Remnants of an Autobiography by Charles Hoy Fort
Chapters Six to Eight
When we weren't running around the streets or reading serious books, fighting and thieving or going to a prayer meeting, with Mrs. Lawson, we were pottering with our collections, taking inventories, making catalogues, arranging and improving. Taking a partner now and then when there was a boy with curiosities that we coveted. But uneasiness; we could not bear to have any one share with us the wonderful things we wanted all our own. We'd have to pick a quarrel just to get rid of the partner, glad to see him go away with his curiosities under his arm. Then we got an air gun; when that air gun was in our hands we had no civilized instincts and our mind could hold nothing but intent to kill. Seeing a fine robin on a lawn, hopping around gravely, throwing out his chest. There were people on the piazza, but we jumped the fence, and kneeling, aimed. A woman screaming; a gardener starting toward us; another woman imploring us not to shoot. We killed the robin.
Mounted this bird, and his appearance filled us with admiration for him and for ourself. A little weak around the knees perhaps, but that fine chest was thrown out magnificently. Dissecting the rest of him, for we no longer threw bodies away, having become interested in mysteries inside. Dissecting all kinds of creatures; had a noose on the cat path under the fence, catching cats to see how everything was with them inside. Opening a department of anatomy, mounting skeletons, preserving specimens in alcohol. And getting into trouble right along, because we'd return late to supper from our expeditions. We and the other kid together all afternoon; we late; the other kid just in time. Having had the same experiences; we all over with mud; he with only a little mud here and there. And he could explain, having a boyish kind of suavity unlike our fits of stupidity.
Sometimes, down in the store, They would say, "Put this letter over there." We starting toward the door.
"Over there!" We going somewhere else.
"Over there!" We standing, looking at them helplessly, brainless, until They would snatch the letter from us. Often in trouble for obstinacy, whereas we were not there.
The little kid was punished oftenest of all. He'd do outrageous things. Indifferently and without much interest in what he was doing. Mrs. Lawson would make him stay in the yard to play, to keep him off the streets, and because she liked to look out at him. He was her favorite, because he had been so very little when she had come to us. Sitting at the window, sewing, looking out at him. The little kid would want to do something wrong. He'd do something a little wrong, such as stepping among the plants to find out whether he was watched, knowing by the tapping of the thimble on the glass. No tapping; Mrs. Lawson having a caller. Little kid luring the very little kid next door to the fence. Reaching under, starting to pull his neighbor through a space about big enough for cats. Very little kid screaming; little kid pulling away on a very little leg. Parents crying to him; little kid pulling away without excitement; very little kid coming through with a jerk, most of his clothes scraped off.
The little kid would reach over and cut clothes lines just
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and for a few cents something from Africa would be sent to us; little square bits of Japan; trifles that seemed a part of Peru, entrancing us with suggestions of Pizarro, the Incas, llamas, and scenes in the Andes with great condors sailing overhead. Blank spaces in our album filling little by little, for once in the album no stamp would be sold, our trading done with duplicates only. A stamp dealer's catalogue would inflame us with desire, and then They would wonder where all the envelopes were going, we and the other kid, sometimes with a corps of assistants, busily spoiling away. No one at the post office seemed to notice unusual numbers of envelopes from Their store, but once a clerk asked us, for we had torn a package in halves, in such a hurry that we could not wait for something from Cuba or China to arrive. Sometimes we were stupid, but often we were sharp enough. Saying, carelessly, "Oh, the office boy did that just out of meanness when he was fired." And both of us knew not to spoil envelopes too often; we had the wisdom and self control that the true criminal has not; so we were never caught.
Sometimes we'd do very good business. We'd come home at night with a dozen dead birds, some of them rare, a scarlet tanager and a Baltimore oriole and a bobolink among them. We skinning and stuffing until late at night, the other kid "travelling" for us, going to the collectors having them on hand to see our goods the next day, for of all the boys we knew only Mac Dobson could stuff birds as we could, and he had outgrown his interest in collections. We'd sell eighty cents' worth perhaps; forty in cash, twenty sure and the rest in bad debts.
