The Daughter Of The Storage – William Dean Howells
There is something delightfully intimate about this miscellany of verse, fiction and study. One has almost the feeling of being invited to draw up a comfortable seat opposite the “Easy Chair” to listen to the words from its depths. Perhaps it is the variety that seems to bring the author nearer, for a number of short unrelated stories offer more opportunity for revelation of personality than a long connected narrative. Perhaps it is because these tales are of the sort in which Mr. Howells could readily let himself out. Perhaps it is because he has long held such a place in our affections that it is difficult to detach his work from himself. At any rate the atmosphere of nearness and friendliness is there. And now our host is off, a kindly twinkle in his eye, upon the delightful tale of “The Daughter of the Storage.” He is laughing, I fear, at a woman’s failing, but nobody cares and any way she inherited it from her father, so her mother said. Charlotte’s failing was indecision and its ¿rst manifestation as well as the beginning of her romance occurred in the storage warehouse whither her parents had betaken themselves to deposit the household gods they could not carry with them to Europe. A generous little boy, the child of the people who were filling the adjoining room had heaped her lap with his toys and Charlotte, aged three, had cried herself to sleep that night because she had not been able to make up her mind on which of her treasures to bestow upon him. After the lapse of years the young people meet again at the storage warehouse and there among the household gods renew their acquaintance. Charlotte still has difficulty about making up her mind or rather, making it up right. In fact she ¿rst refuses the young man that the generous little boy has grown into. But unmaking her mind was always easier for Charlotte and so she decides to give the custody of her future waverings into the hands of the “son of the storage.” You will want to laugh at this story and at many of the others in the same gently satirical vein, particularly at the adventures of a man who decides to sell only the best books, of his encounters with infuriated authors, of certain little mirrors arranged to show the feminine portion of the customers just how charming they looked while reading one of the bus! hooks, and of various other innovations in bookselling. “A Return to Favor,” the story of the reform of a tailor who never kept his promises and what came of it, is in the same category. “The Night Before Christmas,” a dialogue between a father and mother exhausted with last minute shopping, has some laughs, but reveals the sawdust in the Christmas doll. Its “shop early” moral is less apropos today than it used to be. Several of the stories are somber. That of “The Boarders” tackles the problem of the woman who tries to make a living taking boarders because she knows how to do nothing else and she knows this least of all. “Somebody’s Mother” has for its heroine a dilapidated creature resting in a semi-somnolent state on a doorstep protesting inability to walk-until a policeman appears. Nearly all of the stories raise questions which even Mr. Howells from his seventy-nine years of wisdom has not presumed to answer. The poetry is interesting both for its content and form. The latter is, in several selections, the so-called free verse, but in some there is rhyme. People who usually skip poetry will read these stories of ‘every-day life and when they have felt the swaying of the boat and heard the creaking of the tiller in “Captain Dunlevy’s Last Voyage” perhaps they will want to try some other little excursions into the poetry world.
The Daughter Of The Storage.
Excerpt from the text:
They were getting some of their things out to send into the country, and Forsyth had left his work to help his wife look them over and decide which to take and which to leave. The things were mostly trunks that they had stored the fall before; there were some tables and Colonial bureaus inherited from his mother, and some mirrors and decorative odds and ends, which they would not want in the furnished house they had taken for the summer. There were some canvases which Forsyth said he would paint out and use for other subjects, but which, when he came to look at again, he found really not so bad. The rest, literally, was nothing but trunks; there were, of course, two or three boxes of books. When they had been packed closely into the five-dollar room, with the tables and bureaus and mirrors and canvases and decorative odds and ends put carefully on top, the Forsyths thought the effect very neat, and laughed at themselves for being proud of it.
They spent the winter in Paris planning for the summer in America, and now it had come May, a month which in New York is at its best, and in the Constitutional Storage Safe-Deposit Warehouse is by no means at its worst. The Constitutional Storage is no longer new, but when the Forsyths were among the first to store there it was up to the latest moment in the modern perfections of a safe-deposit warehouse. It was strictly fire-proof; and its long, white, brick-walled, iron-doored corridors, with their clean concrete floors, branching from a central avenue to the tall windows north and south, offered perspectives sculpturesquely bare, or picturesquely heaped with arriving or departing household stuff.
