John James Audubon (Burroughs)/I
JOHN JAMES AUDUBON.
There is a hopeless confusion as to certain important dates in Audubon's life. He was often careless and unreliable in his statements of matters of fact, which weakness during his lifetime often led to his being accused of falsehood. Thus he speaks of the "memorable battle of Valley Forge" and of two brothers of his, both officers in the French army, as having perished in the French Revolution, when he doubtless meant uncles. He had previously stated that his only two brothers died in infancy. He confessed that he had no head for mathematics, and he seems always to have been at sea in regard to his own age. In his letters and journals there are several references to his age, but they rarely agree. The date of his birth usually given, May 4, 1780, is probably three or four years too early, as he speaks of himself as being nearly seventeen when his mother had him confirmed in the Catholic Church, and this was about the time that his father, then an officer in the French navy, was sent to England to effect a change of prisoners, which time is given as 1801.
The two race strains that mingle in him probably account for this illogical habit of mind, as well as for his romantic and artistic temper and tastes.
His father was a sea-faring man and a Frenchman; his mother was a Spanish Creole of Louisiana—the old chivalrous Castilian blood modified by new world conditions. The father, through commercial channels, accumulated a large property in the island of St. Domingo. In the course of his trading he made frequent journeys to Louisiana, then the property of the French government. On one of these trips, probably, he married one of the native women, who is said to have possessed both wealth and beauty. The couple seem to have occupied for a time a plantation belonging to a French Marquis, situated at Mandeville on the North shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Here three sons were born to them, of whom John James La Forest was the third. The daughter seems to have been younger.
His own mother perished in a slave insurrection in St. Domingo, where the family had gone to live on the Audubon estate at Aux Cayes, when her child was but a few months old. Audubon says that his father with his plate and money and himself, attended by a few faithful servants, escaped to New Orleans. What became of his sister he does not say, though she must have escaped with them, since we hear of her existence years later. Not long after, how long we do not know, the father returned to France, where he married a second time, giving the son, as he himself says, the only mother he ever knew. This woman proved a rare exception among step-mothers—but she was too indulgent, and, Audubon says, completely spoiled him, bringing him up to live like a gentleman, ignoring his faults and boasting of his merits, and leading him to believe that fine clothes and a full pocket were the most desirable things in life.
This she was able to do all the more effectively because the father soon left the son in her charge and returned to the United States in the employ of the French government, and before long became attached to the army under La Fayette. This could not have been later than 1781, the year of Cornwallis' surrender, and Audubon would then have been twenty-one, but this does not square with his own statements. After the war the father still served some years in the French navy, but finally retired from active service and lived at La Gérbetière in France, where he died at the age of ninety-five, in 1818.
Audubon says of his mother: "Let no one speak of her as my step-mother. I was ever to her as a son of her own flesh and blood and she was to me a true mother." With her he lived in the city of Nantes, France, where he appears to have gone to school. It was, however, only from his private tutors that he says he got any benefit. His father desired him to follow in his footsteps, and he was educated accordingly, studying drawing, geography, mathematics, fencing, and music. Mathematics he found hard dull work, as have so many men of like temperament, before and since, but music and fencing and geography were more to his liking. He was an ardent, imaginative youth, and chafed under all drudgery and routine. His foster-mother, in the absence of his father, suffered him to do much as he pleased, and he pleased to "play hookey" most of the time, joining boys of his own age and disposition, and deserting the school for the fields and woods, hunting birds' nests, fishing and shooting and returning home at night with his basket filled with various natural specimens and curiosities. The collecting fever is not a bad one to take possession of boys at this age.
In his autobiography Audubon relates an incident that occurred when he was a child, which he thinks first kindled his love for birds. It was an encounter between a pet parrot and a tame monkey kept by his mother. One morning the parrot, Mignonne, asked as usual for her breakfast of bread and milk, whereupon the monkey, being in a bad humour, attacked the poor defenceless bird, and killed it. Audubon screamed at the cruel sight, and implored the servant to interfere and save the bird, but without avail. The boy's piercing screams brought the mother, who succeeded in tranquillising the child. The monkey was chained, and the parrot buried, but the tragedy awakened in him a lasting love for his feathered friends.
