“We have not wings, we cannot soar,
But we have feet to scale and climb;
By slow degrees, by more and more,
The cloudy Summits of our time.”
. . . . . . . . . .
“The intellectual aroma of the building, its subtle Library essence, and redolence of Morocco leather, printer’s ink and paper, all blended and mellowed with the learned dust of Time.”—Astor Library.
On the thirteenth of November, 1868, we went on board the Ariadne. The ship lay at the bar, but there were hopes that a change of wind would give us water sufficient to get over it; but the wind did not change for four days, and it was on the seventeenth, just at sunset that we took our last look at Galveston. Just at the same hour, twelve years before, Robert and I stood together taking a last look at Galveston, before going up the Buffalo Bayou. I gazed on the white houses in their lonely setting of bare shrubs and sea water, until they were only a gray blur on the surrounding gray. I do not speak of what was going on in the heart, it cannot be told, neither can it ever be forgotten.
When I turned my back on Galveston, I faced the future; and there and then, I mentally put a blank into God’s hand by faith, and begged Him to fill it in, as He saw best for His children. For they were His. He had told me to leave my fatherless children to Him, and I took Him on His own word. This promise was guaranteed to me by the veracity of God. I sat down between Mary and Lilly, and took Alice on my knee, and said,
“Now, dear ones, we shall be yet ten days at sea. It is a holiday for us. We will forget every care, and every sorrow, until we see New York. Be as happy as you can be, for there is nothing we can do on the ship. So let us rest, in the rest given us.”
“And you, Mamma?” asked Mary. “Will you rest?”
“I promise you, I will.” I did not mean, that I would drift like a dismantled ship without hope or purpose. No believer in God ever does that. I meant, that I would cast all my cares and sorrows on Him, who I was sure cared for me. This may seem like presumption to some, and like foolishness to others. It was not presumption. I had been invited, even urged by God’s own word to do so. It was by no means “foolishness” to me. I knew in whom I trusted. God was then, as He is now, a personality to me. He was not “vortices of atoms,” or “streams of tendency,” or “Force” or “Nature.” Many years afterwards, when I had carefully considered these, and other similarly false ideas, I knelt and prayed with a still deeper conviction—“Our Father!”
On the twenty-first we stopped at Key West nearly the whole day. We rambled about the quiet, lovely place and a lady, who saw us looking curiously at her cocoanut trees, came out and talked with us, and sent a dozen to the ship for our refreshment. We bought here a few lovely pieces of snow-white coral for Lilly to take with her to Scotland, and at nightfall left the pretty place with very agreeable memories. I believe it is now entirely altered, is crowded and noisy, and full of business relating to the navy, and the manufacture of tobacco. So I keep my own memory of the beautiful Key. We had a five days pleasant sail after leaving Key West, and on the twenty-sixth of November we were almost in sight of New York. It was Thanksgiving Day, and was observed with the usual ceremonious dinner. During my long stay in the South I had forgotten the institution, for it was never kept, or even alluded to; but on this twenty-sixth of November we observed the day heartily, and have never omitted it since. On November twenty-sixth, 1884, being also Thanksgiving Day, I received from Dodd, Mead and Company their first letter to me accepting “Jan Vedder’s Wife,” just sixteen years after our Thanksgiving upon the ship Ariadne.
Early in the morning of the twenty-seventh of November, 1868, we landed in New York. This was already a memorable date to me, being the day on which God wrought so great a salvation for Robert, in Chicago. I had it in my memory as I stepped on shore, and went with several of the passengers on the Ariadne to a hotel in Fulton Street near Broadway. It was called the Belmont, but I think it was discontinued many years ago. I took it for a good omen, that we should have landed on this date, for I have always been an observer of times and seasons, and in my life there are many days of remembrance—all good ones. “The Scotch always count from an ill date,” says the proverb; but my ill dates, except for some special purpose of recollection, are but as dead days taken out of my life and buried.
