Father Declines to be Killed by Clarence Day

I don’t know why Father and Mother chose Irvington to go to, that summer. There were lots of other places where we boys could have enjoyed ourselves better, but we weren’t consulted of course, and we’d have been surprised if we had been. The family assumed that we could have a good time anywhere. We had supposed so ourselves. But everything was wrong about Irvington.

I used to sit up on our hill and stare down at the Hudson. It had a dirty yellow-brown colour, it didn’t make any noises, and I felt I never had seen such a tiresome river. Compared to the blue salt-water we were used to, it seemed too dull and lifeless to swim in. There was no bathing beach anyhow.

Down the road was the old Washington Irving house in Sleepy Hollow, which Mother insisted was lovely, but it was still as death, and two thin little old ladies who mustn’t be disturbed sat and rocked on the porch.

About an hour’s walk in the other direction there was a fat boy who had rabbits, but we didn’t think much of either those rabbits or the fellow who owned them.

On our hill we were surrounded by great, silent, park-like estates, belonging to great, silent, rich men who didn’t want boys around. We occasionally explored these parks uninvited, but they weren’t any good. And the hill that we lived on was as limited a hill as we’d ever seen.

Our garden seemed to be owned by the gardener. He wouldn’t let us go in it. He doled out flowers from it to Mother and he scowled when he brought in the vegetables. When Mother asked him when he’d have more tomatoes or peas, he used to think deeply and say, “She be up in two day.” He complained of the large amounts of vegetables the cook said we needed. At the end of the season we found he’d been selling the best of the produce all summer.

On one side of the garden was a small grove of trees, called “the woods.” We spent most of our time in a swampy hollow in there, building a house in the underbrush. I was the Pharaoh of this sweaty enterprise and my brothers served as my subject Egyptians, at first. But as time went on and as it began to dawn upon them that this house would be mine when they finished it, they lost interest in it, and I had to do more and more of the work myself. It was a good little house, though. Its chief defect was that it was damp. It had no drainage and the trees kept dripping on it. It almost never felt dry. Also, as there was very little room in it, only one person–not counting the mosquitoes–could get inside at a time. That one person was nearly always me, until I came down with malaria.

When I got out of bed again, wandering around in the old greystone house during my long convalescence, I found thirty or forty yellow paper-bound books in the garret. The only books that Father and Mother didn’t like me to read were cheap sensational novels with yellow-paper covers, such as were sold at railroad news-stands. I had always obeyed them till now, but here were a lot of those very books right in the house, and here was I feeling for the first time in my life bored and idle. I took two of the novels downstairs with me and hid them in my bedroom closet.

After that I went to bed early every night and eagerly read those two books, hungry for adventures of any kind, even of love. I was thirteen, and love affairs were beginning to seem faintly interesting. The tedious thing about such affairs to my mind was their sickening flavour of sweetness, but in yellow-backed paper novels I hopefully assumed that they’d be less true-hearted than in other books, and more illicit, more lurid.

To my astonishment I found that this wasn’t so. There was nothing sensational in those novels. I read them all the way through to make sure, but I seemed to have drawn two blanks. I took them back up to the garret and brought down some more.

I kept doggedly on through the whole collection, and when I had finished I made up my mind never to read a yellow-backed novel again. Instead of being sinful and gay they were full of moral reflections. They even had clergymen in them. They were all by one man, a writer named Anthony Trollope, whom I never had heard of, and who didn’t seem much of a success at sensational fiction. I put them back up in the garret.

I didn’t tell my parents about Trollope. He became one of my guilty secrets.

There had been a great deal of talk before we went to the country about what kind of carriage we’d need, for Father to drive to the station in and for Mother to use making calls. We had never owned a carriage before.

There didn’t seem to be any such thing as a general-utility vehicle. A two-seated surrey would have been the nearest thing to it, but Father said that a liveried coachman wouldn’t look right in a surrey, unless he were driving it, and Father wished to do the driving himself. That ruled out victorias, too. Mother said that next to a victoria she’d choose a nice buggy, but Father said that a buggy would be no use to us when we went back to town. Nobody but a countryman would drive in New York in a buggy. He said he had always loathed buggies, and that he would as lief go around in a wheelbarrow. In the end he had gone to Brewster’s to get their advice, and they had fitted him out with that big English dogcart I spoke of. When Mother remonstrated, he said that Brewster’s were the best carriage-builders he knew, and the upshot of it was that Mother was driven around in that dog-cart for years.

