Our entertaining icon Melville decodes ambition, true genius, fame, and the living of life.
⁓The Voice before the Void
So my poem is damned, and immortal fame is not for me! I am nobody forever and ever. Intolerable fate!
Snatching my hat, I dashed down the criticism, and rushed out into Broadway, where enthusiastic throngs were crowding to a circus in a side-street near by, very recently started, and famous for a capital clown.
Presently my old friend Standard rather boisterously accosted me.
“Well met, Helmstone, my boy! Ah! what’s the matter? Haven’t been committing murder? Ain’t flying justice? You look wild!”
“You have seen it then?” said I, of course referring to the criticism.
“Oh yes; I was there at the morning performance. Great clown, I assure you. But here comes Hautboy. Hautboy—Helmstone.”
Without having time or inclination to resent so mortifying a mistake, I was instantly soothed as I gazed on the face of the new acquaintance so unceremoniously introduced. His person was short and full, with a juvenile, animated cast to it. His complexion rurally ruddy; his eye sincere, cheery, and gray. His hair alone betrayed that he was not an overgrown boy. From his hair I set him down as forty or more.
“Come, Standard,” he gleefully cried to my friend, “are you not going to the circus? The clown is inimitable, they say. Come; Mr. Helmstone, too—come both; and circus over, we’ll take a nice stew and punch at Taylor’s.”
The sterling content, good humor, and extraordinary ruddy, sincere expression of this most singular new acquaintance acted upon me like magic. It seemed mere loyalty to human nature to accept an invitation from so unmistakably kind and honest a heart.
During the circus performance I kept my eye more on Hautboy than on the celebrated clown. Hautboy was the sight for me. Such genuine enjoyment as his struck me to the soul with a sense of the reality of the thing called happiness. The jokes of the clown he seemed to roll under his tongue as ripe magnum bonums. Now the foot, now the hand, was employed to attest his grateful applause. At any hit more than ordinary, he turned upon Standard and me to see if his rare pleasure was shared. In a man of forty I saw a boy of twelve; and this too without the slightest abatement of my respect. Because all was so honest and natural, every expression and attitude so graceful with genuine good-nature, that the marvelous juvenility of Hautboy assumed a sort of divine and immortal air, like that of some forever youthful god of Greece.
But much as I gazed upon Hautboy, and as much as I admired his air, yet that desperate mood in which I had first rushed from the house had not so entirely departed as not to molest me with momentary returns. But from these relapses I would rouse myself, and swiftly glance round the broad amphitheatre of eagerly interested and all-applauding human faces. Hark! claps, thumps, deafening huzzas; the vast assembly seemed frantic, with acclamation; and what, mused I, has caused all this? Why, the clown only comically grinned with one of his extra grins.
Then I repeated in my mind that sublime passage in my poem, in which Cleothemes the Argive vindicates the justice of the war. Aye, aye, thought I to myself, did I now leap into the ring there, and repeat that identical passage, nay, enact the whole tragic poem before them, would they applaud the poet as they applaud the clown? No! They would hoot me, and call me doting or mad. Then what does this prove? Your infatuation or their insensibility? Perhaps both; but indubitably the first. But why wail? Do you seek admiration from the admirers of a buffoon? Call to mind the saying of the Athenian, who when the people vociferously applauded in the forum, asked his friend in a whisper, what foolish thing had he said?
Again my eye swept the circus, and fell on the ruddy radiance of the countenance of Hautboy. But its clear honest cheeriness disdained my disdain. My intolerant pride was rebuked. And yet Hautboy dreamed not what magic reproof to a soul like mine sat on his laughing brow. At the very instant I felt the dart of the censure, his eye twinkled, his hand waved, his voice was lifted in jubilant delight at another joke of the inexhaustible clown.
