The truth is doubtless, however, much less in the wealth of my experience than in the tenacity of my impression, the fact that I have lost nothing of what I saw and that though I can’t now quite divide the total into separate occasions the various items surprisingly swarm for me. I shall return to some of them, wishing at present only to make my point of when and how the seeds were sown that afterwards so thickly sprouted and flowered. I was greatly to love the drama, at its best, as a “form”; whatever variations of faith or curiosity I was to know in respect to the infirm and inadequate theatre. There was of course anciently no question for us of the drama at its best; and indeed while I lately by chance looked over a copious collection of theatrical portraits, beginning with the earliest age of lithography and photography as so applied, and documentary in the highest degree on the personalities, as we nowadays say, of the old American stage, stupefaction grew sharp in me and scepticism triumphed, so vulgar, so barbarous, seemed the array of types, so extraordinarily provincial the note of every figure, so less than scant the claim of such physiognomies and such reputations. Rather dismal, everywhere, I admit, the histrionic image with the artificial lights turned off — the fatigued and disconnected face reduced to its mere self and resembling some closed and darkened inn with the sign still swung but the place blighted for want of custom. That consideration weighs; but what a “gang,” all the same, when thus left to their own devices, the performers, men and women alike, of that world of queer appreciations! I ought perhaps to bear on them lightly in view of what in especial comes back to me; the sense of the sacred thrill with which I began to watch the green curtain, the particular one that was to rise to The Comedy of Errors on the occasion that must have been, for what I recall of its almost unbearable intensity, the very first of my ever sitting at a play. I should have been indebted for the momentous evening in that case to Mr. William Burton, whose small theatre in Chambers Street, to the rear of Stewart’s big shop and hard by the Park, as the Park was at that time understood, offered me then my prime initiation. Let me not complain of my having owed the adventure to a still greater William as well, nor think again without the right intensity, the scarce tolerable throb, of the way the torment of the curtain was mixed, half so dark a defiance and half so rich a promise. One’s eyes bored into it in vain, and yet one knew it would rise at the named hour, the only question being if one could exist till then. The play had been read to us during the day; a celebrated English actor, whose name I inconsistently forget, had arrived to match Mr. Burton as the other of the Dromios; and the agreeable Mrs. Holman, who had to my relentless vision too retreating a chin, was so good as to represent Adriana. I regarded Mrs. Holman as a friend, though in no warmer light than that in which I regarded Miss Mary Taylor — save indeed that Mrs. Holman had the pull, on one’s affections, of “coming out” to sing in white satin and quite irrelevantly between the acts; an advantage she shared with the younger and fairer and more dashing, the dancing, Miss Malvina, who footed it and tambourined it and shawled it, irruptively, in lonely state. When not admiring Mr. Burton in Shakespeare we admired him as Paul Pry, as Mr. Toodles and as Aminadab Sleek in The Serious Family, and we must have admired him very much — his huge fat person, his huge fat face and his vast slightly pendulous cheek, surmounted by a sort of elephantine wink, to which I impute a remarkable baseness, being still perfectly present to me.
