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William Hamilton Gibson
John Coleman Adams
CHAPTER I. A FORTUNATE BOYHOOD
CHAPTER II. CALLING AND ELECTION
CHAPTER III. A QUICK SUCCESS
CHAPTER IV. WITH PENCIL AND BRUSH
CHAPTER V. THE OPEN EYE
CHAPTER VI. THE ACCIDENT OF AUTHORSHIP
CHAPTER VII. THE WORKMAN AND HIS WORK
CHAPTER VIII. THE PERSONAL SIDE
CHAPTER IX. AFTERGLOW
William Hamilton Gibson
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF THE WRITINGS OF WILLIAM HAMILTON GIBSON
William Hamilton Gibson, Age 41
(The autograph was always written without lifting the pen, beginning with the last half of the “H” and ending with the first half)]
DedicatedtoEmma L. B. GibsonandHer Sons
THREE men have done more than any others to inspire our generation with the love of nature. They are Henry D. Thoreau, John Burroughs, and William Hamilton Gibson. Thoreau, when the generation was young, challenged it to come out of doors, live in a shanty, and see as much of the world as he saw. John Burroughs, in later years, has acted as guide to a multitude of minds, eager to be “personally conducted” to field and forest. William Hamilton Gibson, besides winning many feet into those “highways and byways” whose charms he taught us to feel, was fortunate in his exceptional power to bring nature to the very eyes of men in the works of his pencil, with which he made luminous—literally “illustrated”—his pages. This alone would be a justification of some account of his life and work.
But in addition to this claim on the interest of the public, those who knew him are aware of others;—a personality of singular charm and forcefulness; a career quite marvelous in its swift and sure achievements; a genius as rare as it was versatile; a devotion to art and to study which fairly wore him out in its exactions on his energy; an ideal which instructs while it shames our sordidness and materialism. His personality will surely grow upon the American people as time gives a true perspective to his life and work. Already we can see something of his conspicuousness and his right to a place in the foremost group of our nature-prophets. In that great trio, Thoreau is the philosopher, Burroughs the poet and man of letters, Gibson the artist-naturalist. In these days when so many are entering into the inheritance which Gibson helped to secure, it is fitting that nature-lovers should hear the story of his fruitful life.
TO be well-born is half of the battle of life; and to have an environment which helps the life of the child and the youth is a good fraction of the other half. So that the man whose parentage and whose education are good is fortunate above his fellows, and well-assured of a successful issue to his life. Heredity and early environment—these are what the scientists call them—are as the building and the rigging of the ship. The best sailing-master can do little with an ill-built, ill-rigged vessel. There is much in the stock from which William Hamilton Gibson came, much in his education and early association, which explains his life and the way in which he lived it. He was born in Sandy Hook, Newtown, Connecticut, in a region where the lower Berkshire mountain-ranges break into irregular and crowded hills, green, picturesque, and restful. He has himself left a charming description of the old home and its immediate surroundings, in the chapter called “Summer” in “Pastoral Days.”
“Hometown (Sandy Hook), owing to some early faction, is divided into two sections, forming two distinct towns. One Newborough (Newtown), a hilltop hamlet, with its picturesque long street, a hundred feet in width, and shaded with great weeping elms that almost meet overhead; and the other, Hometown proper (Sandy Hook), a picturesque little village in the valley, cuddling close around the foot of a precipitous bluff, known as Mt. Pisgah. A mile’s distance separates the two centers. The old homestead is situated in the heart of Hometown, fronting on the main street. The house itself is a series of after-thoughts, wing after wing, gable after gable having clustered around the old nucleus as the growth of new generations necessitated new accommodation. Its outward aspect is rather modern, but the interior with its broad open fireplace and accessories in the shape of crane and firedogs, is rich with all the features of typical New England; and the two gables of the main roof enclose the dearest old garret imaginable.... Looking through the dingy window between the maple-boughs, my eye extends over lawns and shrubberies three acres in extent,—a little park, overrun with paths in every direction, through ancient orchard and embowered dells, while far beyond are glimpses of the wooded knolls, the winding brook, and meadows dotted with waving willows, and farther still, the undulating farm.”
In such a spot Gibson was born October the fifth, 1850. His father was originally a Boston man, who finally removed to Brooklyn, though maintaining the home in the country, at Newtown.
