Elihu Vedder.

The digressions of V. online

. (page 3 of 29)
Online LibraryElihu VedderThe digressions of V. → online text (page 3 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

means of a moss-grown sextant. In those days you saw the art
of Navigation in all its glory; now you see no more of it than you
would in a hotel. Be that as it may, when the time came for the
Bahamas, there they were. And there were flying-fish and
dolphins, and through the clear water the coral-covered bottom
of the sea seemed to recede beneath us and pass away astern.
We slid over marvels innumerable.

Finally one night there came to us the smell of the tropics, and
next morning rose the Pan de Matanzas, looking, as its name in-
dicates, like a loaf of bread. And then the white beach and real
cocoanut trees, and people walking about, looking so little.
Then the rattling anchor went down, and boats rowed by negroes
danced over the waves to us, and a little, swarthy man boarded

* '. tin </WJ



and shook hands with the captain. Soon another boat, with
a bigger man all in white but very swarthy also, came along
side. The man climbed on board, it was father! Soon we
were in another and a more beautiful home than any I had ever

We then, although all was strange, made ourselves at home
in the large house in Calle del Rio. The patio was the great place
in that house, for it contained pigeons, ducks, flamingoes, turtles,
parrots, and a young cayman or alligator ; and, as we had to have
slaves, naturally children (little black things with bright eyes and
skins smooth as satin) made their appearance from time to time.
And then the strange fruits never seen North, the sour sop,
a ready-made lemonade, the marrowy alligator pear, and the
delightful mango, which kept you the rest of the day picking its
silken filaments from between your teeth, these things, and a
hundred others, afforded fine material for stories when I went
back, where I rivalled the illustrious Polo. Only when I came to
the bird-like fish with wings, four legs, and eyes like an owl, which
could climb a tree, my listeners deemed me more like the menda-
cious Mandeville than the truthful Venetian.

I said that naturally children were born. There was one little
fellow, Crispino, who, although born in bondage (bottled in bond
as it were), stood a good chance of not ripening by age; for my
brother, ever intent on the acquisition of knowledge, and that
by the truly scientific method of experiment, called him up one
day and administered, in a drink made pleasant with much
sugar, a seidlitz powder, the blue and white papers mixed sepa-
rately; and the two portions mixing went off inside. The child
swelled visibly, ' he burbled at the mouth. It is God's mercy


he did not burst. He got a good dressing-down for this, the
child being property.

One of the first things to happen was a complete loss of faith
in the " Swiss Family Robinson." Our eyes were opened when we
tried to carry out the theory of the young prig of the family in
regard to the proper way of getting the juice out of sugar-cane.
All must remember how amused he was at the vain attempt of


the youngest boy to effect this purpose, and with what an air of
superior knowledge he instructed the little fool to make an opening
below the joint, to let in the air, when the juice would run out of
the cut-off end and into his mouth without further effort on his
part. We found the natives knew a trick worth two of that.
How our jaws ached during the sugar season! but we all got
fat on it.

These were the days of wide-eyed wonder and of great aspira-
tions, the days of the tin soldier (I and the Scotch boy next
door had an army of them), when if I could not be a circus-


rider, I could at least be a soldier. One day, while very busy
with a little kind of a panorama my brother had sent me (for he
had gone North again), my father asked me for a pillow. Now
at that moment he had no more need of a pillow than he had of
wings, and I said somewhat crossly: "What on earth do you
want a pillow for ? " His only reply was, " Just go into the next
room and bring me a pillow from the bed." I went, and on lift-
ing the pillow saw the most beautiful little sword in the world,
a real one, steel scabbard and a blade beautifully ornamented,
with its splendid belt and lion-headed clasps, in fact, a real
beauty. I stood long between admiration and shame, but finally
ran to him and did the little George Washington. But how
ashamed I was, though! These are childish things, I know,
but they will get worse by-and-by and then be more inter-

We used to get up large parties to visit the sugar estates dur-
ing the season of sugar-making. The books tell how picturesque
and lively such things are. I only mention it on this account.
All know how delightful are buckwheat cakes and molasses, -
"I do delight to feed upon them," but from the time I saw
how molasses was made I never touched it again. You may
imagine that what I saw was pretty stiff, and so it was.

