VI. ENGLAND AGAIN.
I HAVE always been happy at sea; or when not so, it has been from reasons apart from the sea itself, — preoccupations which kept me insensible to the old charm, or mental troubles which made me insensible to everything beside them. On this voyage I had the company of an old friend of the days of The Crayon, one of our most thoughtful and successful portrait painters, George Fuller, and a young friend of his, a Mr. Ames. We sailed just before Christmas in an old sailing ship of about eight hundred tons burthen, for unless time is of importance I prefer a sailing ship to a steamer, and one pleasant companion is worth a shipload of commonplace fellow voyagers.
A stiff west wind caught us off Sandy Hook, and never left us till we were halfway across the Atlantic, increasing in violence every day until it gave me, what I had always longed for but never seen, a first-class gale on the open ocean. I had said to the captain — one of the old sort of Cape Cod sailors, still a young man, however — that I wanted to see a real gale, and one day, after we had been out nearly a week, he called me up on deck saying, “ You wanted to see a gale, and now you may see it; for unless you get into a tornado you will never see anything worse than this.” I went on deck, obliged to hold firmly to the rails or some part of the rigging, for the wind was such as to have carried me overboard if I had attempted to stand alone on the quarter-deck. We were running with the wind dead abaft, under a reefed foretopsail and a storm jib, everything else having been taken in the night before. A studding-sail boom which had been left out, for some reason I did not inquire into, had been broken off short in the earing, though nothing but its ropes drew on it. The roaring of the wind through the rigging was such as only one who has heard it can conceive. I gripped firmly the quarter-deck railing, and drew myself aft to the shelter of the wheelhouse, where, securing myself from being blown away, I watched the sea. It rose behind us in huge billows, and as a wave overtook us and we lay in the bottom of the valley, it so overhung us that it seemed impossible it should not bury us when it broke, but the stern was caught by the forefoot of it, and the old ship began to rise and went up, up, up, until I was dizzy. Then we hovered on the summit a moment, looking out — though the distance was hidden by the driving spray — on such an expanse of mountainous waves as I had never pictured to myself. While I looked the wave passed from under us, we went down and down with a rapidity of descent which was almost like falling from a balloon, and after another moment’s rest in the valley came the shuddering half apprehension of the next wave as it rose threatening above us, and then after again soaring aloft we raced down again into the driving of the spray.
The old ship was rolling, plunging, and now quivering as some side wave struck her, with a complication of motions sidelong and headlong, the huge waves flying before us and yet carrying us on, with wild motions, while in all this tumult and complexity of forces we were as helpless as feathers in the wind. The feeling of absolute insignificance grew on one as the ship drove on ; the creaking of the vessel and the hissing rush of the waters hardly audible for the shrieking of the gale through the rigging, — in all my life I have never so understood the utter impotence and triviality of humanity as I felt it then. The ship, though not comparable in size with the colossi of later times, was yet a huge mass as measured by man, and she was no more than a cork on the tide. Up and down like a child’s swing ; wallowing and rolling, with the sea breaking over the side till the channels were full, pouring over the bows in green torrents and then in blinding deluges of spray and water over the stern; tearing along ten knots an hour, and yet always seeming to be left stationary by the waves that rushed by us. Now and then two great waves raced each other, as they will at long intervals, till they ran close one to the other, and we were thrown aloft a little higher still to see nothing more than a wild waste of foam, spray, and watery chaos which defies human language to express it.
This was the sea as I had wanted to behold it, and as no painter has ever painted, or probably ever will, paint it, and as very few can ever have seen it, for in seventy thousand miles of sea travel I have seen it thus only once. For three days and nights our captain never left the bridge. Of three ships that left New York the same day, one was dismasted to the south of us, and another had her quarters stove in, and barely escaped foundering just to the north of us. The gale blew out and left us in a dead calm which lasted a couple of days, when another gale of three days drove us in the direction we wanted to go, and dropped us off Torquay in the morning of what, compared to the winter we had left behind, seemed a delicious spring day, all sunshine and south wind. We hailed a fishing boat and went ashore. We had left a land buried in snow and ice, and we reached one seemingly in early spring though it was still January, the gorse in odorous blossoming, and in the hedgerows the early wild flowers. But we learned, on landing, that the recent gales had strewn the shores of England with wrecks, and caused great loss of life. It had been one of those terrible winters which have helped make the British sailor the sea dog he is.
