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Chapter 6: seventy years young 1889-1890; aet. 70-71

The seven decades of my years
I figure like those Pleiad spheres
Which, throa the heaven's soft impulse moved,
Still seek a sister star beloved.

Throa many sorrows, more delight,
Throa miracles in sound and sight,
Throa battles lost and battles won,
These star-spaced years have led me on.

Though long behind me shows the path,
The future still its promise hath,
For thoa the past be fair and fond,
The perfect number lies beyond.

J. W. H.

She was dissatisfied with herself in these days.

January 1, 1889. In my prayer this night I asked for weight and earnestness of purpose. I am too frivolous and frisky.”

“On waking I said, ‘If God does not help me this day, I shall not be able to finish my address.’ [for a Washington's Birthday celebration at Newport]”

She thinks He did help her, as she found the vein of what she wished to say, and finished it to her “tolerable satisfaction.”

“As I entered the hall in the evening, the thought of Cinderella struck me, and I used it by comparing the fashion, of which we make so much account, to Cinderella with her rat horses and pumpkin carriage, so resplendent until her hour came; then the horses would [144] not carry her, the golden coach would not hold her, her illusory grandeur was at an end. Our cause of truth and justice I compared to the Princess in her enchanted sleep, who lies spellbound until the true champion comes to rescue her, and the two go forth together, to return to sleep and diversion, oh, never more.”

This is the note throughout the Journal; the record of work, the prayer for strength. Yet the friskiness was there; no one but herself would have had less of it.

She had already entered the happy estate of grandmotherhood, and enjoyed it to the full. New songs must be made for the little new people, new games invented. We see her taking a grandchild's hands in hers, and improvising thus:--

We have two hands,
To buckle bands!
We have ten fingers,
To make clotheswringers!
We have two thumbs,
To pick up crumbs!
We have two heels,
To bob for eels!
We have ten toes,
To match our nose!

If the child be tired or fretful, “Hush!” says the grandmother. “Be good, and I will play you the ‘Canarybird's Funeral.’ ” Off they go to the piano, and the “Canarybird's funeral” is improvised, and must be played over and over, for this and succeeding grandchildren. For them, too, she composed the musical drama of “Flibbertigibbet,” which she was to play and recite for so many happy children, and grown folks [145] too. Flibbertigibbet was a black imp who appeared one day in the market-place, and playing a jig on his fiddle, set all the people dancing whether they would or no. She played the jig, and one did not wonder at the people. Next came Flibbertigibbet's march, which he played on his way to prison; his melancholy, as he sat in durance; the cats on the roof of his prison; finally, entrance of the benevolent fairy, who whisks him off in a balloon to fairyland. All these, voice and piano gave together: nobody who heard “Flibbertigibbet” ever forgot it. She set Mother Goose to music for the grandchildren; singing of Little Boy Blue, and the Man in the Moon. She thought these nursery melodies among her best compositions; from time to time, however, other and graver airs came to her, dreamed over the piano on summer evenings, or in twilight walks among the Newport meadows. Some of these airs were gathered and published in later years.1

In May of this year she notes the closing of a life long associated with hers.

May 24. Laura Bridgman died to-day at about 12 M. This event brings with it solemn suggestions, which my overcrowded brain cannot adequately follow. Her training was a beautiful out-blossoming from the romance of my husband's philanthropy. She has taught a great lesson in her time, and unfortunates of her sort are now trained, without question of the result. This was to S. G. H. an undiscovered country in the first instance. I cannot help imagining him as standing [146] before the face of the Highest and pointing to his work: happy, thrice happy man, with all his sorrow”

The close of her seventieth year was a notable milestone on the long road. May found her still carrying full sail; a little more tired after each exertion, a little puzzled at the occasional rebellion of “Sister body,” her hard-worked “A. B.,” ; but not yet dreaming of taking in a reef.

The seventieth birthday was a great festival. Maud, inviting Oliver Wendell Holmes to the party, had written, “Mamma will be seventy years young on the 27th. Come and play with her!”

The Doctor in his reply said, “It is better to be seventy years young than forty years old!”