We'd want something from Hong Kong; and the other kid would want something
from Hong Kong, a catalogue before us. We'd hesitate; then one would say,
"Let's treat the little kid." Not
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had not its usual interest, for our own little kid was in the boat. And then on the sands up on the island with an ice house at its end, for all up and down the river were ice houses which burned down now and then. Which seemed as strange to us as the having of chilblains in a hot house. Little kid sitting at the tide line, but we making him sit still further back. Then away back. Really, it was a fearful thing we were doing, taking a boy with us so; Tykesy and Rusty could enjoy themselves, but our feeling of responsibility was too great. Little kid wanting to look for shells; we watching every step he took. Wanting to go in wading. Both of us horrified, but then letting him go out as far as up to his knees. Then showing him how wonderful we were. We swimming out at least ten strokes; the other kid really sitting down with his head under water. With his head under water! Why the little kid just gave up; he had the most extraordinary brothers in all the world. No wonder he "sassed" Rusty and told Tykesy to attend to his own affairs.
But we never took the little kid to the river again; with every tug boat seeming to bear down upon us and every drop of water causing us to fear a leak, the strain was too great. The next time we treated him we took him to the park, and even there the swings went too high.
Back in the business world again, expecting to sell a dollars' worth but realizing ten cents; just nothing but worriment and planning that would not come true. Then going to the park, one of us watching and the other climbing tree after tree, getting a few cat birds' eggs, eggs of robins, and many sparrows' eggs. Every egg delighting us as if a great colored pearl. Disappointed with the result but then advertising a consignment of choice eggs, running from blotched all over to almost pure white, that customers did not know. But in our collection, we had not one falsely labelled thing. In that we were honest and earnest and true.
Partners making a very good deal in grosbeaks' eggs that were sparrow eggs or in counterfeit oriole eggs, though one collector did come back and protest. Partner saying, "Baltimore or orchard oriole? Who said it was? It's a Bizzingum Oriole, which is very rare north of Central America. Why don't you study up?" Collector going away to boast of his Bizzingum egg.
Then, with a whole pocketful of pennies, the partners would have to get away from business cares. Just letting everything go and having an outing, going to the theatre. Up in "nigger heaven". It was beautiful to be partners, brothers, and friends. Both pushing back, if anyone should jostle one, sitting together on the bare bench, may be the bigger arm around the smaller shoulders, enjoying some fearful play, which had been rightfully earned by hard scheming. Just as if there were no such things as anxiety, poor markets, and unmarketable goods.
And then stringency again. With our relatives, the little kid became our rival. We on a corner, waiting for Nick to come home; little kid on the corner below; first one to meet Nick would get more. We going two corners down, going around the block, so that the little kid should not see. Little kid always seeing everything. We laughing, thinking we had fooled him. But then aware of signs of a disturbance farther down the street; a woman looking from a window, complaining that stones had been thrown at her. Little kid not in sight, but we very well knowing that he must be there. Going a block below. And then Nick coming along; little kid with him.
But we were displeased with ourself because of this begging; liking
to call on our other grandfather just to talk and see
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We liked to throw stones, liking the feel of a round stone fitting in our fingers, or a scaler that would go up and down, skimming a long distance. But we'd not throw stones at Chinamen, nor would we take part in annoying peddlers. To us, every foreigner was a poor man working hard to save enough to bring his old mother from a land of poverty and tyranny. We felt nothing of the hatred other boys had for foreigners. Seeing boys rob the ferocious-looking but mild dwarf's candy stand; for a month we'd think of it. Unable to drive the remembrance from our mind. Mourning over some poor, old mother kept just so much longer away from this free land, which was our land, which was open to any foreigner, and we'd wish we could be in Castle Garden to welcome every one of them and wish every one of them good luck. Except the British. We liked to be forgiving, but we could, never, never forgive the British for what they had done to us.
