Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 18
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GROVER CLEVELAND "VIEWED"
I well remember the Governor, as I made my way up into his bedroom, paint-box in hand, and said: "Well, we must make the best of it, and turn this into a studio. May I move the bed a few inches?" "All right,"
and between us we moved the bed.
The Governor was Grover Cleveland, and the State he governed the State of New York. I had long since learnt that New York was not the capital, but that Albany enjoyed that privilege. In Albany I was making a prolonged stay, painting portraits of some very prominent people, amongst others of Mrs. V. L. Pruyn and the Erastus Cornings, who were notably amongst his warmest friends and supporters.
I was enjoying Mrs. Pruyn's hospitality, and in her house I had exceptional opportunities of being initiated into the mysteries of American politics. I was made very much at home, too, in surroundings which bore testimony to the consummate taste and connoisseurs.h.i.+p of my hostess and her late husband. My wishes were not forestalled, or they could never have been so correctly carried out. But, as soon as they were expressed, some magic b.u.t.ton would be touched, and some tutelary genius would appear to take my instructions, or some man or woman I had desired to know would be announced. So I made many pleasant acquaintances, and in due time was introduced to Cleveland.
Election time had come with all its excitement and turmoil. Good citizens wearing most picturesque uniforms were mustering by their thousands, and were drilling as if war were imminent; but it was only the true military step and swing they were practising, that they might creditably march in procession with banners flying and bands playing, and outdo the rival party in their show of enthusiasm. Sober, steady-going individuals were transformed into stump orators and agitators; the contagion spread, quickening pulse and heart-beat, till the whole nation seemed delirious. Enthusiasm begot pa.s.sion, and pa.s.sion frenzy. Then came the crisis. The returns were officially announced; the President was elected, and--one, two, three, as if by the touch of a magic wand, down went the pulse to its normal beat, the excitement suddenly collapsed, and the electors settled down to a well-earned four years' rest. But before that happy consummation, there was much to see and note that was interesting to a stranger like myself.
Amid all the conflicting opinions and clamourings, there was one point the whole nation seemed to agree upon. Everybody was going about, Diogenes-like, seeking for an honest man. When found, he was to be made a President of. To be sure either party claimed to have discovered that one honest man, and thereupon commenced the main work on both sides, that of vilifying the personal character of the opposing candidate. All the dirtiest sediment at the bottom of the blackest inkstand was stirred up, all the devilry stored in the a.r.s.enals of diabolical newspaper offices was brought into action, to prove to the hilt that Mr. Blaine and Mr. Cleveland were the two most dishonest men in the United States.
Under the guise of "plain truths" fanciful untruths were circulated, and the mud raked up was used to make mud pies which were greedily devoured by hungry partisans. There were curious war-cries too on either side, the deep significance of which had to be fully explained to the uninitiated, before he could appreciate their strength. In the Cleveland camp they were constantly burning pieces of paper and shouting: "Burn this letter, dearest Fisher." "Oh! you'd better, better, better burn this letter," or up went the cry in rhythmical measure--
"James Gould Blaine, James Gould Blaine, He's the continental liar from the State of Maine."
Outsiders got a little slap too, where the partisan saw his opportunity, as when one of the Irish banners paraded the sentiment: "We love James Blaine for the English enemies he has made."
I fully shared in the excitement, and wherever two or three thousand people were blocking a s.p.a.ce really only adapted to so many hundred, I helped to make ugly rushes, and took my part in the chorus of yelling and hissing. This was in New York, on the princ.i.p.al day of the election.
A day or two afterwards I had returned to Albany, and was calling on Cleveland with Erastus Corning.
"No," said the future President in answer to Mr. Corning's proposal to start the illuminations and torchlight procession that night, "don't hurry; I know it's all right, but wait for to-morrow's returns." He was, to all outward appearances, the one man least affected by the issue.
