A Small Boy and others, by Henry James

17

I lose myself, of a truth, under the whole pressure of the spring of memory proceeding from recent revisitings and recognitions — the action of the fact that time until lately had spared hereabouts, and may still be sparing, in the most exceptional way, by an anomaly or a mercy of the rarest in New York, a whole cluster of landmarks, leaving me to “spot” and verify, right and left, the smallest preserved particulars. These things, at the pressure, flush together again, interweave their pattern and quite thrust it at me, the absurd little fusion of images, for a history or a picture of the time — the background of which I see after all so much less as the harsh Sixth Avenue corner than as many other matters. Those scant shades claimed us but briefly and superficially, and it comes back to me that oddly enough, in the light of autumn afternoons, our associates, the most animated or at any rate the best “put in” little figures of our landscape, were not our comparatively obscure schoolmates, who seem mostly to have swum out of our ken between any day and its morrow. Our other companions, those we practically knew “at home,” ignored our school, having better or worse of their own, but peopled somehow for us the social scene, which, figuring there for me in documentary vividness, bristles with Van Burens, Van Winkles, De Peysters, Costers, Senters, Norcoms, Robinsons (these last composing round a stone-throwing “Eugene,”) Wards, Hunts and tutti quanti— to whose ranks I must add our invariable Albert, before-mentioned, and who swarm from up and down and east and west, appearing to me surely to have formed a rich and various society. Our salon, it is true, was mainly the street, loose and rude and crude in those days at best — though with a rapid increase of redeeming features, to the extent to which the spread of micaceous brown stone could redeem: as exhibited especially in the ample face of the Scotch Presbyterian church promptly rising just opposite our own peculiar row and which it now marks for me somewhat grimly a span of life to have seen laboriously rear itself, continuously flourish and utterly disappear. While in construction it was only less interesting than the dancing-academy of Mr. Edward Ferrero, slightly west of it and forming with it, in their embryonic stage, a large and delightfully dangerous adjunct to our playground, though with the distinction of coming much to surpass it for interest in the final phase. While we clambered about on ladders and toyed with the peril of unfloored abysses, while we trespassed and pried and pervaded, snatching a scant impression from sorry material enough, clearly, the sacred edifice enjoyed a credit beyond that of the profane; but when both were finished and opened we flocked to the sound of the fiddle more freely, it need scarce be said, than to that of the psalm. “Freely” indeed, in our particular case, scarce expresses the latter relation; since our young liberty in respect to church-going was absolute and we might range at will, through the great city, from one place of worship and one form of faith to another, or might on occasion ignore them all equally, which was what we mainly did; whereas we rallied without a break to the halls of Ferrero, a view of the staringly and, as I supposed dazzlingly, frescoed walls, the internal economy, the high amenity, the general æsthetic and social appeal, of which still hangs in its wealth before me. Dr. McElroy, uplifting tight-closed eyes, strange long-drawn accents and gaunt scraggy chin, squirming and swaying and cushion-thumping in his only a shade more chastely adorned temple, is distinct enough too — just as we enjoyed this bleak intensity the more, to my personal vision, through the vague legend (and no legend was too vague for me to cherish) of his being the next pastor in succession to the one under whom our mother, thereto predirected by our good greatgrandfather, Alexander Robertson already named, who was nothing if not Scotch and Presbyterian and authoritative, as his brave old portrait by the elder Jarves attests, had “sat” before her marriage; the marriage so lamentedly diverting her indeed from this tradition that, to mark the rueful rupture, it had invoked, one evening, with the aid of India muslin and a wondrous gold headband, in the maternal, the Washington Square “parlours,” but the secular nuptial consecration of the then Mayor of the city — I think Mr. Varick.

