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True Stories from History and Biography By Nathaniel Hawthorne Characters: 20065

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


When evening came, Mr. Temple found Edward considerably revived in spirits, and disposed to be resigned to his misfortune. Indeed, the figure of the boy, as it was dimly seen by the fire-light, reclining in a well stuffed easy-chair, looked so very comfortable that many people might have envied him. When a man's eyes have grown old with gazing at the ways of the world, it does not seem such a terrible misfortune to have them bandaged.

Little Emily Robinson sat by Edward's side, with the air of an accomplished nurse. As well as the duskiness of the chamber would permit, she watched all his motions, and each varying expression of his face, and tried to anticipate her patient's wishes, before his tongue could utter them. Yet it was noticeable, that the child manifested an indescribable awe and disquietude, whenever she fixed her eyes on the bandage; for to her simple and affectionate heart, it seemed as if her dear friend Edward was separated from her, because she could not see his eyes. A friend's eyes tell us many things, which could never be spoken by the tongue.

George, likewise, looked awkward and confused, as stout and healthy boys are accustomed to do, in the society of the sick or afflicted. Never having felt pain or sorrow, they are abashed, from not knowing how to sympathize with the sufferings of others.

"Well, my dear Edward," inquired Mrs. Temple, "is your chair quite comfortable? and has your little nurse provided for all your wants? If so, your father is ready to begin his stories."

"Oh, I am very well now," answered Edward, with a faint smile. "And my ears have not forsaken me, though my eyes are good for nothing. So, pray, dear father, begin!"

It was Mr. Temple's design to tell the children a series of true stories, the incidents of which should be taken from the childhood and early life of eminent people. Thus he hoped to bring George, and Edward, and Emily, into closer acquaintance with the famous persons who have lived in other times, by showing that they also had been children once. Although Mr. Temple was scrupulous to relate nothing but what was founded on fact, yet he felt himself at liberty to clothe the incidents of his narrative in a new coloring, so that his auditors might understand them the better.

"My first story," said he, "shall be about a painter of pictures."

"Dear me!" cried Edward, with a sigh. "I am afraid I shall never look at pictures any more."

"We will hope for the best," answered his father. "In the mean time, you must try to see things within your own mind."

Mr. Temple then began the following story:

BENJAMIN WEST

Born 1738. Died 1820.

In the year 1738, there came into the world, in the town of Springfield, Pennsylvania, a Quaker infant, from whom his parents and neighbors looked for wonderful things. A famous preacher of the Society of Friends had prophesied about little Ben, and foretold that he would be one of the most remarkable characters that had appeared on earth since the days of William Penn. On this account, the eyes of many people were fixed upon the boy. Some of his ancestors had won great renown in the old wars of England and France; but it was probably expected that Ben would become a preacher, and would convert multitudes to the peaceful doctrines of the Quakers. Friend West and his wife were thought to be very fortunate in having such a son.

Little Ben lived to the ripe age of six years, without doing any thing that was worthy to be told in history. But, one summer afternoon, in his seventh year, his mother put a fan into his hand, and bade him keep the flies away from the face of a little babe, who lay fast asleep in the cradle. She then left the room.

The boy waved the fan to-and-fro, and drove away the buzzing flies whenever they had the impertinence to come near the baby's face. When they had all flown out of the window, or into distant parts of the room, he bent over the cradle, and delighted himself with gazing at the sleeping infant. It was, indeed, a very pretty sight. The little personage in the cradle slumbered peacefully, with its waxen hands under its chin, looking as full of blissful quiet as if angels were singing lullabies in its ear. Indeed, it must have been dreaming about Heaven; for, while Ben stooped over the cradle, the little baby smiled.

"How beautiful she looks!" said Ben to himself. "What a pity it is, that such a pretty smile should not last forever!"

Now Ben, at this period of his life, had never heard of that wonderful art, by which a look, that appears and vanishes in a moment, may be made to last for hundreds of years. But, though nobody had told him of such an art, he may be said to have invented it for himself. On a table, near at hand, there were pens and paper, and ink of two colors, black and red. The boy seized a pen and sheet of paper, and kneeling down beside the cradle, began to draw a likeness of the infant. While he was busied in this manner, he heard his mother's step approaching, and hastily tried to conceal the paper.

