Biographies for Children
John James Audubon
ave you ever happened to see a book that cost a thousand dollars?
A man who loved birds and knew a great deal about them drew pictures of all the kinds to be found in our country, calling these drawings, when they were colored and bound together The Birds of North America. It took four volumes to hold all these pictures, and each one of these books costs a thousand dollars. There were only seventy-five or eighty of these sets of bird books made, but you can see them in the Boston Public Library, the Lenox and Astor libraries in New York city, and at several colleges and private homes. Each one of these books is more than three feet long and a little over two feet wide, and is so heavy that it takes two strong men to lift it on to a rack when some one wants to look at the pictures. If you should look through all four books, you would see more than a thousand kinds of birds, all drawn as big as life, and each one colored like the bird itself.
You may be sure it took the maker of these books many, many years to travel all over the United States to find such a number of birds. The man's name was John James Audubon. He slept in woods, waded through marshes and swamps, tramped hundreds of miles, and suffered many hardships before he could learn the colors and habits of so many birds. He always said his love for birds began when his pet parrot was killed.
It happened this way.
One morning when John James was about four years old and his nurse was giving him his breakfast, the little parrot Mignonne, who said a lot of words as plainly as a child, asked for some bread and milk. A tame monkey who was in the room happened to be angry and sulking over something. He sprang at Mignonne, who screamed for help. Little John James shouted too, and begged his nurse to save the bird, but before any one could stop the ugly monkey's blows, the parrot was dead.
The monkey was always kept chained after that, and John James buried his parrot in the garden and trimmed the grave with shrubs and flowering plants. But he missed his pet and so roamed through the woods adjoining his father's estate, watching the birds that flew through them. By and by he did not care for anything so much as trying to make pictures of these birds, listening to their songs, finding what kind of nests they built, and at what time of year they flew north or south.
John James lived in Nantes, France, when he was a small boy, although he was born in Louisiana. His father was a wealthy French gentleman, an officer in the French navy, and was much in America, so that John James was first in France and then in America until he was about twenty-five, at which time he settled in his native country for good. Few men have loved these United States better than he.
John James did not care much for school. Figures tired his head. He loved music, drawing, and dancing. His father was away from home most of the time, and his pretty, young stepmother let the boy do quite as he pleased. She loved him dearly, and as he liked to roam through the country with boys of his age, she would pack luncheon baskets day after day for him, and when he came back at dusk, with the same baskets filled with birds' eggs, strange flowers, and all sorts of curiosities, she would sit down beside him and look them over, as interested as could be.
Some years later, when John James's father put him in charge of a large farm near Philadelphia, the young man bought some fine horses, some well-trained dogs, and spent long summer days in hunting and fishing. He also got many breeds of fowl. It is a wonder that with all the leisure hours he had, and the large amount of spending money his father allowed him, he did not get into bad habits, but young Audubon ate mostly fruit and vegetables, never touched liquor, and chose good companions. He did like fine clothes and about this time dressed rather like a fop. I expect the handsome fellow made a pretty picture as he dashed by on his spirited black horse, in his satin breeches, silk stockings and pumps, and the fine, ruffled shirts which he had sent over from France.
Anyway, a sweet young girl, Lucy Bakewell, lost her heart to him. Only as she was very young, her parents said she must not yet be married. And while he was waiting for her, he fixed over his house, and with a friend, Mr. Rozier, and a good-natured housekeeper, lived a simple, country life. You would have enjoyed a visit to him about this time. He turned the lower floor into a sort of museum. The walls were festooned with birds' eggs, which had been blown out and strung on thread. There were stuffed squirrels, opossums, and racoons; and paintings of gorgeous colored birds hung everywhere. Audubon had great skill in training animals and one dog, Zephyr, did wonderful tricks.
When Audubon and Lucy married, they went to Kentucky, where he and his friend Rozier opened a store. But Rozier did most of the store work, as Audubon was apt to wander off to the woods, for he had already decided to make this book about birds. His mind was not on his business, as you can see when I tell you that one day he mailed a letter with eight thousand dollars in it and never sealed it! The only part of the business he enjoyed were the trips to New York and Philadelphia to buy goods. These goods were carried on the backs of pack horses, and a good part of the journeys led through forests. He lost the horses for a whole day once, because he heard a song-bird that was new to him, and as he followed the sound of the bird so as to get a sight of it, he forgot all about the pack horses and the goods.
By and by his best friends said he acted like a crazy man. Only his wife and family stood by him. Finally when his money was gone, and there were two children growing up, things looked rather desperate. But Lucy, his wife, said: "You are a genius, and you know more about birds than any one living. I am sure all you need is time to show the world how clever you are. I will earn money while you study and paint!"
So Audubon traveled to seek out the haunts of still more birds, while Lucy went as governess in rich families, or opened private schools where she could teach her own two boys as well as others. She earned a great deal of money, and when he had made all his pictures and was ready to publish the books, she had nearly enough to pay the expense, and gave it to him.
"No," he said, "I am going to earn part of this myself. I will open a dancing class." He had danced beautifully ever since he was a child and could not understand how people could be so awkward and stupid as his class of sixty Kentuckians proved to be. In their first lesson he broke his bow and almost ruined his beautiful violin in his excitement and temper. "Why, watch me," he cried, and he danced to his own music so charmingly that the class clapped their hands and said they would do their best to copy him. By and by they did better, and before he left them, they quite satisfied him. And what was fortunate for him, they had paid him two thousand dollars. With this and Lucy's earnings, he went to England and had the famous drawings published. When they were done, he exhibited them at the Royal Institute, charging admission, and earned many pounds more.
Audubon was a lovable, courteous man, never too poor to help others, very modest and gracious. He adored his wife, and as his books (he wrote many volumes of his travels, which I hope you will read some day) brought in quite a fortune, the two, with their sons, and their grandchildren, spent their last days in great comfort, on a fine estate on the Hudson River.