Elihu Vedder.

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never forget what I saw. We had to go some distance out of town ;
it was a cold day, under a gloomy sky, that we climbed the bleak
hillside until we could see beneath us the ice-blocked river and
the flooded, snow-covered flats fading away into the distance.
From far off, borne on the wind, came the tooting of a distant
engine, a most desolate sound. At our feet, on the frozen ground,
was a broken and decayed coffin with the lid gone, and in it
a tall skeleton to which clung bits of shroud that fluttered in the
chilly wind, and this was, or had been, my Uncle Uri. A
strange meeting, indeed! And then back to the cheerful town
and the warm fireside leaving him out there alone.

In those early days no Christian home was complete without
a Hell. This I could hear daily dinned into my companions, but


my mother, God bless her ! being a Universalist, spared
my life this nightmare, which I have seen afflict the lives of so

I am writing of long ago. At that time, as a matter of course,
all good Christians quarrelled among themselves, at least in
Schenectady, but united most harmoniously in persecuting the
poor Universalists. In Schenectady it was like the early days of
the Church. We met almost furtively, and the windows of the
humble little chapel were constantly broken by stones, thrown,
sometimes, during the meetings. And all this because they, the
Universalists, held that a good God would never create any one
for endless torture.

I notice that Dante provides a snug little place in Hell for all
but himself. This idea of a Hell for others may make the belief
more endurable for some, nay, even pleasant. I myself have
known of people for whom some such arrangement seemed

I once met with a very good example of this gloomy belief
which ruins the lives of some people especially in age. One
evening I went to call on a worthy consul in Venice, W. D. H.
not our friend W. D. Howells, who is worthy, and was once
consul in Venice, but another W. D. H. He was alone, the
consolessa, held by all to be the real executive, being absent.
He was sitting by the fire in a most gloomy state of mind. On
my asking him why he seemed so melancholy, he told me he
was thinking of Hell.

" But," said I, " my dear Mr. H., we all know you to be one
of the best and most harmless of men ; how on earth can you
be afraid of Hell ?"

He said, " We are told that we are all in danger of hell-fire."


Here I could not help bursting in and saying that I thought they
might be better employed than causing a good man to sit in his
old age in fear and trembling at the idea of a Hell which did not

"Ah, but it does exist! You have not studied it out as I have;
some day you may believe as I do."

I could not help thinking of the Frenchman's remark after
the perusal of some portions of the New Testament: "Would n't
it be funny if it turned out to be true after all ?"

One touch more. I was in a gondola with H. and his wife,
when he broached again this cheerful theory of Hell.

"Now, H.," said his wife, "I wish you would just stop talking
about Hell. You have become perfectly foolish on the subject."

He, evidently following out some train of thought, turned and
said: "Well, my dear, I am not so sure about you, either."

Out of the mist of time many forms emerge and sink
back again. One form is of a beautiful, regularly-featured,
pale, clear-complexioned girl, giving signs of early stoutness.
I thought she looked like the mother of Washington. It was
she who always sang, accompanying herself upon a melodeon,
"Home again, home again, from a foreign shore," when-
ever I, as a matter of fact, came home again. At first it
was adoration, and I wondered how my friend, her brother,
could treat such a peerless creature with rude familiarity. As
a little boy I regarded her with secret and respectful admiration ;
as a bigger boy, as one to flirt with ; as a youth, one who faded
from my ken, previously marrying a railroad man. I do not think
she even pined ; and / was an artist.

The faintest of the faint visions, in looking way back, is the


name Emeline. Not even the form shows itself, but she was
the one who, when I was a very little boy, stood at the head
of the class in Sunday-School a being I strove in vain to
approximate, as I was born (intended by nature) always to stand
at the foot. It was hard climbing, but I climbed, impelled by
love. How powerful this love was which pervaded my being,
is shown by my learning and delivering, as my kind mother puts
it, the following address. I only remember getting through it by
persistent prompting. My mother in writing to my father says :
"Anyone but a parent would think this a very small matter, but
I, knowing it would interest you, have copied it."

ADDRESS TO PARENTS Taken from the Union

Kind friends, again we children stand before you all, a smiling band,

To welcome you with fond delight, to our performance here to-night.