"Benjamin, my son, what hast thou been doing?" inquired his mother, observing marks of confusion in his face.

At first, Ben was unwilling to tell; for he felt as if there might be something wrong in stealing the baby's face, and putting it upon a sheet of paper. However, as his mother insisted, he finally put the sketch into her hand, and then hung his head, expecting to be well scolded. But when the good lady saw what was on the paper, in lines of red and black ink, she uttered a scream of surprise and joy.

"Bless me!" cried she. "It is a picture of little Sally!"

And then she threw her arms round our friend Benjamin, and kissed him so tenderly, that he never afterwards was afraid to show his performances to his mother.

As Ben grew older, he was observed to take vast delight in looking at the hues and forms of nature. For instance, he was greatly pleased with the blue violets of spring, the wild roses of summer, and the scarlet cardinal-flowers of early autumn. In the decline of the year, when the woods were variegated with all the colors of the rainbow, Ben seemed to desire nothing better than to gaze at them from morn till night. The purple and golden clouds of sunset were a joy to him. And he was continually endeavoring to draw the figures of trees, men, mountains, houses, cattle, geese, ducks, and turkeys, with a piece of chalk, on barn-doors, or on the floor.

In these old times, the Mohawk Indians were still numerous in Pennsylvania. Every year a party of them used to pay a visit to Springfield, because the wigwams of their ancestors had formerly stood there. These wild men grew fond of little Ben, and made him very happy by giving him some of the red and yellow paint with which they were accustomed to adorn their faces. His mother, too, presented him with a piece of indigo. Thus he now had three colors,-red, blue, and yellow-and could manufacture green, by mixing the yellow with the blue. Our friend Ben was overjoyed, and doubtless showed his gratitude to the Indians by taking their likenesses, in the strange dresses which they wore, with feathers, tomahawks, and bows and arrows.

But, all this time, the young artist had no paint-brushes, nor were there any to be bought, unless he had sent to Philadelphia on purpose. However, he was a very ingenious boy, and resolved to manufacture paint-brushes for himself. With this design, he laid hold upon-what do you think? why, upon a respectable old black cat, who was sleeping quietly by the fireside.

"Puss," said little Ben to the cat, "pray give me some of the fur from the tip of thy tail!"

Though he addressed the black cat so civilly, yet Ben was determined to have the fur, whether she were willing or not. Puss, who had no great zeal for the fine arts, would have resisted if she could; but the boy was armed with his mother's scissors, and very dexterously clipped off fur enough to make a paint-brush. This was of so much use to him, that he applied to Madam Puss again and again, until her warm coat of fur had become so thin and ragged, that she could hardly keep comfortable through the winter. Poor thing! she was forced to creep close into the chimney-corner, and eyed Ben with a very rueful physiognomy. But Ben considered it more necessary that he should have paint-brushes, than that Puss should be warm.

About this period, Friend West received a visit from Mr. Pennington, a merchant of Philadelphia, who was likewise a member of the Society of Friends. The visitor, on entering the parlor, was surprised to see it ornamented with drawings of Indian chiefs, and of birds with beautiful plumage, and of the wild flowers of the forest. Nothing of the kind was ever seen before in the habitation of a Quaker farmer.

"Why, Friend West," exclaimed the Philadelphia merchant, "what has possessed thee to cover thy walls with all these pictures? Where on earth didst thou get them?"

Then Friend West explained, that all these pictures were painted by little Ben, with no better materials than red and yellow ochre and a piece of indigo, and with brushes made of the black cat's fur.

"Verily," said Mr. Pennington, "the boy hath a wonderful faculty. Some of our friends might look upon these matters as vanity; but little Benjamin appears to have been born a painter; and Providence is wiser than we are."

The good merchant patted Benjamin on the head, and evidently considered him a wonderful boy. When his parents saw how much their son's performances were admired, they no doubt remembered the prophecy of the old Quaker preacher, respecting Ben's future eminence. Yet they could not understand how he was ever to become a very great and useful man, merely by making pictures.

