A Small Boy and others, by Henry James

10

It was at all events the good lady’s disappearance that more markedly cleared the decks — cleared them for that long, slow, sustained action with which I make out that nothing was afterwards to interfere. She had sat there under her stiff old father’s portrait, with which her own, on the other side of the chimney, mildly balanced; but these presences acted from that time but with cautious reserves. A brave, finished, clear-eyed image of such properties as the last-named, in particular, our already-mentioned Alexander Robertson, a faint and diminished replica of whose picture (the really fine original, as I remember it, having been long since perverted from our view) I lately renewed acquaintance with in a pious institution of his founding, where, after more than one push northward and some easy accommodations, he lives on into a world that knows him not and of some of the high improvements of which he can little enough have dreamed. Of the world he had personally known there was a feature or two still extant; the legend of his acres and his local concerns, as well as of his solid presence among them, was considerably cherished by us, though for ourselves personally the relics of his worth were a lean feast to sit at. They were by some invidious turn of fate all to help to constitute the heritage of our young kinsman, the orphaned and administered fils de famille, whose father, Alexander Wyckoff, son of our great-aunt and one of the two brothers of cousin Helen, just discernibly flushes for me through the ominous haze that preceded the worst visitation of cholera New York was to know. Alexander, whom, early widowed and a victim of that visitation, I evoke as with something of a premature baldness, of a blackness of short whisker, of an expanse of light waistcoat and of a harmless pomp of manner, appeared to have quite predominantly “come in” for the values in question, which he promptly transmitted to his small motherless son and which were destined so greatly to increase. There are clues I have only lost, not making out in the least today why the sons of Aunt Wyckoff should have been so happily distinguished. Our great-uncle of the name isn’t even a dim ghost to me — he had passed away beyond recall before I began to take notice; but I hold, rightly, I feel, that it was not to his person these advantages were attached. They could have descended to our grandmother but in a minor degree — we should otherwise have been more closely aware of them. It comes to me that so far as we had at all been aware it had mostly gone off in smoke: I have still in my ears some rueful allusion to “lands,” apparently in the general country of the Beaverkill, which had come to my mother and her sister as their share of their grandfather Robertson’s amplitude, among the further-apportioned shares of their four brothers, only to be sacrificed later on at some scant appraisement. It is in the nature of “lands” at a distance and in regions imperfectly reclaimed to be spoken of always as immense, and I at any rate entertained the sense that we should have been great proprietors, in the far wilderness, if we had only taken more interest. Our interests were peculiarly urban — though not indeed that this had helped us much. Something of the mystery of the vanished acres hung for me about my maternal uncle, John Walsh, the only one who appeared to have been in respect to the dim possessions much on the spot, but I too crudely failed of my chance of learning from him what had become of them.

Not that they had seen him, poor gentleman, very much further, or that I had any strong sense of opportunity; I catch at but two or three projections of him, and only at one of his standing much at his ease: I see him before the fire in the Fourteenth Street library, sturdy, with straight black hair and as if the Beaverkill had rather stamped him, but clean-shaven, in a “stock” and a black frock-coat — I hear him perhaps still more than I see him deliver himself on the then great subject of Jenny Lind, whom he seemed to have emerged from the wilderness to listen to and as to whom I remember thinking it (strange small critic that I must have begun to be) a note of the wilderness in him that he spoke of her as “Miss Lind”; albeit I scarce know, and must even less have known then, what other form he could have used. The rest of my sense of him is tinged with the ancient pity — that of our so exercised response in those years to the general sad case of uncles, aunts and cousins obscurely afflicted (the uncles in particular) and untimely gathered. Sharp to me the memory of a call, one dusky wintry Sunday afternoon, in Clinton Place, at the house of my uncle Robertson Walsh, then the head of my mother’s family, where the hapless younger brother lay dying; whom I was taken to the top of the house to see and of the sinister twilight grimness of whose lot, stretched there, amid odours of tobacco and of drugs, or of some especial strong drug, in one of the chambers of what I remember as a remote and unfriended arching attic, probably in fact the best place of prescribed quiet, I was to carry away a fast impression. All the uncles, of whichever kindred, were to come to seem sooner or later to be dying, more or less before our eyes, of melancholy matters; and yet their general story, so far as one could read it, appeared the story of life. I conceived at any rate that John Walsh, celibate, lonely and good-naturedly black-browed, had been sacrificed to the far-off Robertson acres, which on their side had been sacrificed to I never knew what. The point of my divagation, however, is that the Barmecide banquet of another tract of the same provenance was always spread for us opposite the other house, from which point it stretched, on the north side of the street, to Sixth Avenue; though here we were soon to see it diminished at the corner by a structure afterwards known to us as our prosiest New York school. This edifice, devoted today to other uses, but of the same ample insignificance, still left for exploitation at that time an uncovered town-territory the transmitted tale of which was that our greatgrandfather, living down near the Battery, had had his country villa or, more strictly speaking, his farm there, with free expanses roundabout. Shrunken though the tract a part of it remained — in particular a space that I remember, though with the last faintness, to have seen appeal to the public as a tea-garden or open-air café, a haunt of dance and song and of other forms of rather ineffective gaiety. The subsequent conversion of the site into the premises of the French Theatre I was to be able to note more distinctly; resorting there in the winter of 1874–5, though not without some wan detachment, to a series of more or less exotic performances, and admiring in especial the high and hard virtuosity of Madame Ristori, the unfailing instinct for the wrong emphasis of the then acclaimed Mrs. Rousby (I still hear the assured “Great woman, great woman!” of a knowing friend met as I went out,) and the stout fidelity to a losing game, as well as to a truth not quite measurable among us, of the late, the but lugubriously-comic, the blighted John Toole.

