Elihu Vedder.

The digressions of V. online

. (page 5 of 29)
Online LibraryElihu VedderThe digressions of V. → online text (page 5 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Death in the Paint-Box. Another curious thing : after working all
morning on my picture, I found, on returning to it after dinner,
nothing left on the sheet of ivory but little dots of colour ; the
lady had disappeared. It seemed the work of magic, but it was
nothing but the work of the fly ; for the colours being ground up



AT SCHOOL 59

with a certain amount of sugar, he had lifted it ofi with his little
proboscis, I dare say, as regards hi s health, with impunity ;
but he did not visit my work after that with impunity, I can
assure you. However, I gave up miniature-painting.

Among the books in the garret, how can I leave out "Adven-
tures by Land and Sea," wherein is told the story of a shipwreck
off the Falkland Islands, and of another wreck on the coast of
Patagonia, and of the sufferings of Lieutenant Byron and his men
as they worked their way, starving and on foot, along the coast
up to Chili. The word " foot" brings to mind another story in this
old book, of a man, the sole survivor on a wreck, who, although
starving, would not become a cannibal, yet "thought it no dis-
grace" to use the foot of the dead cook as bait for sharks. He
also made a retort, with a pistol-barrel and an iron tea-kettle,
and distilled sea-water, and kept himself alive until rescued.
This device I stored carefully away in my mind as being useful
in case I should be caught in a similar predicament. This is an
invaluable book and can be identified by a quotation on the
title-page which I have never forgotten :

"I am now old, but were I young, I would again roam the
seas, for my heart is always with the tight Ship and her jolly
Crew."

And now for school. The day came when, with my little
trunk, a few bundles, and many parting injunctions, I was put
on the stage which, leaving Fulton Ferry, went on past our
house to Jamaica, Long Island. This stage passed my grand-
father's. The parting was hard, especially from Jack and Beese,
my two dogs. Little did I realize what a paradise I was leaving,
and to what a purgatory of three weary years I was hastening.



60 THE DIGRESSIONS OF V.

I was made welcome by the good principal of the school, Mr.
Brinkerhoff, and his kind family, and soon became acquainted
with the boys. Doubtless the Dutch name of the principal
counted a great deal with my father, especially backed up by
that of his partner, Mr. Onderdonk. There was also in the town
a young ladies' seminary, kept by a Mrs. Adrian, another Dutch
name.

No one was to blame; it was a school of its time. Learn
your lesson by memory and you stood at the head of your class ;
failing in that, no matter how clever you were otherwise, you
stood at the foot. I was clever otherwise, but was always being
kept in, and always stood at the foot of the class. I cannot too
strongly insist on it that no one was to blame. Mr. Brinkerhoff
and his family were the best and kindest people imaginable ; the
table was good and generous; but it was the system.

That herding together of little boys and older boys (some
Spanish students from Cuba were no longer boys, but virtually
men) was fraught with inconceivable evil. Fortunately the boys
in general were good, but I saw although I did not fully realize
its import then the harm one bad boy can do, the indelible
impression he can leave on innocent, pure, and receptive minds.
One rich and very extravagant and dissipated boy, who after-
wards ended badly, one absolutely bad boy, and one or two of
the Spaniards, were more than enough. I say no more about
this for fear I should say too much.

Merely as a matter of fact I will say that I was, by general
consent, the artist of the school, also the inventor of machines
and of mechanical fun and deviltry in general. I made new-
fangled kites, a camera obscura, a great wonder, the fast-
est boats ; and as the heir of the mad inventor, brought with me



AT SCHOOL 61

several things of his invention one of which was a pistol-barrel
with the hammer underneath, a good solid thing, with which
one of the boys, to whom I had lent it, peppered his face with
gunpowder and burnt off his eyelashes and eyebrows. It was
great fun extracting from time to time the grains of powder from
his face, until he insisted on retaining some as a record.

My unenvied throne was the foot of the class ; but school-hours
over, I was as good as the rest, indeed was a favourite with one
gentle teacher, he of the hazel-coloured eyes with little specks in
them. He used to take me with him in his walks and really taught
me something. I remember him with pleasure and gratitude.