We discriminated, none the less; we thought Mr. Blake a much finer comedian, much more of a gentleman and a scholar —“mellow” Mr. Blake, whom with the brave and emphatic Mrs. Blake (how they must have made their points!) I connect partly with the Burton scene and partly with that, of slightly subsequent creation, which, after flourishing awhile slightly further up Broadway under the charmlessly commercial name of Brougham’s Lyceum (we had almost only Lyceums and Museums and Lecture Rooms and Academies of Music for playhouse and opera then,) entered upon a long career and a migratory life as Wallack’s Theatre. I fail doubtless to keep all my associations clear, but what is important, or what I desire at least to make pass for such, is that when we most admired Mr. Blake we also again admired Miss Mary Taylor; and it was at Brougham’s, not at Burton’s, that we rendered her that tribute — reserved for her performance of the fond theatrical daughter in the English version of Le Père de la Débutante, where I see the charming panting dark-haired creature, in flowing white classically relieved by a gold tiara and a golden scarf, rush back from the supposed stage to the represented green-room, followed by thunders of applause, and throw herself upon the neck of the broken-down old gentleman in a blue coat with brass buttons who must have been after all, on second thoughts, Mr. Placide. Greater flights or more delicate shades the art of pathetic comedy was at that time held not to achieve; only I straighten it out that Mr. and Mrs. Blake, not less than Miss Mary Taylor (who preponderantly haunts my vision, even to the disadvantage of Miss Kate Horn in Nan the Good-for-Nothing, until indeed she is displaced by the brilliant Laura Keene) did migrate to Brougham’s, where we found them all themselves as Goldsmith’s Hardcastle pair and other like matters. We rallied especially to Blake as Dogberry, on the occasion of my second Shakespearean night, for as such I seem to place it, when Laura Keene and Mr. Lester — the Lester Wallack that was to be-did Beatrice and Benedick. I yield to this further proof that we had our proportion of Shakespeare, though perhaps antedating that rapt vision of Much Ado, which may have been preceded by the dazzled apprehension of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Broadway (there was a confessed Theatre;) this latter now present to me in every bright particular. It supplied us, we must have felt, our greatest conceivable adventure — I cannot otherwise account for its emerging so clear. Everything here is as of yesterday, the identity of the actors, the details of their dress, the charm imparted by the sisters Gougenheim, the elegant elder as the infatuated Helena and the other, the roguish “Joey” as the mischievous Puck. Hermia was Mrs. Nagle, in a short salmon-coloured peplum over a white petticoat, the whole bulgingly confined by a girdle of shining gilt and forming a contrast to the loose scarves of Helena, while Mr. Nagle, not devoid, I seem to remember, of a blue chin and the latency of a fine brogue, was either Lysander or Demetrius; Mr. Davidge (also, I surmise, with a brogue) was Bottom the weaver and Madame Ponisi Oberon — Madame Ponisi whose range must have been wide, since I see her also as the white-veiled heroine of The Cataract of the Ganges, where, preferring death to dishonour, she dashes up the more or less perpendicular waterfall on a fiery black steed and with an effect only a little blighted by the chance flutter of a drapery out of which peeps the leg of a trouser and a big male foot; and then again, though presumably at a somewhat later time or, in strictness, after childhood’s fond hour, as this and that noble matron or tragedy queen. I descry her at any rate as representing all characters alike with a broad brown face framed in bands or crowns or other heavy headgear out of which cropped a row of very small tight black curls. The Cataract of the Ganges is all there as well, a tragedy of temples and idols and wicked rajahs and real water, with Davidge and Joey Gougenheim again for comic relief — though all in a coarser radiance, thanks to the absence of fairies and Amazons and moonlit mechanical effects, the charm above all, so seen, of the play within the play; and I rank it in that relation with Green Bushes, despite the celebrity in the latter of Madame Céleste, who came to us straight out of London and whose admired walk up the stage as Miami the huntress, a wonderful majestic and yet voluptuous stride enhanced by a short kilt, black velvet leggings and a gun haughtily borne on the shoulder, is vividly before me as I write. The piece in question was, I recall, from the pen of Mr. Bourcicault, as he then wrote his name — he was so early in the field and must have been from long before, inasmuch as he now appears to me to have supplied Mr. Brougham, of the Lyceum aforesaid, with his choicest productions.