Trying again to study. Impossible. Going around for horse chestnuts. Every tree filled with stiff, little, Christmas trees with blossoms instead of things all tinsel; then prickly little balls coming out. Slinging up sticks, then slinging sticks for sticks, favorite stick always getting stuck. Liking to have chestnuts just to have them or to throw, for they would bound along a long distance. Then we had a game with them; fighting chestnuts on strings. When one broke another, the winner was one year old. Breaking a chestnut three years old, the winner would take his record. Having a champion several centuries old, a mean, battered, little lump, blackened in bonfires to harden him, hanging on by a thread, but smashing all the plump, young amateurs. Some other, withered, old veteran killing our champion; then we'd lay away the remains to be honored forever. Always honored things. Placing sticks on car tracks; just to record them as heroes for being run over. Putting a book on the roof, leaving it there all Winter. Just to have it have experiences, picturing its hardships when the snow was falling, pleased with it in the Spring, all faded, with leaves undulating and cover warped. Having a kite caught on a wire to look out now and then and seeing it falling apart, bedraggled and buffeted in stormy weather, we waiting for the frame to drop so that we should have another hero.
Biff Allen was an old kind of youngster' he liked to be with grown men. We liked to be with grown persons, and talk seriously with them; but Biff spent much of his time in the police station, putting on boxing gloves with us, a dozen policemen in shirt sleeves looking on. Pounding each other, getting so tired that we could only lift our hands, pushing out weakly, policemen crowding around, urging us on. But we did not like this; we liked the excitement of fighting and were proud of our reputation as a fighter, but deliberately to fight for the enjoyment of others made us feel a loss of dignity so that we never went back to the police station. In Snyler's stable we had cock fights; Biff holding a "banty" and we holding a "banty" knocking their heads together to make them fight. We liked cock fights very much but there was something about hanging around a stable that we did no like. We'd not go to Snyler's, even for a cock fight, but, when we really had to have a little fighting, would shake up two cats in a bag.
As we were partners with the other kid in collecting and in business
we were partners with Biff in enterprises that attracted him, making a
bob, then building an ice boat. The ice boat would not go through the door,
to be sure, and the river was a mile away, and it was not completed until
June, but as a specimen of the ship-builder's art it caused us great pride.
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of invented words and then of foreign words found in the dictionary. Forming a polyglot language of French words, Latin words, Arabic words, all kinds of words. Once, when we were the excluded one, we spent a whole afternoon under the dining room table, where the others sat, searching for words to mystify and make us miserable. We making a note of every word they settled upon.
Then in the evening, the little kid chuckling and winking, saying, "Let's go in the domus."
We saying, "Yes, we might as well go into the house now."
Little kid amazed and crestfallen.
"Well then, let's go on the toit. Do you know what that means?"
"Oh, you're going on the roof?" We pretending that we knew simply because we knew just about everything. But both kids crying, "Oh, he was listening! Come on; we don't want anything to do with him anyway. We're enemies with him anyway." And all evening they would have nothing to do with us, just because it was pleasing to be mean. Little kid showing signs of weakening, the other kid saying, sharply, "Come away; don't have anything to do with him." Little kid snatching a book from us, throwing it on the floor, running up the stairs. We'd look at the book unhappily and say something forlornly to the other kid. But the other kid would turn his back and mutter; nothing could be done with him when he had one of his mean streaks. A shower of birds coming down the stairs; little kid destroying the collection. And we rushing up the stairs, positively to kill him. And the other kid very angry, for the birds were his too. Rushing after us, but jumping on our back, for no matter what the cause might be he and the little kid would side against us. All three thumping and wrestling and hating.
But saying next morning, "Is it friends or is it
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the waiters would have style.
Congress Park with a fence all around it and a trout pond inside; tally ho's, with the horn starting behind but reaching well up in front, a burst of brazen sound, and then a rattling on in what seemed a noisy silence; the club house, outside a little ball playing around and around. Going out to the Geyser and down to the Champion Spring where yellow encrustations formed on the earth.
Sometimes, They would come up from the city in the evening. Dancing in the "hops", our great aunt, who was in the next hotel, probably leaning out the window, with a spy glass levelled. And girls! Though that does seem a disrespectful way of speaking of the beautiful, young women that would be pleasant to us, and call us dear little boys.