The next week was mostly spent in securing a good berth for Lilly, and in getting her the proper clothing for the change of climate she was going to make. And in these days I found out how much harder it is to part from the living, than from the dead. Hard enough it is, to lift the little dead child for the last time, and lay it in its coffin; but it is harder to unloose the clinging arms of the living child, to kiss away its parting tears, and mingle loving farewells, while hearts seem breaking. Never had Lilly been so dear and so affectionate. I kept her at my side and held her hand these last days, while I gave her the advice I thought might help her in the difficult position to which she was going. At that time a voyage across the Atlantic was a far more serious undertaking than it is now, and I knew the climate of Scotland, and feared it for a child reared in the semi-tropical heat and sunshine of Texas. I knew also the people among whom her lot would be cast, and I feared that the outspoken girl, so sensitive to injustice of every kind, would not be able at all times to possess her soul in patience.
On the fifth of December I left her on the Iowa. The captain promised me to be very kind to her, and he amply fulfilled that promise. It was snowing heavily, but I did not see, or feel it. Blinded with tears, and faint with grief, I found my way back to the hotel, I don’t know how. Through the crowded wharf, and the crowded streets I went; I remember some one stepping between me and some horses, pulling me roughly to the sidewalk, and then saying not unkindly, “You must be more careful. Do you know where you are going?” Somehow or other I got back to the hotel, and being wet through and exhausted, I went to bed. There I fell into that deep sleep which is God’s gift to those who have sorrow greater than they can bear.
The next day being the Sabbath I remained in the hotel, but on Monday morning I was ready for duty. To obey necessity is the part of wisdom, but I trusted in God and myself, and I had faith in humanity. On Monday and Tuesday I saw the principals of three ladies’ schools, and from two received promise of employment “after the holidays.” I had not thought of this contingency, yet it was a very reasonable one, as far as the schools were concerned; but I did not see, how I was to wait with idle hands for a month, on a mere promise. On Tuesday night I had exhausted hope in this direction and as I sat talking with Mary, she said to me, “Dear Mamma, why do you not send a note to Mr. Beecher? I am sure he could help you. He has a great deal of power.”
“O Mary,” I answered, “I know all about the promises of clergymen. Your grandfather was a good man, but he saw so many people, and made so many promises, he never could have remembered either. It is nearly twenty years since I met Mr. Beecher. I dare say he has forgotten even my name.”
But I will be truthful in this matter. It was really a foolish pride, perhaps even a little vanity, which made me put off seeing Mr. Beecher. I was saving this opening as a last resort, for I shrank from meeting a man whom I had only seen in all the flush and glory of my bridal happiness. At that time I had a beautiful home, a loving and wealthy husband, and I was clothed in white satin and lace. I had a heart full of good hopes, and my countenance was radiant with the light of their promise. All was now so different, and my plain, sombre dress typified the change. Would he remember? Would he care? I thought not, but I said,
“There is yet the letter given me by Mr. Willis. I will take it in the morning. Perhaps it may bring us good fortune. If it does not succeed, I will remind Mr. Beecher of his promise.”
About ten o’clock next morning, being the ninth of December, I called upon Mr. Libbey. I suppose I ought to have sent a letter asking an interview, and waited for his reply, but I think the very neglect of this ceremony induced Mr. Libbey to see me. He was a man of marvelous powers of observation, and of drawing the truth out of what he saw, and later when I mentioned this neglect of social form, he smiled and said that he had at once suspected I was childlike and inexperienced—or else extremely clever in disguising my real character. His curiosity was aroused, and he gave me an audience in five minutes after my request for it.
During that five minutes I was wondering what Mr. Willis could mean by sending me to such a place. It was the A. T. Stewart building at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street, and when I saw the immense floor, the numerous tables piled high with webs of cloth of every kind, and the crowd of young men selling them to an equal crowd of buyers, I was quite sure there could be no place for me there. I suppose I ought to have felt nervous; on the contrary, I had a serenity and self-sufficiency, of which at the time I was unconscious.