Dr. Holmes himself was now eighty years old. It was in these days that she went with Laura to call on him, and found him in his library, a big, bright room, looking out on the Charles River, books lining the walls, a prevailing impression of atlases and dictionaries open on stands. The greeting between the two was pleasant to see, their talk something to remember. “Ah, Mrs. Howe,” said the Autocrat, “you at seventy have much to learn about life. At eighty you will find new vistas opening in every direction!”

Ten years later she was reminded of this. “It is true!” she said.

At parting he kissed her, which touched her deeply.

He was in another mood when they met at a reception shortly after this. “Ah! Mrs. Howe,” he said, “you see I still hang on as one of the old wrecks!” [147] “Yes, you are indeed Rex” was the reply.

“Then, Madam,” he cried with a flash, “you are Regina!”

To return to the birthday Here are a few of the letters received:--

From George William Curtis

West New Brighton, Staten Island, N. Y., May 9, 1889.
My dear Mrs. Elliott,
I shall still be too lame to venture so far away from home as your kind invitation tempts me to stray, but no words of my regard and admiration for Mrs. Howe will ever limp and linger. I doubt if among the hosts who will offer their homage upon her accession to the years of a ripe youth there will be many earlier friends than I, and certainly there will be none who have watched her career with more sympathy in her varied and humane activities. Poet, scholar, philanthropist, and advocate of true Democracy, her crown is more than triple, and it is her praise as it may well be her pride to have added fresh lustre to the married name she bears.

I am sincerely sorry that only in this inadequate way can I join my voice to the chorus of friendly rejoicing and congratulation on the happy day, which reminds us only of the perpetual youth of the warm heart and the sound mind.

Very truly yours, George William Curtis.


From W. W. Story

My Dear Julia,
(I suppose I may still call you so — we are both so young and inexperienced) I cannot let this anniversary of your birth go by, without stretching out my hands to you across the ocean, and throwing to you all they can hold of good wishes, and affectionate thought, and delightful memories. Though years have gone by since I have seen you, you are still fresh, joyous, and amusing, and charming as ever. Of this I am fully persuaded, and often I look into that anxious mirror of my mind, and see you and wander with you, and jest with you and sing with you, as I used in the olden days; and never will I be so faithless as to believe that you are any older than you were — and I hope earnestly you are no wiser and that a great deal of folly is still left in you — as it is, I am happy to say, in me.

For, after all, what is life worth when its folly is all departed? When we have grown wise and sad as well as old — it is time to say Good-bye. But that time has not come for us yet. So let us still shout Evviva!

I do not mention the fact of your age,--I don't know it,--but if I should guess, from what I know I should say twenty-five. I was twenty-eight when I left America-and that is such a few months ago -and I know you were born somewhat about the same time.

You will receive a great many congratulations and [149] expressions of friendship, but none more sincere than those of

Your old friend — I mean Your young friend, W. W. Story. Rome, Palazzo Barberini, May 10, 1889.

From James Russell Lowell

68 Beacon Street, 13th May, 1889.
Dear Mrs. Howe,
I should n't have suspected it, but if you say so, I am bound to believe this improbability, as absurd as Leporello's Catalogue for its numerals. If it be so — I beg pardon — since it is so, I am glad that you are going to take it cheerfully as who should say to Time, “Another turn of the glass, please, my young friend, I'm writing.” But alas, I can't be there to take a glass with you. You say, “if there be no obstacle.” No less than a couple of thousand miles of water, harder to get over than the years themselves, which indeed get behind more swiftly than they ought. I can at least wish you many happy returns of the day and will drink to your health on the 27th. I sail on the 18th.

Pray accept my thanks and regrets and make them acceptable to your children.

Faithfully yours, James Russell Lowell.

The Journal thus notes the occasion. [150]

“My seventieth birthday. A very busy day for all of us.... My head was dressed at eleven. All my children were here, with daughter-and sons-in-law. I had many lovely gifts. The house was like a garden of costly flowers. Breakfast was at 12.30; was in very good style. Guests: General Walker, John S. Dwight, E. E. Hale, Mrs. Jack Gardner, Mmes. Bell, Pratt, and Agassiz. Walker made the first speech at the table, H. M. H.2 being toastmaster. Walker seemed to speak very feelingly, calling me the first citizeness of the country; stood silent a little and sat down. Dwight read a delightful poem; Hale left too soon to do anything. H. introduced J. S. D. thus: ‘Sweetness and light, your name is Dwight.’ While we sat at table, baskets and bouquets of wonderful flowers kept constantly arriving; the sweet granddaughters brought them in, in a sort of procession lovely to see. It rained in the afternoon, but the house was thronged with visitors, all the same.”