I took lodgings in Charles Street, Middlesex Hospital, near Wehnert, and worked hard. I had brought my Bed of Ferns, a large study from nature on Saranac Lake, and one or two smaller studies. I had visits from Dante Rossetti, Leighton, then in all the glory of his Cimabue picture and in the promise of even a greater career than he finally attained, Millais, Val Prinsep, and Boyce. I had brought letters from Lowell to Tom Hughes, from Norton to Arthur Hugh Clough, from Agassiz to Professor Owen. Hughes introduced me to the Cosmopolitan Club, where I made the acquaintance, amongst others whom I do not remember, of Millais and Monckton Milnes. The artists seemed to be interested in my work, especially in the Bed of Ferns, of which Rossetti, whose opinion I valued more than any other, — for he was very honest and blunt in his criticisms, and not at all inclined to flattery, — expressed himself in strong terms of praise. As it was the first thing in which I had attempted to introduce a human interest in the landscape, I was naturally inclined to consider it my most important work, and I was dismayed when Ruskin came to see me, and in a tone of extreme disgust said, pointing to the dead deer and man, “ What do you put that stuff in for ? Take it out, it stinks ! ” My reverence for Ruskin’s opinions was such that I made no hesitation in painting out the central motive of the picture, for which both the subject itself and the effect of light had been selected. Unfortunately I habitually used copal varnish as a medium. When Rossetti called again, he asked me, with a look of dismay, what I had done to my picture. I explained to him that on Ruskin’s advice I had painted out the figures, and exclaiming, “ You have spoiled your picture! ” he walked out of the room. However, I sent it to the Academy as it was, and had it back “ Accepted, but not hung for want of room,” or something equivalent. I then tried to remove the pigment which hid my figures, but the varnish was refractory, and after a vain attempt I finally cut the picture up and stuck it in the fire. The incident, though it cost me the work of three months, and was in fact the only important outcome of the summer’s study, did not diminish my confidence in Ruskin’s judgment and correct feeling for art. It required a still more severe experience. As all the world knows, that knows anything of Raskin’s ways with artists, he was blunt and outspoken in his criticisms, and not in the least tender of their feelings, unless, indeed, they happened to be women ; and knowing this I took his praise of certain studies and drawings I had brought with me as a patent of ability; and though I was never extravagant in my opinion of my own capacities for art, his approbation of some things that I had done, and his assurance of a respectable attainment if I followed the best methods of study, encouraged me. I took it without question that these methods were his, and it was a costly experience which undeceived me.
Of the people with whom I made acquaintance in London at this visit, those who most interested me were Clough and Owen. Of the artists I saw little, as they and I had other things to do than to frequent one another’s studios, but of the Rossetti family I profited largely. Of Dante, indeed, I saw little at that time, but with William my relations were constant and cordial, dating from the time when he undertook the correspondence of The Crayon from England, and he was for many years my most valued English friend. Of an extreme honesty and liberality and an extensive knowledge of and wide feeling for art, there was great community of appreciation between us, and our friendship lasted long beyond the direct interest I had in English matters.
The hospitality of the Rossetti family was informal and cordial, and of Christina I saw a good deal. She was then in excellent health, and though she was never what would be by the generality of tastes considered a beautiful woman, there was a noble serenity and dignity of expression in her face which was, as is often said of women of the higher type of character, “ better than beauty,” and wherein one saw the spiritual exaltation which, without the least trace of the dévote, dominated in her, and made her, before all other women of whom I know anything, the poetess of the divine life. The faith in the divine flamed out in her with a mild radiance which had in it no earthly warmth. She attracted me very strongly, but I should as soon have thought of falling in love with the Madonna del Gran Duca as with her. Being, myself, in the regions of dogmatic faith, I was in a position to feel sympathetically toward her religion, and though we differed in tenets as far as two sincere believers in Christianity could, I found in her a broad and affectionate charity toward all differences from the ideal of credence she had formed for herself. I do not remember ever meeting any one who held such exalted and unquestioning faith in the true spiritual life. From my mother, who was in most respects the most purely spiritual woman I have ever known, Christina differed by this serenity, which in my mother was often disturbed by the doubts that had their seed in the old and superstitious Calvinism that formed the ground of her creed, and from which she never could liberate herself. Christina believed in God, in heaven, in the eternal life with an unfaltering constancy and fullness which left no questionings except, it might be, as regards her fulfillment of her religious obligations. And while I thought her belief in certain dogmas, such as transubstantiation and in the fasting and ritual of her High Church observances, to be too trivial for such a really exalted intellect, so near the perception of the essential truth, she held them with so childlike and confident faith that I would sooner have worshiped with her than have disturbed her tranquillity in it.
She gave me a demonstration of doctrinal charity which was to me a novelty, and showed me that tenets which are to me, and those trained like me, idle formalities were for others like her the steps of a ladder by which they climb to the realization of the abstract good. Dogmas and observances apart, I felt that her religion was so much loftier than my own that though it would have been impossible for me to profess acceptation of it, it was equally impossible to argue with her about it, — that it was so woven into the fibre of her existence that to move it in the least would be impossible, and if possible, only at the cost of mental and spiritual dislocation. But with all this there was not in her a trace of the assumption of a religious superiority which I have so often found in the driest nonconformist, nor was there that putting me apart with the creatures that perish and are doomed, which I have sometimes found in Catholic friends, who have made me feel that they regarded me with a sort of pitiful friendship as one certain to be damned, and so only worth limited regard, lest love should be wasted. In after years I saw her not infrequently, and when illness and grief had touched her, finding always the same serenity and the same wide personal charity.
Much of Christina’s character one could see in her mother, a noble and worshipful woman in whom the domestic virtues mingled with the spiritual in a way that set off the singleness of life of Christina singularly, as if it were the same light in an earthen vessel. Mrs. Rossetti was a person such as we often hear spoken of as “ a dear, good woman,” and one whose motherly life had absorbed her existence, — one of the witnesses (martyrs) of the practical Christianity who go, unseen and unknown, to build the universal church of humanity, and whom we reverence without naming them. Of Maria, the elder sister of Christina, I saw less, but enough to know that the same ardent, beautiful, religious spirit burned in her, mute. In later years when I saw most of the family, Maria lived in a sisterhood. She had none of the poetic genius or the personal charm of her sister, but possessed a similar elevation of character.
