Rowland Robinson

WHEN a personality as strong, as vivid, as unique and picturesque as that of the creator of Uncle ’Lisha, Sam Lovel, Antoine, and Gran’ther Hill passes beyond our sight into the undiscovered country, it is surely fitting that something should be said of him in the columns of the monthly that has given to the world Gran’ther Hill’s Patridge, Out of Bondage, A Voyage in the Dark, and other stories and essays that will not soon be forgotten. The many readers of Danvis Folks, Uncle ’Lisha’s Outing, Sam Lovel’s Camps, and In New England Fields and Woods hold something in memory for which they may well be grateful.

Rowland Robinson was born in Ferrisburg, Vermont, May 14, 1833. He died there, October 15, 1900, in the very room in which he was born. This is in itself a distinction, for it falls to the lot of very few of our migratory race to live a long life and, at the end, to draw the last breath under the same roof.

His grandfather came to Vermont from Newport, Rhode Island, in 1791, and a few years later bought a farm in Ferrisburg, four miles north of the thriving little city of Vergennes. Here he built a small, unpretentious house, which is now only an adjunct of the larger building erected in 1812.

Mr. Robinson’s mother was Rachel Gilpin, granddaughter of George Gilpin, of Alexandria, Virginia, who, although a stanch Quaker, was colonel of the celebrated Fairfax militia in the war of the Revolution, aide to General Washington, and one of the pallbearers at his funeral. In this connection, it is interesting to know that the two “ beautiful Quaker sisters ” alluded to by Colonel T. W. Higginson in his charming Oldport Days were great-aunts of Mr. Robinson.

The families on both the paternal and maternal sides were Quakers, richly endowed with the quiet strength and lofty conscientiousness to be looked for in that sect. Mr. Robinson’s father was an active worker in the anti-slavery cause, and a warm friend of Garrison, May, Johnson, and other noted abolitionists. They always found a welcome in his house, which, being so near to the Canadian line, was, it is almost needless to say, a convenient and secret station of the Underground Railroad. He was a ready and forcible writer, and his pen was often emjdoyed in the service of the cause that was so near his heart.

So much for the forbears of Mr. Robinson. Now for himself. His early training was that of the average country boy sixty years ago. He attended the district school, taught in winter by college students, generally from Burlington or Middlebury ; and in summer by a succession of schoolmistresses, young girls, for the most part, who did their best to drill the unruly urchins in the rudiments of the three R’s. When he grew older, he went to the Ferrisburg Academy for a while; but he says of himself that he was an unwilling scholar, and did not make the most of even such small opportunities as he had. He was, however, a persistent and omnivorous reader ; and as his father’s house was well supplied with books, he made amends for lack of study by reading over and over again, with ever increasing delight, the Waverley novels, The Lady of the Lake and Marmion, histories galore, and many books of travel and adventure. And he had, moreover, spread out before his keenly observant eyes the vast domain of nature : its mountain fastnesses, its wide forests, its pure streams and silver lakes ; the world of bird and beast and fish, of tree and shrub, fern and wild flower, — of all which he was to become in later years so true an interpreter.

From his mother he had inherited an artistic temperament; and, as he approached manhood, there is little doubt that he shrank somewhat from the more prosaic details of farm life. At all events he fled from the farm to New York, where he soon found employment as draughtsman and wood engraver. From 1866 to 1873 a large number of his drawings appeared in the columns of Harper’s, Frank Leslie’s, and other illustrated periodicals. But this was all experimental, tentative, and not oversuccessful. In 1873 he gladly returned to the home of his boyhood.

Meanwhile he had married Anna Stevens, — a lovely girl then, a charming woman now, — of great executive ability, and much talent in the direction of both art and literature. She was his encourager and inspirer ; and, urged by her, he wrote and illustrated Fox Hunting in New England, and offered it to Scribner’s Magazine. Somewhat to his surprise, the article was accepted; and it was followed by others in Scribner’s, The Century, Harper’s, Lippincott’s, and The Atlantic.

