A Small Boy and others, by Henry James


I have nevertheless the memory of a restless relish of all that time — by which I mean of those final months of New York, even with so scant a record of other positive successes to console me. I had but one success, always — that of endlessly supposing, wondering, admiring: I was sunk in that luxury, which had never yet been so great, and it might well make up for anything. It made up perfectly, and more particularly as the stopgap as which I have already defined it, for the scantness of the period immediately round us; since how could I have wanted richer when the limits of reality, as I advanced upon them, seemed ever to recede and recede? It is true that but the other day, on the scene revisited, I was to be struck rather as by their weird immobility: there on the north side, still untenanted after sixty years, a tremendous span in the life of New York, was the vacant lot, undiminished, in which a friendly goat or two used to browse, whom we fed perversely with scraps of paper, just as perversely appreciated indeed, through the relaxed wooden palings. There hovers for me an impression of the glass roofs of a florist, a suffered squatter for a while; but florists and goats have alike disappeared and the barrenness of the place is as sordid as only untended gaps in great cities can seem. One of its boundaries, however, still breathes associations — the home of the Wards, the more eastward of a pair of houses then and still isolated has remained the same through all vicissitudes, only now quite shabbily mellow and, like everything else, much smaller than one had remembered it; yet this too without prejudice to the large, the lustrous part played in our prospect by that interesting family. I saddle their mild memory a bit “subjectively” perhaps with the burden of that character — making out that they were interesting really in spite of themselves and as unwittingly as M. Jourdain expressed himself in prose; owing their wild savour as they did to that New England stamp which we took to be strong upon them and no other exhibition of which we had yet enjoyed. It made them different, made them, in their homely grace, rather aridly romantic: I pored in those days over the freshness of the Franconia Stories of the brothers Abbott, then immediately sequent to the sweet Rollo series and even more admired; and there hung about the Wards, to my sense, that atmosphere of apples and nuts and cheese, of pies and jack-knives and “squrruls,” of domestic Bible-reading and attendance at “evening lecture,” of the fear of parental discipline and the cultivated art of dodging it, combined with great personal toughness and hardihood, an almost envied liability to warts on hard brown hands, a familiarity with garments domestically wrought, a brave rusticity in short that yet hadn’t prevented the annexation of whole tracts of town life unexplored by ourselves and achieved by the brothers since their relatively recent migration from Connecticut — which State in general, with the city of Hartford in particular, hung as a hazy, fruity, rivery background, the very essence of Indian summer, in the rear of their discourse. Three in number, Johnny and Charley and Freddy, with castigating elders, even to the second and third generation back, dimly discerned through closed window-panes, they didn’t at all haunt the halls of Ferrero — it was a part of their homely grace and their social tone, if not of their want of the latter, that this couldn’t in the least be in question for them; on the other hand they frequented, Charley and Freddy at least, the Free School, which was round in Thirteenth Street — Johnny, the eldest, having entered the Free Academy, an institution that loomed large to us and that I see as towered or castellated or otherwise impressively embellished in vague vignettes, in stray representations, perhaps only of the grey schoolbook order, which are yet associated for me with those fond images of lovely ladies, “hand-painted,” decorating at either end the interior of the old omnibusses. We must have been in relation with no other feeders at the public trough of learning — I can’t account otherwise for the glamour as of envied privilege and strange experience that surrounded the Wards; they mixed, to the great sharpening of the edge of their wit, in the wild life of the people, beside which the life at Mr. Pulling Jenks’s and even at the Institution Vergnès was colourless and commonplace. Somehow they were of the people, and still were full of family forms — which seemed, one dimly made out through the false perspective of all the cousinships, the stronger and clearer note of New England; the note that had already determined a shy yearning under perusal of the Rollo and Franconia chronicles. The special mark of these friends was perhaps however that of being socially young while they were annually old; little Freddy in particular, very short, very inured and very popular, though less curiously wrinkled about eyes and mouth than Charley, confessed to monstrous birthdays even while crouching or hopping, even while racing or roaring, as a high superiority in the games of the street prescribed. It was to strike me later on, when reading or hearing of young Americans of those parts who had turned “hard” or reckless by reaction from excessive discipline, theologic and economic, and had gone to sea or to California or to the “bad,” that Freddy and Charley were typical of the race, even if their fortunes had taken, as I hoped, a happier form. That, I said to myself for the interest of it, that, the stuff of the Wards, their homely grace, was all New England — so far at least as New England wasn’t Emerson and Margaret Fuller and Mr. Channing and the “best Boston” families. Such, in small very plastic minds, is the intensity, if not the value, of early impressions.

