A Small Boy and others, by Henry James

4

It took place in the house of our cousins Robert and Kitty Emmet the elder — for we were to have two cousin Kittys of that ilk and yet another consanguineous Robert at least; the latter name being naturally, among them all, of a pious, indeed of a glorious, tradition, and three of my father’s nieces marrying three Emmet brothers, the first of these the Robert aforesaid. Catherine James, daughter of my uncle Augustus, his then quite recent and, as I remember her, animated and attractive bride, whose fair hair framed her pointed smile in full and far-drooping “front” curls, I easily evoke as my first apprehended image of the free and happy young woman of fashion, a sign of the wondrous fact that ladies might live for pleasure, pleasure always, pleasure alone. She was distinguished for nothing whatever so much as for an insatiable love of the dance; that passion in which I think of the “good,” the best, New York society of the time as having capered and champagned itself away. Her younger sister Gertrude, afterwards married to James — or more inveterately Jim — Pendleton, of Virginia, followed close upon her heels, literally speaking, and though emulating her in other respects too, was to last, through many troubles, much longer (looking extraordinarily the while like the younger portraits of Queen Victoria) and to have much hospitality, showing it, and showing everything, in a singularly natural way, for a considerable collection of young hobbledehoy kinsmen. But I am solicited a moment longer by the queer little issues involved — as if a social light would somehow stream from them — in my having been taken, a mere mite of observation, to Kitty Emmet’s “grown-up” assembly. Was it that my mother really felt that to the scrap that I was other scraps would perhaps strangely adhere, to the extent thus of something to distinguish me by, nothing else probably having as yet declared itself — such a scrap for instance as the fine germ of this actual ferment of memory and play of fancy, a retroactive vision almost intense of the faded hour and a fond surrender to the questions with which it bristles? All the female relatives on my father’s side who reappear to me in these evocations strike me as having been intensely and admirably, but at the same time almost indescribably, natural; which fact connects itself for the brooding painter and fond analyst with fifty other matters and impressions, his vision of a whole social order — if the American scene might indeed have been said at that time to be positively ordered. Wasn’t the fact that the dancing passion was so out of proportion to any social resource just one of the signs of the natural? — and for that matter in both sexes alike of the artless kindred. It was shining to us that Jim Pendleton had a yacht — though I was not smuggled aboard it; there the line was drawn — but the deck must have been more used for the “German” than for other manoeuvres, often doubtless under the lead of our cousin Robert, the eldest of the many light irresponsibles to whom my father was uncle: distinct to me still being the image of that phenomenally lean and nimble choreographic hero, “Bob” James to us always, who, almost ghost-fashion, led the cotillion on from generation to generation, his skull-like smile, with its accent from the stiff points of his long moustache and the brightly hollow orbits of his eyes, helping to make of him an immemorial elegant skeleton.

It is at all events to the sound of fiddles and the popping of corks that I see even young brides, as well as young grooms, originally so formed to please and to prosper as our hosts of the restless little occasion I have glanced at, vanish untimely, become mysterious and legendary, with such unfathomed silences and significant headshakes replacing the earlier concert; so that I feel how one’s impression of so much foredoomed youthful levity received constant and quite thrilling increase. It was of course an impression then obscurely gathered, but into which one was later on to read strange pages — to some of which I may find myself moved to revert. Mere mite of observation though I have dubbed myself, I won’t pretend to have deciphered any of them amid the bacchanal sounds that, on the evening so suggestively spent, floated out into the region of Washington Place. It is round that general centre that my richest memories of the “gay” little life in general cluster — as if it had been, for the circle in which I seem justified in pretending to have “moved,” of the finer essence of “town”; covering as it did the stretch of Broadway down to Canal Street, with, closer at hand, the New York Hotel, which figured somehow inordinately in our family annals (the two newer ones, the glory of their brief and discredited, their flouted and demolished age, the brown Metropolitan and the white St. Nicholas, were much further down) and rising northward to the Ultima Thule of Twenty-third Street, only second then in the supposedly ample scheme of the regular ninth “wide” street. I can’t indeed have moved much on that night of revelations and yet of enigmas over which I still hang fascinated; I must have kept intensely still in my corner, all wondering and all fearing — fearing notice most; and in a definite way I but remember the formidable interest of my so convincing dowager (to hark back for a second to her) and the fact that a great smooth white cloth was spread across the denuded room, converted thus into a field of frolic the prospect of which much excited my curiosity. I but recover the preparations, however, without recovering the performance; Mrs. L. and I must have been the only persons not shaking a foot, and premature unconsciousness clearly in my case supervened. Out of it peeps again the riddle, the so quaint trait de moeurs, of my infant participation. But I set that down as representative and interesting, and have done with it.

