Hail and Farewell
WHEN we were living in Chicago there was a brick flat building across the street from us the second story of which was occupied by an Italian family. For the three children of the family there was no other playground than the long wooden platform of a porch that was attached to the rear end of the building; and on this airy stage the two girls and the little boy spent their days in a variety of make-believe. As the street between us was a narrow one, and the windows of our living room gave us a fine view of the lofty porch, we could not but be interested in the children. The mother, too, made an occasional appearance upon the scene; and on summer evenings, when the youngsters had been put to bed, both parents could be seen sitting out the evening together.
During the five years we lived in that locality we did not meet these people as neighbors or have occasion to speak to them. We did not even learn the names of the children whose doings were almost a daily feature of our conversation. We referred to them as the biggest girl, the little boy, and the other one. Our long observation of them through the window was like a continued story of which they were the mere illustrations — a study of the human family under glass. By a knowledge that gradually filtered across the chasm between us my wife discovered that they were people of refinement and good breeding. They were ‘nice people’ — a mere abstract observation upon our part. In Chicago one hardly takes more than a casual interest in the occupants of the same building; still less would one expect to bridge a gap in nature as wide as this.
When we were leaving Chicago there was little to do in the way of leavetaking so far as the immediate neighborhood was concerned. It was simply a matter of ordering the moving van to come round.
When, however, the van was backed up to the curb, and the last picture of all had been piled on top of the load, I saw the mother of the children coming across the street. Tears shone in her eyes as my wife advanced to meet her. And then, what was my surprise to see these two women clasped in each other’s arms! My wife was telling Mrs. Arado what beautiful, well-behaved children she had, and Mrs. Arado was telling my wife how much she would miss us when we were gone. Then Mrs. Arado kissed my wife repeatedly and my wife kissed Mrs. Arado. It was the first time they had spoken to one another; and now they were to part.
This was twenty-two years ago, but I have not forgotten. The children continue to play on the lofty porch; the father comes home in the evening; and the mother still sings her youngest child to sleep with ditties of no tone.
In Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Goethe relates the peculiar circumstances under which Wilhelm once met the beautiful and beloved Natalia. They were wandering with separate parties through the mountains when they came face to face across a chasm, the path of each having ended on a high promontory. And there they stood looking at one another — so near and yet so far.
At last I gained the topmost summit; a cliff, the peak of which afforded room for only a single person; who, if he looked down from it into the horrid depth, might see furious mountain torrents foaming through black abysses. In the present case I looked down without giddiness or terror, for I was light of heart: but now my attention fixed itself upon some huge crags rising opposite me, precipitous, like my own, yet offering on their summits a larger space of level. Though parted by a monstrous chasm, the jutting masses came so near together that I could distinctly enough, with the naked eye, observe several persons assembled on the summit. They were for the most part ladies: one of whom, coming forward to the very verge, awakened in me double and treble anxiety, as I became completely convinced that it was Natalia herself. . . . And as I was trampling round my narrow station, struggling towards her the more, the abyss was like to swallow me, had not a helpful hand laid hold of mine and snatched me at once from danger and my fairest happiness.
What Goethe may mean to imply in an allegorical way I shall not attempt to put in words; but the plain fact of the matter is that it is very much like living in Chicago. It is, in truth, very much like human communications everywhere.
On another occasion in Chicago I formed a friendship which might be described as quite illustrative. It began wordlessly, in a guarded silence, suddenly flowered into words, and was soon followed by the rites of leavetaking. My trade being that of an engraver, I was taken on by the largest publishing and printing house in Chicago at a time when they were doing away with their old force in the art department and making a clean sweep of men and methods. After the new superintendent I was the first man to be employed; and I soon found myself sitting at the right hand of this man, who was introduced to me as Mr. Williams. While he was an artist he was my fellow workman; and at the same time he was my foreman. I did not know then that this was True Williams, who was Mark Twain’s first illustrator. He was the T. W. whose signature, the one letter superimposed upon the other, is to be seen on the lively illustrations of Roughing It.
