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“Because they are Russians and friends of mine,” I would say, as the case might be. “ Well
, there are a great many nice people in this world, let us grant; but life is too short to get to know them all,” Verestchagin would retort. “As to Russians, I have seen enough of them at home not to run out of my way to hunt them up here in America.”
And yet when he came once to know those same people whom he had at first declined to meet, Verestchagin would declare them the best people living, would delight to spend whole days in their company, and secretly regret that he had deprived himself of their acquaintance before.
I say “secretly,” because Verestchagin is by no means fond of owning that he is in the wrong, even in the most insignificant matter. This trait, as well as his well-known incapacity to endure adverse criticism with any equanimity, must certainly be ascribed to an abnormally developed sensitiveness, that terrible drawback to many natures touched by the stamp of genius. Such things as produce scarcely any impression on coarser and obtuser natures jar most painfully on the high-strung nervous organism of a Shelley, a Lytton, a Byron, a Verestchagin, and the pain when conveyed to the brain finds the latter overwrought and incapable of discrimination. Hence, methinks, those heartburnings that cause the most gifted men to take offence and adopt a line of retaliation so out of proportion to the offence as to make genius appear small and pusillanimous in the eyes of outsiders.
For an outsider it would be entirely impossible to appreciate the severe strain to which the nervous system of a man is submitted when his capacities are all bent one way. Often and often Verestchagin has said in my presence, “ It was with my heart's blood that I painted that picture: I have myself lived over all the terrible sufferings that you see portrayed on the canvas.” And as time passed I learned perfectly well that it was by no means a figure of speech with him. I may relate one trifling instance in illustration of what the artist's sensitive soul must have passed through in the course of conceiving and maturing his terrible bloody canvases, where every detail conveyed to his mind reminiscences of misery and suffering actually endured. Once as we were comparing notes of our experiences in Roumania during the war of 1877-78, I happened to mention the case of a young educated woman at the time of the mobilization of the Russian army, a woman who had never known want, yet who remained a whole week in Jassy without money, in terrible uncertainty about her husband, living on dry bread and obliged to pawn her watch to buy milk for her two-year-old child, while her husband, who had met with an accident at the army head-quarters, chose to keep it a secret from her, so as not to alarm her, yet through his very consideration bringing her to the verge of starvation. The young couple in question were reunited within a week, and the hardships which they had endured, severe as they were, left no permanent trace; yet Verestchagin could not restrain the tears mounting to his eyes as he listened to this story, and often referred to it as a most pathetic incident. What then would not be the torments of so sensitive a man when confronted with real misery !
It must be confessed that this very softness of heart often tends to dim Verestchagin's insight into human nature. His first impulse is to trust implicitly in people who please him at first sight, or whose case appeals to his sympathies, perhaps because of their lack of success in life.
In one of his early letters to me Verestchagin wrote, “ In my paintings, as well as in my scribblings, I always endeavor to be as sincere as a child, since otherwise one cannot enter the kingdom of heaven;' that is, the kingdom of the loftier spheres of thought
And very much like a child he is indeed, in the faith which he displays in human possibilities. To me, at least, it was a really pathetic spectacle to observe Verestchagin laying his heart bare for the information, encouragement, and instruction of some person of more or less mediocre talent who to him seemed underrating his capacities while possessed of the sacred fire of the Muses. And
as he went on trying to inspire some despondent man with self-confidence, he would speak most eloquently of his own hard experiences, evidently living over once more the emotions of his eventful past. Then the whole man would seem transformed ; deathly pale, his dark eyes glittering, his nostrils dilated, he would pace up and down the room, stopping to illustrate this or that situation with impassioned gestures.
Now he would tell of his impatience to get at the canvas, while his head felt almost ready to burst with the expansion of images and ideas struggling to assume a tangible shape; then he would relate the delight of the first period of work, when the hand is hardly swift enough to carry out the suggestions of the brain; then, again, of the first pangs of dissatisfaction, when the details are found to have overshadowed the conception as a whole; of the terrible struggle against the temptation to retain some secondary figure that came out highly successful, while still marring the unity of the work ; of the desperate act of childimmolation as he would resolutely daub on layer after layer of paint over some exceptionally beloved creation. And often, when everything seemed at its darkest, a few words of praise, of encouragement, from a kindly-disposed friend, who perchance discovered and pointed out some lurking beauty in the work despaired of, would rekindle hope and infuse new courage in the heart of the creator.
