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WHITTIER’S LOST LOVE
IN the life of the Quaker poet there is an unwritten chapter of personal history full to the brim of romance. It will be remembered that Whittier in his will left ten thousand dollars for an Amesbury Home for Aged Women. One room in this home Mrs. Elizabeth W. Pickard (the niece to whom the poet bequeathed his Amesbury homestead, and who passed away in the early spring of this year , in an illness contracted while decorating her beloved uncle's grave on the anniversary of his birth), caused to be furnished with a massive black walnut set formerly used in the "spare-room" of her uncle's house – the room where Lucy Larcom, Gail Hamilton, the Cary sisters, and George Macdonald were in former times entertained. A stipulation of this gift was that the particular room in the Home thus to be furnished was to be known as the Whittier room.
In connection with this Home and this room comes the story of romantic interest. Two years after the death of Mr. Whittier an old lady made application for admission to the Home on the ground that in her youth she was a schoolmate and friend of the poet. And although she was not entitled to admission by being a resident of the town, she would no doubt have been received if she had not died soon after making the application.
This aged woman was Mrs. Evelina Bray Downey, concerning whose schoolgirl friendship for Whittier many inaccurate newspaper articles were current at the time of her death, in the spring of 1895. The story as here told is, however, authentic.
Evelina Bray was born at Marblehead, October 10, 1810. She was the youngest of ten children of a ship master, who made many voyages to the East Indies and to European ports. In a letter written in 1884, Mrs. Downey said of herself: "My father, an East India sea captain, made frequent and long voyages. For safekeeping and improvement he sent me to Haverhill, bearing a letter of introduction from Captain William Story to the family of Judge Bartley. They passed me over to Mr. Jonathan K. Smith, and Mrs. Smith gave me as a roommate her only daughter, Mary. This was the opening season of the New Haverhill Academy, a sort of rival to the Bradford Academy. Subsequently I graduated from the Ipswich Female Seminary, in the old Mary Lyon days."
Mary Smith, Miss Bray's roommate at Haverhill, and her lifelong friend – though for fifty years they were lost to each other – was afterward the wife of Reverend Doctor S. F. Smith, the author of "America."
Evelina is described as a tall and strikingly beautiful brunette, with remarkable richness of colouring, and she took high rank in scholarship. The house on Water Street at which she boarded was directly opposite that of Abijah W. Thayer, editor of the Haverhill Gazette, with whom Whittier boarded while at the academy. Whittier was then nineteen years old, and Evelina was seventeen. Naturally, they walked to and from the school together, and their interest in each other was noticeable.
If the Quaker lad harboured thoughts of marriage, and even gave expression to them, it would not be strange. But the traditions of Whittier's sect included disapproval of music, and Evelina's father had given her a piano, and she was fascinated with the study of the art proscribed by the Quakers. Then, too, Whittier was poor, and his gift of versification, which had already given him quite a reputation, was not considered in those days of much consequence as a means of livelihood. If they did not at first realise, both of them, the hopelessness of their love, they found it out after Miss Bray's return to her home.
About this time Mr. Whittier accompanied his mother to a quarterly meeting of the Society of Friends at Salem, and one morning before breakfast took a walk of a few miles to the quaint old town of Marblehead, where he paid a visit to the home of his schoolmate. She could not invite him in, but instead suggested a stroll along the picturesque, rocky shore of the bay.
This was in the spring or early summer of 1828, and the poet was twenty years old, a farmer's boy, with high ambitions, but with no outlook as yet toward any profession. It may be imagined that the young couple, after a discussion of the situation, saw the hopelessness of securing the needed consent of their parents, and returned from their morning's walk with saddened hearts. Whatever dreams they may have cherished were from that hour abandoned, and they parted with this understanding.
In the next fifty years they met but once again, four or five years after the morning walk, and this once was at Marblehead, along the shore. Miss Bray had in the meantime been teaching in a seminary in Mississippi, and Whittier had been editing papers in Boston and Hartford, and had published his first book, a copy of which he had sent her. There was no renewal at this time of their lover-like relations, and they parted in friendship.
I have said that they met but once in the half-century after that morning's walk; the truth is they were once again close together, but Whittier was not conscious of it. This was while he was editing the Pennsylvania Freeman, at Philadelphia. Miss Bray was then associated with a Miss Catherine Beecher, in an educational movement of considerable importance, and was visiting Philadelphia. Just at this time a noted Massachusetts divine, Reverend Doctor Todd, was announced to preach in the Presbyterian church, and both these Haverhill schoolmates were moved to hear him. By a singular chance they occupied the same pew, and sat close together, but Miss Bray was the only one who was conscious of this and she was too shy to reveal herself. It must have been her bonnet hid her face, for otherwise Whittier's remarkably keen eyes could not have failed to recognise the dear friend of his schooldays.
Their next meeting was at the reunion of the Haverhill Academy class of 1827, which was held in 1885 half a century after their second interview at Marblehead. It was said by some that it was this schoolboy love which Whittier commemorated in his poem, "Memories." But Mr. Pickard, the poet's biographer, affirms that, so far as known, the only direct reference made by Whittier to the affair under consideration occurred in the fine poem, "A Sea Dream," written in 1874.