The next day the returns came, and the torch and other lights were allowed to blaze. All doubts had been dispelled by a certain telegram from Jay Gould. His enemies swore that that arch-grabber of millions had manipulated the telegraph wires, withholding or forging the returns expected from various parts of the States, and it was generally understood that the earliest opportunity would be taken to burn down his house and to lynch him. That morning a telegram of congratulation from the great financier, happily unlynched, had just been handed to the President-elect; he showed it to us, deliberating whether it should be communicated to the representative of the _New York Herald_, who was anxiously waiting to carry it away. He decided to do so, and then turned to a dear old man who stood beaming in the doorway, with a little boy clinging to his coat-tails, both looking round the big reception-room with eyes of wonder and bewilderment. There were no servants or ushers to introduce visitors; anybody could walk in unannounced, and the old man, who had tramped up with his grandson from a great distance to see the new Democratic President, found his way into the large hall of the capital. Now he was evidently much puzzled to know which in our little group of eight or ten persons was that President. He soon held the right man's hand, and truly touching he was in his allegiance. He had waited for many a weary year, he said, for the advent of the Democratic party, and at last this happy day had dawned upon him and his beloved country.
I made a rapid sketch of him, for he was a type well worth recording; Cleveland liked it, so I naturally gave it him.
All this was in the first days of November 1884. It was not till the following February, when I again visited Albany, that I found myself installed in the bedroom above mentioned. The President-elect was living in a very small house in Willet Street, what we should call a bijou residence. The people had nicknamed it the Casket, if I recollect right, and it was certainly not much bigger than a receptacle of that description.
Cleveland had very kindly consented to let me paint a head of him. An opportunity of doing so was only to be found in the little house, and we entrenched ourselves in the bedroom against the intrusions of office-seekers and office-bearers, enthusiastic supporters, cranks and faddists, and, though last not least, young ladies with alb.u.ms and birthday-books.
"Well, Mr. Cleveland," I said, as I started full speed to cover my canvas, "I'm not going to apologise for troubling you; I'm sure you must be quite pleased to have for once in the way a man come to view you, not to interview you. It must be a relief too, to know that I'm not going to rush off after the sitting, and send telegrams and cables all over the place, to let an expectant public know what you said."
He answered, "I am glad that is so."
Then for a while our conversation ran on art and other peaceful pursuits of man. Seeing a good opening I led up to the question ever uppermost in my mind,--that of international arbitration as against the arbitrament of the sword, and of the inst.i.tution of a permanent tribunal between the United States and England. And here let me say in parenthesis, it is a glorious profession, that of the portrait-painter; he can b.u.t.ton-hole his man and keep him a fixture, whilst he indoctrinates and prods him with truths, from which, under other circ.u.mstances, his victim would seek to escape. Cleveland sat like a brick, and listened sympathetically. Then, he said in a few sharp concise words, that he fully agreed with me, and that he strongly felt it was high time for civilised humanity to abandon the barbarous methods of settling disputes. I told him I was sorely tempted to break my word, and to cable that welcome "message" to my friends in Europe without further delay.
That temptation, however, I was not going to yield to. Finding that, as a member serving on the Executives of various Peace Societies, I was well posted up in matters relating to the subject, he began to question and cross-question me like the lawyer that he is.
I had to give him information concerning the various proposals made in Europe (which continent by the way he had never visited), for the const.i.tution of permanent courts of arbitration, and to explain any views I might personally hold. This more especially in reference to my suggestion, that we might take up arbitration where we left it and link the present to the past; that we might do this by resuscitating the last tribunal that had done good service--at that time it was the Court that adjudicated on the Alabama claims--and declare it permanent, as permanent as all national courts and const.i.tutional parliaments.
He expressed no definite opinion on the merits of the scheme, but was sufficiently interested in it to look at it from all sides. He wanted to know how it was "going to be worked out practically," and I had to particularise the provisions according to which the members of the last tribunal were to be replaced in cases of death or retirement, or new members were to be added, to suit the special case to be adjudicated upon. There was a good deal more said about the Dis-united States of Europe, as compared to the United States of America, but as I was the talker, and he only the questioner, it need not be recorded.