When the Forsyths went to look at it a nice young fellow from the office had gone with them; running ahead and switching on rows of electrics down the corridors, and then, with a wire-basketed electric lamp, which he twirled about and held aloft and alow, showing the dustless, sweet-smelling spaciousness of a perfect five-dollar room. He said it would more than hold their things; and it really held them.
Now, when the same young fellow unlocked the iron door and set it wide, he said he would get them a man, and he got Mrs. Forsyth a gilt armchair from some furniture going into an adjoining twenty-dollar room. She sat down in it, and “Of course,” she said, “the pieces I want will be at the very back and the very bottom. Why don’t you get yourself a chair, too, Ambrose? What are you looking at?”
With his eyes on the neighboring furniture he answered, “Seems to be the wreck of a millionaire’s happy home; parlor and kitchen utensils and office furniture all in white and gold.”
“Horrors, yes!” Mrs. Forsyth said, without turning her head from studying her trunks, as if she might divine their contents from their outside.
“Tata and I,” her husband said, “are more interested in the millionaire’s things.” Tata, it appeared, was not a dog, but a child; the name was not the diminutive of her own name, which was Charlotte, but a generic name for a doll, which Tata had learned from her Italian nurse to apply to all little girls and had got applied to herself by her father. She was now at a distance down the corridor, playing a drama with the pieces of millionaire furniture; as they stretched away in variety and splendor they naturally suggested personages of princely quality, and being touched with her little forefinger tip were capable of entering warmly into Tata’s plans for them.
Her mother looked over her shoulder toward the child. “Come here, Tata,” she called, and when Tata, having enjoined some tall mirrors to secrecy with a frown and a shake of the head, ran to her, Mrs. Forsyth had forgotten why she had called her. “Oh!” she said, recollecting, “do you know which your trunk is, Tata? Can you show mamma? Can you put your hand on it?”
The child promptly put her hand on the end of a small box just within her tiptoe reach, and her mother said, “I do believe she knows everything that’s in it, Ambrose! That trunk has got to be opened the very first one!”
The man that the young fellow said he would send showed at the far end of the corridor, smaller than human, but enlarging himself to the average Irish bulk as he drew near. He was given instructions and obeyed with caressing irony Mrs. Forsyth’s order to pull out Tata’s trunk first, and she found the key in a large tangle of keys, and opened it, and had the joy of seeing everything recognized by the owner: doll by doll, cook-stove, tin dishes, small brooms, wooden animals on feet and wheels, birds of various plumage, a toy piano, a dust-pan, alphabet blocks, dog’s-eared linen Mother Goose books, and the rest. Tata had been allowed to put the things away herself, and she took them out with no apparent sense of the time passed since she saw them last. In the changing life of her parents all times and places were alike to her. She began to play with the things in the storage corridor as if it were yesterday when she saw them last in the flat. Her mother and father left her to them in the distraction of their own trunks. Mrs. Forsyth had these spread over the space toward the window and their lids lifted and tried to decide about them. In the end she had changed the things in them back and forth till she candidly owned that she no longer knew where anything at all was.
As she raised herself for a moment’s respite from the problem she saw at the far end of the corridor a lady with two men, who increased in size like her own man as they approached. The lady herself seemed to decrease, though she remained of a magnificence to match the furniture, and looked like it as to her dress of white picked out in gold when she arrived at the twenty-dollar room next the Forsyths’. In her advance she had been vividly played round by a little boy, who ran forward and back and easily doubled the length of the corridor before he came to a stand and remained with his brown eyes fixed on Tata. Tata herself had blue eyes, which now hovered dreamily above the things in her trunk.
The two mothers began politely to ignore each other. She of the twenty-dollar room directed the men who had come with her, and in a voice of authority and appeal at once commanded and consulted them in the disposition of her belongings. At the sound of the mixed tones Mrs. Forsyth signaled to her husband, and, when he came within whispering, murmured: “Pittsburg, or Chicago. Did you ever hear such a Mid-Western accent!” She pretended to be asking him about repacking the trunk before her, but the other woman was not deceived. She was at least aware of criticism in the air of her neighbors, and she put on greater severity with the workmen. The boy came up and caught her skirt. “What?” she said, bending over. “No, certainly not. I haven’t time to attend to you. Go off and play. Don’t I tell you no? Well, there, then! Will you get that trunk out where I can open it? That small one there,” she said to one of the men, while the other rested for both. She stooped to unlock the trunk and flung up the lid. “Now if you bother me any more I will surely—” But she lost herself short of the threat and began again to seek counsel and issue orders.