One evening, shortly after Mr. Pennington's return to Philadelphia, a package arrived at Springfield, directed to our little friend Ben.

"What can it possibly be?" thought Ben, when it was put into his hands. "Who can have sent me such a great

square package as this!"

On taking off the thick brown paper which enveloped it, behold! there was a paint-box, with a great many cakes of paint, and brushes of various sizes. It was the gift of good Mr. Pennington. There were likewise several squares of canvas, such as artists use for painting pictures upon, and, in addition to all these treasures, some beautiful engravings of landscapes. These were the first pictures that Ben had ever seen, except those of his own drawing.

What a joyful evening was this for the little artist! At bedtime, he put the paint-box under his pillow, and got hardly a wink of sleep; for, all night long, his fancy was painting pictures in the darkness. In the morning, he hurried to the garret, and was seen no more till the dinner-hour; nor did he give himself time to eat more than a mouthful or two of food, before he hurried back to the garret again. The next day, and the next, he was just as busy as ever; until at last his mother thought it time to ascertain what he was about. She accordingly followed him to the garret.

On opening the door, the first object that presented itself to her eyes was our friend Benjamin, giving the last touches to a beautiful picture. He had copied portions of two of the engravings, and made one picture out of both, with such admirable skill that it was far more beautiful than the originals. The grass, the trees, the water, the sky, and the houses, were all painted in their proper colors. There, too, was the sunshine and the shadow, looking as natural as life.

"My dear child, thou hast done wonders!" cried his mother.

The good lady was in an ecstasy of delight. And well might she be proud of her boy; for there were touches in this picture, which old artists, who had spent a lifetime in the business, need not have been ashamed of. Many a year afterwards, this wonderful production was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London.

When Benjamin was quite a large lad, he was sent to school at Philadelphia. Not long after his arrival, he had a slight attack of fever, which confined him to his bed. The light, which would otherwise have disturbed him, was excluded from his chamber by means of closed wooden shutters. At first, it appeared so totally dark, that Ben could not distinguish any object in the room. By degrees, however, his eyes became accustomed to the scanty light.

He was lying on his back, looking up towards the ceiling, when suddenly he beheld the dim apparition of a white cow, moving slowly over his head! Ben started, and rubbed his eyes, in the greatest amazement.

"What can this mean?" thought he.

The white cow disappeared; and next came several pigs, who trotted along the ceiling, and vanished into the darkness of the chamber. So lifelike did these grunters look, that Ben almost seemed to hear them squeak.

"Well, this is very strange!" said Ben to himself.

When the people of the house came to see him, Benjamin told them of the marvellous circumstance which had occurred. But they would not believe him.

"Benjamin, thou art surely out of thy senses!" cried they. "How is it possible that a white cow and a litter of pigs should be visible on the ceiling of a dark chamber?"

Ben, however, had great confidence in his own eyesight, and was determined to search the mystery to the bottom. For this purpose, when he was again left alone, he got out of bed, and examined the window-shutters. He soon perceived a small chink in one of them, through which a ray of light found its passage, and rested upon the ceiling. Now the science of optics will inform us, that the pictures of the white cow and the pigs, and of other objects out of doors, came into the dark chamber, through this narrow chink, and were painted over Benjamin's head. It is greatly to his credit, that he discovered the scientific principle of this phenomenon, and, by means of it, constructed a Camera Obscura, or Magic Lantern, out of a hollow box. This was of great advantage to him in drawing landscapes.

Well; time went on, and Benjamin continued to draw and paint pictures, until he had now reached the age when it was proper that he should choose a business for life. His father and mother were in considerable perplexity about him. According to the ideas of the Quakers it is not right for people to spend their lives in occupations that are of no real and sensible advantage to the world. Now, what advantage could the world expect from Benjamin's pictures? This was a difficult question; and, in order to set their minds at rest, his parents determined to consult the preachers and wise men of their society. Accordingly, they all assembled in the meeting-house, and discussed the matter from beginning to end.