Some weeks afterwards I met Mr. Love, Secretary of the Peace Union in Philadelphia, and learnt from him that the President had requested him to furnish particulars concerning the work of the Peace Societies in America.
Such seeking for information is particularly characteristic of the man.
I can fancy his saying to himself, "What that artist told me I've put in a pigeon-hole. Now I'll just hear what one or two others have to say about it. Later on, I'll decide what's worth keeping."
From that day to this he has certainly been a warm supporter of arbitration. Which is the method he considers best suited to be worked out practically we were only to learn twelve years later, when, under his administration, the Treaty of Arbitration, unfortunately not ratified by the Senate, was signed.
That chapter closed, we turned to more restful subjects than the peace question. Talking of portrait-painting, I chanced to mention that I liked to give my sitters some characteristic name, to keep before my mind as a sort of pa.s.sword, whilst I proceeded with my work. By way of ill.u.s.tration, I told him of a certain young lady I had been commissioned to paint. She was very pretty, had a pair of twitting, soul-tormenting eyes and moisture-sparkling lips. I added, that such arbitrarily coined adjectives, and a good many more that suggested themselves, helped me but little towards the composition of my picture. That only came when I had found my formula; and my young lady, who had all along been waiting for me to name the happy day of the first sitting, was much pleased when I started with the motto, "Don't you wish you may get it?" I painted her peeping out from behind a curtain, holding a lovely red rose in her hand, which, the rose and the hand, you might or might not be destined to get.
Mr. Cleveland listened with that interest which every good sitter is expected to display whilst under treatment, and sympathetically agreed with me that it was wise not to begin a thing till it was finished.
Then he said, "Have you given me a name, too; and if so, what is it?"
Now that was rather a poser, for I _had_ given him a name, and it at once struck me that he might not like it. I admitted as much, and prefacing that he must take one of the two words used in the good sense, I said that I had labelled him "Solid and Stolid"; the "stolid," I explained, meaning that he was a man who wasn't going to move unless he saw good cause why. He seemed to think I wasn't far wrong there. As for the "solid," that needed no apology. Physically, any weighing machine would prove his substantial solidity; and intellectually, even a slight acquaintance with him would show him to be a powerful man.
All this little by-play did not prevent my getting on with my picture; nor was I much disturbed by the business that occasionally claimed the President-elect's attention. He took things with characteristic coolness, and gave his instructions without moving a muscle. Only once he got up, more freely to indulge in his habit of thinking before speaking. He was to decide where he would take up his quarters on his visit to New York; that was a burning question, warmly discussed in the press. Why, I don't quite recollect, but anyway his decision was eagerly awaited by two contending groups of his followers. His Secretary had handed him a telegram, and was waiting for instructions what to answer.
I thought it proper to be unmistakably minding my own business, and became deeply interested in the background of my picture. But I could not help hearing Cleveland's answer:--
"Say the governor has not decided; he seems inclined to select his own hotel." This in a drowsy undertone. Then, turning to me with a sudden outburst of energy he said:--
"They'll have to find it out sooner or later, and the sooner they find it out the better, that I'm not a figure-head to be put in front of a tobacconist's store."
After the second sitting my portrait was finished, and my kind model asked me to stop and take luncheon with him. I accepted with pleasure, and this little _tete-a-tete_ with Cleveland is one of my pleasantest transatlantic recollections. Democratic simplicity ruled supreme. We shared four cutlets and a dish of potatoes, and wound up with some stewed fruit; with that we drank our b.u.mpers of ice water in true American fas.h.i.+on. It was quite a relief to get from Lucullus to Cincinnatus. I had had ample opportunity of appreciating American hospitality, feted and "received" as I had been by my new friends, but now, it was really refres.h.i.+ng to sit down for once in a way to a meal without having constantly to say "No, thank you," to the bearers of dish or bottle, and without being uncomfortably reminded that you were feasting whilst others were starving within easy reach perhaps of your table, laden with all the luxuries that wealth commands.