And yet how can such visions not have paled in the southern glow of the Norcoms, who had lately arrived en masse from Louisville and had improvised a fine old Kentucky home in the last house of our row — the one to be occupied so differently, after their strange and precipitate flight, as I dimly make out, by the Ladies of the Sacred Heart; those who presently, if I mistake not, moved out to Bloomingdale, if they were not already in part established there. Next us westward were the Ogdens, three slim and fair sisters, who soared far above us in age and general amenity; then came the Van Winkles, two sisters, I think, and a brother — he much the most serious and judicious, as well as the most educated, of our friends; and so at last the Norcoms, during their brief but concentrated, most vivid and momentous, reign, a matter, as I recall it, of a couple of breathless winters. We were provided by their presence with as happy a foil as we could have wished to the plainness and dryness of the Wards; their homely grace was all their own and was also embodied in three brothers, Eugene, Reginald, Albert, whose ages would have corresponded, I surmise, with those of Johnny, Charley and Freddy if these latter hadn’t, in their way, as I have hinted, defied any close notation. Elder sons — there were to my recollection no daughters — moved too as with their heads in the clouds; notably “Stiffy,” eldest of all, whom we supposed gorgeous, who affected us as sublime and unapproachable and to whom we thus applied the term in use among us before we had acquired for reference to such types the notion of the nuance, the dandy, the dude, the masher. (Divided I was, I recall, between the dread and the glory of being so greeted, “Well, Stiffy —!” as a penalty of the least attempt at personal adornment.) The higher intensity for our sense of the Norcoms came from the large, the lavish, ease of their hospitality; whereas our intercourse with the Wards was mainly in the street or at most the “yard”— and it was a wonder how intimacy could to that degree consort with publicity. A glazed southern gallery, known to its occupants as the “poo’ch” and to the rake of which their innermost penetralia seemed ever to stand open, encompasses my other memories. Everything took place on the poo’ch, including the free, quite the profuse, consumption of hot cakes and molasses, including even the domestic manufacture of sausages, testified to by a strange machine that was worked like a handorgan and by the casual halves, when not the wholes, of stark stiff hogs fresh from Kentucky stores. We must have been for a time constantly engaged with this delightful group, who never ceased to welcome us or to feed us, and yet of the presence of whose members under other roofs than their own, by a return of hospitality received, I retain no image. They didn’t count and didn’t grudge — the sausage-mill kept turning and the molasses flowing for all who came; that was the expression of their southern grace, especially embodied in Albert, my exact contemporary and chosen friend (Reggie had but crushed my fingers under the hinge of a closing door, the mark of which act of inadvertence I was to carry through life,) who had profuse and tightly-crinkled hair, and the moral of whose queer little triangular brown teeth, casting verily a shade on my attachment to him, was pointed for me, not by himself, as the error of a Kentucky diet.