In this mood I entered Mr. Libbey’s presence. He bowed slightly, and directed an office boy to place a chair for me. It was placed as editors and publishers generally have a visitor’s chair placed—that is, the visitor sits with the light falling full on her face, but the receiver has his back to the light, and his face is in shadow. I did not know this at the time, it took me some years to find it out. But the position must have a business value, for it is now an exceedingly common arrangement. It gave me no concern. I had nothing to conceal. I was going to tell the truth, and I did not suspect Mr. Libbey of suspecting me.
He was a tall, fair, aristocratic looking man, but the aristocratic element was not that which comes through centuries of noble descent; it was the aristocracy of deserved success. It clothed his tall, erect figure with a nobility quite different, and a great deal more interesting. He had a large head full of cool, shrewd brains, and his eyes, though small, were wonderful. They gave strangers one quick, searching glance and knew them. Yet in hours of pleasant conversation, they had that delightful twinkle of the iris, which inspires such a confiding sense of comradeship. It did not take me many days to discover, that he had a fine literary taste, and an ear for religious discourse, as distinct as an ear for music. He was a true friend to me. I honor his memory. And I believe, that as the news of my success finds him, wherever in God’s universe he may be doing God’s will, he is made glad by it, and is pleased to remember that I asked his help on that ninth of December, 1868, and that he willingly gave it. For the rest he was free from arrogance and familiarity, and like all superior men, courteous to every one.
I took the chair placed for me, and he began the interview by tapping Mr. Willis’s letter slightly, and saying, “Mrs. Barr, my friend Mr. Willis thinks I may be able to help you to some suitable employment. What can you do?”
“I love music, and I can teach it.”
“I can teach drawing in pencil, crayon, or water colors, well enough for beginners. I have had a fine English education, and a good deal of experience in teaching.”
“I am expert with my needle.”
“Very good,” he answered. “My three sons desire some knowledge of music and drawing, and Mrs. Libbey will be glad of your help with the needle. I think also, you could get a school large enough in Ridgewood to support you for a year or two; that would give you time to find your feet, and learn something of life as it is in New York. For you see,” he added, “if we live in New York, we must live as New Yorkers live. Mr. Willis says you have three daughters; how old are they?”
I told him that Mary was seventeen, Alice seven, and that Lilly, who was fifteen, had gone to her grandmother in Glasgow. This statement brought out mention of the Reverend John Barr, and of my own father, and I could see that the ecclesiastic relationships pleased him. I thought at the time, and I think so yet, that he felt glad to succor the grandchildren of two good and great preachers.
“I will speak to Mrs. Libbey tonight,” he continued, “and send you some word early tomorrow. And if all is satisfactory, and you desire to come to Ridgewood, you will bring your two daughters with you. Until you decide about opening a school, they are my guests.”
I was so amazed at his words, and his cordial manner, that I could hardly answer, but my reply came from my heart, and he knew it. And I told myself that God had spoken some secret word to him, and that he was a good man whose soul knew the Divine Voice, and was ready and eager to obey it.
The next morning a young man called soon after nine o’clock. He brought me a note saying that Mr. and Mrs. Libbey would be glad to see me on Friday afternoon at their home in Ridgewood. He was further instructed to tell me, that he would call at two o’clock Friday, if convenient, look after my trunks, and go with me to Ridgewood.
I shall not detain my readers long with my New Jersey experiences. I was in Ridgewood nineteen weary months, but to the last Mr. Libbey’s kindness failed me not. I found his three sons nice boys; the eldest, Will, was very like his father, courteous and kind-hearted, very bright and clever, as all the world knows at this day. He has never lost sight of me, nor have I of him. I was a few weeks in Mr. Libbey’s home, and if I transcribe two days from my diary, they may stand for the whole:
Dec. 14th. Gave the boys music lessons early in the morning; afterwards I was arranging and indexing Mr. Libbey’s library. Mr. Libbey does not come home except on Saturday evenings. I gave music lessons again, when the boys had finished their studies with Mr. Wall. In the evening I sat sewing with Mrs. Libbey until late. We were talking of the South and the war. Mrs. Libbey is a southern woman.