The servant disappeared, we helped ourselves, and in answer to a question of mine, Cleveland chatted freely about himself and his antecedents.
"I really do not know how it has all come about," he said. "I began in the smallest of ways as clerk in a store; then I got into a law office"
(I think he said at four dollars a week), "and one thing leading up to another, I set up as a lawyer myself. For a while I was Mayor of Buffalo, and then an unexpected opportunity sent me as Governor to Albany. I can hardly tell you why I am President; I was not anxious to be Governor, and not ambitious to be President. When my term is ended, I think, on the whole, that I should like best to be Mayor of Buffalo again."
I answered that I could well understand that desire, as he might not find quite so much left to veto there as in other places. This in allusion to the byname of "the vetoing Mayor of Buffalo" the people had given him on account of his systematic opposition to all extravagant expenditure when Governor of the State. It was said he had saved the taxpayer a million dollars during the first year of his administration.
Then the conversation turned on the responsibilities of statesmen, and I hazarded the remark that they must weigh heavily on them, especially in cases where perhaps the fate of nations depended on their decision. What were Mr. Gladstone's feelings, and how did he sleep, I wondered, after he had signed the paper authorising the bombardment of Alexandria?
"Well," said the President, "I think he would have slept well. When a man has fully and carefully considered all facts and arguments that can help him to a conclusion, and when he has decided to do what he considers right, according to the best of his judgment, there is no reason why he should not sleep as soundly as ever he did before."
Such were the characteristic words meditatively and slowly spoken by the man who was going to be inaugurated, a few days later, in Was.h.i.+ngton, as President of the United States, and who henceforth was to take many a momentous decision, that would affect the weal and woe of millions of his compatriots--decisions, too, so weighty and far-reaching that on them might depend the fate of nations, the peace of the world.
I well remember some great and good men whom it has been my privilege and my good fortune to know, but none do I see so plainly before me as Giuseppe Mazzini. His features, his expression, and his every gesture, all are indelibly engraven on my memory. Is it because thirty-four years ago I painted a portrait of him that hangs here just opposite me, and I reverently look up at it as I am about to speak of him? Or is it not rather that to have known Mazzini means ever to remember him--to hear his voice, to feel his influence, and to recall his outward form?
The portrait was painted in the little studio of my bachelor days, which measured about twenty feet by ten, and had no other appendage but a good-sized cupboard, by courtesy called a bedroom. But it was situated right in the middle of six or eight acres of ground in the heart of London, which for many years went by the name of "Cadogan Gardens," till one day it was "improved" away, and its good name was transferred to a new row of Philistine stone houses. Such as it was in 1862, Mazzini liked it, and would often look in on me and my brother-in-law, Antonin Roche, the only other occupant of those Square gardens.
[Ill.u.s.tration: Portrait of Mazzini]
Roche, who is now of a ripe old age, and is enjoying a well-earned rest, was an old friend of Mazzini. The two took very opposite views in politics, for Roche was a "Legitimiste," warmly attached to the direct line of the Bourbons, and true to their white flag; whilst in the eyes of Mazzini, as we know, all kings were pretty equally black, and no flag acceptable but the white, green, and red one of a united Italy. A long experience had taught him to place no faith in princes, but to centre his hopes in the people, and in the ultimate triumph of Republican inst.i.tutions. So he and Roche had right royal word-fights when they met, and they were not badly matched; for Roche was quite a living encyclopaedia of knowledge, and had the history of mankind, from the days of Adam up to date, at his fingers' ends. And he had every opportunity of keeping his knowledge fresh, for during a period of forty-five years he regularly held his French "cours" on history, literature, and a variety of other subjects, and before he retired he had educated three generations of England's fairest and most aristocratic daughters.
Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 18
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Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 18 summary
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