THE MAN IN THE HIGH-WATER BOOTS
By F. Hopkinson Smith
Now and then in my various prowlings I have met a man with a personality;
one with mental equipment, heart endowment, self-forgetfulness, and charm—the
kind of charm that makes you glad when he comes and sorry when he goes.
One was a big-chested, straight-backed, clear-eyed, clean-souled sea-dog,
with arms of hickory, fingers of steel, and a brain in instant touch with
a button marked "Experience and Pluck." Another was a devil-may-care,
barefooted Venetian, who wore a Leporello hat canted over one eye and a
scarlet sash about his thin, shapely waist, and whose corn teeth gleamed
and flashed as he twisted his mustache or threw kisses to the pretty
bead-stringers crossing Ponte Lungo. Still a third was a little sawed-off,
freckled-faced, red-headed Irishman, who drove a cab through London fogs
in winter, poled my punt among the lily-pads in summer, and hung
wall-paper between times.
These I knew and loved; even now the cockles of my heart warm up
when I think of them. Others I knew and liked; the difference being
simply one of personality.
This time it is a painter who crosses my path—a mere lad of thirty
two or three, all boy-heart, head, and brush. I had caught a glimpse of
him in New York, when he "blew in" (no other phrase expresses his
movement) where his pictures were being hung, and again in Philadelphia
when some crushed ice and a mixture made it pleasant for everybody, but I
had never examined all four sides of him until last summer.
We were at Dives at the time, lunching in the open courtyard of the inn,
three of us, when the talk drifted toward the young painter, his life at
his old mill near Eure and his successes at the Salon and elsewhere. Our
host, the Sculptor, had come down in his automobile—a long, low,
double-jointed crouching tiger—a forty-devil-power machine, fearing
neither God nor man, and which is bound sooner or later to come to an
untimely end and the scrap heap.
All about, fringing the tea tables and filling the summer air with their
chatter and laughter, were gathered not only the cream, but the very top
skimmings of all the fashion and folly of Trouville—twenty minutes
away, automobile time—their blossoming hats, full-blown parasols,
and pink and white veils adding another flower-bed to the quaint old
With the return of the Man from the Latin Quarter, his other guest, who
knew the ins and outs of the cellar, and who had gone in search of a
certain vintage known only to the initiated (don't forget to ask for it
when you go—it has no label, but the cork is sealed with yellow wax;
M. Ramois, the good landlord, will know the kind—if he thinks you
do), our host, the Sculptor, his mind still on his friend the painter,
looked up and said, as he reached for the corkscrew:
"Why not go to-morrow? The mill is the most picturesque thing you ever saw—an
old Louis XIII house and mill on the River Rille near Beaumont-le-Roger,
once inhabited by the poet Chateaubriand. The river runs underground in
the sands for some distance and comes out a few miles from Knight's—cold
as ice and clear as crystal and packed full of trout. Besides Knight is at
home—had a line from him this morning."
The Man from the Quarter laid down his glass.
"How far is it?" This man is so daft on fishing that he has been known to
kiss the first trout he hooks in the spring.
"Only fifty-six miles, my dear boy—run you over in an hour."
"And everything else that gets in the way," said the Man from the Quarter,
moving his glass nearer the Sculptor's elbow.
"No danger of that—I've got a siren that you can hear for a mile—but
really, it's only a step."
I once slid down a salt mine on a pair of summer pantaloons and brought up
in total darkness (a godsend under the circumstances). I still shudder
when I think of the speed; of the way my hair tried to leave my scalp; of
the peculiar blink in my eyes; of the hours it took to live through forty
seconds; and of my final halt in the middle of a moon-faced,
round-paunched German who was paid a mark for saving the bones and necks
of idiots like myself.
This time the sliding was done in an overcoat (although the summer sun was
blazing), a steamer cap, and a pair of goggles. First there came a shivery
chuggetty-chug, as if the beast was shaking himself loose. Next a noise
like the opening of a bolt in an iron cage, and then the Inn of William
the Conqueror—the village-beach, inlet—wide sea, streamed
behind like a panorama run at high pressure.