For a week or more few words passed between us. I could feel that I was under scrutiny. Mr. Williams was a well-built, well-dressed, close-knit man with a leonine head and a certain taciturn and masculine dignity. If you did not know he was an artist you might put him down as one of the city’s eminent poker players. And possibly, too, as a man who would carry his drink well. He spoke to me each day just as much as was necessary. But he was quite friendly and even jovial with a boy who worked about the place and sometimes did errands for him; and as time passed I could sec more plainly that I was being held off. Mr. Williams was a man — possibly for good reasons — who had no great faith in engravers.
Before long, however, circumstances arose which entirely upset this careful balance of things. He had been working on a picture entitled ‘The Phantom Horseman,’which was to be reproduced in half tone and printed on the paper cover of a novel. The scene was a desolate moor; and through the wraithlike figure of the horse could be seen glimpses of the scenery, especially a wooded horizon or a line of low trees following a stream.
When a proof of the plate was sent down to the business department on the ground floor, it came back with suggestions and criticism. The manager in the business department said that the line of trees and other things did not look right, showing through the horse. All this would have to be changed.
True, contemplating this sort of art criticism, pushed back his chair and began to express himself. Who ever heard of a ghost that was not transparent? What kind of spirit was it that you could not see through? What kind of confounded . . . ! When he had said a few things not complimentary to business art critics, he turned to me and asked me what I thought. I told him that in my opinion a ghost was more or less diaphanous. If it were not rather insubstantial and thin in nature it would not be a phantom. His mood was mollified by this agreeable comment of mine; and after saying some more about the business manager he turned to his drawing board and set to work to make the required alterations. The proof bore the exasperating remark, ‘Hurry!’
I picked up the discarded plate and set to work to see whether I could not make it satisfactory by means of a little tool work. True had no confidence in this scheme. The average fine half tone, such as this, has 150 dots to the linear inch — that is, 22,500 dots to the square inch. He did not think it possible to run a tool along the lines between these dots and cut them down to different printing values without showing streaks and tool marks in the half-tone texture and leaving a botchy place in the picture. This, however, was my trade, and there was no miracle about such a job, mechanically, provided I could produce the right artistic effect.
In no more than twenty to twentyfive minutes I had reduced the strength of the distant scene without taking it wholly out. A proof of this was pulled and sent downstairs; and very soon it came back with the pleasing comment, ‘O.K.’
True was plainly impressed. After working awhile in removing the old drawing from his board, he swung around in his chair facing me. And very deliberately he said, ‘Mr. Stewart, I per-ceive that you know your business.’
After that we became friends. His calling me ‘Mister’ was not the least of his artistic compliment, for I was in my twenties and he was an old-timer at the business. The atmosphere between us warmed up and became quite genial.
We were not destined to work long together. In a week or so another piece of art criticism came up from the business office. Everybody likes to meddle with art. New managers especially like to exercise a little brief authority. True was at the end of his patience — he was not a very meek and mild sort of artist anyway. He packed up his belongings preparatory to quitting; he was going to go down and express some more of his opinion to the heavy gentleman in the swivel chair. I packed up my tools and want along. The business office expressed surprise that I too was going to quit; but I said that my mind was made up. The tail might as well go with the hide.
Being now on the street and about to go our separate ways, it was apparent to True that we ought to go and ‘have something.’ A friendship thus happily begun was deserving of something more than a mere sidewalk parting. We therefore bent our course toward a near-by Hannah and Hogg’s. This was a place especially equipped for saying farewell. There was a man there who was an adept in his craft; and he knew how to fix up a leavetaking with all its crants and strewments.
Hannah and Hogg’s places, of which there were several, were something more than mere saloons. Standing on the sidewalk in front of each of them, like a soldier at the doorway of a recruiting office, was a stone statue of some Scottish worthy — Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, the Ettrick Shepherd, and so on. These were no mere wooden hatchet work such as might serve for a cigar store; they were statues cut to the life. To those who were familiar with their writings, and who intended to drink in a like vein, they looked quite friendly and familiar. To those who did not know them, those stony eyeballs naturally extended the stony stare.