We progeny were of course after this mild convulsion not at all in the fold; yet it strikes me as the happy note of a simple age that we were practically, of a Sunday at least, wherever we might have chosen to enter: since, going forth hand in hand into the sunshine (and I connect myself here with my next younger, not with my elder, brother, whose orbit was other and larger) we sampled, in modern phrase, as small unprejudiced inquirers obeying their inspiration, any resort of any congregation detected by us; doing so, I make out moreover, with a sense of earnest provision for any contemporary challenge. “What church do you go to?”— the challenge took in childish circles that searching form; of the form it took among our elders my impression is more vague. To which I must add as well that our “fending” in this fashion for ourselves didn’t so prepare us for invidious remark — remark I mean upon our pewless state, which involved, to my imagination, much the same discredit that a houseless or a cookless would have done — as to hush in my breast the appeal to our parents, not for religious instruction (of which we had plenty, and of the most charming and familiar) but simply for instruction (a very different thing) as to where we should say we “went,” in our world, under cold scrutiny or derisive comment. It was colder than any criticism, I recall, to hear our father reply that we could plead nothing less than the whole privilege of Christendom and that there was no communion, even that of the Catholics, even that of the Jews, even that of the Swedenborgians, from which we need find ourselves excluded. With the freedom we enjoyed our dilemma clearly amused him: it would have been impossible, he affirmed, to be theologically more en règle. How as mere detached unaccompanied infants we enjoyed such impunity of range and confidence of welcome is beyond comprehension save by the light of the old manners and conditions, the old local bonhomie, the comparatively primal innocence, the absence of complications; with the several notes of which last beatitude my reminiscence surely shines. It was the theory of the time and place that the young, were they but young enough, could take publicly no harm; to which adds itself moreover, and touchingly enough, all the difference of the old importances. It wasn’t doubtless that the social, or call it simply the human, position of the child was higher than today — a circumstance not conceivable; it was simply that other dignities and values and claims, other social and human positions, were less definite and settled, less prescriptive and absolute. A rich sophistication is after all a gradual growth, and it would have been sophisticated to fear for us, before such bright and vacant vistas, the perils of the way or to see us received anywhere even with the irony of patronage. We hadn’t in fact seats of honour, but that justice was done us — that is that we were placed to our advantage — I infer from my having liked so to “go,” even though my grounds may have been but the love of the exhibition in general, thanks to which figures, faces, furniture, sounds, smells and colours became for me, wherever enjoyed, and enjoyed most where most collected, a positive little orgy of the senses and riot of the mind. Let me at the same time make the point that — such may be the snobbery of extreme youth — I not only failed quite to rise to the parental reasoning, but made out in it rather a certain sophistry; such a prevarication for instance as if we had habitually said we kept the carriage we observably didn’t keep, kept it because we sent when we wanted one to University Place, where Mr. Hathorn had his livery-stable: a connection, this last, promoted by my father’s frequent need of the aid to circulate (his walks were limited through an injury received in youth) and promoting in turn and at a touch, to my consciousness, the stir of small, the smallest remembered things. I recall the adventure, no infrequent one, of being despatched to Mr. Hathorn to bespeak a conveyance, and the very air and odour, the genial warmth, at a fine steaming Irish pitch, of the stables and their stamping and backing beasts, their resounding boardedness, their chairs tipped up at such an angle for lifted heels, a pair of which latter seek the floor again, at my appeal, as those of big bearded Mr. Hathorn himself: an impression enriched by the drive home in lolling and bumping possession of the great vehicle and associated further with Sunday afternoons in spring, with the question of distant Harlem and remoter Bloomingdale, with the experience at one of these junctures of far-away Hoboken, if it wasn’t Williamsburg, which fits in fancifully somewhere; when the carriage was reinforced by a ferry and the ferry by something, something to my present vision very dim and dusty and archaic, something quite ragged and graceless, in the nature of a public tea-garden and ices. The finest link here, however, is, for some reason, with the New York Hotel, and thereby with Albany uncles; thereby also with Mr. Hathorn in person waiting and waiting expensively on his box before the house and somehow felt as attuned to Albany uncles even as Mrs. Cannon had subtly struck me as being.