A sober entry, written the next day, when she was “very tired, with a delightful fatigue” : but on the day itself she was gay, enjoying her “party” to the full, treasuring every flower, wondering why people were so good to her.

The festivities lasted several days, for every one wanted to “play Birthday” with her. The New England Woman's Club gave her a luncheon, which she valued next to the home celebration; the blind children of the Perkins Institution must hear her speak, and in return sing some of her songs, and give her [151] flowers, clustering round her with tender, groping fingers that sought to clasp hers. Moreover, the last week of May is Anniversary Week in Boston. Suffragists, women ministers, Unitarians, “uplifters” of every description, held their meetings (traditionally in a pouring rain) and one and all wanted Mrs. Howe.

“I have said to God on every morning of these busy days: ‘Give me this day,’ and He has given them all: i.e., He has given me power to fulfil the task appointed for each.”

When she finally got to Newport, she was “dazed with the quiet after the strain of heart and fatigue.”

The ministry was much in her mind this summer.

“I take for my guidance a new motto: ‘I will ascend’ ; not in my ambition, but in my thoughts and aims.”

“A dry Sunday, i.e., no church, it being the women's turn to go. I shelled peas for dinner. Began Rambaud's ‘History of Russia.’ ... I think of two sermons to write, one, ‘A spirit of Power’ ; one, ‘Behold, I show you a more excellent way.’ ”

Suffrage had its meed too in these summer days.

“Have copied my Call for the Congress. In my coming suffrage talks will invite women to study the history of their sex in the past, and its destiny in the future; inertia and ignorance are the great dangers of society. The old condition of women largely increased instead of diminishing these sources of evil. The women were purposely kept ignorant, in order that they might be enslaved and degraded. Inertia is largely fostered by the paralysis of independent action ...” [152]

“I feel just now that we ought to try hard to have all the Far West represented at the Denver Congress.”

“Thought a book or article about ‘Fooleries’ would be entertaining and instructive. The need of this element in human society is shown by the ancient jesters and court fools. ... In Bible times Samson made sport for the Philistines. People now do their own dancing and their own fooling: some of it very dull. Query: What ancient jests have been preserved? ‘The Fools of old and of all time’ would not be a bad title.”

In October came the Woman's Congress in Denver; she was there, “attending all meetings and sessions.”

Mrs.----.'s paper on ‘The Redemptive Power of Art’ was very so-so, and did not touch my conception of the theme, viz., art made valuable for the reform of criminals. I spoke of this with warmth.”

After the Congress “the visiting ladies enjoyed a drive about the city of Denver. I went early to the High School with A. A. B.3 Found Mrs. Cheney speaking to the pupils assembled. She did not notice our entrance and spoke of me very warmly. Presently, turning round, she saw us and we all laughed. I spoke to them of my ‘drink of youth’ ; compared the spirits of youth to steam given to carry them on a celestial railroad; compared youth to wine in a beautiful vase; spoke of ancient libations to the gods; our libation to be poured to the true Divine; urged them not to starve their studies in order to feed their amusements. ‘Two ways of study, one mean, the other generous.’ Told [153] them not to imitate savages, who will barter valuable land for worthless baubles; not so to barter their opportunities for barren pleasures.”

She preached at Unity Church Sunday morning.

“At Grace Church [Methodist] in the afternoon. Spoke to the text, ‘God hath not left himself without a witness.’ This witness is in every human heart; which, with all its intense desires, desires most of all, law, order, religion.... I applied my text to the coming out into the new territories; a rough Exodus stimulated by the love of gold; but with the army of fortune-seekers go faithful souls, and instead of passing out of civilization, they extend its bounds. ‘Praise waiteth for thee in Zion’ --yes, but the Prophet says: ‘The solitary places shall be glad for them,’ et cetera. I set this down for future use.”

