Artemus Ward

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Poor Artemus! says Haweis in his lecture on the American humorist, I shall not see his like again, as he appeared for a few short weeks before an English audience at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly.

Sometimes, as to looks, profoundly dejected, at others shy or reproachful; nervously anxious to please (apparently), yet with a certain twinkle at the back of his eye which convinced you of his perfect sang froid, and one thing always—full, unescapably full, of fun....

When Artemus arrived here in 1866 he was a dying man.

I can see him now, as he came on the narrow platform in front of his inferior panorama, and stole a glance at the densely packed room and then at his panorama.

His tall, gaunt, though slender figure, his curly light hair and large aquiline nose, which always reminded me of a macaw; his thin face flushed with consumption, his little cough, which seemed to shake him to pieces, and which he said "was wearing him out," at which we all laughed irresistibly, and then felt ashamed of ourselves, as well we might; but he himself seemed to enjoy his cough. It was all part of that odd, topsy-turvy mind in which everything appeared most natural upside down!

On first entering he would seem profoundly unconscious that anything was expected of him, but after looking at the audience, then at his own clothes, and then apologetically at his panorama, he began to explain its merits.

The fact is Artemus intended having the finest scenes that could be painted, but he gave that up on account of the expense, and then determined to get the worst as the next best thing for his purpose.

When anything very bad came up he would pause and gaze admiringly at the canvas, and then look round a little reproachfully at the company.

"This picture," he would say, "is a great work of art; it is an oil painting done in petroleum. It is by the Old Masters. It was the last thing they did before dying. They did this, and then they expired. I wish you were nearer to it so you could see it better. I wish I could take it to your residences and let you see it by daylight. Some of the greatest artists in London come here every morning before daylight with lanterns to look at it. They say they never saw anything like it before, and they hope they never shall again!"

Certain curious brown splotches appearing in the foreground, Artemus pointed gravely to them, and said:

"These are intended for horses; I know they are, because the artist told me so. After two years, he came to me one morning and said, 'Mr. Ward, I cannot conceal it from you any longer; they are horses.'"

Apropos of nothing he observed:

"I really don't care for money; I only travel around to show my clothes."

This was a favorite joke of his. He would look with a piteous expression of discomfort and almost misery at his black trousers and swallowtail coat, a costume in which he said he was always most wretched.

"These clothes I have on," he continued, "were a great success in America." And then quite irrelevantly and rather hastily, "How often do large fortunes ruin young men! I should like to be ruined, but I can get on very well as I am!"

So the lecture dribbled on with little fragments of impertinent biography, mere pegs for slender witticisms like this:

"When quite a child I used to draw on wood. I drew a small cartload of raw material over a wooden bridge, the people of the village noticed me, I drew their attention, they said I had a future before me; up to that time I had an idea it was behind me."

Or this:

"I became a man. I have always been mixed up with art. I have an uncle who takes photographs, and I have a servant who takes anything he can set his hands on."

With one more example from his life among the Mormons, which, perhaps, though brief, includes a greater variety of wit and humor than any single passage I could select, I must conclude my memorial glimpses of this incomparable and lamented humorist.

"I regret to say that efforts were made to make a Mormon of me while I was in Utah.

"It was leap year when I was there, and seventeen young widows—the wives of a deceased Mormon (he died by request)—offered me their hearts and hands. I called upon them one day, and taking their soft, white hands in mine—which made eighteen hands altogether—I found them in tears. And I said 'Why is this thus?—what is the reason of this thusness?'

"They hove a sigh—seventeen sighs of different size. They said—

"'Oh, soon thou wilt be gonested away!'

"I told them that when I got ready to leave a place I usually wentested. They said—'Doth not like us?'

"I said, 'I doth, I doth!' I also said, 'I hope your intentions are honorable, as I am a lone child and my parents are far, far away!'

"They then said, 'Wilt not marry us?'

"I said, 'Oh no, it cannot was.'

"Again they asked me to marry them, and again I declined. When they cried—

"'Oh, cruel man: this is too much—oh, too much!'

"I told them it was on account of the muchness that I declined."