Circus over, we went to Taylor’s. Among crowds of others, we sat down to our stews and punches at one of the small marble tables. Hautboy sat opposite to me. Though greatly subdued from its former hilarity, his face still shone with gladness. But added to this was a quality not so prominent before: a certain serene expression of leisurely, deep good sense. Good sense and good humor in him joined hands. As the conversation proceeded between the brisk Standard and him—for I said little or nothing—I was more and more struck with the excellent judgment he evinced. In most of his remarks upon a variety of topics Hautboy seemed intuitively to hit the exact line between enthusiasm and apathy. It was plain that while Hautboy saw the world pretty much as it was, yet he did not theoretically espouse its bright side nor its dark side. Rejecting all solutions, he but acknowledged facts. What was sad in the world he did not superficially gainsay; what was glad in it he did not cynically slur; and all which was to him personally enjoyable, he gratefully took to his heart. It was plain, then—so it seemed at that moment, at least—that his extraordinary cheerfulness did not arise either from deficiency of feeling or thought.
Suddenly remembering an engagement, he took up his hat, bowed pleasantly, and left us.
“Well, Helmstone,” said Standard, inaudibly drumming on the slab, “what do you think of your new acquaintance?”
The two last words tingled with a peculiar and novel significance.
“New acquaintance indeed,” echoed I. “Standard, I owe you a thousand thanks for introducing me to one of the most singular men I have ever seen. It needed the optical sight of such a man to believe in the possibility of his existence.”
“You rather like him, then,” said Standard, with ironical dryness.
“I hugely love and admire him, Standard. I wish I were Hautboy.”
“Ah? That’s a pity, now. There’s only one Hautboy in the world.”
This last remark set me to pondering again, and somehow it revived my dark mood.
“His wonderful cheerfulness, I suppose,” said I, sneering with spleen, “originates not less in a felicitous fortune than in a felicitous temper. His great good sense is apparent; but great good sense may exist without sublime endowments. Nay, I take it, in certain cases, that good sense is simply owing to the absence of those. Much more, cheerfulness. Unpossessed of genius, Hautboy is eternally blessed.”
“Ah? You would not think him an extraordinary genius, then?”
“Genius? What! such a short, fat fellow a genius! Genius, like Cassius, is lank.”
“Ah? But could you not fancy that Hautboy might formerly have had genius, but luckily getting rid of it, at last fatted up?”
“For a genius to get rid of his genius is as impossible as for a man in the galloping consumption to get rid of that.”
“Ah? You speak very decidedly.”
“Yes, Standard,” cried I, increasing in spleen, “your cheery Hautboy, after all, is no pattern, no lesson for you and me. With average abilities; opinions clear, because circumscribed; passions docile, because they are feeble; a temper hilarious, because he was born to it—how can your Hautboy be made a reasonable example to a handy fellow like you, or an ambitious dreamer like me? Nothing tempts him beyond common limit; in himself he has nothing to restrain. By constitution he is exempted from all moral harm. Could ambition but prick him; had he but once heard applause, or endured contempt, a very different man would your Hautboy be. Acquiescent and calm from the cradle to the grave, he obviously slides through the crowd.”
“Why do you say Ah to me so strangely whenever I speak?”
“Did you ever hear of Master Betty?”
“The great English prodigy, who long ago ousted the Siddons and the Kembles from Drury Lane, and made the whole town run mad with acclamation?”
“The same,” said Standard, once more inaudibly drumming on the slab.
I looked at him perplexed. He seemed to be holding the master-key of our theme in mysterious reserve; seemed to be throwing out his Master Betty, too, to puzzle me only the more.
“What under heaven can Master Betty, the great genius and prodigy, and English boy twelve years old, have to do with the poor commonplace plodder, Hautboy, an American of forty?”
“Oh, nothing in the least. I don’t imagine that they ever saw each other. Besides, Master Betty must be dead and buried long ere this.”
“Then why cross the ocean, and rifle the grave to drag his remains into this living discussion?”
