Elihu Vedder.

The digressions of V. online

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Carolus's since your desertion, C. quite indignant that you had
not called p.p.c. The Clairvoyant has safely arrived at his Em-
bassy, and I suppose has ere this displayed his deportment to
las Limanas hermosas (this is Spanish and may excite laughter) .
The Artists' Fund sale proved a success, netting some $7000.
Academy reception takes place on the iyth inst. Some good
pictures are promised. Dr. Rimmer of Boston is lecturing here
on Artistic Anatomy, and attracts much attention from Art stu-
dents. We are all much pleased that you arrived at the gay capital
in season for the festivities of Noel French, and signifies, I be-
lieve, 'Rismas' [Christmas as Joe's darky servant pronounced
it]. Hope you spree'd modestly. Have you delivered your letters
to Hay and Nicolay, and did you find them good boys ?"

And then he goes on to say that he has nothing more to add.
I very much fear my letters to him are not so full. I did find Hay
and Nicolay good boys. When on top of an omnibus David Gray
said, the crowd being composed of himself, John Hay, Jerome
Stetson, Coleman, and V. "This is indeed being seated among
the Gods!" little did he or any of us imagine that there was
a future Secretary of State in our midst.


This letter was received in Paris shortly after my arrival, and
while making me fonder of all those left behind, did not make me
in the least long to go back. I seemed to have burnt my ships ; the
future, uncertain as it was, seemed to me plain sailing compared
to the complications of the past ; yet the three fatal sisters were all
the while preparing a most variegated thread of Life for me, in
which two real sisters entered largely, as you shall see.

There is much meaning in the story of the Gordian knot.
Things may get so entangled that it becomes the part of Wisdom
to cut and run. This, in the form of a trip abroad, has been
known to work wonders. With me it was not only that, but an
uncontrollable desire to leave the confusion of my surroundings,
and, collecting my scattered wits, set about doing some of the
things I had dreamed of. I really believe it has now cost me more
thought to give the reasons for my leaving than it did then to
leave. T simply left, as a bird flies away on finding the door of
its cage open. And yet I looked back on friends and kindnesses
received and loves left behind with sadness. These, as I left, now
stood out with more clearness, as the towers and spires of the
town stood out above the dim mass of buildings below, seen in the
distance. Soon all was lost in the mist of the approaching night,
as the good ship Lafayette bore me into an equally misty future.)
The New York I left had no statue of Liberty then, but had
plenty of license instead, and baby sky-scrapers were just begin-
ning to rear their heads with high flagstafTs and eagles screaming
against the blue sky they were soon to block from the view of the
busy ants running about in the streets far below. Now they
fairly comb the winds that blow over the city. But such as it was,
I loved it and what it held, and was both sorry and glad to leave it.


My friend little knew what she was about when she asked me
to make these connecting links. I wish she had forged them, for
I feel like Goldsmith's traveller, who "dragged at each remove
a lengthening chain." I fear also to fall into mere narrative of
travel, which falling would be to me an uphill work. Yet I see the
justice of her request ; also how are we ever to get to Paris and

that propinquity the effects of which influence me strongly even
unto this day ? As these Digressions are written more or less
honestly, I confess I begin to feel a certain hesitancy come over
me. I am approaching in the narrative as yet but distantly the
family. Now a family will stand no nonsense ; a family is in pos-
session of dates and facts. As tampering with the truth is the very
essence of romance, I always wonder how a family man can make
a business of writing romances, for his wife must know that he sits
there making it all up. My only safety, then, is to hie me back to
that atmosphere of the past where fact and fancy go hand in hand.


