Elihu Vedder.

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father was taken, and I was sent to Sherbourne and entered the
studio of T. H. Matteson. What followed offers as good an example
of the pranks of Providence as you will find outside of a museum,

but I suppose that is the way the Tangled Skein is made up.
Matteson was remarkable for being a self-made man who had

made a good job of it. Somewhat stately and precise in manner,
but kindly and with a fine sense of humour, he had turned out a
gentleman in spite of very adverse circumstances. His good wife

he had married young inevitably as seedtime and harvest
presented him with the yearly child, one, no more, no less. Even
when I left, the future was full of promise.

He wore a steeple-crowned hat and a short mantle, and was not
averse to being called the pilgrim-painter. For one of his favourite


subjects was the pilgrim, either departing or arriving, which last
was invariably on a different part of the coast, and always in
wretched weather. In spite of which, prayers of thankfulness were
always ascending, thus giving a vivid idea of what they must
have left behind. I once tried a little good-natured badinage,
apropos of the steeple-crowned hat. It was not taken in good
part, although I thought I had been very funny.

He had made something out of his illustrations for " Brother
Jonathan," and was now painting portraits, and must have been,
with his large family, in very straitened circumstances; yet he
never complained nor allowed it to be seen. He also made some-
thing out of the lessons he gave us, for we amounted to five or six
pupils. I tell all this, to leave a little record of a man I loved, re-
spected and admired. He was a man of talent ruined by circum-
stances and his surroundings. Had he gone to Paris and stayed
there, he would most undoubtedly have made his mark; and it
was very sad to hear him say years after at the old Athenaeum
Club, in his somewhat stately manner: "My dear V., it gives me
great pleasure, mingled, I confess, with some pain, to welcome
the scholar who has so far surpassed the master." Dear old
boy ! Had he had the advantages I so shamefully neglected, there
would have been another story to tell.

It is strange how the same characters come up at intervals in
one's life. I have told in " Quaint Legends" of the little tramp
and his French leg. Here at Sherbourne dawned on us one day
another little tramp one of those who are always going some-
where, and whom kind-hearted people are always forwarding. His
stories were great, and seemingly endless, and in the bar-room
of the Tavern, where the legal talent of the town was always in
evidence, he "kept the table on a roar." One day, before he was


forwarded, he was telling of how he had passed himself off as
deaf and dumb, in an asylum for those thus afflicted, for an entire
month, without being found out. " I never spoke but once in all that
time. That was when playing tag I caught a boy and said, 'Now
I've got you!' ' - " Ah! then that let the cat out of the bag,"
put in a smart lawyer.- "No, it didn't, he was deaf; he
couldn't hear me."

When I went sketching in Sherbourne I sought for lofty granite
peaks catching the last rays of the sun ; for hills convent-crowned,
or castles on abrupt cliffs frowning down on peaceful abbeys be-
low, reflected in the tranquil stream ; for the picturesque mill and
its mossy wheel, thatched cottages and the simple milkmaid, or
the peasant playing on his rustic pipe. When more seriously in-
clined, I sought the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault, to hear the
tones of the organ ; or, if on speculation or contemplation bent,
the quiet cloister. Did I find these things? Not much ! The rocks
were of a disintegrating slate, hills rounded, and covered with
monotonous green, no convents, no castles, no abbeys, no mills.
The cottages were shingled ; the milkmaid wore a sunbonnet and
chewed gum ; the peasant played on a tobacco-pipe ; the fretted
vault was of pine ; the organ, a melodeon ; the cloister a pig-
pen. One who ought to have been a rustic addressed me thus :
"Say, do you know what they take you for raound here ? I was
talking with Mis' Jenks daown to the bridge an' she says,
< There 's been a young chap raound lately, with a tin box, perch-
in' on fences and things, hain't been to the house yet, but dare
say he '11 come ; I kinder think he must be a pill-peddler."

Would it be considering the thing "too curiously"

Raffaello, dead and turned to clay,
Might make a pill to keep the wind away.