I sit again at London Assurance, with Mrs. Wallack —“Fanny” Wallack, I think, not that I quite know who she was — as Lady Gay Spanker, flushed and vociferous, first in a riding-habit with a tail yards long and afterwards in yellow satin with scarce a tail at all; I am present also at Love in a Maze, in which the stage represented, with primitive art I fear, a supposedly intricate garden-labyrinth, and in which I admired for the first time Mrs. Russell, afterwards long before the public as Mrs. Hoey, even if opining that she wanted, especially for the low-necked ordeal, less osseous a structure. There are pieces of that general association, I admit, the clue to which slips from me; the drama of modern life and of French origin — though what was then not of French origin? — in which Miss Julia Bennett, fresh from triumphs at the Haymarket, made her first appearance, in a very becoming white bonnet, either as a brilliant adventuress or as the innocent victim of licentious design, I forget which, though with a sense somehow that the white bonnet, when of true elegance, was the note at that period of the adventuress; Miss Julia Bennett with whom at a later age one was to renew acquaintance as the artful and ample Mrs. Barrow, full of manner and presence and often Edwin Booth’s Portia, Desdemona and Julie de Mortemer. I figure her as having in the dimmer phase succeeded to Miss Laura Keene at Wallack’s on the secession thence of this original charmer of our parents, the flutter of whose prime advent is perfectly present to me, with the relish expressed for that “English” sweetness of her speech (I already wondered why it shouldn’t be English) which was not as the speech mostly known to us. The Uncles, within my hearing, even imitated, for commendation, some of her choicer sounds, to which I strained my ear on seeing her afterwards as Mrs. Chillington in the refined comedietta of A Morning Call, where she made delightful game of Mr. Lester as Sir Edward Ardent, even to the point of causing him to crawl about on all fours and covered with her shawl after the fashion of a horse-blanket. That delightful impression was then unconscious of the blight to come — that of my apprehending, years after, that the brilliant comedietta was the tribute of our Anglo–Saxon taste to Alfred de Musset’s elegant proverb of the Porte Ouverte ou Fermée, in which nothing could find itself less at home than the horseplay of the English version. Miss Laura Keene, with a native grace at the start, a fresh and delicate inspiration, I infer from the kind of pleasure she appears to have begun with giving, was to live to belie her promise and, becoming hard and raddled, forfeit (on the evidence) all claim to the higher distinction; a fact not surprising under the lurid light projected by such a sign of the atmosphere of ineptitude as an accepted and condoned perversion to vulgarity of Musset’s perfect little work. How could quality of talent consort with so dire an absence of quality in the material offered it? where could such lapses lead but to dust and desolation and what happy instinct not be smothered in an air so dismally non-conducting? Is it a foolish fallacy that these matters may have been on occasion, at that time, worth speaking of? is it only presumable that everything was perfectly cheap and common and everyone perfectly bad and barbarous and that even the least corruptible of our typical spectators were too easily beguiled and too helplessly kind? The beauty of the main truth as to any remembered matter looked at in due detachment, or in other words through the haze of time, is that comprehension has then become one with criticism, compassion, as it may really be called, one with musing vision, and the whole company of the anciently restless, with their elations and mistakes, their sincerities and fallacies and vanities and triumphs, embalmed for us in the mild essence of their collective submission to fate. We needn’t be strenuous about them unless we particularly want to, and are glad to remember in season all that this would imply of the strenuous about our own origines, our muddled initiations. If nothing is more certain for us than that many persons, within our recollection, couldn’t help being rather generally unadmonished and unaware, so nothing is more in the note of peace than that such a perceived state, pushed to a point, makes our scales of judgment but ridiculously rattle. Our admonition, our superior awareness, is of many things — and, among these, of how infinitely, at the worst, they lived, the pale superseded, and how much it was by their virtue.
