A Conquest Of Solitude

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More than once Helen visited Beinn Bhreagh, the Bells’ summer estate in Nova Scotia. She spent one night with Bell’s daughters Elsie and Daisy on their houseboat, from which they all climbed down by a rope ladder to swim in the moonlit lake. In the fields overlooking the Bras d’Or Lakes, Bell told her of his kite flying and his hope of giving wings to mankind. “He makes you feel that if you only had a little more time, you, too, might be an inventor,” she wrote. One windy day she helped him fly his kites. “On one of them I noticed that the strings were of wire, and having had some experience in bead work, I said I thought they would break. Dr. Bell said ‘No!’ with great confidence, and the kite was sent up. It began to pull and tug, and lo, the wires broke, and off went the great red dragon, and poor Dr. Bell stood looking forlornly after it. After that he asked me if the strings were all right and changed them at once when I answered in the negative. Altogether we had great fun.” Back at Radcliffe that summer of 1901 she wrote Mabel that “the smell of the ocean, and the fragrance of the pines have followed me to Cambridge and linger about me like a benediction.”

Now and then Bell thought about Helen’s future course in life. As she made her way through college he began to feel that “with her gifts of mind and imagination there should be a great future open to her in literature.” Later he wrote her, “You must not put me among those who think that ‘nothing you have to say about the affairs of the universe would be interesting.’” But Helen was more realistic about the limits put upon her direct apprehension of the world, about her inescapable dependence on the words of others for learning what eyes and ears tell most people. She knew also that to the public her blindness was her foremost characteristic (though personally she agreed with Mabel Bell that deafness was the heavier cross), so her work came to be more and more that of helping the cause of the blind. And because Bell’s work lay with the deaf, he and she saw less of each other as the new century wore on.

Each missed the other. When he tried his hand at a letter in Braille while she was in college, she praised him for not making a single mistake. “It seemed almost as if you clasped my hand in yours and spoke to me in the old, dear way,” she wrote him. In 1907 he wrote her, “I often think of you and feel impelled to write but—as you know—I am a busy man, and… have always lots of back correspondence to make up.” Now and then he wrote again in Braille, but not often enough for it to be easy. He spent a few days in Boston once and tried for a long time one day to telephone Helen’s house, but Annie heard the ringing too late. “We seem bound every time to miss seeing him,” Helen wrote John Hitz on that occasion. As public figures, each knew in a general way what the other was doing. “I suppose,” wrote Helen in 1902, “Mr. Bell has nothing but kites and flying-machines on his tongue’s end. Poor dear man, how I wish he would stop wearing himself out in this unprofitable way—at least it seems unprofitable to me.” But six years later she sent him a note of congratulation on his successes in aviation, to which he replied in proud detail.

In January, 1907, Helen wired Bell “I need you.” She was to speak in New York at a meeting for the blind; but Annie, who usually repeated her speech for those who might have difficulty understanding it, was sick. Bell left Washington at once and lent his matchless voice to the occasion.

In the summer of 1918 Helen asked Bell to play himself in a motion picture of her life. He was then seventyone, in uncertain health, very susceptible to summer heat, and had “the greatest aversion to appearing in a moving-picture.” Still, her letter touched him deeply. “It brings back recollections of the little girl I met in Washington so long ago,” he wrote her. “You will,” he reminded her, “have to find someone with dark hair to impersonate the Alexander Graham Bell of your childhood.” But he promised to appear with her in a later scene, when the hot weather was over, if she wanted him to. To his great relief he was not called upon (which was just as well, since the film was a grotesque failure, both as drama and as history).

 

The drama of Helen Keller’s rescue and rise had, after all, been given a far more enduring form in her own autobiography, The Story of My Life, fifteen years before. Supplemented by her own and Annie Sullivan’s letters, it both recounted and attested to one of history’s most moving triumphs. And it began with the words

To A LEXANDER G RAHAM B ELL Who has taught the deaf to speak and enabled the listening ear to hear speech from the Atlantic to the Rockies, I Dedicate this Story of My Life.