This naturally leads to the wharves where it is shipped North.
In the warm evenings it was nice to go with my father down
to these wharves and hear the water lapping among the boats.

There, in the great warehouses, seated about their grogs, were
the solid men of Matanzas, red-faced and white-waistcoated,
talking over the price of sugar, molasses, rum, jerked beef
(tasaho), codfish, and negroes, the mingled odors of which
things sensibly affected the fresh air from the open roadstead.



The hardy sea-captain also was not lacking. One night, I, see-
ing a block of wood, with a flat piece like a narrow and thin
ruler set into it, asked what it was. An old captain answered
"Them's mighty curious things. Once when I was in port in the
Gulf of Mexico, where I was waiting to load up, I used to keep
watching one of them things you know they change with the
weather. That one did n't change much; it would bend a little
now and then, but that was all; and I began to think that it
did n't work worth a cent, when all of a sudden I see it bent
right over ; it got an awful curl on it ; and I said right then to the
captains in the store : ' Boys, you may do what you darn please,
but I 'm goin' to get out of this hole as quick as I can. I want
plenty of sea-room to-night.' I got out; and by Jingo! them
fellers that did n't was all smashed to pieces or up in the streets
of that town afore mornin'."

It was a sort of primitive hygrometer, made of an elastic strip
of wood, with soft wood cut across the grain glued to one side
of it. I made one for a friend. I show a drawing of it. Of course
I made an improvement. You know in looking at such a thing
what you want to know is, if it is going up or down. I so made
this one that it would at once show what it was up to.

Nothing can be finer than a great, cool Cuban house on some
hill overlooking the sea, with the fresh sea-breeze blowing all day
long. This and a Cuban breakfast of fish, looking beautiful
even when cooked, rice, snowy, or golden with saffron, fresh
eggs, and the wonderful fruits and the cool claret leave little
to be desired. Life seems good ; but even there our old friend
Trouble lurks under the shade of the sombrero.

The Playa de los Judios (pronounced Hudiqs),or Jews, was a


long stretch of beach ending finally in a jungle. This was one of
our favourite walks; the cocoanut trees grew along it, some with
their roots in the salt wave. On this beach were to be found
beautiful shells, and the prismatic-hued Portuguese men-of-war,
like rainbow-coloured bladders, were thrown up during the great
gales. We little boys used to have fine times jumping on them,
to hear the report as they burst. Boys are nothing but heathen
Hottentot savages. I know I was then, although I improved
later on ; so much so that I took to saving life, and have saved
numberless animals and insects from thousands of horrible pre-
dicaments. All but mosquitoes and fleas. The reader will see
later on when and why this detestation of mosquitoes arose.
This beach was the place where the unbaptized were not
buried, but thrown out. The buzzards loved the spot. For this
reason my brother, when he took to the sea, had a cross tattooed
on his arms, as that would insure him Christian burial. You see
what burial Christians gave those who were not. Of course
Christian meant Catholic in Cuba. There had been the usual
yellow fever or cholera, and there you would see the half-burned
bedding; or, on lifting rude boards, in the hollow beneath, the
entire skeleton quite clean, for your industrious ant and old
uncle buzzard are famous for preparing skeletons. Why all this ?
Because this memory served as the first step of many leading to
a picture I painted long after. As this is a fine opportunity for
a digression, I digress.

A Studio Question How some pictures are made.

One of the favourite studio questions is: "Where do you get
your ideas?" This of course alludes to a kind of picture long
since out of fashion. And deservedly so: for there can be no-


thing so pernicious as to allow the microbe of thought to per-
vade the system of a picture. The following account of how a
picture came about is therefore interesting only from a purely
archaeological point of view. Please remember the gruesome
half-burned rags strewed about the ground on the Playa de los
Judios. Much later on, I read how the great Horace Vernet used
to occupy any spare moment in sketching something in a small


book he carried for that purpose ; this happened when he was
waiting for a carriage, or at a station, or on any other occasion.
The thing sketched was anything that attracted his eye a
water-pipe, a chimney, a wheelbarrow, or anything. Thinking
this a good idea, I at once set up my little book. We were build-
ing a house in Clinton Avenue, Brooklyn, and the first sketch
in the book was of a hole in the ground with a ladder half out
of it. Please remember the ladder and hole. Later still, I painted
a sky over the houses in the Piazza dell' Independenza in Flor-
ence ; it was yellowish, sickly-looking sunset please put this
aside for future reference. Now I had been reading Ruskin.