It was all my own fault. I was looking for things with a tinge
of romance in them. Light had not been decomposed and there
was no spectrum analysis in those days. A milkmaid was a
good, solid, rosy proposition, fancy-free or with thoughts of a
lover in the background ; and I should have painted her as sich.
Now, I would try to paint the decomposed rays of light emanating
from her, with an X-ray or two thrown in, in fact, try to be
in the swim. The difference between the two states of mind, then
and now, is shown in this story :

They were seated by the seashore near a bathing establishment.
Boys were disporting themselves in the fresh waves, and a sign
announced that baths were twenty-five cents each. The father
was reading his newspaper, when Ikey remarked wistfully:
"Fader, I would like to take a bath." The father, first glanc-
ing at the signs, turned and said: "O Ikey, I was yuste so
romantic ven I vass of your age ! " and resumed his paper. Poor

While in Sherbourne, I made with Rhodes and Warren, a
sometime student of Matteson's, a visit to Warren's parents, and
found them fine specimens of our good, intelligent, pious farmer-
folk. The ride, partly by night, over the high and barren hills
in the keen, frosty air, the rattling wheels on the frozen road,
the young silver moon and a star or two besides, made the trip
memorable. It, however, was made more so by a happening of
a tragic nature.

I had painted a dead squirrel, and all said that the softness of
the fur was rendered marvellously ; I dare say it was and is still
treasured. We were seated around the fire discussing the paint-
ing, and cider and doughnuts, when a neighbour broke in and
breathlessly told us of how that returned Californian up the road


had gone crazy, and had shot at his father-in-law and at his
sister, and had really shot his wife, and ended by shooting

At once we harnessed up and were on our way to the place.
The moon shone brightly ; a line of switch-tailed country horses
were tied to the fence in front of the house, and on the stone steps
leading into it at the back were to be seen a few drops of blood.
This lean-to was crowded with men ; on some boards upheld by
barrels was stretched a man ; the white bosom of his shirt bore
a small, but slowly spreading, spot of blood; his face, with
shaven upper lip, was hard but peaceful. On a shelf above his
head was a tin pan filled with cobs of Indian corn, and the butt
of the revolver projected over its edge.

An old fellow was holding forth : " She said she first see him
lookin' in at the winder, white as a sheet, his eyes a-glarin', and
then he commenced firin' at 'em." "Well, you knowed him
as a boy; what fur a man was he?" "You see him there."
This was said most impressively and seemed to be regarded as
most eloquent, but I could not see that it advanced matters

In the living-room a crowd of people, a smell of opium, and a
hushed murmur of voices, with now and then a groan. The hus-
band, a picture of troubled grief, was talking to the doctor, who
was not very hopeful ; he seemed bothered about something aside
from the tragedy of the event ; he was hunting in his pockets for
something; finally, a large, oval metal tobacco-box came forth.
Carefully, but still talking sadly to the doctor, he opened it, and
carefully rolled up a huge quid, and as carefully, but quite uncon-
sciously, placed it in his mouth. Then over his countenance, as
the acrid taste diffused itself on his palate, came a look of perfect


bliss. Rhodes and I, indefatigable observers of the comic, did
not dare to look at each other ; it would have been awful under
the circumstances. Perhaps this is not worth telling, but if told,
it ought to be "with motions.'*

The winding-up of RafTaello's career at Sherbourne was almost
disastrous. I must make one rushing sentence of it. Sitting up
late with the girls ; sitting up later at the tavern ; skating on the
canal; or dragging melodeons on sleighs through the snow to
serenade the said girls; breaking the ice in my pitcher in the
morning and pouring the ice-water over myself to harden my
muscles; and this after working all day in a close, over-heated
studio, gave me a fearful cold. This was only added to by the
long ride on the stage-coach. To be sure, one of the girls went
part of the way with me, but it took the united warmth of both to
prevent freezing.

Then, on arriving in New York, at the boarding-house of
Isaacs, who lodged and fed the medical students, not being far
from the College and the old Crosby Street Gymnasium, a fool
friend of my brother persuaded me to continue the hardening pro-
cess by stripping and running around that barn-like structure,
ending the performance by a cold shower-bath and a rub-down,
this latter without a reaction.

My brother finally came to the conclusion that I was a pretty
sick boy, and took me to his professor, who, after examining me
carefully, said: "See here, V., you tell me your father lives in
Havana ? Now I don't want to alarm you, but I have seen so
much of this sort of thing that I most strongly urge you to pack
the boy off to his father at once."