Finally, they came to a very wise decision. It seemed so evident that Providence had created Benjamin to be a painter, and had given him abilities which would be thrown away in any other business, that the Quakers resolved not to oppose his inclination. They even acknowledged that the sight of a beautiful picture might convey instruction to the mind, and might benefit the heart, as much as a good book or a wise discourse. They therefore committed the youth to the direction of God, being well assured that he best knew what was his proper sphere of usefulness. The old men laid their hands upon Benjamin's head, and gave him their blessing, and the women kissed him affectionately. All consented that he should go forth into the world, and learn to be a painter, by studying the best pictures of ancient and modern times.

So our friend Benjamin left the dwelling of his parents, and his native woods and streams, and the good Quakers of Springfield, and the Indians who had given him his first colors,-he left all the places and persons whom he had hitherto known,-and returned to them no more. He went first to Philadelphia, and afterwards to Europe. Here he was noticed by many great people, but retained all the sobriety and simplicity which he had learned among the Quakers. It is related of him, that, when he was presented at the court of the Prince of Parma, he kept his hat upon his head, even while kissing the Prince's hand.

When he was twenty-five years old, he went to London, and established himself there as an artist. In due course of time, he acquired great fame by his pictures, and was made chief painter to King George the Third, and President of the Royal Academy of Arts. When the Quakers of Pennsylvania heard of his success, they felt that the prophecy of the old preacher, as to little Ben's future eminence, was now accomplished. It is true, they shook their heads at his pictures of battle and bloodshed, such as the Death of Wolfe,-thinking that these terrible scenes should not be held up to the admiration of the world.

But they approved of the great paintings in which he represented the miracles and sufferings of the Redeemer of Mankind. King George employed him to adorn a large and beautiful chapel, at Windsor Castle, with pictures of these sacred subjects. He likewise painted a magnificent picture of Christ Healing the Sick, which he gave to the Hospital at Philadelphia. It was exhibited to the public, and produced so much profit that the Hospital was enlarged, so as to accommodate thirty more patients. If Benjamin West had done no other good deed than this, yet it would have been enough to entitle him to an honorable remembrance forever. At this very day, there are thirty poor people in the Hospital, who owe all their comforts to that same picture.

We shall mention only a single incident more. The picture of Christ Healing the Sick was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London, where it covered a vast space, and displayed a multitude of figures as large as life. On the wall, close beside this admirable picture, hung a small and faded landscape. It was the same that little Ben had painted in his father's garret, after receiving the paint-box and engravings from good Mr. Pennington.

He lived many years, in peace and honor, and died in 1820, at the age of eighty-two. The story of his life is almost as wonderful as a fairy tale; for there are few stranger transformations than that of a little unknown Quaker boy, in the wilds of America, into the most distinguished English painter of his day. Let us each make the best use of our natural abilities, as Benjamin West did; and with the blessing of Providence, we shall arrive at some good end. As for fame, it is but little matter whether we acquire it or not.

"Thank you for the story, my dear father," said Edward, when it was finished. "Do you know, that it seems as if I could see things without the help of my eyes? While you were speaking, I have seen little Ben, and the baby in its cradle, and the Indians, and the white cow and the pigs, and kind Mr. Pennington, and all the good old Quakers, almost as plainly as if they were in this very room."

"It is because your attention was not disturbed by outward objects," replied Mr. Temple. "People, when deprived of sight, often have more vivid ideas than those who possess the perfect use of their eyes. I will venture to say that George has not attended to the story quite so closely."

"No indeed," said George, "but it was a very pretty story for all that. How I should have laughed to see Ben making a paint-brush out of the black cat's tail! I intend to try the experiment with Emily's kitten."

"Oh, no, no, George!" cried Emily, earnestly. "My kitten cannot spare her tail."

Edward being an invalid, it was now time for him to retire to bed. When the family bade him good night, he turned his face towards them, looking very loth to part.

"I shall not know when morning comes," said he sorrowfully. "And besides I want to hear your voices all the time; for, when nobody is speaking, it seems as if I were alone in a dark world!"

"You must have faith, my dear child," replied his mother. "Faith is the soul's eyesight; and when we possess it, the world is never dark nor lonely."

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