In 1888 a series of sketches written for Forest and Stream was published in book form, under the title of Uncle ’Lisha’s Shop. Another of like character, Sam Lovel’s Camps, appeared in 1890, followed by Danvis Folks and Uncle ’Lisha’s Outing, Vermont: A Study of Independence (one of the American Commonwealth Series), In New England Fields and Woods, A Danvis Pioneer, and one or two other books. His last story, Sam Lovel’s Boy, in which Sam teaches his son many a secret of the hunter’s craft, is now in press.

This list of works is a long one, indeed, when one recalls the fact, known to so few of his readers, that all these books, with the exception of Uncle ’Lisha’s Shop, are the work of a blind man. For in 1887 his eyes began to fail him. Gradually, slowly, but steadily, the light grew dimmer and dimmer, then flickered and went out, leaving him in total darkness. When Sam Lovel’s Camps was placed in his hands, he was able to see the faint outline, the size and shape of the book, perhaps, but that was all.

While it may be doubted if Mr. Robinson was ever a very enthusiastic farmer, he was too sane and prudent to neglect his farm. The two things that especially interested him were his fine orchard and his butter-making. Of his skill in the latter, and of the pencil sketches, rhymes, and caricatures with which he was wont to adorn the covers of his butter tubs, many amusing stories are told. It was a gala day with New York and Boston dealers when “ Robinson’s butter ” came in. But all this was before the light went out. After that, though he superintended and gave orders, his real work was done with his pen; or rather, with his pencil. He wrote by means of the grooved board which enabled him to guide and space the lines ; and his loyal wife afterwards revised the manuscript, and prepared it for the press. She was at once his amanuensis, private secretary, friend, and devoted comrade.

Then it was that his ardent love of Nature, his intimate knowledge of her deepest secrets, his admission into her very holy of holies, stood him in good stead. From boyhood he had been a keen sportsman, sharp-eyed, strangely observant, familiar with all the ways of woodland creatures ; reading leaf and flower, moss, lichen, and fungus, the phenomena of the changing seasons, dawn and sunset, moonshine and starbeam, the hoary frost and the dew of summer nights, as one reads from an open book. Few persons ever see as much as did Rowland Robinson. No minutest detail escaped him. He knew the haunts of every wild thing as he knew the path to his own fireside.

His memory was as remarkable as were his powers of observation ; and thus it was that, lying sightless on his bed, to which he was confined for nearly two years before the end came, he was able to portray every varying phase of nature in words so tender, so graphic, so picturesque, so illuminating, that the reader saw as the writer had seen.

But his powers of interpretation were not confined to the outside world alone. He studied human nature as faithfully as he studied the ways of bird and beast, of tree and wild flower. His ear was as keen and unerring as his eye. Let no one suppose that Mr. Robinson’s stories are meant to be actual transcripts of the life of Vermont to-day as it exists even in her mountain towns. They are stories of old Vermont, the Vermont of sixty years ago, and even earlier ; before the railroad had penetrated her fastnesses, or the telegraph brought her into close and vital connection with the outer world. I have heard the question asked, — nay, more, I admit I have asked it myself : “ Did New Englanders ever talk like Sam Lovel and Uncle ’Lisha and Joseph Hill ? ” A friend once said to me : “ I have known Vermont many years, and I never heard any one say ' julluck ’ for ' just like,’ or ‘ seem ’s ’ough,’or ' hayth ’ for ‘ height,’or sundry other queer expressions and pronunciations that Mr. Robinson gives as Yankeeisms.”

Shortly after this I went into my garden, where a man-of-all-work was removing some bulbs.

“ Say, Mis’ Dorr,” he remarked, “don’t them roots look julluck turnups? Seem’s ’ough they did ! ”

Whereupon I concluded it was not a proof of superior wisdom to question Mr. Robinson’s use of Yankee dialect. It is well to believe that his ear was quicker than that of most men, and that he was familiar with every phase of the vernacular in which his men and women speak.

As for Antoine, he is inimitable. No one else has so perfectly caught the queer jargon of the French “ Canuck ” when trying to wrestle with the vagaries of the English tongue.