Of Clough I saw a good deal, though his occupation in a government office left him not much leisure, and it seemed to me that of all public officials I ever knew he was the most misplaced at an office desk. Of fragile health and the temperament of a poet, gentle as a woman, he often reminded me of Pegasus in harness. I had a commission from Norton to paint a small full-length portrait of him, and had several sittings, but it did not get on to suit me, and his being compelled to go to Italy for his health before I had finished with it, for well or ill, put an end to it. He left me in occupation of his house while he and his wife were away. Of all the people of the poet’s temper I ever knew, Clough was the least inclined to talk of poetry, and but for the sensitive mouth and the dreamy eye, with a reflective way he had when talking, as if an undercurrent of thought were going on while he spoke, one might have taken him for a well-educated man of business, a poetbanker or publisher. Perhaps it is in the memory more than it was in the life, but as I recall him there seemed to be in him an arcanum of thought, something beyond what came into the everyday existence, a life beyond the actual life, into which he withdrew and out of which he came to speak. I should have liked to live beside him and know him always, for in his reserves was infinite study. He left on me the impression of a man who had far greater capabilities than were expressed in anything he did, admirable as much of his work is.
Lowell had given me, as I have mentioned, a letter to Tom Hughes, saying that though they had never met, yet, as Hughes had edited his Biglow Papers, he thought he might assume an acquaintance sufficient to warrant a letter of introduction. He was not mistaken, for Hughes did the fullest honor to his letter, and as long as I was in London, and indeed for many years after, our relations were most cordial, and a short time before his death he made me a visit at Rome. Very much of the enjoyment of that winter in London was due to the hospitable and companionable welcome of the author of Tom Brown. One of the pleasantest services he rendered me was the introduction to the evenings at Macmillan’s where the contributors to the magazine used to meet. There I saw the Kingsleys ; Charles only once, but Henry often enough to contract with him a pleasant friendship. Hughes was one of the largest and most genial English natures I knew, — robust, all alive to every human obligation ; and in those troublesome days when the American question was coming to the crisis of our civil war, he was a consistent friend of the North while the dominant feeling in English society was hostile to it: this was a strong bond between us.
Owen I saw frequently, and though my scientific education was superficial, he interested me greatly, for he had, like Agassiz, the gift of making his knowledge accessible to those who only understood the philosophy and not the facts of science, and I knew enough of the former to profit by his knowledge. Then he was a warm friend of Agassiz, and we used to talk much of his theories and studies. Like Agassiz he had at first resisted the theory of natural selection, but had, unlike Agassiz, come to recognize the necessity of admitting, like Asa Gray and Professor Wyman, the idea of evolution in some form. How far he finally went in recognizing the agency of natural selection as the sufficient element in this I do not know ; but that he did not accept the solution proposed by Darwin as final I have reason to believe from the fact of his assuring me the last time I saw him that he was confident that if he could have seen Agassiz again before he died, he could have persuaded him that evolution was the solution of the problem of creation ; and he knew that Agassiz, absolutely convinced as he was of the agency of Conscious Mind in Creation, could never have accepted the sufficiency of natural selection. And I had the further declaration of Owen himself of his conviction that the process of evolution was directed by the Divine Intelligence. One statement he made struck me forcibly in this connection, namely, that he believed that the evolution of the horse reached its culmination synchronously with the evolution of man, and that the agreement was a part of the Divine plan.
I heard much bitterness expressed concerning Owen for what was considered his yielding to the pressure of public opinion and adopting the theory of evolution in contradiction to his real convictions, but I saw enough of him to be certain that he really believed in evolution subject to the dominance of the Divine Intelligence, nor did any of the accusations brought against him persuade me of the least insincerity on his part. It is possible that the impressions of that time have been modified by my subsequent intercourse with scientific men in England, but they are, that the very wide acceptance of the theory of natural selection was largely due to the relief it offered from the incubus of the old theological conception of the Creator as a personal agency always interfering with the course of events, an infinite, omnipotent, and omniscient stage manager.
The world had been up to that time chained to the anthropomorphic conception of Deity, and it was less to the purely scientific faculty than to the philosophic that Darwin came as a liberator from a depressing superstition, the belief in the terrible Hebrew God, ingrained in the consciences of every reverently educated boy, and often inseparable from the maturer beliefs. The evolution of the human mind itself had finally reached the point at which this anthropomorphism became a thing impossible to maintain reasonably any longer, and the magic word was spoken by Darwin, which broke the spell and set those free who wished to be free, from a mental servitude grown dangerously dear to our deepest faculties,— those of reverence and devotion. And contemporaneously with, if not consequent on, this evolution of the human mind, came the liberation from religious persecution, either inquisitorial, legal, or social, and perhaps for the first time in the history of the religious dogma a man might openly dispute the fundamental ideas of a dominant religion and suffer no penalty for his skepticism.
Though my Bed of Ferns was sent back from the Academy, one of my large studies was exhibited at the British Society, and the result of the year’s work was on the whole satisfactory. Ruskin invited me to go to Switzerland with him for the summer, finding in my studies and drawings the possibility of getting from me some of the Alpine work he wanted done. Unfortunately for both of us I cannot draw well in traces, and he did not quite well know how to drive, so that the summer ended in disappointment, and even in disaster. I was too undisciplined to work except when the mood suited, and our moods rarely agreed; he wanted things done which were to me of no interest, and I could not interest myself vicariously to do them to his satisfaction. He preceded me some weeks, and it was arranged that I should come to meet him at Geneva early in June.
