It was commonly said, in the early 1900s, in the large and not undistinguished Manhattan social circle of the Vollard clan, of Ambrose, then a lad of twelve or thirteen, that he seemed the all-American boy: comely, tousle-haired, blue-eyed, grinning, the prototype of a youth out of Mark Twain or even Horatio Alger. But only a few years later he had grown into something quite different: a large, rather hulking type, almost menacingly muscular, whose good looks were darkened by an air of surly moodiness not quite redeemed by his brooding, now blue-gray eyes.
If there were, or at least had been, two Ambroses, it might have been because there seemed to be two Vollard families in which the boy had been reared. There was what might be called the older branch: Papa, Mama, son Russell, nicknamed “Stuffy” by his school pals, and daughter Elsie, known with unblushing sentimentality in the home as “Rosebud.” And then there were the two younger children, the twins, Ambrose and fat little Bertha.
Why did that make two families? The answer, as in so many American social problems, must be sought in Mama. When Fanny Vollard had found herself the mother of two fine infants, the required son and the desired daughter, she supposed that she had fulfilled her generative duties and could present a completed family to the proper ranks of her excellently proper relatives. But whether it was a too importunate husband — or one who lacked the discretion of Onan — she made the unwelcome discovery that she was again pregnant, and most uncomfortably so with twins, and was obliged to undergo a delivery that was not only excruciatingly painful but that almost cost her her life. Thereafter the partition that divided the two families was like the closed door of Fanny’s bed chamber — shut, that is, to Papa, consigned to a back room of their Manhattan brownstone overlooking the bare yards, while his wife continued to occupy her comfortable and commodious apartment in the front of the house whose three large windows faced the street.
Taking up the Vollards in reverse order of their importance, Elias, Papa, was the first. He was a large, expensively clad gentleman with a big potbelly and features that might have been well enough in younger, leaner days, but which now bore the blankness of one who sought relief from real things in perfunctory tasks and compulsive habits. He looked the part of a sober and prosperous man of affairs, and indeed he sat on some important boards where his fixity of apparent attention concealed his daydreaming, but his ineptitude as an investor had reduced his wife’s inherited capital far more than she knew, and he maintained only with difficulty their brownstone in town and the larger shingle cottage in Newport that she had taken over on her father’s death and clung to with a tenacity that he dared not disturb. Elias’s life consisted in forms; they were the only things of which he could be sure, and he clung to them as his salvation from an eternity of nothingness.
His son Russell, or “Stuffy,” justified his nickname. He had a high brow, a large nose, a square chin and slickly combed, diminishing brown hair; his air of arrogant self-sufficiency was a wide shield to cover everything else. And “Rosebud” was a heavy, gushing, vaguely pretty blonde, subject to wild outbursts of fatuous enthusiasm, who once told her kid brother Ambrose that she would rather see him dead than a disbeliever in the divinity of Christ. What he replied disposed permanently of what little there was of her sibling affection.
This trio obviously needed a more robustly equipped individual to guide and manage them in the highways and byways of a New York and Newport life, and they had one in Mama. When one knew that Fanny Vollard had been born a de Peyster — she never mentioned it because she never had to — one knew not the most important thing about her but what she considered the most important. The de Peysters were old Knickerbocker stock, related to Van Rensselaers and Stuyvesants, and Fanny belonged to a minor branch of that tree which still looked askance at the new railroad and steel barons of the postbellum era, and disdained, unwisely, to seek marital alliances with Vanderbilts and Goulds. Remaining pure, she had married a “gentleman,” and kept her eyes firmly fixed on the past, pronouncing “girl” “goyle” and “pearl” “poyle” in the aristocratic manner of the late eighteenth century, embarrassing her descendants who mistook it for a vulgar Brooklynese.