Which reflections, in the train of such memories as those just gathered, may perhaps seem over-strained — though they really to my own eyes cause the images to multiply. Still others of these break in upon me and refuse to be slighted; reconstituting as I practically am the history of my fostered imagination, for whatever it may be worth, I won’t pretend to a disrespect for any contributive particle. I left myself just above staring at the Fifth Avenue poster, and I can’t but linger there while the vision it evokes insists on swarming. It was the age of the arrangements of Dickens for the stage, vamped-up promptly on every scene and which must have been the roughest theatrical tinkers’ work, but at two or three of which we certainly assisted. I associate them with Mr. Brougham’s temple of the art, yet am at the same time beset with the Captain Cuttle of Dombey and Son in the form of the big Burton, who never, I earnestly conceive, graced that shrine, so that I wander a trifle confusedly. Isn’t it he whom I remember as a monstrous Micawber, the coarse parody of a charming creation, with the entire baldness of a huge Easter egg and collar-points like the sails of Mediterranean feluccas? Dire of course for all temperance in these connections was the need to conform to the illustrations of Phiz, himself already an improvising parodist and happy only so long as not imitated, not literally reproduced. Strange enough the “æsthetic” of artists who could desire but literally to reproduce. I give the whole question up, however, I stray too in the dust, and with a positive sense of having, in the first place, but languished at home when my betters admired Miss Cushman — terribly out of the picture and the frame we should today pronounce her, I fear — as the Nancy of Oliver Twist: as far away this must have been as the lifetime of the prehistoric “Park,” to which it was just within my knowledge that my elders went for opera, to come back on us sounding those rich old Italian names, Bosio and Badiali, Ronconi and Steffanone, I am not sure I have them quite right; signs, of a rueful sound to us, that the line as to our infant participation was somewhere drawn. It had not been drawn, I all the more like to remember, when, under proper protection, at Castle Garden, I listened to that rarest of infant phenomena, Adelina Patti, poised in an armchair that had been pushed to the footlights and announcing her incomparable gift. She was about of our own age, she was one of us, even though at the same time the most prodigious of fairies, of glittering fables. That principle of selection was indeed in abeyance while I sat with my mother either at Tripler Hall or at Niblo’s — I am vague about the occasion, but the names, as for fine old confused reasons, plead alike to my pen — and paid a homage quite other than critical, I dare say, to the then slightly worn Henrietta Sontag, Countess Rossi, who struck us as supremely elegant in pink silk and white lace flounces and with whom there had been for certain members of our circle some contact or intercourse that I have wonderingly lost. I learned at that hour in any case what “acclamation” might mean, and have again before me the vast high-piled auditory thundering applause at the beautiful pink lady’s clear bird-notes; a thrilling, a tremendous experience and my sole other memory of concert-going, at that age, save the impression of a strange huddled hour in some smaller public place, some very minor hall, under dim lamps and again in my mother’s company, where we were so near the improvised platform that my nose was brushed by the petticoats of the distinguished amateur who sang “Casta Diva,” a very fine fair woman with a great heaving of bosom and flirt of crinoline, and that the ringletted Italian gentleman in black velvet and a romantic voluminous cloak who represented, or rather who professionally and uncontrollably was, an Improvisatore, had for me the effect, as I crouched gaping, of quite bellowing down my throat. That occasion, I am clear, was a concert for a charity, with the volunteer performance and the social patroness, and it had squeezed in where it would — at the same time that I somehow connect the place, in Broadway, on the right going down and not much below Fourth Street (except that everything seems to me to have been just below Fourth Street when not just above,) with the scene of my great public exposure somewhat later, the wonderful exhibition of Signor Blitz, the peerless conjurer, who, on my attending his entertainment with W. J. and our frequent comrade of the early time “Hal” Coster, practised on my innocence to seduce me to the stage and there plunge me into the shame of my sad failure to account arithmetically for his bewilderingly subtracted or added or divided pockethandkerchiefs and playing-cards; a paralysis of wit as to which I once more, and with the same wan despair, feel my companions’ shy telegraphy of relief, their snickerings and mouthings and raised numerical fingers, reach me from the benches.