There was in town an old painter whose studio I soon became
familiar with. His studio was fairyland. He lent me Allan
Cunningham's "Lives of English Artists," and as he was al-
ways chewing tobacco and had his mouth full of amber-coloured
liquid, I thought it must be megilp or gumption, frequently men-
tioned in the "Life of Reynolds." In that wonderful book was
an account of Nollekens the name tickled me going about
amongst his statues at night with a candle on the brim of his hat;
and a very good way it is to see defects in modelling.

Also I read for the first time of Blake, the mad painter. Fancy
the author of the illustrations of the Book of Job mad ! ! !

This innocent old man gave a few lessons to the young ladies
of the Seminary, and in his leisure used to construct beautiful
landscapes, with rocks, and little branches of trees, moss, etc.,
etc., and made quiet pools of looking-glass in which all was re-
flected. He said he thus composed the landscapes he painted,
and it never entered his head or mine but that they were far
superior to Nature. He also lent me some engravings to copy,
of hands and feet, said to be by Raffaello but they were so



62 THE DIGRESSIONS OF V.

horribly ugly that I gave it up. But I did draw things, and drew
them, as was said of the talented boy, "right out of my own head
with a common lead-pencil." One drawing was the head of a
girl, which I used to show only as a great favour.

It happened thus. There was a little boy, a very weak and
delicate little fellow, whose protector I became. I was his cham-
pion, and he repaid it with gratitude and affection. Now his
sister was at that time an inmate of the Seminary. She was a tall
girl, older than I, and to me of a Madonna-like loveliness. Of
course I was her worshipper, and I drew this little head. It
chanced to turn out a likeness. There was an insolent young
whelp of a boy with a broken front tooth, by the name of Hyde.
He had tried to impose on my little friend and I had challenged
him to settle the matter on "the green" beyond the railroad, a
place where we played ball, flew kites, and settled affairs of hon-
our. This raised great expectations ; and although it never came
off, it served to keep Hyde in order all the rest of my stay at
school; for should the unfortunate Hyde ever put on airs or
show his arrogance to boys smaller than himself, he was told
that he had better first settle that affair with V. You see it was
a standing challenge "any time, on the green"; fortunately
for my reputation, the gauntlet was never taken up.

Even in this tranquil scene, tragedy and the ugly face of Death
had to show themselves. On revisiting Jamaica long after, with
a school-boy friend, he pointed to a railroad bridge and said:
"Don't you remember that bridge ?" No, I had forgotten it.
"Why, that was where they hung the Negro." Then it all came
back in a flash, the outrage and the lynching. As the boys
knew the victims, the event created a terrible impression at the
time ; yet, strange to say, I had forgotten it utterly.



VACATIONS AND PETS 63

Of course vacations and occasional visits home cheered me
up; but, as I said, it was a weary purgatory, and that it was
so is illustrated by a meeting held by the boys shortly before
I left. We had heard older people extol the days of their boy-
hood in such songs as, "Make me a boy again!" or "Make
me a boy again just for to-night." In this meeting it was pro-
posed that we should under no circumstances ever praise the
days of our boyhood, and this, put to the vote, was carried
unanimously.

I have said, in telling about my stay in Schenectady, how my
voyage to Cuba had set me apart and above other boys. I should
think so. A boy who can tell about cocoanut-trees, sugar-cane,
Negroes, oysters growing on trees, flying-fish, and especially
of a fish with wings like a bat, eyes like an owl, four legs, and that
can climb a tree, ought to count for something in telling stories.
No wonder I developed a talent for it.

There was one story I was for ever telling, for it could be pro-
longed indefinitely and I was always prolonging it. It was told
in bed, which was against the rule, and therefore with added
zest. The boys would gather about and beg to form part of the
adventurous crew, for it was always an innocent pirate crew of
bovs who found a desert island and settled on it. This island was

j

of course in the Tropics. Equally of course, we were armed to
the teeth, and the selection of the arms and the costume and the
provisions was matter of great moment and took many nights to
settle. Also the selection of the crew. In this I was quite tyran-
nical, so that some had to beg almost with tears in their eyes
before they were allowed to join the band. I cannot remember if
I admitted Hyde into this glorious company ; but if I did it was
with the intention of marooning him on the first opportunity,



64 THE DIGRESSIONS OF V.

with plenty of arms and provisions, of course, for we were, above
all, good pirates.

Like all good things the story came to an end; for one night
good Mr. Brinkerhoff, prowling about, yanked us from our beds,
and flat sounds were heard in the dormitory. We all felt it to be
a most. untimely and painful end.

