CARLYLE once exclaimed, “On all sides, are we not driven to the conclusion that, of the things which man can do or make here below, by far the most momentous, wonderful, and worthy are the things we call Books ! Those poor bits of rag-paper with black ink on them ; — from the Daily Newspaper to the sacred Hebrew Book, what have they not done, what are they not doing!”
To most of us books are so wonted; at one and the same time they are the most utter necessities and the most splendid and lavishly bestowed luxuries of daily living. We have access to so many more books than we need or can possibly use, that to the bewildering greatness of our riches a new volume is often an embarrassment, however “momentous, wonderful, and worthy.” With difficulty are we able to appreciate a poverty, an actual famine of those good things with which we are surfeited, “the things we call Books.”
One summer I went to a somewhat isolated town of small size, taking with me all of my own extremely limited but most treasured library. I was unpacking it one afternoon, when a friendly neighbor called. ”I have just been arranging my books,” I happened to say casually.
“Books! ” cried my visitor. “Have you brought some books ? May I, oh may I see them ? ”
Like other personal collections they were widely various. Mr. Stedman’s Victorian Poets, in sober indigo, stood beside the Essays of Elia, in white besprinkled with blue forget-me-nots, — a little girl’s Christmas present. A lavender and silver volume of Drummond’s Addresses leaned lightly against the Lincoln green of Le Morte D’Arthur; Vanity Fair was not far from Emerson’s Poems, while a prompt book of Tennyson’s Becket and a table of logarithms were together. My cherished volumes seemed indeed a “motley crew.”
The joy of my neighbor was increased by their very diverseness. She seized upon them eagerly, one by one, and rapturously examined their title-pages. “Nobody in town has Trilby,” she exclaimed, “and we have been so anxious to read it; we have seen reviews of it! And Burke on the Sublime and the Beautiful! — I have always wanted to read that; and the only person in the place who has it doesn’t like to lend his books,”—her face suddenly fell. “Perhaps you don’t, either,” she added tentatively. “There are so few books in our town,” she continued, “that even one new one is a blessing, and is passed around and around. And the very sight of a lot of unexpected new ones like these makes a person forget her manners. Maybe you don’t lend your books, though. ” She glanced at me in half apology; she gazed at my books with complete longing. A person averse to lending a morning paper would instantly have been melted by that look to the point of proffering a first edition.
“ But I do lend my books, ” I said; “ always and often; you may borrow any of them, and you may lend them to any one else in town.”
She took me at my word. Trilby I did not see for several months; it journeyed from house to house ; no time was wasted in periodically returning it to me; friends and neighbors passed it on, until, as one of them told me, “every one had read it.” Then it came home, travel-stained and older, but all the more valuable to me for additional associations. Treasure Island, I finally presented to a family of boys who seemed unable to part with it. A volume of Emerson’s Essays attached itself permanently to another group; and not until a tardily obtained new copy had grown familiarly penciled and faded did I cease to feel lonely for the volume of Edward Rowland Sill’s Poems that never returned. Was it not Thoreau who, when his Homer was transplanted without the formality of his consent to another’s library, said that the Iliad and the Odyssey belonged to every man, and therefore to any man?
The happiness of my first caller in that small town over a few score books, apparently unrelated, I never quite forgot, — her keen enjoyment; her delicious hesitations as to whether she should read Trilby first, or Burke on the Sublime and the Beautiful, or Colombe’s Birthday; her delight as she looked for the first time at the Hugh Thomson pictures in a quaint edition of Cranford. She aroused an interest that I do not expect ever to lose in those persons who are not surrounded by bookshelves ; who have not dwelt among libraries; in those persons especially and chiefly who have not " heard great argument about it and about. ”
In the city tenements I have met so many of them ; and incidentally, sometimes almost accidentally, they have told me what they have read, and why they have read. They do not read books about books, nor do they read them for that “mystic, wonderful” thing, their style. They never “hold up their hands in ecstasy and awe over an innocent phrase; ” and they would stare inquiringly at a person who might invite them to join “a band of esoteric joy.” To them a book is great or small according to what it says, not to the way it says it. They may admire the felicity of the saying; frequently they do; but their admiration does not in the slightest degree color their view of the saying itself. A spade, they would seem to argue, is always — to quote Cleg Kelly— “juist only” a spade, no matter how gracefully and exquisitely it may be otherwise called.