It was after some friend had called his attention to the exist-
ence of a Venetian painter by the name of Tintoretto, whom
Ruskin had somehow overlooked. Of course this was followed
with an outburst of Tintoretto. In one of his word-pictures he
showed how much more effective a suggestion of horror is than
the horror itself, and instanced the stream of blood flowing
over the pavement in a Massacre of the Innocents. In fact, he
made a mountain of fine words out of a mole-hill of an idea ;
treating you as an idiot in the meantime, with much scolding
and abuse such as only a person with a large and assured income
dare use. Please remember that; it is all important. I mean
about the income. Now if Ruskin did not write in this way about
that very picture, he did about something else, and if not,
why not ?

Then came the time when I was painting the Dead Abel.
Wanting to make a study of an arm, I picked up the sketch of the
sunset, this had a bare space of the proper colour in the fore-
ground on which to paint it. No sooner had I painted in this arm
lying stretched on the ground than I foresaw the picture. Put-
ting in the half-burned rags, and the hole, with the ladder turned
into a bier and a few monks in the background bringing in
a body ; putting in a few golden tresses of hair escaping from the
half-covered head and lying in the dust; and there was the
picture itself.

All it needed was some well-known Florentine campanile,
and it had its title also - The Plague in Florence. The funny
thing is that hundreds of persons have hundreds of such memo-
ries, only they don't come together. Why they come together in
one fellow's mind and not in the other fellow's mind, is what
"no feller can find out.' :


But let us return to the little boy of about seven years old,
but getting older every day, and always learning something
if it was n't in a book.

My good mother had brought with her two jackets intended
for me. They were handsome affairs trimmed with guimpe, and
filled the Cuban boys with envy. I scarcely had a chance to wear
them, they were so constantly borrowed to serve as patterns.
Thus I became a Beau Brummel. I set the fashion in Matanzas,
until they became so common that I again sank into obscurity,
but only in that respect. I also learned what guimpe was, and
from the talk the difference between a gore and a gusset. I now
also shot my first bird. I was too little to hold out the gun, but
by resting it on a stone wall, I aimed so well that I hit my bird.
It was a disgusting turkey-buzzard. I was awful sorry for him,
but it was most interesting. After that I became a great hunter,
until I was shot myself; then I learned how it felt, and I have
never gone shooting since.

As I was always going to Cuba and back again during my
childhood, boyhood and youth, I shall return to Cuba before
I get through my narrative, and had better now tell of Schenec-
tady, for I remember well how about this time I lorded it over
the other little boys there with my tales of the tropics and the
dangers of the sea.


Boyhood and School-days


WHAT a mass of memories that name Schenectady
brings up ! The days of my childhood passed there
were all romance and adventure, heightened by my
romantic voyage to Cuba that great interlude which at once
set me above and apart from the stay-at-homes. It was to me a
beautiful place and full of interest : the Mohawk River, the Canal,
the awe-inspiring College, and my relatives, being the principal
features. One other the school was the only fly in the suave
ointment of my youthful happiness.

It was still Dutch. The houses had stoops on which the peace-
ful pipe sent up its fumes in the quiet evening, when the boys
brought from their distant pastures the slow-moving cows, to
be placidly milked in the back yard. This bringing home the
cows would have been to me a delight, but for one thing : I wanted
to go barefoot like the other boys; but I began and remained a
tenderfoot, and could only envy them.


