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Chapter 2


As the Boy's Town was, in one sense, merely a part of the boy, I think I had better tell something about my boy's family first, and the influences that formed his character, so that the reader can be a boy with him there on the intimate terms which are the only terms of true friendship. His great-grandfather was a prosperous manufacturer of Welsh flannels, who had founded his industry in a pretty town called The Hay, on the river Wye, in South Wales, where the boy saw one of his mills, still making Welsh flannels, when he visited his father's birthplace a few years ago. This great-grandfather was a Friend by Convincement, as the Quakers say; that is, he was a convert, and not a born Friend, and he had the zeal of a convert. He loved equality and fraternity, and he came out to America towards the close of the last century to prospect for these as well as for a good location to manufacture Welsh flannels; but after being presented to Washington, then President, at Philadelphia, and buying a tract of land somewhere near the District of Columbia, his phantom rolls a shadowy barrel of dollars on board ship at Baltimore, and sails back in the Flying Dutchman to South Wales. I fancy, from the tradition of the dollars, that he had made good affairs here with the stock of flannels he brought over with him; but all is rather uncertain about him, especially the land he bought, though the story of it is pretty sure to fire some descendant of his in each new generation with the wish to go down to Washington, and oust the people there who have unrightfully squatted on the ancestral property. What is unquestionable is that this old gentleman went home and never came out here again; but his son, who had inherited all his radicalism, sailed with his family for Boston in 1808, when my boy's father was a year old. From Boston he passed to one Quaker neighborhood after another, in New York, Virginia, and Ohio, setting up the machinery of woollen mills, and finally, after much disastrous experiment in farming, paused at the Boy's Town, and established himself in the drug and book business: drugs and books are still sold together, I believe, in small places. He had long ceased to be a Quaker, but he remained a Friend to every righteous cause; and brought shame to his grandson's soul by being an abolitionist in days when it was infamy to wish the slaves set free. My boy's father restored his self-respect in a measure by being a Henry Clay Whig, or a constitutional anti-slavery man. The grandfather was a fervent Methodist, but the father, after many years of scepticism, had become a receiver of the doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg; and in this faith the children were brought up. It was not only their faith, but their life, and I may say that in this sense they were a very religious household, though they never went to church, because it was the Old Church. They had no service of the New Church, the Swedenborgians were so few in the place, except when some of its ministers stopped with us on their travels. My boy regarded these good men as all personally sacred, and while one of them was in the house he had some relief from the fear in which his days seem mostly to have been passed; as if he were for the time being under the protection of a spiritual lightning-rod. Their religion was not much understood by their neighbors of the Old Church, who thought them a kind of Universalists. But the boy once heard his father explain to one of them that the New Church people believed in a hell, which each cast himself into if he loved the evil rather than the good, and that no mercy could keep him out of without destroying him, for a man's love was his very self. It made his blood run cold, and he resolved that rather than cast himself into hell, he would do his poor best to love the good. The children were taught when they teased one another that there was nothing the fiends so much delighted in as teasing. When they were angry and revengeful, they were told that now they were calling evil spirits about them, and that the good angels could not come near them if they wished while they were in that state. My boy preferred the company of good angels after dark, and especially about bedtime, and he usually made the effort to get himself into an accessible frame of mind before he slept; by day he felt that he could look out for himself, and gave way to the natural man like other boys. I suppose the children had their unwholesome spiritual pride in being different from their fellows in religion; but, on the other hand, it taught them not to fear being different from others if they believed themselves right. Perhaps it made my boy rather like it.

The grandfather was of a gloomy spirit, but of a tender and loving heart, whose usual word with a child, when he caressed it, was "Poor thing, poor thing!" as if he could only pity it; and I have no doubt the father's religion was a true affliction to him. The children were taken to visit their grandmother every Sunday noon, and then the father and grandfather never failed to have it out about the New Church and the Old. I am afraid that the father would sometimes forget his own precepts, and tease a little; when the mother went with him she was sometimes troubled at the warmth with which the controversy raged. The grandmother seemed to be bored by it, and the boys, who cared nothing for salvation in the abstract, no matter how anxious they were about the main chance, certainly shared this feeling with her. She was a pale, little, large-eyed lady, who always wore a dress of Quakerish plainness, with a white kerchief crossed upon her breast; and her aquiline nose and jutting chin almost met. She was very good to the children and at these times she usually gave them some sugar-cakes, and sent them out in the yard, where there was a young Newfoundland dog, of loose morals and no religious ideas, who joined them in having fun, till the father came out and led them home. He would not have allowed them to play where it could have aggrieved any one, for a prime article of his religion was to respect the religious feelings of others, even when he thought them wrong. But he would not suffer the children to get the notion that they were guilty of any deadly crime if they happened to come short of the conventional standard of piety. Once, when their grandfather reported to him that the boys had been seen throwing stones on Sunday at the body of a dog lodged on some drift in the river, he rebuked them for the indecorum, and then ended the matter, as he often did, by saying, "Boys, consider yourselves soundly thrashed."

