A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER XI.

Maury's personal appearance and manners—Life in his family—The way he wrote his books—How he dressed in the morning—The nicknames he gave his children—How he taught his daughters round the breakfast-table—The borrowed book—The brass telescope—The trip to Europe and visit at Wrottesley Hall.

The personal appearance and habits of Commander Maury will have an interest for those who value his life-work and venerate his memory. Maury was a stout man, and about five feet six inches in height; he had a fresh, ruddy complexion, with curling brown hair, and clear, tender blue eyes. His massive head and strong neck surmounted broad and square shoulders, and a chest deep and full. His arms were long and strong, with hands small, soft, and beautifully formed—he was apt to use them in graceful gestures while conversing.

Every feature and lineament of his bright countenance bespoke intellect, kindliness, and force of character. His fine blue eyes beamed from under his broad forehead with thought and emotion, while his flexible mouth smiled with the pleasure of imparting to others the ideas which were ever welling up in his active brain. In early manhood his head was well covered with fine soft, wavy brown hair, which became thin before he reached middle age. Latterly, he was quite bald, as is shown in Valentine's fine bust, taken when he was sixty years old.

His conversation was enjoyed by all who ever met him; he listened and learned while he conversed, and adapted himself to every capacity. He especially delighted in the company of young people, to whom his playful humour and gentle consideration made him very winning.

In early youth he was careless in his dress, and expressed contempt for those who judged of a man by his outward appearance. "But," he said, "I soon perceived the folly of this carelessness;" and in later years he became scrupulously neat in his attire. His enjoyment of the pleasures of the table was refined: he liked good wine; he carved well, and entertained generously; and he was never more genial, humorous, or interesting, than when surrounded by friends about a well-served board.

N. P. Willis, of the Home Journal, said to a friend, speaking of Maury, after travelling with him out West for four or five days:—

 

"He made me subject to his personal magnetism, and while with him I had secretly vowed myself and my pen to the service of his interests and reputation thenceforward.... During the time that we were together on that trip, he was, unconsciously to himself, to me an exquisitely interesting study of character. I had long heard of him, and knew what the public generally knew of his pursuits; but my conviction was strengthened every day that he was greatly undervalued by common repute, and that he was of a far deeper intellect, and much more of a natural philosopher, than the world, with all his repute, gave him credit for.... Under his exceeding modesty and reserve, there seemed to be a vein of the heroic and romantic so hidden, that he was seemingly unconscious of it, and I was quite sure before I parted with him that he was one of the sans peur et sans reproche class of men; yet willing to pass for only the industrious man of science which the world takes him for. Under the strong magnetism of his sincere and simple manner, I formed an irresistible attachment to him, and longed to set the world right as to his qualities." One of his daughters says:—"When I can first remember him he walked with a limp, although without a cane, and his locks had become few." In manner he was most affable and courteous; in conversation he was always evolving great ideas—as Mr. Calhoun said of him, "He was a man of great thoughts," and, when not conversing, he was either writing or walking up and down the room as on a quarterdeck, studying out some problem to be soon placed before the world for its good.

But whether writing or thinking, no noise of the children, no invasion of visitors, was ever an interruption. In the midst of his most interesting pursuits, on which he was concentrating his powers, he would lay down his pen and join in the laugh at a good joke, and encourage the mirth to go on. He had an ever-active sense of humour; but scandal and gossip he would not allow in his presence, and he would never pass over any violation of high principle. He made loving companions and friends of his children—in his walks, in his talks, in his work, in his recreation, he was always one of them. He invited their confidence, and freely gave them his; in that household there were no secrets—any step that was about to be taken, any journey made, or any work projected, was fully and freely talked over and discussed in family conclave. And yet his word was law, that no one ever dreamt of disputing; so he was always the last to speak in these family councils, and gave the "casting-vote," as he used to say; the youngest voting or giving their opinion first on the matter under discussion.

Most of his voluminous writings were thus freely submitted to the family council, or copied by them, and each one invited and encouraged to criticise; and thus, not only were they made familiar with the workings of his mind, but were taught to express their own thoughts.

He wrote or composed and dictated his greatest books in his parlour, surrounded by his family, and it seemed sometimes as if he possessed a dual consciousness, so quickly could he abstract or concentrate his mind upon his writing.

Like few great men, he was the greater the closer one got to him. Little children approached him confidingly, and never left him without bearing away some good lesson, so gently and simply taught as to be for ever planted in their young minds. His especial pleasure was to say a kind word and lend a helping hand to young men beginning the battle of life.

