Nonfiction > Lionel Strachey, et al., eds. > The World’s Wit and Humor > American
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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes.  1906.
Vols. I–V: American
 
Ovid Bolus, Esq.
By Joseph Glover Baldwin (1815–1864)
 
Attorney at Law and Solicitor in Chancery
A Fragment

From “The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi”

AND what history of that halcyon period, ranging from the year of Grace, 1835, to 1837; that golden era, when shinplasters were the sole currency; when bank-bills were “as thick as Autumn leaves in Vallombrosa,” and credit was a franchise—what history of those times would be complete that left out the name of Ovid Bolus? As well write the biography of Prince Hal, and forbear all mention of Falstaff. In law phrase, the thing would be a “deed without a name,” and void; a most unpardonable casus omissus.
  1
  I cannot trace, for reasons the sequel suggests, the early history, much less the birthplace, pedigree, and juvenile associations of this worthy. Whence he or his forbears got his name or how, I don’t know: but for the fact that it is to be inferred he got it in infancy, I should have thought he borrowed it: he borrowed everything else he ever had, such things as he got under the credit system only excepted: in deference, however, to the axiom that there is some exception to all general rules, I am willing to believe that he got this much honestly, by bona fide gift or inheritance, and without false pretense.  2
  I have had a hard time of it in endeavoring to assign to Bolus his leading vice: I have given up the task in despair, but I have essayed to designate that one which gave him, in the end, most celebrity. I am aware that it is invidious to make comparisons, and to give preeminence to one over other rival qualities and gifts, where all have high claims to distinction: but, then, the stern justice of criticism in this case requires a discrimination which, to be intelligible and definite, must be relative and comparative. I therefore take the responsibility of saying, after due reflection, that in my opinion Bolus’s reputation stood higher for lying than for anything else: and in thus assigning preeminence to this poetic property, I do it without any desire to derogate from other brilliant characteristics belonging to the same general category which have drawn the wondering notice of the world.  3
  Some men are liars from interest; not because they have no regard for truth, but because they have less regard for it than for gain: some are liars from vanity, because they would rather be well thought of by others than have reason for thinking well of themselves: some are liars from a sort of necessity which overbears, by the weight of temptation, the sense of virtue: some are enticed away by the allurements of pleasure, or seduced by evil example and education. Bolus was none of these: he belonged to a higher department of the fine arts, and to a higher class of professors of this sort of Belles-lettres. Bolus was a natural liar, just as some horses are natural pacers, and some dogs natural setters. What he did in that walk was from the irresistible promptings of instinct, and a disinterested love of art. His genius and his performances were free from the vulgar alloy of interest or temptation. Accordingly, he did not labor a lie: he lied with a relish: he lied with a coming appetite, growing with what it fed on: he lied from the delight of invention and the charm of fictitious narrative. It is true he applied his art to the practical purposes of life; but in so far did he glory the more in it; just as an ingenious machinist rejoices that his invention, while it has honored science, has also supplied a common want.  4
  Bolus’s genius for lying was encyclopedical; it was what German criticism calls many-sided. It embraced all subjects without distinction or partiality. It was equally good upon all, “from grave to gay, from lively to severe.”  5
  Bolus’s lying came from his greatness of soul and his comprehensiveness of mind. The truth was too small for him. Fact was too dry and commonplace for the fervor of his genius. Besides, great as was his memory—for he even remembered the outlines of his chief lies—his invention was still larger. He had a great contempt for history and historians. He thought them tame and timid cobblers; mere tinkers on other people’s wares—simple parrots and magpies of other men’s sayings or doings; borrowers of and acknowledged debtors for others’ chattels, got without skill; they had no separate estate in their ideas: they were bailees of goods which they did not pretend to hold by adverse title; buriers of talents in napkins making no usury; barren and unprofitable non-producers in the intellectual vineyard—nati consumere fruges.  6
  He adopted a fact occasionally to start with, but, like a Sheffield razor and the crude ore, the workmanship, polish, and value were all his own: a Tibet shawl could as well be credited to the insensate goat that grew the wool, as the author of a fact Bolus honored with his artistical skill could claim to be the inventor of the story.  7
  His experiments upon credulity, like charity, began at home. He had long torn down the partition wall between his imagination and his memory. He had long ceased to distinguish between the impressions made upon his mind by what came from it, and what came to it: all ideas were facts to him.  8
  Bolus’s life was not a common man’s life. His world was not the hard, work-day world the groundlings live in: he moved in a sphere of poetry: he lived amidst the ideal and romantic. Not that he was not practical enough, when he chose to be: by no means. He bought goods and chattels, lands and tenements, like other men; but he got them under a state of poetic illusion, and paid for them in an imaginary way. Even the titles he gave were not of the earthy sort—they were sometimes clouded. He gave notes, too—how well I know it!—like other men; he paid them like himself.  9
  How well he asserted the Spiritual over the Material! How he delighted to turn an abstract idea into concrete cash—to make a few blots of ink, representing a little thought, turn out a labor-saving machine, and bring into his pocket money which many days of hard, exhausting labor would not procure! What pious joy it gave him to see the days of the good Samaritan return, and the hard hand of avarice relax its grasp on land and negroes, pork and clothes, beneath the soft speeches and kind promises of future rewards—blending in the act the three cardinal virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity; while, in the result, the chief of these three was Charity!  10
  There was something sublime in the idea—this elevating the spirit of man to its true and primeval dominion over things of sense and grosser matter.  11
  It is true that, in these practical romances, Bolus was charged with a defective taste in repeating himself. The justice of the charge must be, at least, partially acknowledged: this I know from a client to whom Ovid sold a tract of land after having sold it twice before: I cannot say, though, that his forgetting to mention this circumstance made any difference, for Bolus originally had no title.  12
  There was nothing narrow, sectarian, or sectional in Bolus’s lying. It was on the contrary broad and catholic. It had no respect to times or places. It was as wide, illimitable, as elastic and variable as the air he spent in giving it expression. It was a generous, gentlemanly, whole-souled faculty. It was often employed on occasions of thrift, but no more; and no more zealously on these than on others of no profit to himself. He was an Egotist, but a magnificent one; he was not a liar because an egotist, but an egotist because a liar. He usually made himself the hero of the romantic exploits and adventures he narrated; but this was not so much to exalt himself as because it was more convenient to his art. He had nothing malignant or invidious in his nature. If he exalted himself it was seldom or never to the disparagement of others, unless, indeed, those others were merely imaginary persons, or too far off to be hurt. He would as soon lie for you as for himself. It was all the same, so there was something doing in his line of business, except in those cases in which his necessities required to be fed at your expense.  13
  He did not confine himself to mere lingual lying: one tongue was not enough for all the business he had on hand. He acted lies as well. Indeed, sometimes his very silence was a lie. He made nonentity fib for him, and performed wondrous feats by a “masterly inactivity.”  14
  The personnel of this distinguished Votary of the Muse was happily fitted to his art. He was strikingly handsome. There was something in his air and bearing almost princely, certainly quite distinguished. His manners were winning, his address frank, cordial, and flowing. He was built after the model and structure of Bolingbroke in his youth, Americanized and Hoosierized a little by a “raising in,” and an adaptation to, the Backwoods. He was fluent but choice of diction, a little sonorous in the structure of his sentences to give effect to a voice like an organ. His countenance was open and engaging, usually sedate of expression, but capable of any modifications at the shortest notice. Add to this his intelligence, shrewdness, tact, humor, and that he was a ready debater and elegant declaimer, and had the gift of bringing out, to the fullest extent, his resources, and you may see that Ovid, in a new country, was a man apt to make no mean impression. He drew the loose population around him as the magnet draws iron filings. He was the man for the “boys”—then a numerous and influential class. His generous profusion and free-handed manner impressed them as the bounty of Cæsar the loafing commonalty of Rome: Bolus was no niggard. He never higgled or chaffered about small things. He was as free with his own money—if he ever had any of his own—as with yours. If he never paid borrowed money, he never asked payment of others. If you wished him to lend you any, he would give you a handful without counting it: if you handed him any, you were losing time in counting it, for you never saw anything of it again: Shallow’s funded debt on Falstaff were as safe an investment: this would have been an equal commerce, but, unfortunately for Bolus’s friends, the proportion between his disbursements and receipts was something scant. Such a spendthrift never made a track even in the flush times of 1836. It took as much to support him as a first-class steamboat. His bills at the groceries were as long as John Q. Adams’s Abolition petition, or, if pasted together, would have matched the great Chartist memorial. He would as soon treat a regiment or charter the grocery for the day, as any other way; and after the crowd had heartily drank—some of them “laying their souls in soak”—if he did not have the money convenient—as when did he?—he would fumble in his pocket, mutter something about nothing less than a $100 bill, and direct the score, with a lordly familiarity, to be charged to his account.  15
  Ovid had early possessed the faculty of ubiquity. He had been born in more places than Homer. In an hour’s discourse, he would, with more than the speed of Ariel, travel at every point of the compass, from Portland to San Antonio, some famous adventure always occurring just as he “rounded to,” or while stationary, though he did not remain longer than to see it. He was present at every important debate in the Senate at Washington, and had heard every popular speaker on the hustings, at the bar and in the pulpit, in the United States. He had been concerned in many important causes with Grymes and against Mazereau in New Orleans, and had borne no small share in the fierce forensic battles which, with singular luck, he and Grymes always won in the courts of the Crescent City. And such frolics as they had when they laid aside their heavy armor after the heat and burden of the day! Such gambling! A negro ante and twenty on the call was moderate playing. What lots of “Ethiopian captives” and other plunder he raked down vexed Arithmetic to count and credulity to believe; and had it not been for Bolus’s generosity in giving “the boys” a chance to win back by doubling off on the high hand, there is no knowing what changes of owners would not have occurred in the Rapides or on the German Coast.  16
  The Florida war and the Texas revolution, had each furnished a brilliant theater for Ovid’s chivalrous emprise. Jack Hays and he were great chums. Jack and he had many a hearty laugh over the odd trick of Ovid in lassoing a Comanche Chief while galloping a stolen horse, barebacked, up the San Saba hills. But he had the rig on Jack again when he made him charge on a brood of about twenty Comanches who had got into a mot of timber in the prairies, and were shooting their arrows from the covert, Ovid, with a six-barreled rifle, taking them on the wing as Jack rode in and flushed them!  17
  It was an affecting story and feelingly told, that of his and Jim Bowie’s rescuing an American girl from the Apaches, and returning her to her parents in St. Louis; and it would have been still more tender had it not been for the unfortunate necessity Bolus was under of shooting a brace of gay lieutenants on the border, one frosty morning before breakfast, back of the fort, for taking unbecoming liberties with the fair damosel, the spoil of his bow and spear.  18
  But the girls Ovid courted, and the miraculous adventures he had met with in love beggared by the comparison all the fortune of war had done for him. Old Nugent’s daughter, Sallie, was his narrowest escape. Sallie was accomplished to the romantic extent of two ocean steamers and four blocks of buildings in Boston, separated only from immediate “perception and pernancy” by the contingency of old Nugent’s recovering from a confirmed dropsy, for which he had been twice ineffectually tapped. The day was set—the presents made—superb of course—the guests invited: the old Sea Captain insisted on Bolus’s setting his negroes free, and taking five thousand dollars apiece for the loss. Bolus’s love for the “peculiar institution” wouldn’t stand it. Rather than submit to such degradation Ovid broke off the match, and left Sallie broken-hearted; a disease from which she did not recover until about six months afterwards, when she ran off with the mate of her father’s ship, the Sea-Serpent, in the Rio trade.  19
  Gossip and personal anecdote were the especial subjects of Ovid’s elocution. He was intimate with all the notabilities of the political circles. He was a privileged visitor of the political green-room. He was admitted back into the laboratory where the political thunder was manufactured, and into the office where the magnetic wires were worked. He knew the origin of every party question and movement, and had a finger in every pie the party cooks of Tammany baked for the body politic.  20
  One thing in Ovid I can never forgive. This was his coming it over poor Ben. I don’t object to it on the score of the swindle. That was to have been expected. But swindling Ben was degrading the dignity of the art. True, it illustrated the universality of his science, but it lowered it to a beggarly process of mean deception. There was no skill in it. It was little better than crude larceny. A child could have done it; it had as well been done to a child. It was like catching a cow with a lariat, or setting a steel-trap for a pet pig. True, Bolus had nearly practised out of custom. He had worn his art threadbare. Men who could afford to be cheated had all been worked up or been scared away. Besides, Frost couldn’t be put off. He talked of money in a most ominous connection with blood. The thing could be settled by a bill of exchange. Ben’s name was unfortunately good—the amount some $1,600. Ben had a fine tract of land in S——r. He has not got it now. Bolus only gave Ben one wrench—that was enough. Ben never breathed easy afterward. All the V’s and X’s of ten years’ hard practice went in that penful of ink. Fie! Bolus, Monroe Edwards wouldn’t have done that. He would sooner have sunk down to the level of some honest calling for a living than have put his profession to so mean a shift. I can conceive of but one extenuation; Bolus was on the lift for Texas, and the desire was natural to qualify himself for citizenship.  21
  The genius of Bolus, strong in its unassisted strength, yet gleamed out more brilliantly under the genial influence of “the rosy.” With boon companions and “reaming suats,” it was worth while to hear him of a winter evening. He could “gild the palpable and the familiar with golden exhalations of the dawn.” The most commonplace objects became dignified. There was a history to the commonest articles about him: that book was given him by Mr. Van Buren—the walking-stick was a present from General Jackson: the thrice-watered Monongahela, just drawn from the grocery hard by, was the last of a distillation of 1825 smuggled in from Ireland, and presented to him by a friend in New Orleans on easy terms with the collector; the cigars, not too fragrant, were of a box sent him by a schoolmate from Cuba in 1834—before he visited the island. And talking of Cuba—he had met with an adventure there, the impression of which never could be effaced from his mind. He had gone at the instance of Don Carlos y Cubanos (an intimate classmate in a Kentucky Catholic College), whose life he had saved from a mob in Louisville at the imminent risk of his own. The Don had a sister of blooming sixteen, the least of whose charms was two or three coffee plantations, some hundreds of slaves, and a suitable garnish of doubloons, accumulated during her minority, in the hands of her uncle and guardian, the Captain General. All went well with the young lovers—for such, of course, they were—until Bolus, with his usual frank indiscretion, in a conversation with the Priest avowed himself a Protestant. Then came trouble. Every effort was made to convert him; but Bolus’s faith resisted the eloquent tongue of the Priest and the more eloquent eyes of Donna Isabella. The brother pleaded the old friendship—urged a seeming and formal conformity—the Captain General argued the case like a politician—the Señorita like a warm and devoted woman. All would not do. The Captain General forbade his longer sojourn on the island. Bolus took leave of the fair Señorita: the parting interview held in the orange-bower was affecting: Donna Isabella, with dishevelled hair, threw herself at his feet; the tears streamed from her eyes: in liquid tones, broken by grief, she implored him to relent—reminded him of her love, of her trust in him, and of the consequences—now not much longer to be concealed—of that love and trust; (“though I protest,” Bolus would say, “I don’t know what she meant exactly by that”). “Gentlemen,” Bolus continued, “I confess to the weakness—I wavered—but then my eyes happened to fall on the breast-pin with a lock of my mother’s hair—I recovered my courage: I shook her gently from me. I felt my last hold on earth was loosened—my last hope of peace destroyed. Since that hour my life has been a burden. Yes, gentlemen, you see before you a broken man—a martyr to his religion. But away with these melancholy thoughts: boys, pass around the jorum.” And wiping his eyes he drowned the wasting sorrow in a long draught of the poteen, and, being much refreshed, was able to carry the burden on a little further—videlicet, to the next lie.  22