The Gibson ancestry is one of no little interest, embracing as it does, in various branches, some of the most distinguished names in Eastern Massachusetts. The first American bearer of the name was John Gibson of Cambridge, whose coming to this country was at least as early as 1634, and who died in Cambridge in 1694 at the age of ninety-three years. His descendants remained for the most part in Massachusetts for several generations. Thomas Gibson of Townsend, Massachusetts, the grandfather of William Hamilton, by marriage with Frances Maria Hastings brought into the family line the famous Dana family, a connection of which his descendants were justly proud. The original Dana ancestor was also a Cambridge settler, Richard by name, who married Anne Bullard. His grandson, by his son Daniel (who married Naomi Crosswell), was Mr. Justice Richard Dana, whose death in 1772 deprived the patriots of those stormy days of one of their foremost and ablest leaders. Justice Dana was unquestionably at the head of the Massachusetts bar, an authority on the precedents in American cases more quoted by Story than any other pleader of his time. He is one of the figures in Hawthorne’s sketch, given in his “Grandfather’s Chair,” of the episode in the drama of pre-Revolutionary agitation, when Andrew Oliver made oath to take no measures to enforce the Stamp Act. One of his brothers was Francis Dana, Chief Justice of Massachusetts, and ambassador to Russia, whose wife was Elizabeth Ellery, and whose son Richard Henry left a name always honorable in the history of American letters. Richard Dana’s daughter Lydia married John Hastings, a descendant of both the famous John Cottons of Boston renown. Their daughter Frances M., married to Thomas Gibson, was the mother of Edmund Trowbridge Hastings Gibson, and grandmother of William Hamilton Gibson. It is no wonder that the latter should write to an inquiring friend:
“You ask whether I am a New Englander. Let me set your heart at rest by telling you that I am a way-back Puritan. The race has been petering out from old John Cotton down through a long list of historical men whom I am glad to own as ancestors. (I don’t count some of the earlier Lords and Ladies to whom I trace my lineage—they are a pretty bad lot to my thinking.) I honor the humble names of several of my progenitors who lived and died in the love and respect of their fellow men, and have some reason to feel a little pride in being able to allude to Justice Richard Dana, of Massachusetts, as my great-great-grandfather, and a lineage which embraces the names of Washington Allston, Ellery Channing, and others equally noble and worthy; and now it has come down to me in this branch of the family. Yes, I am New England to the core. No other place on earth will ever be so near and dear or carry me to loftier mountain tops.”
From the old country home and its surroundings the lad of ten years went to a school which was probably as well-adapted to his temper and tastes as any which could have been selected. At any rate it was a school to which he became profoundly attached, and whose master he was to count among the dearest and closest friends of a lifetime. The “Gunn School,” or the “Gunnery,” as it came to be called, was one of the famous institutions of this country, a school which left its indelible mark upon many a boy whose maturity was to be eminent and useful in the national life. It was a school unique in its theory and without rivals in its practice. Its founder and head was Frederick W. Gunn, a native of Washington, Connecticut, where he spent his life, did his great and good work, and died in a ripe old age. He was a man of rare character and gifts. Large-hearted and large-minded, with a religious and ethical nature of the most positive kind, he was a man predestined to influence others, and mold the lives of youth. Though he was an “abolitionist” in days when that term carried with it intensest odium and social proscription, and a dissenter from conventional orthodoxy in a time when to differ from established standards was to write one’s self down an “infidel,” he was a successful teacher, and made and maintained a series of schools, which finally grew into the noble “Gunnery,” a term at first used by the boys facetiously, but so apt and so happy as to be officially adopted as the title of the school. One of his old pupils, writing of the character of the institution, says:
“When Mr. Gunn called the school which his genius had established ‘a home for boys’ he stated the simple and exact truth.... Mr. and Mrs. Gunn both had the parental instinct so strong that they really took to their hearts each individual boy, and brooded over him as if he were their own flesh and blood.”