Sometimes taking all of us driving to the lake, They cheerful and light-hearted, letting us hold the reins. No newspaper in front. And taking us around to the springs, seeing which could drink the more spring water. Asking us about our studies, we switching away from our school studies to talk of our own studies; telling him the difference between a moth and a butterfly, one having coloring matter in scales and the other furry. Telling what we knew about the planets; about Saturn's rings and Jupiter's moons. Or history and mythology. They asking whether we knew the story of Proserpine. We delighted to tell, telling about Hercules as well, though always with our halting and floundering among words.
Taking us to the Indian Encampment, buying us a bow and arrows. Putting
us on a merry-go-round, just as if we could not have climbed all over a
merry-go-round while they were putting us on one wooden horse. Watching
us with a smile. We fascinated,
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expected to tell everything, but just to find out for him. And then our new mother won us as really and truly our new mother by getting scissors and trimming the little kid's hair so that no one else should ever know.
But we knew, and felt disgraced. Shaking our fist at him; digging our fist into his back to let him know what to expect when we should get him home. And the little kid suffered in silence, too polite to let family troubles be known.
"You collect stamps?" our new mother asked. "If you'll tell me where to get them, we'll go now." And all together we cried where an old collector of stamps lived. And to the old collector we went, trying not to be too greedy, making our new mother's admission fee into the family as reasonable as we could. And then walking back with her, thinking it would be very bad manners to leave her in the street, though we very much wanted to get back to the album with our new stamps.
And on our way back, the first thing we said was, "She's all right!" Denouncing all that had lied about her. And we'd defend her; and we'd do everything chivalrous. We all excited. Just what wouldn't we do!
The other kid had not our rashness and enthusiasm, but he nodded and said, "She's all right."
"She's all right," said the little kid. "Just the same, she'll tell." And we shook our fist at him.
Boxing the little kids ears when we got him home. Hitting him until
the other kid interfered; then we fought them both. Then miserable because
they would not speak to us. They would not be friends again; so then we
beat them for that. We all alone with no one to play with us. A cruel,
hard world, where everything is not forgiven right away. Why, so worked
up were we, thinking of uncharitableness and hardness, that, because they
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young persons there, for They were still a young man, and our new mother was younger. Progressive euchre in the afternoon, and, in the evening, bright dresses, bright talk, everything of brightness and pleasure, They easy and gracious in way that made us wistful, for we felt that such ways could never be our ways.
They and our new mother going to the theatre, whenever there was anything worth seeing. We three sent early to bed. We and the other kid had one room, and the little kid had a room next door. The other kid seemed to rule us; whenever we wanted to do anything at all illicit we'd have to suggest and await his decision. We'd want the little kid in with us. Sometimes the other kid would be sleepy or irritable or just mean or wanting the little kid but keeping him away to be the ruler. Then sometimes we'd have business matters to talk over, liking to go over a good transaction in stamps, recalling the steps in our bargaining, debating a purchase thought well of by one but not advised by the other, deploring the lack of capital, which kept us back a good deal.
Then casting off business worries; whistling a bugle call for the little kid. A thud on the floor next door. Might have taken half an hour in our consulting and planning; perhaps a whole hour. No matter how long, the bugle call would be followed by the soft thud of little, bare feet.
Pattering feet; little kid fluttering through the beams from the sky
light getting into bed with us, while we played stories. You see, we and
the other kid had a game, which had gone on for years. We were the leaders
in a military community away off somewhere, though Americans of course.
Having many characters among our followers. Our enemies were the Hobgoblins,
who looked like pictures of the dodo to us, though we don't know what they
looked like to the others.
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Ausable Chasm?" giving the hard "ch" sound. With them, mispronouncing was humor; and again everyone would laugh. Labored and primitive humor, but we'd think it very funny to be asked about the Hebrew children.
But about our stories. Warfare not all the time; developing our country in times of peace, sometimes farmers, trappers, business men, having the elections, detecting crime, punishing the wicked, and rewarding the good. But the other kid sitting out on the stairs. A battle begun; little kid quaking. Awful carnage; little kid gasping. Becoming so terrified that he would have to run in to us for protection. And the other kid sternly pitiless. We pleading with him. No; not another word would he play until the little kid should leave. Then we'd hit him. Other kid fighting back and the little kid piling in, siding against us of course. All three rolling and fighting in the dark.
