BY HERMAN MELVILLE
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
"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
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 last two 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? 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, an English boy
twelve years old, have to do with the poor
commonplace plodder, Hautboy, an American
"Oh, nothing in the least. I don't imagine
that they ever saw each other. Besides,
Master Betty must be dead and buried long
"Then why cross the ocean, and rifle the
grave to drag his remains into this living
"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
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 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 sideways 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
"Something of an Orpheus, ah?" said
Standard, archly nudging me beneath the
"And I, the charmed Bruin," 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
Next day I tore all my manuscripts, bought
me a fiddle, and went to take regular
lessons of Hautboy.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~