He Was There
By Jean Mitchell Boyd
(in Mysterious New England printed by Yankee Magazine)
The rain danced on the roof and its silver fingers tapped on the windows. The wind haunted the comers of the house and seemed to cry to come in-to come into the library of Mr. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War. The "Old Man of the Sea" he was sometimes called. We sat there in the library on that rainy afternoon, Mr. Welles' grandson and I. It was a wonderful place for children to read. The library was not on the first floor. Opposite the front door was a broad stairway with a polished banister. It was the best banister on the street for "sliding down." The stair carpet was thick, so that as you climbed to the landing it was like walking on oysters. If you were going to the second floor, you turned to the right and climbed more stairs, but the library was one high step from the landing. It may have been an ell, added after the old brick house was built. The roof was flat and made a nice dancing floor for the rain. There were windows on three sides, making the light good for reading. The bookcases went up to the ceiling. Many of the books were bound in canvas and were worn as if someone loved them and read them.
Mr. Welles had come to Hartford in 1869, after he finished his second term as Secretary of the Navy. He lived there until he died in 1878. Those of us who were children at the turn of the century never knew him, but we always had heard so much about him that he still seemed to be a neighbor. The house was on Charter Oak Place, so named because the oak had stood there which had been the hiding place in 1687 of the Connecticut Charter. Sir Edmund Andros, the royal governor, had come to take it to England to the King, which he couldn't do.
We sat there in the library on that long ago afternoon. We each had a book by Joel Chandler Harris -"Aaron in the Wildwoods" and "Aaron the Runaway." Aaron was a slave, an Arab, who knew the language of animals. He understood the mysteries of the swamps-the will-o'-the-wisp and the sound of wind in the loblolly pine.
Now and then when I turned a page I looked around the room. Some of the low shelves held neatly folded newspapers, a complete file of Civil War newspapers. I think it was The Hartford Times because Mr. Welles had been an editor until Mr. Lincoln asked him to be a member of his cabinet. He needed someone from New England.
Once when we were in the library there was a wooden box in the corner. It was one of the boxes from the attic, which held all the correspondence concerning the Navy during the Civil War. There were notes signed A. Lincoln and Seward and Porter and Farragut. We were interested in Farragut because his flagship had been the Hartford and her flags were in the State Capitol, but you had the feeling that Mr. Welles wouldn't want his papers disturbed.
There was a portrait of him over the white marble mantle in the "best parlor." He looked like Mr. Lowell, only fiercer. It would be well for children to leave his papers alone. I wonder now if Mr. Welles' diary was on one of the shelves. It was called "The Deadly Diary" because it was such a frank document. Years after his death, when it was published and I read it, I wished that I might have sat in his library and held the original in my hands. I would have liked to have read in the stillness of that book-lined room about the gray day in 1864 when Mr. Welles "witnessed the wasting life of the good and great man who was expiring before me."
So we sat in the peace of the late afternoon, lost in stories of other years, shuddering pleasantly when bloodhounds bayed and "patterollers" rode after runaway slaves. The little feet of the rain ran more lightly. The wind went away to ruffle the Connecticut River. The door of the room was open, and from downstairs came the sound of the piano in the "best parlor" being played softly, as people often play when twilight glides through the windows in her gray velvet shoes.
And then into the stillness of the room someone came, someone came silently as fox fire comes, unseen as wind in the tree tops, but beyond all shadow of doubting, someone came.
We looked up, both of us. There was no one we could see. We listened, but we heard nothing, no mice running in the wall, no creaking board in the floor. Nothing touched us, no breath of air, no invisible garment. But someone seemed to be there.
I said softly, "Did you think-just now-someone came in?"
"Yes, I did, but I don't see him."
"Do you s'pose it could be your grandfather?"
"It prob'ly is."
"If it is your grandfather, wouldn't it be polite for us to stand up?" "Yes, it would."
We laid down our books and stood respectfully, as children who lived before the Atomic Age were taught to do when an older person came into a room. You stood because it showed your respect for a person's years, and the wisdom which the years had brought. A disrespectful child came to no good end.
For a short time we stood there, neither frightened nor amazed. A grandfather is a pleasant person. My grandfather had been a captain in the Civil War, marched in his blue uniform in parades, and usually had button peppermints in his pocket. The fact that we could not see this grandfather did not seem particularly strange. After all, it was his library.
And then we heard the heavy steps of Henry Green on the stairs, making a clump-thump sound. He was coming with a taper to light the lamps. Whoever had been with us went away. We sat down.
Henry Green had been a slave in Virginia who had escaped to Washington and attached himself to the Welles family. He had squeezed whole groves of lemons into lemonade for very best people - Mrs. Lincoln, a special friend of Mrs. Welles; the Stantons; the Sewards; Mr. Chase and his daughter, Miss Kate - everybody. He said there was a cannonball in his back which made him lame.
He came into the library and said that night and the bats were coming early. He lighted the lamp on the big round table with the marble top. He drew the plain dark-red curtains and shut out the darkness. As he left, he turned in the doorway. The taper made strange shadows on his dark face.
He said, "Ah 'clare to goodness, sometimes it seem lak he was here." We nodded solemnly. His fingers went into the pocket where he kept the rabbit's foot. He believed in spirits and witches.
We listened as he went upstairs to light the lamps in the upper hall. Then he started downstairs thump-clump. Henry Green had been the body servant of Colonel Thomas Welles, son of Mr. Secretary Welles. Once, before a battle, Henry became frightened and fled. But he came to a bridge on which Mrs. Gideon Welles seemed to appear. She cried, "Go back, Henry, go back." She was more awesome than the whole Rebel Army, so he went back. And that was the battle that won the war, so that Mr. President Lincoln took a gold tack hammer and knocked the chains off the hands and feet of every slave in America.
Thump-clump. And after the war Colonel Welles and Henry sailed around the world with Admiral Farragut. The Devil walked beside the boat and ruffled the water just to be mean.
We heard Henry reach the lower hall. We held our books, but we did not read. The lamplight touched the old books gently. Here and there a book was missing from a shelf.
At length I said, "Do you think your grandfather was really here?" "He was here."
"Why did he come, do you s'pose?"
"I s'pose he came down for a book he wanted. Prob'ly one they don't have in the library in Heaven."
"Do-do-they read Up There?"
"Yes. What else could you do forever and ever, amen?"
And lo, the old New England Heaven of golden harps, a great White Throne and Cherubim and Seraphim passed away. And the new Heaven was a vast Celestial Library beyond the foothills of the Pleiades. The books were bound in solid gold. The reading lamps were of alabaster and the lights were stars. And those who had been good on earth sat in purple velvet chairs and read forevermore. But those who had been disrespectful and had not gone to church on Sunday spent all eternity merely dusting books with dusters of gray cat-stitched clouds.
And so, when the fingers of the rain are on the north windows, and the wind cries like a lost lamb, I look back across the years which make up more than half a century, and see two children standing in the twilight, standing quietly, respectfully, because they thought Mr. Gideon Welles had come back to his library.