The first fact I met with was that I was very lonesome and

wretched, and having no fancy for that to go hand in hand with,
the first days are to me as a gloomy blank. \

I then sought a studio and was considered lucky in getting one
in the Avenue Frochot leading out of the Rue Pigalle. It was
a little place with trees and an iron gateway, and was considered
quite the proper thing. A son of the great Isabey, the marine
painter, had a studio there, and also a very friendly portrait
painter ;\but the spell of my French bohemian days was broken
beyond repair, and I never took kindly to the dark and stuffy
studios and the gloom of Parisian winters. \ The house was a rab-
bit warren, and I burrowed in it, with the vision of Italy ever
before my eyes. And then the French were not as they had
been before the war, and their "Pardon, monsieur," was now
equivalent to our "You be damned." Then again, the French
artists I did meet could see nothing in my work, for it did not
resemble that of any one they knew, and so they could not classify
me. The French have little respect for anything they cannot
classify which explains their slow recognition of Corot and of
Millet. '

Having arranged my few belongings so as to give a semblance
of comfort to the studio and the little bedroom above, I deter-
mined to go to my friend Green in England, and see what I could
do to help and cheer him up. I had written to him that I would
share my windfall with him that the half of it was his, for so
I understood friendship in those days. Would I do it now ? Not
much. It would diminish the widow's third. But there was no
question of a widow then, for there was no wife. But what am I
saying ? no question of a widow ! did I not see with my own
eyes in tea-leaves in the bottom of the cup of a wise lady that I


2 93

was to marry a rich widow a Spanish widow ? Not only that
but was I not at that very time circling like a moth about a very
beautiful and rich widow ? Do not long rides in the twilight in the
Bois de Boulogne winter twilights and in a luxurious carriage
predispose the mind to languishing thoughts ? They do !
they do! But it was not to be, from the simple fact that there
was another who was to be. How often this is the case ! I have
known men but I digress.

And so I went way down to some beautiful county in England
and found the poor friend of my Florentine days. The struggle
had been too hard for him; I pass over the family tragedy, for
there was one. This bright boy, whose drawings were as spirited
as those of Couture himself, had given up his dreams and was
painting little story pictures in the vein of Edouard Frere ; and
as the dealers bought them readily, he was not in want, for he
painted up to the day of his death. I comforted him, and like a
good surgeon removed the fear of Hell which the kind and good


family he lived with was pumping into him ; and I believe I left
him prepared and strengthened for the change which was soon to
come. And so back to Paris again, mighty sad.

After getting back to my studio in Paris, I met Hunt and Cole-
man and some others of the old students of Couture. Coleman
had just arrived from New York, and was expecting his mother
and particularly some nice girls he had met with on the steamer.
In the meanwhile we made a trip into Brittany, stopping first at
Dinan, and then at Vitre on our way back to Paris, where we
found his mother and the girls duly installed.

So, Hunt and his family having gone to Dinan, Charley Cole-
man and I joined him. We found or made a large studio on the
ground floor of an old house. It was literally the ground floor,
for the floor was the ground, and Hunt delighted in it. You could
make holes and pour in your dirty turpentine and fill them up
again, and generally throw things on the floor, and Hunt used to
clean his brushes by rubbing them in the dirt and dust. I re-
member his once saying, " Would n't you like to take that mud in
the road and make a picture with it ? " The simplicity of Millet
was strong upon him in those days, and indeed affected his art
the rest of his life. Painted with mud! Why not? It would go
well with other novelties. It reminds me of a painter I once
knew, who when painting a hillside from Nature, of a rather
peculiar colour, went to the hill, and getting a lot of the earth,
had it ground up and used it on his picture.

Brittany is no doubt fine, but it rained all the time we were
there, or was frightfully gloomy. The men used to sit silently in
the cabarets and drink sour cider until they became so cross
they could stand each other no longer, and then go home, where


no doubt they vented it on the family or bragged to their wives
of their temperance and early home-coming. Our landlady was
marvellous. The food was neither very good nor abundant, but
the exquisite manner and choice French with which it was pre-
sented and urged upon us was beautiful, and I have no doubt she
considered us rude boors for not appreciating as it deserved
not the food, but the manner. Her lies were perfect examples of

Speaking of Style, I here painted, just to show Hunt that I
could do so, a picture in the style of Millet. It was of a tinker
mending a large brass kettle, black on the outside but bright
within, and it did look very like a Millet. Hunt painted a stone
quarry; C. C. C. passed much time painting a very pretty
girl and so, each man to his trade. We all worked hard and
I believe accomplished little. Had we dedicated ourselves to
painting the falling rain and the leaden skies it would have
been all right.