Certainly I owe to him my earliest and most delightful memories of the Alps and of Switzerland. More princely hospitality than his no man ever received, or more kindly companionship. He met me with a carriage at Culoz to give me and to enjoy my first impressions of the distant Alps, and for the ten days we stopped at Geneva I stayed with him at the Hôtel des Bergues. We climbed the Salève, and I saw what gave me more pleasure, I confess, than the distant view of Mont Blanc, which he expected me to be enthusiastic over, the soldenella and the gentians. The great accidents of nature, Niagara and the high Alps, though they awed me, have always left me cold, and all that summer I would rather have been in some nook of Fnglish scenery where nature had been undisturbed by catastrophes and cataclysms.
Our first sketching excursion was to the Perte du Rhone, and while Ruskin was drawing mountain forms beyond the river he asked me to draw some huts near by; not picturesque cottages, with thatched roofs and lichen-stained walls, but “ shanties,” such as the Irish laborers on our railways build by the roadside of deal boards stood on end, — irregular and careless without being picturesque, and too closely associated with pigsty construction in my mind to be worth drawing. When Ruskin came back I had made a careless and slipshod five minutes’ sketch of no more worth than the originals were to me. Ruskin was angry, and had a right to be, for at least I should have found it enough that he wanted the thing done to make me do my best on it, but I did not think of it in that light. We drove back to Geneva in silence, he moody and I sullen, and halfway there he broke out saying, the fact that he wanted it done ought to have been enough for me. I replied that I could see no interest in the sub ject, which only suggested fever and discomfort and wretched habitations for human beings. We relapsed into silence, and for another mile nothing was said, when Ruskin broke out with, “ You were right, Stillman, about those cottages ; your way of looking at them was nobler than mine, and now for the first time in my life I understand how anybody can live in America.”
We went to Bonneville to hunt out the point of view of a Turner drawing which Ruskin liked, and then we went on to St. Martin, the little village opposite Sallanches, on the Arve. For a subalpine landscape with Mont Blanc in the distance, this is the most attractive bit of the Alpine country I know, with picturesque detail and pleasant climbing up to seven thousand feet, while the view of Mont Blanc is certainly the finest from below that can be found. In fine weather the mountain is often hidden to the summit by clouds which clear away at sunset, and from the little and picturesque bridge over the Arve we saw the vast dome come out, glowing in the sunlight when all the valley was in shadow. It was a marvelous spectacle, this huge orb, thus appearing, suggesting a huger moon rising above the clouds, until, slowly, the clouds below melted away and the mountain stood disclosed to its base. If anything in the high Alps can be called truly picturesque it is the view of the Aiguille de Varens which overhangs the village of St. Martin, with its quaint and lichenous church and cemetery, and I made a large drawing of it from the bridge, intending to return and work it up after Ruskin had left me. The little inn of the village was the most comfortable auberge I was ever in, and its landlord the kindest and most hospitable of hosts. Twenty years after I went back to the locality, hoping to find something of the old time, but there was only a deserted hostel, the weeds growing over the courtyard, and the sealed and mouldy doors and windows witnessing to long desertion.
Hardly had I become interested in my drawing when Ruskin decided to move on to Chamouni where we hoped to get really to work. I was only geologically interested in Chamouni, — it left me cold, and I went to work mechanically. After a few days of prospecting we went up to the Montanvert where Ruskin wished me to paint him a wreath of Alpine Rose. We found the rose growing luxuriantly against a huge granite boulder, a pretty natural composition, and I set to work on it with great satisfaction, for botanical painting always interested me. Ruskin sat and watched me work and expressed his surprise at my facility of execution of details and texture, saying that of the painters he knew, only Millais had so great facility. We were living at the little hotel of the Montanvert, and he was impatient to get back to the better accommodation of the valley hotels, so that when the roses and the rocks were done, we went back, the completion of the picture being left for later study. From Paris, in the ensuing winter, I sent it to Ruskin, the distance being made of the view down the valley of Chamouni, and he wrote me a bitter condemnation of it, as a disappointment, for he said that he “ had expected to see the Alpine Roses overhanging an awful chasm,” etc., — an expectation he ought to have expressed earlier, — and found it very commonplace and uninteresting. So it was, and I burnt it after the fashion of the Bed of Ferns.
I was very much interested in Ruskin’s old guide, Coutet, with whom I had many climbs. He liked to go with me, he said, because I was sure - footed, and could go wherever he did. He was a famous crystal hunter, and some of the rarest specimens in the museum of Geneva were of his finding. There was one locality of which he only knew, where the rock was pitted with small turquoises like a plum pudding, and I begged him to tell me where it was. There is a superstition amongst the crystal hunters that to tell where the crystals are found brings bad luck, and he would never tell me in so many words, but one day, after my importunity, I saw him leveling his alpenstock on the ground in a very curious way, sighting along it and correcting the direction, and when he had finished he said, as he walked past me, “ Look where it points,” and went away. It was pointing to a stratum halfway up to the summit of one of the aiguilles to the west of the Mer de Glace, a chamois climb. He told me later that he found the crystals in the couloir that brought them down from that stratum. He was a dear old man, and fully deserving the affection and confidence of Ruskin. Connected with him was a story which Ruskin told me of a locality in the valley of Chamouni, haunted by a ghost that could only be seen by children. It was a figure of a woman who raked the dead leaves, and when she looked up at them the children said they only saw a skull in place of a face. Ruskin sent to a neighboring valley for a child who could know nothing of the legend, and went with him to the locality which the ghost was reported to haunt. Arrived there, he said to the boy, “ What a lonely place! there is nobody here but ourselves.” “ Yes, there is,” said the child, “ there is a woman there raking the leaves,” pointing in a certain direction. “ Let us go nearer to her,” said Ruskin, and they walked that way, when the boy stopped and said that he did not want to go nearer, for the woman looked up, and he said that she had no eyes in her head, “only holes.”