Dec. 20th. We have family worship on Sundays, and I afterwards went with Mr. Libbey to church. In the afternoon we had an interesting talk on the second coming of Christ, then I played some sacred music which all appeared to enjoy; indeed the hymn “Communion” made such an impression that Mr. Libbey will send to Edinburgh for a Psalmody like mine, which contains it. Alice was croupy, and I went upstairs to her as early as I could. Dear God have pity on me!
This hymn “Communion” is used generally in Scotch kirks just before the breaking of bread at the communion service:
“’Twas on that night when doomed to know
The eager rage of every foe,
The night on which He was betrayed,
The Savior of the world took bread.”
The words are pathetic and this sentiment is greatly intensified by their union with the most heart-breaking minor music in the psalm called “St. Mary’s.” I do not know how any one can hear it sung by a congregation on their knees with the minister holding out the broken bread, and not weep. The Scotch are far from a demonstrative race, but their love, pity and devotion at the sacramental hour need neither words nor song to translate it. It can be felt.
During my stay in Mr. Libbey’s house I did some work I had never before done. I patched three quilts. The circumstance came about thus: Mrs. Libbey showed me one day an amazing quantity of satin and silk samples. They were about the length and breadth of a brick, and of every imaginable color and pattern; having been sent to the house of A. T. Stewart as samples from the great silk factories of London, Lyons, Venice, et cetera, I exclaimed with delight, and Mrs. Libbey asked, “What would you do with them?”
“I would make each of the boys a handsome bed quilt! I would make Afghans, cushions, tidies, oh, lots of beautiful things!” I replied.
She answered, “I have often thought of some such ways of using them. How would you like to realize your idea?” And I said, “It would give me great pleasure.” So I received a large basket full, and immediately went to patching a quilt for Will Libbey, my favorite pupil. On my last visit to Professor William Libbey at Princeton, this quilt covered the bed given me. I did not sleep much that night. I had forgotten the quilt patching until this one wrapped me around, and awakened a thousand recollections. I touched and smoothed its soft satins, and thought of the long, sad hours in which my needle went swiftly to memories of past days, or to my hopes and plans for future ones. And this quilt talked to me, as my hands touched the sensitized satin, and I breathed again the perfume of the courage and faith that hallowed the work. For I thank God I had been able by that time to take all my sorrow
“As a plain fact, whose right or wrong
I questioned not; confiding still,
It would not last one hour too long.”
In a few weeks I rented a cottage from Mr. Libbey, and opened a school. I had only six scholars to begin with, but the number was variable. Sometimes it rose to ten or twelve, and then fell to six or eight. I think seven or eight would be a fair average. The income from this school would hardly have supported life, but it was helped very considerably by the tuition fees Mr. Libbey paid me for his three sons. Perhaps it was a wise indulgence of heaven, that at this time gave me with a sparing hand, just enough.
I had frequently letters from Lilly, and as she seemed at least contented, I was glad that she was in a position where she could see and learn many things, not possible if she was at my side. And Mary continued her music and English, and looked after the house and her little sister Alice. Truly the days were long and hard, but when they were over, and I came home to my children, and my cup of tea, I had a few hours of cheerful happiness, and could sometimes tell myself, that perhaps things were not going as badly with me as I thought they were.
It was a slow, monotonous, dreary life to which there seemed no outlet. The house was in a very ugly lane, and I had no neighbors but a Dutch family, who only knew me when I was paying them money; and a negro family, who were useful in the way of washing and ironing and cleaning. On the Sabbath, I generally went to Mr. Libbey’s for dinner, and that was my only mental recreation.