The great Kentucky error, however, had been the introduction into a free State of two pieces of precious property which our friends were to fail to preserve, the pair of affectionate black retainers whose presence contributed most to their exotic note. We revelled in the fact that Davy and Aunt Sylvia (pronounced An’silvy,) a light-brown lad with extraordinarily shining eyes and his straight, grave, deeper-coloured mother, not radiant as to anything but her vivid turban, had been born and kept in slavery of the most approved pattern and such as this intensity of their condition made them a joy, a joy to the curious mind, to consort with. Davy mingled in our sports and talk, he enriched, he adorned them with a personal, a pictorial lustre that none of us could emulate, and servitude in the absolute thus did more for him socially than we had ever seen done, above stairs or below, for victims of its lighter forms. What was not our dismay therefore when we suddenly learnt — it must have blown right up and down the street — that mother and son had fled, in the dead of night, from bondage? had taken advantage of their visit to the North simply to leave the house and not return, covering their tracks, successfully disappearing. They had never been for us so beautifully slaves as in this achievement of their freedom; for they did brilliantly achieve it — they escaped, on northern soil, beyond recall or recovery. I think we had already then, on the spot, the sense of some degree of presence at the making of history; the question of what persons of colour and of their condition might or mightn’t do was intensely in the air; this was exactly the season of the freshness of Mrs. Stowe’s great novel. It must have come out at the moment of our fondest acquaintance with our neighbours, though I have no recollection of hearing them remark upon it — any remark they made would have been sure to be so strong. I suspect they hadn’t read it, as they certainly wouldn’t have allowed it in the house; any more indeed than they had read or were likely ever to read any other work of fiction; I doubt whether the house contained a printed volume, unless its head had had in hand a law-book or so: I to some extent recover Mr. Norcom as a lawyer who had come north on important, difficult business, on contentious, precarious grounds — a large bald political-looking man, very loose and ungirt, just as his wife was a desiccated, depressed lady who mystified me by always wearing her nightcap, a feebly-frilled but tightly-tied and unmistakable one, and the compass of whose maternal figure beneath a large long collarless cape or mantle defined imperfectly for me of course its connection with the further increase of Albert’s little brothers and sisters, there being already, by my impression, two or three of these in the background. Had Davy and An’silvy at least read Uncle Tom? — that question might well come up for us, with the certainty at any rate that they ignored him less than their owners were doing. These latter good people, who had been so fond of their humble dependents and supposed this affection returned, were shocked at such ingratitude, though I remember taking a vague little inward Northern comfort in their inability, in their discreet decision, not to raise the hue and cry. Wasn’t one even just dimly aware of the heavy hush that, in the glazed gallery, among the sausages and the johnny-cakes, had followed the first gasp of resentment? I think the honest Norcoms were in any case astonished, let alone being much incommoded; just as we were, for that matter, when the genial family itself, installed so at its ease, failed us with an effect of abruptness, simply ceased, in their multitude, to be there. I don’t remember their going, nor any pangs of parting; I remember only knowing with wonderment that they had gone, that obscurity had somehow engulfed them; and how afterwards, in the light of later things, memory and fancy attended them, figured their history as the public complication grew and the great intersectional plot thickened; felt even, absurdly and disproportionately, that they had helped one to “know Southerners.” The slim, the sallow, the straight-haired and dark-eyed Eugene in particular haunted my imagination; he had not been my comrade of election — he was too much my senior; but I cherished the thought of the fine fearless young fire-eater he would have become and, when the War had broken out, I know not what dark but pitying vision of him stretched stark after a battle.

All of which sounds certainly like a meagre range — which heaven knows it was; but with a plea for the several attics, already glanced at, and the positive æsthetic reach that came to us through those dim resorts, quite worth making. They were scattered and they constituted on the part of such of our friends as had license to lead us up to them a ground of authority and glory proportioned exactly to the size of the field. This extent was at cousin Helen’s, with a large house and few inmates, vast and free, so that no hospitality, under the eaves, might have matched that offered us by the young Albert — if only that heir of all the ages had had rather more imagination. He had, I think, as little as was possible — which would have counted in fact for an unmitigated blank had not W. J., among us, on that spot and elsewhere, supplied this motive force in any quantity required. He imagined — that was the point — the comprehensive comedies we were to prepare and to act; comprehensive by the fact that each one of us, even to the God-fearing but surreptitiously law-breaking Wards, was in fairness to be enabled to figure. Not one of us but was somehow to be provided with a part, though I recall my brother as the constant comic star. The attics were thus in a word our respective temples of the drama — temples in which the stage, the green-room and the wardrobe, however, strike me as having consumed most of our margin. I remember, that is, up and down the street — and the association is mainly with its far westward reaches — so much more preparation than performance, so much more conversation and costume than active rehearsal, and, on the part of some of us, especially doubtless on my own, so much more eager denudation, both of body and mind, than of achieved or inspired assumption. We shivered unclad and impatient both as to our persons and to our aims, waiting alike for ideas and for breeches; we were supposed to make our dresses no less than to create our characters, and our material was in each direction apt to run short. I remember how far ahead of us my brother seemed to keep, announcing a “motive,” producing a figure, throwing off into space conceptions that I could stare at across the interval but couldn’t appropriate; so that my vision of him in these connections is not so much of his coming toward me, or toward any of us, as of his moving rapidly away in fantastic garb and with his back turned, as if to perform to some other and more assured public. There were indeed other publics, publics downstairs, who glimmer before me seated at the open folding-doors of ancient parlours, but all from the point of view of an absolute supernumerary, more or less squashed into the wing but never coming on. Who were the copious Hunts? — whose ample house, on the north side, toward Seventh Avenue, still stands, next or near that of the De Peysters, so that I perhaps confound some of the attributes of each, though clear as to the blond Beekman, or “Beek,” of the latter race, not less than to the robust George and the stout, the very stout, Henry of the former, whom I see bounding before a gathered audience for the execution of a pas seul, clad in a garment of “Turkey red” fashioned by his own hands and giving way at the seams, to a complete absence of dessous, under the strain of too fine a figure: this too though I make out in those connections, that is in the twilight of Hunt and De Peyster garrets, our command of a comparative welter of draperies; so that I am reduced to the surmise that Henry indeed had contours.