Above all men, he knew the value of praise as an incentive to high endeavor, and when he had occasion to censure or criticise, he did it with such obvious reluctance that it never failed to do the good intended.

While at home, he had been taught to respect women, to love the truth, and to reverence God; and those teachings he never forgot. One of his daughters writes as follows:—

"He never had a study, or anything like a sanctum, where his wife and children could not come, preferring to work in the midst of them wherever they congregated. He would sit at the round marble-topped centre table, with his papers spread out, the bright light falling on his bald head and shining on his brown curls, while he sat unconscious of what was going on around him; whether it was music, or dancing, or reading aloud, or romping, he would write away, or read what he had written, or talk to himself and shake his head."

His daughters often served as Ms amanuenses, and sometimes he dictated to two at once, while one of the little ones would balance herself on the rounds of his chair, and curl his back hair over the red-and-blue pencil he always used.

Sometimes he would walk up and down the two parlours wrapped in a light blue silk Japanese dressing-gown, quilted with eider-down which was a present from Captain Jansen, the long ribbons, which should have been fastened around his waist, trailing behind him, or gathered up like reins in the hands of one of the little ones, who trotted after him, backwards and forwards, calling out "Gee, woa!" or "Back, sir!"—he paying not the slightest attention, but dictating gravely.

He to used to say he was the youngest of the family except the baby, and it was his habit, when dressing in the morning, to seat the youngest (the little two-year-old) upon the bureau, to hold the soap while he was shaving, while the rest would stand around, one to hold or receive the razor, one the brush, one the towel, and one or two the papers on which wipe the razor; and we all would eagerly watch the pile of lather which he made with the soap and hot water in his shaving-can. He brushed his bald head with two immense brushes at the same time, one in each hand. "For," he assured us gravely, "you see, if I only use one at a time it will turn round and round like one oar to a boat." And we believed that was the only to brush hair. Then he would tell us stories and anecdotes about his brothers and himself—what they did and what they said in Tennessee, and of his home-life there. These stories he would tell over and over again, fitting them to the comprehension of the "twoyear-old," as she or he would come on (and there was always a baby and always a "two-year-old" at regular intervals), until we knew them by heart, and, with a clamour of tongues, would set him right if he omitted any incident or related it in the wrong order. And we knew exactly when to laugh and applaud, and enjoyed it all the more because it was so familiar.

Often he would take the whole tribe out for long walks, or to gather fruit or nuts, or bright-coloured leaves; and to reach the high ones he would make what he called a "Tennessee arm," which was a long pole with a crutch at the end, with which he could twist them off, directing us where to stand and hold up our pinafores to catch the coveted prize; and then what laughter and hurrahs and congratulations would be bestowed upon the fortunate catcher!

He had pet names for all except the eldest; he said she grew up too fast for him to fit a name to her. There were "Nannie Curly," "Goggen," "Davy Jones," "Tots," "Glum," "Brave," and "Sat Sing." By these names he always called us, and we knew we had displeased him, and hung our heads with shame, if he gave us our baptismal ones.

I don't think I ever went to school more than three months altogether. He was my loving and tender teacher always; and when Betty and I grew to be fifteen or thereabouts, we had to take care of one or two of the younger ones and teach them to read, write, and cypher, yet without allowing this duty to interfere with our own lessons or our regular tasks of sewing.

He taught us our lessons at the breakfast-table, and for an hour or so after, his plan being to bid us—my sister Betty and myself—"one at a time, tell him about the lesson." He seldom asked us questions on it, unless we found a difficulty in expressing ourselves, and he never asked those put down in the book. After both had our say, he would, taking the lesson for a text, deliver the most delightful lectures. He prescribed no set time for our preparation of these lessons; but we were required to master them thoroughly, and give the substance to him clothed in our own words and not in those of the book. He always expected and required that we should not prepare them at night, but should then come into the parlour to receive and entertain and be entertained by the distinguished men and women who frequently gathered round him. He considered this a most important part of our education.

He objected to the introduction of cards in the family circle, as he said they interfered with intelligent and improving conversation, and that those who had recourse to them for amusement were apt to depend on them, and could not exert themselves to be agreeable as they should and would do, if they had not this entertainment. He himself did not know one card from another.

Our mother taught us our Bible lessons, and catechism, and she and aunt Eliza, who was a beautiful needlewoman, gave us regular tasks in mending and darning. We seldom went to church more than once on Sunday, as it was so far from the Observatory to St. John's (Rev. Dr. Pynes), so Papa had us up regularly for the evening service, which we would read verse about, "the stranger that was within our own gates" generally taking part also.