Other times, when They were out, we'd light the gas, and get a remarkably big ironing board from a room used as a storage room. Tobogganning down the stairs, going at fearful speed, knocking all to pieces the base board at the bottom. Or having theatrical performances when we were supposed to be fast asleep. Our favorite play was the "Gunpowder Plot". We'd often write a little play patched up from our reading, giving parts for the others to learn. We were King James sitting on his throne, which was a chair on the bed, and the other kid was Guy Fawkes, looking very wicked in burnt-cork whiskers. The ignorant, little kid not knowing much about the part he was playing, but thinking he knew, which seems to be enough for any actor.
And then other things. We had left the Academy and were going to Public
School, Number Two, with a girl's head carved on one side of the doorway
and a boy's head carved on the other
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the Hickeys at play in their yard. It pleased us to throw a lot of tin cans into the yard. A dead cat was lying near by. It seemed pleasing to have a dead cat thump down among the Hickeys. Dead cat thumping. We were all insolence and vanity, feeling ourself quite as strong as the whole tribe. And there was Harry Hickey, running down the alley. We waiting with our shinny held back. And we struck him calmly, viciously under the eye. But he pounded us, knocked us down, rolled us in the mud. Big chieftain mauled; mud rubbed in the big chieftain's face.
Left to sit on a big stone and think it over. We felt no particular resentment; we had deserved every bit, and recognized a thoroughness of treatment that we could not but admire. Rather humiliating; still, the enemy was bigger after all. Then we wanted to shake hands and be friends, never preying upon the Chesnut Streeters again. May be we might have some little ceremony of signing a treaty. Who'd have though that a quiet boy, who went around with girls, could be so strong!
Four bits of stick sailing though the air. He had taken and sawed our shinny! We picked up the bits. There was the handle, worn in battles and games to fit our hands, as if it had grown that way. It was a part of us. Covered with notches that we had cut for all kinds of adventures that it had taken part in. Marks in the middle pieces; we remembering what each mark recalled, every mark with meaning. The battered knob was a diary of scratches.
Oh, raging and wildness! Running from the alley. Running back to shout a challenge in story book language. And then going home with the remains of our sacred shinny, putting them under the roof, where our treasures and our heroes were kept.
Then war! Declared by us and declared by the other kid and cried for by the little kid, too. Little kid running out with the fiery cross, though the fiery cross was only imagined. Up and down the street, pausing in front of houses with boys in them, with the whistle that meant to meet on the corner. And then to Washington Avenue, for we were friends with Crousey since we had left the Academy, and Crousey would bring not only his own crowd but the Spruce Streeters, too. Going down to the corner with the other kid. He swinging his shinny bravely; we tossing our new shinny high in the air. Admiring a warlike gallantry in his appearance, martial feeling overflowing in us. All our own "fellers" on the corner. All the good fighters and even Whitey, who was not much good, but had responded just the same. It stirred us that our own should be waiting to fight for us, just as we had often fought for them. One mending his sling shot, another practicing on a hydrant with his shinny. Some excited over the war cloud, others sitting on the curb stone, showing their indifference. One of the Robinsons wanting to know whether we were in the right. Biff Allen saying, "That don't matter; anyone hits him hits me!" And a chorus, "Me, too!" It was our own gang; we cried aloud in eagerness and pride.
And excitement down the street; the allies coming in a straggling band, whooping and waving sticks. Why, no wonder we were moved; old feuds forgotten and former enemies hastening to fight side by side. Then the Spruce Streeters under Limpy Bowen, with their whooping and their waving of sticks, Grown people stopping to look at a swarm of bad, idle boys. We seeing a band of brave, faithful warriors, giving power to our challenge and meaning to our boast. A picture that filled us with the romance of glory of victory and vengeance.
Everyone shouting, forming in the middle of the street, running
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raging half in the street and half in the alley.
Old Harrigan, the fat cop, calling upon us to desist in the name of the law, throwing his club at us, nearly catching our wobbling kid, still hugging his paving stone, saying not a word, all his battle fever hugged into his burden.