One Sunday after I had been in this condition for nearly a year and a half, Mr. Libbey sent me word that a countryman of mine, a Mr. Fox of Manchester, was with them and would like to see me. He was sitting with Mr. Libbey when I opened the parlor door, and we just looked at each other and smiled. Mr. Fox was so patently, so unmistakably Lancashire, and I told him so, and he answered,
“To be sure I am! So are you, Mrs. Barr! I know you by your Lancashire eyes, and your Lancashire color, and the up-head way you carry yourself.”
“No, sir,” I answered, “the up-head way I learned in Texas. It is a up-heart way, also. The up-head helps the heart, when the heart is dashed and down.”
I have seldom spent a more delightful evening. Mr. Fox wanted to know all about the South, and cotton growing, for he was a great cotton manufacturer; then we fell upon the war, and I told him a great deal concerning it, and especially the incidents of the break-up, as I witnessed them. As I bid him good-bye our hands clasped warmly, and I said,
“Mr. Fox, as soon as your feet touch Lancashire soil, bless the dear land for me.” And he answered, “I will not forget. And you?” he added, “remember to keep your up-head and your up-heart like a Lancashire lass ought to do.” This pleasant evening brought forth its fruit a little later.
About April Lilly wrote me that she was coming home. She said the Reverend Joseph Brown, the famous minister of the Kent Road Church—which was attended by all the Colville family, had advised her to do so; and that her uncle had bought her a passage, and would himself see her safely on board. “It is all right for me to come home, Mamma,” she continued. “I know now, that I never ought to have left you. Mary would have been better here, than I could ever be. She is more Scotch, and I am so English, that the very word ‘England’ tastes sweet on my lips, if I only speak it. Mary would have considered her words and ways, and her P’s and Q’s, and I have no doubt, would have won both the old lady, and the half-dozen or more young ones. The four boys understood me better than any one, but after all, my visit to grandmother is a broad failure. Uncle David is all right, and I don’t mind people not loving me, if they are only just. But I am coming home to you, Mamma, and I know you will say, ‘Lilly, dear, you did right.’”
Three days after we received this letter, Mary went to New York, to the office of the New York Democrat to see Mr. Sykes, the publisher, and Brick Pomeroy, its clever editor; for I had written, mainly during sleepless nights, a novel, and I thought perhaps, from what I had read and heard of these gentlemen, they would take it. She had a long talk with Mr. Sykes, and the final result was a lunch with Mr. and Mrs. Sykes, and her engagement as governess to their two children. Mary was delighted; she longed for a more vivid and useful life, and she loved the city, and hated the country.
“You see, Mamma,” she said, “Mrs. Sykes wants me very much, and I like her. She is so pretty, and so beautifully dressed, and so fond of amusements. I shall see everything with her, and Mr. Sykes will pay my board, and give me twenty dollars a month. And you know Lilly may be here any day, and you do not need both of us.”
So in April Mary went to Mrs. Sykes, and Lilly came home a few days after she had left me, and when she had told me her pitiful little story, I considered her determination to return to America quite justifiable. That Dr. Joseph Brown and his family had been her warm friends was sufficient for me; also she took particular pains to make me understand that her uncle’s attitude to her, from first to last, had been supremely just. That of course, justice, was the rock on which David Colville stood; he would not have been unjust to his worst enemy.
The school closed in June, and I could see on Lilly’s face an invincible determination that it should not re-open. Whether she would have succeeded in inducing me to give it up, I know not, but one Sunday Mr. Libbey and his sons called, and in the course of conversation Mr. Libbey said to me,
“Mrs. Barr, the boys are going in September to Princeton to continue their education there. I do not think your school here will then support you. What do you think of doing?”
“I do not know,” I answered. “I must consider.”
“I have heard you say that you knew Mr. Beecher.”
“Yes, in a way, not very well. I met him in Glasgow many years ago. I dare say he has quite forgotten me.”
“I do not think so. Write him a letter. He may be able to assist you.”
“I know not. I cannot think yet.”
“Write to him; and also, I want you to write out the story of the break-up in Texas. Write it just as you told it to Mr. Fox. Send it to me. I will see that it goes to some one, whose criticism will be severe enough and fair enough, to prove whether you have the ability to write. If you can write, you can live.”
