Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The emigrant artist
THE EMIGRANT ARTIST.
If the companions show the man, and the closest companion a man has be taken as an evidence of the disposition, then was Ulrich Vigaud a man who loved retirement; who hated his face to be seen. His choicest—most frequent companion being the index, he was all this, and more. His pipe was that companion, and was but the reflection—the image—of the man; nowhere was he seen without it, except in the pulpit—there, in the dignity of black cloth and a minister’s silk gown, the two were separated. On other days, from morn till night, both were enveloped in smoke. Like to some mountain-top his head was now almost hidden with the thick clouds, betokening deep thought, that might end in a storm of thunder and lightning, such as should shake and terrify his hearers next Sabbath; now the light cirrus, aerial and delicate as a fairy’s veil, but half hid the sunny smile of his usually stern face as he watched children at play, and took out the pipe to give them a word of encouragement. Never but on the Sabbath did that crag-like old face, with its cap of snow, appear unclouded. Then he was clearly visible, and right well he looked, as in the high, cramped pulpit, he thundered forth those anathemas which the brooding cumuli of the week had produced.
A much beloved man was Ulrich Vigaud. The clear red light of his pipe-bowl was always the harbinger of good to his flock. They might not see the man, but they saw that, and felt it was the image of his nature, always warm and bright, and when they saw his eyes on Sabbath morn or eve, they knew that the soul within was that of a willing helper and a firm friend.
“Good e’en, Carl; at work as usual?”
“Yes, worthy father, as usual; but I’ve done now for to-day. Enter.”
“Welcome, Father Ulrich,” said Bertha Schatz, dusting the arm-chair by the fire as she spoke.
“Carl, I’ve come to talk to you. I’ve a letter from a brother-minister in St. Louis, America, about which I want to speak. Are you ready to hear?”
“Bertha, leave us. Take care that the children come not upon us.”
“Carl, you are unwise and cruel. Nay, nay, list! Start not away. You are unwise and cruel.”
“To Bertha, your wife,—Fritz and Herman, your children. That man is cruel who gives not to his young ones the means of raising themselves; you do not, you are cruel;—that man is cruel who taxes a woman’s strength beyond its proper limit; you do it, and you are cruel;—that man is unwise who makes no provision for his old age; you do not, you are unwise.”
“What would you have me do? I’m at work from morning till night, and they will not buy my pictures when I’ve painted them.”
“Therefore, why paint them?”
“In hope. They ought to sell.”
“Nay, they ought not to sell, for they are not good; they are not excellent art; and you are not an artist. You have the artist’s soul, but you are not an artist. You lack knowledge; you lack that proficiency of hand which only springs from practice begun almost in infancy, or from a genius that knows no law. You began too late in life to succeed.”
“I took the prize, though, three years since.”
“I know. What did you paint?”
“The view from the hill up yonder, on the left of the town.”
“Most true, and whose house was it that was in the view? The Burgomaster’s, was it not?”
“And who was the head of the judges to award the prize but Master Wanslieben, the Burgomaster? Who bought the picture? Master Wanslieben. His house, not your merit, sold the picture—gained the prize. You know yourself that it was not a good picture. Three years’ work have taught you that—learn more.”
“But what can I do? Bertha’s little money is all but spent; I must paint.”
“Truly; but not here—not here. I looked in at the window, last evening just before sunset, and saw you all. The old man sitting by the fire stretching out his feeble hand for the poor porridge your Bertha had made for him; Fritz reading his book—he’s like your wife, that son of yours; let him not read too much now, he should play. Herman, your youngest, (with his father’s feelings, but not his father’s skill) was sketching the face of Bertha’s mother, as he leaned against her. He holds his pencil badly, does Herman—he has no freedom—you should see to this; had your father done so, I should not have had to tell you what I have. And you, Carl, were painting as usual. I like not to break up this group, but it must be some day. Death will take the old man Teutzel this winter—he must go; I have seen Death before; I know his mark. He will leave you, and you must leave her.”
“Your children’s grand-dame, Charlotta Teutzel. She is dead to feeling now—dead to you and to her daughter Bertha; she felt not, saw not, your little Herman last night, though his weight was on her; she is in her second childhood—it may last years, but she is all but dead—you must leave her in my care.”
