TO THE GENTLE READER.
Something over twenty years ago, in a dusty garret filled with trunks, boxes, old articles of furniture, and all the other lumber in which our country garrets abound, a little girl was spending a rainy morning. I remember the child very well. She was just about eight years old, and had tangled masses of curly yellow hair, and big eyes always hungry for “something to read.” For in those days—two or three years more than twenty,—how very long ago that is!—there were not so many children’s books as now. No children’s magazines except “Old Merry’s Museum,” and very few of the beautiful books in shining covers which are now written and printed expressly for the young folks.
The only books this little girl owned, and
which she had read and reread, were three in number: the first, quite a large volume in leather covers, which had been her grandmother’s; the others, a red-bound book with one cover torn off, and two little rusty, dingy looking duodecimos, which any child nowadays would turn up her nose at sight of. These three books were the Bible, the Pilgrim’s Progress
, and Arabian Nights’ Entertainment
. Of the Bible she only cared to read the Old Testament. That she had read over and over, investing it meanwhile with the oriental landscape and atmosphere which she borrowed from the Arabian Nights, till she knew all its stories by heart.
I tell you all this that you may understand what a treasure this little girl found in rummaging the garret on this eventful rainy morning. For in an old chest, from way down at the bottom, she suddenly pulled out, as Jack Horner pulled the plum out of his Christmas pie, two little purple-covered books. They were so small—only about four inches long, three inches wide, and an inch thick—that from their size she instantly concluded they must be real “ children’s books.” She opened one of the tiny treasures, which was in print almost small enough to be legible only by aid of the microscope, and read on the title-page: “The Works of William Shakespeare, in 6 vols.—Vol. IV.”
I grieve to say that the child did not consult anybody about the propriety of reading these books. Only a little while before, her papa had taken away from her a delightful novel, whose heroine (her name was either Melissa or Amanda, or something of that kind) had just got into the most dangerous part of the book. Her father had said it was not a fit story for a small girl to read, and she had shed some bitter tears over her loss, had thought her papa very cruel, and mentally resolved to read the rest of the story as soon as she was grown up. Alas! like many other things we mean to do some time, the resolution never was fulfilled: and though the little girl is now a woman, she does not know to this day what became of the forlorn Amanda, or Melissa, whose fortunes she left in such desperate condition.
Remembering her latest loss, therefore, the child concluded that at present no one should share the secret of the Shakespeare books. So she devised many hiding-places for them, and used to read them at night, and in the gray dawn of morning in her little bed, and out of school hours in the broad sunny window-seat in the attic, where she had a secure retreat.
I cannot tell you how eagerly this little girl devoured these books. No child of the present age would understand her delight, they have such plenty of new books, such a surfeit of literature. But to her, these two volumes were better than Aladdin’s lamp or his ring. One of them contained “Macbeth
,” “Winter’s Tale
,” and “The Merchant of Venice
;” the other, “Romeo and Juliet
” and “King Lear
.” There were other plays beside, but these were the ones which interested her, and she forgets what others were there. The dear little books have been lost long ago, the girl is now a grown woman, but years after, when she had a boy who had eyes and ears hungry for stories too, she used to tell this eager little
listener the story of “Lear and his Daughters,” or the story of “Hermione and the Statue,” and many others which were locked up in the book and volume of her memory.
Afterwards she wrote these stories down, and added others to them almost as dear to her as the earlier ones she read, and so made the little book of Stories from Old English Poetry which you hold in your hand. If you learn to love the tales, and the poets who made them, half as well as she does,—through the imperfect medium in which she gives them to you,—the writer will be very proud and happy indeed.