One of the most delightful things in our stay at Dinan was
hearing Hunt and his wife sing and play those dear little old-
fashioned French songs. They seemed to have a large collection
of them and I have been longing to hear them again ever since.
Mrs. Hunt, with a little management, was most pleasant ; she
had singular ideas with regard to the bringing-up of children,
however, for I well remember how she used to tell her little
girls not that lying was bad or wicked, but that ladies and
gentlemen never lied. It would have been well if some indi-
viduals of that class I have known could have profited by her

One of the children, Enid, was endeared to me by this display
of her character. We all attended a fete nautique given on the


river near by. There was the usual amusing tilting from boats
and so forth, but when it came to what is called the sport of
"la chasse aux canards," and Enid saw the swimmers with
the greatest glee grab the poor ducks, and wringing their necks
throw them into the accompanying boat, her indignation knew
no bounds. With floods of tears and childish imprecations, she
called down anything but blessings on their heads. "Bad,
wicked, cruel men ! " and " O, the poor, pretty ducks ! " Hers was
a perfect passion of grief, mixed with indignation at the cruelty
and brutality of this so-called sport ; she could not get over it for
days, and I hope she yet retains that tender heart. I have seen
her since as a tall, stately married woman in Rome. Some things
are hard to realise ; particularly, to me, the sad end of my friend

While at Dinan I personally exemplified the adage that pride
goes before a fall only I have found that vanity has been the
cause of most of my falls. There was a pony but a word of
explanation first. One day the little Hunt girls announced
breathlessly that they had been riding in a Bawstick for so I
caught the word, and being reminded of Boston and herdics I
thought they meant some kind of a vehicle ; but found they meant
basket which they pronounced "bawsket" whence my
mistake. Now it was on that pony they had been riding, each in a
basket, one on each side, and it had been great fun. Once when
we were all assembled at the door, the pony standing there, I
found he was so meek and tame that I began showing off by
jumping on and off of him, and finally being convinced of his
good nature and patience, I gave an exhibition of how I imagined
the wild Indian clung to his horse's side while discharging his
deadly arrows from under his neck. But the pony had his limit,




and on reaching it he suddenly started down the street, develop-
ing a fire and speed I had not given him credit for. You all know
how men in moments of excitement cling to things such as a
cigar, for instance ; 't was thus I clung to the halter as he dragged
me bumping over the cruel cobblestones of that stony street.
" Hard were the stones that gave those bumps ; tender the back
thus bumped." I never realised how stony a street could be,


stone houses on each side, slate-coloured sky above, and the hard
cobbles beneath ; but I clung on, expecting rather hoping
that a hoof might end the suspense, until I, like an anchor,
brought him up standing. Humiliated, yet with a remnant of
vanity, I jumped on again and rode back to the more horrified
than admiring crowd. I escaped with a slight sprain of the ankle,
but you may be sure that day I rode no more. Bodily I bear no
traces of this Gilpin ride, but my vanity bears traces of it yet.
And that is it ; we may get over wounded pride, but the wounds
of vanity never heal - for I can yet remember a snub received
long ago while things of far greater moment have been utterly
forgotten. This was the snub.

I was dining with an English friend when something undeni-
ably good was presented to us. It may have been a cucumber
costing a pound to raise, or a strawberry filling a tea-cup, or plov-
ers' eggs, the first of the season, or a pineapple grown under
glass ; in any case it was supposed to be the last word, and I said
it was good whereupon my friend remarked that the salt also
was excellent. I never forgave him.