Audubon's father seems to have been the first to direct his attention to the study of birds, and to the observance of Nature generally. Through him he learned to notice the beautiful colourings and markings of the birds, to know their haunts, and to observe their change of plumage with the changing seasons; what he learned of their mysterious migrations fired his imagination.
He speaks of this early intimacy with Nature as a feeling which bordered on frenzy. Watching the growth of a bird from the egg he compares to the unfolding of a flower from the bud.
The pain which he felt in seeing the birds die and decay was very acute, but, fortunately, about this time some one showed him a book of illustrations, and henceforth "a new life ran in my veins," he says. To copy Nature was thereafter his one engrossing aim.
That he realised how crude his early efforts were is shown by his saying: "My pencil gave birth to a family of cripples." His steady progress, too, is shown in his custom, on every birthday, of burning these 'Crippled' drawings, then setting to work to make better, truer ones.
His father returning from a sea voyage, probably when the son was about twenty years old, was not well pleased with the progress that the boy was making in his studies. One morning soon after, Audubon found himself with his trunk and his belongings in a private carriage, beside his father, on his way to the city of Rochefort. The father occupied himself with a book and hardly spoke to his son during the several days of the journey, though there was no anger in his face. After they were settled in their new abode, he seated his son beside him and taking one of his hands in his, calmly said: "My beloved boy, thou art now safe. I have brought thee here that I may be able to pay constant attention to thy studies; thou shalt have ample time for pleasures, but the remainder must be employed with industry and care."
But the father soon left him on some foreign mission for his government and the boy chafed as usual under his tasks and confinement. One day, too much mathematics drove him into making his escape by leaping from the window, and making off through the gardens attached to the school where he was confined. A watchful corporal soon overhauled him, however, and brought him back, where he was confined on board some sort of prison ship in the harbour. His father soon returned, when he was released, not without a severe reprimand.
We next find him again in the city of Nantes struggling with more odious mathematics, and spending all his leisure time in the fields and woods, studying the birds. About this time he began a series of drawings of the French birds, which grew to upwards of two hundred, all bad enough, he says, but yet real representations of birds, that gave him a certain pleasure. They satisfied his need of expression.
At about this time, too, though the year we do not know, his father concluded to send him to the United States, apparently to occupy a farm called Mill Grove, which the father had purchased some years before on the Schuylkill river near Philadelphia. In New York he caught the yellow fever: he was carefully nursed by two Quaker-ladies who kept a boarding house in Morristown, New Jersey.
In due time his father's agent, Miers Fisher, also a Quaker, removed him to his own villa near Philadelphia, and here Audubon seems to have remained some months. But the gay and ardent youth did not find the atmosphere of the place congenial. The sober Quaker grey was not to his taste. His host was opposed to music of all kinds, and to dancing, hunting, fishing and nearly all other forms of amusement. More than that, he had a daughter between whom and Audubon he apparently hoped an affection would spring up. But Audubon took an unconquerable dislike to her. Very soon, therefore, he demanded to be put in possession of the estate to which his father had sent him.
Of the month and year in which he entered upon his life at Mill Grove, we are ignorant. We know that he fell into the hands of another Quaker, William Thomas, who was the tenant on the place, but who, with his worthy wife, seems to have made life pleasant for him. He soon became attached to Mill Grove, and led a life there just suited to his temperament.
"Hunting, fishing, drawing, music, occupied my every moment; cares I knew not and cared naught about them. I purchased excellent and beautiful horses, visited all such neighbours as I found congenial spirits, and was as happy as happy could be."
Near him there lived an English family by the name of Bakewell, but he had such a strong antipathy to the English that he postponed returning the call of Mr. Bakewell, who had left his card at Mill Grove during one of Audubon's excursions to the woods. In the late fall or early winter, however, he chanced to meet Mr. Bakewell while out hunting grouse, and was so pleased with him and his well-trained dogs, and his good marksmanship, that he apologised for his discourtesy in not returning his call, and promised to do so forthwith. Not many mornings thereafter he was seated in his neighbour's house.