This was done, and I am persuaded that my brother again
saved my life. And so again Ho, for Cuba !


The hardening process having turned out so disastrously up
North, I was now to try the softening process down South, and it
worked like a charm, and soon restored me to perfect health.

My father sent me to his old friend, Dr. Fulano. In this town
of Guanahai no one ever seemed to die any more than I can
avoid such poetic pit-falls when they come in my way. Don
Fulano is the Cuban equivalent of our "Mr. What's-his-name."
The doctor was a little, active, tough old boy, with a heart as
large as his principles were broad. His real name was so common
that one wondered why he wished to make it more so, for he
not only had a most numerous family in Havana, but had started
another in Guanahai which bid fair to rival it. This was most
"naturale," as the Italians say, for fancy what an upheaval it
would have been to transfer a large family back and forth be-
tween these places. Much better start another, which he did,
and it was well under way when I arrived on the scene. He
was on horseback all day, going his rounds, admonishing, admin-
istering, and helping everybody, and was the best-loved man in
all those parts.

It was an easy-going place both in manners and customs. My
bed was of rawhide, as smooth and hard and hollow as a Japan-
ese lacquered bowl. You simply slid down to the middle of it,
the sheet became a rope under you and was discarded. A sheet,
a pillow, and a mosquito-net formed the outfit. My dress was
equally simple : a pair of trousers, a shirt worn outside, a pair of
low canvas shoes, a sombrero. Add to these a pair of spurs, a
handkerchief around the waist, another about the neck, another
tied on the head, and the sombrero on top, and I was dressed for
the day. I must not omit the long practical knife, thrust into the
handkerchief at the waist. And the day consisted of a visit to



a coffee or sugar plantation, and the evening of sitting with chair
tipped against the wall of my friend the apothecary his shop.
That is when I did not go a few houses beyond to sit and gaze
into the eyes of Dolores.

Dolores was a little girl, but she had large dark eyes, eyes
that one could sit and wander and wonder and dream in. Yet
through the most fantastic
forms of the smoke through
which I gazed, never did
Dolores appear to me as
she might appear in the
years to come. For these
little Cuban girls do some-
times get very stout. No ;
my dream was a most per-
fect lollypop of a dream
while it lasted. And now,
gentle reader, do you think
I don't think of Dolores
with the most tender regret ? I do. All was tender then, a tender
green. And yet, I cling to this memory and "hover over it as the
butterfly hovers over the perfume of a flower." Of course these
dreams happily came to naught. Had it been otherwise, what
with the healthfulness of the climate and the easy-going habits
of the place, I might now have been surrounded by a cloud of
descendants, with not a drop to drink or a crust to eat. It was
not a case of worm and damask cheek either, for there was no
concealment about that little girl. She gazed back for all her
heart was worth, and when I left, two hearts were wrung as one.

It may be noticed in these memories that girls frequently



happened. Let my reader skip such passages; 7 would not have
skipped them for worlds.

At the apothecary's we used to sit of evenings with our chairs
tipped against the wall ; and I, being a rank Republican, some-
times preached freedom and rebellion, to his great delight.
But when I did that we had to retire indoors, where, after the good
man had carefully looked up and down the street, he would come
back, rub his hands, and tell me to go on. You see we lived in
a country where a man might be thrown into prison for having a
Bible in his possession, and there he would remain until most of
his money was gone, for that was what the prison was made
for. I noticed that all the chair-legs were worn off at the bottom,
both front and back : the back legs were easily explained by this
constant tipping against the wall, but how the front legs became
worn I could not make out, until I noticed that a chair was never
lifted, but simply dragged from place to place. The language was
also archaic. At a certain hour in the evening, my friend would
remark: "For the love of God, bring me something to warm
my tripe"; and the inevitable coffee, freshly made, was brought
to us.