These are glimmering ghosts, though that drama of the scene hard by at which I have glanced gives me back its agents with a finer intensity. For the long action set in, as I have hinted, with the death of Aunt Wyckoff, and, if rather taking its time at first to develop, maintained to the end, which was in its full finality but a few years since, the finest consistency and unity; with cousin Helen, in rich prominence, for the heroine; with the pale adventurous Albert for the hero or young protagonist, a little indeed in the sense of a small New York Orestes ridden by Furies; with a pair of confidants in the form first of the heroine’s highly respectable but quite negligible husband and, second, of her close friend and quasi-sister our own admirable Aunt; with Alexander’s younger brother, above all, the odd, the eccentric, the attaching Henry, for the stake, as it were, of the game. So for the spectator did the figures distribute themselves; the three principal, on the large stage — it became a field of such spreading interests — well in front, and the accessory pair, all sympathy and zeal, prompt comment and rich resonance, hovering in the background, responsive to any call and on the spot at a sign: this most particularly true indeed of our anything but detached Aunt, much less a passive recipient than a vessel constantly brimming, and destined herself to become the outstanding agent, almost the dea ex machina, in the last act of the story. Her colleague of the earlier periods (though to that title she would scarce have granted his right) I designate rather as our earnest cousin’s husband than as our kinsman even by courtesy; since he was “Mr.” to his own wife, for whom the dread of liberties taken in general included even those that might have been allowed to herself: he had not in the least, like the others in his case, married into the cousinship with us, and this apparently rather by his defect than by ours. His christian name, if certainly not for use, was scarce even for ornament — which consorted with the felt limits roundabout him of aids to mention and with the fact that no man could on his journey through life well have been less eagerly designated or apostrophised. If there are persons as to whom the “Mr.” never comes up at all, so there are those as to whom it never subsides; but some of them all keep it by the greatness and others, oddly enough, by the smallness of their importance. The subject of my present reference, as I think of him, nevertheless — by which I mean in spite of his place in the latter group — greatly helps my documentation; he must have been of so excellent and consistent a shade of nullity. To that value, if value it be, there almost always attaches some question of the degree and the position: with adjuncts, with a relation, the zero may figure as a numeral — and the neglected zero is mostly, for that matter, endowed with a consciousness and subject to irritation. For this dim little gentleman, so perfectly a gentleman, no appeal and no redress, from the beginning to the end of his career, were made or entertained or projected; no question of how to treat him, or of how he might see it or feel it, could ever possibly rise; he was blank from whatever view, remaining so under application of whatever acid or exposure to whatever heat; the one identity he could have was to be part of the consensus.

Such a case is rare — that of being no case at all, that of not having even the interest of the grievance of not being one: we as a rule catch glimpses in the down-trodden of such resentments — they have at least sometimes the importance of feeling the weight of our tread. The phenomenon was here quite other — that of a natural platitude that had never risen to the level of sensibility. When you have been wronged you can be righted, when you have suffered you can be soothed; if you have that amount of grasp of the “scene,” however humble, the drama of your life to some extent enacts itself, with the logical consequence of your being proportionately its hero and having to be taken for such. Let me not dream of attempting to say for what cousin Helen took her spectral spouse, though I think it the most marked touch in her portrait that she kept us from ever knowing. She was a person about whom you knew everything else, but there she was genially inscrutable, and above all claimed no damages on the score of slights offered him. She knew nothing whatever of these, yet could herself be much wounded or hurt — which latter word she sounded in the wondrous old New York manner so irreducible to notation. She covered the whole case with a mantle which was yet much more probably that of her real simplicity than of a feigned unconsciousness; I doubt whether she knew that men could be amiable in a different manner from that which had to serve her for supposing her husband amiable; when the mould and the men cast in it were very different she failed, or at least she feared, to conclude to amiability — though some women (as different themselves as such stranger men!) might take it for that. Directly interrogated she might (such was the innocence of these long-extinct manners) have approved of male society in stronger doses or more vivid hues — save where consanguinity, or indeed relationship by marriage, to which she greatly deferred, had honestly imposed it. The singular thing for the drama to which I return was that there it was just consanguinity that had made the burden difficult and strange and of a nature to call on great decisions and patient plans, even though the most ominous possibilities were not involved. I reconstruct and reconstruct of course, but the elements had to my childish vision at least nothing at all portentous; if any light of the lurid played in for me just a little it was but under much later information. What my childish vision was really most possessed of, I think, was the figure of the spectral spouse, the dim little gentleman, as I have called him, pacing the whole length of the two big parlours, in prolonged repetition, much as if they had been the deck of one of those ships anciently haunted by him, as “supercargo” or whatever, in strange far seas — according to the only legend connected with him save that of his early presumption in having approached, such as he was, so fine a young woman, and his remarkable luck in having approached her successfully; a luck surprisingly renewed for him, since it was also part of the legend that he had previously married and lost a bride beyond his deserts.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38