John James Audubon (Burroughs)/V
As a youth Audubon was an unwilling student of books; as a merchant and mill owner in Kentucky he was an unwilling man of business, but during his whole career, at all times and in all places, he was more than a willing student of ornithology—he was an eager and enthusiastic one. He brought to the pursuit of the birds, and to the study of open air life generally, the keen delight of the sportsman, united to the ardour of the artist moved by beautiful forms.
He was not in the first instance a man of science, like Cuvier, or Agassiz, or Darwin—a man seeking exact knowledge; but he was an artist and a back-woodsman, seeking adventure, seeking the gratification of his tastes, and to put on record his love of the birds. He was the artist of the birds before he was their historian; the writing of their biographies seems to have been only secondary with him.
He had the lively mercurial temperament of the Latin races from which he sprang. He speaks of himself as "warm, irascible, and at times violent."
His perceptive powers, of course, led his reflective. His sharpness and quickness of eye surprised even the Indians. He says: "My observatory nerves never gave way."
His similes and metaphors were largely drawn from the animal world. Thus he says, "I am as dull as a beetle," during his enforced stay in London. While he was showing his drawings to Mr. Rathbone, he says: "I was panting like the wingèd pheasant." At a dinner in some noble house in England he said that the men servants "moved as quietly as killdeers." On another occasion, when the hostess failed to put him at his ease: "There I stood, motionless as a Heron."
With all his courage and buoyancy, Audubon was subject to fits of depression, probably the result largely of his enforced separation from his family. On one occasion in Edinburgh he speaks of these attacks, and refers pathetically to others he had had: "But that was in beloved America, where the ocean did not roll between me and my wife and sons."
Never was a more patriotic American. He loved his adopted country above all other lands in which he had journeyed.
Never was a more devoted husband, and never did wife more richly deserve such devotion than did Mrs. Audubon. He says of her: "She felt the pangs of our misfortune perhaps more heavily than I, but never for an hour lost her courage; her brave and cheerful spirit accepted all, and no reproaches from her beloved lips ever wounded my heart. With her was I not always rich?"
"The waiting time, my brother, is the hardest time of all." While Audubon was waiting for better luck, or for worse, he was always listening to the birds and studying them—storing up the knowledge that he turned to such good account later: but we can almost hear his neighbours and acquaintances calling him an "idle, worthless fellow." Not so his wife; she had even more faith in him than he had in himself.
His was a lovable nature—he won affection and devotion easily, and he loved to be loved; he appreciated the least kindness shown him.
He was always at ease and welcome in the squatter's cabin or in elegantly appointed homes, like that of his friends, the Rathbones, though he does complain of an awkwardness and shyness sometimes when in high places. This, however, seemed to result from the pomp and ceremony found there, and not because of the people themselves.
"Chivalrous, generous, and courteous to his heart's core," says his granddaughter, "he could not believe others less so, till painful experiences taught him; then he was grieved, hurt, but never imbittered; and, more marvellous yet, with his faith in his fellows as strong as ever, again and again he subjected himself to the same treatment."
On one occasion when his pictures were on exhibition in England, some one stole one of his paintings, and a warrant was issued against a deaf mute. "Gladly would I have painted a bird for the poor fellow," said Audubon, "and I certainly did not want him arrested."
He was never, even in his most desperate financial straits, too poor to help others more poor than himself.
He had a great deal of the old-fashioned piety of our fathers, which crops out abundantly in his pages. While he was visiting a Mr. Bently in Manchester, and after retiring to his room for the night, he was surprised by a knock at his door. It appeared that his host in passing thought he heard Audubon call to him to ask for something: "I told him I prayed aloud every night, as had been my habit from a child at my mother's knees in Nantes. He said nothing for a moment, then again wished me good night and was gone."
Audubon belonged to the early history of the country, to the pioneer times, to the South and the West, and was, on the whole, one of the most winsome, interesting, and picturesque characters that have ever appeared in our annals.