This home-school and school-home in one was conducted as a miniature republic; its aim was all-round, symmetrical character; its method grew out of the hearty, wholesome, honest, and loving nature of its head; its spirit was justice and love. Perhaps it was not a school where “marks” counted for a great deal; and the drill in books may not have been as severe and systematic as in some institutions. But the boy who went to the “Gunnery” was pretty sure to imbibe some notions of honor, justice, kindliness, and obedience which he never forgot. As one of the old pupils writes:
“We recall an era of uncurbed freedom in a spot
hallowed by home affections without home effeminacies; where every bad trait of a boy was systematically assailed and every good trait strengthened, so far as might be, so as to take its final place in an enduring character and robust manhood.”
Gibson himself has given a tender and vivid picture of the school which played so large a part in his life, in the pages of “Pastoral Days”:
“How lightly did I appreciate the fortunate journey when, twenty summers ago, I followed this road for the first time, when a boy of ten years, on my way to an unknown village, I looked across the landscape to the little spires on that distant hill! Little did I dream of the six years of unmixed happiness and precious experience that awaited me in that little Judea! I only knew that I was sadly quitting a happy home on my way to ‘boarding-school’—a school called the Snuggery, taught by a Mr. Snug, in a little village named Snug Hamlet, about twenty miles from Hometown.
“There are some experiences in the life of every one which, however truthful, cannot be told but to elicit the doubtful nod or the warning finger of incredulity. They were such experiences as these, however, that made up the sum of my early life in that happy refuge called in modern parlance a ‘boarding-school’—a name as empty, a word as weak and tame in its significance, as poverty itself; no doubt abundantly expressive in its ordinary application, but here it is a mockery and a satire. This is not a ‘boarding-school’; it is a household, whose memories moisten the eye and stir the soul; to which its scattered members through the fleeting years look back as to a neglected home, with father and mother dear, whom they long once more to meet as in the tenderness of boyhood days; a cherished remembrance which, like the ‘house upon a hill, cannot be hid,’ but sends abroad its light unto many hearts who in those early days sought the loving shelter; a bright star in the horizon of the past, a glow that ne’er grows dim, but only kindles and brightens with the flood of years. Yes, yes; I know it sounds like a dash of sentiment, but words of mine are feeble and impotent indeed when sought for the expression of an attachment so fond, of a love so deep.”
Most delightfully, too, does he blend an account, in the same chapter, of a return to the old school, in later years, and a picture of the characteristic life of that school as it lies in the memories of many successive generations of boys who passed through its scenes:
“It is eight o’clock, and the Snuggery is hushed in the quiet of the study hour, and as we look through the windows we see the little groups of studious lads bending over their books. Turning a corner on the piazza, we are confronted with a tall hexagonal structure at its farther end. This is the Tower, the lower room of which is consecrated to the cozy retirement of Mr. and Mrs. Snug. The door leading to the porch is open, and, as if awakening from a nap in which the past fifteen years have been a dream, I listen to the same dear voice. I approach nearer. Under the glow of a student’s lamp I look upon the beloved face, the flowing hair and beard now silvered with the lapse of years—a face of unusual firmness, but whose every line marks the expression of a tender, loving nature, and of a large and noble heart. Near him another sits—a helpmeet kind and true, cherished companion in a happy, useful life. Into her lap a nestling lad has climbed; and as she strokes the curly head and looks into the chubby face, I see the same expression as of old, the same motherly tenderness and love beaming from the large gray eyes.
“Mr. Snug is leaning back in his easy-chair, and two boys are standing up before him; one of them is speaking, evidently in answer to a question.
‘I called him a galoot, sir.’
‘You called George a galoot, and then he threw the base-ball club at you—is that it?’
‘Yes, sir,’ interrupted George; ‘but I was only playing, sir.’
‘Yes,’ resumed the voice of Mr. Snug, ‘but that club went with considerable force, and landed over the fence, and made havoc in Deacon Farish’s onion-bed; and that reminds me that the deacon’s onion-bed is overrun with weeds. Now, Willie,’ continued Mr. Snug, after a moment’s hesitation, with eyes closed, and head thrown back against the chair, ‘Saturday morning—to-morrow, that is—directly after breakfast, you go out into the grove and call names to the big rock for half an hour. Don’t stop to take breath; and don’t call the same name twice. Your vocabulary will easily stand the drain. You understand?’
‘And, George,’ continued Mr. Snug, with deliberate, easy intonation, ‘to-morrow morning, at the same time, you present yourself politely to Deacon Farish, tell him that I sent you, and ask him to escort you to his onion-bed. After which you will go carefully to work and pull out all the weeds. You understand, sir?’