The manners of the time had obviously a bonhomie of their own — certainly so on our particularly indulgent and humane little field; as to which general proposition the later applications and transformations of the bonhomie would be interesting to trace. It has lingered and fermented and earned other names, but I seem on the track of its prime evidence with that note of the sovereign ease of all the young persons with whom we grew up. In the after-time, as our view took in, with new climes and new scenes, other examples of the class, these were always to affect us as more formed and finished, more tutored and governessed, warned and armed at more points for, and doubtless often against, the social relation; so that this prepared state on their part, and which at first appeared but a preparation for shyness or silence or whatever other ideal of the unconversable, came to be for us the normal, since it was the relative and not the positive, still less the superlative, state. No charming creatures of the growing girl sort were ever to be natural in the degree of these nearer and remoter ornaments of our family circle in youth; when after intervals and absences the impression was renewed we saw how right we had been about it, and I feel as if we had watched it for years under the apprehension and the vision of some inevitable change, wondering with an affectionate interest what effect the general improvement in manners might, perhaps all unfortunately, have upon it. I make out as I look back that it was really to succumb at no point to this complication, that it was to keep its really quite inimitable freshness to the end, or, in other words, when it had been the first free growth of the old conditions, was to pass away but with the passing of those themselves for whom it had been the sole possible expression. For it was as of an altogether special shade and sort that the New York young naturalness of our prime was touchingly to linger with us — so that to myself, at present, with only the gentle ghosts of the so numerous exemplars of it before me, it becomes the very stuff of the soft cerements in which their general mild mortality is laid away. We used to have in the after-time, amid fresh recognitions and reminders, the kindest “old New York” identifications for it. The special shade of its identity was thus that it was not conscious — really not conscious of anything in the world; or was conscious of so few possibilities at least, and these so immediate and so a matter of course, that it came almost to the same thing. That was the testimony that the slight subjects in question strike me as having borne to their surrounding medium — the fact that their unconsciousness could be so preserved. They played about in it so happily and serenely and sociably, as unembarrassed and loquacious as they were unadmonished and uninformed — only aware at the most that a good many people within their horizon were “dissipated”; as in point of fact, alas, a good many were. What it was to be dissipated — that, however, was but in the most limited degree a feature of their vision; they would have held, under pressure, that it consisted more than anything else in getting tipsy.

Infinitely queer and quaint, almost incongruously droll, the sense somehow begotten in ourselves, as very young persons, of our being surrounded by a slightly remote, yet dimly rich, outer and quite kindred circle of the tipsy. I remember how, once, as a very small boy, after meeting in the hall a most amiable and irreproachable gentleman, all but closely consanguineous, who had come to call on my mother, I anticipated his further entrance by slipping in to report to that parent that I thought he must be tipsy. And I was to recall perfectly afterwards the impression I so made on her — in which the general proposition that the gentlemen of a certain group or connection might on occasion be best described by the term I had used sought to destroy the particular presumption that our visitor wouldn’t, by his ordinary measure, show himself for one of those. He didn’t, to all appearance, for I was afterwards disappointed at the lapse of lurid evidence: that memory remained with me, as well as a considerable subsequent wonder at my having leaped to so baseless a view. The truth was indeed that we had too, in the most innocent way in the world, our sense of “dissipation” as an abounding element in family histories; a sense fed quite directly by our fondness for making our father — I can at any rate testify for the urgency of my own appeal to him — tell us stories of the world of his youth. He regaled us with no scandals, yet it somehow rarely failed to come out that each contemporary on his younger scene, each hero of each thrilling adventure, had, in spite of brilliant promise and romantic charm, ended badly, as badly as possible. This became our gaping generalisation — it gaped even under the moral that the anecdote was always, and so familiarly, humanly and vividly, designed to convey: everyone in the little old Albany of the Dutch houses and the steep streets and the recurrent family names — Townsends, Clintons, Van Rensselaers, Pruyns: I pick them up again at hazard, and all uninvidiously, out of reverberations long since still — everyone without exception had at last taken a turn as far as possible from edifying. And what they had most in common, the hovering presences, the fitful apparitions that, speaking for myself, so engaged my imagination, was just the fine old Albany drama — in the light of which a ring of mystery as to their lives (mainly carried on at the New York Hotel aforesaid) surrounded them, and their charm, inveterate, as I believed, shone out as through vaguely-apprehended storm-clouds. Their charm was in various marks of which I shall have more to say — for as I breathe all this hushed air again even the more broken things give out touching human values and faint sweet scents of character, flushes of old beauty and good-will.