Not very long ago I was calling on one of my friends in the tenements. Observing her interested glances toward Mr. Oliver Herford’s Primer of Natural History which I chanced to have with me, I asked her if she cared to look at it more closely. She opened it at random, and meditatively, musingly, read aloud: —
AN ARCTIC HARE.
The hair, you will ob-serve, is white ;
But if you think the Hare is old,
You will be ver-y far from right.
The Hare is young, and yet the hair
Grew white in but a sin-gle night.
Why then it must have been a scare
That turned this Hare. No ; ’t was not fright
(Al-though such cases are well known) ;
I fear that once a-gain you ’re wrong.
Know then, that in the Arc-tic Zone
A sin-gle night is six months long.
“ What do you think of it? ” I asked as she finished the rhyme and silently turned the page.
“I think it ’s nonsense,” she replied briefly; “I should n’t have s’posed people ud read anything so silly. Why do they ? ”
“It is written so delightfully,” I explained.
“What dif’rence does that make? ” she said in puzzled surprise. To her, certainly, it made none whatever.
This woman was one of the first persons in the tenement district to speak to me about books and her reading of them. One Christmas I gave her little girl a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The next time I met the mother I inquired as to whether the child had been interested in the stories. “Yes, she was that! ” was the reply. “She got a lot o’ pleasure outer that book, — an’, ” she added, with a shy smile, “so did I.”
“ I suppose you read it to her, ” I said.
“No,” answered the woman, “I did n’t; I read it to myself after she was in bed, — which was the only time I got a chance at it, so took up was she readin’ it herself. Maybe it was silly, ” she continued, “but I did enjoy them stories ! One night I felt awful discouraged an’ kinder blue; an’ X read some of ’em, ’bout kings an’ princesses, with ev’rything so gorgeous, an’ they sorter sparkled up my feelin’s till I felt real heartened up.” As she concluded, she looked at me a trifle anxiously, wondering whether I understood.
The next week I gave her The Talisman, and one day, The Scottish Chiefs ; and then Kenilworth; and I lent her The Prisoner of Zenda and The Pride of Jennico. She read them all with the keenest joy. “If I’d knowed, ” she said one night, “what a ’mount o’ pleasure, an’, more still, real comfort, books has, I ’d er took to readin’ ’em long before I did.”
Since she has taken to reading them, not a few have found their way to her dingy tenement. Most of them have been “about kings and princesses, with everything so gorgeous.” Some one advised me once to offer her something less highly colored, but I did not. She supports her drunken husband and her children; her daily work is the scrubbing of public stairways. Surely she is entitled to long evenings of fairy tales; not all the romances in all our libraries can give her picture of the world too bright a tint.
She came sometimes to the college settlement in which I was especially interested, and we spent delightful hours discussing the relative charms of Helen Mar and the Princess Flavia, and the comparative prowess of Richard Cœur de Lion and Basil Jennico. One evening she noticed a copy of Ibsen’s Ghosts lying on the table, and, impelled no doubt by the weird title, she wished to borrow it. “You would n’t find it particularly attractive, ” I said; but she continued to regard it with fascinated eyes; and remembering the allurement of the thing denied, I reluctantly gave it to her.
In less than a day she returned the book. “What did you think of it? ” I inquired.
“Well,” she replied thoughtfully, “I don’t know. I didn’t read it all. I read the first part, an’ it was that gloomy! Then I read the last, an’ it was gloomy too, — so I did n’t read no more. I don’t mind books to begin gloomy, if they end all right. But what ’s the use readin’ things that begin gloomy an’ end gloomy too ? They don’t help you, —an’ you can’t enjoy ’em.”
This was her criticism of Henrik Ibsen’s dramas. She had read not more than half of one of them ; but have not other critics who have read all of all of them expressed a somewhat similar opinion ?
The majority of the workers of the settlement during one summer were persons possessed of a consuming enthusiasm for the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. They read it, and memorized and quoted it, and left volumes of it scattered about in every part of the house. In the course of a very short time, some of the people of the neighborhood who were friends of the workers acquired the prevailing taste.