“O Mr. Libbey!” I cried gratefully, “you are so kind. I thank you! I thank you! I do believe I can write. I will write the paper you ask me for tonight. You will see.”
I did so, and put it into his hand as he was getting into his carriage in the morning. He smiled at my promptness and said, “It will be attended to.” And I was perfectly content, for I knew if Mr. Libbey said so, it would be done.
In two weeks Mr. Libbey brought me a check from Daniel Appleton and Company for thirty dollars. I was astonished and delighted, but after a few moments I laughed joyously and cried, “Why I can write three or four of those things every week! O Mr. Libbey, how happy you have made me! Is my work really going to be printed? Can I write? Do you think I can write?”
“It will appear very soon,” he answered, “and Mr. Bunce, the editor of the magazine, spoke very highly of your work; further, he said he would like you to write them a story. Will you try one?”
“Indeed, I will! I have lots of stories in my mind. I will put them on paper, at once.”
There is a song which says,
“Joy’s the shyest bird,
Mortal ever heard;
Listen rapt and silent when he sings.
Do not seek to see,
Lest the vision be,
But a flutter of departing wings.”
I had no fear of such a fleeting joy. I knew that my vocation was found. I had received the call, and having done so, I was sure my work would be assigned me. Of some things we feel quite certain. Inside there is a click, a kind of bell that strikes, when the hands of our destiny meet at the meridian hour. I cannot make it plainer, those who have experienced it, will know. I only hope that every new writer may enter the gates of the literary life, as happily and hopefully as I did.
It was near midnight when we went to bed. Our little affairs were so full of interest to us. This thirty dollars would remove us into the city, but though we were both very anxious to go at once, we decided that it would be better to remain in the country until September brought cooler weather. Alice was exceedingly frail, and she was the first consideration. Also, I would have to go to New York to find the proper place to live in and rent unfurnished rooms there; and this looked to me a rather formidable undertaking. I had never heard of real estate offices, and whether they existed at this date, or not, I do not know. But we read the advertisements in the Herald, and I made a note of several locations. As to the healthiness, or respectability of these locations, the rents and half a dozen other important questions, we knew absolutely nothing. I smile to myself yet, at the childlike confidence, with which I essayed this plunge into the unknown.
And as we talked, full of gratitude and hope, I was able to give up cheerfully my last fort of pride or vanity, and I promised myself to write immediately to Mr. Beecher. It was my proper share of the obligation attending this new move in life. In the midst of conversation on this topic, the clock struck twelve, and Lilly said,
“Mamma, you ate no supper. You are hungry, or you ought to be. I am going to bring something to eat upstairs.”
“I will go downstairs with you, Lilly.”
“No, no, Mamma! You will get cold, and Alice will wake up. Then Alice will come down, and she will get cold. I will bring up a tray in five minutes.”
Until she came back with the tray, I walked up and down the small room. My heart was singing within me. At that hour it had forgotten all its sorrow and its deprivations; it knew that the bare poverty of the last few months was over—the poverty that is without books, without all the comfortable things, that make sufficient food and clothing still poverty. For some long weary months, it had been beating itself against gates for which it could find no keys. Now, they had been set wide open. It would have been an unpardonable waste of God-given happiness to sleep, as long as the physical woman could keep awake.
We remained six weeks longer in the country, but they were weeks brightened with hope and cheerful expectations. I began at once a story for Appleton’s called “Margaret Sinclair’s Silent Money,” and among the simple Norse fishers of the Shetland Islands, forgot for hours together that I was yet in New Jersey. In October I went to the city to look for rooms, and as soon as I spoke to Mr. Sykes, he sent a youth with me to a real estate office. He also advised me as to the proper section of the city, and told me not to go far away from that quarter, because it contained the city’s three finest libraries, and he was sure I would find them indispensable in literary work.
