A Small Boy and others, by Henry James

11

I am, strictly speaking, at this point, on a visit to Albert, who at times sociably condescended to my fewer years — I still appreciate the man-of-the-world ease of it; but my host seems for the minute to have left me, and I am attached but to the rich perspective in which “Uncle” (for Albert too he was only all namelessly Uncle) comes and goes; out of the comparative high brownness of the back room, commanding brave extensions, as I thought them, a covered piazza over which, in season, Isabella grapes accessibly clustered and beyond which stretched, further, a “yard” that was as an ample garden compared to ours at home; I keep in view his little rounded back, at the base of which his arms are interlocked behind him, and I know how his bald head, yet with the hair bristling up almost in short-horn fashion at the sides, is thrust inquiringly, not to say appealingly, forward; I assist at his emergence, where the fine old mahogany doors of separation are rolled back on what used to seem to me silver wheels, into the brighter yet colder half of the scene, and attend him while he at last looks out awhile into Fourteenth Street for news of whatever may be remarkably, objectionably or mercifully taking place there; and then I await his regular return, preparatory to a renewed advance, far from indifferent as I innocently am to his discoveries or his comments. It is cousin Helen however who preferentially takes them up, attaching to them the right importance, which is for the moment the very greatest that could possibly be attached to anything in the world; I for my part occupied with those marks of character in our pacing companion — his long, slightly equine countenance, his eyebrows ever elevated as in the curiosity of alarm, and the so limited play from side to side of his extremely protrusive head, as if somehow through tightness of the “wash” neckcloths that he habitually wore and that, wound and rewound in their successive stages, made his neck very long without making it in the least thick and reached their climax in a proportionately very small knot tied with the neatest art. I scarce can have known at the time that this was as complete a little old-world figure as any that might then have been noted there, far or near; yet if I didn’t somehow “subtly” feel it, why am I now so convinced that I must have had familiarly before me a masterpiece of the great Daumier, say, or Henri Monnier, or any other then contemporary projector of Monsieur Prudhomme, the timorous Philistine in a world of dangers, with whom I was later on to make acquaintance? I put myself the question, of scant importance though it may seem; but there is a reflection perhaps more timely than any answer to it. I catch myself in the act of seeing poor anonymous “Dear,” as cousin Helen confined herself, her life long, to calling him, in the light of an image arrested by the French genius, and this in truth opens up vistas. I scarce know what it doesn’t suggest for the fact of sharpness, of intensity of type; which fact in turn leads my imagination almost any dance, making me ask myself quite most of all whether a person so marked by it mustn’t really have been a highly finished figure.

That degree of finish was surely rare among us — rare at a time when the charm of so much of the cousinship and the uncleship, the kinship generally, had to be found in their so engagingly dispensing with any finish at all. They happened to be amiable, to be delightful; but — I think I have already put the question — what would have become of us all if they hadn’t been? a question the shudder of which could never have been suggested by the presence I am considering. He too was gentle and bland, as it happened — and I indeed see it all as a world quite unfavourable to arrogance or insolence or any hard and high assumption; but the more I think of him (even at the risk of thinking too much) the more I make out in him a tone and a manner that deprecated crude ease. Plenty of this was already in the air, but if he hadn’t so spoken of an order in which forms still counted it might scarce have occurred to one that there had ever been any. It comes over me therefore that he testified — and perhaps quite beautifully; I remember his voice and his speech, which were not those of that New York at all, and with the echo, faint as it is, arrives the wonder of where he could possibly have picked such things up. They were, as forms, adjusted and settled things; from what finer civilisation therefore had they come down to him? To brood on this the least little bit is verily, as I have said, to open up vistas — out of the depths of one of which fairly glimmers the queerest of questions. Mayn’t we accordingly have been, the rest of us, all wrong, and the dim little gentleman the only one among us who was right? May not his truth to type have been a matter that, as mostly typeless ourselves, we neither perceived nor appreciated? — so that if, as is conceivable, he felt and measured the situation and simply chose to be bland and quiet and keep his sense to himself, he was a hero without the laurel as well as a martyr without the crown. The light of which possibility is, however, too fierce; I turn it off, I tear myself from the view — noting further but the one fact in his history that, by my glimpse of it, quite escapes ambiguity. The youthful Albert, I have mentioned, was to resist successfully through those years that solicitation of “Europe” our own response to which, both as a general and a particular solution, kept breaking out in choral wails; but the other house none the less nourished projects so earnest that they could invoke the dignity of comparative silence and patience. The other house didn’t aspire to the tongues, but it aspired to the grand tour, of which ours was on many grounds incapable. Only after years and when endless things had happened — Albert having long before, in especial, quite taken up his stake and ostensibly dropped out of the game — did the great adventure get itself enacted, with the effect of one of the liveliest illustrations of the irony of fate. What had most of all flushed through the dream of it during years was the legend, at last quite antediluvian, of the dim little gentleman’s early Wanderjahre, that experience of distant lands and seas which would find an application none the less lively for having had long to wait. It had had to wait in truth half a century, yet its confidence had apparently not been impaired when New York, on the happy day, began to recede from view. Europe had surprises, none the less, and who knows to what extent it may after half a century have had shocks? The coming true of the old dream produced at any rate a snap of the tense cord, and the ancient worthy my imagination has, in the tenderest of intentions, thus played with, disembarked in England only to indulge in the last of his startled stares, only to look about him in vague deprecation and give it all up. He just landed and died; but the grand tour was none the less proceeded with — cousin Helen herself, aided by resources personal, social and financial that left nothing to desire, triumphantly performed it, though as with a feeling of delicacy about it firmly overcome.

But it has taken me quite out of the other house, so that I patch up again, at a stroke, that early scene of her double guardianship at which my small wonder assisted. It even then glimmered on me, I think, that if Albert was, all so romantically, in charge of his aunt — which was a perfectly nondescript relation — so his uncle Henry, her odd brother, was her more or less legal ward, not less, despite his being so very much Albert’s senior. In these facts and in the character of each of the three persons involved resided the drama; which must more or less have begun, as I have hinted, when simple-minded Henry, at a date I seem to have seized, definitely emerged from rustication — the Beaverkill had but for a certain term protected, or promoted, his simplicity — and began, on his side, to pace the well-worn field between the Fourteenth Street windows and the piazza of the Isabella grapes. I see him there less vividly than his fellow-pedestrian only because he was afterwards to loom so much larger, whereas his companion, even while still present, was weakly to shrink and fade. At this late day only do I devise for that companion a possible history; the simple-minded Henry’s annals on the other hand grew in interest as soon as they became interesting at all. This happened as soon as one took in the ground and some of the features of his tutelage. The basis of it all was that, harmless as he appeared, he was not to be trusted; I remember how portentous that truth soon looked, both in the light of his intense amiability and of sister Helen’s absolute certitude. He wasn’t to be trusted — it was the sole very definite fact about him except the fact that he had so kindly come down from the far-off Beaverkill to regale us with the perfect demonstration, dutifully, resignedly setting himself among us to point the whole moral himself. He appeared, from the moment we really took it in, to be doing, in the matter, no more than he ought; he exposed himself to our invidious gaze, on this ground, with a humility, a quiet courtesy and an instinctive dignity that come back to me as simply heroic. He had himself accepted, under strenuous suggestion, the dreadful view, and I see him today, in the light of the grand dénouement, deferred for long years, but fairly dazzling when it came, as fairly sublime in his decision not to put anyone in the wrong about him a day sooner than he could possibly help. The whole circle of us would in that event be so dreadfully “sold,” as to our wisdom and justice, he proving only noble and exquisite. It didn’t so immensely matter to him as that, the establishment of his true character didn’t; so he went on as if for all the years — and they really piled themselves up: his passing for a dangerous idiot, or at least for a slave of his passions from the moment he was allowed the wherewithal in the least to indulge them, was a less evil for him than seeing us rudely corrected. It was in truth an extraordinary situation and would have offered a splendid subject, as we used to say, to the painter of character, the novelist or the dramatist, with the hand to treat it. After I had read David Copperfield an analogy glimmered — it struck me even in the early time: cousin Henry was more or less another Mr. Dick, just as cousin Helen was in her relation to him more or less another Miss Trotwood. There were disparities indeed: Mr. Dick was the harmless lunatic on that lady’s premises, but she admired him and appealed to him; lunatics, in her generous view, might be oracles, and there is no evidence, if I correctly remember, that she kept him low. Our Mr. Dick was suffered to indulge his passions but on ten cents a day, while his fortune, under conscientious, under admirable care — cousin Helen being no less the wise and keen woman of business than the devoted sister — rolled up and became large; likewise Miss Trotwood’s inmate hadn’t at all the perplexed brooding brow, with the troubled fold in it, that represented poor Henry’s only form of criticism of adverse fate. They had alike the large smooth open countenance of those for whom life has been simplified, and if Mr. Dick had had a fortune he would have remained all his days as modestly vague about the figure of it as our relative consented to remain. The latter’s interests were agricultural, while his predecessor’s, as we remember, were mainly historical; each at any rate had in a general way his Miss Trotwood, not to say his sister Helen.