“Thanks, father! but where must I go?”
“If my advice is taken, to St. Louis. I will read what my brother pastor says: ‘The young man of whom you speak would, I think, do well out here; wages for the class of labour are high; many of our merchant-princes spend sums almost fabulous in the decorations of their mansions, and eagerly employ artists of talent and taste at good salaries for the purpose. If, as you say, your young friend is not likely to take a high position in his own country as an artist in the highest sense of the term, let him come here at once, for employment is abundant and the wages dependent on his industry alone.’”
“And you,” said Carl, “wrote to him of me?”
“I did—for I love you, Carl. Had you been rich, you would have had many friends; but, being poor, your poetic temperament—your artist nature—is to you but the thin garment of a man who treads through a forest of briars, which, while it leaves him sensitive to the gentlest breath of the winds of heaven, is therefore the less protection from the thorns of earth; and your path here, poor Carl, has too many of the thorns: this is neither the climate nor the age when it can be said, “truly happy are the poor” in anything. You must go.”
“I would it could be otherwise, and besides, I have no means to reach this Elysium—this Paradise.”
“Despise not the unknown, Carl.”
“How shall I get there?”
“Carl, I am not rich, you know well. I hold that the shepherd should spend much for the good of the sheep. I’d rather leave behind me the weeping eyes of friends who held me dear for my help than much wealth. Still I have a little that I had, perhaps faithlessly, laid by should my voice fail; that little shall be yours, for your mother’s sake, Carl.”
The clouds were thick about him now, and one large drop slowly coursed down his cheek to the ground. It might have been the herald of a storm, but no storm came: if it fell it was in a rain of fire on the heart, there was none outwardly when the clouds cleared away.
“I can hardly accept it, but——”
“But for Bertha’s sake, and Fritz’s and Herman’s sake you will. I’ll give you a week to think of it.”
It was decided. He would go. Poor Carl! Vanished for him were all the fond dreams of youth. No fame! Her temple doors were shut to him; and henceforth he must live and work, hopeless of her crown.
Carl was not an idle man; he thought much, worked much, but did not get on. He had mistaken his vocation. Alas! how many are in his position—miserable, they know not how; unsuccessful, they know not why; and then drink soon dulls them too much to look for causes, and at last the poor-house or the grave finish the “tale of a mistaken vocation.”
The Hamburgh packet—an old, wide, uneasy vessel—slowly made her way up the Thames on a spring morning with something short of a hundred emigrants on board. Amongst them were Carl and Bertha.
A few days in London, and the Black Warrior was to sail with a human cargo of some hundreds of German and Irish emigrants from the London Docks. She was a crack ship, was the Black Warrior. “Very sharp forward,” said the knowing; “likely to get across in a month.”
Babel knew no worse confusion than the decks of the Black Warrior on the fine May morning that saw Carl, his wife, and their children on the pier-head of the London Docks.
“Those Dutchmen coming aboard, Captain?” said the hoarse-voiced mate.
“Yes, by G—, and two hundred and fifty others, too. I saw the boarding-house keeper, and he said they’d be here at nine: that’s them coming in at the gate, now.”
“Barge alongside, sir, with luggage.”
“Mr. Smith, rig out a tackle on the larboard side; get those boxes in; we shall miss this tide, if you don’t look sharp.”
And now came Babel’s parody; what with the lowing of cows; the hee-haw of donkeys; the agonized squalling of pigs; the bleating of sheep; the hoarse cries of the men at the capstan getting the anchor over the side; the shriller, quicker, voices of the men getting in the boxes, “hand over hand;” the blowing-off of the tug just outside; the farewells of the Irish, in a high key; the growlings of the English in a low key; and the guttural babbling of the Germans in no key at all,—there was noise enough to furnish one with an indistinct notion of the nature of the vocal accompaniments to the drama of “The Perplexed Builders.”
At last it’s over; the ropes out; the Black Warrior is fairly out of dock, and the customary three cheers by the crew are mingled with the feeble “Heep, heep, heep, you rar” of a few of the imitative German enthusiasts on board, while country and home are forgotten in the general scramble for best berths.