Several of the girls whom I knew became extremely interested, and by degrees genuinely enthusiastic. “It’s so different from other poetry, ” one girl said to me as she returned my copy of Seven Seas after having read aloud the Hymn before Action, of which she never tired. This same girl memorized L’Envoi, and repeated it with such beauty of expression and depth of feeling that visitors, having once heard, remembered so well that coming again to the settlement many months later, they eagerly asked for “the girl who recites L’Envoi.”
Another girl was captivated by Our Bobs. She learned the poem, and often repeated it, and imperceptibly she came to have a fervent admiration for Lord Roberts. Her delivery of the stanzas was delightful; she was of Hungarian birth and tradition, hut she said Our Bobs with a convincing warmth, most especially these lines: —
Little Bobs, Bobs, Bobs!
Pocket-Wellin’ton and ’arder —
Fightin’ Bobs, Bobs, Bohs!
This ain’t no bloomin’ ode,
But you ’ve ’elped the soldier’s load,
An’ for benefits bestowed,
Bless yer, Bobs! ”
One night an Englishman happened to be among our guests at a settlement festivity, and his astonishment at the foreign girl’s rendering was evident. “Kipling,” he exclaimed, “and Lord Roberts; and she isn’t English! ” He was not speaking to the girl, but she overheard. “ You don’t have to be English to appreciate Lord Roberts and like Kipling, ” she explained simply.
One of my particular friends, a Polish girl, was attracted by only one of all Kipling’s poems ; and that one, The Last Rhyme of True Thomas, she loved. It seemed always to be present with her.
Going to see her once, after she had been in the country, I asked, “Were you in a pleasant place?” She smiled: “It wass like the place in the poem.”
“The poem? ”
“Yes; don’t you remember? —
’T wass open field and running flood.’”
Very recently she called to see me, just in time to hear another caller vehemently express her views regarding the newly bestowed English titles. The Polish girl listened with the greatest interest.
“Who iss Beerbohm Tree?” she questioned when we were alone. I told her, and after a moment’s reflection she said, “If he iss great, what doess it matter? He iss like True Thomas; he doess not need to be made a Knight, he already iss one.”
Most of the girls did not care for the Barrack-Room Ballads. The girl who recited L’Envoi said that she thought they were not real poetry. To her the most real of Kipling’s verse was this one stanza:—
I lift the cloth that cloaks the clay,
And wearied, at Thy feet I lay
My wares ere I go forth to sell.
The long bazaar will praise, — but Thou —
Heart of my heart, have I done well ? ”
“Why do you like it? ” I asked her. “Because it makes me want to do my work well,” she replied. Is not this why we all like it ?
Two boys whom I met at the settlement read Kipling. One of them delighted in The ’Eathen; but his favorite ballad he mentioned quite by chance. “Whenever I go to the beach, I always say over a poem that begins ' Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean,’" a girl said one evening when he was present.
' Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea! ’ ”
another girl confided.
The boy appeared interested, but he was silent. “ Do you say either of those poems when you are at the seashore ? ” I asked.
“No,” he replied, “I don’t; but there is some poetry I always think of. It commences like this: —
So sof’, so bright, so bloomin’ blue; ’
I like it better than them other two ocean poems. It ’s so friendly-like with everything.”
The other boy, who was a Pole, came to see me one afternoon when I was rejoicing in an exquisite edition of the Recessional which one of my friends had just given me. My pleasure in it aroused his interest, and I read it to him, and together we admired the illustrations. “Will you lend it to me? ” he asked; “I ’d like to learn it.”
He came the next week to return the book, which he had carefully protected with a cover made of a Hebrew newspaper.
“Kipling, did he ever write anything else? ” were almost his first words. I lent him another volume, and in the months that followed he read many of Kipling’s poems. He said very little about them; and it was in the most striking way that I discovered how deeply he had been impressed.
The night after President McKinley’s assassination, I was belated in the tenement district, and in rather a dark alley through which I was going in order to gain time, I met my Polish boy friend; he silently left his companions and accompanied me. “A terrible thing has happened to our country, ” I said presently.