The Denver people were most friendly, and she enjoyed the visit greatly. Thence she stepped westward once more, lecturing and preaching as she went, everywhere welcomed with cordial warmth, everywhere carrying her ministry with her.

“A sweet young mother was dreadfully plagued with two babies; I helped her as much as I could.”

“A delicate young woman was travelling with her father, a boy of five years, and a semi-friend, semihelp, not much of either. This party sat opposite me in the Pullman, and soon made acquaintance. She is going for her health from Tacoma to California. An odd-looking genius, something like---in his youth, got in somewhere and attracted my attention [154] by his restless manner. I took him for no good; a gambler, perhaps. He seemed to notice me a good deal....”

“Made acquaintance with the odd-looking young man. He is a timber-land broker. He had noticed me because I reminded him of his mother. We became friends. He told me his story. He brought another gentleman, a man more of society than himself, and we and Mrs. Campbell played whist. We were quite gay all day. In the evening a sad, elderly man whom I had observed, came over and showed me his wife's photograph as she had looked in health, and then a photograph of her in her last illness; he holding her up in his arms. He said he was travelling to help his sorrow.”

“At Reading my two whist gentlemen cried out, ‘Tamales!’ and rushed out. They presently returned, bringing some curious Mexican eatables, corn meal with chicken and red peppers rolled in corn leaves. These folk all left at Sacramento at three in the morning.”

California was once more her goal. This second visit was brief and hurried.

“Hurry, scurry to dress for the Forefathers' Day celebration. Oakley was my squire. I was taken down to dinner by Professor Moore, President of the occasion. ... I was suddenly and unexpectedly called for, and all were requested to rise, which was a great honor done me. I spoke of two Congregationalists whom I had known, Antoinette Blackwell, of whose ordination I told; then of Theodore Parker, of whom [155] I said, ‘Nothing that I have heard here is more Christian than what I heard from him.’ I told of his first having brought into notice the hymn, ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee,’ and said that I had sung it with him; said that in advising with all women's clubs, I always urged them to include in their programmes pressing questions of the day. Was much applauded.... They then sang the ‘Battle Hymn’ and we adjourned.”

She spent Christmas with Sister Annie, in great contentment; her last word before starting for home is, “Thank God for much good”

To Maud

I reached Boston very comfortably on Monday night about eleven o'clock. I was slower than usual [on the journey] in making friends with those around me, but finally thought I would speak to the pleasantlooking woman on my left. She had made acquaintance with the people who had the two sections behind mine. I had observed a gaunt young man going back and forth, with a look on his face which made me say to my friend in Number Nine: “That man must have committed a murder.” Who do you think he turned out to be? Lieutenant Ripley, of the Vandalia, U. S.N., the great ship which went to pieces on the Samoan reef. I, of course, determined to hear about it from his own lips, and we had a most interesting talk. He is very slight, but must be all nerve and muscle. All the sailors in the top in which he was clinging for his [156] life fell off and were drowned. He held on till the Trenton came down upon them, when, with the others who were saved in other parts of the rigging, he crept along a hawser and somehow reached the Trenton. Fearing that she would go to pieces, he started with fifteen sailors to swim ashore — he alone was saved — he says he is much practised in'swimming. I spoke of this all as a dreadful experience. “Yes,” said he, with a twinkle in his eye, “but the storm cleared out the Germans for us.” He was thrown ashore insensible, but soon recovered consciousness — had been naked and without food for thirty-six hours. Took a cup of coffee in one hand, and a cup of brandy in the other, and swallowed a little from each alternately, his refection lasting from nine in the evening till one o'clock at night....

To the same

We have not seen the sun in some days. I hope that he has shined upon you. Item, I have almost finished my anxious piece of work for the N. Y. Evening Post, after which I shall say, “Now, frolic, soul, with thy coat off!”

In January, 1890, she “heard young Cram 4 explain ‘Tristram and Iseult,’ and young Prescott execute some of the music. It seemed to me like broken china, no complete chord; no perfect result; no architectonic.”

She never learned to like what was in those days “the new music.” Wagner and Brahms were anathema to her, as to many another music-lover of her time, [157] notably John Sullivan Dwight, long-time Boston's chief musical critic. Many a sympathetic talk they had together; one can see him now, his eyes burning gentle fire, head nodding, hands waving, as he denounced what seemed to him wanton cacophony. She avoided the Symphony Concerts at which “the new music” was exploited; but it was positive pain to her to miss a symphony of Beethoven or Schubert.

