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My father had a favorite line. He’d taken it from Milton, and he loved to quote it to the boys of Chatham School. Standing before them on opening day, his hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets, he’d pause a moment, facing them sternly. “Be careful what you do,” he’d say, “for evil on itself doth back recoil.” In later years he could not have imagined how wrong he was, nor how profoundly I knew him to be so.
Sometimes, particularly on one of those bleak winter days so common to New England, wind tearing at the trees and shrubbery, rain battering the roofs and windows, I feel myself drift back to my father’s world, my own youth, the village he loved and in which I still live. I glance outside my office window and see the main street of Chatham as it once was—a scattering of small shops, a ghostly parade of antique cars with their lights mounted on sloping fenders. In my mind, the dead return to life, assume their earthly shapes. I see Mrs. Albertson delivering a basket of quahogs to Kessler’s Market; Mr. Lawrence lurching forward in his homemade snowmobile, skis on the front, a set of World War I tank tracks on the back, all hooked to the battered chassis of an old roadster pickup. He waves as he goes by, a gloved hand in the timeless air.
Standing once again at the threshold of my past, I feel fifteen again, with a full head of hair and not a single liver spot, heaven far away, no thought of hell. I even sense a certain goodness at the core of life.
Then, from out of nowhere, I think of her again. Not as the young woman I’d known so long ago, but as a little girl, peering out over a glittering blue sea, her father standing beside her in a white linen suit, telling her what fathers have always told their children: that the future is open to them, a field of grass, harboring no dark wood. In my mind I see her as she stood in her cottage that day, hear her voice again, her words like distant bells, sounding the faith she briefly held in life. Take as much as you want, Henry. There is plenty.
In those days, the Congregationalist Church stood at the eastern entrance of Chatham, immaculately white save for its tall, dark spire. There was a bus stop at the southern corner of the church, marked by a stubby white pillar, the site where Boston buses picked up and deposited passengers who, for whatever reason, had no liking for the train.
On that August afternoon in 1926, I’d been sitting on the church steps, reading some work of military history, my addiction at the time, when the bus pulled to a stop yards away. From that distance I’d watched its doors open, the metal hinges creaking in the warm late-summer air. A large woman with two children emerged first, followed by an elderly man who smoked a pipe and wore a navy blue captain’s cap, the sort of “old salt” often seen on Cape Cod in those days. Then there’d been a moment of suspension, when no one emerged from the shadowy interior of the bus, so that I’d expected it to pull away, swing left and head toward the neighboring town of Orleans, a trail of dust following behind it like an old feather boa.
But the bus had stayed in place, its engine rumbling softly as it idled by the road. I could not imagine why it remained so until I saw another figure rise from a seat near the back. It was a woman, and she moved forward slowly, smoothly, a dark silhouette. Near the door she paused, her arm raised slightly, her hand suspended in midair even as it reached for the metal rail that would have guided her down the stairs.
At the time I couldn’t have guessed the cause for her sudden hesitation. But in the years since then, I’ve come to believe that it was precisely at that moment she must have realized just how fully separate our world was from the one she’d lived in with her father during the many years they’d traveled together, the things she’d seen with him, Florence in its summer splendor, the canals of Venice, Paris from the steps of Sacre-Coeur. How could anything in Chatham ever have compared with that?
Something at last urged her forward. Perhaps necessity, the fact that with her father’s recent death she had no other option. Perhaps a hope that she could, in the end, make her life with us. I will never know. Whatever the reason, she drew in a deep breath, grasped the iron rail, and made her way down the stairs and into the afternoon stillness of a tiny seacoast village where no great artist had ever lived, no great event ever happened, save for those meted out by sudden storms or the torturous movement of geologic time.
It was my father who greeted her when she stepped from the bus that afternoon. He was headmaster of Chatham School, a man of medium height, but whose manner, so expansive and full of authority, made him seem larger than he was. In one of the many pictures I have of him from that time, this one printed in the Chatham School Annual for 1926, he is seated in his office, behind a massive oak desk, his hands resting on its polished surface, his eyes staring directly into the camera. It was the usual pose of a respectable and accomplished man in those days, one that made him appear quite stern, perhaps even a bit hard, though he was nothing of the kind. Indeed, when I remember him as he was in those days, it is usually as a cheerful, ebullient man with an energetic and kindly manner, slow to anger, quick to forgive, his feelings always visible in his eyes. “The heart is what matters, Henry,” he said to me not long before his death, a principle he’d often voiced through the years, but never for one moment truly lived by. For surely, of all the men I’ve ever known, he was the least enslaved by passion. Now an old man too, it is hard for me to imagine how in my youth I could have despised him so.
But I did despise him. Silently. Sullenly. Giving him no hint of my low regard, so that I must have seemed a perfectly obedient son, given to moodiness, perhaps, but otherwise quite normal, rocked by nothing darker than the usual winds of adolescence. Remembering him, as I often do, I marvel at how much he knew of Cicero and Thucydides, and how little of the boy who lived in the room upstairs.
Earlier that morning he’d found me lounging in the swing on the front porch, given me a disapproving look, and said, “What, nothing to do, Henry?”
“Well, come with me, then,” he said, then bounded down the front steps and out to our car, a bulky old Ford whose headlights stuck out like stubby horns.
I rose, followed my father down the stairs, got into the car, and sat silently as he pulled out of the driveway, my face showing a faint sourness, the only form of rebellion I was allowed.
On the road my father drove at a leisurely pace through the village, careful to slow even further at the approach of pedestrians or horses. He nodded to Mrs. Cavenaugh as she came out of Warren’s Sundries, and gave a short cautionary beep on the horn when he saw Davey Bryant chasing Hattie Shaw a little too aggressively across the lighthouse grounds.
In those days, Chatham was little more than a single street of shops. There was Mayflower’s, a sort of general store, and Thompson’s Haberdashery, along with a pharmacy run by Mr. Benchley, in which the gentlemen of the town could go to a back room and enjoy a glass of illegal spirits, though never to the point of drunkenness. Mrs. Jessup had a boardinghouse at the far end of Main Street, and Miss Hilliard a little school for “dance, drama, and piano,” which practically no one ever attended, so that her main source of income came from selling cakes and pies, along with keeping house for several of the rich families that summered in spacious, sun-drenched homes on the bay. From a great height Chatham had to have looked idyllic, and yet to me it was a prison, its buildings like high, looming walls, its yards and gardens strewn around me like fields of concertina wire.
My father felt nothing of the kind, of course. No man was ever more suited to small-town life than he was. Sometimes, for no reason whatever, he would set out from our house and walk down to the center of the village, chatting with whoever crossed his path, usually about the weather or his garden, anything to keep the flow of words going, as if these inconsequential conversations were the very lubricant of life, the numen, as the Romans called it, that divine substance which unites and sustains us.
That August afternoon my father seemed almost jaunty as he drove through the village, then up the road that led to the white facade of the Congregationalist Church. Because of that, I knew that something was up. For he always appeared most happy when he was in the midst of doing some good deed.