I should be sorry if anything I have said should give the idea that their behavior was either fantastic or arrogant through their religion. It was simply a pervading influence; and I am sure that in the father and mother it dignified life, and freighted motive and action here with the significance of eternal fate. When the children were taught that in every thought and in every deed they were choosing their portion with the devils or the angels, and that God himself could not save them against themselves, it often went in and out of their minds, as such things must with children; but some impression remained and helped them to realize the serious responsibility they were under to their own after-selves. At the same time, the father, who loved a joke almost as much as he loved a truth, and who despised austerity as something owlish, set them the example of getting all the harmless fun they could out of experience. They had their laugh about nearly everything that was not essentially sacred; they were made to feel the ludicrous as an alleviation of existence; and the father and mother were with them on the same level in all this enjoyment.

The house was pretty full of children, big and little. There were seven of them in the Boy's Town, and eight afterwards in all; so that if there had been no Boy's Town about them, they would still have had a Boy's World indoors. They lived in three different houses—the Thomas house, the Smith house, and the Falconer house—severally called after the names of their owners, for they never had a house of their own. Of the first my boy remembered nothing, except the woodpile on which he tried his axe, and a closet near the front door, which he entered into one day, with his mother's leave, to pray, as the Scripture bade. It was very dark, and hung full of clothes, and his literal application of the text was not edifying; he fancied, with a child's vague suspicion, that it amused his father and mother; I dare say it also touched them. Of the Smith house, he could remember much more: the little upper room where the boys slept, and the narrow stairs which he often rolled down in the morning; the front room where he lay sick with a fever, and was bled by the doctor, as people used to be in those days; the woodshed where, one dreadful afternoon, when he had somehow been left alone in the house, he took it into his head that the family dog Tip was going mad; the window where he traced the figure of a bull on greased paper from an engraving held up against the light: none of them important facts, but such as stick in the mind by the capricious action of memory, while far greater events drop out of it. My boy's elder brother at once accused him of tracing that bull, which he pretended to have copied; but their father insisted upon taking the child's word for it, though he must have known he was lying; and this gave my boy a far worse conscience than if his father had whipped him. The father's theory was that people are more apt to be true if you trust them than if you doubt them; I do not think he always found it work perfectly; but I believe he was right.

My boy was for a long time very miserable about that bull, and the experience taught him to desire the truth and honor it, even when he could not attain it. Five or six years after, when his brother and he had begun to read stories, they found one in the old New York Mirror which had a great influence upon their daily conduct. It was called "The Trippings of Tom Pepper; or, the Effects of Romancing," and it showed how at many important moments the hero had been baulked of fortune by his habit of fibbing. They took counsel together, and pledged themselves not to tell the smallest lie, upon any occasion whatever. It was a frightful slavery, for there are a great many times in a boy's life when it seems as if the truth really could not serve him. Their great trial was having to take a younger brother with them whenever they wanted to go off with other boys; and it had been their habit to get away from him by many little deceits which they could not practise now: to tell him that their mother wanted him; or to send him home upon some errand to his pretended advantage that had really no object but his absence. I suppose there is now no boy living who would do this. My boy and his brother groaned under their good resolution, I do not know how long; but the day came when they could bear it no longer, though I cannot give just the time or the terms of their backsliding. That elder brother had been hard enough on my boy before the period of this awful reform: his uprightness, his unselfishness, his truthfulness were a daily reproach to him, and it did not need this season of absolute sincerity to complete his wretchedness. Yet it was an experience which afterwards he would not willingly have missed: for once in his little confused life he had tried to practise a virtue because the opposite vice had been made to appear foolish and mischievous to him; and not from any superstitious fear or hope.