The second definite matter in the Dickens connection is the Smike of Miss Weston — whose prænomen I frivolously forget (though I fear it was Lizzie,) but who was afterwards Mrs. E. L. Davenport and then, sequently to some public strife or chatter, Mrs. Charles Matthews — in a version of Nicholas Nickleby that gracelessly managed to be all tearful melodrama, long-lost foundlings, wicked Ralph Nicklebys and scowling Arthur Grides, with other baffled villains, and scarcely at all Crummleses and Kenwigses, much less Squeerses; though there must have been something of Dotheboys Hall for the proper tragedy of Smike and for the broad Yorkshire effect, a precious theatrical value, of John Brodie. The ineffaceability was the anguish, to my tender sense, of Nicholas’s starved and tattered and fawning and whining protégé; in face of my sharp retention of which through all the years who shall deny the immense authority of the theatre, or that the stage is the mightiest of modern engines? Such at least was to be the force of the Dickens imprint, however applied, in the soft clay of our generation; it was to resist so serenely the wash of the waves of time. To be brought up thus against the author of it, or to speak at all of the dawn of one’s early consciousness of it and of his presence and power, is to begin to tread ground at once sacred and boundless, the associations of which, looming large, warn us off even while they hold. He did too much for us surely ever to leave us free — free of judgment, free of reaction, even should we care to be, which heaven forbid: he laid his hand on us in a way to undermine as in no other case the power of detached appraisement. We react against other productions of the general kind without “liking” them the less, but we somehow liked Dickens the more for having forfeited half the claim to appreciation. That process belongs to the fact that criticism, roundabout him, is somehow futile and tasteless. His own taste is easily impugned, but he entered so early into the blood and bone of our intelligence that it always remained better than the taste of overhauling him. When I take him up today and find myself holding off, I simply stop: not holding off, that is, but holding on, and from the very fear to do so; which sounds, I recognise, like perusal, like renewal, of the scantest. I don’t renew, I wouldn’t renew for the world; wouldn’t, that is, with one’s treasure so hoarded in the dusty chamber of youth, let in the intellectual air. Happy the house of life in which such chambers still hold out, even with the draught of the intellect whistling through the passages. We were practically contemporary, contemporary with the issues, the fluttering monthly numbers — that was the point; it made for us a good fortune, constituted for us in itself romance, on which nothing, to the end, succeeds in laying its hands.
The whole question dwells for me in a single small reminiscence, though there are others still: that of my having been sent to bed one evening, in Fourteenth Street, as a very small boy, at an hour when, in the library and under the lamp, one of the elder cousins from Albany, the youngest of an orphaned brood of four, of my grandmother’s most extravagant adoption, had begun to read aloud to my mother the new, which must have been the first, instalment of David Copperfield. I had feigned to withdraw, but had only retreated to cover close at hand, the friendly shade of some screen or drooping table-cloth, folded up behind which and glued to the carpet, I held my breath and listened. I listened long and drank deep while the wondrous picture grew, but the tense cord at last snapped under the strain of the Murdstones and I broke into the sobs of sympathy that disclosed my subterfuge. I was this time effectively banished, but the ply then taken was ineffaceable. I remember indeed just afterwards finding the sequel, in especial the vast extrusion of the Micawbers, beyond my actual capacity; which took a few years to grow adequate — years in which the general contagious consciousness, and our own household response not least, breathed heavily through Hard Times, Bleak House and Little Dorrit; the seeds of acquaintance with Chuzzlewit and Dombey and Son, these coming thickly on, I had found already sown. I was to feel that I had been born, born to a rich awareness, under the very meridian; there sprouted in those years no such other crop of ready references as the golden harvest of Copperfield. Yet if I was to wait to achieve the happier of these recognitions I had already pored over Oliver Twist — albeit now uncertain of the relation borne by that experience to the incident just recalled. When Oliver was new to me, at any rate, he was already old to my betters; whose view of his particular adventures and exposures must have been concerned, I think, moreover, in the fact of my public and lively wonder about them. It was an exhibition deprecated — to infant innocence I judge; unless indeed my remembrance of enjoying it only on the terms of fitful snatches in another, though a kindred, house is due mainly to the existence there of George Cruikshank’s splendid form of the work, of which our own foreground was clear. It perhaps even seemed to me more Cruikshank’s than Dickens’s; it was a thing of such vividly terrible images, and all marked with that peculiarity of Cruikshank that the offered flowers or goodnesses, the scenes and figures intended to comfort and cheer, present themselves under his hand as but more subtly sinister, or more suggestively queer, than the frank badnesses and horrors. The nice people and the happy moments, in the plates, frightened me almost as much as the low and the awkward; which didn’t however make the volumes a source of attraction the less toward that high and square old back-parlour just westward of Sixth Avenue (as we in the same street were related to it) that formed, romantically, half our alternative domestic field and offered to our small inquiring steps a larger range and privilege. If the Dickens of those years was, as I have just called him, the great actuality of the current imagination, so I at once meet him in force as a feature even of conditions in which he was but indirectly involved.