"Well do I recollect the morning," he says in the autobiographical sketch which he prepared for his sons, "and may it please God that I never forget it, when for the first time I entered Mr. Bakewell's dwelling. It happened that he was absent from home, and I was shown into a parlour where only one young lady was snugly seated at her work by the fire. She rose on my entrance, offered me a seat, assured me of the gratification her father would feel on his return, which, she added, would be in a few moments, as she would despatch a servant for him. Other ruddy cheeks and bright eyes made their transient appearance, but, like spirits gay, soon vanished from my sight; and there I sat, my gaze riveted, as it were, on the young girl before me, who, half working, half talking, essayed to make the time pleasant to me. Oh! may God bless her! It was she, my dear sons, who afterwards became my beloved wife, and your mother. Mr. Bakewell soon made his appearance, and received me with the manner and hospitality of a true English gentleman. The other members of the family were soon introduced to me, and Lucy was told to have luncheon produced. She now rose from her seat a second time, and her form, to which I had paid but partial attention, showed both grace and beauty; and my heart followed every one of her steps. The repast over, dogs and guns were made ready.
"Lucy, I was pleased to believe, looked upon me with some favour, and I turned more especially to her on leaving. I felt that certain ' Je ne sais quoi ' which intimated that, at least, she was not indifferent to me."
The winter that followed was a gay and happy one at Mill Grove; shooting parties, skating parties, house parties with the Bakewell family, were of frequent occurrence. It was during one of these skating excursions upon the Perkiomen in quest of wild ducks, that Audubon had a lucky escape from drowning. He was leading the party down the river in the dusk of the evening, with a white handkerchief tied to a stick, when he came suddenly upon a large air hole into which, in spite of himself, his impetus carried him. Had there not chanced to be another air hole a few yards below, our hero's career would have ended then and there. The current quickly carried him beneath the ice to this other opening where he managed to seize hold of the ice and to crawl out.
His friendship with the Bakewell family deepened. Lucy taught Audubon English, he taught her drawing, and their friendship very naturally ripened into love, which seems to have run its course smoothly.
Audubon was happy. He had ample means, and his time was filled with congenial pursuits. He writes in his journal: "I had no vices, but was thoughtless, pensive, loving, fond of shooting, fishing, and riding, and had a passion for raising all sorts of fowls, which sources of interest and amusement fully occupied my time. It was one of my fancies to be ridiculously fond of dress; to hunt in black satin breeches, wear pumps when shooting, and to dress in the finest ruffled shirts I could obtain from France."
The evidences of vanity regarding his looks and apparel, sometimes found in his journal, are probably traceable to his foster-mother's unwise treatment of him in his youth. We have seen how his father's intervention in the nick of time exercised a salutary influence upon him at this point in his career, directing his attention to the more solid attainments. Whatever traces of this self-consciousness and apparent vanity remained in after life, seem to have been more the result of a naive character delighting in picturesqueness in himself as well as in Nature, than they were of real vanity.
In later years he was assuredly nothing of the dandy; he himself ridicules his youthful fondness for dress, while those who visited him during his last years speak of him as particularly lacking in self-consciousness.
Although he affected the dress of the dandies of his time, he was temperate and abstemious. "I ate no butcher's meat, lived chiefly on fruits, vegetables, and fish, and never drank a glass of spirits or wine until my wedding day" "All this time I was fair and rosy, strong and active as one of my age and sex could be, and as active and agile as a buck."
That he was energetic and handy and by no means the mere dandy that his extravagance in dress might seem to indicate, is evidenced from the fact that about this time he made a journey on foot to New York and accomplished the ninety miles in three days in mid-winter. But he was angry, and anger is better than wine to walk on.