I am a little boy, I know; but great men all from children grow.

The President, whose seat is high, was once as small and young as I.

And if through childhood's sunny days, I always walk in virtue's ways,

My heart will not in after life be full of sorrow, pain, and strife.

Who knows but what I may become, ere many years their course have run,

As wise as any in the land, and in the highest places stand;

Then do not pass us children by, or let our minds inactive lie;

But lend us now your generous aid, and amply you will be repaid.

Telling of my grandfather's, where in my boyhood so many
wonderful events occurred, I must not forget to tell how one got
there. From New York, crossing the East River, you arrived
in due time for the ferry-boat took plenty of time at the
peaceful Fulton Ferry landing. There the stages were waiting
the coming boat, and would wait until she came in, giving the
passengers plenty of time to catch the stage and stow away
their bundles the result of their New York shopping. I re-
member one old lady saying to the driver, as she gave him a


bundle : " John, you need n't stop the stage ; just chuck it over
the fence. They'll find it."

We used to take the New Bedford stage that went on to East
New York. It stopped, of course, at Simonson's Tavern.

There in the bar-room, with its sanded floor, you saw the por-
trait of Hiram Woodruff, the Napoleon of the Turf, and the
advertisement where good old Bill Tovee was mentioned as re-
feree in some prize-fight. Also the portrait of the trotting stallion,
Henry Clay, or the equally celebrated Lady Suffolk. From
Simonson's Tavern began the plank-road leading past Grand-
father's, to the Centreville race-course, up and down which I
used to see the roaring sports of those days speeding their trot-
ters. The ideal pace in those days is given in the saying "two-
forty on the plank-road." I even remember a part of an old
song which ran thus :

"De Camptown race-course five miles long,

Du-da, du-da,
De Camptown race-course five miles long,

Du-da, du-da-day;

She's bound to run all night; she's bound to run all day;
I bet my money on a bob-tailed nag,

Somebody bet on a bay."

I believe the song also told how the wager turned out. And the
ideal form of the trotter of those days was shown in highly-
coloured prints where they are represented with their straight
necks, flaring nostrils, and strong hind-quarters, pounding them-
selves to pieces on the tracks.

Just beyond Simonson's Tavern was a gloomy mansion, in the
Grecian style, but of wood, the home of an Abolitionist, that
name was spoken with bated breath; it was the same as say-
ing the Devil ! and yet it is not so long ago. And so, passing


the house of the Abolitionist, over which a cloud seemed to lower
even on the brightest days, passing our other neighbours,
Gascoigne and Collet, we came to the paradise of my youth

The picture opposite the next page shows "what for a man"
my grandfather was; but to make it perfect another picture is
necessary that charming thing by Eastman Johnson of the old
man standing at the corner cupboard holding up his glass to
the light to see if he has poured in the right dose. This my grand-
father, winter and summer, about five o'clock used always to do ;
and I do the same to keep his memory green.

At first I regarded him with awe and veneration, but after
listening to the constant criticisms of my grandmother and
Aunt Eveline regarding his extravagance in the matter of feed-
ing chickens, and in his agricultural pursuits in general, this
reverence was diminished, but not my affection for him. Re-
membering the low estimate in which he was held by these good
women, and also by subsequent observation, I have sometimes
almost come to the conclusion that the only good husband is
a dead husband; but be that as it may, I remember that all his
proceedings were characterized by a magnificent deliberation
particularly the occasion of the weekly shave. The preparations
were most elaborate, the stropping of the razor prolonged, the
thrusting of his tongue into his cheek, to restore its pristine
plumpness, absorbingly interesting: and then the towelling,
and the call for a fresh "dickey" and the white cravat. And
then, as if as a reward of merit, the corner cupboard, the care-
fully-measured dram and the sigh of satisfaction.

He had been a great wrestler in his day, and my grandmother
used to tell of the times he had come home with torn coat, the


result of his having been inveigled into trying a throw. He once
gave me a lesson: he first fenced with one of his feet, and I, in-
cautiously doing the same, he deftly got his foot under mine,
and lo ! I was on my back in an instant.

