A Small Boy and others, by Henry James

20

My own sense of the great matter, meanwhile — that is of our possibilities, still more than of our actualities, of Italy in general and of Florence in particular — was a perfectly recoverable little awareness, as I find, of certain mild soft irregular breathings thence on the part of an absent pair in whom our parents were closely interested and whose communications, whose Roman, Sorrentine, Florentine letters, letters in especial from the Baths of Lucca, kept open, in our air, more than any other sweet irritation, that “question of Europe” which was to have after all, in the immediate years, so limited, so shortened, a solution. Mary Temple the elder had, early in our Fourteenth Street period, married Edmund Tweedy, a haunter of that neighbourhood and of our house in it from the first, but never more than during a winter spent with us there by that quasi-relative, who, by an extension of interest and admiration — she was in those years quite exceedingly handsome — ranked for us with the Albany aunts, adding so a twist, as it were, to our tie with the Temple cousins, her own close kin. This couple must have been, putting real relatives aside, my parents’ best friends in Europe, twitching thereby hardest the fine firm thread attached at one end to our general desire and at the other to their supposed felicity. The real relatives, those planted out in the same countries, are a chapter by themselves, whose effect on us, whose place in our vision, I should like to trace: that of the Kings, for instance, of my mother’s kin, that of the Masons, of my father’s — the Kings who cultivated, for years, the highest instructional, social and moral possibilities at Geneva, the Masons, above all, less strenuous but more sympathetic, who reported themselves to us hauntingly, during a considerable period, as enjoying every conceivable agrément at Tours and at the then undeveloped Trouville, even the winter Trouville, on the lowest possible terms. Fain would I, as for the “mere pleasure” of it, under the temptation to delineate, gather into my loose net the singularly sharp and rounded image of our cousin Charlotte of the former name, who figured for us, on the field of Europe, wherever we looked, and all the rest of time, as a character of characters and a marvel of placid consistency; through my vague remembrance of her return from China after the arrest of a commercial career there by her husband’s death in the Red Sea — which somehow sounded like a dreadful form of death, and my scarce less faint recovery of some Christmas treat of our childhood under her roof in Gramercy Park, amid dim chinoiseries and, in that twilight of time, dimmer offspring, Vernon, Anne, Arthur, marked to us always, in the distincter years, as of all our young relatives the most intensely educated and most pointedly proper — an occasion followed by her permanent and invidious withdrawal from her own country. I would keep her in my eye through the Genevese age and on to the crisis of the Civil War, in which Vernon, unforgiven by her stiff conservatism for his Northern loyalty, laid down before Petersburg a young life of understanding and pain, uncommemorated as to the gallantry of its end — he had insistently returned to the front, after a recovery from first wounds, as under his mother’s malediction — on the stone beneath which he lies in the old burial ground at Newport, the cradle of his father’s family. I should further pursue my subject through other periods and places, other constantly “quiet” but vivid exhibitions, to the very end of the story — which for myself was the impression, first, of a little lonely, soft-voiced, gentle, relentless lady, in a dull Surrey garden of a summer afternoon, more than half blind and all dependent on the dame de compagnie who read aloud to her that Saturday Review which had ever been the prop and mirror of her opinions and to which she remained faithful, her children estranged and outworn, dead and ignored; and the vision, second and for a climax, of an old-world rez-dechaussée at Versailles, goal of my final pilgrimage, almost in presence of the end (end of her very personal career, I mean, but not of her perfectly firm spirit or of her charmingly smooth address).

