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Chapter 4: home life: my father

I left school at the age of sixteen, and began thereafter to study in good earnest. Until that time a certain over-romantic and imaginative turn of mind had interfered much with the progress of my studies. I indulged in day-dreams which appeared to me far higher in tone than the humdrum of my school recitations. When these were at an end, I began to feel the necessity of more strenuous application, and at once arranged for myself hours of study, relieved by the practice of vocal and instrumental music.

At this juncture, a much esteemed friend of my father came to pass some months with us. This was Joseph Green Cogswell, founder and principal of Round Hill School, at which my three brothers had been among his pupils. The school, a famous one in its day, was now finally closed. Our new guest was an accomplished linguist, and possessed an admirable power of imparting knowledge. With his aid, I resumed the German studies which I had already begun, but in which I had made but little progress. Under [44] his tuition, I soon found myself able to read with ease the masterpieces of Goethe and Schiller.

Rev. Leonard Woods, son of a well-known pastor of that name, was a familiar guest at my father's house. He took some interest in my studies, and at length proposed that I should become a contributor to the ‘Theological Review,’ of which he was editor at that time. I undertook to furnish a review of Lamartine's ‘Jocelyn,’ which had recently appeared. When I had done my best with this, Dr. Cogswell went over the pages with me very carefully, pointing out defects of style and arrangement. The paper attracted a good deal of attention, and some comments on it gave occasion to the admonition which my dear uncle thought fit to administer to me, as already mentioned.

The house of my young ladyhood (I use this term, as it was the one in use at the time of which I write) was situated at the corner of Bond Street and Broadway. When my father built it, the fashion of the city had not proceeded so far up town. The model of the house was a noble one. Three spacious rooms and a small study occupied the first floor. These were furnished with curtains of blue, yellow, and red silk. The red room was that in which we took our meals. The blue room was the one in which we received visits, and passed the evenings. The [45] yellow room was thrown open only on high occasions, but my desk and grand piano were placed in it, and I was allowed to occupy it at will. This and the blue room were adorned by beautiful sculptured mantelpieces, the work of Thomas Crawford, afterwards known as a sculptor of great merit. Many years after this time he became the husband of the sister next me in age, and the father of F. Marion Crawford, the now celebrated novelist.

Our family was patriarchal in its dimensions, including my aunt and uncle Francis, whose children were all born in my father's house, and were very dear to him. My maternal grandmother also passed much time with us. My two younger brothers, Henry and Marion, were at home with us after a term of years at Round Hill School. My eldest brother, Samuel (afterwards the Sam. Ward of the Lobby), a most accomplished and agreeable young man, had recently returned from Europe, bringing with him a fine library. My father, having already added to his large house a spacious art gallery, now built a study, whose walls were entirely occupied by my brother's books. I had free access to these, and did not neglect to profit by it.

From what I have just said, it may rightly be inferred that my father was a man of fine tastes, inclined to generous and even lavish expenditure. [46] He desired to give us the best educational opportunities, the best and most expensive masters. He filled his art gallery with the finest pictures that money could command in the New York of that day. He gave largely to public undertakings, was one of the founders of the New York University, and was one of the foremost promoters of church building in the then distant West. He demurred only at expenses connected with dress and fashionable entertainment, for he always disliked and distrusted the great world. My dear eldest brother held many arguments with him on this theme. He saw, as we did, that our father was disposed to ignore the value of ordinary social intercourse. On one occasion the dispute between them became quite animated.

‘Sir,’ said my brother, ‘you do not keep in view the importance of the social tie.’

‘The social what?’ asked my father. ‘The social tie, sir.’

‘I make small account of that,’ said the elder gentleman.

‘I will die in defense of it!’ impetuously rejoined the younger. My father was so much amused at this sally that he spoke of it to an intimate friend: ‘He will die in defense of the social tie, indeed!’

Our way of living was simple. The table was abundant, but not with the richest food. For [47] many years, as I have said, no alcoholic stimulant appeared on it. My father gave away by dozens the bottles of costly wine stored in his cellar, but neither tasted their contents nor allowed us to do so. He was for a great part of his life a martyr to rheumatic gout, and a witty friend of his once said: ‘Ward, it must be the poor man's gout that you have, as you drink only water.’