For the other house, the house we most haunted after our own, was that of our cousin Albert, still another of the blest orphans, though this time of our mother’s kindred; and if it was my habit, as I have hinted, to attribute to orphans as orphans a circumstantial charm, a setting necessarily more delightful than our father’d and mother’d one, so there spread about this appointed comrade, the perfection of the type, inasmuch as he alone was neither brother’d nor sister’d, an air of possibilities that were none the less vivid for being quite indefinite. He was to embody in due course, poor young man, some of these possibilities — those that had originally been for me the vaguest of all; but to fix his situation from my present view is not so much to wonder that it spoke to me of a wild freedom as to see in it the elements of a rich and rounded picture. The frame was still there but a short time since, cracked and empty, broken and gaping, like those few others, of the general overgrown scene, that my late quest had puzzled out; and this has somehow helped me to read back into it the old figures and the old long story, told as with excellent art. We knew the figures well while they lasted and had with them the happiest relation, but without doing justice to their truth of outline, their felicity of character and force of expression and function, above all to the compositional harmony in which they moved. That lives again to my considering eyes, and I admire as never before the fine artistry of fate. Our cousin’s guardian, the natural and the legal, was his aunt, his only one, who was the cousin of our mother and our own aunt, virtually our only one, so far as a felt and adopted closeness of kinship went; and the three, daughters of two sole and much-united sisters, had been so brought up together as to have quite all the signs and accents of the same strain and the same nest. The cousin Helen of our young prospect was thus all but the sister Helen of our mother’s lifetime, as was to happen, and was scarcely less a stout brave presence and an emphasised character for the new generation than for the old; noted here as she is, in particular, for her fine old-time value of clearness and straightness. I see in her strong simplicity, that of an earlier, quieter world, a New York of better manners and better morals and homelier beliefs, the very elements of some portrait by a grave Dutch or other truth-seeking master; she looks out with some of the strong marks, the anxious honesty, the modest humour, the folded resting hands, the dark handsome serious attire, the important composed cap, almost the badge of a guild or an order, that hang together about the images of past worthies, of whichever sex, who have had, as one may say, the courage of their character, and qualify them for places in great collections. I note with appreciation that she was strenuously, actively good, and have the liveliest impression both that no one was ever better, and that her goodness somehow testifies for the whole tone of a society, a remarkable cluster of private decencies. Her value to my imagination is even most of all perhaps in her mere local consistency, her fine old New York ignorance and rigour. Her traditions, scant but stiff, had grown there, close to her — they were all she needed, and she lived by them candidly and stoutly. That there have been persons so little doubtful of duty helps to show us how societies grow. A proportionately small amount of absolute conviction about it will carry, we thus make out, a vast dead weight of mere comparative. She was as anxious over hers indeed as if it had ever been in question — which is a proof perhaps that being void of imagination, when you are quite entirely void, makes scarcely more for comfort than having too much, which only makes in a manner for a homeless freedom or even at the worst for a questioned veracity. With a big installed conscience there is virtue in a grain of the figurative faculty — it acts as oil to the stiff machine.