The first swoop was along the sea, a whirl into Houlgate, a mad dash
through the village, dogs and chickens running for dear life, and out
again with the deadly rush of a belated wild goose hurrying to a southern
clime. Our host sat beside the chauffeur, who looked like the demon in a
ballet in his goggles and skull-cap. The Man from the Quarter and I
crouched on the rear seats, our eyes on the turn of the road ahead. What
we had left behind, or what might be on either side of us was of no
moment; what would come around that far-distant curve a mile away and a
minute off was what troubled us. The demon and the Sculptor were as cool
as the captain and first mate on the bridge of a liner in a gale; the Man
from the Quarter stared doggedly ahead; I was too scared for scenery and
too proud to ask the Sculptor to slow down, so I thought of my sins and
slowly murmured, "Now I lay me."
When we got to the top of the last hill and had swirled into the straight
broad turnpike leading to Lisieux, the Sculptor spoke in an undertone to
the demon, did something with his foot or hand or teeth—everything
with which he could push, pull, or bite was busy—and the machine, as
if struck by a lash, sprang into space. Trees, fences, little farmhouses,
hay-stacks, canvas-covered wagons, frightened children, dogs, now went by
in blurred outlines; ten miles, thirty miles, then a string of villages,
Liseau among them, the siren shrieking like a lost soul sinking into
"Watch the road to the right," wheezed the Sculptor between his breaths;
"that is where the Egyptian prince was killed—" this over his
shoulder to me—"a tram-car hit him—you can see the hole in the
bank. Made that last mile in sixty-five seconds—running fifty-nine
now—look out for that cross-road—'Wow-wow-oo—wow-wow'"
(siren). "Damn that market cart—'Wow-wow-o-o-wow.'" "Slow up, or
we'll be on top of that donkey—just grazed it. Can't tell what a
donkey will do when a girl's driving it." 'Wow-oo-w-o—.'
Up a long hill now, down into a valley—the road like a piece of
white tape stretching ahead—past school-houses, barns, market
gardens; into dense woods, out on to level plains bare of a tree—one
mad, devilish, brutal rush, with every man's eyes glued to the turn of the
road ahead, which every half minute swerved, straightened, swerved again;
now blocked by trees, now opening out, only to close, twist, and squirm
anew. Great fun this, gambling with death, knowing that from behind any
bush, beyond every hill crest, and around each curve there may spring
something that will make assorted junk of your machine and send you to
"Only one more hill," breathed the Sculptor, wiping the caked dust from
his lips. Woo-oo-wow-o-o (nurse with a baby-carriage this time, running
into the bushes like a frightened rabbit). "See the mill stream—that's
it flashing in the sunlight! See the roof of the mill? That's Aston
Knight's! Down brakes! All out—fifty-six miles in one hour and
twenty-two minutes! Not bad!"
I sprang out—so did the Man from the Quarter—the flash from
the mill stream glistening in the sunlight had set his blood to tingling;
as for myself, no sheltering doorway had ever looked so inviting.
"Marie! Marie! Where's monsieur?" cried out the Sculptor from his
seat beside the demon.
"Up-stairs, I think," answered a stout, gray-haired, rosy-cheeked woman,
wiping her hand and arms on her apron as she spoke. She had started on a
run from the brook's edge behind the house, where she had been washing,
when she heard the shriek of the siren, but the machine had pulled up
before she could reach the door-step.
"He went out early, but I think he's back now. Come in, come in, all of
you. I'm glad to see you—so will he be."
Marie was cook, housemaid, valet, mother, doctor, and any number of things
beside to Knight; just as in the village across the stream where she lived—or
rather slept o' nights—she was billposter, bell-ringer, and town
crier, to say nothing of her being the mother of eleven children, all her
own—Knight being the adopted twelfth.
"The mill might as well be without water as without Marie," said the
Sculptor. "Wait until you taste her baked trout—the chef at the
Voisin is a fool beside her." We had all shaken the dear woman's hand how
and had preceded her into the square hall filled with easels, fresh
canvases, paintings hung on hooks to dry, pots of brushes, rain coats,
sample racks of hats, and the like.
All this time the beast outside was snorting like a race-horse catching
its breath after a run, the demon walking in front of it, examining its
teeth, or mouth, or eyes, or whatever you do examine when you go poking
around in front of it.