At the inn where we stopped in Vitre were some very pretty
girls one in particular I had contemplated attentively, a con-
templation which I fancied did not pass unperceived. She was
the kind of girl that looks good enough to kiss, and the determina-
tion to do so gathered strength as the hour of our departure drew
nigh. But then there was the landlady and the others, and what
they did n't see may not have been worth seeing ; but I thought
otherwise, and so hit upon this expedient. As they gathered
about us at leaving I made them a speech. I said, " It is true we
are but a rude nation, yet we have virtues and some beautiful
customs, one of which is we always kiss the girls good-bye, and


this custom forms so much a part of our natures that to omit it
would leave us desolated ; we should feel dishonoured in our own
eyes, so this rite must be performed." Whereupon I did-most gal-
lantly tackle the landlady; she was only too glad to be classed with
the girls ; and so by discreet degrees and by this most devious
course I came to the one over whom I fain would have lingered

but for "les convenances." How paltry seemed the useless restric-
tions of Society ! Through my example my friend seemed also to
arrive at a satisfactory conclusion ; and thus amidst much laugh-
ter and blushing we left with flying colours and all the honours of
war but I am sorry to add with only fifteen sous in our com-
bined pockets. We had our tickets for Paris, however, and on the
road were to find again how nice the French can be, thus going
from one niceness to another, as you shall see.
The journey was long. The night came on, and we became


very hungry, and now we found that kisses, however sweet, while
they may mitigate, cannot satisfy the pangs of hunger (this has
been tried) ; so on approaching a station where we were to make
a long stop, I took those fifteen sous with the intention of getting
as much of the most substantial food as I could for that amount.
Now I wish to say that my friend was a tall, spare fellow let
us say at once an elegant figure, which, whatever may have been
his losses in other respects, he has retained to this day. It was
cold as well as dark, and you must imagine this tall form slightly
clad, with hands in its pockets, seen by the fitful gleams from
the windows of the restaurants passing and re-passing outside
like a phantom, a were-wolf, an embodiment of hunger. I en-
tered and utterly perplexed the first waiter I met by the compli-
cated question what I could buy the most of for fifteen cents.

The handsome Madame, seeing his trouble, came at once and
asked what the gentleman wanted. I told her I had but fifteen
sous and was very hungry and wanted to make the best use of
them I could. " Let Monsieur sit down and order his dinner."
"But I can't pay for it." "That does not matter. Monsieur
can send it from Paris at his convenience." "But, Madame,
you are too good." "It is nothing. Let Monsieur be seated.
Francois, ask Monsieur what he will have."

Now it is a hard and ungracious thing on receiving a favour
to immediately ask another, but it had to be done ; and so I said,
"I have a friend." " Francois, call the gentleman's friend."
And Charles entered, and on his seating himself, to his amaze-
ment I began ordering a good dinner, in spite of his muttered
exclamations of, "Why, Ved, what are you doing? - Well, you
are the Well, I'll be damned!" and so forth. I was, how-
ever, awfully embarrassed between my desire not to seem to


be taking advantage of Madame's generous confidence and the
wish to do honour to it. We had good wine and ended with
coffee, petite verre, and cigars, to the growing amazement of C.,
who finally concluded I must have lighted on a twenty-franc
piece in an overlooked corner of some pocket. The fifteen sous
went to the waiter and profuse thanks to Madame. I really felt
like bidding her good-bye after the manner of my country, but
refrained again thinking how paltry and so forth. The money
was sent with many thanks, and I dare say she has grown old
awaiting the stream of American custom therein promised.

As has been said before, when it was decided that I should
be an artist, I was looking about getting my bearings ; this sounds
nautical. When that momentous question was decided, it would
be equally nautical and nearer the truth to say that I was given a
poorly provisioned boat and cast adrift to get my living and
my bearings as best I could. And here I found myself again
abroad, without as yet having laid out a course for any definite
port, but was just drifting or sailing before the, wind, as much
the sport of it as was the sailor-boy's hammock. I But soon there
arose a strong wind that was to bear me southward, as poorly
provisioned as before, but with the feeling that once back in
Italy I should be more at home, and that things would come out
right in the end. At that time there was a man in Paris who
contemplated tampering with pictures. He had formed a firm,
and the firm bought from me a little picture, "Girl with a
Lute," painted because I had bought a lute and wished to
justify my extravagance. I got for it two hundred dollars, but it
was sold afterwards in Boston for seven hundred and fifty dollars ;
thus all were made happy. Also they bought "Coast on a windy