Our great joy was the Canal, and I shall start in at once with
fishing, as I did then. The variety of fish in the Canal was not
great; given a bridge over a Canal in a town, and go fishing
under that bridge, and the things you will catch, apart from
fish, are innumerable ; you could far easier make up a list of what
did not come up than one of what did. We then (in the way of
fish) had to content ourselves with bull-heads, although there
were also mud-suckers and bull-pouts and catfish ; but it takes
a good "scollard" to make out the difference.

I am reminded now but was not then of the story of the
sign-painter and the landlord. The Landlord said: "I want a
sign, and it must be a White Horse, the name of my tavern."
The Sign-painter said : " I think you would better have a Red
Lion." " But I don't want a Red Lion ; my father and grand-
father kept this inn and it has always been the White Horse
Inn. Can you paint me a white horse ? " "Of course I can;
I can paint anything, and I will paint you a White Horse, but
I tell you beforehand that it is going to look very like a Red

You might fish for what you pleased in the Canal, but it
always looked very like a bull-head.

It was not so with the " pool," where we went fishing in a boat
when we were older. The pool was down the Mohawk, a little
creek leading to it. Had we been given to moralizing in those
days, the delightful float down river and the heart-breaking
pull back against the current, would have been to us "a lesson
and a warning." But we hated lessons, and heeded not warnings,
instead of which we had a good time catching the beautiful sun-
fish with its spot of colour, and the golden but prickly perch.

Now near the pool there was a very little house, to us


a marvel, for it had but one small window made of one pane of
glass, and was the abode of a hermit, a real Hermit. About
once a year he came to town, a strangely-dressed and strange-
looking old man. He came to buy a few fish-hooks and fish-lines
and such other things as well-appointed hermits must have.

All said : "That is the Hermit." There were many stories told
about him to account for this renunciation of the world on his
part, but the most popular one was that he had been married six
times. And we used to wonder if grief drove him into solitude,
or if matrimony had turned out a failure, or if he had simply
become tired of the marriage service. But his secret died with
him, and he remains one of the mysteries of the Mohawk.

On a sunny day for the days were all sunny then my
mother paid a visit to an old farmer, of course a relative, and
took me along. The place was down the river, where the aque-
duct spans the boiling rapids below. I can't tell you how grandly
high was the bridge, how terribly fierce the rapids; for all was
on a grand scale then. A steep road leads up from the viaduct
up through arching trees to a high plateau on which was the
farmhouse, and near which yet stood the original log house
where were born many of my branch of the family. As I have
said, it was a strange mixture in those days : relatives who had
apostle spoons, wove rag-carpets; so you must not wonder at
my finding in the parlour of this farmhouse an old Chinese paint-
ing on glass in a teak-wood frame, and other marvels.

I have said that I had the kindest-hearted and best mother
that ever lived. Yet, would you believe it, when rushing to her
for comfort and help, having fallen and hurt my knee awfully, I
was met by the heartless question, "Have you torn your trousers ? "
That was enough. I said nothing. I had at once made up my



mind, and went behind the barn to perfect my plan. I would
leave steal away in the night. I would make up a bundle,
such a little bundle ! and I, a little boy with my little bundle,
would go on foot all alone to some distant seaport, and there,
telling my story to some kind captain, beg him to take me with
him as a sailor-boy, no matter how hard and rude the life might
be. The thought brought tears to my eyes; but getting hungry
I returned to the house and found they had never missed me.

This old farmer, who must have been one of my innumerable
uncles, once said to my father : " See here, your boys, Alexander
and Elihu, don't keep coming round trying to curry favour with
me, as all my other nephews do, and I like it in them. They are
good, independent boys, and you just wait and see how I will fool
those other young chaps. Darned if I don't leave your boys the
most of my property."

Now he had property. The family consisting of all kinds of
men, Providence had ordained this one to be the miser. But the
other chaps waited patiently about, taking the measure of his
shoes, and when he died found that they fitted perfectly :
"All comes to those who wait."

In those far-off days I can remember no one as being -very
rich or very poor. There was no absolute poverty, and above all
there was no absolute vulgarity. In the same family you found
clergymen and blacksmiths. There was no profanity, at least
not among my people, and no funny stories except those in the
Bible. Everything in the Bible was all right then.

