IN those old days of my youth an atmosphere of romance gathered from old novels and dreams still sparkled in my head. I am going to tell of the adventures that followed directly on my boyhood, when before the mast I had crossed the seas with eyes athirst for romance, looking for the wonderful, the beautiful in distant lands, in men and in women, and for that opportunity to perform those mighty, world-thrilling deeds that, alas, I have not even yet performed!
After much wandering in search of wealth and fame, following desperate trouble owing to schemes that failed in Australia and the South Sea Islands, I at length caught typhoid fever in San Francisco. With many misgivings I recovered. At last I found myself sitting in a top attic in North America. It was a humble little room, the atmosphere and surroundings the very thing to feed the fire of my aspiring mind, to force one to do better. Its one window-pane was broken; the furniture consisted of an old table, a box chair, a candlestick and my extemporised bed on the floor! I was in Boston, “the Hub of the Universe”! My sea-chest and best suit were in pawn in San Francisco. My money had almost all gone, and my latest grand passion had faded. I had been practising the violin furiously day and night, for I hoped to become the world’s greatest violinist. Yet at heart I still felt triumphant. The world seemed especially mine! One thing only existence lacked—a kindred spirit to stand shoulder to shoulder by my side on some quest for glorious violence, adventurous thrills, voyaging across the uncharted seas of imagination. O too brief, splendid madness of youth!
Far below, outside my window, over the city’s stone-slabbed streets, rattled vehicles, and the hurried, endless battalions of Yankee citizens passed by, seeking fortune or the grave. Gold seemed the incentive to all thrills; human passion, hope and ambition seemed congealed into a mechanical state of steam, electric locomotion, and all that the almighty silver dollars would clink against. I also seemed to have frozen and become a part of the machine which is called civilisation. The songs of sails aloft, the noise of forest winds and soundings across deep waters, had faded from my dreams into a wail of selfishness. Imagination is the soul of the Universe, and grief is its Bible; but, alas, I felt a gross craving for food.
So my ambition to outrival Paganini on the violin had subsided from its state of enthusiastic fire and had left in my heart a dull callousness. One intense wish survived: to get a sound pair of boots and a new suit! Winter snows were only just melting, and much privation had considerably thinned me. I had done many things which I feel remain best untold. Necessity had inspired me with many original and desperate schemes, the latest of which was a determination to compose songs. Music hall hits come, have their day, are whistled and sung by the élite and by the street-arab, and suddenly I thought, why should not I supply the public with those rotten melodies? I would do it on original lines and give the American public something new. Did they not hail as brand-new old melodies that Wellington’s soldiers sung at Waterloo and antiquated strains brought over by the passengers of the Mayflower with one bar reversed and the title altered.
I would jump from my bed at night and, throwing off my “blanket,” which consisted of half-a-dozen old overcoats which my landlady had lent me, write down inspired strains and next day put them to suitable words, words with those sentimental and lascivious suggestions in them that suit the public taste—for the artist in me had sorrowed and become temporarily gross. I sought money more than the applause of musical critics. Boston publishers became familiar with my handwriting. I had about fifty rejected manuscripts with specially printed forms, notices that offered me “their appreciation of my favours, and the editor’s sincere compliments, and by the same post with many regrets they were returning the MSS.” At length I thought my name was getting too well known: I was obliged to seek a nom de plume. With characteristic family cautiousness I hit on a name that was already famous in New York musical circles. My youthful innocence had almost passed, and I vaguely felt that to compete with the world I must deliberately stain myself with its contagion. Often my heart bristled with schemes as multitudinous as quills on a hedgehog’s hide.