‘And then you will both report to me as usual.’ And with a pleasant smile, which was reflected in both their faces, the erring youngsters were dismissed. Before the door has closed behind them we are standing in the doorway. Here I draw the curtain; for who but one of its own household could understand a welcome at the Snuggery?”
No feature of the “Gunnery” life is more interesting to the old scholar or to outsiders than the ingenious and effective punishments invented by Mr. Gunn for the less serious and still important offenses inevitable in such a community. He made early application of the principles so earnestly defended in Herbert Spencer’s “Education” and contrived to “make the punishment fit the crime” in a manner worthy of W. S. Gilbert’s famous “Mikado.” His memorialist, enlarging on this phase of the “Gunnery” life, thus enumerates “the grotesque punishments which Mr. Gunn visited on petty offenses in his school and family”:
“A boy of uncommon diffidence might be sent to call on some village spinster or, worse yet for the blushing youngster, on some comely village lass. A youth too boisterous would be dismissed for a four-mile walk, ordered to hold a chip in his mouth for an hour, or to run a dozen times around the church on the Green, sounding the tin dinner-horn at each corner in rotation. Two small boys caught fighting were often ordered to sit, one in the other’s lap, taking turns thus for an hour or two. Pounding a log with a heavy club was a favorite panacea for superfluous energy in the family sitting-room. Once a mischievous youngster was seen sprinkling a dog’s face with water at the tank behind the Gunnery. The master, who had a tender spot in his heart for animals, stole up behind the offender and ducked him liberally, to give him, as he said afterward, an inkling of the feelings of the dog. At the Gunnery it used to be a customto allow a boy to take the anniversary of his birth as a holiday, and a too clever lad was detected by Mr. Gunn celebrating thus his third birthday within a single year. The next genuine anniversary of the boy’s birth came on a Saturday, which the recusant celebrated by hugging a tree for several hours while his schoolmates enjoyed the regular school holiday. A resident of Washington tells how, years ago, he found at the fork of two roads and hugging a sign-post in anything but sentimental fashion a youth whose only reply to questions was, ‘I’m a poor miserable sinner,’ that being the formula of penance which the master had prescribed. A dozen lads some twenty years ago were caught raiding the bough-apple trees of the neighbors. Mr. Gunn made them draw up a formal address of apology, bear it in procession to each of the amazed owners of the trees, read it on their knees, and pray forgiveness. A single truant once caught committing the same offense in the orchard of a poor widow was sent to work all day picking up stones in one of her fields.
“Actual wickedness was severely punished by Mr. Gunn, sometimes in the good, old-fashioned way; but his motive in inflicting for minor faults the odd penalties here alluded to seemed to be to take cognizance of the error in a manner that would sufficiently incommode the culprit without hurting his self-respect or leaving an angry smart. The boy appreciated thefact that ‘he stood corrected’; but he also appreciated the humorous side of the penalty. Those who revisited Washington after leaving school sought no familiar haunt with more interest than the shrines to which they had made penitential pilgrimages under orders—Kirby Corners, a gentle jog around the square; the old sawmill in the hollow, which, visited at night, was weird and ghostly enough to sober the wildest urchin; Moody Barn, as redolent of pleasant memories as of new-mown hay; and, for more serious faults, distant ‘Judd’s Bridge.’
. . . . . .
“He insisted on neatness and order, and often a family meeting was called and made a court of inquiry over a bit of paper found on the lawn, or a peanut-shuck on the stairs. Once there was a question as to the history of several pieces of orange-peel in the grass in front of the house. The forty boys were summoned and made to stand in a row on the long piazza. Mr. Gunn called upon each one to state what he knew about the orange-peel, and at the end of the investigation he formed the dozen or more culprits into file, the tallest at the head, and made them march in solemn procession about the yard until they had picked up all the offending scraps, and then to the pig-sty to deposit them in their proper place.”
There is a delightful paragraph in a letter which Gibson wrote home to his brothers, in which he tells in a boy’s quaint way of one of these ingenious penalties which was visited on himself.