But above all he was a good, honest, solid, pig-headed old
Dutchman, very conservative, and a great Whig. Those of the
opposite party were called Locofocos in those days ; and on elec-
tion days the Whigs never failed to come for him in a barouche,
for the sake of the effect produced at the polls by seeing him
cast his good Whig vote.

He had curious notions of anatomy. One of them must have
come from his keeping chickens, for I frequently saw him eat
his eggs shells and all, and I concluded that he considered the
stomach as a kind of crop or gizzard, in which the food was ground
up by the presence of hard substances. Another notion arose from
the well-known effect of water on plaster of Paris: it sets it; and
so he conceived the ingenious thought that by making a mix-
ture of Indian meal and plaster and giving it to rats, it would
create in them a fearful thirst which he would provide for by
thoughtfully setting a saucer of water near the fatal repast : thus,
on their drinking, a cast would be made of their insides. How-
ever defective this plan may have been in theory, it worked in
practice ; it worked by bringing everything to a standstill in their
affairs, and they died.

His religion was simplicity itself. He believed he was already
either damned or saved, so never bothered about it. Whether
his belief saved him or not, I do not know ; but I know it saved
him a lot of trouble, for there was a great deal of talk about Hell
in those days, as I have mentioned before.

As I have told how I escaped Hell, perhaps another notable



escape may be in order, namely, how I escaped becoming a

My escape from teetotalism happened at school. It was not
so much an escape from that as it was from breaking the pledge,
for I should have signed it, had there been a pledge to sign. I
really did take the pledge as it was called in my heart, but
the lecturer having forgotten to bring the printed form, I could
not sign it ; thus I was prevented from breaking it in the letter
at least. This lecturer was very young, but he knew his busi-
ness. He commenced by showing how much alcohol is con-
tained in such a seemingly innocent beverage as beer. By means
of an alembic he drew from a pint of beer what seemed to me
a quart of spirits; this left to our imaginations what quantity
must be contained in the fiery and fatal whiskey.

This was an appeal to the Mind. The next was to the Eye.
He now displayed what appeared to be a series of landscapes ;
these were views of the Drunkard's Stomach, showing the effects
of alcohol, from the first social glass with its rosy eruption, to
the fatal fiery ending. This last picture was truly terrible : a per-
fect volcano ; great streams of red-hot lava running down ; and
all it needed was the reflection of the flames in a bay, and the
black lines of shipping against it, and a moon, to make it a per-
fect picture of an eruption of Vesuvius. We shivered.

He made his last appeal to the Heart. The Drunkard, aban-
doned by all but his faithful dog, reduced to abject poverty,
staggers one freezing night into a shed and there sleeps the sleep
of drunkenness. Saved from perishing by his faithful friend,
what does he do on awakening when he feels the insatiate crav-
ing of the fiend ? His bloodshot eye falls on the dog, and he kills
him that he may sell his skin for yet another drink. We were in


tears, and little birds never held out their beaks for food as we
held out our hands clamouring for the pledge. The lecturer
searched in vain his pockets: he had forgotten to bring it, but
promised to send it to us in the morning. But the night brings
counsel. We talked it over. The near approach of Christmas
and New Year's, and the memory of currant wine and liquorish
lollipops and strong-tasting cake, induced us to postpone the
signing, and I at least was saved from inevitable backsliding.

Of "all the loved spots that my infancy knew," I think the
garret was my favourite. For, aside from the fascinating variety
of its contents, there was a weird mystery lurking in its dark
corners, with the row of pendant dresses, like Bluebeard's wives,
that sometimes, moving in the evening wind, caused me to go
downstairs with a strong desire to whistle which was sternly held
in check, for at that time I was practising the stoical virtues
of the Indian, whose deeds I emulated in the neighbouring forest.
Were I a literary man, I should like to resolve that sentence and
see in what it differs from or resembles one of those a friend some-
times starts at the Club, which I clutch or cling to like a new-
born babe until the portion grasped is so far from its source that
I drop off, chilled to the bone, without having found out what
in the name of goodness he is driving at.

