Elihu Vedder.

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up, heels drooping, and toes turned in, a real cavalry seat;
and I thought I looked like a real soldier. By the way, my daugh-
ter, who was born in Rome, looking up from her book one day
when a child said, "Mother, what is a sol die er?" -"Why,
what do you mean ? " " In this book I have been reading about
a tin sol die er, what is it ? " " Pronounce it soleger and you
will know." The word makes funny spelling anyway, but I am
not the person to throw the first stone in the matter of spelling.

[. P^

Art in Matanzas was chiefly noted as being absent. There

were indeed some old pictures owned by French families, -
refugees from Santo Domingo, which only served to accentu-
ate their pathetic condition. The sons in Paris; the fair sisters
withering on the stalk in Cuba. The sons writing for money,
which was earned by a few old and decrepit slaves they had
managed to save from the wreck of their fortunes, and which
barely served to sustain the family at home. One of these pictures
was given to my father for services rendered, for under pretext
of having forgotten to do so he had never sent in a bill. This
picture I have by me now. It represents that classic nymph who
was wounded by the huntsman, her lover. She leaves the arrow
in her side, the better to illustrate the story, and seems mildly
accusing him ; while he, in spite of some difficulty about the legs,
owing to a bad attack of perspective, gazes on her with an equally
mild surprise. This picture is in a beautiful state of preserva-


tion. I am not the first to remark how wonderfully preserved
are colour and surface in bad pictures. Bad painters are not
infrequently good workmen. And now comes in Doctor Pina,
an old Spaniard, who had an office in our house, and was a
good example of how fine a Spaniard can be: an upright, hon-
ourable man. He had a wonderful carved ivory breast-pin which
filled me with admiration, so I borrowed it, and getting a piece
of ivory, attempted to make a copy. But the hardness of the
material foiled me and I gave it up. But I did get a piece of soft
limestone, which could be carved easily, and made a head about
the size of my fist as it was then. This was proclaimed a wonder,
and all said it was the head of a Scotchman, although it
might have turned out the head of a Patagonian, for all I knew
when I started it. This a black boy about the house let fall
and it was broken beyond all hope of repair. You may be sure,
if living, he remembers that head far better than I do.

But the spirit of Art was strong within me, only it now took
on one of its most primitive forms. I had been struck with the
gorgeous ceremonials of the Church, and in the Spanish school
I went to had been duly taught the legends of the Saints ; so
that, collecting all the tinsel and most gaudy materials I could,
and little highly coloured prints of Saints and gods and god-
desses, and fashionable beauties, I erected an altar in a large
unused room, and fitted it up beautifully with flowers and little
candles, and then was ready for business. I formed my congre-
gation by getting together all the little darkies of the neighbour-
hood, who came willingly enough to see the splendid sight. I
then taught them how to worship on bended knee, and no doubt
should have arrived at passing the plate, had not a recalcitrant
boy, larger and stronger than I was, held my hands when I at-


tempted to make him kneel. This threw me into a great rage.
Ah, how willingly I would have made an early martyr of him
right there in the courtyard, and added him to the calendar!
This happened when the candles were all alight and the altar
was a dream of beauty and magnificence. It lasted but a mo-
ment it was too fair to endure, and went up in a general blaze
quite as amusing to the congregation as the worshipping. Had
it not been for that beast of a boy-Luther, or Calvin, or Savon-
arola, I might have founded a cult of the beautiful, a religion of
Art for Art's sake. Who knows ? I never tried it again.

My brother's skin used to burn, mine to tan, and as my hair
was as white as an Albino's, I must have looked like a magpie.
Be that as it may, I began to look sallow, and was packed off
North. But I left one broken heart behind me, that of poor
Cottorita, my parrot. She had been given me very young, and
loved as only a parrot or dog can love. I have always been sorry
that I did not take the dear thing with me, for she went about for
three days after my departure, calling, " Nino Elijio ! Nino Eli-
jio ! " and then flew away and was never seen again. When I went
to the Spanish school she would station herself at the house-door
and wait patiently until I came back, and then, climbing up, never
quitted my shoulder. When I remember that a parrot can live
a hundred years, there is no reason why she should not be rub-
bing a dear old head against my cheek at this present moment.
Grandpa's old parrot, who had passed his youth among sailors
and who used to ask, "What o'clock ?" and when told the time,
would reply, "You be damned !" amused me, but never consoled
me for the loss of poor Cottorita.