One instance may serve as the artist's way of illustrating the difficulties he encountered in his endeavors to reproduce the truth of nature. In painting Kanchinga, a mountain on the borders of Thibet towering twenty-eight thousand feet above the level of the sea, he had a peculiarly hard experience. Those who have visited the Verestchagin exhibition will not soon forget this imposing canvas, which, as has been well observed, “ for beauty of color, diversity of effects, and strong atmospheric qualities, constitutes a revelation in itself.” And yet how near this same big pearl of the collection came to destruction !
When first completed, the canvas was almost twice its present size (twenty by fifteen feet), and the painter felt so disgusted with it that, after several unsuccessful attempts to improve it, he finally had it rolled up and relegated to a corner of his studio, where it stood fully two
years without his even daring to reawaken painful feelings by looking
Finally, one day he overcame his aversion and unrolled the discarded canvas, and he saw before him in all its grandeur that imposing mountain as he had beheld it some years before, though somewhat dwarfed by the superabundance of accessories. For once the knife stood him in better stead than the brush, and he handled it with such ardor that within a short time he had cut off yards of sky from the top and yards of landscape from the sides, thus reducing it to its present proportions and fully redeeming the condemned painting from the mediocrity that had threatened to ruin it.
Such is the artist Verestchagin, a man as strange and as interesting as his works, and far more many-sided ; in many respects a king among men, yet possessing traits characteristic of the most commonplace. Certainly such a character is worthy of study.
FLOODS AND THEIR CAUSES.
ICTOR JACQUEMONT, in his “Letters from India," tells a
good story of a Brahmin philosopher, who delivered a profound discourse on the “difference between annihilation and disappearance" while a troop of marauding monkeys were making away with the provisions of his tent-wagon.
But Western writers have hardly a right to poke fun at such pundits. For nearly two thousand years the nations of the Caucasian race have been convulsed by fierce disputes about the metaphysical significance of life and death, while the very basis of organic life was disappearing from under their feet. While they butchered each other in the rage of their conflicting theories on the mysteries of an unknown world, the inhabitable portion of their own earth has decreased at the average yearly rate of thirty-five hundred square miles. Even if we confine the data of our estimates to the strictly historical period of our chronological era, there can be no doubt that along the shores of the Mediterranean alone some seven million square miles, once blest with abundant fertility, have been changed into worthless and almost hopeless deserts.
“The richest provinces of the Roman Empire,” says Prof. E. P. Marsh, “in fact, precisely that portion of the terrestrial surface which about the commencement of the Christian era was endowed with the greatest superiority of soil and climate, is now completely exhausted of its fertility. A territory which in by-gone centuries sustained a population scarcely inferior to that of the entire Christian world at the present day has been brought to a desolation almost as complete as that of the moon; . . . and another era of similar devastations would make this earth an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant, and threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even the extinction of the human species."
Africa, Western Asia, and Southern Europe have been wasted by a marasmus which in many regions of the New World, too, is threatening to assume an incurable phase; and that decadence is chiefly due to the devastations of river-floods, caused by the agency of man.
The harmony of nature has perhaps never been wholly undisturbed ; still, there is a deep significance in Laurence Oken's remark, that the evils caused by the spontaneous agency of the elements resemble transient epidemics, while those caused by the hand of man are apt to become chronic disorders. Under normal circumstances, i.e., under the conditions in which our ancestors received the heritage of this earth, riverfloods are about as rare as forest-fires kindled by a stroke of lightning, and are caused mainly by the coincidence of the following unusual contingencies :
1. In early spring, when the first warm rains are followed by a severe frost, the ground is sometimes frozen to a depth of several inches, and subsequent snows may fail to be absorbed by the humidity of the soil. If an unusually heavy snowfall, following such frosts, should in its turn be followed by sudden and violent rain-showers, even denselywooded highland regions may send down a destructive flood, causing inundations like those which, at long intervals, have visited the valley of the Tennessee River and other North American streams fed by the waters of well-wooded mountain-ranges.