“Ah, yes,” said the boy in a low voice. “All day,” he continued, “a piece of the poem in your little red book goes over and over in my head ” —
The Captains and the Kings depart! ’ ” —
He interrupted. “Ah no, not that! ” he said sadly. “ You can think of that, but not I! The man who did this thing, he iss a Pole, and I, I am a Pole ! And it hurts me hard. This piece iss what cries in my head: —
In reeking tube and iron shard —
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord ! ’ ”
He was a young boy, but he repeated the lines with a passionate fervor; they voiced the most intense feeling he had ever had, the feeling of kinship with his own people, even in their shame.
I had a very lovely experience once in connection with one of Kipling’s most familiar poems. A woman living in a tenement attic, whom I had known for several years, asked me if I knew any “friendship verses,” meaning rhymes such as she had read in an autograph album in a house in which she had been a servant.
“Yes,” I replied, “and this is my favorite: —
I have drunk your water and wine,
The deaths ye died I have watched beside,
And the lives that ye led were mine.’ ”
She desired me to write it down for her. The next time I called, she requested me somewhat mysteriously to come again on a certain day at a given hour. When I went, I found the table spread with a white cloth which had been a window curtain. The cracked cups and pewter spoons were arranged on it with careful precision, and the teapot was boiling on the stove. “Will ye be havin’ a cup o’ tay wid me? ” she asked, beaming with hospitality.
I was surprised. She had never before invited me to tea. I wondered greatly what had prompted the invitation, but my wonder was not of long duration. As she filled my cup with the rather bitter beverage, my hostess looked at me with gentle, affectionate eyes, and said: “You ’ve knowed whin good things happened to me, an’ sorrows. You was glad whin me baby was born, an’ you stayed by whin me boy died.
But ye ain’t never eat anything wid me, — an’ I want you ter now.”
Nothing more beautiful than this has ever happened to me; nor, I am sure, to any one else.
A book which created much discussion among several of my friends in the tenements was The Christian. Their attention, in every instance, had been drawn to it by the appearance of Miss Viola Allen in the dramatization. Even those who did not see the play heard about it, and saw Miss Allen’s pictures as Glory Quayle. My copy of the book was in constant demand.
It was interesting in the extreme to listen to the various opinions of the story. Usually the reader was in violent sympathy with the hero, and enraged against the heroine; or the reverse. “Poor John Storm, he was so noble and good; and Glory brought so much trouble on him! ” one girl exclaimed.
“John Storm!” dissented another; “I didn’t find him so noble! He wanted his own way too much. I felt sorry for poor Glory ; she had the worse time. ”
Another girl told me that she thought it an unhealthy story. She was a most thoughtful reader of books ; and her verdict of The Christian admits of but slight amendment. “Why do you think it unhealthy ? ” I questioned.
“ Because it is so exaggerated, ” she began.
“That does not necessarily make a book unhealthy, ” I demurred.
“Not when it’s straight,” she said slowly, “but The Christian is twisted; it calls things what they aren’t, and does n’t call them what they are. And then it makes them bigger, — till, altogether, you get so mixed up, you can’t tell one thing from another.” This statement is broad, but is it too broad?
The girl who thus succinctly described The Christian had a less clear-seeing friend, who when I met her was being injured by books which she read because she saw them advertised, or heard them discussed. “I ’ve been reading a book called Red Pottage, ” she began one evening at the settlement. Her manner suggested that she had been advised against tiie novel, and that she expected me to be shocked or astonished to hear that she had read it; to her evident surprise, I merely said, “It is an interesting book.”
“Oh, — do you think so ? ” she cried.
“Didn’t you? ” I returned quietly.
She flushed. “Yes, —oh yes,” she said. The sense of importance in her own daring in reading it forsook her when she found that it did not especially excite my interest.
“And what do you really think of it? ” I asked her seriously.
“I liked Rachel,” she replied. “I thought the way she loved Hugh was beautiful, —and he was bad, too.”
“That was not why she loved him,” I answered to her unspoken thought.
“Wasn’t it? ” the girl exclaimed in amazement.
“No, —don’t you remember? — it was in spite of that.”
The next time I saw her she said without preface, “You were right about Rachel, in Red Pottage; I looked over it again.”
Even though she had, the book had harmed her, and harmed her beyond immediate help. From the power, of books there is no protection; for the great ill done by them there is small remedy. That girl, living in a tenement, needing all the good influences possible or obtainable, had been hurt as only the unsophisticated and uncultured can be hurt by a morbid novel. To the present moment, a mere casual mention of that particular book causes in her an instant self-consciousness.