Intenser than these vague shades meanwhile is my vision of the halls of Ferrero — where the orgy of the senses and even the riot of the mind, of which I have just spoken, must quite literally have led me more of a dance than anywhere. Let this sketch of a lost order note withal that under so scant a general provision for infant exercise, as distinguished from infant ease, our hopping and sliding in tune had to be deemed urgent. It was the sense for this form of relief that clearly was general, superseding as the ampler Ferrero scene did previous limited exhibitions; even those, for that matter, coming back to me in the ancient person of M. Charriau — I guess at the writing of his name — whom I work in but confusedly as a professional visitor, a subject gaped at across a gulf of fear, in one of our huddled schools; all the more that I perfectly evoke him as resembling, with a difference or two, the portraits of the aged Voltaire, and that he had, fiddle in hand and jarret tendu, incited the young agility of our mother and aunt. Edward Ferrero was another matter; in the prime of life, good-looking, romantic and moustachio’d, he was suddenly to figure, on the outbreak of the Civil War, as a General of volunteers — very much as if he had been one of Bonaparte’s improvised young marshals; in anticipation of which, however, he wasn’t at all fierce or superior, to my remembrance, but most kind to sprawling youth, in a charming man of the world fashion and as if we wanted but a touch to become also men of the world. Remarkably good-looking, as I say, by the measure of that period, and extraordinarily agile — he could so gracefully leap and bound that his bounding into the military saddle, such occasion offering, had all the felicity, and only wanted the pink fleshings, of the circus — he was still more admired by the mothers, with whom he had to my eyes a most elegant relation, than by the pupils; among all of whom, at the frequent and delightful soirées, he caused trays laden with lucent syrups repeatedly to circulate. The scale of these entertainments, as I figured it, and the florid frescoes, just damp though they were with newness, and the free lemonade, and the freedom of remark, equally great, with the mothers, were the lavish note in him — just as the fact that he never himself fiddled, but was followed, over the shining parquet, by attendant fiddlers, represented doubtless a shadow the less on his later dignity, so far as that dignity was compassed. Dignity marked in full measure even at the time the presence of his sister Madame Dubreuil, a handsome authoritative person who instructed us equally, in fact preponderantly, and who, though comparatively not sympathetic, so engaged, physiognomically, my wondering interest, that I hear to this hour her shrill Franco–American accent: “Don’t look at me, little boy — look at my feet.” I see them now, these somewhat fat members, beneath the uplifted skirt, encased in “bronzed” slippers, without heels but attached, by graceful cross-bands over her white stockings, to her solid ankles — an emphatic sign of the time; not less than I recover my surprised sense of their supporting her without loss of balance, substantial as she was, in the “first position”; her command of which, her ankles clapped close together and her body very erect, was so perfect that even with her toes, right and left, fairly turning the corner backward, she never fell prone on her face.

It consorted somehow with this wealth of resource in her that she appeared at the soirées, or at least at the great fancy-dress soirée in which the historic truth of my experience, free lemonade and all, is doubtless really shut up, as the “genius of California,” a dazzling vision of white satin and golden flounces — her brother meanwhile maintaining that more distinctively European colour which I feel to have been for my young presumption the convincing essence of the scene in the character of a mousquetaire de Louis Quinze, highly consonant with his type. There hovered in the background a flushed, full-chested and tawnily short-bearded M. Dubreuil, who, as a singer of the heavy order, at the Opera, carried us off into larger things still — the Opera having at last about then, after dwelling for years, down town, in shifty tents and tabernacles, set up its own spacious pavilion and reared its head as the Academy of Music: all at the end, or what served for the end, of our very street, where, though it wasn’t exactly near and Union Square bristled between, I could yet occasionally gape at the great bills beside the portal, in which M. Dubreuil always so serviceably came in at the bottom of the cast. A subordinate artist, a “grand utility” at the best, I believe, and presently to become, on that scene, slightly ragged I fear even in its freshness, permanent stage-manager or, as we say nowadays, producer, he had yet eminently, to my imagination, the richer, the “European” value; especially for instance when our air thrilled, in the sense that our attentive parents reechoed, with the visit of the great Grisi and the great Mario, and I seemed, though the art of advertisement was then comparatively so young and so chaste, to see our personal acquaintance, as he could almost be called, thickly sandwiched between them. Such was one’s strange sense for the connections of things that they drew out the halls of Ferrero till these too seemed fairly to resound with Norma and Lucrezia Borgia, as if opening straight upon the stage, and Europe, by the stroke, had come to us in such force that we had but to enjoy it on the spot. That could never have been more the case than on the occasion of my assuming, for the famous fancy-ball — not at the operatic Academy, but at the dancing-school, which came so nearly to the same thing — the dress of a débardeur, whatever that might be, which carried in its puckered folds of dark green relieved with scarlet and silver such an exotic fragrance and appealed to me by such a legend. The legend had come round to us, it was true, by way of Albany, whence we learned at the moment of our need, that one of the adventures, one of the least lamentable, of our cousin Johnny had been his figuring as a débardeur at some Parisian revel; the elegant evidence of which, neatly packed, though with but vague instructions for use, was helpfully sent on to us. The instructions for use were in fact so vague that I was afterward to become a bit ruefully conscious of having sadly dishonoured, or at least abbreviated, my model. I fell, that is I stood, short of my proper form by no less than half a leg; the essence of the débardeur being, it appeared, that he emerged at the knees, in white silk stockings and with neat calves, from the beribboned breeches which I artlessly suffered to flap at my ankles. The discovery, after the fact, was disconcerting — yet had been best made withal, too late; for it would have seemed, I conceive, a less monstrous act to attempt to lengthen my legs than to shorten Johnny’s culotte. The trouble had been that we hadn’t really known what a débardeur was, and I am not sure indeed that I know to this day. It had been more fatal still that even fond Albany couldn’t tell us.

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