The Germans establish themselves in one quarter, while a mixed colony of English and Irish appropriate another; and for the delicately minded English there is a separate portion for the married and families, the partition being a lattice-work of boards, three inches wide and three inches apart; but then shawls are very good curtains at nightfall, and there’s no interruption of the current of air during the day.
The Germans, who manage without partitions, are tolerably soon, and well, employed in devouring black bread and sausages, both from their appearance, heir-looms, for sustenance on special occasions; special now, because nothing else will be obtained, till, as the mate observes, they are “a little to rights.”
Past Gravesend; past the Nore; and night shuts out the view.
“Carpenter, see those Dutchmen put those lights out at eight o’clock.”
“Aye, aye, sir.” And from eight o’clock to daylight, the only lights are a few smoky lamps, locked, and hung from the deck over-head.
Carl and Bertha are fortunate—a couple of berths, one over the other, and close to the hatchway, are a possession to be prized, with more than three hundred people sleeping in the “’tween decks” of the Black Warrior.
A few days, and all the signs of sickness are gone, and the decks are crowded with men smoking and girls knitting all day long. Carl and Bertha felt as they had never felt before. To be associated with those semi-savages of their own land, they had, at first, deemed insupportable; but they soon found that hearts are like hearts, all the world over. A dozen willing hands, dirty though they were, would be eagerly stretched out to hold little Victor, while she prepared the meals; and though they were dirty and poor, they were honest in their poverty—ay, and grateful to Bertha for her small distributions, from her somewhat better store, of food to their sick.
All the men liked Carl, and though he was none of them, as they said, he would sketch their children’s portraits, and sometimes play a game of cards with themselves, too.
Fritz spent his time chiefly in reading novels, of which a German cabin-passenger had a large store, while every flat surface on every part of the vessel—from the anchor-stocks to the lids of the water-casks—bore traces in chalk or charcoal of Herman’s attempts. True it was that in most of his portraits the noses were a little enlarged; still he was a young artist, and never happy without his chalk; so they let him alone.
Victor was hugged, kissed, and fed to an extent that few babies ever were, before or since, and bore it with the native phlegm of his country.
At length the voyage was over.
One morning, after some five weeks of this life, a small cloudy speck was seen on the horizon.
“Guess that’s a tow-boat. Mr. Smith, take a glass up into the top and see, sir.”
A tow-boat it was; they were soon alongside.
“How is it this time?” said the Captain to a small dark man who had his den on a deck between the paddles and level with their tops, and who went into a perpetual series of convulsions with a large wheel before him.
“Very bad—hundreds a-day.”
“Don’t say so.”
“Guess I do, though. The Ovens is full now—regular gang at the cemetery on the Shell-road—at it all day—steamers all full.”
This information was conveyed in small detachments, and accompanied by convulsive struggles with the wheel and puffs at a cigar.
“There’ll be no room in the Ovens for the lot you’ll bring: got many? What sort, Dutch?”
“Yes, nearly all Dutch; a few Irish—about 350 total.”
“Well, it’s mighty bad, newcomers drop off like sheep. It’s worse now, I guess, than when I left, for I’ve been down here these three days looking out.”
“You won’t wait for anything else?”
“Guess I shall. I sighted a small brig after you. I’ll wait for her and tow you both; there’s water enough on the bar, and I can spare a few hours.”
In due time the small brig came, and the convulsed allowed some other convulsed cigar-smoker to undergo his torture.
It was discovered by a thoughtful German that these convulsions had some connection with the vessel’s movement, but whether the progressive or the directional he could not at first discover, though he came to the conclusion that it was the latter, after more mature thought.
“Come aboard, Captain?”
“Well! guess, I will now.”
“Mister Lomax, you’ll keep her a little clear of the buoy on the starboard; there’s a snag there I saw coming down; I forgot it till now.”
The active convulsed promised compliance, and continued his agonies till he was superseded once more by his companion, and in some few hours more they reached New Orleans. Here they were boarded by a city officer, who notified to the affrighted cargo, that as the yellow fever was raging, it was the advice of the mayor that those who were going up the country should go to Algiers, the opposite side of the river, and wait the departure of the steam packets.