Up the narrow stairs, now in single file, and into a bedroom—evidently
Knight's—full of canvases, sketching garb, fishing-rods and reels
lining the walls; and then into another—evidently the guest's room—all
lace covers, cretonne, carved chests, Louis XVI furniture, rare old
portraits, and easy-chairs, the Sculptor opening each closet in turn,
grumbling, "Just like him to try and fool us," but no trace of Knight.
Then the Sculptor threw up a window and thrust out his head, thus bringing
clearer into view a stretch of meadow bordered with clumps of willows
shading the rushing stream below.
"Louis! Louis! Where the devil are you, you brute of a painter?"
There came an halloo—faint—downstream.
"The beggar's at work somewhere in those bushes, and you couldn't get him
out with dynamite until the light changed. Come along!"
There's no telling what an outdoor painter will submit to when an
uncontrollable enthusiasm sweeps him off his feet, so to speak. I myself
barely held my own (and within the year, too) on the top step of a crowded
bridge in Venice in the midst of a cheering mob at a regatta, where I used
the back of my gondolier for an easel, and again, when years ago, I clung
to the platform of an elevated station in an effort to get, between the
legs and bodies of the hurrying mob, the outlines of the spider-web
connecting the two cities. I have watched, too, other painters in equally
uncomfortable positions (that is, out-of-door painters; not steam-heated,
easy-chair fellows, with pencil memoranda or photos to copy from) but it
was the first time in all my varied experiences that I had ever come upon
a painter standing up to his armpits in a swift-flowing mill or any other
kind of stream, the water breaking against his body as a rock breasts a
torrent, and he working away like mad on a 3 x 4 lashed to a huge ladder
high enough to scale the mill's roof.
"Any fish?" yelled the Man from the Quarter.
"Yes, one squirming around my knees now—shipped him a minute ago—foot
slipped. Awful glad to see you—stay where you are till I get this
"Stay where I am!" bellowed the Sculptor. "Do you think I'm St. Peter or
some long-legged crane that—"
"All right—I'm coming."
He had grabbed both sides of the ladder by this time, and with head in the
crotch was sloshing ashore, the water squirting from the tops of
"Shake! Mighty good of you fellows to come all the way down to see me.
Here, you stone-cutter—help me off with these boots. Marie's getting
luncheon. Don't touch that canvas—all this morning's work—got
to work early." (It looked to be a finished picture to me.)
He was flat on the grass now, his legs in the air like an acrobat about to
balance a globe, the water pouring from his wading boots, soaking the rest
of him, all three of us tugging away—I at his head, the Sculptor at
his feet. How Marie ever helped him squirm out of this diving-suit was
more than I could tell.
We had started for the mill now, the Man from the Quarter lugging the
boots, still hoping there might be some truth in the trout story, the
Sculptor with the palette (big as a tea-tray), Knight with the ladder, and
I with the wet canvas.
Again the cry rang out: "Marie! Marie!" and again the old woman
started on a run—for the kitchen this time (she had been listening
for this halloo—he generally came in wringing wet)—reappearing
as we reached the hall door, her apron full of clothes swept from a drying
line stretched before the big, all-embracing fireplace. These she carried
ahead of us upstairs and deposited on the small iron bedstead in the
painter's own room, Knight close behind, his wet socks making Man-Friday
footprints in the middle of each well-scrubbed step. Once there, Knight
dodged into a closet, wriggled himself loose, and was out again with half
of Marie's apronful covering his chest and legs.
It was easy to see where the power of his brush lay. No timid, uncertain,
niggling stroke ever came from that torso or forearm or thigh. He hewed
with a broad axe, not with a chisel, and he hewed true—that was the
joy of it. The men of Meissonier's time, like the old Dutchmen, worked
from their knuckle joints. These new painters, in their new technique—new
to some—old really, as that of Velasquez and Frans Hals—swing
their brushes from their spinal columns down their forearms (Knight's
biceps measure seventeen inches) and out through their finger-tips, with
something of the rhythm and force of an old-time blacksmith welding a
tire. Broad chests, big boilers, strong arms, straight legs, and stiff
backbones have much to do with success in life—more than we give
them credit for. Instead of measuring men's heads, it would be just as
well, once in a while, to slip the tape around their chests and waists.