But Fanny had character. Diminutive, disciplined, with some hint of faded beauty, with lips virgin to rouge and cheeks to powder and hair unwaved by machinery, she possessed a dignity and quiet force that was almost regall. Few suspected that her air and demeanor constituted a fort to protect a garrison of inner fears, fear of contagious diseases, unprinciiiiipled men, stock market upsets and, above all, a day of judgment waiting at the end of the road and the very real possibility of hellfire. What bore her up was her pride and her ability — or was it an instinct — to draft other humans into a regiment to afford her both moral and material support.
If it was an instinct it was that of a parasite plant or animal. Fanny would reach out, presumably unconsciously, to grasp in a tight ineluctable embrace the neighboring organism most endowed to supply her own deficiencies. In Elias she sensed the male who would always sympathize with her valetudinarianism, surround her with the comforts she imagined she required, and admire the fortitude with which she bore her anxieties and depressions. In her son Stuffy she flared the insecurity behind his pomposity and in her daughter Rosebud the anxiety beneath her little spring showers of good will, and knew that a mother’s love and approval, or at least the easily adopted appearance of such, would be rewarded by a devotion gratifyingly servile.
Fanny’s instinct may even have been what guided her steps as far as Philadelphia where she consulted the famous Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, whose popular prescribed “rest cure” for wealthy society ladies totally justified to the eyes of Elias and the two elder children the long hours that Fanny spent in her chaise longue and the hushed atmosphere of a household where family and servants silently and uncomplainingly performed what otherwise might have been considered her duties.
But all that left out the twins. Indeed it did. The parasite at once recognizes the organism that will not welcome its octuple embrace. Fanny felt in the very agony of her delivery that Ambrose and Bertha would not be her subjects, at least not willingly. The remedy for this was simple enough: it was to make it appear to the world that the twins, rowdy and ungovernable juniors, had by their own stubborn and ungrateful natures rejected the love that their irreproachable mother so freely offered them. Few guests at the family board could have detected any reprehensible difference between the ways Fanny treated her elder and younger offspring. But perhaps a keen one might have.
“Ambrose, my dear, don’t wolf your food down that way, and do, child, try to sit up a little straighter. The way Russell does. Of course, I realize that Russell is older and has had the advantage of boarding school discipline, but you can still take him as an example. There, dear, that’s better. And Bertha, darling, how many times must I tell you that ladies don’t put their elbows on the table? You don’t see Rosebud doing that, do you? Oh, but I must stop calling Elsie by that name, now she’s almost a debutante, mustn’t I? And Bertha, dear, remember that we want you too to be a debutante one day, and debutantes certainly never put their elbows on the table.” “But I don’t want to be a debutante! Ever!” Bertha’s retort demonstrated the difference between her reaction to the maternal solicitude and that of her twin. Bertha, a large, rather blocky girl with a very square chin and wide scornful brown eyes was not taken in for a moment. Ambrose was. He did not feel any engulfing warmth towards a mother whose frail health protected her from his bear hugs, but he tended to assume that she was essentially like other mothers. And so he continued to suppose until, at fourteen, he was sent off to boarding school.
Chelton, an Episcopal church academy for boys a few miles north of Boston, boasted a handsome campus of red-bricked, white-columned buildings around a well-kept oval green lawn at one end of which stood a gray Gothic chapel. Ambrose, now a husky athletic youth with friendly manners, was immediately popular, his only drawback being a hot temper and quick and effective use of his fists. Such fits were followed by moods of sullen silence that his pals charitably attributed to remorse. His high grades and skill at football won him the approval of both the boys and the faculty, and in his next to last year he was considered a candidate in the following autumn for the high honor of senior prefect. But it was not to be.
He had become uncomfortably aware that he was never in a position to return the hospitality of his friends, whose visiting parents often asked him to supper on Saturday nights at the local inn where they spent the weekend. For his parents never visited the school. Indeed, they were almost the only parents who didn’t.
At home on Christmas vacation Ambrose finally complained about this to the always sympathetic Bertha. “They used to come up when Stuffy was in school,” he pointed out ruefully.