Carl and Bertha therefore went there, and for a whole week waited patiently. At last the steamer came,—just room for Carl and his party in one of the small steerage cabins at the back of the paddle-wheels. They took the berths, and went on board. Under the grand saloon stretched a long row of bunks for emigrants, with scarcely room to stand upright; there was but the thickness of a board between the squalid poverty from the old world and the ostentatious wealth of the new. On that hot July day the air was suffocating, and glad enough they were to get to their little cabin, through the chinks of which they could see the great wheel with the water dripping from its floats, as though it too laboured and sweated under the hot sun.
“Mister Burke, there’s the owner on the ferry signing you—he means ‘stop.’”
The owner came on board, and called the captain on one side.
“Captain Burke, I was drunk last night: I made a bet that this boat would be at St. Louis before the Belle Isle—she must be there.”
“Can’t be done, sir. The Belle Isle was off this morning at seven o’clock, and it’s now three. Besides, we’re deep. They’ve got next to nothing but passengers on the Belle Isle. Can’t be done, sir.”
“Captain Burke, my bet’s a big one: I made it when I was drunk; I must stick to it. I’ll give you 500 dollars if she’s there before the other, if it’s only by a minute. I’ll allow what wood bill you like; burn plenty of knots: and, Captain, there’s a new craft building at Natchez for us; you shall have her, if you manage this.”
“I can’t do it, sir; these boilers won’t stand it; ask the pilots.”
“Boy, tell Mr. Marbleman and Mr. Garspin they’re wanted.”
“Oh, and send Mr. Farr; he knows more about the boilers than they do,” muttered Captain Burke.
The two pilots and the engineer came at once.
“Gentlemen,” said the owner, “this boat must be at St. Louis before the Belle Isle, if it’s only by a minute. 200 dollars a piece, gentlemen, if it’s done: if it’s not—well, gentlemen, I shall be sorry, very sorry—for if it’s not, gentlemen, you’ll have no more out of E. T. C. Crusset; he’ll be a gone coon—done, licked holler—gone to the Ovens, gentlemen.”
“If the boilers will stand, I could do it,” said one of the pilots; “but they’re old, and ought to have been looked to well this time.”
“Boilers or not, gentlemen, it’s to be done! I called at the Atlas this morning, and insured a lot of cases for a hundred times their value, and that may do for another throw if you do go down; they’re common red crockery, well packed with straw. I’ve insured them as New York goods. If they don’t have to pay, I paid a heavy premium, and find I’ve shipped the wrong goods and get part back; and they can’t grumble; if they do have to pay, they won’t know it, for the cases will be in the river; and you, gentlemen, know New Orleans too well to ‘blow’ on me, I know. In short, I mean it to be done.”
“But the passengers know the boat as well as we do.”
“D—n the passengers; if you don’t know how to stop their clamour, what the devil is this for in your waistcoat?” It looked most suspiciously like the stock of a revolver.
“Very well, sir, it shall be done, if it’s possible—if it must be done.”
“It must. Send the clerk here.”
“Mr. Walker, you’ll take the money for all the passengers as soon as you leave this. Don’t keep it on board; pay it in to my account as you get it—as you go up. Pay your wood bill in orders on me, here. Good day, sir. Pleasant trip.”
“Precious fool! That last bottle of Champagne may cost me that vessel and 50,000 dollars. I’ll take to claret like a fogy for the future. I must send that silk dress to Mrs. Crichton—she’ll make it all right with the Atlas secretary.”
The owner gone, there was all haste to get the vessel away. Fires shone brightly, and the long sigh of the steam, as it escaped up the funnels, mingling with the roar of the paddles, saddened beyond all power of utterance the hearts of Bertha and her husband.
Mile after mile of low, damp ground, so alike, that only a practised eye could detect that the vessel moved;—for there was no change of scene sufficient to indicate it; then some small villages passed; then a large belt of timber reaching away as far as the eye could see; then the long night, broken by the glare of torches and the shouting of men as they brought the wood on board; then silence; then the hot, still day, and the almost hotter night, and the fever on board. Carl first—the headache, the nausea, the languor, and Carl was down; then Bertha followed. Both down with that awful scourge, the yellow fever.