Steam is what makes the wheels go round, and steam is well-digested fuel
and a place to put it. With this equipment a man can put "GO" into his
business, strength into his literature, virility into his brush; without
it he may succeed in selling spool cotton or bobbins, may write pink poems
for the multitude and cover wooden panels with cardinals and ladies of
high degree; in real satin and life-like lace, but no part of his output
will take a full man's breath away.
Sunshine, flowers, open windows letting in the cool breezes from meadow
and stream; an old beamed ceiling, smoke-browned by countless pipes; walls
covered with sketches of every nook and corner about us; a table for four,
heaped with melons, grapes, cheese, and flanked by ten-pin bottles just
out of the brook; good-fellowship, harmony of ideas, courage of
convictions—with no heads swelled to an unnatural size; four
appetites—enormous, prodigious appetites; Knight for host and Marie
as high chamberlainess, make the feast of Lucullus and the afternoon teas
of Cleopatra but so many quick lunches served in the rush hour of a
downtown restaurant! Not only were the trout-baked-in cream (Marie's
specialty) all that the Sculptor had claimed for them, but the fried
chicken, soufflés—everything, in fact, that the dear woman served—would
have gained a Blue Ribbon had she filled the plate of any committeeman
making the award.
With the coffee and cigars (cigarettes had been smoked with every course—it
was that kind of a feast) the four mouths had a breathing spell.
Up to this time the talk had been a staccato performance between
"Yes—came near smashing a donkey—don't care if I do—no—no
gravy" (Sculptor). "Let me put an extra bubble in your glass" (Knight).
"These fish are as firm as the Adirondack trout" (Man from the Quarter).
"More cream—thank you. Marie!" (Knight, of course) "more butter."
"Donkey wasn't the only thing we missed—grazed a baby carriage and—"
(Scribe). "I'm going to try a red ibis after luncheon and a miller for a
tail fly—pass the melon" (Man from the Quarter): That sort of
hurried talk without logical beginning or ending.
But now each man had a comfortable chair, and filled it with shoulders
hidden deep in its capacious depths, and legs straight out, only the arms
and hands free enough to be within reach of the match-safe and thimble
glasses. And with the ease and comfort of it all the talk itself slowed
down to a pace more in harmony with that peace which passeth all
understanding—unless you've a seat at the table.
The several masters of the outdoor school were now called up, their merits
discussed and their failings hammered: Thaulow, Sorolla y Bastida, the new
Spanish wonder, whose exhibition the month before had astonished and
delighted Paris: the Glasgow school; Zorn, Sargent, Winslow Homer—all
the men of the direct, forceful school, men who swing their brushes from
their spines instead of their finger-tips—were slashed into and made
mincemeat of or extolled to the skies. Then the "patty-pats," with their
little dabs of yellow, blue, and red, in imitation of the master Monet;
the "slick and slimies," and the "woollies"—the men who essayed the
vague, mysterious, and obscure—were set up and knocked down one
after the other, as is the custom with all groups of painters the world
over when the never-ending question of technique is tossed into the middle
of the arena.
Outdoor work next came into review and the discomforts and hardships a
painter must go through to get what he is after, the Man from the Quarter
defending the sit-by-the-fire fellows.
"No use making a submarine diver of yourself, Knight," he growled. "Go and
look at it and then come home and paint the impression and put something
of yourself into it."
Knight threw his head back and laughed. "I'd rather put the brook in—all
"But I don't see why you've got to get soaked to the skin every time you
want to make a sketch."
"The soaking is what helps," replied Knight, reaching for a match. "I like
to feel I'm drink-some of it in. Then, when you're right in the middle of
it you don't put on any airs and try to improve on what's before you and
spoil it with detail. One dimple on a girl's cheek is charming; two—and
you send for the doctor. And she's so simple when you look into her face—I'm
talking of the brook now, not the girl—and it's so easy to put her
down as she is, not the form and color only, but the mood in which
you find her. A brook is worse, really, than your best girl in the
lightning changes she can go through—laughing, crying, coquetting—just
as the mood seizes her. There, for instance, hanging over your head is a
'gray day"'—and he pointed to one of his running-water sketches
tacked to the wall. "I tried to cheer her up a little with touches of warm
tones here and there—all lies—same kind you tell your own
chickabiddy when she's blue—but she wouldn't have it and cried
straight ahead for four hours until the sun came out; but I was through by
that time and waded ashore. You can see for yourselves how unhappy she
was." He spoke as if the sketch was alive—and it was.