The saloon nearest us, and to which we first turned our attention, was the Sir Walter Scott place, just around the corner from where we were standing. This was in the financial and railwayoffice district; and the great Sir Walter stood at the door flanked by a gorgeous display of tropical fruits which was a distinctive feature of the place. There was a great sloping bank of beautiful specimens — oranges, tangerines, plantains, and pineapples — running up a third of the height of the window and fairly stopping you with their power of color. Many a woman, not knowing Sir Walter by sight and being unaware what his image portended, has gone in to find the fruit merchant and suddenly come out again. The fruit was intended for general passenger agents, members of the ’Change, and other thoughtful husbands who were on their way home. True and I started out for this place, but he stopped on the threshold and had a change of mind. The business manager, having so much to do with railway printing, frequently came in here with customers; and his presence would not be congenial to us. Therefore we would go over to the Robert Burns place — a choice that was quite agreeable to me. We had had enough of business managers.
This sentiment wafted us over to Madison Street and in at the doorway presided over by the divine ploughman. This was the home of poetry and art. Over the long bar was a series of stained-glass pictures illumined from behind, and projecting their beauty at you with all the rich effulgence of cathedral windows. The subject that they handled was Tam o’ Shanter’s ride. Here in one picture was the ruined church wherein the Scottish ghosts — murderers, witches, warlocks and hellions all — were dancing their midnight reels in the light of mystic fire, while a person no less than the Devil himself encouraged their carryings-on. The series showed also how the whole crew of them took after Tam and his mare when Tam, too courageous with Scotch liquor, reined in his horse to look at them, and then went so far as to shout out his approval of a lively jig. When instantly all was dark! ‘Out the hellish legion sallied’ — and the race was on. The artist, in my opinion, had a fine conception of the bone and sinew of the good gray mare. He had depicted her passing the keystone of the bridge and on to safety just at the moment when Nannie, the liveliest and swiftest ghost of them all, gets her by the tail and pulls out hair by the handful.
But what impressed us most of all was scene number one, wherein Tam’s wife, a large-boned Scotch woman in clean white cap and gathered-up skirts, sat before the fireplace with a poker in her hand. She was waiting for Tam to come home — and thinking. Viewing this in our capacity as art critics, and not simply as men, we were both of the opinion that it was good work. It was simply and strongly conceived, and the execution was masterful. Her knees, on which her elbows rested, were wide apart; and her apron, spread from knee to knee in an inverted arch, gave strong lines to the composition. And it was a strong, bare forearm that had hold of the poker.
In this saloon, frankly moral, there were no tables to induce you to tarry, and there were no pictures of libidinous ladies on the wall. Only Tam’s wife was there, up above your head, and tilted at such an angle that you must needs look at her while you were draining your glass. It was a veritable drinking shrine, a sort of Devil’s cathedral, resplendent in mahogany and brass, and with an elaborate altarlike bar whose cups and glasses were meticulously clean.
I do not know what has become of those pictures of Tam and his wife, and those fires, earthly and unearthly, that shone with so real a light; but I should think that they would be getting them ready at this moment to be installed in the new building of the Chicago Historical Society. And I should be pleased to see them, properly lit up, at the forthcoming world’s fair.
It was at this place, and to the tune of such considerations, that I said good-bye to True. It was not a formal farewell; but men who go in different directions in Chicago naturally feel that their next meeting may be a long way off. After that it did not seem any time at all, though it was several years, when I picked up the morning paper to read that True Williams was dead. He had passed away in his ‘bachelor apartments’ somewhere among those old brownstone mansions on the lake front.