The garret, then, was very interesting, especially in the way of
books. And it is simply God's mercy that in my climbing to the
upper shelves of the lofty bookcase, it did not topple over and
bury under the weight of its accumulated wisdom the possessor
of a youthful but too inquiring mind. An old English jest-book,
with anecdotes of the time of Foote, the actor, like all the other
treasures of that old home, by some family upheaval, disappeared,


"Where, no one knows," any more than one knows what
becomes of a fallen thumb-tack: it rolls away into the imfindable.
I will try to reproduce from memory one of the anecdotes.

Foote, one day while passing down the Strand, saw over the
door of a barber's shop a sign with the following inscription :
"Here lives Jemmy White, who shaves as well as any man in


England almost, not quite." Thinking the man to be a wag,
and observing that several panes of glass in the window had been
broken and replaced by paper, Foote thrust his head through one
and inquired: "Is Mr. White within?" The barber, quitting
the customer he was shaving, quickly ran to the window, thrust
his head through another and answered : " No ; he has just popped


out." Whereupon Foote laughed heartily and gave the man a
guinea. In after years, recalling the expression, I introduced it
to the Boys and it became a favourite.

But the greatest find of all was an old volume without cover or
title-page. From the finding of this book dated a series of experi-
ments mostly failures which filled the garret with strange
instruments and machines. To my mind it contained all the wis-
dom, all the arts and sciences of ancient and modern times. It
wandered from astronomy to the construction of a bird-organ,
from painting, sculpture, and architecture, to fortune-telling;
from directions for making a clepsydra, or water-clock, to the
proper wood for a divining-rod ; and although deplorably misty
most of the time, and maddening in its demands for unprocur-
able materials, was my great delight. Most things in chemistry
I left untried from the fact that a "Florence flask" seemed so
indispensable. "Take a Florence flask and lute it well," stood
like an angel with drawn sword at the head of each experiment.
Without a Florence flask, and ignorant of luting, I retired from
the contest. Little did I then dream how familiar would become
the Florence flask in later years. The clepsydra of the ancients
I succeeded in making; it dribbled and leaked away the hours
without much regard for the real time most delightfully, but was
condemned to inaction by the family on account of dampness.
Perspective I could not master, as the examples seemed so much
out of perspective. Nevertheless I studied hard at the plate
with the long street and the big man looking at himself rapidly
diminishing at intervals into the distance. How to paint a head,
on the contrary, seemed the easiest thing in the world. Draw
it, dead-colour it, finish, glaze, varnish and sign it,
that was all. How I longed for the materials. It is needless to


say that later on I found these directions, though right in
the main, left something to be desired.

These books, with the addition of the "Arabian Nights,"
"Robinson Crusoe," "The Swiss Family Robinson," and the
" Boys' Own Book," kept me pretty busy. But the great event
of this period was my falling heir to the mechanical remains of
my Aunt Eveline's husband, Caister, he who went mad, as I
have told, amongst which was a box of English water-colours,
so that both in art and mechanics I received a fresh impetus.

Aunt Eveline, or Aunt Ewy, was not my aunt, but an orphan
who had been adopted by my grandfather's second wife, my
step-grandmother. She was a meagre little woman, one of
those made quite ill by the sight of a suffering animal, but who
stand the sight of human suffering with great philosophy. She
was not without a sense of humour, and used to make shrewd
remarks about persons and things. How she managed to get
married was always a wonder to me, but she did manage it, and
married a great bluff Englishman by the name of Caister. He
was a man full of ideas, and a great mechanic. He predicted
that carriages and all sorts of vehicles would some day be run-
ning about the streets without horses, that we should fly
through the air, and a hundred other extravagances ; and was
considered to have a bee in his bonnet of the largest size ; but
nothing more than that, until he commenced buying up all the
iron he could find in the junk-shops, with the intention of turn-
ing it into gold. But finally, becoming violent, he had to be sent
to the Asylum for the Insane. When it was certain that he was
incurable, I fell heir to all his traps ; and as such persons as he
usually commence with perpetual motion, I must have caught
the microbe from his mechanical remains, and had it bad; I


even now go over my perpetual motion at times as a good exer-
cise for the mind; it at least keeps one
out of harm, but not out of asylums.