Our morals were strictly seen to, for one of the regulations of
the school was that each boy must go to church twice on Sundays,
once to a church selected by his parents, while the other was
left to his discretion. My father must have been somewhat
puzzled to decide which church I was to attend, but he settled
on the Dutch Reformed: the "Dutch," corroborated by "re-
formed," must have decided him. We boys always went in the
gallery, and in that of the Dutch Reformed, I had much pleasant
sleep. Not so at the Episcopal church, which was unanimously
selected by the outsiders as the second string to their bow; for
there the varied ceremonial, the getting up and sitting down kept
us from sleeping and afforded us much amusement, quite apart
from the service. Sunday-School had its moments of relaxation.
It was at this time that I propounded certain questions that have
remained unanswered to this day. I started out by saying, "You
tell me God knows everything that has been, is, and is to be."
"Yes." - "Well, then, if I should make a little cart with wheels
which I could wind up and which would run along the ground
when I let go of it, and I should wind it up and say to it - ' If
you run when I let go, I will smash you,' what would you think
of me?" "My child, you are too young to understand such
things; when you get older, all that will be explained." I am
still waiting for the explanation, still too young, perhaps.

It was once at Sunday-School that a boy a very wicked



VACATIONS AND PETS 65

boy indeed had found in the Bible a most outrageous word, -
you know there are such in the Bible, and he asked the school-
mistress the meaning of it. With the utmost promptitude she
said: "We will look it up in the dictionary." And, accordingly,
we did and found at X, for that was the word, "See Y." - "We
will have to look up Y." On doing so, to our perplexity we found
"See X." Had she taken a preliminary canter?

Why this about Sunday-Schools ? Why ? Because in them I
was treated as if I were an imbecile. Why? Because they,
knowing all things, refused to share their knowledge with me,
thus causing me to flounder through life without being able to
grasp the scheme. It would have been so easy for them to have
told me, they knowing all things.

Truly school was purgatory, where, having been thoroughly
purged for sins I had not committed, I always felt that I had a
considerable sum to my credit on which I have drawn from time
to time. But then, there was always the promise of paradise,
Grandpa's, to which I now willingly return.

While at school in Jamaica, my vacations, as I have already
said, were passed at my grandfather's, where my dog Jack was
ever ready to welcome me with delight and become again my
darling companion.

I think I knew every thought that passed through his dear old
head, as well as he knew what was in store for him when I coaxed
him towards me intent on some fun at his expense. I think
people must have time to burn when they waste it writing arti-
cles on the question, " Do animals think ? " I will not answer as
to men, but I will answer as to Jack's thinking, and think it was
as good thinking as ever passed through the noddle of a man.



66



THE DIGRESSIONS OF V.




The neighbourhood was sparsely settled with a few old Dutch

families and with others. Some of the names were very suggestive.

One was Gascoigne, another that I remember was Collet,

both strangely English and French at the same time. Now this

Collet had a dog who fre-
quently visited Jack; they
were friends. He was large
enough, but a poor, half-
starved creature, always look-
ing for something to eat. Jack
was a wire-coated, big Scotch
terrier, and in good condition.
He was rich, so rich that
he had to have banks in which
to deposit his bones, and he
drew upon them when he was
so disposed. Collet's dog would at once make for these deposits,
but a warning growl from Jack showed him that they were taboo
until a preliminary romp was had. This once over, Jack would
lie down panting and placidly watch Collet's dog as he banqueted
on the bones provided by Jack's prevision. If that was not
thinking on the part of Jack, I should like to know what is ?

There once flourished in the north of Italy e precisamente,
in the Veneto a celebrated bone-setter by the name of Regina
Del Cin. Cripples came to her from all parts of Europe. She
was a good illustration of a person born to do a certain thing.
They say that when little she never ate a chicken without exam-
ining the joints to see how they worked. She had the habit of
lulling her patient into a comfortable state of mind by pretending
a preliminary examination, merely to see what was the matter,



DOMESTIC SURGERY 67

and taking advantage of the relaxed state of the muscles, a quick
movement and snap, back went the bone into its socket.

My mother must have had this gift, taking the form of curing cuts,
sprains, bruises, and in fact all those ills which fall to the lot of
childhood. Her mantle has fallen on me. But first, about the goose.