We breakfasted at eight in winter, at half past 7 in summer. My father read prayers before breakfast and before bedtime. If my brothers lingered over the morning meal, he would come in, hatted and booted for the day, and would say: ‘Young gentlemen, I am glad that you can afford to take life so easily. I am old and must work for my living,’ a speech which usually broke up our morning coterie. Dinner was served at four o'clock, a light lunch abbreviating the fast for those at home. At half past 7 we sat down to tea, a meal of which toast, preserves, and cake formed the staple. In the evening we usually sat together with books and needlework, often with an interlude of music. An occasional lecture, concert, or evening party varied this routine. My brothers went much into fashionable society, but my own participation in its doings came only after my father's death, and after the two years mourning which, according to the usage of those days, followed it. [48]

My father retained the Puritan feeling with regard to Saturday evening. He would remark that it was not a proper evening for company, regarding it as a time of preparation for the exercises of the day following, the order of which was very strict. We were indeed indulged on Sunday morning with coffee and muffins at breakfast, but, besides the morning and afternoon services at church, we young folks were expected to attend the two meetings of the Sunday-school. We were supposed to read only Sunday books, and I must here acknowledge my indebtedness to Mrs. Sherwood, an English writer now almost forgotten, whose religious stories and romances were supposed to come under this head. In the evening, we sang hymns, and sometimes received a quiet visitor.

My readers, if I have any, may ask whether this restricted routine satisfied my mind, and whether I was at all sensible of the privileges which I really enjoyed, or ought to have enjoyed. I must answer that, after my school-days, I greatly coveted an enlargement of intercourse with the world. I did not desire to be counted among ‘fashionables,’ but I did aspire to much greater freedom of association than was allowed me. I lived, indeed, much in my books, and my sphere of thought was a good deal enlarged by the foreign literatures, German, French, and Italian, [49] with which I became familiar. Yet I seemed to myself like a young damsel of olden time, shut up within an enchanted castle. And I must say that my dear father, with all his noble generosity and overweening affection, sometimes appeared to me as my jailer.

My brother's return from Europe and subsequent marriage opened the door a little for me. It was through his intervention that Mr. Longfellow first visited us, to become a valued and lasting friend. Through him in turn we became acquainted with Professor Felton, Charles Sumner, and Dr. Howe. My brother was very fond of music, of which he had heard the best in Paris and in Germany. He often arranged musical parties at our house, at which trios of Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert were given. His wit, social talent, and literary taste opened a new world to me, and enabled me to share some of the best results of his long residence in Europe.

My father's jealous care of us was by no means the result of a disposition tending to social exclusiveness. It proceeded, on the contrary, from an over-anxiety as to the moral and religious influences to which his children might become subjected. His ideas of propriety were very strict. He was, moreover, not only a strenuous Protestant, but also an ardent ‘Evangelical,’ or Low Churchman, holding the Calvinistic views [50] which then characterized that portion of the American Episcopal church. I remember that he once spoke to me of the anguish he had felt at the death of his own father, of the orthodoxy of whose religious opinions he had had no sufficient assurance. My grandfather, indeed, was supposed, in the family, to be of a rather skeptical and philosophizing turn of mind. He fell a victim to the first visitation of the cholera in 1832.

Despite a certain austerity of character, my father was much beloved and honored in the business world. He did much to give to the firm of Prime, Ward and King the high position which it attained and retained during his lifetime. He told me once that when he first entered the office, he found it, like many others, a place where gossip circulated freely. He determined to put an end to this, and did so. Among the foreign correspondents of his firm were the Barings of London, and Hottinguer et Cie of Paris.

In the great financial troubles which followed Andrew Jackson's refusal to renew the charter of the Bank of the United States, several States became bankrupt, and repudiated the obligations incurred by their bonds, to the great indignation of business people in both hemispheres. The State of New York was at one time on the verge of pursuing this course, which my father strenuously opposed. He called meeting after meeting, [51] and was unwearied in his efforts to induce the financiers of the State to hold out. When this appeared well-nigh impossible, he undertook that his firm should negotiate with English correspondents a loan to carry the State over the period of doubt and difficulty. This he was able to effect. My eldest brother came home one day and said to me:—

‘As I walked up from Wall Street to-day, I saw a dray loaded with kegs on which were inscribed the letters, “P. W. & K.” Those kegs contained the gold just sent to the firm from England to help our State through this crisis.’