“Absent-mindedness, I suppose. I humbly beg pardon. Proceed with your observations on Hautboy. You think he never had genius, quite too contented, and happy and fat for that—ah? You think him no pattern for men in general? affording no lesson of value to neglected merit, genius ignored, or impotent presumption rebuked?—all of which three amount to much the same thing. You admire his cheerfulness, while scorning his commonplace soul. Poor Hautboy, how sad that your very cheerfulness should, by a by-blow, bring you despite!”
“I don’t say I scorn him; you are unjust. I simply declare that he is no pattern for me.”
A sudden noise at my side attracted my ear. Turning, I saw Hautboy again, who very blithely reseated himself on the chair he had left.
“I was behind time with my engagement,” said Hautboy, “so thought I would run back and rejoin you. But come, you have sat long enough here. Let us go to my rooms. It is only a five minutes’ walk.”
“If you will promise to fiddle for us, we will,” said Standard.
Fiddle! thought I–he’s a jiggumbob fiddler, then? No wonder genius declines to measure its pace to a fiddler’s bow. My spleen was very strong on me now.
“I will gladly fiddle you your fill,” replied Hautboy to Standard. “Come on.”
In a few minutes we found ourselves in the fifth story of a sort of storehouse, in a lateral street to Broadway. It was curiously furnished with all sorts of odd furniture which seemed to have been obtained, piece by piece, at auctions of old-fashioned household stuff. But all was charmingly clean and cozy.
Pressed by Standard, Hautboy forthwith got out his dented old fiddle and, sitting down on a tall rickety stool, played away right merrily at “Yankee Doodle” and other off-handed, dashing, and disdainfully care-free airs. But common as were the tunes, I was transfixed by something miraculously superior in the style. Sitting there on the old stool, his rusty hat sidways cocked on his head, one foot dangling adrift, he plied the bow of an enchanter. All my moody discontent, every vestige of peevishness, fled. My whole splenetic soul capitulated to the magical fiddle.
“Something of an Orpheus, ah?” said Standard, archly nudging me beneath the left rib.
“And I, the charmed Briun,” murmured I.
The fiddle ceased. Once more, with redoubled curiosity, I gazed upon the easy, indifferent Hautboy. But he entirely baffled inquisition.
When, leaving him, Standard and I were in the street once more, I earnestly conjured him to tell me who, in sober truth, this marvelous Hautboy was.
“Why, haven’t you seen him? And didn’t you yourself lay his whole anatomy open on the marble slab at Taylor’s? What more can you possibly learn? Doubtless, your own masterly insight has already put you in possession of all.”
“You mock me, Standard. There is some mystery here. Tell me, I entreat you, who is Hautboy?”
“An extraordinary genius, Helmstone,” said Standard, with sudden ardor, “who in boyhood drained the whole flagon of glory; whose going from city to city was a going from triumph to triumph. One who has been an object of wonder to the wisest, been caressed by the loveliest, received the open homage of thousands on thousands of the rabble. But to-day he walks Broadway and no man knows him. With you and me, the elbow of the hurrying clerk, and the pole of the remorseless omnibus, shove him. He who has a hundred times been crowned with laurels, now wears, as you see, a bunged beaver. Once fortune poured showers of gold into his lap, as showers of laurel leaves upon his brow. To-day, from house to house he hies, teaching fiddling for a living. Crammed once with fame, he is now hilarious without it. With genius and without fame, he is happier than a king. More a prodigy now than ever.”
“His true name?”
“Let me whisper it in your ear.”
“What! Oh, Standard, myself, as a child, have shouted myself hoarse applauding that very name in the theatre.”
“I have heard your poem was not very handsomely received,” said Standard, now suddenly shifting the subject.
“Not a word of that, for Heaven’s sake!” cried I. “If Cicero, traveling in the East, found sympathetic solace for his grief in beholding the arid overthrow of a once gorgeous city, shall not my petty affair be as nothing, when I behold in Hautboy the vine and the rose climbing the shattered shafts of his tumbled temple of Fame?”
Next day I tore all my manuscripts, bought me a fiddle, and went to take regular lessons of Hautboy.