I was now sent to take lessons of a regular old-fashioned draw-
ing-master, and in all weathers walked down the road, now Di-


vision Avenue, to his place. There I sat copying a few poor, old
pencil drawings. I almost at once rebelled, and would have no-
thing more to do with him. Then, seeing advertisements of beau-
tiful work to be done at home in black lacquer and mother-of-
pearl, I must perforce try it, driven to it by the American idea
that money must be at the root of all professions. These people
supplied all the material and no doubt waxed rich, while their
poor dupes waxed poor through their failures ; or, if they suc-
ceeded, then their work was bought from them for a mere song.
This attempt filled the house with dirt and evil odours, and must
have gone over the land like a pest. The iridescence of the
mother-of-pearl was as beautiful as the result was hideous, so
I gave it up.

Now come my mother and brother back from Cuba, and the
fatal hour draws near predicted by the fortune-teller in Grand
Street. But no one then remembered the prediction, and we
were happy, and those days now seem all the fairer by contrast
with the gloom that was so soon to follow. I never lose my sor-
rows, but fold them up and put them away under lock and key;
but they are there all the same, and there I leave them while
good, old-fashioned and somewhat heartless life goes on.

The house was one door removed from the northeast corner
of Clinton Avenue where it crosses Fulton Street, and was a very
pretty one of wood lined with brick and ornamented with Gothic
jig-sawing. While it was going up, we lived near by, and of course
I went to school; but we had great fun nevertheless, and my
mother was in all our amusements. She helped us build a tele-
scope, an affair about four feet long. We had a fine time with the
tube, which was made of innumerable layers of paper pasted over


a wooden cylinder. When dry, we could n't get it off; but
mother cut it down its entire length, got it off, and pasted
it up again, and we saw the mountains of the moon, the phases
of Venus, the satellites of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and
our neighbour's windows at night upside down, that was
about all.

The school-teacher was a reasonable man. He said: "I find
you can reason, now let us reason." And he went on reason-
ing with me until he asked me if I knew what I had been doing ?
On my answering that I did not, he said, "You have been doing
algebra." You might have knocked me down with a feather.
In arithmetic I had a cumbersome method of my own, but man-
aged to make it work; like all weak animals I protected myself
by little devices. Had I then had a typewriter and a calculating-
machine, I would now be standing with the proudest in the land,
at the top of the ladder, instead of at the foot with aching neck,
looking up.

Finally we moved into the new house and were delighted with
it. But poor mother was taken ill almost at once ; and, as I have
told elsewhere, when the crisis was passed, instead of being given
a strengthening treatment, by the absolute neglect and forget-
fulness of an old doctor she was allowed to die of weakness. I
had been sent out to call the doctor, and when I came back my
brother met me at the door and told me she was dead. For the
only time in my life I fainted away. She lies in the beautiful
Cemetery of the Evergreens near East New York.

An Architectural Interlude. It had always been my
mother's wish that I should be an artist, a great artist, and for
her sake I wish it could have been so. For my own part, I am



perfectly content to be just what I am, and finally to occupy that
little niche posterity may assign to me ; although I beg leave to
have my doubts about posterity, having felt but little need of its
kind offices, yet nourishing at the same time a little hope that it
will think kindly of me. I think it wise to assume that it will,
and so get all the comfort that idea gives during my lifetime.
My mother's wish, then, that I should be an artist, and my father's
wanting me to make money, led to a compromise and I was put
with an architect. I don't wish it understood that I consider
architecture a compromise, for I have always held it to be one
of the noblest of the arts.

