« PreviousContinue »
bounded my view in front seemed to have sunk from before me, and I looked forth on a luxuriant and almost boundless expanse of country. The forest swept down from beneath my feet, and spread out into a vast ocean of foliage, tinted with all the brilliant dyes of autumn, and gilded by a setting sun. Here and there a column of smoke, curling its light blue volumes into the air, rose as a beacon to direct the eye to some infant settlement, as to some haven in this sylvan sea. As my eye ranged over the mellow landscape I could perceive where the country dipped age in into its second terrace, the foliage beyond being more and more blended in the purple mist of sunset; until a glittering line of gold, trembling along the horizon, showed the distant waters of Ontario.'—p. 183.
These longings received early in life a full gratification. There was a consumptive tendency in the family, whether derived from the father's or mother's side, which cut short the lives of some, and rendered others subjects of great anxiety. Washington, at twenty-one, was extremely delicate, and it was judged advisable to send him to Europe, in order to try the effects of a long sea voyage and a milder climate than his own. He was at this time already embarked in life as 'clerk ' to Mr. Hoffman, 'a distinguished advocate ;' but in the young States—such was the happy security of the prospect of business for any one who turned his mind to it, and such the versatility of the community —an interruption of a year or two seems never to have been regarded as a matter of any consequence in a young man's professional or commercial career. His brothers shared the expense between them, the chief burden being borne by William, the eldest, 'the man I most loved on earth,' said Washington in after years. He was in such frail condition when he stepped on the deck of the vessel which was to carry him to Bordeaux, that the captain said to himself, 'There's a chap who will go overboard before we get across.' But every day of his much-loved travel seems to have removed the danger farther. His wanderings, though in the most frequented regions of Europe, were delightfully full of adventure. For an American to make his way through the Imperial dominions at the outbreak of war with England, was a matter of difficulty and some danger. At Nice he was detained five weeks as a suspected spy: once captured by pirates, or privateer's men (the distinction seems shadowy enough); saw Nelson's fleet pass in all its magnificence through the Faro of Messina, and the illuminations for Nelson's deathcrowned victory in London. He visited Sicily, Rome,* Northern Italy,
* It was at Rome that the desire to become a painter took strong bat temporary possession of his mind. To a genuine American, like himself, it does not seem to have occurred as an objection that he had aever tried his hand at art at
all. Italy, Paris, England, and returned to New York in 1806, with his health re-established, and destined to endure, with trifling interruption, the trials of a very long life, but all chance of devotion to a settled every-day life irrevocably gone, and the propensity to a wandering existence radically implanted.
Such a propensity could hardly flourish along with due devotion to the legal profession, to which he now returned in his own country. His letters and journals, become filled with the usual jeremiades of men of his turn of mind over want of success, betraying at the same time something of internal satisfaction that business keeps aloof, and thereby furnishes an excuse for clinging to literary occupation and its accompanying amusements. For Washington had become a contributor to newspapers, even before he first left his country, and now made them a means of livelihood as well as pleasure. Students for admission to the bar had in New York the excellent habit of giving a supper to their examiners, at which the names of successful candidates were read over. Those who officiated at Irving's call boggled a little, conscientiously, when they came to his name. 'Martin,' said one to the other, 'I think he knows a little law.' * Make it stronger, Joe,' was the reply—' damned little': with which compliment he passed. As he was not destined by nature to become a Story or a Kent, we may dismiss his connexion with the law in a few words. The only occasion on which he ever seems to have caught a spark of enthusiasm for the sable profession was when he went to Richmond, in 1807, on what his biographer oddly calls an ' informal retainer from some of Colonel Burr's friends,' the said Colonel being then on his trial for high treason. Aaron Burr was one of those half-dreaming and half-knavish political plotters on a great scale, of whom Continental Europe has produced many, England and America but few; for the special vocation of such men does not thrive well in countries where the game of politics is played above-board. He had schemes for the disruption of the juvenile Union, and for establishing a new federation in the valley of the Mississippi. His mysterious and abrupt manners imposed much on his associates: we remember one who knew him on a visit to England describing him as having the habit, when he entered a room, of feeling the panels of the walls mechanically with his cane, to ascertain whether they were adapted for listeners posted behind. Irving made a hero
all. * I believe it owed its main force to the lovely evening ramble in which I first conceived it, and to the romantic friendship I had formed with Allston (the American artist). Whenever it recurred to my mind, it was always connected with Italian scenery, palaces, and statues, and fountains, and terraced gardens, and Allston as the companion of my studio.'
of of his romantic client, whom the lawyers, between them, contrived to extricate by plunging the court, not unwilling, in a quagmire of technical embarrassments.
Literary life, and the amusements attending it, were his real passion. We must refer the reader to Mr. Pierre Irving's narrative for a detail of 'life in New York,' such as Irving and the 'choice spirits' of the commonwealth found it fifty years ago: rejoicing
'To riot at Dydo's on imperial Champagne,
in company with Allston the artist, Paulding the writer, Longworth the bookseller, 'commonly called the Dusky,' whom it was their delight to circumvent, and Henry Ogden, of whom the following is the only memorial: he had left one of their meetings 'with a brain half bewildered by the number of bumpers he had been compelled to drink. He told Irving the next day that in going home he had fallen through a grating which had been carelessly left open, into a vault beneath. The solitude, he said, was rather dismal at first, but several other of the guests fell in in the course of the evening, and they had on the whole quite a pleasant night of it.' We cannot but conceive the gaiety of those primitive days as rather of a drab-coloured order, and doubt whether the title of 'Lads of Kilkenny,' which the most daring leaders of New York life then gave themselves, would have been recognised as appropriate by its proper owners: but they were sufficient to leave a very pleasant memory in Irving's mind, and often, in times of depression, to provoke comparison with the enjoyments of London 'society,' to which he was afterwards introduced.