“Ah, but that was Stuffy!” Bertha exclaimed, with heavy sarcasm. “You’re not comparing yourself to the great Stuffy, are you? Pardon you, if you do!” “Papa says Mama’s health isn’t up to the long trip to school,” Ambrose insisted, irritated now by her tone.
“Isn’t up to four hours in a comfortable parlor car! Well, it was certainly up to it when Stuffy was at Chelton. And she was just as set on her daffy ‘rest cure’ then as she is now. Has she ever praised you for standing second in your form? Has she even mentioned the fact that you may be in line to be senior prefect?” “She did say something about it.” “When you called it to her attention.” “It’s true I did tell her about it,” he admitted reluctantly.
“And she already knew because I had bragged about it to her!” Bertha cried in triumph. “She knew but didn’t say a word! And when Stuffy, who had rock bottom grades, was finally made rober to the rector in chapel, to keep his page in the yearbook from being a total blank, didn’t she and Papa pop the champagne corks? And when Rosebud got B for effort in her gym class, didn’t they practically declare a holiday?” “You’re so bitter about Mama, Bertha.” “Bitter? That’s not the word. I hate her! And so would you if you weren’t as blind as a bat. Or blind as a boy, I should say!” This brief but illuminating interchange marked the beginning of a profound alteration in Ambrose’s personality and general outlook on life. Thus far he had tended to denigrate his twin with the condescension of a male teenager, regarding her as a somewhat silly and vastly opinionated girl who was always pushing her unthinking self into the councils of her betters, but he began to perceive that she was able to make brutally clear all kinds of things of which he had previously been only dimly aware. Now when he moved close to his mother to give her the customary morning or evening kiss, and she placed a mildly restraining hand on his shoulder it was distaste, and not, as he had previously imagined, to guard her frail body from the possibly unpremeditated assault of a wild and undependable beast. And then, alerted by jealousy, he took careful note when she put her arms around Stuffy’s neck or chucked Rosebud under the chin.
Oh yes, it had become a different world. Seventeen is a violent age, and it doesn’t take much to turn the landscape sour. When Ambrose went fishing with his father now, in the latter’s .y club in the Catskills, he would no longer, on a wide rock by an idling stream at noon, while they ate their sandwiches and drank their beer, relate to him his tales of school and football. He knew now that his parent never listened; Elias Vollard was perfectly content with the sunshine and silence and nothingness.
If the rock basis of parentage is once displaced the rest of the edifice will soon cave in. The cloud that darkened the home soon caught the school in its shadow. Wasn’t it part and parcel of the same fabric? Surely the deity so punctiliously worshiped by his starchly dressed parents on Sunday, so regularly invoked at grace before meals and so grovelingly implored at night, was the same who presided over the Chelton chapel and inspired the headmaster’s throaty sermons about boys keeping themselves pure for the pure maidens they might one day hope to wed. Dr. Close himself, a small plump man with toadlike features, and as Ambrose now saw him, a Trollopian snob, conducted a fifth-form class in sacred studies in which the sharp note of his once docile student’s emancipation was first heard.
The class discussion was of the superiority of monotheism, as devised by Jews, Moslems and, best of all, Christians, to the worship of a more populated Olympus by pagan rites.
“But why, sir?” Ambrose wanted to know. “Might it not be better to have several gods rather than just one? Is there anyone of our faith wiser than Socrates? Or Cicero? Or even Augustus Caesar?” “But from the very multitude of pagan deities, Vollard, must one not infer that they have different personalities? Different qualities? If they were all the same, they would have to be one, would they not? And if they are different they cannot all be perfect; only one can be that. Which means that all but one would be imperfect. And imperfection implies faults. Why should we worship a god with faults? One, for example, who would turn a maiden into a tree for resisting his lust?” The headmaster nodded to the class as if to invite the titters that respectfully followed, and turned back to his notes as if he had coped with Ambrose’s interruption. But he hadn’t.