I confess myself embarrassed by my very ease of recapture of my young consciousness; so that I perforce try to encourage lapses and keep my abundance down. The place for the lapse consents with difficulty, however, to be any particular point of the past at which I catch myself (easily caught as I am) looking about me; it has certainly nothing in common with that coign of vantage enjoyed by me one June afternoon of 1855 in the form of the minor share of the box of a carriage that conveyed us for the first time since our babyhood, W. J.‘s and mine, through so much of a vast portentous London. I was an item in the overflow of a vehicle completely occupied, and I thrilled with the spectacle my seat beside the coachman so amply commanded — without knowing at this moment why, amid other claims, I had been marked for such an eminence. I so far justify my privilege at least as still to feel that prime impression, of extreme intensity, underlie, deep down, the whole mass of later observation. There are London aspects which, so far as they still touch me, after all the years, touch me as just sensible reminders of this hour of early apprehension, so penetrated for me as to have kept its ineffaceable stamp. For at last we had come to Europe — we had disembarked at Liverpool, but a couple of days before, from that steamer Atlantic, of the Collins line, then active but so soon to be utterly undone, of which I had kept a romantic note ever since a certain evening of a winter or two before. I had on that occasion assisted with my parents at a varied theatrical exhibition — the theatre is distinct to me as Brougham’s — one of the features of which was the at that time flourishing farce of Betsy Baker, a picture of some predicament, supposed droll, of its hero Mr. Mouser, whose wife, if I am correct, carries on a laundry and controls as she may a train of young assistants. A feature of the piece comes back to me as the pursuit of Mr. Mouser round and round the premises by the troop of laundresses, shouting his name in chorus, capture by them being abject, though whether through fear of their endearments or of their harsher violence I fail to remember. It was enough that the public nerve had at the moment been tried by the non-arrival of the Atlantic, several days overdue, to the pitch at last of extreme anxiety; so that, when after the fall of the curtain on the farce the distracted Mr. Mouser, still breathless, reappeared at the footlights, where I can see him now abate by his plight no jot of the dignity of his announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, I rejoice to be able to tell you that the good ship Atlantic is safe!” the house broke into such plaudits, so huge and prolonged a roar of relief, as I had never heard the like of and which gave me my first measure of a great immediate public emotion — even as the incident itself today reminds me of the family-party smallness of the old New York, those happy limits that could make us all care, and care to fond vociferation, for the same thing at once. It was a moment of the golden age — representing too but a snatch of elation, since the wretched Arctic had gone down in mortal woe and her other companion, the Pacific, leaving England a few months later and under the interested eyes of our family group, then temporarily settled in London, was never heard of more. Let all of which show again what traps are laid about me for unguarded acute reminiscence.

I meet another of these, though I positively try to avoid it, in the sense of a day spent on the great fusty curtained bed, a mediæval four-poster such as I had never seen, of the hotel at the London and North–Western station, where it appeared, to our great inconvenience, that I had during the previous months somewhere perversely absorbed (probably on Staten Island upwards of a year before) the dull seed of malaria, which now suddenly broke out in chills and fever. This condition, of the intermittent order, hampered our movements but left alternate days on which we could travel, and as present to me as ever is the apprehended interest of my important and determinant state and of our complicated prospect while I lay, much at my ease — for I recall in particular certain short sweet times when I could be left alone — with the thick and heavy suggestions of the London room about me, the very smell of which was ancient, strange and impressive, a new revelation altogether, and the window open to the English June and the far off hum of a thousand possibilities. I consciously took them in, these last, and must then, I think, have first tasted the very greatest pleasure perhaps I was ever to know — that of almost holding my breath in presence of certain aspects to the end of so taking in. It was as if in those hours that precious fine art had been disclosed to me — scantly as the poor place and the small occasion might have seemed of an order to promote it. We seize our property by an avid instinct wherever we find it, and I must have kept seizing mine at the absurdest little rate, and all by this deeply dissimulative process of taking in, through the whole succession of those summer days. The next application of it that stands out for me, or the next that I make room for here, since I note after all so much less than I remember, is the intensity of a fond apprehension of Paris, a few days later, from the balcony of an hotel that hung, through the soft summer night, over the Rue de la Paix. I hung with the balcony, and doubtless with my brothers and my sister, though I recover what I felt as so much relation and response to the larger, the largest appeal only, that of the whole perfect Parisianism I seemed to myself always to have possessed mentally — even if I had but just turned twelve! — and that now filled out its frame or case for me from every lighted window, up and down, as if each of these had been, for strength of sense, a word in some immortal quotation, the very breath of civilised lips. How I had anciently gathered such stores of preconception is more than I shall undertake an account of — though I believe I should be able to scrape one together; certain it is at any rate that half the beauty of the whole exposed second floor of a modiste just opposite, for instance, with the fittings and figurings, as well as the intent immobilities, of busy young women descried through frank, and, as it were, benignant apertures, and of such bright fine strain that they but asked to work far into the night, came from the effect on the part of these things of so exactly crowning and comforting I couldn’t have said what momentous young dream. I might have been right to myself — as against some danger of being wrong, and if I had uttered my main comment on it all this must certainly have been “I told you so, I told you so!” What I had told myself was of course that the impression would be of the richest and at the same time of the most insinuating, and this after all didn’t sail very close; but I had had before me from far back a picture (which might have been hung in the very sky,) and here was every touch in it repeated with a charm. Had I ever till then known what a charm was? — a large, a local, a social charm, leaving out that of a few individuals. It was at all events, this mystery, one’s property — that of one’s mind; and so, once for all, I helped myself to it from my balcony and tucked it away. It counted all immensely for practice in taking in.