The valley of Chamouni was to me the most gloomy and depressing place I was ever in, and the least inspiring of any artistic motive. I felt from the day of our arrival there as if I were in a cemetery, oppressed and overborne by the immensity of disaster and the menace of chaos. We made excursions and a few sketches, but I had no sympathy with the place, though I tried to do what Ruskin wanted, and to get a faithful study of some characteristic subject in the valley. Every fine day we climbed some secondary peak, five or six thousand feet, and in the evenings we discussed art or played chess, mainly in rehearsing problems, until midnight. On Sundays no work was done ; we used to climb to some easy hilltop, and there Ruskin spent the afternoon in writing a sermon for a girls’ school in which he was much interested, but not a line of drawing would he do. To me, brought up in the severity of Sabbatarianism, the sanctity of the first day of the week had always been a theological fiction, and the result of contact with the larger world and the widening of my range of thought had also made me see that the observances of “ new moons and fast-days ” had nothing to do with true religion, and that the Eden repose of the Creator was too large a matter to be fenced into a day of the week ; so that this slavery to a formality in which Ruskin was held by his terrible conscience provoked me to the discussion of the subject. I declared that there was no authority for the transference of the weekly rest from the seventh to the first day of the week. We went over the texts together, and in this study my Sabbatarian education gave me an advantage in argument, for he had never given the matter a thought. Of course he took refuge in the celebration of the weekly return of the day of Christ’s resurrection, but I showed him that the text does not support the claim that Christ rose on the first day of the week, and that the early fathers who arranged that portion of the ritual did not understand the tradition of the resurrection. Three days and three nights, according to the gospel, Christ was to lie in the tomb, not parts of three times twentyfour hours. But the women went to the tomb “ in the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week,” and they found that he had already risen and was gone. Now as by the Jewish ritual the day began at sunset, the first day of the week began with the going down of the sun, and therefore as Christ had already risen he must have risen on the seventh day. The reason of this twilight visit was in the prohibition to touch a dead body on the sabbath, and the zeal of the disciples sent them to the sepulchre at the earliest possible moment. I showed Ruskin how careless or ignorant of the record the distribution of the sacred time had been, in the fact of the total disregard of the words of Christ that he should “ be killed and raised again the third day,” for they supposed him to have been crucified on Friday, while he must have lain buried Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and was therefore buried on Wednesday just before sunset. And this is confirmed by the test which says that the disciples hastened to bury Christ on the day of crucifixion because the next day was the day of preparation for one of the high sabbaths, which the early Christians who instituted the observance of the first day confounded with the weekly sabbath, not knowing that the high sabbath could not fall on the weekly sabbath.
To this demonstration Ruskin, always deferent to the literal interpretation of the gospel, could not make a defense, — the creed had so bound him to the letter that the least enlargement of the stricture broke it, and he rejected not only the tradition of the Sunday sabbath, but the whole of the ecclesiastical interpretation of the texts. He said, “ If they have deceived me in this they have probably deceived me in all.” This I had not conceived as a possible consequence of the criticism of his creed, and it gave me great pain, for I was not a skeptic, as I have since learned he for a time became. It was useless to argue with him for the spirit of the gospel, — he had always held to its infallibility and the exactitude of doctrine, and his indignation was too strong to be pacified. He returned somewhat, I have heard, to his original beliefs in later days, as old men will to the beliefs of their younger years, for his Christianity was too sincere and profound for a matter of mistaken credence in mere formalities ever to affect its substance, and the years which followed showed that in no essential trait had the religious foundations of his character been moved. For myself I was still a sincere believer in the substantial accuracy of the body of Christian doctrine, and the revolt of Ruskin from it hurt me deeply. My own liberation from the burthens of futile beliefs had yet to come. But we never discussed theological matters again.
I found a subject which interested me in a view of the foot of the Mer de Glace from the opposite side of the river, looking up the glacier, with the bridge under the Brevent and a cottage in the foreground, and set to work on it energetically. In the distance was the Montanvert, and the Aiguille de Dru, but where the lines of the glacier and the slopes of the mountain at the right met, five nearly straight lines converged at a point far from the centre, and I did not see how to get rid of them without violating the topography. I pointed this out to Ruskin, and he immediately exclaimed, “ Oh, nothing can be done with a subject like that with five lines radiating from an unimportant point! I will not stay here to see you finish that study,” and the next day we packed up and left for Geneva. At Lausanne I made some careful architectural drawings which he praised, some pencil sketches on the lake, and then we drove across country to Fribourg, and finally to Neuchâtel where I found a magnificent subject in the view from the hill behind the city looking over the lake toward the Alps, with Mont Blanc and the Bernese Alps in the extreme distance. In the near distance rises the castle and its old church, which Ruskin drew for me in pencil with exquisite refinement of detail, in which kind of drawing he was most admirable. As we should stay only a few days I could not paint anything, and spent all my time, working nine hours a day, hard, on the one subject in pencil.
We still passed our evenings in discussions and arguments, with a little chess, rarely going to bed before midnight, and the steady strain, with my anxiety to lose none of my time and opportunities, finally told on my eyes. One day while working on the view of Neuchâtel I felt something snap behind my eyes, and in a few minutes I could no longer see my drawing, the slightest attempt to fix my vision on anything causing such indistinctness that I could see neither my work nor the landscape, and I was obliged to suspend work altogether. In a few days we went to Basle, and after a rest my vision came back partially, and we went to Lauffenburg, where Turner had found the subject for one of his Liber Studiorum engravings. Here the subjects were entirely after my feeling, and as my eyes had ceased to trouble me, I set to work on a large drawing of the town and fall from below. In the midst of it the snapping behind my eyes came back worse than ever, and now not to leave me for a long time. It was followed by an incessant headache with obstinate indigestion, which made life a burthen. Here Ruskin suddenly found that he must go back to England, and I returned with him as far as Geneva, and thence went to St. Martin, where I spent the rest of the autumn as helpless for all work as a blind man.
