Зображення сторінки
PDF
ePub

younger brothers were taught at college, his own education was neglected, and that he acquired at home little more than the ability to read and write. He remembered, too, that at the age of eight years he discovered, to his shame and sorrow, that one of his eyes was blind, - a circumstance that exposed him to the taunts of his companions. The influence of a personal defect, and of the ridicule it occasions, upon the character of a sensitive child, can be understood only by those whose childhood was embittered from that cause ; but such cases as those of Byron and Girard should teach those who have the charge of youth the crime it is to permit such defects to be the subject of remark. Girard also early lost his mother, an event which soon brought him under the sway of a step-mother. Doubtless he was a wilful, arbitrary, and irascible boy, since we know that he was a wilful, arbitrary, and irascible man. Before he was fourteen, having chosen the profession of his father, he left home, with his father's consent, and went to sea in the capacity of cabin-boy. He used to boast, late in life, that he began the world with sixpence in his pocket. Quite enough for a cabin-boy.

For nine years he sailed between Bordeaux and the French West Indies, returning at length with the rank of first mate, or, as the French term it, lieutenant of his vessel. He had well improved his time. Some of the defects of his early education he had supplied by study, and it is evident that he had become a skilful navigator. It was then the law of France that no man should command a vessel who was not twenty-five years old, and had not sailed two cruises in a ship of the royal navy. Girard was but twenty-three, and had sailed in none but merchant-vessels. His father, however, had influence enough to procure him a dispensation ; and in 1773 he was licensed to command. He appears to have been scarcely just to his father when he wrote, sixty-three years after : “ I have the proud satisfaction of knowing that my conduct, my labor, and my economy have enabled me to do one hundred times more for my relations than they all together have ever done for me since the day of my birth.” In the mere amount of money expended, this may have been true; but it is the start toward fortune that is so difficult. His father, besides procuring the dispensation, assisted him to purchase goods for his first commercial venture. At the age of twenty-four, we find him sailing to the West Indies ; not indeed in command of the vessel, but probably as mate and supercargo, and part owner of goods to the value of three thousand dollars. He never trod his native land again. Having disposed of his cargo and taken on board another, he sailed for New York, which he reached in July, 1774. The storm of war, which was soon to sweep commerce from the ocean, was already muttering below the horizon, when Stephen Girard, “ mariner and merchant,” as he always delighted to style himself, first saw the land wherein his lot was to be cast. For two years longer, however, he continued to exercise his twofold vocation. An ancient certificate, preserved among his papers, informs the curious explorer, that, “in the year 1774, Stephen Girard sailed as mate of a vessel from New York to [New] Orleans, and that he continued to sail out of the said port until May, 1776, when he arrived in Philadelphia commander of a sloop,” of which the said Stephen Girard was part owner.

Lucky was it for Girard that he got into Philadelphia just when he did, with all his possessions with him. He had the narrowest escape from capture. On his way from New Orleans to a Canadian port, he had lost himself in a fog at the entranco of Delaware Bay, swarming then with British cruisers, of whose presence Captain Girard had heard nothing. His flag of distress brought alongside an American captain, who told him where he was, and assured him that, if he ventured out to sea, he would never reach port except as a British prize. “Mon Dieu!exclaimed Girard in great panic, " what shall I do?” “You have no chance but to push right up to Philadelphia,” replied the captain. “How am I to get there?” said Girard; “I have no pilot, and I don't know the way.” A pilot was found, who, howerer, demanded a preliminary payment of five dollars, which Girard had not on board. In great distress, he implored the captain to be his security for the sum. He consented, a pilot took charge of the sloop, the anchor was heaved, and the vessel sped on her way. An hour later, while they were still in sight of the anchorage, a British man-of-war came within the capes. But Dr. Franklin, with his oared galleys, his chevaux de frise, his forts, and his signal-stations, had made the Delaware a safe harbor of refuge ; and Girard arrived safely at Philadelphia on one of the early days of May, 1776. Thus it was a mere chance of war that gave Girard to the Quaker City. In the whole world he could not have found a more congenial abode, for the Quakers were the only religious sect with which he ever had the slightest sympathy. Quakers he always liked and esteemed, partly because they had no priests, partly because they disregarded ornament and reduced life to its simplest and most obvious utilities, partly because some of their opinions were in accord with his own. He had grown up during the time when Voltaire was sorereign lord of the opinions of Continental Europe. Before landing at Philadelphia, he was already a republican and an unbeliever, and such he remained to the last. The Declaration of Independence was impending: he was ready for it. The “Common Sense” of Thomas Paine had appeared: he was the man of all others to enjoy it. It is, however, questionable if at that time he had English enough to understand it in the original, since the colloquy just reported with the American captain took place in French. He was slow in becoming familiar with the English language, and even to the end of his life seemed to prefer conversing in French.