I see that I make no mention of the
v penny magazine in my notice of the books
f in the garret ; it was there in great force,
but how small it looked when I saw it

years afterward! Yet it is connected with the affaire of my
favourite cat, for in it I must have seen an account of the
hunting-leopard of India, the cheetah, and I at once de-
termined to have a hunting-leopard, and my cat had to be it.
So I trained her to sit on my shoulder while I went following
the flocks of chippy birds in the field. She at once caught the
idea, and with staring eyes and twitching tail remained pa-
tiently sitting until I had crept close up to a flock, when, putting
her gently on the ground, she would go on creeping up to them
through the grass and finally, making a splendid bound, land in
their midst ; fortunately for them they invariably scattered in all
directions, leaving her amazed at their pusillanimous behaviour;
showing the difference between catching an idea and catching a
bird : she never caught a bird.

I don't know how it happened, but I was given a gun at a very
early age, and, well supplied with powder and shot, Jack and I
used to be gone all day. The woods came
down nearly to the house, and extended to
East New York and to Canarsee; the rail-
road cut through them near a swamp, from
which a lonely old Welshman pumped the
water into a tank for the locomotives. We
became great friends. He was very well


educated, and in that quiet spot, with no sound but the oc-
casional splash of a turtle disturbed in his sun-bath on some
log, by Jack, we talked for hours, and I must have learned
much from him in that most pleasant of school-rooms. It
is all gone now; yet in imagination I still see the old man
sitting reading his Bible and waiting for the coming of his
little friend.

The woods bordered the plank-road up to the toll-gate. When
I went to East New York for letters, Jack was duly admonished
to stay at home, and would walk off to the barn as if he had some
rats to attend to ; but no sooner was I well committed to the road
than I could see in the depth of the forest a dim form stealing
along, and then at the toll-gate the inevitable fight with the
toll-gate dog, Jack's great enemy. They were both properly
beaten, Jack taking his as a necessary part of the fight which
was such an unalloyed delight to him that I could never break
him of the habit. But 'there was one habit of which Grandpa
broke him absolutely. It was found that the supply of eggs
diminished in a mysterious way, and then it was discovered that
Master Jack had a nest to which he conveyed eggs ; but not to
hatch, for each egg had a nice hole in it and Master Jack was
walking about, the happy possessor of its contents. Whereupon
Grandpa prepared a hard-boiled egg, piping hot, which he clapped
into Jack's mouth, holding his jaws together quite long enough
to impress the lesson on his mind. It is needless to say Jack
never looked an egg in the face again.

Among the old friends of the family was a Mr. Simson. He
owned the East Broadway line of stages. Now and then having
an ailing horse, the animal was sent over to Grandpa's to see what
a change of air and grass would do for him. On one side of the


house was a large field crossed by a rail fence ; into this field was
turned out to grass an old white horse, who not only recovered his
health but became so lively that he took to jumping this fence, lit-
erally soaring over it back and forth. It filled me with delight,
and having a good saddle and bridle, I used to curry-comb and
brush him up and go for the letters, feeling like a crusader. In fact
I was so filled with the spirit of chivalry that one day, having tied
him to the well-nibbled post in front of a tavern, I, on coming
back with the letters, must needs, in emulation of the knights of
old, vault into the saddle, which I did with such agility that
I went clean over it and came down on the other side "amid the
jeering approval of the crowd." I did not then, but have since
found a very apt quotation for this little show of vaulting ambi-
tion, in the pages of Shakespeare.

But all sorts of things happened. Among the water-colours
left by Caister was a piece of ivory, such as is used in painting
miniatures, and I must needs paint a miniature, and so tried to
copy the portrait of a lady with three little curls on each side of
her face. At that time I had the bad habit of wetting and clean-
ing my brushes in my mouth. Now gamboge as a colour is good,
but taken internally has a medicinal effect ; and a certain brown
I used was so astringent that it might have served to prepare the
lips for whistling ; while the white, which was no other than white
lead, gave me a fearful dryness of the throat, a symptom of
white-lead poisoning, so that I might have entitled this incident,

Online LibraryElihu VedderThe digressions of V. → online text (page 4 of 29)