My summer with Ruskin, to which I had looked for so much profit to my art, had ended in a catastrophe of which I did not then even measure the extent. It was nearly two years before I recovered sufficiently from the attack at Neuchâtel to work regularly, and then circumstances threw me still further from my chosen career. More exciting and absorbing occupations called me, and I obeyed, whether for better or worse it now matters not. Ruskin had dragged me from my old methods, and given me none to replace them. I lost my faith in myself and in him as a guide to art, but apart from questions of art he always remained to me one of the largest and noblest of the men I have known, liberal and generous beyond limit, with a fineness of sympathy and delicacy of organization quite womanly. Nothing could shake my admiration for his moral character or abate my reverence for him as a humanist. That art should have been anything more than a side interest with him, and that he should have thrown the whole energy of his most energetic nature into the reforming of it, was a misfortune to him and to the world, but especially to me.
At St. Martin I waited the return of my vision. I climbed and tried chamois hunting with no success so far as game was concerned, though I saw the beautiful creatures in their homes. One of my excursions was to the summit of the Aiguille de Varens, by a path in one place only a foot wide, cut in the face of a precipice, with sheer cliff above and below, and nothing to hold by. I have a good head, but to follow my guide on that path was something which only mauvaise honte brought me to. I was ashamed to hesitate where he walked along so cheerily. We arranged to spend the night at a chalet where a milkmaid tended a remnant of the herd, most of which had already descended to the valleys below, but as the sun was setting I walked out to the brow of the aiguille which from below seemed a cliff, but was in reality only the perpendicular face of a mass of mountain which in the other direction sloped away toward Switzerland for miles. The view of Mont Blanc, directly opposite, then bare of clouds from the base to the summit, with the red sunset glow falling full on the great fields of snow the extent of which I had never realized from any other point, was by far the most imposing view of the great mountain I have ever found. I stood at an elevation of about seven thousand feet, about halfway to the summit of Mont Blanc, with the whole broad expanse of glacier and snowfield glowing in the rosy twilight; for while I watched the sun had set. Thousands of feet below me lay the valley of the Arve with the town of Sallanches and its attendant villages in the blue distance of gathering night, and as I looked, enchanted by the scene, the chimes of the convent below rang out with a music which came up to my heights like a solemn monition from the world of dreams, for nothing could be distinguished of its source. We started a chamois, and saw him race across the broad field of snow like the wind, while I could only follow, laboring knee-deep in the snow, like a tortoise after a hare. We slept that night buried in the hay. I am glad to say that the hunt in the morning was without other result than a delightful walk, for my guide was a better climber than hunter.
A few days later I made, with another guide, an excursion to the Val du Four, on the other side of the valley. The guide was an old professional hunter, and knew the habits of the chamois well. We climbed up leisurely in the afternoon, and slept in the hay of a deserted chalet, from which the cattle had already been driven down. While the guide prepared the supper I walked out to the edge of the cliffs to get the view, but looked out only on a sea of mist, a river rather, for the whole valley was filled with a moving billowy flood of fog flowing from Mont Blanc and enveloping it in a veil of changing vapor, melting, forming, and flowing beneath my feet, hiding every object in the landscape below the cliffs I stood on. It made me dizzy, for I seemed to be in the clouds. And while I waited there came a transfiguration of the scene, — the mist began to grow rosy and of deeper and deeper hue till it suggested a sea of blood. No source of light was visible from my point of view, but the cause of the phenomenon, though seemingly mysterious, was evident. The sun in setting illuminated the fields of snow at the summit of the mountain beyond, which reverberated its flaming light into the vapor below, penetrating it down to ray feet, while the mountain itself was from my elevation invisible in its robe of mist.
The next morning we went to take our posts for a chamois drive ; a friend of the guide, whom he had picked up to profit by my coming, took one side of the valley and I the other, while a boy with an umbrella went down the valley to drive the chamois up to us. Having posted me, the stupid guide crossed the line of the drive between me and the meadow where the chamois would come to feed, and took his post hiding nearer the peaks where they had passed the night. Soon after sunrise they made their appearance on a field of snow which sloped down into the Val, nine of them, young and old. I shall never see anything prettier than the play of those young chamois on the snow. They butted and chased one another, frolicked like kittens, standing on their hind legs and pushing one another until, probably, they grew hungry, and then came down to the grass to feed. This was the moment for the driver to come in, and he advanced up the valley waving his arms and shouting. The chamois ran in my direction till they crossed the track of the old hunter, scenting which they halted, snuffed the air, and then broke in panic, the majority running back past the driver and within a few yards of him, so that if he had had a gun he could easily have killed one, and went down the valley out of sight; three came up the valley, taking the flank of the apparently almost perpendicular rocks within shot of me but at full gallop, and I fired at the middle one of the group. They passed behind a mass of rock as I fired, and two emerged on the other side. If I hit one I could not know, for the place was inaccessible, but I hope that I missed. I have often thought of the possibility that I might have hit the poor beast and sent him mortally wounded among the rocks to die, and I never recur to the incident without pain. It becomes incomprehensible to me as my own life wanes how I could ever have found pleasure in taking the lives of other creatures filling their stations in the world better than I ever did. The educated soul pays the penalty of ignorance, but there is no consolation in repentance.
