The Americanization of Edward Bok/Chapter 9

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AS a letter-writer, Henry Ward Beecher was a constant wonder. He never wrote a commonplace letter. There was always himself in it—in whatever mood it found him.

It was not customary for him to see all his mail. As a rule Mrs. Beecher opened it, and attended to most of it. One evening Edward was helping Mrs. Beecher handle an unusually large number of letters. He was reading one when Mr. Beecher happened to come in and read what otherwise he would not have seen:     

REVEREND HENRY WARD BEECHER.
Dear Sir:
  I journeyed over from my New York hotel yesterday morning to hear you preach, expecting, of course, to hear an exposition of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead, I heard a political harangue, with no reason or cohesion in it. You made an ass of yourself.

Very truly yours,


— —

“That’s to the point,” commented Mr. Beecher with a smile; and then seating himself at his desk, he turned the sheet over and wrote:     

MY DEAR SIR:—
  I am sorry you should have taken so long a journey to hear Christ preached, and then heard what you are polite enough to call a “political harangue.” I am sorry, too, that you think I made an ass of myself. In this connection I have but one consolation: that you didn’t make an ass of yourself. The Lord did that.

HENRY WARD BEECHER.

When the Reverend T. De Witt Talmage began to come into public notice in Brooklyn, some of Mr. Beecher’s overzealous followers unwisely gave the impression that the Plymouth preacher resented sharing with another the pulpit fame which he alone had so long unquestioningly held. Nothing, of course, was further from Mr. Beecher’s mind. As a matter of fact, the two men were exceedingly good friends. Mr. Beecher once met Doctor Talmage in a crowded business thoroughfare, where they got so deeply interested in each other’s talk that they sat down in some chairs standing in front of a furniture store. A gathering throng of intensely amused people soon brought the two men to the realization that they had better move. Then Mr. Beecher happened to see that back of their heads had been, respectively, two signs: one reading, “This style $3.45,” the other, “This style $4.25.”

“Well,” said Mr. Beecher, as he and Doctor Talmage walked away laughing, “I was ticketed higher than you, Talmage, anyhow.”

“You’re worth more,” rejoined Doctor Talmage.

On another occasion, as the two men met they began to bandy each other.

“Now, Talmage,” said Mr. Beecher, his eyes twinkling, “let’s have it out. My people say that Plymouth holds more people than the Tabernacle, and your folks stand up for the Tabernacle. Now which is it? What is your estimate?”

“Well, I should say that the Tabernacle holds about fifteen thousand people,” said Doctor Talmage with a smile.

“Good,” said Mr. Beecher, at once catching the spirit. “And I say that Plymouth accommodates, comfortably, twenty thousand people. Now, let’s tell our respective trustees that it’s settled, once for all.”

Mr. Beecher could never be induced to take note of what others said of him. His friends, with more heart than head, often tried to persuade him to answer some attack, but he invariably waved them off. He always saw the ridiculous side of those attacks; never their serious import.

At one time a fellow Brooklyn minister, a staunch Prohibitionist, publicly reproved Mr. Beecher for being inconsistent in his temperance views, to the extent that he preached temperance but drank beer at his own dinner-table. This attack angered the friends of Mr. Beecher, who tried to persuade him to answer the charge. But the Plymouth pastor refused. “Friend —— is a good fellow,” was the only comment they could elicit.

“But he ought to be broadened,” persisted the friends.

“Well now,” said Mr. Beecher, “that isn’t always possible. For instance,” he continued, as that inimitable merry twinkle came into his eyes, “sometime ago Friend —— criticised me for something I had said. I thought he ought not to have done so, and the next time we met I told him so. He persisted, and I felt the only way to treat him was as I would an unruly child. So I just took hold of him, laid him face down over my knee, and proceeded to impress him as our fathers used to do of old. And, do you know, I found that the Lord had not made a place on him for me to lay my hand upon.”

And in the laughter which met this sally Mr. Beecher ended with “You see, it isn’t always possible to broaden a man.”

Mr. Beecher was rarely angry. Once, however, he came near it; yet he was more displeased than angry. Some of his family and Edward had gone to a notable public affair at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where a box had been placed at Mr. Beecher’s disposal. One member of the family was a very beautiful girl who had brought a girl-friend. Both were attired in full evening décolleté costume. Mr. Beecher came in late from another engagement. A chair had been kept vacant for him in the immediate front of the box, since his presence had been widely advertised, and the audience was expecting to see him. When he came in, he doffed his coat and was about to go to the chair reserved for him, when he stopped, stepped back, and sat down in a chair in the rear of the box. It was evident from his face that something had displeased him. Mrs. Beecher leaned over and asked him, but he offered no explanation. Nothing was said.