I profited by that, no doubt, still a few days later, at an hour that has never ceased to recur to me all my life as crucial, as supremely determinant. The travelling-carriage had stopped at a village on the way from Lyons to Geneva, between which places there was then no railway; a village now nameless to me and which was not yet Nantua, in the Jura, where we were to spend the night. I was stretched at my ease on a couch formed by a plank laid from seat to seat and covered by a small mattress and other draperies; an indulgence founded on my visitation of fever, which, though not now checking our progress, assured me, in our little band, these invidious luxuries. It may have been that as my body was pampered so I was moved equally to pamper my spirit, for my appropriative instinct had neglected no item of our case from the first — by which I mean from the moment of our getting under way, that morning, with much elaboration, in the court of the old Hôtel de l’Univers at Lyons, where we had arrived two days before and awaited my good pleasure during forty-eight hours that overflowed for us perhaps somewhat less than any pair of days yet, but as regards which it was afterwards my complacent theory that my contemplative rest at the ancient inn, with all the voices and graces of the past, of the court, of the French scheme of manners in general and of ancient inns, as such, in particular, had prepared me not a little, when I should in due course hear of it, for what was meant by the vie de province— that expression which was to become later on so toned, as old fine colour and old fine opinion are toned. It was the romance of travel, and it was the suggested romance, flushed with suppositions and echoes, with implications and memories, memories of one’s “reading,” save the mark! all the more that our proper bestowal required two carriages, in which we were to “post,” ineffable thought, and which bristled with every kind of contradiction of common experience. The postilion, in a costume rather recalling, from the halls of Ferrero, that of my débardeur, bobbed up and down, the Italian courier, Jean Nadali, black-whiskered and acquired in London, sat in the rumble along with Annette Godefroi of Metz, fresh-coloured, broad-faced and fair-braided, a “bonne Lorraine” if ever there was, acquired in New York: I enjoy the echo of their very names, neither unprecedented nor irreproducible, yet which melt together for me, to intensification, with all the rest; with the recovered moment, above all, of our pause at the inn-door in the cool sunshine — we had mounted and mounted — during which, in my absurdly cushioned state, I took in, as I have hinted, by a long slow swig that testified to some power of elbow, a larger draught of the wine of perception than any I had ever before owed to a single throb of that faculty. The village street, which was not as village streets hitherto known to me, opened out, beyond an interval, into a high place on which perched an object also a fresh revelation and that I recognised with a deep joy — though a joy that was doubtless partly the sense of fantastic ease, of abated illness and of cold chicken — as at once a castle and a ruin. The only castle within my ken had been, by my impression, the machicolated villa above us the previous summer at New Brighton, and as I had seen no structure rise beyond that majesty so I had seen none abased to the dignity of ruin. Loose boards were no expression of this latter phase, and I was already somehow aware of a deeper note in the crumbled castle than any note of the solid one — little experience as I had had either of solidity. At a point in the interval, at any rate, below the slope on which this memento stood, was a woman in a black bodice, a white shirt and a red petticoat, engaged in some sort of field labour, the effect of whose intervention just then is almost beyond my notation. I knew her for a peasant in sabots — the first peasant I had ever beheld, or beheld at least to such advantage. She had in the whole aspect an enormous value, emphasising with her petticoat’s tonic strength the truth that sank in as I lay — the truth of one’s embracing there, in all the presented character of the scene, an amount of character I had felt no scene present, not even the one I had raked from the Hôtel Westminster; the sort of thing that, even as mere fulness and mere weight, would sit most warmly in the mind. Supremely, in that ecstatic vision, was “Europe,” sublime synthesis, expressed and guaranteed to me — as if by a mystic gage, which spread all through the summer air, that I should now, only now, never lose it, hold the whole consistency of it: up to that time it might have been but mockingly whisked before me. Europe mightn’t have been flattered, it was true, at my finding her thus most signified and summarised in a sordid old woman scraping a mean living and an uninhabitable tower abandoned to the owls; that was but the momentary measure of a small sick boy, however, and the virtue of the impression was proportioned to my capacity. It made a bridge over to more things than I then knew.

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