In March of this year the Saturday Morning Club of Boston gave a performance of the “Antigone” of Sophocles.

“In afternoon to the second representation of the ‘Antigone.’ . . . On the whole very pathetic and powerful. Mrs. Tilden full of dramatic fire; Sally Fairchild ideally beautiful in dress, attitude, and expression. The whole a high feast of beauty and of poetry. The male parts wonderfully illusive, especially that of Tiresias, the seer....”

To Laura

241 Beacon Street, Boston, April 26, 1890.
I'se very sorry for unhandsome neglect complained of in your last. What are we going to do about it? I have now and then made efforts to reclaim the old Party, but have long considered her incorrigible. What shall we say, then? “Where sin doth abound, Grace shall much more abound,” or words to that effect, are recorded of one Paul, of whom I have no mean opinion. So, there's Scripture for you, do you see? As I wrote you yes'day or day before, things [158] have been hoppy here since my return. The elder Agassiz used to mention in his lectures the Lepidoptera, and I think that's the creature (insect, I b'lieve) which infests Boston. What I have hopped for, and whither to, I cannot in the least remember. Flossy was here, as you know, and I hop't for her. I also 'tended two of the festival Oratorios, which were fine, but to me very fatiguing. I find that I must take public amusements, when I do take them, in the afternoon, as in the evening bodily fatigue overmasters even the sesthetic sense, and it is not worth while to pay a large price for the pleasure of wishing one's self at home .... The benefit at Boston Museum for the Vincent Hospital netted over $1600. It was a brilliant success, but I caught there the first cold I have had since my return from the Far West. Maud is very busy with the flower table, which she has undertaken, having nothing to do. This is for the Vincent Fair, which will take place on Tuesday, 29th.... Have got a few lovely books from Libbie's sale of the Hart collection -among other things, a fine French edition of “Les Miserables,” which I am at last glad never to have read, as I shall enjoy it, D. V., in some of the long reading days of summer....

Your ownty donty Ma.
P. S. Before the Libbie sale I wickedly bid $25 upon a small but very precious missal. It brought $825!!

When she reached Oak Glen in mid-June, she felt a “constant discouragement” ; was lonely, and missed [159] the cheerful converse of her club and suffrage friends. “My work seems to me to amount to nothing at all.” She soon revived, and “determined to fulfil in due order all the tasks undertaken for this summer; so attacked the Kappa poem and wrote at a stretch twenty-two verses, of four lines each, which was pretty much my day's work. Read in Martineau, in J. F. C., a little Greek, and the miserable ‘Les Miserables.’ ”

She decided to hold some conversations in the Unitarian parsonage, and wrote out the following topics for them:--

“Useful undertakings in this city as existing and needed.”

“How to promote public spirit in American men and women.”

“How to attain a just average estimate of our own people.”

“How far is it wise to adopt the plan of universal reading for ourselves and our young people?”

“In what respects do the foreign civilizations retard, in what do they promote the progress of our own civilization?”

In August she preached to the women in Sherborn: Prison, choosing a “text of cheer and uplifting: ‘Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.’ Read part of Isaiah 40th. Said that I had wished to bring them some word of comfort and exhilaration. Pointed out how the Lord's Prayer begins with solemn worship and ascription, aspiring to God's Kingdom, praying for daily bread and for deliverance from temptation [160] and all evil; at the close it rises into this joyous strain, ‘Thine is the kingdom,’ et cetera. Tried to show how the kingdom is God, the great providential order, before and beyond all earthly government; then the power, that of perfect wisdom and goodness, the power to know and rule all things, to be everywhere and ever present, to regulate the mighty sweep of stars and planets, and, at the same time, to take note of the poorest and smallest of us; the glory first of the visible universe, glory of the day and night, of the seasons, glory of the redeeming power of truth, glory of the inexhaustible patience, of boundless compassion and love.”

She enjoyed the visit to the prison and was thankful for it.