I was as happy as if I was on a holiday, and before noon had settled on some unfurnished rooms in a large brick house on Amity Street. I was told that Poe had once occupied them, but I did not know anything about Poe in those days; and I was not influenced in my choice by this association. What decided me was first, the fact that they were large, lofty, old-fashioned apartments, with open grates, and a pleasant look-out for Alice. Second, that I had the Astor and Mercantile Libraries within five minutes walk, and the Historical Library on Second Avenue, not much further away. Mr. Sykes said I had made an excellent selection of rooms, and I went back to Ridgewood satisfied with the home they promised.
The next day I wrote Mr. Beecher a long letter. I told him all that had happened me, and asked if he could help me to find literary work. Almost by return mail, I received his answer. In it he told me that he had just become largely interested in the Christian Union, and was sure if I could write something for that paper, as vivid or pathetic as my letter to him, my services would be welcome to the Christian Union. “Come into the city,” he said, “and we shall be able to keep your pen busy.”
Three days after the receipt of this encouraging letter, I stood in the rooms on Amity Street, with my daughters and my few household goods. I had five dollars and eighteen cents in my purse. I had no knowledge of the ways of life in a large city, and was quite as ignorant of the business of buying and selling. I had no relatives in America, no one I felt at liberty to ask assistance from. I stood absolutely alone in the battle of life, but I was confident, that God and Amelia Barr were a multitude.
In the old-fashioned grate of the room, I intended for our sitting-and dining-room, there was soon a good fire, and in less than an hour, the kettle was boiling, the lamb chops broiled, and the tea infusing. And never since my dear husband died, had I sat down to a meal I enjoyed so much. We were as happy as three children.
Before the evening of the next day, the rooms had quite a homey look. I had still some beautiful bed clothing, and table damask, and a few books; and books and an open fire are the best furniture any room can have. They look at every one that enters them with a smile and a welcome. And on that open fire, it was wonderful what excellent meals Lilly cooked us—nice little lamb stews, and broiled meats, and always the good cup of tea or of Java coffee. And we laughed at our small discomforts, and said we were “only tenting, until everything right and proper should arrive.”
As soon as the house affairs were arranged, I went down to the Christian Union office. I took with me a paper called “The Epiphany in the West Riding.” There was a Mr. Kennedy then in the working editor’s chair, and he read it at once and was delighted with it. He said such generous words of encouragement and praise, that I have yet the kindest memory of him. He was the first editor of the Christian Union, I believe, but he left the paper very soon, and I have never heard his name since.
Mr. George Merriam followed him, and he was the kindest and wisest editor I ever wrote for. He kept me rigorously up to my best work, but did so with such consideration and valuable advice, that I always felt it a great pleasure, to see how much better I could make everything I wrote for him. He did me many favors, and among them he gave me my first introduction to the dear old Astor Library. In this library I worked from morning to night. Mr. Saunders the head librarian was an Englishman, a most wonderful general scholar, particularly intimate with English literature. We soon became good friends, and he gave me the use of one of the largest and sunniest alcoves in the Hall I frequented. For fifteen years I used this alcove with its comfortably large table, its silence and sunshine, and delightful atmosphere of books and scholars.
A plan of the Astor alcoves that Mr. Saunders made for me, hangs at my right hand in my study. My alcove was the Fine Arts alcove in the South Hall, and Mr. Saunders—when I went no more to the Astor—feared I might forget it. As if I could! Though it exists no longer, I see it as plainly, as I saw it before it existed at all.
For when I was living in Penrith, a child of seven or eight years old, I began to dream of this city of books. I wandered about its pleasant alcoves, and climbed its long spiral stairs of wrought iron, and stood speechless and wondering before the white marble busts of ancient gods, and godlike men, in its entrance hall. And the building did not then exist. It is doubtful if it had ever taken form in Mr. Astor’s mind. How then could I see it in my dreams? And why did I see it? I have asked myself these questions for more than forty years, for always I saw the building full of light, though my dream came in the dark midnight, when there was neither sun, nor moon, nor candlelight for physical eyes to use. Where does the light of dreams come from? And why was it shown to me when as yet it was not?
