Remnants of an Autobiography by Charles Hoy Fort
Chapter Fifteen and the Remainder
The end of our second year in High School was not far away. The other kid managed just to pull through everything, though he had seemed to study very little, but not ending in our disgraceful, conditioned way. He joined the other literary society, though, unlike us, he could have joined either at the first election.
There was not, and it seemed to us there never could be, any improvement in our school work. Nick was interested in our writings for the literary society, and often asked to see what we had written, showing us where we had labored around and around a point expressible in a few words. Just before school closed, he sent for us. Saying, "How would you like the newspaper business?" We answering, "Oh, all right," by which we meant that nothing could be more attractive to us. It would be useless for us to wait for the examinations, as Nick knew, for we had always told the truth about our worthless self when he had asked us.
Nick said, "Well, go around to the Democrat; Standish is editor there now, and he will put you on. There won't be much of anything in it for you at first, but it will give you an idea, and some day we may get you down in New York. Just keep your rubbers on, and you'll not slip up."
Standish was his best friend. They had been kids together, and in the
High School together, having had some renown giving "Brutus and Cassius"
in small entertainments, Standish taking
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And Mr. Standish calling us. Saying, "Ministers? Directory!" Rattling papers, slamming down his blue pencil. But we did not understand.
"Look in the directory!" Grabbing and crumpling a handful of papers.
We standing stupid. Oh, yes, the directory! Going to the directory and opening it to search through for all the clergymen in the city. A day's work of a task, but we began with the "A's", glancing along patiently. We'd do it no matter how tiresome; we'd work in the office all afternoon, and, as there was a directory at home, we'd go through that all night if necessary. Then we'd start out early in the morning. Searching for ministers among housepainters, blacksmiths, widows.
Mr. Standish grabbing the directory, opening it in the back, showing us a list of churches and the addresses of the clergymen. We made out the list; we went out on our first assignment. Just think of our being a reporter! Going to see cutthroats, thieves, and assassins. Going to see and write about things that only ordinary people can only read about. And we supplying this reading. We'd see lunatics! Oh, hasten the day when we could chat with maniacs!
We did not go home, and we did not go to see Nick, though he was only
a few doors away. We wanted him to think we had gone home, and then surprise
him by showing that we had started right away with the work, with all our
heart in it. Truly, at last we might have everybody pleased with us. And
we did go from minister to minister; all afternoon, until we found we were
taking our subjects from supper. Then going home late to our own supper,
feeling that we had the right to be late; we were working for our living.
To be sure we had seen only ministers, but soon maniacs would be common
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after having related marvelous and impossible experiences himself, that he offered to put in two cents if we would give eight for soda water. But we let him go no more; he had taken half an hour that time, just revelling in being a reporter before the minister, minister's wife, minister's daughter, and two ministerial cats on the piazza.
And then we wrote out our interviews, finding a vast difference between impression and expression, conscious of too many "ands," but unable to get along without the "ands;" with a horror for repeating words, but unable to think of synonyms. And feeling that we should have a variety of forms in the interviews, but not knowing just what we wanted. We had worked hard from early morning until late at night, and next morning handed in what we had written.
Half amused, half friendly Mr. Hamilton handed it back. Saying, "The puzzle-editor isn't in just now. Perhaps you'd better write it over." For our handwriting was the handwriting of the unschooled, and the copy reader had refused to bother with it. We were downcast; writing again, glancing at Mr. Standish, leaping from his chair, dashing back again, glad that he was so very busy and would not know of our disgrace.
Mr. Standish was quite unoccupied, just leaping and dashing anyway; calling us into his office, saying that we could never succeed with our kind of handwriting, advising us to cultivate a large, round hand, remarking that he had known poor writers to produce legible work in that way. We rewriting, making each letter as large as a bean, finding that we smoothed many irregularities with the rewriting.
Of course, when our assignment was over, we knew that we could not very
well have distinguished ourself with such work. But how we did long to
do something remarkable! Passing vacant
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we could lounge on a park bench, but were lounging professionally, reporting a tennis tournament. Bound-down clerks and bookkeepers seemed very inferior persons; we saw in our calling the attractiveness that all but actors see in the actor's calling. Describing scenes and conditions in the park; making the weatherman the object of old-time pleasantries; finding material in the incidents in a badly paved street.
Why, at home, our new mother was afraid to speak, we turning her gossip into "copy," though trying to disguise so as to get her into no trouble.
"What was said?" We with ears wide-open. Our new mother glancing from them to us meaningly. They irritated and scornful, refusing to believe that we could write anything, thinking, when they could trace about-town gossip to us that someone else had patched it up for us.
They repeating, "What was said?" Our new mother gossiping; we with note book, scrawling on it in our pocket.
And we had a reaching-out feeling, wanting to write more important, little stories. If we could only produce something with a plot in it, and with characters that we could make speak and act, as if we had created them! There were luring and wonderfulness in this feeling of creative instinct, of which we had only desire for it; seemed god-like to take a pencil, and then let things happen.
Writing half a column about reading character by the way people tore
tickets from strips of tickets in the street cars; some grudgingly, some
nervously, some cheerfully. We thought this strikingly original. We had
read many articles upon the telling of character by simple acts, but because
we turned to tickets instead of ways of carrying a cane or opening an umbrella,
we thought ourself strikingly original. Above all things we did
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work. We'd say, in the evening, "Well, I had a pretty hard day to-day," whether we had or not; just to draw a little sympathy from our new mother, whom, because of the ways that were our ways, we had long before lost as a friend.
We'd long for encouragement; we'd want to be told that at last we were doing creditably. They'd shake the newspaper at us; just as when a little boy talking was forbidden at our table. In fact in their seeing, we were only an experiment of Nick's, They sneering at anything undertaken by "that young Nick" as they called him.
We went to the camp, and Standish told us that, if we should get up a good story, he should be glad to have it.
Swimming and boating again. The year before, we had had pleasure in discovering new places; this year ours was pleasure in revisiting old places. Delighting in a rock if we had only scaled fish on it; pleased with any tree that we could remember anything about, if only that once we had leaned against it. Picturing Northern bleakness and the darkness of white snow and ice in these sunny scenes of trees, grass, and blue water gently rolling pebbles on its edge. Trolling for pike and pickerel, lazily rowing, but the little spoon working furiously on the other end of a line that connected us with unknown depths. Painting on a rocky stretch our name in letters three feet high, people in steamboats wondering who could be as important as all that. Just wouldn't they know some day!
On our way back in the cars, writing our story, with desire to see it in print greater than we had felt for anything we had ever written before. But our mind was in confusion; incidents, characters, scenes were all mixed up, we not knowing where to begin, trying to force a connected story from these things all mixed up. Making our most pretentious effort in writing, trying to tell not only what we had seen but what we had felt. Settling upon a night trip over the lake in the big war canoe; feeling the picturesqueness of a band of us, each with a paddle, skimming over dark waters; unison and rhythm thrilling us. Just like the Indians, who had gone over the same waters in the same way a century before.
Mr. Standish said, "Execrable!" Looking at us in a wild way of his. We thought "execrable" a good word, and used it in our next writing. But he meant our handwriting for the story was printed with only a few sentences made smoother. Which, however, we were sorry to see, for we wanted every word of it to be our own.
Real reporters saying that we had done well. Even Gresham, who seemingly had never before been aware that we existed, was so kind and flattering as to ask us for a match. Nick cut out the story to paste in his scrap-book, saying, "You keep your rubbers on, and we'll have you down in New York yet."
It was only an ordinary, little story, using "story" in the newspaper sense, but it was wonderfulness to us. Because we saw not what it was but what it was meant to be, and not what was in it, but a thousand times as much as was in it; all Lake Champlain, and all the history of Lake Champlain; suggestions of rocky shores and sandy beaches; pictures of rain storms far off in Vermont hills, their coming then seen in roughness advancing over smooth water; the splashing of rain drops sweeping from blots and swirls down upon us, waiting on a point of land to feel force and fury; impressions of deepness, blueness, romance, comradeship.
Wanting to know what They thought of our story, most of which we had
tried to have humorous. Not really asking our new mother, but trying to
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were only neatly folded documents couched in intricate, unintelligible language.
Going to the Surrogate's Court every morning. Uneasiness. We knew not how to address the Surrogate. We very much disliked to call any fellow-citizen "Your Honor." It seemed un-American. But we wanted to do what was proper, so we'd say, "Good mornin',
M-m-m," which might mean, "Your Honor," "Judge," or "Mr. Bonway." And we had this feeling about taking our hat off in offices. Wanting not to appear ignorant, but feeling that we could not take our hat off except in a court, in houses, theatres and such places and to women. It was very trying to be a stranger in this grown-up world we were in. So much world we let trifles distress us that we would pause and linger before a door, trying to decide whether that hat should come off or should stay on. Getting into trouble with the County Clerk, because of our assuming of the briskness we admired so much. Saying, "Ah! Fine morning! How's everything this morning, old man?"
"Don't you get so fresh!"
All the briskness knocked out of us. Called "fresh," and all we were doing was trying not to show our feeling of strangeness.
We'd see the Mayor now and then, and the "boss" often. A great, terrific creature, a Judge, a ruler; it would seem strange to us to look at him now and then and know that once he had been the other little boy that Mrs. Lawson had brought up.
But with all our stiffness we had an easy way too, and made friends
wherever we were, clerks here and there explaining and helping us. And
Surrogate Bonway helped us, because it was his way to be kind to everybody.
Were it not for him, we should have been arrested once. He was Police Justice
then, and Old Lewis had gone to him to get warrants for us and the other
kid. We had tied his door knobs together, ringing
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mischievous as a little boy. Childish we sent in disgrace to stand in the hall, as if we had never seen a bridge-tender or a dock-watchman. We had to be laughed at; it was our craze to be amusing. Pretending to hang things on a remarkable projection from the German professor's bald head; anything foolish and silly to have us noticed.
Studying at home, studying with Miss North, and then geometry in the evening. Walking home with the bookkeeper, very much liking to discuss grave subjects with him; such as whether opportunity makes the man. Having no gift of language, staggering around in vagueness, searching for words, feeling our instinctive delight in words used not commonly. To say "pristine" or "salutary" or "paradoxical" almost thrilled us.
And going down to Rizzer's house to play poker, having to be home by nine o'clock, The other boys drank now and then, and now and then we would go into a saloon with them. They'd order beer and order beer for us; we would refuse to touch it. Having a scuffle now and then; we would not touch it. Just as with smoking we had held away until desire had come, we could seldom be tempted unless we felt inclination.
Walking down Pearl Street one day. And a feeling came over us. That we should like a comfortable evening at home, with a book in which we were interested in, smoking our pipe, and our feet up on something, with something by our side to pour out now and then. We went into a store and bought a bottle of cheap claret, quite without reasoning.
Waiting until the other kid had gone to sleep; opening the bottle, pouring out until we poured all over ourself. Falling about the room; just sense enough to turn off the gas and make no noise.
Then we drank little glasses of port every now and then, not liking
beer, knowing better than to drink whiskey, liking
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at the head of the troops, medals all over us, fellow townsmen shouting our name, flags and handkerchiefs waving, everyone saying, "May be he was bad, but there is good in him after all. Hooray!" Fifes and drums intoxicating us with their music, the bass drum beating like the very heart of it, and our own heart beating so that we should have burst into crying were it not that we despised the showing of emotion.
The banjo was taken from us, our new mother said that the other kid should take music lessons, because he had long fingers.
The music teacher went down to the store for payment; he didn't know Them. Then he did know; however, he was paid long afterward.
We went with Rizzer to Johnnie Whack's one afternoon. Several of the boys had gambled there, and had told us about it. And we wanted to be a "sport." Being a "sport" might win us a little admiration. We were unable to catch up with studies that we could not have kept up with, but admiration we had to have for something; we'd be a "sport."
There was truth in what we felt; all the boys admired a "sport." There was Teddy Higman, one of the great unmarked, a studious, mild boy, but without even exceeding studiousness and mildness to mark him. He'd say, "I saw you coming out of the Delavan yesterday." Not for the world would he go in the Delavan; but he'd look at us as if we had explored a new continent.
"Do you really drink beer?" He'd not drink beer, but there were his eyes as if looking at some superior person carelessly tampering with peril.
"Did you ever gamble?" Why, there were dozens of boys like Teddy, all of them good boys; largely for their admiration we took to badness.
So we went to Johnnie Whack's. Going through the pool room, meeting Mr. Ex, tearing up a slip of strangely marked paper, tearing excitedly, then scattering carelessly. And Mr. Eye, talking in a group about "past performances," weight for age," and other things that we knew nothing of. To think of Mr. Eye in such a place. And Mr. Zee! Mr. Zee looking at us as if indignant to see us there. Starting toward to speak severely, seeming suddenly to remember something, turning abruptly away.
Going up the stairs, for we had little interest in racing, as imagined in a pool room, wanting to have some action before us. Having no difficulty to get in, for our slow, old city was a "wide-open" town. Glancing indifferently at everything, trying to appear accustomed to things we had never seen before, but astonished to see there young fellows that we had known as quiet, good boys.
Taking a place by the roulette table; Mrs. Lawson had given us a dollar; so we bought a stack of white chips, asking for "checks" which we had learned is more "sporty" than "chips." Very attractive chips with stars or crescents on them and not the plain ones we had played with. Learning the gossip of the place from young fellows, with whom we talked in low tones, as if a place where we should be very respectful. There was near us a man that had been playing two days without sleeping; he was eight hundred dollars ahead of the game we learned. To us he was the extreme of everything daring. playing whole stacks at a time on whole numbers and on corners, we risking only a little, white chip at a time on colors. Then feeling mean with our one, little, white chip. Putting on a dozen; surely the other boys would recognize "sportiness." And winning right along, as, it seems, is a beginner's way. Losing and then doubling, protecting ourself on the "0's" and the "eagle". Down to the last doubling, losing on black, but the banker saying, "Eagle, the bird!" Which seemed tautological but meant that we had won after all.
A whole stack on black; winning; leaving the two stacks. Little ball circling swiftly, then jolting, falling into a black compartment. Oh, the admiration we felt for ourself!
Piles of white chips around us, built in a castle with towers and turrets that would keep us from ever again wanting anything we could not have. Shoving on a whole tower, trying to shuffle chips with one hand, just as the banker was doing, only, the chips wouldn't shuffle for us. Paid in red chips! Feeling as if we had been promoted into the class of the man that had played two days without sleeping. And Rizzer digging his fingers into our back, trying to make us cash in. Losing a whole tower; losing a whole wing of the castle. Rizzer trying to drag us away, braving the contempt of the banker.
So we cashed in eleven dollars, and went with Rizzer to Keeler's.
Fried oysters and bottles of beer! That's what we had. Why, it beat Surrogates and dock loungers! Leaning back, smoking cigars. Two for a quarter! And we tipped the waiter! Waiter holding our overcoat, reaching under to pull down our under coat. We had tipped a waiter! There was nothing left except to walk out, chewing a tooth pick, and then have our shoes shined outside.
Didn't go to school next morning. Were in Johnnie Whack's as soon as the place opened. Awfulness.
We spent most of our evenings with Nick, who had moved to our other
grandfather's house, because our other grandfather wanted all his children
with him. And there, good-natured Martha quarrelled with our other grandfather
frequently. This bright,
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an orchard had radiated special meaning to us; this meaning had been whispered by shells, sea beans, postage stamps. We had gone on from life in grass, trees, water to marvelling and passion for all life. We were bad, there was weakness in us, there was meanness in us, clumsiness, stupidity, selfishness, wildness in us. But surely there was something else in us, for any little story that was of the greatness of life exalted us so that our excitement would have burst from us quite in the form of sobbing were it not for our contempt for emotional surrender.
Oceans, strange lands, strange peoples we would surely see some day; phases, degrees, conditions of life would surely be our study some day, if we should have to lose every friend and every prospect.
We would be the great and famous man of our little-boy dreams. We would be a great writer.
[End of a chapter.]
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State Line, pleased with changing cars, because that complicated our trip and made our responsibilities greater. And then we had no sense of responsibilities, for, while waiting for the train, we went into the hotel, which, like every building anywhere near a state line, was half in one state and half in the other. Shooting pool with country, young fellows, wanting them to recognize the vast difference between them and a city, young fellow. Drinking port, but then checking ourself, feeling the lowness of drinking too much only once in our life, and would not repeat the experience. Borrowing a fish pole to try a little fishing while waiting. Tripping into an icy stream; perhaps we had taken a little too much port after all. Having to dry by a fire, thus missing several trains. Which would make it difficult to get back by evening. We didn't care.
"All aboard!" We hastening to the train; or, no, we "bustled" like a traveling man.
We were in the Berkshires, familiar ground, because we had been there with our grandfather, yet strange and interesting, for this time we were traveling alone. Little hills piled on big hills, looking like shop-worn chocolate drops, with their brown patches and sow-covered spaces. Sitting out on the steps, where we always sat, even if going only to Troy, to have everything closer to us. Rocks, trees, everything filling is with ambition, making us think of our latest Madeline, wishing we were wandering through the hills with her. Interested in everything; seeing the footsteps of a giant in the snow, tracing them to a shuffling, little boy a moment later; telegraph wires that were white cables with a break here and there where sparrows had rested. Whiteness weighing down greenness, as snow-covered evergreen boughs hung low.
The conductor coming along, not quite liking to see us there, but allowing us to stay, then inviting us into the baggage car. Offering our flask of port. Just weren't we grown-up and experienced! Conductor raising the flask, lowering it and handing it back, explaining that he never drank when on duty. What could be the matter with that flask anyway!