The boy fell upon the things in the trunk, which were the things of a boy, as those in Tata’s trunk were the things of a girl, and to run with them, one after another, to Tata and to pile them in gift on the floor beside her trunk. He did not stop running back and forth as fast as his short, fat legs could carry him till he had reached the bottom of his box, chattering constantly and taking no note of the effect with Tata. Then, as she made no response whatever to his munificence, he began to be abashed and to look pathetically from her to her father.
“Oh, really, young man,” Forsyth said, “we can’t let you impoverish yourself at this rate. What have you said to your benefactor, Tata? What are you going to give him?”
The children did not understand his large words, but they knew he was affectionately mocking them.
“Ambrose,” Mrs. Forsyth said, “you mustn’t let him.”
“I’m trying to think how to hinder him, but it’s rather late,” Forsyth answered, and then the boy’s mother joined in.
“Indeed, indeed, if you can, it’s more than I can. You’re just worrying the little girl,” she said to the boy.
“Oh no, he isn’t, dear little soul,” Mrs. Forsyth said, leaving her chair and going up to the two children. She took the boy’s hand in hers. “What a kind boy! But you know my little girl mustn’t take all your playthings. If you’ll give her one she’ll give you one, and that will be enough. You can both play with them all for the present.” She referred her suggestion to the boy’s mother, and the two ladies met at the invisible line dividing the five-dollar room from the twenty-dollar room.
“Oh yes, indeed,” the Mid-Westerner said, willing to meet the New-Yorker half-way. “You’re taking things out, I see. I hardly know which is the worst: taking out or putting in.”
“Well, we are just completing the experience,” Mrs. Forsyth said. “I shall be able to say better how I feel in half an hour.”
“You don’t mean this is the first time you’ve stored? I suppose we’ve been in and out of storage twenty times. Not in this warehouse exactly; we’ve never been here before.”
“It seems very nice,” Mrs. Forsyth suggested.
“They all do at the beginning. I suppose if we ever came to the end they would seem nicer still. Mr. Bream’s business is always taking him away” (it appeared almost instantly that he was the international inspector of a great insurance company’s agencies in Europe and South America), “and when I don’t go with him it seems easier to break up and go into a hotel than to go on housekeeping. I don’t know that it is, though,” she questioned. “It’s so hard to know what to do with the child in a hotel.”
“Yes, but he seems the sort that you could manage with anywhere,” Mrs. Forsyth agreed and disagreed.
His mother looked at him where he stood beaming upon Tata and again joyfully awaiting some effect with her. But the child sat back upon her small heels with her eyes fixed on the things in her trunk and made no sign of having seen the heaps of his gifts.
The Forsyths had said to each other before this that their little girl was a queer child, and now they were not so much ashamed of her apparent selfishness or rude indifference as they thought they were. They made a joke of it with the boy’s mother, who said she did not believe Tata was anything but shy. She said she often told Mr. Bream that she did wish Peter—yes, that was his name; she didn’t like it much, but it was his grandfather’s; was Tata a Christian name? Oh, just a pet name! Well, it was pretty—could be broken of his ridiculous habit; most children—little boys, that was—held onto their things so.
Forsyth would have taken something from Tata and given it to Peter; but his wife would not let him; and he had to content himself with giving Peter a pencil of his own that drew red at one end and blue at the other, and that at once drew a blue boy, that looked like Peter, on the pavement. He told Peter not to draw a boy now, but wait till he got home, and then be careful not to draw a blue boy with the red end. He helped him put his things back into his trunk, and Peter seemed to enjoy that, too.
Tata, without rising from her seat on her heels, watched the restitution with her dreamy eyes; she paid no attention to the blue boy on the pavement; pictures from her father were nothing new to her. The mothers parted with expressions of mutual esteem in spite of their difference of accent and fortune. Mrs. Forsyth asked if she might not kiss Peter, and did so; he ran to his mother and whispered to her; then he ran back and gave Tata so great a hug that she fell over from it.