In the poet, now an old man, the sight of Marblehead awakens the memory of that morning walk, and he writes:
"Is this the wind, the soft sea wind
That stirred thy locks of brown?
Are these the rocks whose mosses knew
The trail of thy light gown,
where boy and girl sat down?
"I see the gray fort's broken wall,
The boats that rock below;
And, out at sea, the passing sails
We saw so long ago,
Rose-red in morning's glow.
. . . . . . . .
"Thou art not here, thou art not there,
Thy place I cannot see;
I only know that where thou art
The blessed angels be,
And heaven is glad for thee.
. . . . . . . .
"But turn to me thy dear girl-face
Without the angel's crown,
The wedded roses of thy lips,
Thy loose hair rippling down
In waves of golden brown.
"Look forth once more through space and time
And let thy sweet shade fall
In tenderest grace of soul and form
On memory's frescoed wall, –
A shadow, and yet all!"
Whittier, it will be seen, believed that the love of his youth was dead. He was soon to find out, in a very odd way, that this was not the case.
Early in the forties, Miss Bray became principal of the "female department" of the Benton School at St. Louis. In 1849, during the prevalence of a fearful epidemic, the school building was converted into a hospital, and one of the patients was an Episcopal clergyman, Reverend William S. Downey, an Englishman, claiming to be of noble birth. He recovered his health, but was entirely deaf, not being able to hear the loudest sound for the remainder of his life. Miss Bray married him, and for forty years endured martyrdom, for he was of a tyrannous disposition and disagreeably eccentric.
Mrs. Downey had never told her husband of her early acquaintance with Whittier, but he found it out by a singular chance. When Reverend S. F. Smith and his wife celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their marriage the event was mentioned in the papers, and the fact that Mrs. Smith was a schoolmate of Whittier was chronicled. Mr. Downey had heard his wife speak of being a schoolmate of the wife of the author of "America," and, putting these two circumstances together, he concluded that his wife must also have known the Quaker poet in his youth. He said nothing to her about this, however, but wrote a letter to Whittier himself, and sent with it a tract he had written in severe denunciation of Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll. As a postscript to this letter he asked: "Did you ever know Evelina Bray?" Whittier at once replied, acknowledging the receipt of the tract, and making this characteristic comment upon it:
"It occurs to me to say, however, that in thy tract thee has hardly charity enough for that unfortunate man, Ingersoll, who, it seems to me, is much to be pitied for his darkness of unbelief. We must remember that one of the great causes of infidelity is the worldliness, selfishness, and evil dealing of professed Christians. An awful weight of responsibility rests upon the Christian church in this respect."
And to this letter Whittier added as a postscript: "Can you give me the address of Evelina Bray?" Mr. Downey at once wrote that he was her husband, told of his service of the Master, and indirectly begged for assistance in his work of spreading the gospel. At this time he was an evangelist of the Baptist church, having some time since abandoned the mather faith. And, though he was not reduced to poverty, he accepted alms, as if poor, thus trying sorely the proud spirit of his wife. So it was not an unwonted request.
Of course, the poet had no sympathy with the work of attack Mr. Downey was evidently engaged in. But he feared the girl friend of his youth might be in destitute circumstances, and, for her sake, he made a liberal remittance. All this the miserable husband tried to keep from his wife, who he knew would at once return the money, but she came upon the fact of the remittance by finding Whittier's letter in her husband's pocket.
Naturally, she was very indignant, but her letter to Whittier returning the money was couched in the most delicate terms, and gave no hint of the misery of her life. Until the year of his death she was an occasional correspondent with the poet, one of his last letters, written at Hampton Falls in the summer of 1892, being addressed to her. Their only meeting was at the Haverhill Academy reunion of 1885, fifty-eight years after the love episode of their school-days.
When they met at Haverhill the poet took the love of his youth apart from the other schoolmates, and they then exchanged souvenirs, he receiving her miniature painted on ivory, by Porter, the same artist who painted the first likeness ever taken of Whittier. This latter miniature is now in the possession of Mr. Pickard. The portrait of Miss Bray, representing her in the full flush of her girlish beauty, wearing as a crown a wreath of roses, was returned to Mrs. Dawney after the poet's death, by the niece of Whittier, into whose possession it came.
WHITTIER’S BIRTHPLACE, EAST HAVERHILL, MASS.
Mrs. Downey spent her last days in the family of Judge Bradley, at West Newbury, Massachusetts. After her death some valuable china of hers was sold at auction, and several pieces were secured by a neighbour, Mrs. Ladd. The Ladd family has since taken charge of the Whittier birthplace at East Haverhill, and by this chain of circumstances Evelina Bray's china now rests on the Whittier shelves, together with the genuine Whittier china, put in its old place by Mrs. Pickard.
It was not because of destitution that Mrs. Downey made application to enter the Old Ladies' Home which Whittier endowed, but, because, cherishing until the day of her death her youthful fondness for the poet, she longed to live during the sunset time of her life near his grave. In all probability her request would have been granted, had not she, too, been suddenly called to the land where there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage.