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  • Mendicant No More:Joseph Mason, 1848
  • R. T. Smith (bio)

—for Brendan Galvin

No genius myself, I was not without talent,and soon Audubon heaped praises, sayingI could charm a vine to flower on the page.Honeysuckle, I believe, was the sketch in question,and by dint of that effort he said, "Join me, then,as I seek specimens in the wild sky to preservetheir patterns and habitat. We shall duplicatethe Lord's wondrous craft." So I apprenticed and learned to mirror his beliefs on Nature, his favorite word. I spoke it back and learnedto crouch frog-wise in marshes so quiet and stillthe very self appeared to vanish, and I wasoften his porter when we left the skiff to enterthe tangled warbling world. I daily laboredto keep our fowling pieces loaded with mustardshot, so as not to deface the birds he wouldprop and dispose to counterfeit life. With Ohio long behind, I worked the Columbia's galley and scrubbed pots, my flute echoing the master'strills. Under the live oaks looming ghostlywith Spanish beard, I knew my business. NearYazoo I gave chase to shoot a cormorant, headand neck rising from the murk like a snake.Hornbeam I drew for his backdrops, mayapple and sempervivens jessamine, calyx and tendril. I'll not deny he was my mentor, and I quicklycame to love him as a father; I did not questionthen the abundance with which he knockedhis sacred birds from the sky, but after Oakleythe bond between us soured, for he would not so much as pen into his ledger which pictures [End Page 371] I supplied with plant and ambiance. "Mr. Jsf.Mason" he scrawled on rare occasion in crayon,fading as soon as set, while he inked in Indiahis own name, staking eternal claim. The ribbonsedge, for instance, his prairie warblers bendwith their perching, anonymous to the future,yet necessary to fabricate fierce atmosphere—every twist and bristle, that work was mine.


In New Orleans we struggled, nibbling cheeseand cheap mackerel, while he peddled his finesseat quick portraiture with black chalk. I groundcolors, rinsed brushes in spirits, and scavengedwhile he courted the prosperous, as eager to pleasetheir wives as I to retain his favor. Some dayswe forayed amid the alligator swamps and sawivory bills in the cypress, the gallinule, imberdiver, buntings, and snipe, boat-tailed grackles,and among them warblers he called "battleground,"though later I learned it was another of his vaininventions; no such species exists. Two incidentsof note occurred before we left the Crescent.He rendered a lady now called "The FairIncognito," likely another mistress of Marigny,and said, almost swooning, he drew her nude,then swore to Lucy nothing passed between thembut conversation, a single civil kiss. The tariffshe offered was the price of a Greener shotguninlaid and bearing inscriptions. Although I guesslittle and can prove less, my master was a manof appetites—handsome, animated, dashing—his russet locks flowing á la chevalier, eyes always flashing, and I doubt not some dalliance of strongaffect ensued. He was cunning and selfish. Notfor nothing he often signed himself "LaForest," and his stories might sacrifice even their tithe [End Page 375] of truth for effect. Famous as a liar, he cared notwho knew. "What I fathom of Nature," he said,"would engulf them." Our departure from the cityof miasma and intrigue was no doubt hastenedby a certain Mrs. Heermann's "rude accusation"that while delivering her sketching lessonsthe Birdslayer made advances. He denied all,claiming the reverse, like Joseph in the taleof Potiphar's wife. I did not like to hearmy Christian name so invoked, but he was stillmy comrade and had promised me ample portionof the impending fame. New Orleans becamea Bedlam, and I believed him a victim of ploysand misfortune. Evenings his hands trembled.Ailing, he needed the berry Renzo Newcombsaid can remedy malaise. Epistles from homehad turned stormy. The loss of two daughtersbrought nightsweats...


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