lifted in an ever-growing mound of water as wide as the pool itself.
The reflections on the pool were altered, conforming to the new and changing shape that bore them. The reflections were light. The whole world was a reflection of one reality. The entire universe was formed from light.
The thought rose. Faster and faster it approached the more and more rapidly changing surface of the pool, which even now tried to claim to be untroubled. As it rose out of the depths and the pressure on it diminished, it grew in size, and as it grew in size, it grew in strength and conviction and pushed up that surface still more. The same light he saw as it entered his eyes was the stuff from which the Whole World was made. It was Light!
With a great thrust, with a violence seldom seen in nature, with the deafening roar of a tidal wave and a thrashing and spewing of foam, that Great Idea, that Great Knowledge flung itself free of dull man’s subconscious. It burst, full formed, upon the awareness of the startled John Marshall. The Universe was Light! That was the Secret! Every particle, every atom in nature was wrought by God from Light at the Great Forge of Creation, at the Great Founding of all Worlds.
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When Mary Jane returned, which may have been hours later (or days, or months, for that matter, for all John knew), he was wandering about on the edge of the canal, his hair a mess, his clothes in disarray, his hands over his eyes, and he seemed delirious. She ran up to him crying, “John, what happened?” He took his hands away from his face, and she could see it was very dirty and covered with streaks left by flowing tears. He had a far off look, but he also wore a smile, a strangely determined and intelligent sort of smile that was not the product of a simple mind.
“I found the Secret,” he said.
“The secret? John, what do you mean?”
He looked at her in a kindly manner, an almost patronizing manner she had never seen in him before. “I found,” he said, “the secret of the whole world and all the stars and everything. That Secret! Shall we tell them?”
“No, John, we should keep it to ourselves for now. But you tell it to me.” Mary Jane began to feel relief at the understanding that nothing truly harmful had occurred.
John’s face screwed up as he sought to explain an idea too big to be contained by all the words he knew. “The whole world,” he said at last, “is made of what you can see.” And at that he burst into joyous, awkward laughter, and he took his surprised little sister by the hands and began to dance about. He danced on and he chanted as he danced, “The world is made of what you can see — the world is made of what you can see!”
Mary Jane also laughed, partly, at first, from the feeling of relief she still had that nothing terrible had taken place, and partly at his supremely trivial Secret of the Universe. But his exuberance was catching, and she soon joined his dancing and chanting so she, in her love for him, could share his joy, however foolish it was.