My father once gave me some account of his early experiences in Wall Street. He had been sent, almost a boy, to New York, to try his fortune. His connection with Block Island families through his grandmother, Catharine Ray Greene, had probably aided in securing for him a clerk's place in the banking house of Prime and Sands, afterwards Prime, Ward and King. He soon ascertained that the Spanish dollars brought to the port by foreign trading vessels could be sold in Wall Street at a profit. He accordingly employed his leisure hours in the purchase of these coins, which he carried to Wall Street and there sold. This was the beginning of his fortune.

A work published a score or more of years since, entitled ‘The Merchant Princes of Wall [52] Street,’ concluded some account of my father by the statement that he died without fortune. This was far from true. His death came indeed at a very critical moment, when, having made extensive investments in real estate, his skill was requisite to carry this extremely valuable property over a time of great financial disturbance. His brother, our uncle, who became the guardian of our interests, was familiar with the stock market, but little versed in real estate transactions. By untimely sales, much of my father's valuable estate was scattered; yet it gave to each of his six children a fair inheritance for that time; for the millionaire fever did not break out until long afterwards.

The death of this dear and noble parent took place when I was a little more than twenty years of age. Six months later I attained the period of legal responsibility, but before this a new sense of the import of life had begun to alter the current of my thoughts. With my father's death came to me a sense of my want of appreciation of his great kindness, and of my ingratitude for the many comforts and advantages which his affection had secured to me. He had given me the most delightful home, the most careful training, the best masters and books. He had even, as I have said, built a picture gallery for my especial instruction and enjoyment. All this I had taken, as a matter [53] of course, and as my natural right. He had done his best to keep me out of frivolous society, and had been extremely strict about the visits of young men to the house. Once, when I expostulated with him upon these points, he told me that he had early recognized in me a temperament and imagination over-sensitive to impressions from without, and that his wish had been to guard me from exciting influences until I should appear to him fully able to guard and guide myself. It was hardly to be expected that a girl in her teens, or just out of them, should acquiesce in this restrictive guardianship, tender and benevolent as was its intention. My little acts of rebellion were met with some severity, but I now recall my father's admonitions as

Soft rebukes with blessings ended.

I cannot, even now, bear to dwell upon the desolate hush which fell upon our house when its stately head lay, silent and cold, in the midst of weeping friends and children. Six of us were made orphans, three sons and three daughters. We had had our little disagreements and dissensions, but the blow which now fell upon us drew us together with the bond of a common sorrow. My eldest brother had recently gone to reside in a house of his own. The second one, Henry by name, became at this time my great intimate. He was a high-strung youth, very chivalrous in [54] disposition, full of fun and humor, but with a deep vein of thought. He was already betrothed to one whom I held dear, and I looked forward to many years brightened by his happiness, but alas an attack of typhoid fever took him from us in the bloom of his youth. I was with him day and night during his illness, and when he closed his eyes, I would gladly, oh, so gladly, have died with him! The great anguish of this loss told heavily upon me, and I remember the time as one without light or comfort. I sought these indeed. A great religious revival was going on in New York, and a zealous young friend persuaded me to attend some of the meetings held in a neighboring church. I had never taken very seriously the doctrines of the religious body in which I had been reared. They now came home to me with terrible force, and a season of depression and melancholy followed, during which I remained in a measure cut off from the wholesome influences which reconcile us to life, even when it must be embittered by a sense of irreparable loss.

At the time of my father's death, my dear bachelor uncle John, already mentioned, left his own house and came to live with us. When our paternal mansion was sold, some years later, he removed with us to the house of my eldest brother, who was already a widower. After my marriage my uncle again occupied a house of his own, in [55] which for many years he made us all at home, even with our later incumbrances of children and nurses. He was, in short, the best and kindest of uncles. In business he was more adventurous than his rather deliberate manner would have led one to suppose. It was said that, in the course of his life, he had made and lost several fortunes. In the end he left a very fair estate, which was divided among the several sets of his nieces and nephews.

Long before this he had become one of the worthies of Wall Street, and was universally spoken of as ‘Uncle John.’ Shortly after his retirement from active business, the Board of Brokers of New York requested him to sit to A. H. Wenzler for a portrait, to be hung in their place of meeting. The portrait was executed with entire success. I ought to mention in this connection that the directors of the New York Bank of Commerce, of which my father was the founder and first president, ordered a portrait of him from the well-known artist, Huntington.

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1832 AD (1)
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