I recover, further, some sense of the high places of the Van Winkles, but think of them as pervaded for us by the upper air of the proprieties, the proprieties that were so numerous, it would appear, when once one had had a glimpse of them, rather than by the crude fruits of young improvisation. Wonderful must it clearly have been still to fed amid laxities and vaguenesses such a difference of milieux and, as they used to say, of atmospheres. This was a word of those days — atmospheres were a thing to recognise and cultivate, for people really wanted them, gasped for them; which was why they took them, on the whole, on easy terms, never exposing them, under an apparent flush, to the last analysis. Did we at any rate really vibrate to one social tone after another, or are these adventures for me now but fond imaginations? No, we vibrated — or I’ll be hanged, as I may say, if I didn’t; little as I could tell it or may have known it, little as anyone else may have known. There were shades, after all, in our democratic order; in fact as I brood back to it I recognise oppositions the sharpest, contrasts the most intense. It wasn’t given to us all to have a social tone, but the Costers surely had one and kept it in constant use; whereas the Wards, next door to them, were possessed of no approach to any, and indeed had the case been other, had they had such a consciousness, would never have employed it, would have put it away on a high shelf, as they put the last-baked pie, out of Freddy’s and Charley’s reach — heaven knows what they two would have done with it. The Van Winkles on the other hand were distinctly so provided, but with the special note that their provision was one, so to express it, with their educational, their informational, call it even their professional: Mr. Van Winkle, if I mistake not, was an eminent lawyer, and the note of our own house was the absence of any profession, to the quickening of our general as distinguished from our special sensibility. There was no Turkey red among those particular neighbours at all events, and if there had been it wouldn’t have gaped at the seams. I didn’t then know it, but I sipped at a fount of culture; in the sense, that is, that, our connection with the house being through Edgar, he knew about things — inordinately, as it struck me. So, for that matter, did little public Freddy Ward; but the things one of them knew about differed wholly from the objects of knowledge of the other: all of which was splendid for giving one exactly a sense of things. It intimated more and more how many such there would be altogether. And part of the interest was that while Freddy gathered his among the wild wastes Edgar walked in a regular maze of culture. I didn’t then know about culture, but Edgar must promptly have known. This impression was promoted by his moving in a distant, a higher sphere of study, amid scenes vague to me; I dimly descry him as appearing at Jenks’s and vanishing again, as if even that hadn’t been good enough — though I may be here at fault, and indeed can scarce say on what arduous heights I supposed him, as a day-scholar, to dwell. I took the unknown always easily for the magnificent and was sure only of the limits of what I saw. It wasn’t that the boys swarming for us at school were not often, to my vision, unlimited, but that those peopling our hours of ease, as I have already noted, were almost inveterately so — they seemed to describe always, out of view, so much larger circles. I linger thus on Edgar by reason of its having somehow seemed to us that he described — was it at Doctor Anthon’s? — the largest of all. If there was a bigger place than Doctor Anthon’s it was there he would have been. I break down, as to the detail of the matter, in any push toward vaster suppositions. But let me cease to stir this imponderable dust.


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