He read aloud to us Scott's novels, Shakespeare's plays, and many of the British poets, particularly Scott's poems, Wordsworth's, and Mrs. Hemans', Of these he was very fond.

He would never allow us to read works of fiction whilst we were students, and would punish most severely any departure from the truth, or act of disobedience. These two sins, he said, were the only ones he intended to punish his children for; and he was very careful not to make unnecessary issues with them, and never to give an order unless he saw that it was obeyed and not forgotten.

A punishment he once inflicted on Betty and myself I shall never forget. Betty borrowed 'Helen,' one of a very handsome and complete set of Miss Edgeworth's novels, from cousin Sally Fontaine in Washington, thinking, or persuading herself, that Papa would not object, as that was so mild a type of fiction, and we both read most of it. He found us at it one Saturday. He didn't say one word, but took the book, and one of us in each hand, marched us downstairs into Mamma's room (which was opposite the front parlour, and where there was almost always a small fire burning on the hearth), and, to our horror, thrust the handsome borrowed book into the flames, and held it there with the tongs until it was entirely consumed. Oh, how we did cry! It seemed such a terrible thing to burn a book—a precious book—of which we had so few. And then our honour was touched to the quick, for we had borrowed it. But for those very reasons the lesson cut deep, and made the impression that was intended. I for one would gladly have taken a whipping instead, to be allowed to return the book uninjured.[1]

Another punishment that was never forgotten was this. Finding I had quite a taste for natural science, my dear father had given me a fine microscope, of which I was very fond, and one day some instrument-maker sent an elegant brass-mounted telescope about twice my length, and of sufficient power to show the rings of Saturn, and the moons of Jupiter. Papa told me if I would learn how to handle the big telescope at the Observatory, and how to find any star I wanted by obtaining the right ascension and declination from the Nautical Almanac, and how to make and record an accurate observation thereon, he would give me this beauty in its handsome mahogany box for my own.

I joyfully acceded to these terms, and in less than a month I came into possession. Oh, how proud I was when, on a clear night, I would mount my prize on its polished tripod, on a big stone pillar in the garden, and show my little friends anything they called for that was then within our horizon! But one sad Saturday Satan entered into me, and I neglected to do my task of mending in the time allotted to it, being occupied with my dear telescope. I was called up, reprimanded, and told to have my task done in an hour and a half. Going back upstairs to the library, I went sky-scraping, through the big north window, with my instrument, with the coloured lens screwed in for day observations. I thought, "I'll take one more look and then hurry up my task;" but that look took longer than I expected, and very little of the task was done when the time was up. The case was referred to Papa, who, without a word spoken, boxed up my telescope and shipped it off—I never knew where to this day. For years I could not speak of it without tears.

When Betty and myself were almost grown up, and he began to travel about the country to address the agricultural societies of the different States about "Meteorology for the Farmers," and "Crop and Weather Reports," he said, as we had been so faithful in teaching the little ones, he would take first one of us and then the other wherever he went. So we made two trips with him, and then came the Brussels Conference, "to propose a uniform plan of observations at sea, and to adopt a meteorological log."[2] He said such a chance might never occur again, and, if he could "raise the wind," he would take us both that time. "The wind" was raised somehow, and we both went, accompanied by our two cousins, Ellen Herndon and Ellen Maury. Betty, the eldest of the party, was not seventeen when we sailed. Ellen Herndon was a lovely blonde, Ellen Maury a very handsome brunette. Sure such a merry party never sailed the broad ocean before! We were dubbed "The Magpie Club" by acclamation on board the steamer. When landed at Liverpool, we found awaiting us an invitation from Lord Wrottesley for us all to visit him at Wrottesley Hall near Wolverhampton. The house was in Cromwell's time the "Convent of White ladies," and in its park stood the "Royal Oak," in which Richard Penderill hid the fugitive prince after the disastrous battle of Worcester. So we were wild to go, and the invitation was accepted. Lord Wrottesley had been a correspondent of my father's for several years, being himself a learned man and President of the Boyal and Astronomical Societies.

On this trip we visited many cities in England, France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany with my father, and we were fêted and entertained everywhere. We were so proud to be introduced by him to such men as Baron Humboldt, Erenburg, Jansen, Quetelet, Le Verrier, Lieber, FitzRoy, and others.

  1. He carefully concealed then from us the fact that he replaced the volume, and years passed before we found it out.
  2. See page 72.