Genius, and other essays/King—The Frolic and the Gentle

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Genius, and other essays by Edmund Clarence Stedman
King—"The Frolic and the Gentle"

XVII

KING—"THE FROLIC AND THE GENTLE"[1]

FROM the first he had the grace to put me on close terms with him, although we seldom met when he had not just come from a distant region or was departing for some other point as far. In this wise, I could not free myself from the illusion that he was a kind of Martian—a planetary visitor, of a texture differing from that of ordinary Earth-dwellers. It seemed quite natural that he should map out the globe, and bore through it to see of what it was made. Now that he is gone, I am still looking for his casual return.

There was one occasion which I did not share with others of his present celebrants; a period when I had him to myself, and when he began an episode eventful in even his own full life. This was nothing less than that of his initial visit to the Old World. By chance, with a son in his first year out from Yale, I left New York, in the spring of 1882, on the same steamer which numbered on its passenger-roll Clarence King, and another mining-expert, at that time his partner. Of course I had read with admiration, a decade earlier, the Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, and often had wondered why its luminous author had not shone continuously in our literature. I should have wondered the more that I had never met him, had I not seen his name figuring in those society lists that were quite alien to my quiet round of life. But at dinner we were at the same table. He was good enough to make the advance, and to claim a whimsical consanguinity on the score of our Clarentian prenomina. Now, I knew that he was a famous government geodeticist, but had no conception of his temperament. Perhaps he took me with equal seriousness. At all events, he was more on his dignity, or gravity, than I ever afterward saw him. In the starry evening we walked the deck together, and talked of public affairs, books, etc., soon wandering to scientific research and discovery, concerning which I eagerly listened to his theories of matter, vortex rings, the Earth's structure, the chances of a future life. I doubt if there was a laugh between us, and am sure that I never again found him so long in one humor. Nor was there anything in this thorough-bred, travel-dressed, cosmopolitan to suggest that he had not spent repeated seasons upon the hemisphere to which we were bound.

Out on the blue, the next morning, what a transformation! As I have said, it was in fact King's first opportunity to visit Europe, strictly off duty, and with means that seemed to him beyond the dreams of avarice. He broke out into a thousand pranks and paradoxes. Freedom was what we both needed, and my own reserve was at an end the moment I saw him changed from the dignitary to a veritable Prince Florizel with the tray of tarts, offering lollipops right and left. He and his comrade, I was speedily made to know, had "struck it rich" in a mine and were independent for life. His motto for one summer at least was "Vive la bagatelle." His frolic was incessant and contagious. Here was my overnight philosopher with double-eagles in his pocket, one of which he periodically flipped in the air to decide wagers made upon every possible pretext between himself and his decidedly less buoyant colleague. He jested, fabled, sparkled, scorned concealment of his delight. Indeed, I verily believe that I then had the rare fortune, at the beginning of our friendship, first, to learn the resources and conviction of his noble mind, and in a trice to enjoy the ebullition of his mirth and fancy on some of the happiest days of his existence.

He had with him a Gargantuan letter of credit. From a slip in his wallet he took and showed me a single draft for a thousand pounds, a very sacred special fund, which was to be piously expended for some one work of art, his roc's egg, his supreme trophy—in fine, the most beauteous and essential thing he might come upon in this tour. All this as gravely as if he were a Knight of the Grail, or meditating in the end to shift to America the Hotel Cluny or a court of the Alhambra.

Among the many wagers which he forced his staid comrade to accept was one that compelled the loser to take the four of us, young and old, to Epsom on the Derby Day that would occur soon after our arrival in London. King lost this bet, plainly by his own intent. Everything was to come off in the traditional style—that the Scriptures might be fulfilled to the uttermost, as indeed they were. From the White Horse Inn, Piccadilly, a fortnight later, we took the road and shared its carnival, on the finest tallyho obtainable; whip, guard, lackey, hampers and all. Nothing was omitted in the going and coming. It was a brilliant day; our coach rounded to in the center of the field, as in Frith's picture, and there were the gipsy tumblers on the green, the lunchers, the Prince of Wales, the race—with the Duke of Westminster's colors to the fore. Yes, and we saw a welcher mobbed, and everything else was accomplished; and I still cherish a fading tin-type exhibit of our group on the tallyho, lifting our cups, with King as toastmaster.

Our Prince of paradox would not bide another day in London, but sped to France, leaving me a bearer of ill tidings to those who knew he was coming, and whose desire to welcome him taught me that he was an international character. When I overtook him in Paris he was on the eve of going to his longed-for Spain; not, indeed, to tarry even there, but to push right through to Morocco or Algeria, upon the trail of a certain unique shawl, or curtain, or tapestry, which he alone must possess. Of his return to Spain, his social life in France, his conquest of England, his blood-brotherhood with Ferdinand Rothschild, and of the spolia opima brought back to America,—are they not all written in the book of the hearts that held him dear?

Thus have I told how Pantagruel found Panurge, whom he loved all his life thereafter. I do not know whether it was on this ornamental journey that Clarence King's genius led him to the imperishable Helmet of Mambrino, now hung (by proxy) from its arm of wrought iron in the upper chambers of the Century. Whether it was then or afterward that he conceived his epistle to Don Horacio, and therewith imprisoned the very soul of Spain in the flask of his translucent English, the feat was equally enduring. Nothing comparable to the flavor of his style is to be found elsewhere, unless in the fantasy of his fellow-Centurion to whose loiterings in Mexico we owe "San Antonio of the Gardens" and successive companion-pieces. King's speech and writ were iridescent with the imagination of the born romancer. Judge of the statue by the fragment, and think of what was lost to literature by the fact that it was not his vocation, but his accomplishment. Nor was it his lot to escape enrollment with the inheritors of unfulfilled renown by winning, like the most distinguished of his poet friends, a place in history as one of the arbiters of civilization, and one of those who shape the destinies of their own lands. None the less, the by-play of some men has a quality unattained by a host of devotees who make its acquisition the labor of their workaday lives.

Quis desiderio sit pudor! As I humbly stood on one side, that arctic morning when the choice and true followed his remains down the aisle, I knew that deep in the souls of all, however freezing the bitter wind, the memory of King was enshrined forever, and that his Manes would have no cause to make complaint of benefits forgot.

  1. From Clarence King Memoirs. The King Memorial Committee of the Century Association, 1904.