Some good woman took Fritz and Herman away, and waited on Carl and Bertha in their cabin as if they had been her children. Then the poor baby died, and in a remission of the fever they had hope the worst was over; she seemed so much better, she begged them to leave the child with her until the morning at least. They did.
The night was calm, and still as death; the stars seemed balls of fire; the air was as clear as ether—it obscured nothing; the fire-flies on the low ground could be seen from the vessel’s deck. So passed the night. The morning came.
The black waiters were arranging the last articles of the breakfast; the passengers, one by one, were dropping in out of their state rooms; the Captain was impatiently striding up and down the carpet, when the carpenter entered.
“Well, carpenter, how are we below?”
“Rather bad, sir.”
“That Dutchman and his wife who joined at Algiers, and took one of the wheel cabins.”
“Yes, sir. It’s a queer sight, too. She’s sitting up in the bunk, holding the baby, and looking at him, and he’s kneeling on the ground and looking up at her. It’s a queer sight, it is, too; they’re all three dead. I left ’em in case you’d like to see ’em.”
“No; I don’t care about it,” said Captain Burke. Some of the passengers went, however.
“Have they paid, Mr. Walker?”
“Rather, sir. I saw he was down, and knew if she stuck so close to him she’d have it too; so I made ’em pay up in case of accidents: saves trouble afterwards, you know.”
“What shall I do, sir?”
“Oh, make separate cases for them.”
“For the young ’un, sir?”
“I don’t know—heave it overboard; there’s no law against it for babies like that, that I know.”
“No, no, Massa Burke, dat ain’t done on dis yer boat. I’se knowed dis yer boat eber since she fust come on de river, and de like of dat’s neber been done afore. No, Massa Burke, dat ere chile’s buried like a Christian, if I know anytink.”
“Don’t put yourself out, steward.”
“No, Massa Burke, I no put myself out. I has dat ere chile buried proper; if not, I’se no nigger of yours, you know; more’s dese oders either,” said the excited steward, pointing to a line of black faces of his assistants, “Aire ye, boys?”
A sound of assent followed. “We’re no niggers of yours; and guess if you don’t give dat ere chile burial, we go ashore on the bluff, we do.”
“All right, steward,” said the amused captain, “you shall do what you like. Carpenter, make a separate case. Is it to be a separate one, steward, for the child?”
“Yes, Massa, sep’rate coffin for dat infant.”
“Please, sir, the pilot wants to see you in the wheel-house.”
“Is that her?”
“Get the glass,” said the pilot.
“That’s her, sure enough; she’s going, too: but we shall be over her to-day, if she don’t look out. I’ll tell Mr. Farr to see those fires well kept up now. I’ve saved a lot of knots for the race from last wooding.”
Now came a struggle; the Belle Isle was a-head but a few miles, and it was a race for stakes worth winning. How the fires roared till the sparks formed a thick continuous shower in broad daylight, as they piled on the gnarled pine knots. How quickly the steam sighed away its strength as the two boats neared; and, amid the roar of fires, the sighing of the steam, and the tinkling of the bells of the engine-room, there was one sound clearly distinguishable—the slow, steady blows of the hammer on those three coffins. How the fair girl in the white dress played the piano to drown a little of that sound—how loudly the men talked—and spite of it all, it came in as a refrain to everything: the music and the bet, the jest of the light and the talk of the serious, had the same chorus. And so it is in the world. Some of us hear that sound through a long life, and know what it means as well as they did there.
Towards evening they had passed the Belle Isle, and a long screech of the whistle indicated the triumph.
“We shall have to wood before night,” said the clerk to Captain Burke: “can’t get another ten miles out of her with what we’ve got.”
“I should like to get round this bend while we’re all hot. See what there is, twenty miles will do.”
The clerk returned, and reported that twenty might be done.
“That will do.”
And the twenty were done. About ten o’clock the oft-repeated cry was heard, “Wood pile there—wood pile there—all hands rouse out.” Slowly the tired firemen and crew moved to the forepart of the vessel, which was steering to a small speck of light on the bank, that gradually, as she neared, became brighter.