Mr. Robinson makes no attempt to depict the life of cities, towns, or even large villages. His characters, which reappear in most of his stories, live and breathe in secluded mountain hamlets, to the life of which he is absolutely true. Once in a while, as when the dignified and elegant lawyer of whom Antoine asserts, “ He was be de biggest l’yer in Vairgenne; he goin’ be judge, prob’ly gov’ner, mebby,” goes hunting up the Slang, electrifying Sam at once by his skill as a sportsman and by the beautiful gun that was such a contrast to his own heavy rifle, we get a glimpse of another world. But it is only momentary, and in an instant we are back again with the simple, kindly, rural folk who dominate the stage. There are not many of them left now. The tide of progress has swept away the old landmarks. Uncle ’Lisha’s Shop is a thing of the past. Yet even now one who, with observant eye and ear, wanders up and down New England will still find proof that Mr. Robinson is true to the life of old New England.

Perhaps one charm of these stories lies in the fact that they are written so sympathetically. Mr. Robinson never condescends, or apologizes, or pities. It never occurs to him that there is any need of doing either. He values his men and women for their own sakes and for what they are. If they are queer and quaint, so much the better for the artist, and the picture he would paint. Their strange expletives, and even their occasional mild profanities, are by no means coarse or irreligious. They swear from force of habit, with no more idea of breaking the third commandment than a baby has when it says, “ Now I lay me.”

To turn from what he wrote to what he was is a pleasing task, for the man was greater than his books. In person Mr. Robinson was strikingly like the late Francis H. Underwood, so well known to many readers of The Atlantic: tall, well built, with a ruddy color that he kept almost to the last. His eyes were blue. His hair and his patriarchal beard had been snow-white for many years, but in his younger days they were a rich reddish, or golden, brown. Entirely unassuming, with faith in his own powers, yet with seemingly very little idea that they were recognized by others, he was the most modest of men. A few years ago a club in a Vermont town dramatized Danvis Folks, after a fashion, for the benefit of a local charity, and put it on the stage. The author was invited to be present on the opening night, and he accepted. As he entered the crowded hall, guided by a friend on either hand, the audience, recognizing him, broke into loud applause. He paid no attention to it, but quietly felt his way to the chair assigned to him. As he seated himself, he said, with a smile : “ They seem to be in very good spirits here. Whom are they applauding now ? ”

“ Why, Mr. Robinson, they are applauding you ! ” was the reply. “ Don’t you know that you are the hero of this occasion ? ” And he sank back in his chair with an air of bewilderment and surprise that was unmistakable. That he should be applauded had never entered his brain.

The legislature of his native state was in session when he died, and in joint assembly passed most appreciative resolutions of regret and condolence. Mrs. Robinson’s comment thereon, as I sat by her side a few days ago, was characteristic of both herself and her husband.

“ Oh,” she said, “ if Rowland had been told that the legislature of Vermont would take any notice of his death, he would not have believed it. He did not think people cared much for him.”

This was due in part, no doubt, to his isolation. He knew very few “literary people,” so called. He had little or no intercourse with his peers. It has been said that reputations are made at dinner tables. If this be true, as it certainly is in a measure, the man fights against great odds who, from environment or force of circumstances, is almost completely shut out — set apart, as it were — from the great body of his fellow workers in the field of letters.

Let us glance at the home of this brave and lonely craftsman. The Robinson homestead — a large, square, gray farmhouse, having the broad porch, with high railing and bracketed seats on either side, that is almost invariably to be found in mansions of that date — stands twenty or thirty rods back from the road, on a slight, rocky elevation. It is approached by a fine avenue of elms, the entrance to which is marked by groups of stately Lombardy poplars. On either side are other groups, — locusts, maples, and beeches. On the October day when I first saw the place, the greensward was thickly strewn with the crimson and gold of the falling leaves. Over the wall, at the right, a few white sheep were cropping the short grass among the gray ledges of the pasture. The outlook is one of unusual beauty. On the east is the lovely Champlain Valley, stretching away in broad reaches, above which soar the Green Mountains, with Mount Mansfield and Camel’s Hump in the distance. On the west, past green, fertile meadows and rolling pastures, lie the clear waters of Lake Champlain, of which glimpses may be caught here and there through the thick fringe of pine and hemlock. And farther still beyond the lake rise the mighty Adirondacks, range on range, tier above tier, until their heads are lost in the clouds.