Our station. But we had a ticket for a station three miles farther on. You see, we wanted to do some real detective work. Wanting a feeling of strategy and machinations and skillfulness in what we were doing. No one expected us; there was no one that knew us; but we seemed to think it clever to go into the village not from its station but from the station three miles away. So it was night by the time we had walked back; thus far we had done everything wrong, for we should have to wait until the next day to see the little kid. And very likely there would be the worst trouble of our life at home. We didn't care. We wanted to stay all night in a hotel; all by ourself; no one arranging for us; away off from everything familiar. It would be very pleasing to stay all night in a hotel.
Landlord handing us a pen. We were about to sign in a register! What remarkable experiences! We must have thought we were John Hancock signing the Declaration of Independence, for the landlord looked at his book and then at us reproachfully.
But we made friends with him, wanting to start right away with our detective
work, and find out where the little kid was. Sitting before a grate fire,
pleased with the landlord partly because he was a landlord and partly because
he wore boots. Pleased with the burning logs, pleased with a farmer, because
he wore red mittens each on the end of a cord around his neck. "Local
color" you know, though we had never heard of "local color"
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You see, we could not tell what we might do when we should see the little kid after having not seen him in such a long time. In our hip pocket there was a revolver. We had always felt contempt for auxiliary weapons, but Biff Allen, who does appear again after all, had pressed this revolver upon us. And the little kid was brought to us. Just as little as ever, but sturdy as ever, showing not a sign of ill-treatment except his twitching eye caused in his own home.
All we said was, "How are you?"
All the little kid said was, "Pretty well, I thank you," just as if I were a stranger. But he sort of leaned toward us. And we were seized upon because of that sort of leaning. Our arm around him, having him sit beside us. Littleness seeming to send a sense of bigness tearing through us. And our flightiness was upon us; we wanted to shout and to struggle. In our mind, we were already in the doorway, our arm around this little kid, battling with the whole village.
Said Mrs. Dean, "I quite envy you your trip through the Berkshires; at this time of the year they must be beautiful."
Said we, "Yes; but I'd like to have come earlier; I'd like to see the maple leaves in Autumn."
Mrs. Dean discussing Autumn leaves with us; asking about the city.
Then we were a reporter again. We were conscious of this peculiarity of our mind running on one subject, but just had to tell some of Gresham's more respectable stories. We had had few experiences; Gresham had had so many; surely he would not resent our piracy.
After a formal call, we said we should have to go. Little kid asking that he might walk to th station with us. Mrs. Dean fearing not; he had lessons to make up. Little kid saying nothing, never pleading for anything denied him. We telling him to be a good boy and study hard, and then going away. But with a depressing, outclassed feeling. How easily Mrs. Dean had made nothing but a formal call of our detective mission, easily turning us from battles to Autumn leaves.
We lingered in the village, dissatisfied with tameness instead of adventure, more and more displeased with the uneventfulness of everything. We would see the little kid alone; we would find out how he was treated. So we waited until dark, then went again to the house. Looking at the lights, wondering which light he was near. And then we saw him. Up in his room; a trellis underneath; moving around in lamplight.
We crept over the lawn. And three pebbles at the lamplight. Little kid opening the window, making not a sound. He knew; this little kid always knew. Whispering down to us, "Wait a minute."
But we wanted a picture. We climbed the trellis, thinking that climbing this trellis was the most interesting picture we had ever been in.
Little kid coming back, greeting us at the window. He handed us a piece of cake. Why, this poor, foolish, little kid thought we were hungry! And that did move us. His going down to steal for us, as we had so very often stolen for each other. We wrapped the piece of cake in a paper to keep always.
Little kid wanting to go to China, Singapore, anywhere with us, whispering that two miles down the track we could catch a freight car without trouble. But we thought the hotel would do. Both of us stole down the trellis.
Up in our room. Little kid's head showing not much more than just over the high table we were sitting by. We ordering drinks, soda for him and port for us. Feeling that it was wrong to have him see his big brother drinking, but quite unable to resist having him see his big brother drinking. And smoking a big cigar, murmuring something about "the beastly quality of these country weeds."
The little kid hinted that he smoked cigarettes, having learned to smoke in the Industrial Farm, as he would never have learned at home, for we and the other kid would have trounced him well for it. Then we were severe with him. Little kid very respectful, pleasing us that he should recognize the vastness of difference between seventeen and just only thirteen.
And now tell us about everything; you must not be afraid, for you know whom you're talking to and everything will be used in your favor and against our common enemy. Is anyone ill-treating you? If there be? Great excitement! Pounding of the table. By this and by that if anyone's unkind to you there'll be - - Dear me, a whole massacre in five minutes.
Little kid unmoved. What does he care for Mrs. Dean or young
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