I stayed at St. Martin while the plebiscite and annexation to France took place. It was a hollow affair, the voting being a mockery, but the Sardinian government had never made itself felt in Savoy, either for good or ill; the people were a quiet and law-abiding race, and while I was in the country I never heard of a crime or a prosecution. The regiments of Savoyard troops went into the French army with ill will, and there was a bloody fight between them and the French soldiers at Lyons when the former went into the barracks there. I was still at St. Martin when the Emperor and Empress made their tour through the new possession. The state carriages had to be left at Sallanches when the sovereigns went up to the great ball offered them at Chamouni, the road not permitting their passage, and when they returned the little mountain carriages which brought them down halted under the windows of the auberge where I was living, to wait for the state carriages to come across the river. They had to wait about half an hour, and as they walked up and down in the road under my window, beside which stood my loaded rifle, I thought how easily I might change the course of European politics, for I could have hit any button on the Emperor’s clothes, and I hated him enough to have killed him cheerfully as an enemy of mankind, but regicide has always seemed to me a great mistake, as it would have been in that case, for it would only have placed the young Prince Imperial on the throne under the regency of the Empress. I was then a radical republican, with all the sympathies of a Parisian Red ; for I had not learned that it is not the form of the government, but the character of the governed, that makes the difference between governments.
I did not spare the life of the Emperor from any apprehension of consequences to myself, for I had none. I knew the paths up the mountain at the back of the hotel, and before the confusion should have been overcome and a pursuit organized I could have been beyond danger on my way to the Swiss frontier, for the pine woods came to the back door of the hotel, and, more than this, I never had the habit of thinking of the consequences of what I proposed to do. When I returned to Paris, after the autumn had passed, I told the story to an artist friend, an ultra radical, how I stood at my window with a loaded rifle by my side and the Emperor twenty feet below, and he leaped and shouted with fury, “ And you did n’t kill him ? ” Time and fate punished him more fitly than I should have done, and these things are best left to time and fate.
I remained in Paris all that winter and took a studio with an American friend, Mr. Yewell, but I could do no work ; the headache never left me, and though I could draw a little, my vision failed when it was strained, and I seemed to have lost my color sense. I was desperate, and when Garibaldi set out on the Marsala expedition I was just on the point of sailing to join him, when I received a letter from the father of my fiancée telling me that her perplexities and distress of mind about our marriage had so increased that they feared for her reason if her doubts were not ended. I took the next steamer, and ended the vacillation by insisting on being married at once. Nothing but a morbid selfdepreciation had prevented her from coming to a decision in that sense long before, and my principal reason for going to Europe was to allow her to decide freely, but it seemed that there was no other solution than to assume command and impose my will. We were married two days after my landing, and returned to Paris a few days later. When the spring opened we went down into Normandy, and there, returning to the study of nature, and living in quiet and freedom from anxiety, I slowly recovered my vision and began to recover in a measure the power of drawing. The landscape of the quiet French country suited me perfectly, and I made two or three good studies, but without getting into a really efficient condition for painting, which in fact I only did a year or two later in Rome.
Our winter in Paris had been greatly brightened by the acquaintance of the Brownings, the father and sister of the poet. We lived in the same section of Paris, near the Hôtel des Invalides, and much of our time was passed with them. “ Old Mr. Browning,” we have always called him, though the qualification of “ old,” by which we distinguished him from his son Robert, seemed a misnomer, for he had the perpetual juvenility of a blessed child. If to live in the world as if not of it indicates a saintly nature, then Robert Browning, the elder, was a saint, a serene, untroubled soul, conscious of no moral or theological problem to disturb his serenity, gentle as a gentle woman, a man in whom it seemed to me no moral conflict could ever have arisen to cloud his frank acceptance of life as it came to him. He had, many years before we knew him, inherited an estate in Jamaica, but on learning that to work it to profit he must become a slaveowner, he renounced the heritage. And, knowing him as we knew him, it was easy to see that he would renounce it cheerfully and without any hesitation. A man of a rougher and more energetic type might have tried the experiment, or questioned his own decision, at least have regretted his own integrity, but he could have done neither. The way was clear, and the decision must have been as quick as that of a child to reject a thing it abhorred. His unworldliness had not a flaw. So beautiful a life could never have become distinguished in the struggles and antagonisms which make the career of the man of the world or even the man of letters, as letters are now written, for he was one, and the only man I ever knew, of whom it could be said that he applied in the divine sense the maxim of Christ, “ resist not evil,” — he simply, and by the necessity of his own nature, ignored it.
He had a curious facility in drawing heads of quaint and always varied character, which character was not intentional on his part. They were always in profile, and he began at one extremity and ran his pencil round to the other, always bringing out a distinct individuality as unforeseen by him as by us, and he named the head when it was done according to the type it offered, generally in character, with a trace of caricature. For the most part his subjects were from the courts of law, a judge or a puzzled juror, a disappointed or a triumphant client, etc. He would draw a dozen or twenty in an evening, all different, and he was as much amused as we were when the drawing turned out more than usually funny. His chief amusement was hunting through the bookstalls along the quays, and I have among my old books an early life of Raphael which he gave me, with his name on the fly leaf.