  It must not be supposed that Bolus was destitute of the tame virtue of prudence—or that this was confined to the avoidance of the improvident habit of squandering his money in paying old debts. He took reasonably good care of his person. He avoided all unnecessary exposures chiefly from a patriotic desire, probably, of continuing his good offices to his country. His recklessness was, for the most part, lingual. To hear his talk one might suppose he held his carcass merely for a target to try guns and knives upon; or that the business of his life was to draw men up to ten paces or less, for sheer improvement in marksmanship. Such exploits as he had gone through with dwarfed the heroes of romance to very pigmy and sneaking proportions. Pistol at the Bridge when he bluffed at honest Fluellen might have envied the swashbuckler airs Ovid would sometimes put on. But I never could exactly identify the place he had laid out for his burying-ground. Indeed, I had occasion to know that he declined to understand several not very ambiguous hints upon which he might, with as good a grace as Othello, have spoken, not to mention one or two pressing invitations which his modesty led him to refuse. I do not know that the base sense of fear had anything to do with these declinations: possibly he might have thought he had done his share of fighting, and did not wish to monopolize: or his principles forbade it—I mean those which opposed his paying a debt: knowing he could not cheat that inexorable creditor, Death, of his claim, he did the next thing to it—which was to delay and shirk payment as long as possible.  23
  It remains to add a word of criticism on this great Ly-ric artist.  24
  In lying, Bolus was not only a successful, but he was a very able practitioner. Like every other eminent artist, he brought all his faculties to bear upon his art. Though quick of perception and prompt of invention, he did not trust himself to the inspirations of his genius for improvising a lie when he could well premeditate one. He deliberately built up the substantial masonry, relying upon the occasion and its accessories chiefly for embellishment and collateral supports: as Burke excogitated the more solid parts of his great speeches, and left unprepared only the illustrations and fancy-work.  25
  Bolus’s manner was, like every truly great man’s, his own. It was excellent. He did not come blushing up to a lie, as some otherwise very passable liars do, as if he were making a mean compromise between his guilty passion or morbid vanity and a struggling conscience. Bolus had long since settled all disputes with his conscience. He and it were on very good terms—at least, if there was no affection between the couple, there was no fuss in the family; or, if there were any scenes or angry passages, they were reserved for strict privacy and never got out. My own opinion is, that he was as destitute of the article as an ostrich. Thus he came to his work bravely, cheerfully, and composedly. The delights of composition, invention, and narration did not fluster his style or agitate his delivery. He knew how, in the tumult of passion, to assume the “temperance to give it smoothness.” A lie never ran away with him, as it is apt to do with young performers: he could always manage and guide it; and to have seen him fairly mounted would have given you some idea of the polished elegance of D’Orsay and the superb manage of Murat. There is a tone and manner of narration different from those used in delivering ideas just conceived; just as there is a difference between the sound of the voice in reading and in speaking. Bolus knew this, and practised on it. When he was narrating, he put the facts in order, and seemed to speak them out of his memory; but not formally, or as if by rote. He would stop himself to correct a date; recollect he was wrong—he was that year at the White Sulphur or Saratoga, etc.: having got the date right, the names of persons present would be incorrect, etc.: and these he corrected in turn. A stranger hearing him would have feared the marring of a good story by too fastidious a conscientiousness in the narrator.  26