The next I heard of True was when Mark Twain made a speech about him before the Lambs Club in New York. It was an entertaining story recounting the difficulties and delays that Mark had to contend with in getting out his first book, all owing to the fact that True was seldom sober enough to sit up and draw. As I had worked beside him long enough to become acquainted with his ability to talk back, I could not help thinking as I read the speech that True was the dead lion of the situation. When I knew him it was about twentyone years since he had made the T.W. illustrations.
Of all the farewells I have ever seen or heard, the most unforgettable was one addressed to a man who was just about to step aboard a ship.
It used to be my custom, on occasional Sunday afternoons, to take a stroll through Chicago’s picturesque and somewhat disreputable-looking water front, a vast, sprawling, cluttered-up hell’s acreage of made land where boats unloaded, and lumberyards found room to sun themselves, and old ships were left to rot. The present-day visitor to Chicago, whirling along the outer drive and being entertained with that magic seascape of long islands and lagoons, would hardly suspect that it was all the work of yesterday. To the Chicagoan of fifteen or twenty years ago, when such things were not, it seems impossible — a vision called up from the vasty deep. That most able creature, the suction dredge, can now squirt forth islands and lay down landscapes as with an air brush; it will put scenic features on the map just as they are wanted. What they wanted in Chicago, and got, was ‘the most beautiful water front in America.’
Rut the old water front, growing and spreading about the mouth of the river, had its own deeper joys, not the least of which was the smell of pine resin from the lumber piles steeping in the sun, the drunken sailors sleeping in the shaded aisles, and the pensive atmosphere of the marine ‘ bone yard ’ where lifeless ships, great wooden ghosts with grimy masts and rusty bolts, stood unemployed, with not even a grave to go to. There was romance there.
Also there were crime and trickery and sin, and this was represented by a craft known as the bumboat. This vessel, from whose graceful old hull the masts had been entirely removed, lay in a slip with no part of her body in contact with the wharf, and a gangplank so slung that, while you could come and go on it, no part of it came in actual contact with the shore. This was a technical point. The bumboat, so lying, was on the high seas and not in Chicago at all; and in that case the owner could run a saloon in Chicago with a federal license, paying no attention to the monetary demands of the big city. The policeman’s jurisdiction did not extend aboard the bumboat, his power being broken by the few inches of vacant space between the gangplank and the wharf. Only the bartender, who was captain, conducting the ship on her long, motionless voyage, had power on her deck. Theoretically the bumboat was on a trip to Chicago, a trip that was somehow never consummated, though ‘winning near the goal.’ You could not tell by looking at her whether the bumboat was just about to arrive in Chicago or was just beginning to back out. In plain English, the bumboat was a crafty craft.
On the Sunday that I started to tell about I was standing on the wharf looking in through the open doorway of the deck house at the small bar and the round table whose iron legs were screwed securely to the floor. The captain leaned on his bar and regarded me expectantly, being in need of a passenger; and while I was so standing there came along two men in earnest conversation. One was bound and determined to spend his Sunday on the bumboat; the other was very anxious that he should not.
The latter, a big blond with a Swedish accent, had his companion grasped firmly by the upper arm and seemed to have some sense of proprietorship or responsibility, evidently that of a brother. Further conversation made it plain that the brotherhood was that of a Christian only, and the responsible one wished the other to go back with him to the Pacific Mission. He spoke of a time when the other had been ‘saved’; and now he did not want to lose him. The big one was a true fisher of men, and he clung firmly to that precious property, a human soul. He made it plain, in terms best known to a sailor, that his companion was about to start a voyage to Hell, while he was offering him a berth on a better ship.
Finally the recalcitrant one broke loose with a drunken lunge and put his foot across the vacant space. As he made his way down the gangplank and took a seat at the round, iron-legged table, the big blue-eyed one stood gazing at him with a look of infinite compassion. Then the Christian turned and went his own way, saying as he left,
‘ Good-bye, Tom. I am going to stick to the Gospel ship. I ban for Yeesus.’
I have not tried to convey all those seafaring allusions or to elaborate on whatever it was that affected me; but I went away feeling that I had seen Charon himself bring up his boat and take a human soul away with him to Hell.