Yet this life of straight and narrow insistences seated so clearly in our view didn’t take up all the room in the other house, the house of the pictured, the intermittent Oliver, though of the fewer books in general than ours, and of the finer proportions and less peopled spaces (there were but three persons to fill them) as well as of the more turbaned and powdered family portraits, one of these, the most antique, a “French pastel,” which must have been charming, of a young collateral ancestor who had died on the European tour. A vast marginal range seemed to me on the contrary to surround the adolescent nephew, who was some three years, I judge, beyond me in age and had other horizons and prospects than ours. No question of “Europe,” for him, but a patriotic preparation for acquaintance with the South and West, or what was then called the West — he was to “see his own country first,” winking at us while he did so; though he was, in spite of differences, so nearly and naturally neighbour’d and brother’d with us that the extensions of his range and the charms of his position counted somehow as the limits and the humilities of ours. He went neither to our schools nor to our hotels, but hovered out of our view in some other educational air that I can’t now point to, and had in a remote part of the State a vast wild property of his own, known as the Beaverkill, to which, so far from his aunt’s and his uncle’s taking him there, he affably took them, and to which also he vainly invited W. J. and me, pointing thereby to us, however, though indirectly enough perhaps, the finest childish case we were to know for the famous acceptance of the inevitable. It was apparently not to be thought of that instead of the inevitable we should accept the invitation; the place was in the wilderness, incalculably distant, reached by a whole day’s rough drive from the railroad, through every danger of flood and field, with prowling bears thrown in and probable loss of limb, of which there were sad examples, from swinging scythes and axes; but we of course measured our privation just by those facts, and grew up, so far as we did then grow, to believe that pleasures beyond price had been cruelly denied us. I at any rate myself grew up sufficiently to wonder if poor Albert’s type, as it developed to the anxious elder view from the first, mightn’t rather have undermined countenance; his pleasant foolish face and odd shy air of being suspected or convicted on grounds less vague to himself than to us may well have appeared symptoms of the course, of the “rig,” he was eventually to run. I could think of him but as the fils de famille ideally constituted; not that I could then use for him that designation, but that I felt he must belong to an important special class, which he in fact formed in his own person. Everything was right, truly, for these felicities — to speak of them only as dramatic or pictorial values; since if we were present all the while at more of a drama than we knew, so at least, to my vague divination, the scene and the figures were there, not excluding the chorus, and I must have had the instinct of their being as right as possible. I see the actors move again through the high, rather bedimmed rooms — it is always a matter of winter twilight, firelight, lamplight; each one appointed to his or her part and perfect for the picture, which gave a sense of fulness without ever being crowded.
That composition had to wait awhile, in the earliest time, to find its proper centre, having been from the free point of view I thus cultivate a little encumbered by the presence of the most aged of our relatives, the oldest person I remember to have familiarly known — if it can be called familiar to have stood off in fear of such strange proofs of accomplished time: our Great-aunt Wyckoff, our maternal grandmother’s elder sister, I infer, and an image of living antiquity, as I figure her today, that I was never to see surpassed. I invest her in this vision with all the idol-quality that may accrue to the venerable — solidly seated or even throned, hooded and draped and tucked-in, with big protective protrusive ears to her chair which helped it to the effect of a shrine, and a large face in which the odd blackness of eyebrow and of a couple of other touches suggested the conventional marks of a painted image. She signified her wants as divinities do, for I recover from her presence neither sound nor stir, remembering of her only that, as described by her companions, the pious ministrants, she had “said” so and so when she hadn’t spoken at all. Was she really, as she seemed, so tremendously old, so old that her daughter, our mother’s cousin Helen and ours, would have had to come to her in middle life to account for it, or did antiquity at that time set in earlier and was surrender of appearance and dress, matching the intrinsic decay, only more complacent, more submissive and, as who should say, more abject? I have my choice of these suppositions, each in its way of so lively an interest that I scarce know which to prefer, though inclining perhaps a little to the idea of the backward reach. If Aunt Wyckoff was, as I first remember her, scarce more than seventy, say, the thought fills me with one sort of joy, the joy of our modern, our so generally greater and nobler effect of duration: who wouldn’t more subtly strive for that effect and, intelligently so striving, reach it better, than such non-questioners of fate? — the moral of whose case is surely that if they gave up too soon and too softly we wiser witnesses can reverse the process and fight the whole ground. But I apologise to the heavy shade in question if she had really drained her conceivable cup, and for that matter rather like to suppose it, so rich and strange is the pleasure of finding the past — the Past above all — answered for to one’s own touch, this being our only way to be sure of it. It was the Past that one touched in her, the American past of a preponderant unthinkable queerness; and great would seem the fortune of helping on the continuity at some other far end.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10