“One day I and two other boys eat some walnuts in church in the meeting time. Mr. Gunn found it out. He made us three boys take the rest of our walnuts up to the minister. We did so and the minister gave us his thanks for the walnuts, and asked us if we would not have some supper, for it was supper time. We refused and left. He told us not to eat any more.”
But Mr. Gunn could administer as sharp reprimands to parents and older folk as he could to the boys who were his pupils. There is a plaintive letter from Gibson to his father, growing yellow now, with age, in which the heart of the little boy is uncovered, and his longing for letters from home is touchingly revealed. And the fatherly, warm-hearted teacher had evidently read it, and his soul burned within him. So he wrote upon the back page of the little note the following admonitory words, which must have elicited a letter by return mail:
“My Dear Sir: It seems to me if I had such a dear little son as Willie Gibson, sent away from home to a boarding school, and thrown upon the cold charities of the world, so proverbially heartless and selfish as the ministers say it is, I would require one of the clerks to write to him once or twice a quarter. Willie is happy in his present relations, but somewhat anxious about the friends he left behind him. He presumes his parents are well, not having seen their names in the papers, but would feel more sure if he heard from them. Willie is a dear little fellow, just as good as he can be. Should you think it best to write to him, direct care of F. W. Gunn, Washington, Conn.”!
These are words like rifle bullets!
Of course the students of child psychology will be interested to learn whatever is worth knowing concerning the appearance, in embryo, of the man Gibson in the boy of this period. There is satisfaction for such investigators and there is disappointment as well. There are many intimations, at this period, of the man that is to be. There are traces of peculiarities which wholly disappeared with the years. There were aptitudes and tastes appearing in the school-days at the Gunnery, which no reprimands and no discouragements could subdue; and there were shortcomings and faults which the years were destined utterly to efface. It certainly seems strange to find Mr. Gunn writing to the boy’s mother, “Willie has not yet learned to be spontaneously industrious. I know he will come to it. He improves”; and again to his father, “Willie insists that he is getting along finely in his studies, that he studies very hard, and is doing well. But you must accept this with some grains of allowance for a boy’s favorable judgment of himself. He does not learn as fast as I wish to have him. I think his tendency to take on fat hinders his power of industrious, persevering application; he is getting to be quite a big fellow, and I urge him a good deal.” When one remembers that the most marked of all his traits as a man was the fierce and enthusiastic zeal with which he worked, consuming the powers of a robust physique in his zest for toil, one is moved to be very patient with the unpromising side of a child’s nature. It may take a great while to become “spontaneously industrious”; but Gibson’s experience shows how needless it is to be despondent because a boy does not work with a man’s spirit. Sufficient unto the age are the traits thereof.
But in other ways, the schoolboy was forecasting the traits of the mature man. There is a mournful letter preserved out of these years, in which the little fellow writes his father after receiving a reprimand for illustrating his letters with pen-and-ink pictures. His inborn faculty would exhibit itself, and the home letters were filled with funny and interesting sketches. But that did not seem to the parental mind a wise use of writing materials. So the embryo artist was warned to curb his passion for illustration. He wrote a few penitent lines in response. “Next comes about the writing. I own that I am very foolish in putting those pictures in my letters, and I won’t do it any more. I never put them in only to the letters home.” Vain promise! It was one more attempt to drive out nature with a pitchfork; and was as unsuccessful—as it deserved to be. The artist-impulse was straining and struggling within him already and was bound to assert itself more and more vigorously till it should triumph in his life-work.
So, too, there appeared in these early days the passionate love of nature which was to be a controlling element in his later years. Botany was one of the studies which he insisted upon taking up under Mr. Gunn’s teaching. There was a little family controversy over the matter, growing out of the mother’s fear that the really practical things would be neglected in this passion for nature-study. It sounds strange enough, at this distance in time, with all the light of the boy’s later life, to read the mother’s anxious words:
“We wish [Mr. Gunn] to judge and direct in all these things, but I was afraid your own wish and the way I spoke to you about the delight of studying Botany, might have led you to speak so positively in choosing it, that he would suppose it was by our direction. If you really do take up Botany you must expect to find that it is not all play either. There are hard things to remember, and you must make up your mind to work at them bravely and perseveringly if you are determined to make them yours.”