Yes, in a palm-thatched hut backed by banana trees, with a
neatly swept space in front where the tethered game-cocks could
crow defiance, but not get at each other ; with a few swinging
hammocks and the eyes of Dolores to gaze into, I felt I might
carry out the traditions of the place and live and not die, but grad-
ually dry up and be blown away. From the hills back of the town
one gazed over the vast stretch of the Vuelta Abajo, dotted with
the royal palm, to Havana, glimmering bright and warm on its
extreme edge. And from Havana, I was soon to be blown away
North, with ever freshening and colder winds, again to enter that



mixture of pain and pleasure called Life ; for Guanahai had been,
and remains, but a dream.

Unfortunately we cannot have light without shade, in spite of
dear old Fra Angelico's painting his heavenly abodes with as little
shade as possible. Nor did Rembrandt exhaust all the possibil-
ities of light and shade ; for in the bright tropics there are many
curious lights and shadows he never dreamed of, and no picture


would be true of that clime if they were left out. So under the
sombrero, no matter what the complexion of the wearer, at times
could be seen many a dark and anxious look. Things on the out-
side were mostly bright and pleasant.

Owing to the temperament of the people and the tempera-
ture of the climate, families were interminable, and these would
troop to the Plaza at night to hear the music father and mother,
eldest sons and daughters, down to little chaps, even the smallest
in tail-coats and silk hats. Father and mother last of all, the rest
in front for they always kept an eye on the family. Even in


the house it was the same arrangement. From the high and
grated windows the chairs went from the large rocking-chairs
of the grandparents down through arm-chairs, chairs, and
little chairs, in which they sat and smoked and talked, while
the eldest daughter of the house stood in the angle of the win-
dow and talked with the permitted or engaged one never alone
with him, owing to the high temperature of the climate. And then
the dancing; the yearning, passionate music of the habaneras,
and the perfect time shuffled out by feet never taken from the
floor, and seemingly never weary. No wonder I waltz to this day.

But, given a jealous and vindictive mistress and a fair mulatto
maid, and Hell had nothing worse to offer. The relation of mas-
ter and slave in the town was pleasant. When some one of the
family came North, a present had to be provided for each one at
home all the relatives and the family had to be remembered,
down to the last little pickaninny. In the country the blacks were
mere cattle, and the American, Scotch or English overseer saw to
it that every bit of work they were capable of was duly extracted,
from men and women alike.

And then the Government ! For instance : no Cuban could be
a fisherman only old sailors of the Spanish Navy had that
privilege. The Spaniard was not rewarded in his native country
or given a pension, but was sent to Cuba, where, like a leech,
he filled himself full and dropped off, or was gently removed,
and another put in his stead. If you rebelled, you were sent to
a place where the climate settled the business between you and
the Government inevitably in favour of the Government. In
Havana, in the time of the filibusters, in a cafe under the Tacon
Theatre, they drank confusion to the Americanos out of a cup
made from the skull of one of the poor devils they had killed.



These were Spaniards ; but I dare say. the Cubans would have
been as bad.

Now this about Americans : to them we are the Americans ; they
are Cubanos, Mexicanos, or Brazilianos, etc. Now when they
come to Europe they call themselves Americans, in speaking to
the Europeans, but remain among themselves as they were before,
and will, I think, remain so for a long time to come.


Tom, my brother's boy, was a splendid fellow, and loved us
with all his heart. He used to row on the launches, after my
father sold him, and was so strong that he could break the heavy
oars, when he pleased, by a sudden pull. In Matanzas, the ships
lie in the offing and everything is brought in or taken out over
the shallow bar in these launches. He finally became a skilful
cooper, and was much loved by his master, and made lots of
money. Once, with his earnings, he escaped to an American ship,
when the captain, after taking all his money, threatened to give
him up ; he jumped overboard and swam ashore, and was for-


given by his master. When he had made enough money to buy
his freedom, he fell in love with a yellow girl, and she, after spend-
ing it all, bestowed her favours on another. Poor Tom did not
avenge himself; he simply drooped, fell sick, and died of a broken
heart. His master closed the establishment that day and gave
Tom a fine funeral at his own expense, and all the workmen
attended. I saw him often before that, and made him learn my
sure address in New York, and he promised to do his best to
escape and come to me. You see how he failed. Had he suc-
ceeded, I might have had him with me now, and with him the
most affectionate heart in the world, and have done something
to take the curse off of that blood-money.