It seemed very pleasant to us boys to drive in that dog-cart. It was high, and it had no bothersome doors, sides, or windows, like cabs. On rainy days, the coachman put rubber covers on the cushions and we wore rubber coats. It was a strong heavy vehicle that would stand a lot of knocking about. But it had only two wheels, of course, and it didn’t suit Mother. She said it jiggled too much. No matter how tightly she pinned on her hat, Sunday mornings, she arrived at the church door shaken loose on top and bunched up below. And the combination of rain and a dog-cart didn’t suit her at all.

The very first drive that we took in it, there was a shower. The dog-cart was stopped. Father and Mother and I and Morgan, the coachman, stood up and put on our rubber coats, and Morgan got out the large rubber apron. Mother then raised her umbrella to protect her big ribbony hat.

Father, sitting on the box seat beside her, stared at this in horror. “You can’t put up that thing,” he said.

“I can so,” Mother answered indignantly.

“I can’t drive if you do,” Father said. “How the devil can a man see to drive with you bobbing that big thing in front of us?”

“I’m not bobbing it,” Mother cried. “It’s the wind. Do please hurry, Clare. This is awful!”

“Awful?” said Father, trying to hold his whip crosswise, with the umbrella jerking and beating against it. “It’s damnable.”

“Well then, why didn’t you get a buggy, as I told you?” said Mother.

“Will you kindly hold that thing out of my way?” Father shouted. “Upon my soul, this is positively disgraceful. Stop, Vinnie! Stop! You’re poking it right in my eye! You can’t carry an umbrella in a dog-cart.”

When we arrived at the house, half an hour later, with the rain pouring down, they were still hotly debating this question. I don’t remember that it ever was settled, though it was debated for years.

One windy night, a week later, there was another and heavier storm, which began just as Father and Cousin Julie were going out to a dinner-party. Neither of them wanted to go, and Julie hadn’t even been invited, but Mother declared that they had to. She had written and accepted the invitation for Father and herself ten days ago, she explained, and it was only because she really felt too ill to stir that she was sending Julie instead. Father said he felt sick himself, a lot sicker than Mother, but Mother said he couldn’t back out at the last moment and there was no time to send word. So she hurried them off in their evening finery in that cold wind and rain, up high in the air on that shelterless dog-cart, along the unlighted roads.

In general, the roads around Irvington were dusty but good. The great trouble was they were hilly. So far as we boys were concerned, we liked them, but Brownie did not. Brownie was not made for hills, and neither, of course, was the dog-cart. Father said it would have been better to have had a short, stocky cob for such work. Brownie was of an opposite type, he was lanky and limp–so limp that Mother said he was becoming unnaturally elongated, pulling that cart up those hills.

On the other hand, it was because of those hills that our horseback rides were such fun. Father rode every morning before he took the train to the city, and we boys took turns going with him. Little by little we explored every inch of that beautiful countryside.

I was riding with Father one day in September when he found a new road. I galloped ahead, up a hill. Just over the crest of it, hidden from sight till it was too late to stop, was a wash-out–a deep, ditchlike chasm across the road–which my horse luckily jumped, almost before I had seen it. A little farther on I reined him in and looked back, to see if Father had cleared it.

Father was lying face downward in the road. His horse, which had fallen beside him, was thrashing around with its feet. It scrambled up just as I turned, and I saw it step over Father.

I galloped back, dismounted, and managed to roll and push Father over. He was senseless. I sat down in the road with his head on my lap and wiped the blood off his face. I had never seen him helpless before. It gave me a strange feeling.

I had slung the reins of the two horses over my arm. They kept pulling and tugging to get at the grass on the bank.

As Father didn’t come to, or stir, I began shouting for help. It was a still Sunday morning. The road ran through cornfields and pastures, and there were no passers-by.

Presently, as I sat there, making all the noise I could, I saw Father frown. His eyes were shut; gravel and mud were ground into his face and he looked done for; but I now felt more hope. I threw back my head, and yelled louder than ever. “Hi! Hi! Hi there, help!”

‘Way off in a hollow was a yellow farmhouse. At last I saw a man coming out of it. He shut the door and walked down a grassy path and up the hill toward us.

He got Father to his feet, after a while. We went slowly along to the house with Father stumbling between us. We put him in a chair, on the grass, and washed his face. He held his head up better after this, but he didn’t seem to understand questions.

The farmer and I anxiously discussed different plans. We decided I’d better unsaddle my horse and hitch him up to the farmer’s buggy, put Father in, and drive him home just as quick as I could.

Father paid no attention to what we were doing. When the buggy was ready, however, and we tried to pick him up and dump him in, he objected. He was so groggy and his muscles were so slumpy he could hardly sit up, but he clung to the idea that he was out for a nice morning ride. He absolutely refused to have anything to do with a buggy. “Take that damn thing away,” he said, and added that he wanted his horse.