Grandpa had, with his solid Dutch foot, stepped on the head
of a little goose, and being a man hard to move, he did not move
but stood for some time. When he did move, the little goose was
found perfectly scalped. You will find in all trades that hurts
are healed by something standing about the shop. Grandpa had
been glueing something, so my mother cut a patch just the size
of the bare spot and glued it on ; then, putting the patient in a
basket, and in a quiet corner, and thrusting pellets of food down
its throat and pouring in spoonfuls of water, Nature was allowed
to take her course. After days of piteous whimperings, the little
goose came forth with such wits as he had about him, and as his
health improved, the patch curled up and was clipped off at the
edges till nothing of it remained, and he was cured and grew up
to be the biggest goose of them all, and then the usual end.

Now comes my turn : this time a chicken, a big one. His leg
had been broken, the shin part, about two inches below the joint.
It was a hopeless case and he was about to fall under the axe,
when I begged them to turn him over to my tender mercies
for I had an idea. I at once proceeded to cut off the injured part,
then taking a piece of bamboo and also accurate measurements,
I made a substitute for the lost foot, then wrapped up the stump,
stuffed cotton inside the bamboo, and slipped it on. It was the
right length and fitted perfectly, and off he went, dot and carry
one, to the admiration of the family assembled. He became
a fine fowl, and then the usual apotheosis.



68 THE DIGRESSIONS OF V.

I have just come across a drawing of my boyhood, it is the
old well at my grandfather's. In it hung a veritable "moss-
covered," aye, an "iron-bound bucket." How dear to my heart




THE WELL



are the scenes of my childhood when fond recollection does, or
doth, bring them to view, I need not say.

It was the end of a summer afternoon, long cool shadows
stretching over the grass, etc., etc. Between the old pear-tree
and a neighbour apple-tree hung a Cuban hammock. My pet



THE MOSS-COVERED BUCKET 69

goat was lying on the grass, offering a soft and warm southern
exposure of which her great friend, my pet cat, had availed her-
self. The cat was sleeping, but not so the pretty, well-set-up lit-
tle girl swinging gently in the hammock. She was wide awake,
and like Vivian, was weaving a spell to catch a youthful Merlin
in. I was the youthful Merlin. The spell ran thus :

If a body meet a body, comin' through the rye,
If a body kiss a body need a body cry ?

This she sang over and over again, until it got so on my nerves
that I told her to shut up, and that put an end to the incanta-
tion. But I have since wondered if my Guardian Angel induced
me to make that rude remark. The little girl was older than I,
and youthful affections are sometimes kept up which lead to
matrimony, and the angel may have foreseen trouble.

I have always thought I had a guardian angel, and have also
thought that, while always good, he or she was sometimes rather
officious; else why should I, later in life, have written these verses,
which are so obviously home-made that it would be useless for
me to try to foist them off on any one else:

OH, JIMMINY!

I took but one kiss, when I might have had twenty,
For the sweet lips I kissed had kisses in plenty,
But I let my chance go, and am standing in snow
Saying, Oh, Jimminy!

The sweetest of kisses are those we have missed,
And the ones most regretted are those never kissed;
So don't let your chance go, or you'll stand in the snow,
Saying, Oh, Jimminy!

About this time came along one day a little tramp. I call him
that now; in those days the modern tramp was unknown. If this



7 o THE DIGRESSIONS OF V.

little fellow did not become a modern tramp, it must be that he
was beloved of the gods and died young. My mother, like the
good Samaritan she was, took him in, fed him, and washed his
poor little tired legs and feet. But he was as bright and as perky
as you please, for during the process he stuck out a leg and said,
" Look at that leg ; that's a real Paris leg ; my father was a French-
man." And seeing some rag carpet in the kitchen he said: "In
our house we have Brussels carpets, way up to the garret."
Here our mother tried a little finessing with him by telling him
that in the country where we were, we had great trouble with our
washerwoman. She was sick, not likely to get well, and
did he not think his mother would like to do some washing for
us ? He said it was just what she was looking for, and that he
would tell her the moment he got home. Having no fears but
that the boy would get home, we sent him off rejoicing.

But my mother was seldom at the North, so that I passed my
vacations with the old folks at home a most blessed relief from
the carking care of school, for which I retained a profound hatred.
In the long summer afternoons, in the shaded room, with Grand-
ma and Aunt Eveline quietly talking while the grasshoppers were
singing and the bees humming outside, I used to hear many long
stories of the doings of the great people over in the city or living
up on the Hudson.