The cause of his wrath was this; a lead mine had been discovered upon the farm of Mill Grove, and Audubon had applied to his father for counsel in regard to it. In response, the elder Audubon had sent over a man by the name of Da Costa who was to act as his son's partner and partial guardian—was to teach him mineralogy and mining engineering, and to look after his finances generally. But the man, Audubon says, knew nothing of the subjects he was supposed to teach, and was, besides, "a covetous wretch, who did all he could to ruin my father, and, indeed, swindled both of us to a large amount." Da Costa pushed his authority so far as to object to Audubon's proposed union with Lucy Bakewell, as being a marriage beneath him, and finally plotted to get the young man off to India. These things very naturally kindled Audubon's quick temper, and he demanded of his tutor and guardian money enough to take him to France to consult with his father. Da Costa gave him a letter of credit on a sort of banker-broker residing in New York. To New York he accordingly went, as above stated, and found that the banker-broker was in the plot to pack him off to India. This disclosure kindled his wrath afresh. He says that had he
had a weapon about him the banker's heart must have received the result of his wrath. His Spanish blood began to declare itself.
Then he sought out a brother of Mr. Bakewell and the uncle of his sweetheart, and of him borrowed the money to take him to France. He took passage on a New Bedford brig bound for Nantes. The captain had recently been married and when the vessel reached the vicinity of New Bedford, he discovered some dangerous leaks which necessitated a week's delay to repair damages. Audubon avers that the captain had caused holes to be bored in the vessel's sides below the water line, to gain an excuse to spend a few more days with his bride.
After a voyage of nineteen days the vessel entered the Loire, and anchored in the lower harbour of Nantes, and Audubon was soon welcomed by his father and fond foster-mother.
His first object was to have the man Da Costa disposed of, which he soon accomplished; the second, to get his father's consent to his marriage with Lucy Bakewell, which was also brought about in due time, although the parents of both agreed that they were "owre young to marry yet."
Audubon now remained two years in France, indulging his taste for hunting, rambling, and drawing birds and other objects of Natural History.
This was probably about the years 1805 and 1806. France was under the sway of Napoleon, and conscriptions were the order of the day. The elder Audubon became uneasy lest his son be drafted into the French army; hence he resolved to send him back to America. In the meantime, he interested one Rozier in the lead mine and had formed a partnership between him and his son, to run for nine years. In due course the two young men sailed for New York, leaving France at a time when thousands would have been glad to have followed their footsteps.
On this voyage their vessel was pursued and overhauled by a British privateer, the Rattlesnake, and nearly all their money and eatables were carried off, besides two of the ship's best sailors. Audubon and Rozier saved their gold by hiding it under a cable in the bow of the ship.
On returning to Mill Grove, Audubon resumed his former habits of life there. We hear no more of the lead mine, but more of his bird studies and drawings, the love of which was fast becoming his ruling passion. "Before I sailed for France, I had begun a series of drawings of the birds of America, and had also begun a study of their habits. I at first drew my subject dead, by which I mean to say that after procuring a specimen, I hung it up, either by the head, wing, or foot, and copied it as closely as I could." Even the hateful Da Costa had praised his bird pictures and had predicted great things for him in this direction. His words had given Audubon a great deal of pleasure.
Mr. William Bakewell, the brother of his Lucy, has given us a glimpse of Audubon and his surroundings at this time. "Audubon took me to his house, where he and his companion, Rozier, resided, with Mrs. Thomas for an attendant. On entering his room, I was astonished and delighted that it was turned into a museum. The walls were festooned with all sorts of birds' eggs, carefully blown out and strung on a thread. The chimney piece was covered with stuffed squirrels, raccoons and opossums; and the shelves around were likewise crowded with specimens, among which were fishes, frogs, snakes, lizards, and other reptiles. Besides these stuffed varieties, many paintings were arrayed upon the walls, chiefly of birds. He had great skill in stuffing and preserving animals of all sorts. He had also a trick of training dogs with great perfection, of which art his famous dog Zephyr was a wonderful example. He was an admirable marksman, an expert swimmer, a clever rider, possessed great activity, prodigious strength, and was notable for the elegance of his figure, and the beauty of his features, and he aided Nature by a careful attendance to his dress. Besides other accomplishments, he was musical, a good fencer, danced well, had some acquaintance with legerdemain tricks, worked in hair, and could plait willow baskets." He adds that Audubon once swam across the Schuylkill with him on his back.