Meanwhile he seems to have eked out the little he derived from his parents, and the assistance of his family, chiefly by literary work. He began writing for the newspapers, as we have seen, even before his first visit to Europe. After his return, he soon attained a leading place among the rising literary men of his country, where, however, there was as yet but little encouragement to afford substantial support to such a reputation. 'Salmagundi,' a miscellany in the essayist style, by himself, his brother Peter, and others, appeared in 1807, and was the first work through which he became known in London, where it was reprinted in 1811. Paulding, the editor, allotted the two brothers a hundred dollars apiece as their ultimate share of profits, while he inhumanly (and as Irving believed falsely) boasted that he had himself realised ten or fifteen thousand by it. 'The whirligig of Time brings about its revenges,' and we shall see presently how Irving turned
the the tables on publishers in later days, when his celebrity led them into speculations which the public would not ratify. This finished, he and Peter immediately set about the more celebrated Knickerbocker's History of New York; 'for my pocket,' said Peter, 'calls aloud, and will not brook delay.' It was completed and produced, and at once achieved in America a high popularity; but saddened by the occurrence at the same time of the most melancholy event of Irving's life.
He had formed a strong attachment to a young lady named Matilda Hoffman, the daughter of the ' advocate' in whose office he had commenced his clerkship. Irving's means were slender enough—little but the results of his pen, and a share in the kind of co-operative society which the brothers seem to have established. But his powers were great, his character most amiable; and in that happy region and time Cupid was not much in the habit of allowing Hymen to be embarrassed by chilling suggestions about future prospects. Everything went well with their loves, when they were interrupted by the rapid illness and death of the object of his affections. And his was one of the rarer cases in which such a wound never heals :—
'It is an indication,' says his nephew, ' of the depth of the author's feeling on this subject, that he never alluded to this part of his history, or mentioned the name of Matilda even to his most intimate friends; but after his death, in a repository of which ho always kept the key, a package was found marked outside, "Private Moms.,'' from which ho would seem to have at once unbosomed himself. This memorial was a fragment of sixteen consecutive pages, of which • the beginning and end were missing. ... It carried internal evidence of having been written to a married lady, with whose family ho was on the most intimate terms, and who had wondered at his celibacy, and invited a disclosure of bis early history. With these private memorandums wero found a miniature of great beauty, enclosed in a case, and in it a braid of fair hair, on which was written in his own band, Matilda Hoffman.'
It adds something more to the touching interest of this sad little history, that at the time of Matilda's last illness and death, poor Irving was actually engaged, as we have seen, in finishing and preparing for the press his 'History of New York;' the well-known work of humour on which his reputation in America first rose, and of which the genial, though somewhat wiredrawn, tone of mock-heroic fun must have jarred strangely on the feelings of the broken-hearted man :—
'I brought it to a close,' he says, in the memorial in question, 'as well as I could; and published it; but the time and circumstances in which it was produced rendered me always unable to look upon it ■with satisfaction. Still it took with the public, and gave me celebrity, as an original work was something remarkable and uncommon in America. I was noticed, caressed, and for a time elevated by the popularity I had gained. I found myself uncomfortable in my feelings at New York, and travelled about a little. Wherever I went I was overwhelmed with attentions. I was full of youth and animation, far different from the being I am now, and was quite flushed with this early taste of public favour. Still, however, the career of gaiety and notoriety soon palled upon me; I seemed to drift about without aim or object, at the mercy of every breeze; my heart wanted anchorage. I was naturally susceptible, and tried to form other attachments: but my heart would not hold on: it would continually recur to what it had lost: and whenever there was a pause in the hurry of novelty and excitement, I would sink into dismal dejection. For years I could not talk on the subject of this hopeless regret: I could not even mention her name: but her image was continually before me, and I dreamt of her incessantly.'—Vol. i., p. 129.
According to his biographer,—
'He nover alluded to this event of his life, nor did any of his relatives ever venture in his presence to introduce the name of Matilda. I havo heard of but one instance in which it was ever obtruded upon him; and that was by her father, Mr. Hoffman, nearly thirty years after her death, and at his own house. A grand-daughter hod been requested to play for him some favourite piece on the piano; and in extracting her music from the drawer, hod accidentally brought forth a piece of embroidery with it. "Washington," said Mr. Hoffman, picking up the faded relic, " this is a piece of poor Matilda's workmanship." The effect was electric. He had been conversing in the sprightliest mood before, and he sank at once into utter silence, and in a few minutes got up and left the house. ... It is in the light of this event of Mr. Irving's history, that we must interpret portions of his article on "Rural Funerals " in the "Sketch-Book," and also that solemn passage in "St. Mark's Eve," in "Bracebridge Hall," beginning "I have loved as I never again shall lovo in this world. I have been loved as I never shall be loved." To this sacred recollection also I ascribe this brief record, in a note-book of 1822, kept only for his own eye: " She died in the beauty of her youth, and in my memory she will bo young and beautiful for ever."'—p. 131.
Thus speaks the editor in his first volume: but there is considerable danger incurred in thus publishing biography by instalments. Before the third volume was through the press, a little correspondence has been brought to light which shows that the hero's heart did not remain so absolutely true to its first impression as had been supposed—that, in point of prosaic fact, he did fall in love some fifteen years later with a fair English girl into whose society he had been thrown in Germany, quite seriously enough to be made very uneasy by Miss Emily Foster's friendly,