day/' one hundred and fifty dollars, and agreed to take at two
hundred dollars apiece the nine small pictures forming the series
of the "Miller and his Son." This, however, never happened,
for the firm dissolved soon after ; but the hopes did just as well as
the money would have done, for with them and three hundred
dollars from a sale in America I found myself in possession of
six hundred and fifty dollars, plus hopes. Would you believe it ?
On this hint I spoke and was accepted. And so with a light heart
and a lighter purse, ^in^company with C. C. C. and his good
mother and the dear Girf, I went towards the promising if not
the promised land.

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About Myself


WHEN I say that I really think the time has come to say
something about myself, I can fancy a smile. What I
mean is, putting aside all false modesty, that I think
the time has come to say something about myself, without the
prattling of Jekyll or the impertinence of Hyde. My ever kind
friend has made me out a little list of what as a reader she would
like to know or see filled out, missing links as it were, and I have
found the list very useful. There is one question, however, I find
it somewhat difficult to answer, that is, how I came to stay so long
in Italy. It can be truly called staying, for I never contemplated
settling here. The staying began in those days when people trav-
elled with their couriers or passed the whole winter here, and
also bought pictures ; and we were all young, and life was pleasant,
and I made a living. Then the children were born and I could
not afford to break up here and go home to begin all over again.
I had only my father living, and he lived in an impossible place,
while my brother was in Japan and contemplated joining me
here. For years I had furniture fastened only with screws, so
that it could be taken apart when the time came for going home ;
but I finally had to glue it together, and it must have been then
that I began to stick more closely to Rome.


There is no end to the things I could have done, and it makes
what I have done seem a small matter. Had there been two of
me made exactly alike, I most certainly would have had one go
home while I waited to see how he turned out. As it is, I am still
sitting on the fence, and from that vantage can see how much
there is to be said in favour of both sides. And now it does not so
much matter. I am amply provided with burial lots, having five

three in America and two here, one of which is an ancient one ;
and yet I am sitting on the fence.

And so it has come to pass with these stories my friends want
to know about. Like the furniture, they have been kept fastened
together "al meglio," I always hoping to take them home and
distribute them personally. Finding, however, that I go home so
seldom and that my friends alas ! go away to their perman-
ent homes so frequently, I have concluded to glue them together
as best I may into a form more permanent than my breath, hop-
ing it may reach those I care for before it be too late. Lowell says,
"In letters, too soon is as bad as too late." Well, the too soon is
past praying for, and the too late but then Lowell says such a
lot of things, and besides, he was talking of literature. Strange,

such is the force of habit that I believe this has turned into a
sort of preface without my intending it. If so, it is like the child
Dickens tells us of, "picked up unbeknownst on a cold stun step/'
I believe the child was taken care of, and I shall take care of this
accidental preface by letting it lead up to my account of Roman

I am perfectly in love with this scheme of Digressions. Also I
am perfectly convinced that if the question be once started
Out of what wood are the best toothpicks made ? it will lead
to the question of Free Will and Predestination. I believe the



Universe started with one thing, and what we now behold is but
a vast digression, composed of millions of smaller ones, of which
the following is a little group.

Old Letters. In writing these Digressions, as I am not try-
ing to live up to anything or any one, hardly to myself, I simply
go on at a jog-trot as it were, putting things down as they occur
to me, something like that wonderful arithmetical boy who
"lisped in numbers as the numbers came." It is true that I must
hasten the trot a bit "as the traveller hastens as the day declines/*
for I should like to hear what some friend yet alive thinks of this
last fad of mine, while I am yet alive to hear it. As there is a
touch of sadness in the above, which in some measure repre-
sents the pause made in taking another swallow or relighting a

Online LibraryElihu VedderThe digressions of V. → online text (page 18 of 29)