“Now then, lads, put that plank out,” said the mate, as the vessel was within a few yards of the shore. The long plank was put over the side, and, while five or six men stood on the one end, a man with a line ran lightly over it, and jumped ashore.
“Light up on that hawser, boys;—make fast now that bridge!” And thirty strong arms thrust ashore a wide plank.
The furnace-doors were opened, and the red glare was almost lost in the moonlight.
“Watchman! where are those lights?”
“Here, sir.” And in a moment a basket of blazing pine knots shed its light on the scene.
“Pick it up, boys,—pick it up—pick up that wood!” was the cry of the mate, as one by one the men ran across the narrow plank from the vessel to the shore and returned with their load of logs across the wide plank from the shore to the vessel.
“Got much more?” said the captain.
“Only a few cord.”
“Make some of those Dutchmen pick up those cases and take them ashore.”
“Captain Burke,” whispered the pilot, “she’s just shot past the bend. She is going, and no mistake.”
There could be none; the funnels of the defeated Belle Isle were pouring forth their fierce volumes of flame, while the sharp quick snort of the engines told that those on board did not yet believe themselves beaten.
“Now, steward, if you want any tomfooleries over those cases, look sharp, there’s only ten minutes for you.”
“All right, Massa Burke,” said the steward, “I’m gwine d’reckly,” and he bustled down amongst the crowd of Germans on the forward part of the vessel to marshal them in proper order, his shining black hat decorated for the solemn occasion with a streamer,—the shawl of the stewardess.
“Now, you four; you take dat ere big case,—dat’s him; you four take dat middlin’ case,—dat’s her. Now, you two boys, you come here; take dat little case,—dat’s it; picanniny—poor picaninny. Now ready?”
What a strange scene it was as the long procession, led by the tall black steward, wended its way along the plank under which the water flowed fast, like a stream of molten metal. The three deal cases, too, might have been treasure-cases of costly red velvet, they looked so rich in the ruddy light of the pine-torches (perhaps they were treasure-cases); and then the long train of mourning countrymen who, in all varieties of costume, followed behind in a confused crowd; and over all the pale moon shedding a softening light that made the whole look unreal—a dream, not a sad reality.
“Oh! Captain Burke! Do have a fire put on the branch of that tree, it will light it up so beautifully.”
“Well, Miss, I’ll do it; but pine-knots just now is worth something. Watchman, put——”
“Oh, never mind, they’ve lighted a torch to read by.”
And so they had. There, standing round three shallow graves—shallow and separate, for the Brown Bear must reach St. Louis before the Belle Isle—stood the crowd. The steward, with a face black as sable, reading part of the burial service amid the sobs of women and the hushed grief of the men, and above them from the branches of the trees, hung the long festoons of Spanish moss, looking black in the mingled lights as if Death held a festival, and decked the woods with his garlands. “Dust to dust,” and a few shovelfuls of earth were put on each.
“Now, steward, get your gang aboard, will you? or by God I’ll leave some of you behind.”
“Ay, you’ll have to, she’s not half-a-mile astern now, and our fires won’t draw up for some ten minutes or so.”
“Now, all hands aboard, and fire up there!” and once more the sparks rushed in clouds along the air.
“Will you come aboard, steward, or shall I leave you?”
“Comin’, Massa Burke, comin’,” and he hurried the crowd before him. On they came like so many frightened sheep, and in a few seconds but one man was left on the shore.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
“Go ahead a little to take the strain off that hawser!” roared the mate. “That’ll do; haul aboard, lads!”
The man let go the rope, jumped on the projecting plank, and all were aboard. The pilot let the stream carry her a little way down to the deep water, and then once more the race began—to end, who cares how?
The two boys were taken care of by their countrymen on board, and then the worthy minister at St. Louis took charge of them; but they sometimes miss, even in all his kindness, the tenderness of their mother, Bertha, and the fond sympathy of their father, Carl; and regret bitterly that, when asked of their father and mother, they can only say: “They were German Emigrants, and were buried on the banks of the Mississippi,”—as how many have been and are still to be!
A. Stewart Harrison.