"You say he left New York?"

"Yes, he did n't seem to succeed in anything and he went up
to Peekskill."

"Well, what did he do there?"

"Why, he did the same as he did in New York pottered
about trying a lot of things, and then he thought he 'd go West,
and he went, and that's the last we heard of him."



BEN 71

"Well, what became of the children ?"

"Oh, the uncle took the children"; and so on for hours.

One story I remember which might be called "The Inflation
of Mr. and Mrs. McSoarley." It was the story of an Irishman
and his wife who settled on the Hudson at Tarrytown. When they
came, they came barefoot, and she used to do washing and he
used to saw wood and split it. By staying in one place and sav-
ing up money, they finally bought land, and by waiting the land
became valuable and they became rich. Then, dressed in a fine
gown and sipping her good tea out of a China tea-cup, she would
remark, "I never could git my lip over anything but China."

To wind up the Quaint Legends of my Infancy and Boyhood,
and omit Ben Day, would be to leave out the big drum indeed.
Ben was my best and earliest chum. His mother was also the
best and earliest friend my mother had, and she loved me as
much as if I had been her own child. It was in the elder Ben's
house that I was taken care of after the accident which finished
my youthful career on the South Side, and it was from there the
pair of us, mere boys, set sail for Europe the first time we crossed
the Atlantic. I remember Ben's toys as being so much superior to
mine. This was when they lived in Lispenard Street. Just fancy
living there now ! Ben had better toys, but he did not get any
better fun out of them than I did out of mine, and I doubt if he
got so much. I am reminded of what was told of the great
Ericsson : it was said that in making his drawings for the Monitor
he used a few old, defective instruments dating from the time of
his youth, but used them with consummate skill. There is some-
thing in that.

Long after, Ben called to mind how at my grandfather's



72 THE DIGRESSIONS OF V.

for he was always coming over to see me we used to play the
Indian and the settler; and he said I was always the Indian
springing from ambush and scalping the early white settler, and
that he was always the settler. It turned out later that Ben with
all his foolishness became a settler in earnest, for he settled down
and stuck to his settlement to such good purpose that he must
be a millionaire by this time. Yet I doubt if he has gotten as
much fun out of his money and life as I have out of my art
and friends. He may think differently, but somehow I seem to
remember the last time we met that he said something about
his having no friends. In any case, he remains one of my best
and warmest friends. I shall have much to say about Ben before
I get through with the stories of my youth and the wartime in
New York.



CHAPTER III

Big Boyhood

7 GO TO CUBA AGAIN I START A NEW RELIGION I GO
NORTH AGAIN AT GRANDPA'S WE BUILD A HOUSE Mr
MOTHER'S DEATH AN ARCHITECTURAL INTERLUDE THE
END OF HOME MORICHES WASPS AND EQUILIBRIUM RE-
STOREDMOSQUITOES AND FLIRTING.

I HAVE seen in an old letter of my grandfather's that he saw
me off for Cuba, paid my school-bill, and so forth; but I
find his letters so full of the need of money, and trouble about
land-taxes, potato-bugs, and rats, that I cannot go on, and thus
I remain all mixed up about this period. These trips to Cuba are
constantly interrupting the flow of my narrative, and are like
painting, which is such a fearful interruption to smoking. One
thing is clear : I was wild to get to Matanzas to ride my brother's
horse.

Things turned out better than I expected, for I was soon given
a horse, and what went beyond all my hopes a pure white
one with tortoise-shell spots like a circus horse. I was in ecsta-
sies. How we groomed those horses, and how bright we kept their
bits, stirrups, and spurs ! They were stallions and perfect little
devils, and my arms were always aching with holding mine in.
One day, down by the fish-market at the wharf, my pony got
the bit in his mouth and dashed under one of the arches, and I
heard the buttons on my gimp-trimmed jacket rattle as I lay back



74 THE DIGRESSIONS OF V.

as flat as I could. But, bless you ! that was a minor attempt on
my life by that dastardly old truepenny always lurking about.

It must have been on this visit that I invented that new re-
ligion and made the head of the Scotchman I will tell about
but I cannot be sure. One thing about riding : I rode with knees



Online LibraryElihu VedderThe digressions of V. → online text (page 5 of 29)