"But I always work out of doors that way," he continued. "In winter up in
Holland I sit in furs and wooden shoes, and often have to put alcohol in
my water-cups to keep my colors from freezing. My big picture of 'The
Torrent'—the one in the Toledo Art Gallery—was painted in
January, and out of doors. As for the brushwork, I try to do the best I
can. I used to tickle up things I painted; some of the fellows at Julian's
believed in that, and so did Fleury and Lefebvre to some extent."
"And when did you get over it?" I asked.
"When my father persuaded me to send a bold sketch to the Volney Club,
which I had done to please myself, and which they hung and bought. So I
said to myself: 'Why trim, clean up, and make pretty a picture, when by
simply painting what I love in nature in a free, breezy manner while my
enthusiasm lasts—and it generally lasts until I get through;—sometimes
it spills over to the next day—I please myself and a lot of people
We were all on our feet now examining the sketches—all running-brook
studies—most of them made in that same pair of high-water boots. No
one but the late Fritz Thaulow approaches him in giving the reality of
this most difficult subject for an outdoor painter. The ocean surf repeats
itself in its recurl and swash and by close watching a painter has often a
chance to use his "second barrel," so to speak, but the upturned face of
an unruly brook-is not only million-tinted and endless in its expression,
but so sensitive in its reflections that every passing cloud and patch of
blue above it saddens or cheers it.
"Yes, painting water is enough to drive you mad," burst out Knight, "but I
don't intend to paint anything else—not for years, any way. Hired
the mill so I could paint the water running away from you downhill.
That's going to take a good many years to get hold of, but I'm going to
stick it out. I can't always paint it from the banks, not if I want to
study the middle ripples at my feet, and these are the ones that run out
of your canvas just above your name-plate. Got to stand in it, I
tell you. Then you get the drawing, and the drawing is what counts. Oh, I
love it!" Knight stretched his big arms and legs and sprang from his
"Really, fellows, I don't know anything about it. All I do is to let
myself go. I always feel more than I see, and so my brush
has a devil of a job to keep up. Marie! Marie!"
Had the good woman been a mile down the brook she could have heard him—she
was only in the next room. "Bring in the boots—two pairs this time—we're
going fishing. And, Marie—has the chauffeur had anything to eat?"
"Anything to drink?"
"What! Hand him this," and he grabbed a half-empty bottle from the
I sprang forward and caught it before Marie got her fingers around it.
"Not if I know it!" I cried. "We've got to get back to Dives. When he
lands me inside my garden at the inn he shall have a magnum, but not a
drop till he does."
When the two had gone the Sculptor and I leaned back in our chairs and
lighted fresh cigars. My enthusiasm has not cooled for the sports of my
youth. With a comfortable stool, a well-filled basket, and a long jointed
rod, I, like many another staid old painter, can still get an amazing
amount of enjoyment watching a floating cork, but I didn't propose to
follow those two lunatics. I knew the Man from the Quarter—had known
him from the day of his birth—and knew what he would do and where he
would go (over his head sometimes) for a poor devil of a fish half as long
as his finger, and I had had positive evidence of what the other
web-footed duck thought of ice-cold water. No, I'd take a little sugar in
mine, if you please, and put a drop of—but the Sculptor had already
foreseen and was then forestalling my needs, so we leaned back in our
chairs once more.
Again the talk covered wide reaches.
"Great boy, Knight," broke out the Sculptor in a sudden burst of
enthusiasm over his friend. "You ought to see him handle a crowd when he's
at work. He knows the French people—never gets mad. He bought a calf
for Marie last week, and drove it home himself. Told me it had ten legs,
four heads, and twenty tails before he got it here. Old woman lost hers
and Knight bought her another—he'd bring her a herd if she wanted
it. All the way from the market the boys kept up a running fire of
criticism. When the ringleader came too near, Knight sprang at him with a
yelp like a dog's. The boy was so taken aback that he ran. Then Knight
roared with laughter, and in an instant the whole crowd were his friends—two
of them helped him get the calf out of town. When a French crowd laughs
with you you can do anything with them. He had had more fun bringing home
that calf, he told me, than he'd had for weeks, and he's a wonder at
having a good time."