Vanity Fair opened a new world for one of my settlement friends, who, as she herself said, had never been very fond of reading. “It’s the best book I ever read, ” she declared. “I liked it so much; the man who wrote it did n’t hurry; he took time to tell every little thing, and I enjoyed that. And then, the people in it are so interesting! ”
“ Which of them do you like best ? ” I asked.
“ Becky, ” said the girl; “ she had the most to her. Of course Amelia was good, and Becky was n’t, — but I sorter think Amelia just happened to be good; she didn’t decide to be. Becky would er been a hundred times better than Amelia if she ’d been brought up dif ’ - rent. ”
While she was still absorbed in Vanity Fair, one of my friends gave me Mrs. Fiske’s edition of the book, so copiously illustrated with photographs of the play; I took it to the settlement, and the girl hailed it with gratifying delight. Afterward, I lent her a magazine containing several of the original pictures for Vanity Fair. She regarded them doubtfully; “I think Thackeray writes better than he draws, ” she observed.
Later she read Pendennis and The Newcomes; and more than before she enjoyed Thackeray because he took time “to tell every little thing.” I therefore recommended Anthony Trollope; and she followed Eleanor Harding and the Grantlys through many volumes. She also read Evelina; and some of Jane Austen’s novels.
One day when she called I was reading the second volume of The Tragic Muse. She questioned me about it, and finally accepted my offer of the first volume. The next evening she returned it. “Have you finished it ? ” I said in surprise.
“No,” she answered, “I didn’t like it. The people in it seem to do nothing but talk.”
I suggested that she take one of Mr. Howells’s books, and she selected The Lady of the Aroostook. “ I read it all. ” she said, “but I didn’t get much enjoyment out of it. It was like sitting and looking out of a window. ”
“ But that is a very interesting thing to do, ” I ventured.
She reflected. “Not when nothing is happening,” she said with decision.
The last time I saw her she was reading The Mill on the Floss. “And there are a lot more by the same author, ” she exclaimed joyously; “enough to last me a long time! ”
Even longer have the legends of King Arthur and the Table Round lasted another girl whom I met first on the settlement doorsteps. She came with other children one summer evening several years ago to hear fairy tales. “Tell some new ones, " delicately suggested a child who had been a listener on other evenings ; and so I told them about the Coming of Arthur, and the woe of Elaine the Lily Maid of Astolat, and the sacrifice of Percivale’s Sister.
The new little girl heard with parted lips. When the last story was finished, she lingered: " Who told you them stories ’bout the sword in the stone, an’ the good knight Galahad, an’ the maiden that floated down the river ? ”
“I read them in a book,” I began.
She grasped my hand. “Oh, can I borrow that book ? ” she pleaded.
She was only eleven years old, and I lent her The Boy’s King Arthur. As soon as she had read it, she came again to me. “Are there anymore?” she asked fervidly. I gave her Le Morte D’ Arthur; and for a time she was absorbed in it to the exclusion of all other books. Somewhat later she read The Idylls of the King. So familiar did she become with the history of Arthur’s court, that once, when, after searching in vain for a passage in Malory, I appealed to her, she immediately opened the book and found it for me. Her delight in the annals of chivalry, of that “fair beginning of a time,” has been boundless.
One spring day, not very long ago, I met her near the Museum of Fine Arts. Her eyes were bright with a dreamy pleasure. She looked at me with happy mysteriousness. “What lovely thing has happened to you? ” I asked.
“Have you time to come with me a minute? ” she replied excitedly.
The moment I said that I had, she took my hand, led me across the street to the Public Library, and up into the Receiving - Room. She pointed comprehensively to Mr. Abbey’s glorious work. “See! ” she whispered, her face shining.
Another little girl to whom I told fairy tales had, even at the age of live, a particular fondness for Greek myths. One day, finding her watching with friendly interest a spider spinning a web, I told her the story of the presumptuous Arachne. She listened with wide eyes. “I like that better than Cinderella,” she said; “’cause I can see ’Raclmy spinnin’ her web to get ’head o’ ’Theny; there is spiders an’ webs. Put I can’t see no fairy godmothers; there ain’t none to see.”