In Chambers Street, nearly opposite our old home, there hung
out from a house a small sign. It was black, with the facade of
a Grecian temple in white and in high relief projecting from its
dusty surface. This marked the business abode of Shugg and
Beers, Architects. It was just like Dickens, and I remember that
Mr. Beers's nose was a little red. All became very fond of me,
and I kept the office lively with my pranks ; but they all decided
that I ought to be an artist, for it never entered their innocent
heads that^an architect could be both. They merely made the
drawings for builders, just as afterwards I found that artists
merely made drawings for the engravers, the engraver being then
the better man.

I inadvertently used the word "home," - it leads to a digres-
sion on the strange American use of this sacred word. A lady
friend whose husband is an architect once told me that she had
seven homes in the important city in which she lives. Her hus-
band prospering and building many houses, I dare say she may
have seventeen by this time. Fancy how the old folks at home
must have to fly about, and how many affections you must have,


to cling about seventeen fireplaces, and how many stockings at
Christmas! Let her ponder and sin no more.

My brother must have been at Mons. Pugnet's Academy at
this time. But before, I remember, we lived for a while with an
old clergyman, a lively one, a regular Pepys as to doors, for I
saw him myself behind a door with Becky, and so to prayers,
"mighty merry." On one of my trips to the old place I saw
Jack for the last time. He came to me limping, having slipped
his shoulder in some midnight foray long before, and could
only lie at my feet, licking them and looking up at me. I gath-
ered his grey head in my arms, and a look of perfect happiness
came into his eyes. He had had his wish, he had seen his master
once more, and then he passed away.

And then Grandpa went. He saw that the clock was wound up ;
he wound up his watch and said he would die about three o'clock
in the morning, and I believe he would have been very much put
out had he not died at that hour. And then Grandma. The sit-
ting up and constant attention needed was hard on Aunt Ewy
and myself; but then my task was lightened by the presence of
a very pleasing young person from Ireland ; thus it happens that
there are always compensations.

And then the old home was let, and Aunt Ewy was received
into the ever-hospitable house of Ben's father, and so ended
the home of the Quaint Legends.

I fear those fond of chronology will here get mixed up a bit,
but they cannot become more so than I am myself. I know that
when the friendly architects had found out how unsuited I was
to their profession, which in their hands was far from a noble
one, Ben's father was consulted ; and as Mr. Matteson had


been very successful in his drawings for "Brother Jonathan,"
he advised sending me to that artist. But I am sure that before
that event I passed some of my happiest days on the south side
of Long Island with good Mr. Parsons. That is, days as happy
as were consistent with constant interruptions from lessons; for
the well-meant but misdirected efforts of my father to give me an
education were persistent. Perhaps he really did not know what
else to do with me, a thing which explains much schooling.
There I was joined by my brother, for a short time, who then
thought of preparing himself for college, but subsequently drifted
into medicine, for you see we were both getting our bearings.
I have a theory that he gave up college from a fear that he would
not be given funds enough to make that appearance he was so
fond of; for he, being a gentleman by nature, had always dressed
like one, and he feared when put to the test, father's staying powers
in the way of money might give out.

One of the hardest things to resist is the tendency to prattle,
which I take to be telling people what they already know.
Yet how can one write without it ? Ideas cannot be administered
like pills. A man with only the necessary bones and muscles would
cut but a "magra figura"; a little fat is needed to round it out.
The memory of what the Boys used to call the "Idiot's Play-
ground" in one of the old magazines, fills me with apprehension
and checks the genial current. The story of good old Judge So-
and-So riding a circuit- "a noted wit" -and the earnest
assurance of the truth of the tale, which on dissection frequently
turned out to have neither idea, bone, nor muscle, and even the
fat none of the freshest, is to me a warning. I therefore proceed
with caution, but shall take heed that the caution is not apparent.