Then followed—much of which was news to me—an account of the
painter's earlier life and successes.
He was born in Paris, August 3, 1873; his father, Ridgway Knight, the
distinguished painter, and his mother, who was Rebecca Morris Webster,
both being Philadelphians. Not only is he, therefore, of true American
descent, but his eight great-grandparents were Americans, dating back to
Thomas Ridgway, who was born in Delaware in 1713. Thus by both the French
and American laws he is an American citizen.
At fourteen he was sent to Chigwell School in England by his father, to
have "art knocked out of him" by the uncongenial surroundings of the quiet
old school where the great William Penn had been taught to read and write.
He left in 1890, having won the Special Classical Prize, Oxford and
Cambridge certificate Prize, besides prizes for carpentering, gymnasium,
running, and "putting the weight."
At home the boy always drew and painted for pleasure, as well as at school
during the half-holidays. Some water-colors made during a holiday trip in
Brittany in 1890 decided his father to allow him to follow art as a
career. He entered Julian's studio, with Jules Lefebvre and Tony
Robert-Fleury as professors in 1891, and studied from the nude during the
five following winters. His principal work was, however, done in the
country at and around Poissy, under the guidance of his father.
His exhibits in the Paris Salon (artistes Français) were
twenty-four oils and water-colors from 1894 to 1906, obtaining an
honorable mention in 1901 with the "Thames at Whitchurch"; a gold medal,
third class, in 1905, with "The Torrent"; and a gold medal, second class,
in 1906, with his triptych "The Giant Cities" (New York, Paris, London),
which makes him hors concours, with the great distinction of being
the first American landscape painter to get two Salon gold medals in two
consecutive years. He won also a bronze medal in the American section of
the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1900 with a water-color, and a gold
medal of honor at Rheims, Cherbourg, Geneva, and Nantes.
His most important pictures are: "The Torrent," 4 1/2 x 6 feet, owned by
the Toledo Art Gallery; "The Abandoned Mill," 4 1/2 x 6 feet; "The End of
the Island," 6 x 8 feet; "Clisson Castle," 3 x 4 1/2 feet, a water-color;
"After the Storm," 3 x 5 feet; and "Winter in Holland," 3x4 feet.
I had listened to the Sculptor's brief account of his friend's progress
with calm attention, but it had not altered my opinion of the man or his
genius. None of it really interested me except that somebody beside myself
had found out the lad's qualities—for to me he is still a lad. None
of the jury who made the awards ever looked below the paint—that is,
if they were like other juries the world over. They saw the brush-mark, no
doubt, but they missed the breeze that came with it—was its life,
really—a breeze that swept through and out of him, blowing side by
side with genius and good health—a wind of destiny, perhaps, that
will carry him to climes that other men know not of.
But what a refreshing thing, this breeze, to come out of a man, and what a
refreshing kind of a man for it to come out of! No pose, no effort to fill
a No. 8 hat with a No. 7 head; just a simple, conscientious, hard-working
young painter, humble-minded in the presence of his goddess, and full to
overflowing with an uncontrollable spontaneity. This in itself was worth
risking one's neck to see.
Again the cry rang out, "Marie!" and two half-drowned water-rats stepped
in; the Man from the Quarter in his underpinning—his pair of boots
leaked and he had stripped them off—and Knight with his own half
full of water. Both roared with laughter at Marie tugging at the huge
white-rubber boots, the floor she had scrubbed so conscientiously
spattered with sand and water.
Then began the customary recriminations: "Hadn't been for you I wouldn't
have lost him!" "What had I to do with it?" etc., etc.—the same old
story when neither gets a bite.
That night, bumping over the thank-you-marms, flashing through darkened
villages, and scooting in a dead heat along ribboned roads ghostly white
in the starlight, on the way back to my garden—and we did arrive
safely, and the chauffeur had his magnum (that is, his share of it)—I
could not help saying to myself:
"Yes, it's good to be young and bouyant, but it's better to be one's