After she learned to read, I lent her that charming little book, prepared for kindergarten children by Miss M. Helen Beckwith and Miss Susanne Latlirop, In Mythland. Considerably later she was taking a trolley ride with me, and we went past a garden in which there was a gorgeous mass of sunflowers in full bloom. My small friend had hitherto seen sunflowers only in pictures, but she recognized the originals. “Jes’ look, ” she cried before I could call her attention to the garden, “jes’ look at all them Clyties ! ”
From earliest days, women have named their children for the heroes and heroines of fiction. In the tenements, as elsewhere, there are many small boys and girls whose only claim to splendor rests in an elaborately picturesque or regally long name. I know a child who has finally learned to sign herself Gwendolyn Margherita Camille. But even her name pales beside that of another acquaintance, a little boy with very red hair, who is the namesake of the famous hero of Zenda.
He came with his mother one day to a picnic held in a serene and dignified suburb; and though several years have since passed, more than one resident vividly remembers his daring exploits on that occasion, when he was yet but three years old. The other children looked at the brook ; Rudolph, with a shout of glee, walked right into it, and straight up the current. When he had been summarily returned to dry land, he rushed whooping and howling upon the tenderly kept pansy bed of a horror-stricken neighbor.
“ Rudolph is so adventurous! ” I said to his mother, as I sought out dry shoes for him, and meditated an apology to the owner of the pansy bed.
“Yes,” agreed the mother with a sigh. “Sometimes I get real worried over him, wonderin’ how he ’ll turn out. Then, I remember the other Rudolph was adventurous too, an’ he turned out all right; so I tries to be patient, an’ to hope for the best.”
Very often persons in the tenements and at the settlement asked me to recommend books, and to lend them ; and when they were ill and I called, they sometimes asked me to read aloud. One day I went to see a woman who had been on her sick bed for many weeks; and instead of desiring me to read as I had been led to expect, she said, “ Do you know any poetry to say off by heart ? ”
When I replied that I did, her pleasure was great. “Please say some, — won’t you? ” she asked.
During the frequent visits I made to her after that day she invariably renewed the request. Several poems that especially appealed to her I repeated, until she knew them almost word for word. I thought that she would tire of the fancy, but she did not; it seemed to fill some unexplained want.
One day she died. After the funeral, her husband, his four bereaved little children clinging to him, followed me to the door. He appeared to have something further to say, and I waited. “Ye — ust to say po’try to her,” he began.
“Yes,” I said, “she loved poetry.”
“Yes, yes,” he assented, “she got real comfort outer it. ” He paused. “I was wonderin’ would ye jes’ say over some now, to me and the childern, ” he added hesitatingly.
“Will ye?” urged the eldest girl; and I went back with them to the room, now so sadly desolate, in which the mother had lain so long, and said The Psalm of Life.
“Your wife liked that best of all, ” I told the man. “But, ” I continued, as I again stood at the door, “ I wish I could do something else; poetry is not much comfort when one is sorrowful.”
“No,” agreed the man, “no; but what it says is.” Who can give a truer explanation of the greater love we have always for poetry ?
A habit of economizing time by carrying books about with me and reading them in unexpectedly free moments once put me in the way of discovering a woman of a rare fineness of feeling. Calling one morning at her tenement, I left my books, which chanced to be a small pamphlet copy of The Vampire, a volume of Edward Rowland Sill, and If I Were King. When I went for them, my friend said, “I ’ve been readin’ your books. You don’t mind? ”
“Oh no, ” I assured her. “What did you read ? ”
“That,” she answered, pointing to The Vampire. “But I didn’t like it; I think it ’s too hard on the woman.”
“And what else did you read? ” I inquired.
“This,” she said, opening If I Were King, and with perceptible irony going over the lines : —
What tributary nations would I bring
To stoop before your sceptre and to swear
Allegiance to your lips and eyes and hair.
Beneath your feet what treasures I would fling:
The stars should be your pearls upon a string,
The world a ruby for your finger ring,
And you should have the sun and moon to wear
If I were king.
Deep in the woods I hear a shepherd sing
A simple ballad to a sylvan air,
Of love that ever finds your face more fair.