He was a mariner no more. The great fleet of Lord Howe arrived at New York in July. Every harbor was blockaded, and all commerce was suspended. Even the cargoes of tobacco despatched by Congress to their Commissioners in France, for the purchase of arms and stores, were usually captured before they had cleared the Capes. Captain Girard now rented a small store in Water Street, near the spot where he lived for nearly sixty years, in which he carried on the business of a grocer and wine-bottler. Those who knew him at this time report that he was a taciturn, repulsive young man, never associating with men of his own age and calling, devoted to business, close in his dealings, of the most rigorous economy, and preserving still the rough clothing and general appearance of a sailor. Though but twenty-six years of age, he was called “old Girard.” He seemed conscious of his inability to please, but bore the derision of his neighbors with stoical equanimity, and plodded on.

War favors the skilful and enterprising business-man. Girard had a genius for business. He was not less bold in his operations than prudent; and his judgment as a man of business was wellnigh infallible. Destitute of all false pride, he bought whatever he thought he could sell to advantage, from a lot of damaged cordage to a pipe of old port; and he labored incessantly with his own hands. He was a thriving man during the first year of his residence in Philadelphia ; his chief gain, it is said, being derived from his favorite business of bottling wine and cider.

The romance, the mystery, the tragedy of his life now occurred. Walking along Water Street one day, near the corner of Vine Street, the eyes of this reserved and ill-favored man were caught by a beautiful servant-girl going to the pump for a pail of water. She was an enchanting brunette of sixteen, with luxuriant black locks curling and clustering about her neck. As she tripped along with bare feet and empty pail, in airy and unconscious grace, she captivated the susceptible Frenchman, who saw in her the realization of the songs of the forecastle and the reveries of the quarter-deck. He sought her acquaintance, and made himself at home in her kitchen. The family whom she served, misinterpreting the designs of the thriving dealer, forbade him the house; when he silenced their scruples by offering the girl his hand in marriage. Ill-starred Polly Lumm! Unhappy Girard ! She accepted his offer; and in July, 1777, the incongruous two, being united in matrimony, attempted to become one.

The war interrupted their brief felicity. Philadelphia, often threatened, fell into the hands of Lord Howe in September, 1777; and among the thousands who needlessly fled at his approach were “ old Girard ” and his pretty young wife. He bought a house at Mount Holly, near Burlington, in New Jersey, for five hundred dollars, to which he removed, and there continued to bottle claret and sell it to the British officers, until the departure of Lord Howe, in June, 1778, permitted his return to Philadelphia. The gay young officers, it is said, who came to his house at Mount Holly to drink his claret, were far from being insensible to the charms of Mrs. Girard; and tradition further reports that on one occasion a dashing colonel snatched a kiss, which the sailor resented, and compelled the officer to apologize for.

Of all miserable marriages this was one of the most miserable. Here was a young, beautiful, and ignorant girl united to a close, ungracious, eager man of business, di void of sentiment, with a violent temper and an unyielding will. She was an American, he a Frenchman; and that alone was an immense incompatibility. She was seventeen, he twenty-seven. She was a woman; he was a man without imagination, intolerant of foibles. She was a beauty, with the natural vanities of a beauty; he not merely had no taste for decoration, he disapproved it on principle. These points of difference would alone have sufficed to endanger their domestic peace; but time developed something that was fatal to it. Their abode was the scene of contention for eight years; at the expiration of which period Mrs. Girard showed such symptoms of insanity that her husband was obliged to place her in the Pennsylvania Hospital. In these distressing circumstances, he appears to have spared no pains for her restoration. He removed her to a place in the country, but without effect. She returned to his house only to render life insupportable to him. He resumed his old calling as a mariner, and made a voyage to the Mediterranean; but on his return he found his wife not less unmanageable than before. In 1790, thirteen years after their marriage, and five after the first exhibition of insanity, Mrs. Girard was placed permanently in the hospital; where, nine months after, she gave birth to a female child. The child soon died; the mother never recovered her reason. For twenty-five years she lived in the hospital, and, dying in 1815, was buried in the hospital grounds after the manner of the Quakers. The coffin was brought to the grave, followed by the husband and the managers of the institution, who remained standing about it in silence for several minutes. It was then lowered to its final resting-place, and again the company remained motionless and silent for a while. Girard looked at the coffin once

« НазадПродовжити »