The good Henry’s Miss Trotwood lived and died without an instant’s visitation of doubt as to the due exercise of her authority, as to what would happen if it faltered; her victim waiting in the handsomest manner till she had passed away to show us all — all who remained, after so long, to do him justice — that nothing but what was charming and touching could possibly happen. This was, in part at least, the dazzling dénouement I have spoken of: he became, as soon as fortunate dispositions could take effect, the care of our admirable Aunt, between whom and his sister and himself close cousinship, from far back, had practically amounted to sisterhood: by which time the other house had long been another house altogether, its ancient site relinquished, its contents planted afresh far northward, with new traditions invoked, though with that of its great friendliness to all of us, for our mother’s sake, still confirmed. Here with brief brightness, clouded at the very last, the solution emerged; we became aware, not without embarrassment, that poor Henry at large and supplied with funds was exactly as harmless and blameless as poor Henry stinted and captive; as to which if anything had been wanting to our confusion or to his own dignity it would have been his supreme abstinence, his suppression of the least “Didn’t I tell you?” He didn’t even pretend to have told us, when he so abundantly might, and nothing could exceed the grace with which he appeared to have noticed nothing. He “handled” dollars as decently, and just as profusely, as he had handled dimes; the only light shade on the scene — except of course for its being so belated, which did make it pathetically dim — was the question of how nearly he at all measured his resources. Not his heart, but his imagination, in the long years, had been starved; and though he was now all discreetly and wisely encouraged to feel rich, it was rather sadly visible that, thanks to almost half a century of over-discipline, he failed quite to rise to his estate. He did feel rich, just as he felt generous; the misfortune was only in his weak sense for meanings. That, with the whole situation, made delicacy of the first importance; as indeed what was perhaps most striking in the entire connection was the part played by delicacy from the first. It had all been a drama of the delicate: the consummately scrupulous and successful administration of his resources for the benefit of his virtue, so that they could be handed over, in the event, without the leakage of a fraction, what was that but a triumph of delicacy? So delicacy conspired, delicacy surrounded him; the case having been from the early time that, could he only be regarded as sufficiently responsible, could the sources of his bounty be judged fairly open to light pressure (there was question of none but the lightest) that bounty might blessedly flow. This had been Miss Trotwood’s own enlightened view, on behalf of one of the oddest and most appealing collections of wistful wondering single gentlewomen that a great calculating benevolence perhaps ever found arrayed before it — ornaments these all of the second and third cousinship and interested spectators of the almost inexpressible facts.