The grim little generalisation remained, none the less, and I may speak of it — since I speak of everything — as still standing: the striking evidence that scarce aught but disaster could, in that so unformed and unseasoned society, overtake young men who were in the least exposed. Not to have been immediately launched in business of a rigorous sort was to be exposed — in the absence I mean of some fairly abnormal predisposition to virtue; since it was a world so simply constituted that whatever wasn’t business, or exactly an office or a “store,” places in which people sat close and made money, was just simply pleasure, sought, and sought only, in places in which people got tipsy. There was clearly no mean, least of all the golden one, for it was just the ready, even when the moderate, possession of gold that determined, that hurried on, disaster. There were whole sets and groups, there were “sympathetic,” though too susceptible, races, that seemed scarce to recognise or to find possible any practical application of moneyed, that is of transmitted, ease, however limited, but to go more or less rapidly to the bad with it — which meant even then going as often as possible to Paris. The bright and empty air was as void of “careers” for a choice as of cathedral towers for a sketcher, and I passed my younger time, till within a year or two of the Civil War, with an absolute vagueness of impression as to how the political life of the country was carried on. The field was strictly covered, to my young eyes, I make out, by three classes, the busy, the tipsy, and Daniel Webster. This last great man must have represented for us a class in himself; as if to be “political” was just to be Daniel Webster in his proper person and with room left over for nobody else. That he should have filled the sky of public life from pole to pole, even to a childish consciousness not formed in New England and for which that strenuous section was but a name in the geography-book, is probably indeed a sign of how large, in the general air, he comparatively loomed. The public scene was otherwise a blank to our young vision, I discern, till, later on, in Paris, I saw — for at that unimproved period we of the unfledged didn’t suppose ourselves to “meet”— Charles Sumner; with whose name indeed there further connects itself the image of a thrilled hour in the same city some months before: the gathering of a group of indignant persons on the terrace of a small old-world hôtel or pavilion looking out on the Avenue des Champs Elysées, slightly above the Rond–Point and just opposite the antediluvian Jardin d’Hiver (who remembers the Jardin d’Hiver, who remembers the ancient lodges of the octroi, the pair of them facing each other at the Barrière de l’Étoile?) and among them a passionate lady in tears over the news, fresh that morning, of the assault on Sumner by the South Carolina ruffian of the House. The wounded Senator, injured in health, had come to Europe later on to recuperate, and he offered me my first view, to the best of my belief, not only of a “statesman,” but of any person whomsoever concerned in political life. I distinguish in the earlier twilight of Fourteenth Street my father’s return to us one November day — we knew he had been out to vote — with the news that General Winfield Scott, his and the then “Whig” candidate, had been defeated for the Presidency; just as I rescue from the same limbo my afterwards proud little impression of having “met” that high-piled hero of the Mexican War, whom the Civil War was so soon and with so little ceremony to extinguish, literally met him, at my father’s side, in Fifth Avenue, where he had just emerged from a cross-street. I remain vague as to what had then happened and scarce suppose I was, at the age probably of eight or nine, “presented”; but we must have been for some moments face to face while from under the vast amplitude of a dark blue military cloak with a big velvet collar and loosened silver clasp, which spread about him like a symbol of the tented field, he greeted my parent — so clear is my sense of the time it took me to gape all the way up to where he towered aloft.

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