Edward went back to the house with Mr. Beecher; after talking awhile in the study, the preacher, wishing to show him something, was going up-stairs with his guest and had nearly reached the second landing when there was the sound of a rush, the gas was quickly turned low, and two white figures sped into one of the rooms.

“My dears,” called Mr. Beecher.

“Yes, Mr. Beecher,” came a voice from behind the door of the room in question.

“Come here one minute,” said Mr. Beecher.

“But we cannot,” said the voice. “We are ready for bed. Wait until——”

“No; come as you are,” returned Mr. Beecher.

“Let me go down-stairs,” Edward interrupted.

“No; you stay right here,” said Mr. Beecher.

“Why, Mr. Beecher! How can we? Isn’t Edward with you?”

“You are keeping me waiting for you,” was the quiet and firm answer.

There was a moment’s hesitation. Then the door opened and the figures of the two girls appeared.

“Now, turn up the gas, please, as it was,” said Mr. Beecher.

“But, Mr. Beecher——”

“You heard me?”

Up went the light, and the two beautiful girls of the box stood in their night-dresses.

“Now, why did you run away?” asked Mr. Beecher.

“Why, Mr. Beecher! How can you ask such a question?” pouted one of the girls, looking at her dress and then at Edward.

“Exactly,” said Mr. Beecher. “Your modesty leads you to run away from this young man because he might possibly see you under a single light in dresses that cover your entire bodies, while that same modesty did not prevent you all this evening from sitting beside him, under a myriad of lights, in dresses that exposed nearly half of your bodies. That’s what I call a distinction with a difference—with the difference to the credit neither of your intelligence nor of your modesty. There is some modesty in the dresses you have on: there was precious little in what you girls wore this evening. Good night.”

“You do not believe, Mr. Beecher,” Edward asked later, “in décolleté dressing for girls?”

“No, and even less for women. A girl has some excuse of youth on her side; a woman none at all.”

A few moments later he added:

“A proper dress for any girl or woman is one that reveals the lady, but not her person.”

Edward asked Mrs. Beecher one day whether Mr. Beecher had ever expressed an opinion of his sister’s famous book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and she told this interesting story of how the famous preacher read the story:

“When the story was first published in The National Era, in chapters, all our family, excepting Mr. Beecher, looked impatiently for its appearance each week. But, try as we might, we could not persuade Mr. Beecher to read it, or let us tell him anything about it.

“‘It’s folly for you to be kept in constant excitement week after week,’ he would say. ‘I shall wait till the work is completed, and take it all at one dose.’

“After the serial ended, the book came to Mr. Beecher on the morning of a day when he had a meeting on hand for the afternoon and a speech to make in the evening. The book was quietly laid one side, for he always scrupulously avoided everything that could interfere with work he was expected to do. But the next day was a free day. Mr. Beecher rose even earlier than usual, and as soon as he was dressed he began to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When breakfast was ready he took his book with him to the table, where reading and eating went on together; but he spoke never a word. After morning prayers, he threw himself on the sofa, forgot everything but his book, and read uninterruptedly till dinner-time. Though evidently intensely interested, for a long time he controlled any marked indication of it. Before noon I knew the storm was gathering that would conquer his self-control, as it had done with us all. He frequently ‘gave way to his pocket-handkerchief,’ to use one of his old humorous remarks, in a most vigorous manner. In return for his teasing me for reading the work weekly, I could not refrain from saying demurely, as I passed him once: ‘You seem to have a severe cold, Henry. How could you have taken it?’ But what did I gain? Not even a half-annoyed shake of the head, or the semblance of a smile. I might as well have spoken to the Sphinx.

“When reminded that the dinner-bell had rung, he rose and went to the table, still with his book in his hand. He asked the blessing with a tremor in his voice, which showed the intense excitement under which he was laboring. We were alone at the table, and there was nothing to distract his thoughts. He drank his coffee, ate but little, and returned to his reading, with no thought of indulging in his usual nap. His almost uncontrollable excitement revealed itself in frequent half-suppressed sobs.