In the course of the attempt to give us an education which


succeeded in the case of my brother we were now placed under
the tuition of a clergyman, the Mr. Parsons I have already men-
tioned. This was in Moriches on the south side of Long Island.
Now, to be a novelist in those days, although not quite so bad as
being an Abolitionist, yet carried with it a certain tinge of frivol-
ity. At least, good Mr. Parsons must have thought so, for the
religious microbe entering his mind about this time he gave
it up as a profession and became a clergyman instead. This
microbe may be beneficent or malignant. In his case it turned
out to be of the former type, and he also turned out to be a most
excellent man. Another thing may have influenced him. At a
party of young people, it was proposed in sport to go through
the marriage ceremony (a thing not always attended to on the
South Side), and it appears that this was done so thoroughly that
the young woman, holding to her side of the bargain, gave him
no end of trouble. Heedless of this warning, or wishing to place
himself out of danger, or both, or really being in love, which
I think was the case, he, shortly after this make-believe mar-
riage, got married in earnest, and that to a most lovely and loving
little woman.

Parsons was wise as well as good. I must say first, that I was
a permanent boarder, my brother staying but a short time, and
that there were some six other lads coming as day-scholars. I
said he was wise, for he came to a wise conclusion with regard
to me : half work and half play he thought indicated in my case,
with a fair amount of gallivanting in the evening after dinner.
Short lessons, well learned, during the morning; gun or boat
all the afternoon ; girl in the evening. I enjoyed this programme
immensely, and happenings began to happen, and I made
good progress in both studies and amusements.


I make no comments, yet cannot help noticing the strange
predicament in which the humane person finds himself in this
world of ours, when it comes to his relations with the animals,
and reconciling his theories of humanity with the stern laws of
Nature. My father, for instance, would never kill even a scor-
pion, for he said they were so useful in killing flies and cock-
roaches in their prowlings at night; but he took care to cut off
their stings. But there it is, you save the scorpion and yet
permit him to kill the fly, or you save yourself by mutilating
the scorpion.

One day my study-room was invaded by wasps. Wishing to
save both myself and the wasps, I remembered the humanity of
my father and tried to snip off their stings with a pair of scissors.
Wasps are impatient, so in my attempts I sometimes cut off
more than I intended ; their equilibrium being altered, they
fell to the ground and buzzed round in circles. Thus rendered
harmless, I could examine them with safety, and saw that, where
the spoon-shaped tail had been cut in two, was left a cup-like
portion. The thought then struck me that by restoring the
proper weight their power of flight would likewise be restored,
and I at once hit on a good expedient. I had some red sealing-
wax, and lighting a candle, I made me certain little pellets of
the proper size and weight, and softening them, deftly placed
them in the little sockets before mentioned. To my delight I saw
them fly off as well as ever with their bright new red tails. They
were now rendered harmless and seemingly proud. If proud,
their pride was of short duration, for the wax, cooled by that
flight, adhered but slightly, and on their striking the glass in
the windows would drop off, and they were reduced once
more to impotent buzzings on the floor. Of course I shouted for


Mr. Parsons to come and witness the success erf" my experi-
ment. He could noc help laughing heartily, but thought that
as sufficient to satisfy the claims of science,

and more would be cruelty. I have since come to the conclusion
mat Science is a heartless jade.

I befieve I said ^aiinlang about girls ah, yes, the girls!

Parries were given. They commenced very meekly indeed. The

fins afl ranged themselves on one side of the room, while the

?- ;

young feJkyvs hnog *&** ne door. There was then the ques-
tion of musk. "Let's have Jim the fiddler." " But she is
a Church member.'* "Might have an accordion/' "Non-
sense, let's have the fiddler, and it will be all right"; and it
was. The music struck op. Then the question who first? Now
I was the city chap and much was ripq tnl of me: so putting
on a bold front I walked across the room and selected Hannah,
She was the befle of Moriches; no one was iM|iagiininiiny with
her: she awed them, and my bnldnrg pirii in^ her, we got on
famously. The party, at first Eke a Quaker meeting, cadul in
r, for some wags, blowing out all the candles, left
devices. Then we sneajned out into the moonlight
of the boys escorted his fair partner to her home.
Hannah's home was on the Point S.'s Point. Mr. Parsons
to say : "V., you had better make up to H. Her father has
potato-patch in town." To get there we passed the
in the woods the scene of all our junketings. I think
my hatred of mosquitoes dates from that night. A friend once
told of a man in Maine hoeing with one hand and keeping off
mosquitoes with the other. We found that, with both hands
free, afl attempts at rxacrkal flirting in the woods were vain ; so
red to the dark and quiet parlour, dark, for lights



were worse than useless on account of attracting the pests. And
the parents? On the South Side, the parents of those days
were the most considerate people in the world; they always
retired and left the coast clear and so we young ones