But on that October day it was not of the house, nor of its surroundings, that I thought. Its master lay prone and helpless somewhere within its walls, and it was he whom I sought. I was ushered first into the living room, on the right of the hall of entrance, and from there, through the great old-fashioned kitchen and a short passageway, into what has always been known as the “ East Room.” There, incurably ill of a wasting disease, and blind to all the beauty of the autumnal day, lay Rowland Robinson, with a smile on his lips, and all the implements of his craft about him, — the grooved board, the pencil, and a great pile of manuscript. But as I sat in the flood of sunshine by his bedside, and listened to his eager talk of this and that, I felt again, as I had felt at other times, that it was impossible to realize that he was a blind man. His eyes were bright, seeming to seek mine as he talked, their blue depths giving not the slightest hint that they were sightless. He spoke of “ seeing ” things ; he called my attention to the dish of fine pears on the table ; he was as alert and interested in the life around him as if he had had a dozen pairs of eyes.

“ Do you never leave your bed, Mr. Robinson ? ” I asked.

“ Not often,” he answered. “ But I wanted to see the procession go by on Dewey day, and they managed to wheel me out on the porch for a little while. It was very interesting.”

Not a complaint, not a murmur, not a suggestion of repining, — nothing but splendid courage, patient hopefulness, tender regard for others, and a determination to work to the last.

The old house is in itself most interesting. Antique furniture meets the eye in every room. There is a queer old grand piano that was brought from Vienna by a member of the family early in the century, and that has been voiceless and tuneless for at least one generation. There is a chair that Washington and Lafayette must often have seen, even if it cannot be proved that they ever reposed in its ample depths; for it had an honored place in the parlor of a house in which they were often guests. There are old tables that have histories, and blue Delft ware and bits of china antedating the Revolution. Over the piano hangs a full-length portrait of its former owner, — the work of an Austrian artist, — a dark-haired lady in a crimson velvet gown, with a little boy at her feet who is playing with an American flag. There are other old family portraits, and one of Mr. Robinson himself, painted by his daughter. There are Indian relics, and trophies of the chase, hunting implements, and above all books, — books everywhere, overflowing the cases and finding lodgment wherever they can. Some of them are exceedingly rare, — heirlooms in the shape of old doctrinal works relating to the Friends, which were hidden away in the far-off days when it was against the law of New England to possess them, and brought to light again when the persecutions were over.

In the old kitchen, which is the main part of the first building, the doorlatches are of hard wood, whittled into shape by Mr. Robinson’s grandfather. They are like polished ivory now, with its rare yellowish-brown tint, worn smooth by the touch of many generations.

Here, too, is the secret staircase mentioned in Out of Bondage, narrow, dark, and forbidding, up which many a fugitive slave has glided like a phantom of the gloaming, to find refuge in the chamber above. This chamber was partitioned off from the rest of the house, and to the children of the family was at once a terror and a mystery. Whenever they saw Aunt Eliza surreptitiously conveying plates of food upstairs, they knew there was some one in the chamber whom they were not to see, and of whose presence they were never to speak.

The great kitchen, as " neat as wax,” with an indescribable air of homely comfort and dignity, is also the dining room of the establishment. A long table, about which a small army might gather, stands just where it stood seventy-five years or more ago ; and here the Queen herself would dine, if she had the honor of being admitted to the hospitality of the house. At one end the family and their guests; at the other the stalwart Yankee yeomen, who are not servants, but helpers. It is like one of the old stories of a baron and his retainers, — above and below the salt.

On yet another October day I visited the old farmhouse ; but the master had gone thence. The autumn leaves were as bright as ever, the sunshine as brilliant; and still the white sheep huddled among the gray ledges, and the broad landscape stretched to right and left, as beautiful as a dream.

I went again into the East Room, — the room of birth and death. Near the white bed lay the grooved board, with the pencil slipped in between the paper and the board, just as it had been left. I copied the last sentence, written three days before the busy hand was stilled : —

44 The lifting veil disclosed the last flash of blue plumage disappearing in the mist of budding leaves from behind the cloud of smoke that now hid my mark.”

Julia C. R. Dorr.