“Mr. Beecher was a very slow reader. I was getting uneasy over the marks of strong feeling and excitement, and longed to have him finish the book. I could see that he entered into the whole story, every scene, as if it were being acted right before him, and he himself were the sufferer. He had always been a pronounced Abolitionist, and the story he was reading roused intensely all he had felt on that subject.

“The night came on. It was growing late, and I felt impelled to urge him to retire. Without raising his eyes from the book, he replied:

“‘Soon; soon; you go; I’ll come soon.’

“Closing the house, I went to our room; but not to sleep. The clock struck twelve, one, two, three; and then, to my great relief, I heard Mr. Beecher coming up-stairs. As he entered, he threw Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the table, exclaiming: ‘There; I’ve done it! But if Hattie Stowe ever writes anything more like that I’ll—well! She has nearly killed me.’

“And he never picked up the book from that day.”

Any one who knew Henry Ward Beecher at all knew of his love of books. He was, however, most prodigal in lending his books and he always forgot the borrowers. Then when he wanted a certain volume from his library he could not find it. He would, of course, have forgotten the borrower, but he had a unique method of tracing the book.

One evening the great preacher suddenly appeared at a friend’s house and, quietly entering the drawingroom without removing his overcoat, he walked up to his friend and said:

“Rossiter, why don’t you bring back that Ruskin of mine that I lent you?”

The man colored to the roots of his hair. “Why, Mr. Beecher,” he said, “I’ll go up-stairs and get it for you right away. I would not have kept it so long, only you told me I might.”

At this Beecher burst into a fit of merry laughter. “Found! Found!” he shouted, as he took off his overcoat and threw himself into a chair.

When he could stop laughing, he said: “You know, Rossiter, that I am always ready to lend my books to any one who will make good use of them and bring them back, but I always forget to whom I lend them. It happened, in this case, that I wanted that volume of Ruskin about a week ago; but when I went to the shelf for it, it was gone. I knew I must have lent it, but to whom I could not remember. During the past week, I began to demand the book of every friend I met to whom I might have lent it. Of course, every one of them protested innocence; but at last I’ve struck the guilty man. I shall know, in future, how to find my missing books. The plan works beautifully.”

One evening, after supper, Mr. Beecher said to his wife:

“Mother, what material have we among our papers about our early Indiana days?”

Mr. Beecher had long been importuned to write his autobiography, and he had decided to do it after he had finished his Life of Christ.

Mrs. Beecher had two boxes brought into the room.

“Suppose you look into that box, if you will,” said Mr. Beecher to Edward, “and I’ll take this one, and we’ll see what we can find about that time. Mother, you supervise and see how we look on the floor.”

And Mr. Beecher sat down on the floor in front of one box, shoemaker-fashion, while Edward, likewise on the floor, started on the other box.

It was a dusty job, and the little room began to be filled with particles of dust which set Mrs. Beecher coughing. At last she said: “I’ll leave you two to finish. I have some things to do up-stairs, and then I’ll retire. Don’t be too late, Henry,” she said.

It was one of those rare evenings for Mr. Beecher—absolutely free from interruption; and, with his memory constantly taken back to his early days, he continued in a reminiscent mood that was charmingly intimate to the boy.

“Found something?” he asked at one intermission when quiet had reigned longer than usual, and he saw Edward studying a huge pile of papers.

“No, sir,” said the boy. “Only a lot of papers about a suit.”

“What suit?” asked Mr. Beecher mechanically, with his head buried in his box.

“I don’t know, sir,” Edward replied naïvely, little knowing what he was reopening to the preacher. “‘Tilton versus Beecher’ they are marked.”

Mr. Beecher said nothing, and after the boy had fingered the papers he chanced to look in the preacher’s direction and found him watching him intently with a curiously serious look in his face.

“Must have been a big suit,” commented the boy. “Here’s another pile of papers about it.”

Edward could not make out Mr. Beecher’s steady look at him as he sat there on the floor mechanically playing with a paper in his hand.

“Yes,” he finally said, “it was a big suit. What does it mean to you?” he asked suddenly.

“To me?” Edward asked. “Nothing, sir. Why?”

Mr. Beecher said nothing for a few moments, and turned to his box to examine some more papers.

Then the boy asked: “Was the Beecher in this suit you, Mr. Beecher?”

Again was turned on him that serious, questioning look.