As far as I can make out, he had far more fears than hopes; and perhaps every boy has. It was in the Smith house that he began to be afraid of ghosts, though he never saw one, or anything like one. He never saw even the good genius who came down the chimney and filled the children's stockings at Christmas. He wished to see him; but he understood that St. Nicholas was a shy spirit, and was apt to pass by the stockings of boys who lay in wait for him. His mother had told him how the Peltsnickel used to come with a bundle of rods for the bad children when the Chriskingle brought the presents of the good ones, among his grandmother's Pennsylvania German kindred; and he had got them all somehow mixed up together. Then St. Nicholas, though he was so pleasant and friendly in the poem about the night before Christmas, was known to some of the neighbor boys as Santa Claus; they called it Centre Claws, and my boy imagined him with large talons radiating from the pit of his stomach. But this was all nothing to the notion of Dowd's spectacles, which his father sometimes joked him about, and which were represented by a pair of hollow, glassless iron rims which he had found in the street. They may or may not have belonged to Dowd, and Dowd may have been an Irishman in the neighborhood, or he may not; he may have died, or he may not; but there was something in the mere gruesome mention of his spectacles which related itself to all the boy had conceived of the ghostly and ghastly, and all that was alarming in the supernatural; he could never say in the least how or why. I fancy no child can ever explain just why it is affected in this way or that way by the things that are or are not in the world about it; it is not easy to do this for one's self in after-life. At any rate, it is certain that my boy dwelt most of his time amid shadows that were, perhaps, projected over his narrow outlook from some former state of being, or from the gloomy minds of long-dead ancestors. His home was cheerful and most happy, but he peopled all its nooks and corners with shapes of doom and horror. The other boys were not slow to find this out, and their invention supplied with ready suggestion of officers and prisons any little lack of misery his spectres and goblins left. He often narrowly escaped arrest, or thought so, when they built a fire in the street at night, and suddenly kicked it to pieces, and shouted, "Run, run! The constable will catch you!" Nothing but flight saved my boy, in these cases, when he was small. He grew bolder, after a while, concerning constables, but never concerning ghosts; they shivered in the autumnal evenings among the tall stalks of the corn-field that stretched, a vast wilderness, behind the house to the next street, and they walked the night everywhere.

Run! Run! The Constable will catch you!

Yet nothing more tragical, that he could remember, really happened while he lived in the Smith house than something he saw one bright sunny morning, while all the boys were hanging on the fence of the next house, and watching the martins flying down to the ground from their box in the gable. The birds sent out sharp cries of terror or anger, and presently he saw a black cat crouching in the grass, with half-shut eyes and an air of dreamy indifference. The birds swept down in longer and lower loops towards the cat, drawn by some fatal charm, or by fear of the danger that threatened their colony from the mere presence of the cat; but she did not stir. Suddenly she sprang into the air, and then darted away with a martin in her mouth, while my boy's heart leaped into his own, and the other boys rushed after the cat.

As when something dreadful happens, this seemed not to have happened; but a lovely experience leaves a sense of enduring fact behind, and remains a rich possession no matter how slight and simple it was. My boy's mother has been dead almost a quarter of a century, but as one of the elder children he knew her when she was young and gay; and his last distinct association with the Smith house is of coming home with her after a visit to her mother's far up the Ohio River. In their absence the June grass, which the children's feet always kept trampled down so low, had flourished up in purple blossom, and now stood rank and tall; and the mother threw herself on her knees in it, and tossed and frolicked with her little ones like a girl. The picture remains, and the wonder of the world in which it was true once, while all the phantasmagory of spectres has long vanished away.

The boy could not recall the family's removal to the Falconer house. They were not there, and then they were there. It was a brick house, at a corner of the principal street, and in the gable there were places for mock-windows where there had never been blinds put, but where the swallows had thickly built their nests. I dare say my boy might have been willing to stone these nests, but he was not allowed, either he or his mates, who must have panted with him to improve such an opportunity of havoc. There was a real window in the gable from which he could look out of the garret; such a garret as every boy should once have the use of some time in his life. It was dim and low, though it seemed high, and the naked brown rafters were studded with wasps' nests; and the rain beat on the shingles overhead. The house had been occupied by a physician, and under the eaves the children found heaps of phials full of doctor's stuff; the garret abounded in their own family boxes and barrels, but there was always room for a swing, which the boys used in training for their circuses. Below the garret there were two unimportant stories with chambers, dining-room, parlor, and so on; then you came to the brick-paved kitchen in the basement, and a perfectly glorious cellar, with rats in it. Outside there was a large yard, with five or six huge old cherry-trees, and a garden plot, where every spring my boy tried to make a garden, with never-failing failure.