A little sentence later in the same letter shows the bent of the boy. His mother, referring to a recent visit of his father to the school, remarks:
“I was afraid when your father told me how he found you in the calamus swamp, that you would be sick.”
That tells an interesting story of boyish passion for plants. And so do the little fellow’s letters home. Very early in his life at the Gunnery he wrote to his father:
“I get along in my studies in Botany very well indeed, and he has described two or three plants, one of which was Marsh-marigold or the Cowslip. He has analyzed the cherry blossom”; and Mr. Gunn wrote a footnote to the same letter saying: “He seems delighted with Botany and makes close observations.” This quality of his mind, cropping out in its earliest essays, appears again and again in these juvenile letters. They are well worth quoting, as early witnesses to the attentive eye, the retentive memory, the descriptive power which were part of his natural and congenital outfit for his life-work. One of them divides its pages between art and natural history:
“My paints have given me a great deal of fun. I bought a blank book and copied several pictures in it out of my ‘Harris’s Insects,’ and I also painted them, some from the description and some from the plates. I have one page of beetles, another page of butterflies, etc., etc. I guess when I get it done it will be ‘betterish nische.’ Everybody comes to me lately to have
William Hamilton Gibson
me draw and paint them a valentine, which of course I do for some of them. I wish that in your next letter you would send me a couple of paint brushes, for the hairs of mine keep coming out all the while.
“That same feeling has come over me that I used to have last summer when I was after bugs and butterflies. The other day, it came very strong and I went out to look for cocoons, and I looked and looked, but saw nothing, and gave it up entirely, but as I was coming on my way into the house I saw some small pear-trees and I thought that I would look on them and I did, and saw a bunch of leaves. I looked and saw there was a Cecropia cocoon done up in them which made me feel like an eagle darting at her prey. I grabbed the prize and kept it and have got it yet. We have got a new minister which I told you about. I showed it to him and he told me to call and see him and bring it to him and he then asked me if any boy had a microscope. I told him yes (for Commodore has got a Craig’s Microscope) and the next evening Commodore and I took my ‘Harris’s Insects’ and showed it to him. He was much pleased with it and is going to get one. We did not make a very long call, but it was a nice one.”
Another letter to his mother enlists her help in his entomological interests:
“I have just found an Imperial moth worm on a maple-tree. Will you please look on one of the small apple-trees in the orchard near the place where the arbor used to be, and on that row of small apple-trees, there is a tree on which I put a Cecropia worm for myself, which may be found by its effects under the tree. I think a great deal of it or I wouldn’t write about it. Have you found any worms yet? I wish that I was there to look about for them, or I wish that there was somebody there who would look after them for me, for it is such a splendid place for them. The boys are leaving from here, very fast, and we all will leave in 13 days more....
“P. S. That worm that I told you about on the apple-tree, if very large, must be taken off and put into a box with fresh apple leaves every day; if small, do the same.”
A letter which he wrote in 1865 bears witness to the trait which his teacher had already noted—his careful observation. He made pen-and-ink drawings to make clear what flower he was trying to identify, which was plainly the false foxglove.
“I have been out in several places and have stuck in as much as ten stakes in different places where those beautiful scarlet or crimson lilies grow and when the stalk has gone I will take them up. Saturday I intend to go out in search of some more. There are plenty of them, and sometimes I see them two or three on one stalk.
“Do you know what the large trumpet-creeper is that has very large flowers of a red color? One used to grow at the east end of the back piazza up against the side of the house. Well, there is a flower of the same shape and kind of a beautiful yellow color, but it grows like a primrose; on one stalk there are over 20 flowers of about an inch and a half in length. The tops of the buds seem to be lapped over each other, and when there are blossoms they look very pretty. I am going to try and get it for you, but I don’t know whether it has seed or not. I suppose not. Nevertheless, I’ll try and get it for you, for it is very pretty.
“In a garden up here there is a kind of ‘Columbine,’ very large, of two kinds, purple and white and very large. I am welcome to all the seed that I want. I don’t know whether you want any or not, but nevertheless I’ll get you a lot.
“Here I must stop. I remain
“Your aff. son Willie.”