I could not give you any godlier thing
If I were king.'”
She concluded with genuine scorn. “You don’t like that either? ” I suggested.
“No,” she said emphatically; “it makes a woman out to be so silly! ”
“And my other book? ” I queried.
Her face brightened. “Oh, that is grand! ” she exclaimed. “I only read one piece in it; but it was beautiful! ” She showed it to me; it was The Venus of Milo. “It ’s lovely,” she continued, “’specially this part;” and with shy pleasure she read; —
The soul beneath the form ; the serene will;
The wisdom, of whose deeps the sages dream ;
The unseen beauty that doth faintly gleam
In stars, and flowers, and waters where they roll;
The unheard music whose faint echoes even
Make whosoever hears a homesick soul
Thereafter, till he follow it to heaven.’ ”
“Oh, I am so glad, so glad you like that! ” I said involuntarily.
“Is n’t it grand ? ” she agreed eagerly. “It don’t say nothin’ ’bout lips an’ eyes an’ hair; it makes out that the way women is is what counts; an’ it don’t talk ’bout givin’ things, — which don’t count either. It cares ’bout what’s best, an’ lasts longest, an’ I think it ’s beautiful.” She lived in a poor tenement ; she lacked incalculably much; but she had divined; and her intuitive appreciations were flawless.
Most of the girls and boys who were connected with the settlement read Shakespeare, usually through their interest in the theatre. A girl who had kept my copy of Hamlet for more than a month said by way of apology when she returned it: “I could n’t get enough of reading it; the more times I read it, the more times I wanted to read it again ! It got hold of me so.”
This same girl came to me one evening with a very meditative face. “Do you like poems written by a man named Browning ? ” she asked abruptly.
I told her that I did indeed; and then she said, “Are they hard to understand ? ”
“You might try them, and see,” I advised. She accepted the suggestion with avidity; but she came in a few days to say that she thought them very hard to understand. “I can’t keep up with them,” she said in a discouraged tone.
“You haven’t been trying for very long,” I reminded her. “What did you read ? ”
“ Saul, ” she replied; “ and In a Balcony.”
I lent her Pippa Passes; and, to her delight, she found that she could “keep up ” with that. Her enthusiasm for Browning grew slowly, but steadily. When Mrs. Le Moyne, with Miss Eleanor Robson and Mr. Otis Skinner, presented In a Balcony, she saw the production ; and not long ago she said to me, “I don’t always understand Browning; but there ’s something about his poetry that makes me want to keep on reading it any way.” We all have a great deal to say about Browning and his poetry; but does not all our wisdom eventually resolve itself into just exactly this ?
These simple readers are unerring critics of what they read. They take the author with a complete and effectual literalness.
One of the girls whom I knew sent me on several occasions Christmas booklets and fancy valentines. Then, having read Emerson’s Essay on Gifts, she gave me nothing excepting some piece of her own handiwork ; and, one night, an orange. “He thought fruits were all right for presents, ” she said as she offered it.
She had a friend, an older woman, who came to the settlement to see me one evening. I was alone; and after a few preliminary remarks, she asked me to read to her. When I had finished a short story, she suggested some poetry, and I read the songs from The Princess. Many months later, her husband died; and when I went to her, she was sitting, holding her child in her arms.
“You still have your baby,” I said; there was, as there always is, so inadequately little to say.
A sudden light of recollection came into her eyes. “Yes, I have, ” she said, “just like the wife in one o’ the poems you read. I remember she said, ' My sweet child, I live for you! ’ ” She held her little girl closer. “It do make a dif’rence—havin’ a baby left, ” she whispered.
Books are so countless, and readers are so much more innumerable ; accustomed as we are to the thought, do we ever quite realize it ? With all our books about the influence of books, it is doubtful if we succeed in appreciating even in comparatively small proportion the greatness of that influence.
“The Writer of a Book, is not he a Preacher preaching not to this parish or that, on this day or that, but to all men in all times and places ? Surely it is of the last importance that he do his work right, whoever do it wrong. ” Very often do these words of Carlyle’s come into our thoughts if we have friends among the people of the tenements, the untaught people who take the preaching so deeply to heart, not only when it is strong and good, but also when it is weak and bad. To them it is indeed of the last importance that the maker of the book do his work right.