I should have liked completely to express them, in spite of the difficulty — if not indeed just by reason of that; the difficulty of their consisting so much more of “character” than of “incident” (heaven save the artless opposition!) though this last element figured bravely enough too, thanks to some of the forms taken by our young Albert’s wild wilfulness. He was so weak — after the most approved fashion of distressing young men of means — that his successive exhibitions of it had a fine high positive effect, such as would have served beautifully, act after act, for the descent of the curtain. The issue, however (differing in this from the common theatrical trick) depended less on who should die than on who should live; the younger of cousin Helen’s pair of wards — putting them even only as vessels of her attempted earnestness — had violently broken away, but a remedy to this grief, for reasons too many to tell, dwelt in the possible duration, could it only not be arrested, of two other lives, one of these her own, the second the guileless Henry’s. The single gentlewomen, to a remarkable number, whom she regarded and treated as nieces, though they were only daughters of cousins, were such objects of her tender solicitude that, she and Henry and Albert being alike childless, the delightful thing to think of was, on certain contingencies, the nieces’ prospective wealth. There were contingencies of course — and they exactly produced the pity and terror. Her estate would go at her death to her nearest of kin, represented by her brother and nephew; it would be only of her savings — fortunately, with her kind eye on the gentlewomen, zealous and long continued — that she might dispose by will; and it was but a troubled comfort that, should he be living at the time of her death, the susceptible Henry would profit no less than the wanton Albert. Henry was at any cost to be kept in life that he might profit; the woeful question, the question of delicacy, for a woman devoutly conscientious, was how could anyone else, how, above all, could fifteen other persons, be made to profit by his profiting? She had been as earnest a steward of her brother’s fortune as if directness of pressure on him, in a sense favourable to her interests — that is to her sympathies, which were her only interests — had been a matter of course with her; whereas in fact she would have held it a crime, given his simplicity, to attempt in the least to guide his hand. If he didn’t outlive his nephew — and he was older, though, as would appear, so much more virtuous — his inherited property, she being dead, would accrue to that unedifying person. There was the pity; and as for the question of the disposition of Henry’s savings without the initiative of Henry’s intelligence, in that, alas, was the terror. Henry’s savings — there had been no terror for her, naturally, in beautifully husbanding his resources for him — dangled, naturally, with no small vividness, before the wistful gentlewomen, to whom, if he had but had the initiative, he might have made the most princely presents. Such was the oddity, not to say the rather tragic drollery, of the situation: that Henry’s idea of a present was ten cents’ worth of popcorn, or some similar homely trifle; and that when one had created for him a world of these proportions there was no honest way of inspiring him to write cheques for hundreds; all congruous though these would be with the generosity of his nature as shown by the exuberance of his popcorn. The ideal solution would be his flashing to intelligence just long enough to apprehend the case and, of his own magnanimous movement, sign away everything; but that was a fairy-tale stroke, and the fairies here somehow stood off.

Thus between the wealth of her earnestness and the poverty of her courage — her dread, that is, of exposing herself to a legal process for undue influence — our good lady was not at peace; or, to be exact, was only at such peace as came to her by the free bestowal of her own accumulations during her lifetime and after her death. She predeceased her brother and had the pang of feeling that if half her residuum would be deplorably diverted the other half would be, by the same stroke, imperfectly applied; the artless Henry remained at once so well provided and so dimly inspired. Here was suspense indeed for a last “curtain” but one; and my fancy glows, all expertly, for the disclosure of the final scene, than which nothing could well have been happier, on all the premises, save for a single flaw: the installation in Forty-fourth Street of our admirable aunt, often, through the later years, domiciled there, but now settled to community of life with a touching charge and representing near him his extinguished, their extinguished, sister. The too few years that followed were the good man’s Indian summer and a very wonderful time — so charmingly it shone forth, for all concerned, that he was a person fitted to adorn, as the phrase is, almost any position. Our admirable aunt, not less devoted and less disinterested than his former protectress, had yet much more imagination; she had enough, in a word, for perfect confidence, and under confidence what remained of poor Henry’s life bloomed like a garden freshly watered. Sad alas the fact that so scant a patch was now left. It sufficed, however, and he rose, just in time, to every conception; it was, as I have already noted, as if he had all the while known, as if he had really been a conscious victim to the superstition of his blackness. His final companion recognised, as it were, his powers; and it may be imagined whether when he absolutely himself proposed to benefit the gentlewomen she passed him, or not, the blessed pen. He had taken a year or two to publish by his behaviour the perfection of his civility, and so, on that safe ground, made use of the pen. His competence was afterwards attacked, and it emerged triumphant, exactly as his perfect charity and humility and amenity, and his long inward loneliness, of half a century, did. He had bowed his head and sometimes softly scratched it during that immense period; he had occasionally, after roaming downstairs with the troubled fold in his brow and the difficult, the smothered statement on his lips (his vocabulary was scant and stiff, the vocabulary of pleading explanation, often found too complicated by the witty,) retired once more to his room sometimes indeed for hours, to think it all over again; but had never failed of sobriety or propriety or punctuality or regularity, never failed of one of the virtues his imputed indifference to which had been the ground of his discipline. It was very extraordinary, and of all the stories I know is I think the most beautiful — so far at least as he was concerned! The flaw I have mentioned, the one break in the final harmony, was the death of our admirable aunt too soon, shortly before his own and while, taken with illness at the same time, he lay there deprived of her attention. He had that of the gentlewomen, however, two or three of the wisest and tenderest being deputed by the others; and if his original estate reverted at law they presently none the less had occasion to bless his name.

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