A few days later, at a meeting in Newport, she heard a lady demand that the children of genius should be set apart from others for special education and encouragement, receiving a pension even in their early years. She demanded colleges of genius, and a retreat for people of genius. By thus fostering juvenile promise, we should produce giants and demigods.

“I, being called upon, gave the card house a tolerable shaking, and, I think, brought it down, for which several people thanked me.”

Vividly as she lived in the present, the past was never far from her.

“Had in the morning at first waking a very vivid mind-picture of my sweet young mother lying dead, with two or three of us little ones standing about her. My brother Henry, two years my senior, laid his little hand upon her forehead and said: ‘It is as cold as a [161] stone,’ or some such comparison. I felt strangely, this morning, the very pain and agony of that moment, preceding the tragical vision of a life in which that central point of nurture, a mother's affection and wisdom, has been wanting. The scene in my mind was only a vivid reminiscence of what actually took place, which I never forgot, but I had not felt it as I did to-day in many years.”

Perhaps at heart she was always the little child who used to say to herself at night, “Now I will stretch out and make myself as long as I can, so that the robbers will think I am a grown — up person, and perhaps then they will not touch me!” “Then,” she told us, “I would stretch myself out at full length, and go to sleep.”

She was reading Martineau's “Study of religion” this summer with close attention and deep interest. His writings gave her unfailing delight. His portrait hung in her room; on her desk lay always a slender volume of his “Prayers,” her favorite passages marked in pencil. When Louise Chandler Moulton lay dying, the best comfort she could devise for her was the loan of this precious little volume.

The “Study of religion” is not light reading. We find now and then: “Head threatening. Will not tackle Martineau to-day” ; and again: “My head is possessed with my study of Martineau. Had a moment's realizing sense this morning of the universe as created and constantly re-created by the thought of the will of God. The phrase is common enough: the thought, vast beyond human conception.” [162]

When her head was clear; she studied the great theologian eagerly, copying many passages for more complete assimilation.

September brought “alarums and excursions.” “Awoke and sprang at once into the worry saddle.”

Another Congress was coming, another “A. A.W.” paper to be written, beside an opening address for the Mechanics' Fair, and “1500 words for Bok,” on some aspect of the American woman.

She went to Boston for the opening of the Mechanics' Fair, and sat beside Phillips Brooks in the great hall. “They will not hear us!” she said. “No,” replied Brooks. “This is the place where little children are seen and not heard.”

Mayor Hart backed up the Tariff while I praised Free Trade. My text was two words of God: ‘Use and Beauty.’ My brief address was written carefully though hastily.”

There was no neighborly electric road in Rhode Island in those days, and the comings and goings were fatiguing.

“A hard day.... The rain was pitiless, and I in my best clothes, and without rubbers. Embraced a chance of driving to the Perry House, where ... it was cold and dark. I found a disconsolate couple from Schenectady who had come to Newport for a day's pleasuring. Did my best to entertain them, walking about the while to keep warm.”

She got home finally, and the day ends with her ordering a warm mash for the horse.

This horse, Ha'pence, a good and faithful beast, [163] ran a great danger this summer. The coachman, leaving in dudgeon, poisoned the oats with Paris green, a diabolical act which the Journal chronicles with indignation. Fortunately the deed was discovered in time.

She was always thoughtful of animals. During the reign at 241 Beacon Street of the little fox-terrier Patch, it often fell to her lot to take him out to walk, and she felt this a grave responsibility.

One day Patch ran away on Beacon Street, and would not come back when she called him. At this instant Dr. Holmes, passing, paused for a friendly greeting.

Mrs. Howe,” he said, “I trust this fine morning--”

Catch the dog!” cried Mrs. Howe. One author flew one way, one the other; between the two Patch was caught and brought in triumph home.

One dog story recalls another. She was in the North Station one day, about to start for Gardiner, as was also the setter Diana, crated and very unhappy.

“Here, Auntie!” said the baggage-master; “you set here and be company for the dog, and I'll get your check!”

She complied meekly, and was found somewhat later by her escort, “being company” for a much-comforted Diana.

1 Song Album. Published by G. Schirmer & Co.

2 Henry Marion Howe.

3 The Reverend Antoinette Blackwell.

4 Ralph Adams Cram, architect and littrateur.

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