  His zeal in pursuit of a lie under difficulties was remarkable. The society around him—if such it could be called—was hardly fitted, without some previous preparation, for an immediate introduction to Almack’s or the classic precincts of Gore House. The manners of the natives were rather plain than ornate, and candor rather than polish predominated in their conversation. Bolus had need of some forbearance to withstand the interruptions and cross-examinations with which his revelations were sometimes received. But he possessed this in a remarkable degree. I recollect on one occasion when he was giving an account of a providential escape he was signally favored with (when boarded by a pirate off the Isle of Pines, and he pleaded masonry, and gave a sign he had got out of the Disclosures of Morgan) Tom Johnson interrupted him to say that he had heard that before (which was more than Bolus had ever done). B. immediately rejoined that he had, he believed, given him, Tom, a running sketch of the incident. “Rather,” said Tom, “I think a lying sketch.” Bolus scarcely smiled as he replied that Tom was a wag, and couldn’t help turning the most serious things into jests; and went on with his usual brilliancy to finish the narrative. Bolus did not overcrowd his canvas. His figures were never confused, and the subordinates and accessories did not withdraw attention from the main and substantive lie. He never squandered his lies profusely: thinking, with the poet, that “bounteous, not prodigal, is kind Nature’s hand,” he kept the golden mean between penuriousness and prodigality; never stingy of his lies, he was not wasteful of them, but was rather forehanded than pushed or embarrassed, having usually fictitious stock to be freshly put on ’change when he wished to “make a raise.” In most of his fables he inculcated but a single leading idea, but contrived to make the several facts of the narrative fall in very gracefully with the principal scheme.  27
  The rock on which many promising young liars, who might otherwise have risen to merited distinction, have split, is vanity: this marplot vice betrays itself in the exultation manifested on the occasion of a decided hit, an exultation too inordinate for mere recital, and which betrays authorship; and to betray authorship in the present barbaric, moral, and intellectual condition of the world is fatal. True, there seems to be some inconsistency here. Dickens and Bulwer can do as much lying, for money too, as they choose, and no one blame them, any more than they would blame a lawyer regularly fee’d to do it; but let any man, gifted with the same genius, try his hand at it, not deliberately and in writing, but merely orally, and ugly names are given him, and he is proscribed! Bolus heroically suppressed exultation over the victories his lies achieved.  28
  Alas! for the beautiful things of Earth, its flowers, its sunsets—its lovely girls—its lies—brief and fleeting are their date. Lying is a very delicate accomplishment. It must be tenderly cared for and jealously guarded. It must not be overworked. Bolus forgot this salutary caution. The people found out his art. However dull the commons are as to other matters, they get sharp enough, after a while, to whatever concerns their bread and butter. Bolus not having confined his art to political matters, sounded, at last, the depths, and explored the limits of popular credulity. The denizens of this degenerate age had not the disinterestedness of Prince Hal, who “cared not how many fed at his cost”; they got tired, at last, of promises to pay. The credit system, common before as pump-water, adhering, like the elective franchise, to every voter, began to take the worldly wisdom of Falstaff’s mercer, and ask security; and security liked something more substantial than plausible promises. In this forlorn condition of the country, returning to its savage state, and abandoning the refinements of a ripe Anglo-Saxon civilisation for the sordid safety of Mexican or Chinese modes of traffic; deserting the sweet simplicity of its ancient trustingness and the poetic illusions of Augustus Tomlinson for the vulgar saws of poor Richard—Bolus, with a sigh like that breathed out by his great prototype after his apostrophe to London, gathered up, one bright moonlight night, his articles of value, shook the dust from his feet, and departed from a land unworthy of his longer sojourn. With that delicate consideration for the feelings of his friends, which, like the politeness of Charles II., never forsook him, he spared them the pain of a parting interview. He left no greetings of kindness; no messages of love: nor did he ask assurances of their lively remembrance. It was quite unnecessary. In every house he had left an autograph, in every ledger a souvenir. They will never forget him. Their connection with him will be ever regarded as
 ——“The greenest spot
In memory’s waste.”
  29
  Poor Ben, whom he had honored with the last marks of his confidence, can scarcely speak of him to this day without tears in his eyes. Far away toward the setting sun he hied him, until, at last, with a hermit’s disgust at the degradation of the world, like Ignatius turned monk, he pitched his tabernacle amidst the smiling prairies that sleep in vernal beauty, in the shadow of the San Saba mountains. There let his mighty genius rest. It has earned repose. We leave Themistocles to his voluntary exile.  30
 
 
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