The farmer and I were taken aback by this. We had naturally supposed that we were in charge of things, and that Father’s ideas didn’t count. I still thought so. I told the farmer that all Father needed was a little persuasion. We tried a great deal of it. We got nowhere at all. Shaken up though he was, Father’s firm belief in his impregnability remained unimpaired, and he was still somehow the master of the whole situation.

He kept on demanding his horse so imperiously that I gave in. I unharnessed my own horse and resaddled him, put the buggy back in the barn, and with the greatest misgivings the farmer and I hoisted Father up on his mount. He looked as though he’d fall off every minute, but to our amazement he didn’t. I said good-bye to the farmer, and Father and I rode up the hill.

It was a long, silent ride. Father came out of his stupor at moments better than I had hoped. At other times he sank back and wobbled about in the saddle. But his knees held on, even when he shut his eyes and seemed not to know what was happening.

We got back to the main road at last. Farther on we came to Dr. Coudert’s place. I got off and rang the front doorbell.

Dr. Coudert was upstairs, dressing for church. He looked out of his bedroom window.

“Why, good morning, Day,” he called down to Father. “What’s the matter?”

“Marrer is,” Father said thickly, “some accident. Want you come my house. Fix it.”

He turned and trotted away, lurching in the saddle. I hurried off after him.

At our doorway, when he saw Mother come running out, exclaiming at our being late, he tried to dismount by himself. “Vinnie, dear Vinnie,” he muttered, and toppled into our arms.

We got him to bed. Dr. Coudert found a great, dull, dark-red place at the nape of his neck, and said that it was pretty serious, but that there was nothing to do but apply ice-bags and wait.

Mother immediately telegraphed to Uncle Hal. He was Father’s elder brother; he had retired from business and he was taking his ease at some summer resort, which he did not wish to leave, but he took a train and got up to Irvington that same afternoon. Mother explained to him that Father had to have somebody run the office for him, and that Uncle Hal was the only one whom he would trust. Uncle Hal knew Father too well to take this as a compliment. Father trusted him more than others, yes; but, as Uncle Hal knew from long experience, Father didn’t like to trust anyone.

However, Uncle Hal began spending his days down in Wall Street, and faithfully coming up to Irvington to make his reports. He was a large, stout, phlegmatic man, with a face that seemed to be carved from old wood, he could make it so completely expressionless. In behind this, if you watched his eye closely, you could sometimes see a twinkle.

One afternoon when I was in Father’s room, changing his icebags, Uncle Hal tiptoed heavily in, and sat down at the side of the bed. He told Father about a few routine matters, in his deliberate way, and then put his fingers together and waited to be cross-examined.

Father feverishly began firing questions at him. “What did you do about those Rome Watertown bonds?” he demanded. “Did you straighten out those legal matters with Choate & Larocque?” The answers to these and other questions were only half-satisfactory. Uncle Hal was a thoroughly sound, careful man; he had made no mistakes, and there was nothing that Father could reasonably object to, exactly, but it exasperated him to discover that his office was not being conducted in quite his own regular manner. “I won’t have my office run that way!” he finally roared.

Uncle Hal looked at him stolidly.

Mother rushed in. “Oh, Hal, what are you doing!” she shrieked. “I begged you not to excite him!”

Uncle Hal turned his large frame half-around in his chair and regarded Mother stolidly too.

“Never knew such a damned way of doing things in my life,” Father groaned.

“Come, Hal!” Mother cried. “Come out here in the hall with me, and let me explain again to you! Don’t sit there, Hal, making things worse like this.”

They went out together.

Later on, looking out of the window, I saw Uncle Hal slowly heave himself up into the dog-cart, which always shook him up like a jelly, and which he hated like poison. The coachman drove him off, jiggetty-jig, jiggetty-jog, to the station.

It was weeks before Father got up again. I suppose he had had a concussion of the brain, but we boys weren’t told any details. All we knew was that Father had to stay in bed and that he was strangely quiet at first, although later he became his old self again and made a great deal of noise about it. Meanwhile I had a fine time riding his horse, which had more spirit than ours.

After Father got well, he seemed to want to forget the whole incident. He never went back to see that farmer who had tried to lend him his buggy. He didn’t seem appreciative of what Mother had done either, she felt, until one day, as a surprise, he gratefully bought her a beautiful ring with three rubies. When Dr. Coudert heard about this, he strongly approved. He told Father that he owed his life to Mother, she had been such a good nurse; and when Mother heard him say it, she nodded her head violently and said that was true.

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