“Yes,” he said after a bit. Then he thought again for a few moments and said: “How old were you in 1875?”

“Twelve,” the boy replied.

“Twelve,” he repeated. “Twelve.”

He turned again to his box and Edward to his.

“There doesn’t seem to be anything more in this box,” the boy said, “but more papers in that suit,” and he began to put the papers back.

“What do you know about that ‘suit,’ as you call it?” asked Mr. Beecher, stopping in his work.

“Nothing,” was the reply. “I never heard of it.”

“Never heard of it?” he repeated, and he fastened that curious look upon Edward again. It was so compelling that it held the boy. For several moments they looked at each other. Neither spoke.

“That seems strange,” he said, at last, as he renewed the search of his box. “Never heard of it,” he repeated almost to himself.

Then for fully five minutes not a word was spoken.

“But you will some day,” said Mr. Beecher suddenly.

“I will what, Mr. Beecher?” asked the boy. He had forgotten the previous remark.

Mr. Beecher looked at Edward and sighed. “Hear about it,” he said.

“I don’t think I understand you,” was the reply.

“No, I don’t think you do,” he said. “I mean, you will some day hear about that suit. And I don’t know,” then he hesitated, “but—but you might as well get it straight. You say you were twelve then,” he mused. “What were you doing when you were twelve?”

“Going to school,” was the reply.

“Yes, of course,” said Mr. Beecher. “Well,” he continued, turning on his haunches so that his back rested against the box, “I am going to tell you the story of that suit, and then you’ll know it.”

Edward said nothing, and then began the recital of a story that he was destined to remember. It was interesting then, as Mr. Beecher progressed; but how thrice interesting that wonderful recital was to prove as the years rolled by and the boy realized the wonderful telling of that of all stories by Mr. Beecher himself!

Slowly, and in that wonderfully low, mellow voice that so many knew and loved, step by step, came the unfolding of that remarkable story. Once or twice only did the voice halt, as when, after he had explained the basis of the famous suit, he said:

“Those were the charges. That is what it was all about.”

Then he looked at Edward and asked: “Do you know just what such charges mean?”

“I think I do,” Edward replied, and the question was asked with such feeling, and the answer was said so mechanically, that Mr. Beecher replied simply: “Perhaps.”

“Well,” he continued, “the suit was a ‘long one,’ as you said. For days and weeks, yes, for months, it went on, from January to July, and those were very full days: full of so many things that you would hardly understand.”

And then he told the boy as much of the days in court as he thought he would understand, and how the lawyers worked and worked, in court all day, and up half the night, preparing for the next day. “Mostly around that little table there,” he said, pointing to a white, marbletopped table against which the boy was leaning, and which now stands in Edward Bok’s study.

“Finally the end came,” he said, “after—well, months. To some it seemed years,” said Mr. Beecher, and his eyes looked tired.

“Well,” he continued, “the case went to the jury: the men, you know, who had to decide. There were twelve of them.”

“Was it necessary that all twelve should think alike?” asked the boy.

“That was what was hoped, my boy,” said Mr. Beecher—“that was what was hoped,” he repeated.

“Well, they did, didn’t they?” Edward asked, as Mr. Beecher stopped.

“Nine did,” he replied. “Yes; nine did. But three didn’t. Three thought—” Mr. Beecher stopped and did not finish the sentence. “But nine did,” he repeated. “Nine to three it stood. That was the decision, and then the judge discharged the jury,” he said.

There was naturally one question in the boyish mind to ask the man before him—one question! Yet, instinctively, something within him made him hesitate to ask that question. But at last his curiosity got the better of the still, small voice of judgment.

“And, Mr. Beecher—” the boy began.

But Mr. Beecher knew! He knew what was at the end of the tongue, looked clear into the boy’s mind; and Edward can still see him lift that fine head and look into his eyes, as he said, slowly and clearly:

“And the decision of the nine was in exact accord with the facts.”

He had divined the question!

As the two rose from the floor that night Edward looked at the clock. It was past midnight; Mr. Beecher had talked for two hours; the boy had spoken hardly at all.

As the boy was going out, he turned to Mr. Beecher sitting thoughtfully in his chair.

“Good night, Mr. Beecher,” he said.

The Plymouth pastor pulled himself together, and with that wit that never forsook him he looked at the clock, smiled, and answered: “Good morning, I should say. God bless you, my boy.” Then rising, he put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and walked with him to the door.