A Small Boy and others, by Henry James

21

How shall I render certain other impressions coming back to me from that summer, which were doubtless involved in my having still for a time, on the alternate days when my complaint was active, to lie up on various couches and, for my main comfort, consider the situation? I considered it best, I think, gathering in the fruits of a quickened sensibility to it, in certain umbrageous apartments in which my parents had settled themselves near Geneva; an old house, in ample grounds and among great spreading trees that pleasantly brushed our windows in the summer heats and airs, known, if I am not mistaken, as the Campagne Gerebsoff — which its mistress, an invalid Russian lady, had partly placed at our disposition while she reclined in her own quarter of the garden, on a chaise longue and under a mushroom hat with a green veil, and I, in the course of the mild excursions appointed as my limit, considered her from afar in the light of the legends supplied to me, as to her identity, history, general practices and proceedings, by my younger brother Wilky, who, according to his nature, or I may say to his genius, had made without loss of time great advances of acquaintance with her and quickened thereby my sense of his superior talent for life. Wilky’s age followed closely on mine, and from that time on we conversed and consorted, though with lapses and disparities; I being on the whole, during the succession of those years, in the grateful, the really fortunate position of having one exposure, rather the northward, as it were, to the view of W. J., and the other, perhaps the more immediately sunned surface, to the genial glow of my junior. Of this I shall have more to say, but to meet in memory meanwhile even this early flicker of him is to know again something of the sense that I attached all along our boyhood to his successful sociability, his instinct for intercourse, his genius (as I have used the word) for making friends. It was the only genius he had, declaring itself from his tenderest years, never knowing the shadow of defeat, and giving me, above all, from as far back and by the very radiation of the fact, endlessly much to think of. For I had in a manner, thanks to the radiation, much of the benefit; his geniality was absolutely such that the friends he made were made almost less for himself, so to speak, than for other friends — of whom indeed we, his own adjuncts, were easily first — so far at least as he discriminated. At night all cats are grey, and in this brother’s easy view all his acquaintance were his family. The trail of his sociability was over us all alike — though it here concerns me but to the effect, as I recover it, of its weight on my comparatively so indirect faculty for what is called taking life. I must have already at the Campagne Gerebsoff begun to see him take it with all his directness — begun in fact to be a trifle tormentedly aware that, though there might be many ways of so doing, we are condemned practically to a choice, not made free of them all; reduced to the use of but one, at the best, which it is to our interest to make the most of, since we may indeed sometimes make much. There was a small sad charm, I should doubtless add, in this operation of the contrast of the case before me with my own case; it was positively as if Wilky’s were supplying me on occasion with the most immediate matter for my own. That was particularly marked after he had, with our elder brother, been placed at school, the Pensionnat Roediger, at Châtelaine, then much esteemed and where I was supposedly to join them on my complete recovery: I recall sociable, irrepressibly sociable sorties thence on the part of the pair as promptly breaking out, not less than I recall sociable afternoon visits to the establishment on the part of the rest of us: it was my brothers’ first boarding school, but as we had in the New York conditions kept punctually rejoining our family, so in these pleasant Genevese ones our family returned the attention. Of this also more anon; my particular point is just the wealth of Wilky’s contribution to my rich current consciousness — the consciousness fairly made rich by my taking in, as aforesaid, at reflective hours, hours when I was in a manner alone with it, our roomy and shadowy, our almost haunted interior.

Admirable the scale and solidity, in general, of the ancient villas planted about Geneva, and our house affected me as so massive and so spacious that even our own half of it seemed vast. I had never before lived so long in anything so old and, as I somehow felt, so deep; depth, depth upon depth, was what came out for me at certain times of my waiting above, in my immense room of thick embrasures and rather prompt obscurity, while the summer afternoon waned and my companions, often below at dinner, lingered and left me just perhaps a bit overwhelmed. That was the sense of it — the character, in the whole place, pressed upon me with a force I hadn’t met and that was beyond my analysis — which is but another way of saying how directly notified I felt that such material conditions as I had known could have had no depth at all. My depth was a vague measure, no doubt, but it made space, in the twilight, for an occasional small sound of voice or step from the garden or the rooms of which the great homely, the opaque green shutters opened there softly to echo in-mixed with reverberations finer and more momentous, personal, experimental, if they might be called so; which I much encouraged (they borrowed such tone from our new surrounding medium) and half of which were reducible to Wilky’s personalities and Wilky’s experience: these latter, irrepressibly communicated, being ever, enviably, though a trifle bewilderingly and even formidably, of personalities. There was the difference and the opposition, as I really believe I was already aware — that one way of taking life was to go in for everything and everyone, which kept you abundantly occupied, and the other way was to be as occupied, quite as occupied, just with the sense and the image of it all, and on only a fifth of the actual immersion: a circumstance extremely strange. Life was taken almost equally both ways — that, I mean, seemed the strangeness; mere brute quantity and number being so much less in one case than the other. These latter were what I should have liked to go in for, had I but had the intrinsic faculties; that more than ever came home to me on those occasions when, as I could move further and stay out longer, I accompanied my parents on afternoon visits to Châtelaine and the Campagne Roediger, a scene that has remained with me as nobly placid and pastoral. The great trees stood about, casting afternoon shadows; the old thick-walled green-shuttered villa and its dépendances had the air of the happiest home; the big bearded bonhomie of M. Roediger among his little polyglot charges — no petits pays chauds these — appeared to justify, and more, the fond New York theory of Swiss education, the kind à la portée of young New Yorkers, as a beautifully genialised, humanised, civilised, even romanticised thing, in which, amid lawny mountain slopes, “the languages” flowed into so many beaming recipients on a stream of milk and honey, and “the relation,” above all, the relation from master to pupil and back again, was of an amenity that wouldn’t have been of this world save for the providential arrangement of a perfect pedagogic Switzerland. “Did you notice the relation — how charming it was?” our parents were apt to say to each other after these visits, in reference to some observed show of confidence between instructor and instructed; while, as for myself, I was lost in the wonder of all the relations — my younger brother seemed to live, and to his own ingenuous relish as well, in such a happy hum of them. The languages had reason to prosper — they were so copiously represented; the English jostled the American, the Russian the German, and there even trickled through a little funny French.

