A Small Boy and others, by Henry James

15

It is to the Institution Vergnès that my earliest recovery of the sense of being in any degree “educated with” W. J. attaches itself; an establishment which occupied during the early ‘fifties a site in the very middle of Broadway, of the lower, the real Broadway, where it could throb with the very pulse of the traffic in which we all innocently rejoiced — believing it, I surmise, the liveliest conceivable: a fact that is by itself, in the light of the present, an odd rococo note. The lower Broadway — I allude to the whole Fourth Street and Bond Street (where now is the Bond Street of that antiquity?)— was then a seat of education, since we had not done with it, as I shall presently show, even when we had done with the Institution, a prompt disillusionment; and I brood thus over a period which strikes me as long and during which my personal hours of diligence were somehow more than anything else hours of the pavement and the shopfront, or of such contemplative exercise as the very considerable distance, for small legs, between those regions and the westward Fourteenth Street might comprise. Pedestrian gaping having been in childhood, as I have noted, prevailingly my line, fate appeared to have kindly provided for it on no small scale; to the extent even that it must have been really my sole and single form of athletics. Vague heated competition and agitation in the then enclosed Union Square would seem to point a little, among us all, to nobler types of motion; but of any basis for recreation, anything in the nature of a playground or a breathing-space, the Institution itself was serenely innocent. This I take again for a note extraordinarily mediæval. It occupied the first and second floors, if I rightly remember, of a wide front that, overhanging the endless thoroughfare, looked out on bouncing, clattering “stages” and painfully dragged carts and the promiscuous human shuffle — the violence of repercussions from the New York pavement of those years to be further taken into account; and I win it back from every side as, in spite of these aspects of garish publicity, a dark and dreadful, and withal quite absurd, scene. I see places of that general time, even places of confinement, in a dusty golden light that special memories of small misery scarce in the least bedim, and this holds true of our next and quite neighbouring refuge; the establishment of M. Vergnès alone darkles and shrinks to me — a sordidly black interior is my main image for it; attenuated only by its having very soon afterwards, as a suffered ordeal, altogether lapsed and intermitted. Faintly, in the gloom, I distinguish M. Vergnès himself — quite “old,” very old indeed as I supposed him, and highly irritated and markedly bristling; though of nothing in particular that happened to me at his or at anyone’s else hands have I the scantest remembrance. What really most happened no doubt, was that my brother and I should both come away with a mind prepared for a perfect assimilation of Alphonse Daudet’s chronicle of “Jack,” years and years later on; to make the acquaintance in that work of the “petits pays chauds” among whom Jack learnt the first lessons of life was to see the Institution Vergnès at once revive, swarming as it did with small homesick Cubans and Mexicans; the complete failure of blondness that marks the memory is doubtless the cumulative effect of so many of the New York “petits pays chauds,” preponderantly brown and black and conducing to a greasy gloom. Into this gloom I fear I should see all things recede together but for a certain salient note, the fact that the whole “staff” appears to have been constantly in a rage; from which naturally resulted the accent of shrillness (the only accent we could pick up, though we were supposed to be learning, for the extreme importance of it, quantities of French) and the sound of high vociferation. I remember infuriated ushers, of foreign speech and flushed complexion — the tearing across of hapless “exercises” and dictées and the hurtle through the air of dodged volumes; only never, despite this, the extremity of smiting. There can have been at the Institution no blows instructionally dealt — nor even from our hours of ease do any such echoes come back to me. Little Cubans and Mexicans, I make out, were not to be vulgarly whacked — in deference, presumably, to some latent relic or imputed survival of Castilian pride; which would impose withal considerations of quite practical prudence. Food for reflection and comparison might well have been so suggested; interesting at least the element of contrast between such opposed conceptions of tone, temper and manner as the passion without whacks, or with whacks only of inanimate objects, ruling the scene I have described, and the whacks without passion, the grim, impersonal, strictly penal applications of the rod, which then generally represented what was still involved in our English tradition. It was the two theories of sensibility, of personal dignity, that so diverged; but with such other divergences now on top of those that the old comparison falls away. We today go unwhacked altogether — though from a pride other than Castilian: it is difficult to say at least what ideal has thus triumphed. In the Vergnès air at any rate I seem myself to have sat unscathed and unterrified — not alarmed even by so much as a call to the blackboard; only protected by my insignificance, which yet covered such a sense of our dusky squalor. Queer for us the whole affair, assuredly; but how much queerer for the poor petits pays chauds who had come so far for their privilege. We had come, comparatively, but from round the corner — and that left the “state of education” and the range of selection all about as quaint enough. What could these things then have been in the various native climes of the petits pays chauds?

It was by some strong wave of reaction, clearly, that we were floated next into the quieter haven of Mr. Richard Pulling Jenks — where cleaner waters, as I feel their coolness still, must have filled a neater though, it was true, slightly more contracted trough. Yet the range of selection had been even on this higher plane none too strikingly exemplified; our jumping had scant compass — we still grubbed with a good conscience in Broadway and sidled about Fourth Street. But I think of the higher education as having there, from various causes, none the less begun to glimmer for us. A diffused brightness, a kind of high crosslight of conflicting windows, rests for me at all events on the little realm of Mr. Pulling Jenks and bathes it as with positively sweet limitations. Limited must it have been, I feel, with our couple of middling rooms, front and back, our close packing, our large unaccommodating stove, our grey and gritty oilcloth, and again our importunate Broadway; from the aggregation of which elements there distils itself, without my being able to account for it, a certain perversity of romance. I speak indeed here for myself in particular, and keen for romance must I have been in such conditions, I admit; since the sense of it had crept into a recreational desert even as utter as that of the Institution Vergnès. Up out of Broadway we still scrambled — I can smell the steep and cold and dusty wooden staircase; straight into Broadway we dropped — I feel again the generalised glare of liberation; and I scarce know what tenuity of spirit it argues that I should neither have enjoyed nor been aware of missing (speaking again for myself only) a space wider than the schoolroom floor to react and knock about in. I literally conclude that we must have knocked about in Broadway, and in Broadway alone, like perfect little men of the world; we must have been let loose there to stretch our legs and fill our lungs, without prejudice either to our earlier and later freedoms of going and coming. I as strictly infer, at the same time, that Broadway must have been then as one of the alleys of Eden, for any sinister contact or consequence involved for us; a circumstance that didn’t in the least interfere, too, as I have noted, with its offer of an entrancing interest. The interest verily could have been a calculated thing on the part of our dear parents as little as on that of Mr. Jenks himself. Therefore let it be recorded as still most odd that we should all have assented to such deficiency of landscape, such exiguity of sport. I take the true inwardness of the matter to have been in our having such short hours, long as they may have appeared at the time, that the day left margin at the worst for private inventions. I think we found landscape, for ourselves — and wherever I at least found vision I found such sport as I was capable of — even between the front and back rooms and the conflicting windows; even by the stove which somehow scorched without warming, and yet round which Mr. Coe and Mr. Dolmidge, the drawing-master and the writing-master, arriving of a winter’s day, used notedly, and in the case of Mr. Coe lamentedly, to draw out their delays. Is the dusty golden light of retrospect in this connection an effluence from Mr. Dolmidge and Mr. Coe, whose ministrations come back to me as the sole directly desired or invoked ones I was to know in my years, such as they were, of pupilage?

I see them in any case as old-world images, figures of an antique stamp; products, mustn’t they have been, of an order in which some social relativity or matter-of-course adjustment, some transmitted form and pressure, were still at work? Mr. Dolmidge, inordinately lean, clean-shaved, as was comparatively uncommon then, and in a swallow-tailed coat and I think a black satin stock, was surely perfect in his absolutely functional way, a pure pen-holder of a man, melancholy and mild, who taught the most complicated flourishes — great scrolls of them met our view in the form of surging seas and beaked and beady-eyed eagles, the eagle being so calligraphic a bird — while he might just have taught resignation. He was not at all funny — no one out of our immediate family circle, in fact almost no one but W. J. himself, who flowered in every waste, seems to have struck me as funny in those years; but he was to remain with me a picture of somebody in Dickens, one of the Phiz if not the Cruikshank pictures. Mr. Coe was another affair, bristling with the question of the “hard,” but somehow too with the revelation of the soft, the deeply attaching; a worthy of immense stature and presence, crowned as with the thick white hair of genius, wearing a great gathered or puckered cloak, with a vast velvet collar, and resembling, as he comes back to me, the General Winfield Scott who lived so much in our eyes then. The oddity may well even at that hour have been present to me of its taking so towering a person to produce such small “drawing-cards”; it was as if some mighty bird had laid diminutive eggs. Mr. Coe, of a truth, laid his all over the place, and though they were not of more than handy size — very small boys could set them up in state on very small desks — they had doubtless a great range of number and effect. They were scattered far abroad and I surmise celebrated; they represented crooked cottages, feathery trees, browsing and bristling beasts and other rural objects; all rendered, as I recall them, in little detached dashes that were like stories told in words of one syllable, or even more perhaps in short gasps of delight. It must have been a stammering art, but I admired its fluency, which swims for me moreover in richer though slightly vague associations. Mr. Coe practised on a larger scale, in colour, in oils, producing wondrous neat little boards that make me to this day think of them and more particularly smell them, when I hear of a “panel” picture: a glamour of greatness attends them as brought home by W. J. from the master’s own place of instruction in that old University building which partly formed the east side of Washington Square and figures to memory, or to fond imagination, as throbbing with more offices and functions, a denser chiaroscuro, than any reared hugeness of today, where character is so lost in quantity. Is there any present structure that plays such a part in proportion to its size? — though even as I ask the question I feel how nothing on earth is proportioned to present sizes. These alone are proportioned — and to mere sky-space and mere amount, amount of steel and stone; which is comparatively uninteresting. Perhaps our needs and our elements were then absurdly, were then provincially few, and that the patches of character in that small grey granite compendium were all we had in general to exhibit. Let me add at any rate that some of them were exhibitional — even to my tender years, I mean; since I respond even yet to my privilege of presence at some Commencement or Commemoration, such as might be natural, doubtless, to any “university,” where, as under a high rich roof, before a Chancellor in a gown and amid serried admirers and impressive applause, there was “speaking,” of the finest sort, and where above all I gathered in as a dazzling example the rare assurance of young Winthrop Somebody or Somebody Winthrop, who, though still in jackets, held us spellbound by his rendering of Serjeant Buzfuz’s exposure of Mr. Pickwick. Long was I to marvel at the high sufficiency of young Winthrop Somebody or Somebody Winthrop — in which romantic impression it is perhaps after all (though with the consecration of one or two of the novels of the once-admired Theodore of that name, which so remarkably insists, thrown in) the sense of the place is embalmed.

I must not forget indeed that I throw in also Mr. Coe — even if with less assured a hand; by way of a note on those higher flights of power and promise that I at this time began to see definitely determined in my brother. As I catch W. J.‘s image, from far back, at its most characteristic, he sits drawing and drawing, always drawing, especially under the lamplight of the Fourteenth Street back parlour; and not as with a plodding patience, which I think would less have affected me, but easily, freely and, as who should say, infallibly: always at the stage of finishing off, his head dropped from side to side and his tongue rubbing his lower lip. I recover a period during which to see him at all was so to see him — the other flights and faculties removed him from my view. These were a matter of course — he recurred, he passed nearer, but in his moments of ease, and I clearly quite accepted the ease of his disappearances. Didn’t he always when within my view light them up and justify them by renewed and enlarged vividness? so that my whole sense of him as formed for assimilations scarce conceivable made our gaps of contact too natural for me even to be lessons in humility. Humility had nothing to do with it — as little even as envy would have had; I was below humility, just as we were together outside of competition, mutually “hors concours.” His competitions were with others — in which how wasn’t he, how could he not be, successful? while mine were with nobody, or nobody’s with me, which came to the same thing, as heaven knows I neither braved them nor missed them. That winter, as I recover it, represents him as sufficiently within view to make his position or whereabouts in the upper air definite — I must have taken it for granted before, but could now in a manner measure it; and the freshness of this sense, something serene in my complacency, had to do, I divine, with the effect of our moving, with the rest of our company, which was not numerous but practically, but appreciably “select,” on a higher and fairer plane than ever yet. Predominantly of course we owed this benefit to Richard Pulling himself; of whom I recall my brother’s saying to me, at a considerably later time, and with an authority that affected me as absolute, that he had been of all our masters the most truly genial, in fact the only one to whom the art of exciting an interest or inspiring a sympathy could be in any degree imputed. I take this to have meant that he would have adorned a higher sphere — and it may have been, to explain his so soon swimming out of our ken, that into a higher sphere he rapidly moved; I can account at least for our falling away from him the very next year and declining again upon baser things and a lower civilisation but by some probability of his flight, just thereafter effected, to a greater distance, to one of the far upper reaches of the town. Some years must have elapsed and some distinction have crowned him when, being briefly in New York together, W. J. and I called on him of a Sunday afternoon, to find — what I hadn’t been at all sure of — that he still quite knew who we were, or handsomely pretended to; handsomely in spite of his markedly confirmed identity of appearance with the Punch, husband to Judy, of the funny papers and the street show. Bald, rotund, of ruddy complexion, with the nose, the chin, the arched eye, the paunch and the barbiche, to say nothing of the ferule nursed in his arms and with which, in the show, such free play is made, Mr. Jenks yet seems to me to have preserved a dignity as well as projected an image, and in fact have done other things besides. He whacked occasionally — he must have been one of the last of the whackers; but I don’t remember it as ugly or dreadful or droll — don’t remember, that is, either directly feeling or reflectively enjoying it: it fails somehow to break the spell of our civilisation; my share in which, however, comes back to me as merely contemplative. It is beyond measure odd, doubtless, that my main association with my “studies,” whether of the infant or the adolescent order, should be with almost anything but the fact of learning — of learning, I mean, what I was supposed to learn. I could only have been busy, at the same time, with other pursuits — which must have borne some superficial likeness at least to the acquisition of knowledge of a free irresponsible sort; since I remember few either of the inward pangs or the outward pains of a merely graceless state. I recognise at the same time that it was perhaps a sorry business to be so interested in one didn’t know what. Such are, whether at the worst or at the best, some of the aspects of that season as Mr. Jenks’s image presides; in the light of which I may perhaps again rather wonder at my imputation to the general picture of so much amenity. Clearly the good man was a civiliser — whacks and all; and by some art not now to be detected. He was a complacent classic — which was what my brother’s claim for him, I dare say, mostly represented; though that passed over the head of my tenth year. It was a good note for him in this particular that, deploring the facile text-books of Doctor Anthon of Columbia College, in which there was even more crib than text, and holding fast to the sterner discipline of Andrews and Stoddard and of that other more conservative commentator (he too doubtless long since superseded) whose name I blush to forget. I think in fine of Richard Pulling’s small but sincere academy as a consistent little protest against its big and easy and quite out-distancing rival, the Columbia College school, apparently in those days quite the favourite of fortune.

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