2. The rivers of the higher latitudes may overflow their banks in consequence of an ice-gorge. Large streams running from south to north have proved chiefly liable to such floods, owing to a possibly considerable difference in the temperature of their upper and lower valleys. Masses of drift-ice, set afloat by the warm rains of the (southern) headwater regions, may encounter the rigid barrier of a frozen delta and in a few hours cause the river to rise with a rapidity rivalling the consequences of a cloud-burst. The Oder and Vistula in the Old World, and the St. Lawrence on this side of the Atlantic, have thus more than once turned their lower valleys into inland lakes.
3. Phenomenal rainfalls may now and then visit even well-wooded countries with short, but destructive, inundations. The torrents of the rainy season have occasionally raised the waters of the Brahmapootra from an average of thirty to eighty, or even eighty-five, feet; and it is on record that on the 9th of October, 1827, there fell at Joyeuse, in the French Cévennes, between three A.M. and eleven P.M., not less than thirty-one inches of rain.
4. Land-slides have occasionally obstructed the channels of rockbound highland streams, thus forming mountain-lakes which subsequently burst their barriers with most destructive results. In 1595 a disaster almost equalling the horror of the Johnstown flood was caused by the eruption of a lake formed by the fall of a rock-avalanche into the valley of the Drance (Southern Switzerland); and only a timely alarm prevented the repetition of that calamity at almost exactly the same spot in 1818. A glacier, followed by a mountain-load of rockdébris, descended into the valley of the little stream, forming a dam three thousand feet long, six hundred thick, and four hundred high. In a few days the rains of the upper valley swelled the obstructed river into a lake estimated to have contained almost a billion cubic feet of water. Two weeks after, that dam burst; but the inhabitants of the lower valley had fled to the hills, together with their cattle and every portable piece of property, and the loss was chiefly confined to the demolition of a few mountain-hamlets and the drowning of a herd of cows who, with ill-timed obstinacy, had returned to their valleypastures just a few moments before the explosion of the deluge.
5. Similar disasters have now and then been caused by volcanic agencies. In September, 1759, the valley of Sambuco, in the Mexican State of Michoacan, gave birth to a new mountain, which in less than forty-eight hours rose to a height of thirteen hundred and fifty feet and completely obliterated the glens of half a dozen little mountainstreams. Two months later, one of those streams reappeared in an eruption of steaming mud, water, and sand, that spread far and wide over an adjoining plain, till the subsidence of the upheaval gave it a chance to force its way through the accumulated hillocks of volcanic cinders. In 1837 the same earthquake that revived the activity of the volcano of Papandayang on the island of Java caused a land-slide that obstructed the valley of the river Kediri,--so effectually, indeed, that the natives celebrated the funeral rites of the entombed stream. That stream, however, had begun to achieve its own deliverance by filling the crevices of the obstructing rocks with superheated steam, and when the barrier at last gave way the thunder of the descending waters is said to have been heard in the village of Nara Buddor, some forty English miles from the battle-field of the contending elements.
But the affliction of river-floods in their chronic and infinitely more pernicious form is caused almost exclusively by the disappearance of arboreal vegetation, and especially by the destruction of the land-protecting highland forests. It would be a mistake to suppose that the happy climate of Southern Europe in the golden age of pagan civilization was offset by a neglect of agricultural enterprise. By the simple plan of sparing the woods of the steeper mountain-ridges, summer droughts and winter floods were effectually prevented, at a time when the coast-lands of the Mediterranean were in the full productiveness of their fields and the happiness of their inhabitants as superior to the wretched deserts which now occupy their geographical sites as the paradise of the Tennessee highlands is to the naked sand-hills of Western Arizona. With the disappearance of those forests began that era of degeneration which has almost sealed the doom of the “dying continent," and which has wasted the peninsulas of Southern Europe to mere skeletons of the garden-lands inhabited by the nations of classic antiquity. Summer suns scorch the unprotected soil, hot winds absorb its last vestige of moisture and fill the air with clouds of loose dust; the slopes of the naked mountains are torn up into deep ravines, and their mould, carried seaward by every rainy spring, is deposited in the form of festering, miasma-breeding coast-swamps. Springs fail, rivers shrink to feeble streamlets which at last become too shallow even to supply the irrigation-canals by which the starving peasants hoped to relieve their distress. And all that misery is aggravated and perpetuated by the ever-recurring ravages of the winter floods. The melting snows, now no longer absorbed by the sponge-like carpet of moss and tangled roots, run off the hill-slopes like rain from a tile-covered roof,