The boy was fortunate in his mother, whose fine nature, trained tastes, and Christian spirit moved and moulded the best there was in him. Her letters to the little pupil are models of maternal sympathy, and reflect very vividly the boy’s strong passion for living things and the study of them. One of her characteristic messages went to him in 1862, and reveals her own interest in the pursuits which were delighting her children and which were destined to mean so much to the boy she was writing to:
“How are your friends and dear companions, the worms? I missed them very much after you had gone, and often found myself stepping carefully and looking down to the right and the left in crossing the upper hall, expecting to see some green or brown thing crawling about. The great drawer I gave you, we call ‘the worm drawer’ yet, and I don’t know as I shall ever open it comfortably again. The peaceable and innocent rolls of linen and sewing lie in it now, just as they used before you had it, but sometimes I forget and open the one under it cautiously, expecting to see some of your treasures dropped through again, on my things. Henry and Julie are making collections now also, and Cottie brought home, the other day, the finest, largest specimen I ever saw, of the sort you called ‘Polyphemus’? It was of immense size, and a very bright healthy color, both in its body and in those little tufts that stud it all over. He laid it away very carefully, and left it in peace a few days, and yesterday, behold it had spun a cocoon in its box as large as a butternut, and as strong as linen, of a beautiful reddish brown. We shall expect the moth with great interest. The children are too impatient to hurry up business with their worms. They are forever opening the boxes, and lifting and handling the creatures, so that I should think the poor things would despair of ever getting a chance to set their houses in order, at all.”
His relations with his mother were always close and sympathetic. She was a rare nature, refined and cultivated, with a strong literary bent and deep religious feeling. She wrote not a little, contributing to the pages of “The Christian Union” and other publications. She scrupulously kept all the boy’s letters from his schooldays forward through the years. One of the cherished mementos of her life was a little manuscript volume, which bears the inscription: “I leave this book to my son William.” It is a record of her study of the Bible, her grapple with the great problems of ethical and theological thought, prayers in which she has uttered the aspirations of a reverent spirit insistently seeking light through all the confusion and shadow of modern speculation, comment upon the great books which were stirring Christendom and sounding the note of the new thought about Christ and Christianity. To read them is to discover the sources of the son’s deep reverence and broad, unconventional religious life. It is to feel anew the unconscious power of motherhood in shaping the ductile spirit of childhood, and to be certain that the light of such a spirit was a very pillar of fire to the soul of her son.
IT was between the years 1866 and 1868 that the great crisis of young Gibson’s life occurred; and a series of influences and incidents befell, which were decisive in settling the great questions of his life-work and of the spirit in which he would undertake it.
The latter of the two was the first to be decided. It was at this period of his life that the boy experienced one of those changes in disposition, which was like the awakening or the sudden unfolding of the real self, hitherto hidden under apparently opposite traits. While he was at the Gunnery, Gibson had troubled the soul of his teacher, as we have seen, because he had not, as Mr. Gunn put it, “learned to be spontaneously industrious.” But during the years immediately following, while he was yet at the Polytechnic, he “came to himself.” He had been an easy-going boy, rather indolent in habit, or at least deficient in the power of industrious, persevering application. But now he began to show a love of work, to love it for its own sake, to plan it, and to seek it of his own volition. He took a vigorous hold upon his studies at the Polytechnic. He found a new delight, as well as a sustained, deep-seated interest in his drawing. He took up a new pursuit, to which he devoted his spare hours to such good purpose that he mastered it in astonishingly little time, and carried it to a high point of skill. Chancing to see some wax-flowers made by an expert of his time in Brooklyn, he promptly decided that the art was one which he could master. After some essays of his own, he put himself under the instruction of this teacher, who soon told the boy that he could teach him no more. There are some wonderful stories floating down from those days concerning the work he did in this medium, so fine in its imitative perfection as to deceive the very elect. One, in particular, is to the effect that a cluster of blossoms which he had modeled and carried, as a gift, to Mr. Beecher’s home, stood upon a table in a little vase when Mrs. Beecher saw it for the first time. She took up the vase, and, raising it to inhale the fragrance which it promised, had crushed the delicate work before she discovered the illusion. Apocryphal or not, the story shows the impression his work made upon his early admirers.
But the time had come which was to put his earnestness and force to the test. His father’s death in 1868 had made it necessary that he should hasten to choose a career and begin his self-support. Few young men are “called” to any special work in life; fewer still “elect,” of their own free will, the thing