I suppose the fun of childhood consists in action, not in thought;
but thinking things over now, I see that there were a great many
funny things about, but no funny men. For instance, it was funny
when I went to call on my Uncle Albert called by common


consent "The Squire" and my Aunt Betsey, his wife. They
were both deaf. He was the picture of my grandfather, his
brother. Of Aunt Betsey I can only remember the red wig
worn anyway. " He says he has come to stay only a few days/'
"Well, you need n't shout so loud; I heard him." And so it
went on. It was like a storm at sea.

It was very different at my grandmother's, my father's mother.
She was a dear, bright old woman, the mother of nine children,
all living but one, my Uncle Uri. She lived to be ninety-two.
When she died, my aunts Sarah and Eve lived on in the same
little brick house in Green Street where I always saw them on
my visits. Sarah was the oldest, a saint, if ever there was one.
Eve must have been the frivolous one, for she married, when
quite old, a certain Clute, to the great scandal of the neighbour-
hood. They were both good, and tried to adopt children, and
would have succeeded in bringing them up if the children had
not always died. About this time Eve married, and died herself
shortly after.

How well I remember the ceremonious way they always set
wine and cake before me in the good old Dutch fashion, with
many protests for not being able to offer me something better,
for something had always gone wrong with the cake, and the cur-
rant wine of their own making always gave me the stomach-ache.
But the hospitality had the true ring, and so did the belly-ache.

When Eve was gone, and Aunt Sarah lived alone, I never failed
to see her. I was growing up and filled with all the modern
theories as to our relations with the Infinite, so my aunt seemed to
me a being of another age. She never read the Bible, knowing
it by heart, but also from another cause : she believed she had
committed the Unpardonable Sin, and perhaps thought she was


unworthy of that privilege. But what, in the name of goodness,
could she have known about sin, and what must her idea of the
Unpardonable Sin have been like ?

With short oversleeves to protect her dress, which was ab-
solutely simple, she resembled perfectly one of those Fates in
Michelangelo's picture of that name. It was wonderful. I have
never lost the impression made on me when she related with deep
emotion her last Vision. She no more doubted the truth of these
visions than I doubted the fact of my existence. You must re-
member she had never seen a Dutch picture in her life, yet you
would have sworn she was describing one. She told me they
always came to her just before dawn. "I was standing in a
barn with wonderful beams, and up in the beams it was full of
beautiful little angels all singing softly and playing on curious
instruments, and they made the sweetest music I ever heard,
though I often hear sweet music. And a beautiful angel stood
before me and said : ' Eve, I am told to ask you what is the dear-
est wish of your heart. You may tell me and it will be given to
you.' And I answered: 'I want to look on the face of my Sav-
iour.' Slowly a great light grew about me and I knew some one
stood before me, and I knew it was the Lord, and I covered
my face and did not look. I felt I was unworthy to look on
Him, or to speak to Him ; and then the light went away and
has never come back again."

I can only hope that she is now sitting beside Him in the great

"The heart attaineth to its desire."

Years after Aunt Sarah's death, the house having been given
me by my father, I went to see it. It was empty: the busy loom
no longer in the basement, the garret no longer filled with spin-


nmg-wheels ; the only sign of past life was an old hoop-skirt lying
on the floor, left there by some subsequent tenant. The long
garden was filled with weeds. Somewhat saddened by my in-
spection, as I stood at the sidewalk about to leave, there came
out to me from the house next door a dear old lady who said :
" I want to have a good look at you" ; and placing her hands on
my shoulders gazed long into my eyes. "Yes, it is there; I see
your mother looking at me out of your eyes. She was my dear-
est friend." How I wanted to stay and have her tell me all
about that dear mother ! But I had to catch the train, and so
she too has passed into the Mists of Time.

In this same quiet street there had been a very old graveyard ;
but progress, even in that quiet spot, had made its appearance,
and it was decreed that the graveyard must be removed. And so
it happened that I had a glimpse of an uncle that I had never
known. Why I went, or who took me, I have forgotten, but shall

Online LibraryElihu VedderThe digressions of V. → online text (page 3 of 29)