The house gave even to him a sense of space unknown before, and he could recall his mother's satisfaction in it. He has often been back there in dreams, and found it on the old scale of grandeur; but no doubt it was a very simple affair. The fortunes of a Whig editor in a place so overwhelmingly democratic as the Boy's Town were not such as could have warranted his living in a palace; and he must have been poor, as the world goes now. But the family always lived in abundance, and in their way they belonged to the employing class; that is, the father had men to work for him. On the other hand, he worked with them; and the boys, as they grew old enough, were taught to work with them, too. My boy grew old enough very young; and was put to use in the printing-office before he was ten years of age. This was not altogether because he was needed there, I dare say, but because it was part of his father's Swedenborgian philosophy that every one should fulfil a use; I do not know that when the boy wanted to go swimming, or hunting, or skating, it consoled him much to reflect that the angels in the highest heaven delighted in uses; nevertheless, it was good for him to be of use, though maybe not so much use.

If his mother did her own work, with help only now and then from a hired girl, that was the custom of the time and country; and her memory was always the more reverend to him, because whenever he looked back at her in those dim years, he saw her about some of those household offices which are so beautiful to a child. She was always the best and tenderest mother, and her love had the heavenly art of making each child feel itself the most important, while she was partial to none. In spite of her busy days she followed their father in his religion and literature, and at night, when her long toil was over, she sat with the children and listened while he read aloud. The first book my boy remembered to have heard him read was Moore's "Lalla Rookh," of which he formed but a vague notion, though while he struggled after its meaning he took all its music in, and began at once to make rhymes of his own. He had no conception of literature except the pleasure there was in making it; and he had no outlook into the world of it, which must have been pretty open to his father. The father read aloud some of Dickens's Christmas stories, then new; and the boy had a good deal of trouble with the "Haunted Man." One rarest night of all, the family sat up till two o'clock, listening to a novel that my boy long ago forgot the name of, if he ever knew its name. It was all about a will, forged or lost, and there was a great scene in court, and after that the mother declared that she could not go to bed till she heard the end. His own first reading was in history. At nine years of age he read the history of Greece, and the history of Rome, and he knew that Goldsmith wrote them. One night his father told the boys all about Don Quixote; and a little while after he gave my boy the book. He read it over and over again; but he did not suppose it was a novel. It was his elder brother who read novels, and a novel was like "Handy Andy," or "Harry Lorrequer," or the "Bride of Lammermoor." His brother had another novel which they preferred to either; it was in Harper's old "Library of Select Novels," and was called "Alamance; or, the Great and Final Experiment," and it was about the life of some sort of community in North Carolina. It bewitched them, and though my boy could not afterwards recall a single fact or figure in it, he could bring before his mind's eye every trait of its outward aspect. It was at this time that his father bought an English-Spanish grammar from a returned volunteer, who had picked it up in the city of Mexico, and gave it to the boy. He must have expected him to learn Spanish from it; but the boy did not know even the parts of speech in English. As the father had once taught English grammar in six lessons, from a broadside of his own authorship, he may have expected the principle of heredity to help the boy; and certainly he did dig the English grammar out of that blessed book, and the Spanish language with it, but after many long years, and much despair over the difference between a preposition and a substantive.

All this went along with great and continued political excitement, and with some glimpses of the social problem. It was very simple then; nobody was very rich, and nobody was in want; but somehow, as the boy grew older, he began to discover that there were differences, even in the little world about him; some were higher and some were lower. From the first he was taught by precept and example to take the side of the lower. As the children were denied oftener than they were indulged, the margin of their own abundance must have been narrower than they ever knew then; but if they had been of the most prosperous, their bent in this matter would have been the same. Once there was a church festival, or something of that sort, and there was a good deal of the provision left over, which it was decided should be given to the poor. This was very easy, but it was not so easy to find the poor whom it should be given to. At last a hard-working widow was chosen to receive it; the ladies carried it to her front door and gave it her, and she carried it to her back door and threw it into the alley. No doubt she had enough without it, but there were circumstances of indignity or patronage attending the gift which were recognized in my boy's home, and which helped afterwards to make him doubtful of all giving, except the humblest, and restive with a world in which there need be any giving at all.

William Dean Howells

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