My father used to tell me of a time when the Negroes had be-
come so rich as to excite the cupidity of the Spaniards, and a ficti-
tious rumour of an insurrection of the slaves was started. Now
nothing in a slave country is so much dreaded as that, and under
pretext of stamping it out, they shot and whipped the money out
of them. When you heard a volley of musketry from over the
river, you knew that a line of poor wretches fell and were hurried
into a long trench and covered up, alive or dead ; and the sound
of the whip was so incessant that my father had to close all the
doors and windows to keep it out. Light and shade are very
marked in the Tropics.

It would be somewhat embarrassing to explain the action of
my Guardian Angel or angels about this time, for there may have
been two a good one and a bad one. If so, the bad one egged
me on to do things which the good one thought necessary to cor-
rect by the most drastic measures. In fact, the good one was a
most strenuous being, and applied remedies out of all proportion
to the disease. And all this is on the supposition that there are


such beings. Perhaps I bother more about them than they do
about me. At any rate, I returned to New York, not only re-
stored to health, but in such lively health that I felt a strong
propensity to flirt, for (as I have said about drink) there was
much flirting in those days.

This must have been in 1856, for I find in my list of sales that
my copy of Wilkie's Blind Fiddler, made from an engraving at
Matteson's, had been sent on to Matanzas and sold at a raffle
I imagine the only way of disposing of it. By the way, some one
said that the colours were the same as in the original picture.
This person must have had a good memory for colour, or per-
haps he only said so. At this time I painted a picture of a ship,
a splendid "clipper," taken from one of those pictures that used
to hang on the walls of the offices down-town.

My first order was from my old school-master, Brinkerhoff,
and I find that this sale swelled my income until it amounted for
the year to the sum of fifty dollars. Thus encouraged, my father
kept on with my artistic education. I also painted a portrait of
my friend Ben, in which I thought I had succeeded in the shadow
cast by a broad-brimmed hat on his honest features. And, in my
way, I studied hard, and also commenced a diary, in which I
gave a long account of how my work was interrupted by a stye on
my eyelid. It is lucky that I discontinued it, for commencing so
young, it would not only have rivalled Pepys's, but gone him
several volumes better or worse.

But be that as it may, in pursuance of my scheme of study
I frequented the old Dusseldorf Gallery in Broadway, and then
noticed how peculiarly well adapted it was to the carrying-out
of a combined scheme of flirtation and study. The Gallery had
been named the " Lovers' Tryst," from the fact that an indifferent


public left "the banquet-hall deserted," or almost so, and that
the pictures on projecting screens made secluded spots of which
fond lovers soon availed themselves. Thus when I took to tryst-
ing there, as the consequence of making the acquaintance of a
very pretty girl opposite Ben's, I found that I was not a Colum-
bus, or the "first who ever burst into that silent sea." I may
note that this trysting serves to explain why I was not more
influenced by the Dusseldorf School, and also shows how I neg-
lected my opportunities I mean artistic opportunities. How
I made the acquaintance of the pretty girl is only another in-
stance of Love laughing at Blacksmiths but the main thing
is that I did meet her, and that all things were slowly drawing to
a head when the Angel stepped in, and administered what I have
always considered an overdose, as you shall judge. In justice to
the Angel I will say that there had lately happened in our vicinity
the case of a boy who, while yet going to school, married a girl
much older than himself. When it was found out, there was the
deuce to pay in view of which perhaps the Angel was ri'ght ;
but he or she need not have been quite so rude. And so it came
about that I went shooting, and got shot. By particular request
I give the story.

It happened in this way. Wishing to revisit the scene of many
happy days, I went to Moriches ; but Mr. Parsons having passed
away, and alas ! also the fair Hannah, I found I could not go to
that part of the town after all, but stopped in West Moriches,
and, it being the season of snipe, went snipe-shooting. I have
always thought that, being fated to be shot, it would have some-
how been nobler had the game been the surly bear, or the ant-
lered deer; but no it had to be the inoffensive and slender-
legged snipe. This is humiliating, but it is the fact.


We went over to the land side of the beach, and on the edge

Online LibraryElihu VedderThe digressions of V. → online text (page 7 of 29)