From the time I first sat on the fence and watched my grand-
father hoe potatoes, with such placidity, I have remained there.
If in another part I say the opposite while writing this, that
does not count. For the present, consider me as having always
sat on the fence. My brother, on the contrary, was always either
on one side or the other. At first he was on the side where you
will find Voltaire, Volney, Rousseau, Paine and his "Age of Rea-
son," and a vast number of others unknown to fame ; and on the
other side was the usual crowd. Have you ever seen the placid
cat on some secure height watching with serious humour the
"braggart bark and noisy stir" of her enemy the dog? Thus
sat I, when my brother for the first time experienced religion.
This happened in Moriches. He was fervent, and, as becomes
a lately converted, sought at once to convert me, and he prayed
most beautiful prayers, while I tried to sleep. You see, he was
not quite sure. He wanted a direct answer from the Lord and
no answer came.

Once there was an old Dutchman who contributed so largely
to building a church that it might be said he had built it himself.
When, however, extra funds were needed to erect a lightning-
rod, he refused flatly, and said that if the Lord wanted to "dun-
der down His own house, He might dunder it down and be
tam't." One night my brother stopped short in the midst of a
beautiful prayer, and using almost the Dutchman's expression,
jumped into bed and went to sleep. The placid cat then shut


its eyes and did the same. Some years after, he writes from
Yokohama: "I have now made my peace with God and man.
I trust implicitly in my Saviour, follow His teachings, and enjoy
a peace which I have not known for years" and in this frame
of mind he remained until he entered the peace which passeth

I don't think I did much in the way of Art at Moriches. From
my not finding it among my things,! think a meagre little picture I
made of Mr. Parsons's house must have been given to him. It was
a squarewooden house, square, from the lazy American habitof
those days of putting a try-square on every timber and sawing it
off, which dictated the pitch of every roof from Maine to Florida,
no matter what the climate or rainfall. It had a new picket-fence
painted white, stretching along the straight board sidewalk. In
the picture I painted every picket. This picket-fence and side-
walk were the pride of the town and an indication of progress,
and great things were predicted of the future of Moriches. Back
of the house, a field of stumps overgrown with bushes, closed
in by the particularly meagre trees left by the improvers of the
country. It was simply ugly. Yet in the solemn twilight, keeping
still and watchings things, I used to see the whip-poor-wills
mount in the air with two or three complaining cries, and then
come diving down and mount again, so close to me that I could
hear the buzz made by their wings, and see their feathers vibrat-
ing as the air rushed through them. Then in the winter, in the
interminable pine woods of little pines, all the fine ones having
been cut down, as is our custom, I used to make long fences
with openings, and used to snare the pretty quails, for which
the Lord forgive me. Not only that, but sell them, and be inor-
dinately proud of the blood-money. But that was it : if you could


only make money, no matter how, you were considered a tall
fellow in those days.

In the upper part of the mill-pond, a perfect tangle of water-
logged stumps and bushes and swamp, I caught the speckled
trout. I never wasted bait, but used to nourish certain pools with
it; so when I judged the time was ripe, my string was never
lacking. Just think, if I still remember this ugly spot with pleas-
ure, what my memories would now be if the house had been
thatched and covered with honeysuckle, and the woods of noble
oaks or pines. It was different on the bay and on the great beach
by the sea, and in the grove near the abode of Hannah.


"Youth and Art"


I SUPPOSE I could, by looking over letters, get the dates of
this period all right ; but old letters are such sad things that
I hate to undertake it; and, after all, dates are not so in-
teresting as happenings, and particularly the happenings which
now happened. So I will at once say that the advice of Ben's

Online LibraryElihu VedderThe digressions of V. → online text (page 6 of 29)