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 charmthe 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 patha 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 automobilea
long, low, double-jointed crouching tigera 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 Trouvilletwenty
minutes away, automobile timetheir blossoming hats, full-blown
parasols, and pink and white veils adding another flower-bed to the
quaint old courtyard.
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 goit has no label, but the cork is sealed with yellow
wax; M. Ramois, the good landlord, will know the kindif 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 sawan 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'scold as ice and clear as crystal and packed full
of trout. Besides Knight is at homehad 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 boyrun 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 thatI've got a siren that you can hear for a
milebut 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 Conquerorthe village-beach, inletwide
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
teetheverything with which he could push, pull, or bite was busyand
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 perdition.
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 mea tram-car hit himyou can see the hole in the bank.
Made that last mile in sixty-five secondsrunning fifty-nine nowlook
out for that cross-road'Wow-wow-oowow-wow' (siren). Damn that
market cart'Wow-wow-o-o-wow.' Slow up, or we'll be on top of that
donkeyjust 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 valleythe road like a piece of
white tape stretching aheadpast school-houses, barns, market gardens;
into dense woods, out on to level plains bare of a treeone 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 Ballyhack!
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
streamthat's it flashing in the sunlight! See the roof of the mill?
That's Aston Knight's! Down brakes! All outfifty-six miles in one
hour and twenty-two minutes! Not bad!
I sprang outso did the Man from the Quarterthe 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 youso 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 livedor rather slept o' nightsshe was billposter, bell-ringer,
and town crier, to say nothing of her being the mother of eleven
children, all her ownKnight being the adopted twelfth.
The mill might as well be without water as without Marie, said the
Sculptor. Wait until you taste her baked troutthe 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
bedroomevidently Knight'sfull of canvases, sketching garb,
fishing-rods and reels lining the walls; and then into
anotherevidently the guest's roomall 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
There came an halloofaintdownstream.
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 nowshipped him a minute
agofoot slipped. Awful glad to see youstay where you are till I get
this high light.
Stay where I am! bellowed the Sculptor. Do you think I'm St.
Peter or some long-legged crane that
All rightI'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 his boots.
Shake! Mighty good of you fellows to come all the way down to see
me. Here, you stone-cutterhelp me off with these boots. Marie's
getting luncheon. Don't touch that canvasall this morning's workgot
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 awayI 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 runfor the kitchen this time (she had been
listening for this halloohe 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
truethat 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 techniquenew to someold really, as that of Velasquez and
Frans Halsswing 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 lifemore 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 convictionswith no heads swelled to an unnatural
size; four appetitesenormous, 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, souffléseverything, in fact, that the dear
woman servedwould 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
courseit was that kind of a feast) the four mouths had a breathing
Up to this time the talk had been a staccato performance between
Yescame near smashing a donkeydon't care if I donono 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
creamthank you. Marie! (Knight, of course) more butter. Donkey
wasn't the only thing we missedgrazed a baby carriage and
(Scribe). I'm going to try a red ibis after luncheon and a miller for
a tail flypass 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 understandingunless 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 Homerall the men of the direct, forceful school, men who
swing their brushes from their spines instead of their
finger-tipswere 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 woolliesthe men who essayed the vague, mysterious, and
obscurewere 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
inall of it.
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; twoand you send for the doctor. And she's so simple when
you look into her faceI'm talking of the brook now, not the girland
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
throughlaughing, crying, coquettingjust 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
thereall liessame kind you tell your own chickabiddy when she's
bluebut 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 aliveand 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 Gallerywas
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
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 lastsand it generally lasts until I
get through;sometimes it spills over to the next dayI please myself
and a lot of people beside.
We were all on our feet now examining the sketchesall
running-brook studiesmost 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 elsenot 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 chair.
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
himshe was only in the next room. Bring in the bootstwo pairs this
timewe're going fishing. And, Mariehas the chauffeur had anything
Anything to drink?
What! Hand him this, and he grabbed a half-empty bottle
from the table.
I sprang forward and caught it before Marie got her fingers around
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
Quarterhad known him from the day of his birthand 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
ofbut 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 peoplenever 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 anotherhe'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
friendstwo 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 followedmuch of which was news to mean 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
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,
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,
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 qualitiesfor to me he is still
a lad. None of the jury who made the awards ever looked below the
paintthat 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
itwas its life, reallya breeze that swept through and out of him,
blowing side by side with genius and good healtha 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 underpinninghis pair of
boots leaked and he had stripped them offand 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 gardenand 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