Of Miss Browning, who still lives, I will not speak, but what she told me of the poet’s mother may, I think, be repeated without indiscretion. She had the extraordinary power over animals of which we hear sometimes, but of which I have never known a case so perfect as hers. She would lure the butterflies in the garden to her, and the domestic animals obeyed her as if they reasoned. Somebody had given Robert a pure-blooded bulldog of a rare breed, which tolerated no interference from any person except him or his mother, nor did he permit any familiarity with her on the part of any stranger, so that when a neighbor came in he was not permitted to shake hands with her, for the dog at once showed his teeth. Even her husband was not allowed to take the slightest liberty with her in the dog’s presence, and when Robert was more familiar with her than the dog thought proper, he showed his teeth to him. They one day put him to a severe test, Robert putting his arm around his mother’s neck as they sat side by side at the table. The dog went behind them, and, placing his forefeet up on the chair, lifted Robert’s arm off her shoulder with his nose, giving an intimation that he would not permit any caress of that kind even from him. They had a favorite cat to which the dog had the usual antipathy of dogs, and one day he chased her under a cupboard and kept her there besieged, unable to reach her, and she unable to escape, till Mrs. Browning intervened and gave the dog a lecture, in which she told him of their attachment for the cat, and charged him never to molest her more. If the creature had understood speech he could not have obeyed better, for from that time he was never known to molest the cat, while she, taking her revenge for past tyranny, bore herself most insolently with him, and when she scratched him over the head, he only whimpered and turned away as if to avoid temptation. An injury to one of his feet made an operation necessary, and the family surgeon was called in to perform it, but found the dog so savage that he could not touch the foot or approach him. Mrs. Browning came and talked to him in her way, and the dog submitted at once without a whimper to the painful operation. Mrs. Browning had been long dead when I knew the family. We had planned to go together, the elder Browning, Robert and Mrs. Browning, Miss Browning, my wife and myself, to pass the summer at Fontainebleau, and we were waiting for the Brownings from Florence when the news came of Mrs. Browning’s illness, followed not much later by that of her death. The presence even of a friend was too much after this catastrophe, and we saw little more of the family until years later, when, after many changes of fortune, we met Mr. and Miss Browning again in Italy.
Out of this quiet and happy life I was aroused by the complications of our civil war. An intimate friend living in Paris, the late Colonel W. B. Greene, a graduate of West Point, had applied for the command of a regiment of Massachusetts troops, and offered me a position on his staff. We agreed to go together, but his impatience carried him away, and he sailed without giving me notice. I followed by the next steamer, and leaving my wife with my parents, I went on to Washington and to Greene’s headquarters. I was too late, and I could not pass the medical examination which was then very rigid, for all the North was volunteering. “Go home,” said Greene, “ we have already buried all the men like you. We have not seen the enemy yet, and we have buried six per cent of the regiment. It is no place for you.” I had no choice, — there were eight hundred thousand men enlisted, and further enlistments were countermanded. I tried to get some position with Burnside, who was fitting out an expedition to North Carolina, even as cook, for I could not pass for the rank and file, and Burnside as a friend of my friends in Rhode Island might, I thought, help me. He replied that he had already nine applications for every post of any kind at his disposal. As a last resource I went up into the Adirondacks to raise a company of sharpshooters. My backwoodsmen were all ready to go, but they wanted special rifles and special organization, for they meant to go to “ shoot secesh,” not to be regular infantry. Their ambition was not reconcilable with the plans of the military authorities, so that the company was never formed.
Having exhausted every appliance to open a way into the army, I determined to seek a consular appointment, and through Dr. Nott’s influence with Mr. Seward I obtained my commission as consul at Rome, as I have told in a previous chapter. I went to Cambridge to get information and advice, and at Lowell’s house met Howells for the first time. We could each of us offer condolence for the other’s disappointment, for Howells had asked for the consulate at Dresden, and was appointed to Venice, while I had asked for Venice with intention to write the history of Venetian art. But Rome had always been given to an artist, and though there was no salary, but fees only, it seemed to have been a much-sought-for position, and I accepted. Leaving my wife at home for her confinement, I sailed for England, en route for Italy, just when the capture of Mason and Slidell had thrown the country into a new agitation, for it was foreseen that England would not submit to this disrespect to her flag, though the proceeding was in strict accordance with her own precedents.
I left New York before we had heard of the reception of the news in England, and found the agitation there intense. The consul at Liverpool told me that he could not go into the Exchange because of the insults offered him there, and American merchants were insulted on the street. In London, at the restaurants where I dined, the conversation turned altogether on the incident, and the language was most violent. As I was in the service of the government I waited on Mr. Adams, the Minister, and remained in London until the question was settled, in daily communication with him. He thought that the danger of war was great; that war had not already become inevitable he considered due entirely to the attitude of the Queen, who resisted any measure calculated to precipitate a hostile solution, and had refused her assent to a dispatch demanding the release of the envoys and worded in such peremptory terms that Lincoln could not have hesitated to repel it at any cost. This, in the opinion of Mr. Adams, was what Palmerston, Gladstone, and Lord John Russell wanted, but on the insistence of the Queen the offensive passage was struck out. Mr. Adams did not consider it improbable that even in its modified form the demand of the English ministry might be rejected. As the crisis was still undecided I waited until the solution was definite. The favorable reply came by the next steamer.
To the peace-loving heart of the Queen mainly, and next to the tact and diplomatic ability of Mr. Adams, the world owes that the most disastrous war possible for the civilization of the West was avoided. Put at rest with regard to this danger, I continued my journey and entered into my functions as representative of my government at Rome.
William James Stillman.