The only solution I can find is, that my angel not only foresaw the grand old library, but also that she understood the necessity and advantage of my future intimate association with it. Therefore she made me familiar with the place in my dream life, so that when in my physical life, I came to this special hostelry of mind and body, I might know that I was in the path appointed for me, and be satisfied. For I do not believe in chance. The life God guides, is not ruled by accidental events; the future is constantly shaped out of the past and all its happenings are but links in a chain.
To me it was a most astonishing experience. I walked up the white marble stairway, and into the sunny South Hall with the strangest most exulting feeling of proprietorship; and for all the purposes of study and use, this splendid library was for fifteen years really my own. Before presenting Mr. Merriam’s letter to the chief librarian, Mr. Saunders, I sat down and looked around me. Yes! It was my dream library! There was no doubt of it. I was lost in wonder and joy, and I said to my soul,
“We came not to this place by accident. It is the very place God meant for us.” And this decision was so comforting, that I at once fully accepted it.
The Astor Library was at that date a very heaven on earth to the student. I have never seen in all my life, a student’s library comparable with it. It wanted none of the great treasures of literature, and yet it was not too large to become familiar with. In the halls I frequented, I soon knew where every book dwelt, and if my eyes saw a vacant place on a shelf, I knew instantly what book was from home. Of the great reviews and magazines, I gradually made an index of all their papers, likely to be of use to me; so that if an up-to-date article on any subject, commodity, or event was needed, I had, at my finger ends, a list of all the papers that had been written concerning it.
Nor did I let the evident trade, or literary side of the subject satisfy me. I hunted up in such queer repositories of knowledge as Southey’s Doctor, Hones’ Year Book, Table Book, and Every Day Book, et cetera, all the bits of folklore, historical, poetical, and social traditions, proverbs and prophecies allied to it; and in such research I found a never-ending delight. Many writers of that day said with a variety of emphasis, “What luck Mrs. Barr has!”
Once a despondent young man sitting in my alcove made this very remark to me, and as it was spoken in no unkind spirit, I answered it by showing him the indexes and notes which I had made for this very work. I pointed out that the illustration for which I was then preparing the text, had been received an hour ago, and must be turned into the paper for which it was intended early on the following morning; and I asked him—if he could find the material necessary, and have it at the office by nine o’clock? He looked gloomily at the picture. It represented an old farmer examining the almanac for the New Year.
“Now what can a fellow know about almanacs?” he asked. “What is there to know about them anyhow? I suppose I could find something in Poole——”
“Look here!” I answered. “This is my list of informing articles on the subject of almanacs:
British Quarterly Review, vol. 28.
Saturday Review, vol. 14.
“Medieval Almanacs,” Quarterly Review, vol. 71.
Southey’s Doctor, vol. 3.
Foreign Quarterly, vol. 32.
London Magazine, vol. 2.
Eclectic Magazine, vol. 1, 1844.
Eclectic Magazine, vol. 9.
Retrospective Review, vol. 2.
Bow Bell’s Magazine, vol. 1.
All the Year Round Magazine, vol. 6.”
“Do you mean to go through all those articles?” he asked incredulously.
“It is now ten o’clock,” I replied. “Before four, I shall have gleaned all I want from every one of them. I shall perhaps also find time to go through some poetical indexes, and find a few good verses on almanacs, either to finish off—or to begin with. And this,” I continued, “this is the kind of luck Mrs. Barr has. You, or any other writer, can have the same.”
Any one can understand, how work of this kind pursued with loving and ungrudging industry for over fifteen years, educated the mind and formed the taste. It kept me in touch with the finest European essayists, and I learned something from every book I opened. Perhaps it was not just what I was looking for, but it was worth making a note of—a note that often came into use for song or story years afterwards; and it was all conducive to that preparation I was unconsciously making for the sixty or more books it has been my privilege and pleasure to write.
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