A great Geneva school of those days was the Institution Haccius, to which generations of our young countrymen had been dedicated and our own faces first turned — under correction, however, by the perceived truth that if the languages were in question the American reigned there almost unchallenged. The establishment chosen for our experiment must have appealed by some intimate and insinuating side, and as less patronised by the rich and the sophisticated — for even in those days some Americans were rich and several sophisticated; little indeed as it was all to matter in the event, so short a course had the experiment just then to run. What it mainly brings back to me is the fine old candour and queerness of the New York state of mind, begotten really not a little, I think, under our own roof, by the mere charmed perusal of Rodolphe Toeppfer’s Voyages en Zigzag, the two goodly octavo volumes of which delightful work, an adorable book, taken with its illustrations, had come out early in the ‘fifties and had engaged our fondest study. It is the copious chronicle, by a schoolmaster o£ endless humour and sympathy — of what degree and form of “authority” it never occurred to one even to ask — of his holiday excursions with his pupils, mainly on foot and with staff and knapsack, through the incomparable Switzerland of the time before the railways and the “rush,” before the monster hotels, the desecrated summits, the vulgarised valleys, the circular tours, the perforating tubes, the funiculars, the hordes, the horrors. To turn back to Toeppfer’s pages today is to get the sense of a lost paradise, and the effect for me even yet of having pored over them in my childhood is to steep in sweetness and quaintness some of the pictures — his own illustrations are of the pleasantest and drollest, and the association makes that faded Swiss master of landscape Calame, of the so-called calamités, a quite sufficient Ruysdael. It must have been conceived for us that we would lead in these conditions — always in pursuit of an education — a life not too dissimilar to that of the storied exiles in the forest of Arden; though one would fain not press, after all, upon ideals of culture so little organised, so little conscious, up to that moment, of our ferocities of comparison and competition, of imposed preparation. This particular loose ideal reached out from the desert — or what might under discouragement pass for such; it invoked the light, but a simplicity of view which was somehow one with the beauty of other convictions accompanied its effort; and though a glance at the social “psychology” of some of its cheerful estimates, its relative importances, assumed and acted upon, might here seem indicated, there are depths of the ancient serenity that nothing would induce me to sound.

I need linger the less, moreover, since we in fact, oddly enough, lingered so little; so very little, for reasons doubtless well known to ourselves at the time but which I at present fail to recapture, that what next stands vividly out for me is our renewed passage through Paris on the way to London for the winter; a turn of our situation invested at the time with nothing whatever of the wonderful, yet which would again half prompt me to soundings were I not to recognise in it that mark of the fitful, that accent of the improvised, that general quality of earnest and reasoned, yet at the same time almost passionate, impatience which was to devote us for some time to variety, almost to incoherency, of interest. We had fared across the sea under the glamour of the Swiss school in the abstract, but the Swiss school in the concrete soon turned stale on our hands; a fact over which I remember myself as no further critical than to feel, not without zest, that, since one was all eyes and the world decidedly, at such a pace, all images, it ministered to the panoramic. It ministered, to begin with, through our very early start for Lyons again in the October dawn — without Nadali or the carriages this time, but on the basis of the malle-poste, vast, yellow and rumbling, which we availed wholly to fill and of which the high haughtiness was such that it could stop, even for an instant, only at appointed and much dissevered places — to the effect, I recall, of its vainly attempted arrest by our cousin Charlotte King, beforementioned, whom I see now suddenly emerge, fresh, confident and pretty, from some rural retreat by the road, a scene of simple villeggiatura, “rien que pour saluer ces dames,” as she pleaded to the conductor; whom she practically, if not permittedly, overmastered, leaving with me still the wonder of her happy fusion of opposites. The coach had not, in the event, paused, but so neither had she, and as it ignored flush and flurry quite as it defied delay, she was equally a match for it in these particulars, blandly achieving her visit to us while it rumbled on, making a perfect success and a perfect grace of her idea. She dropped as elegantly out as she had gymnastically floated in, and “ces dames” must much have wished they could emulate her art. Save for this my view of that migration has faded, though to shine out again to the sense of our early morning arrival in Paris a couple of days later, and our hunt there, vain at first, for an hotel that would put us numerously up; vain till we had sat awhile, in the Rue du Helder, I think, before that of an Albany uncle, luckily on the scene and finally invoked, who after some delay descended to us with a very foreign air, I fancied, and no possibility, to his regret, of placing us under his own roof; as if indeed, I remember reflecting, we could, such as we were, have been desired to share his foreign interests — such as they were. He espoused our cause, however, with gay goodnature — while I wondered, in my admiration for him and curiosity about him, how he really liked us, and (a bit doubtfully) whether I should have liked us had I been in his place; and after some further adventure installed us at the Hôtel de la Ville de Paris in the Rue de la Ville-l’Evèque, a resort now long since extinct, though it lingered on for some years, and which I think of as rather huddled and disappointingly private, to the abatement of spectacle, and standing obliquely beyond a wall, a high gateway and a more or less cobbled court.

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