And then, when safely away from the law, what bragging! "Did you see me! Yes,; but did you see what I did!" Little kids chattering, our own, little kid saying never a word, going away to hide his paving stone. Under a stoop or in a vacant lot, or wherever he did hide it, for he was fond of mysteries, and would never tell anything.
And then going home. Knowing we were in disgraceful condition. Triumphant in our own world, but with adjusting called for in the grown-up world. Walking along a curb stone, feeling that if we could walk a certain distance without falling off, we should be able to get into the house without being seen. Feeling that if our toes should come exactly to cracks in the sidewalk five times in succession, we should have good luck, making sure of good luck by touching every stoop and every other railing. But our new mother was home. Hearing us creeping up the stairs in a way too unlike our own noisy way. Calling us into her room, and looking at us.
"Stand there in a row, until your father comes home," said
our new mother. And we stood, obedient, feeling the effect of the commanding
appearance, as she went on working butterflies into some kind of a hoop
arrangement. The one nearest a table reached over for an ink bottle. Rubbing
ink on the white showing through a torn stocking. Passing the bottle down
the line; all the torn stockings mended. Rubbing against one another's
shoulders to get dirt off; pointing to own faces to show dirt on other
faces. Cleaning shoes on the under side of a rug; combing hair with fingers,
working collars and neckties into
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About this time, Biff Allen told us that he should put up with his mother impertinence no longer. Proposing that we should run away. Biff knew a sailor, who had been to India, and learned that we could get jobs in Upper Burma, driving elephants for eighteen dollars a week. Then our mind could hold nothing but thoughts of elephants, waving palms, natives in turbans. The other kid, too, wanted to be an elephant-driver. So we sold out stamps for fifteen dollars, Biff contributing a pile of dime novels, which we did not read at the time, telling us that his contribution was quite as good as ours, as we'd find out during lonely watches by the camp fire. But Biff was not satisfied with the fifteen dollars, which he could not touch anyway, for we cast our lots for the other kid as treasurer in every enterprise. Biff wanted us to go down to the store every day. Relays of boys. Bumpy Driscoll carrying sardines to Eagle Street and turning them over to Tykesy. Returning for stuffed olives, and back in time to meet one of us waiting with canned peaches.
And we wanted to take along the little kid; he might get a job driving baby elephants for nine dollars a week. But thinking that, whereas there seemed no room at home for three of us, there might be room for one; so, though we carted away loads of only the best groceries, we left enough for the little kid to carry on business with them when he should grow up and be a good business man.
Little kid very much wanting to go, though never really pleading; we thought it unwise. Coming to us one day when we were in Biff's garret, looking at more groceries than we could possibly have carried. Handing us a parcel. Saying, "It's provisions." We unwrapped a big pickle; wicked, little kid had dipped into a corner grocery barrel. We told him that he was a good, little kid, and we should always remember him when away off in foreign climes. "Foreign climes" too much for him; making awful faces, trying not to cry.
All unhappy, because he was going to lose his two, big brothers, very likely forever. Running down the stairs; going to tell. Going no farther than the bottom step; no more telling among us three. Thinking it over; fists in his eyes. Oh, he'd just have to tell! Little kid saying never a word.
We were to start at four o'clock in the morning, and meet Biff on the corner. Eight o'clock would have done, but four o'clock was more interesting.
Four o'clock. We up and ready to start for India, having said goodbye the evening before to the little kid, who had given up talking of going with us. We went to his room to see him once more. Fast asleep, but all his clothes were on, and he hugged a bundle under one arm. We wavered at this; but India is no place for small boys. So we kissed him good bye; and the other kid kissed him goodbye. We wanting to have some kind of a ceremony over the little, sleeping kid. Wanting to pray that he should be happy and should be the good, business man that we could never be.
But the other kid said, "Come on."
Creeping down the stairs, passing Their hat on the rack in the gray hall. Wanting to be mournful and sentimental over the hat, going away forgiving everyone for everything.
But the other kid said, "Come on."
Lingering in the street to take a last look at our home. And the other kid said, "Come on."
But Biff was not on the corner; it was nine o'clock before he came,
we berating him, wearied and much of our enthusiasm gone. Biff telling
a story of being unable to sleep and wandering to the river, where he saved
a man from committing suicide.
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