“But it seems to me, sir, that this one God had faults.” “How do you mean, Vollard?” The tone was graver now. “And be careful in how you state it. You mustn’t tread lightly on the faith of others.” “I can only say what I think, sir. Is a god perfect — is he even very good — if he created organisms that could only survive by eating each other?” Dr. Close frowned. But he wished to keep at least the appearance of a free discussion alive. “There are things that pass our understanding, Vollard. Their meaning may not be divulged in this lifetime.” “But this God, sir, not only created men who had to kill to live. He wants them to praise him and magnify him forever! If a man did that, wouldn’t we call him a pompous ass?” “That will be all, Vollard. We have heard enough from you. More than enough. I’ll see you after class. And now let me hear from some of the rest of you.” A much less adventuresome discussion followed this.
Somewhat to Ambrose’s surprise, but not at all to the alleviation of his new doubts, the headmaster, normally so high and distant with the boys, accorded him two long individual sessions in which he mildly and tediously lectured him on Christian orthodoxy. He had, after all, a soul to save. But Ambrose was obdurate. He stoutly declined to consider being confirmed in the church and refused even to soft-pedal his efforts to spread his atheism among his classmates.
This resulted not in his being expelled, but in his being sent home for a term.
“I am running a church school, Vollard,” the headmaster explained, with a sad but dismissing shake of his head. “And I cannot tolerate the presence here of an active proselytizer of what we used to call heresy. It is my hope and belief that when our boys have graduated and are turned out in the world, their faith will be strong enough to withstand arguments such as yours. But while they are young and impressionable I deem it my duty to protect them from confusing elements. If after you have talked to your parents and reflected on my words, and have taken a more enlightened attitude towards our faith, you will be welcome back at school.” “You needn’t worry, sir. I won’t bother you again. I’ll never come back here.” The headmaster sighed but made no answer, and Ambrose was sent home that very day. He was given no further opportunity to corrupt his classmates.
At home his suspension caused less of a scene than he had expected. His parents seemed put out but hardly surprised. His father confined himself to a few gruff and reproving remarks, and it was quickly arranged that he should be enrolled in a private day school — the new popularity of boarding institutions with affluent parents who dreaded the effect of city streets on their boys had depleted the ranks of the old urban academies and caused them to welcome even heretical recruits. Fanny Vollard, however, had a few matters to settle with her disappointing younger son, and she subjected him to a quiet lecture in her boudoir.
“I don’t understand you, Ambrose. And I don’t think I ever really have. You and Bertha have never shown me half the love and affection that Russell and Rosebud have. Perhaps I don’t deserve it. Who knows? But I am your mother, and it will always be my duty, however painful, to point out to you any wrong road you are taking. I have, of course, read carefully your headmaster’s report. I see that you have prided yourself as a free thinker among the benighted, in which class I am sure you include your parents as well as the faculty of Chelton School. You think you are brave and bold and forward thinking. But in fact you are just another impudent boy determined to bring down anyone or anything that threatens to be higher or bigger than yourself. If you fail you will look a fool, and if you succeed — which God forbid — you will simply find yourself pinned in the wreckage.” The terrible thing about Fanny was that she never thought of children as children. The moment they offended her they were just as much adults as herself, and she struck back with every arrow in her quiver. Mortals were divided into her friends and her enemies, and once she had spotted a child as among the latter, she had no more mercy on him than for a pickpocket in the street.
Ambrose trembled a bit at the impact of her hostility, but he soon rallied his inner forces. He was learning that if he was to lead his life without any significant parental love, he might also dispose with worrying unduly about parental opposition. He never bothered to explain his rejection of orthodoxy to his mother — indeed he hardly bothered to explain it to himself; he knew that her mind was closed to argument, and for the next year, until he entered Columbia College, he lived with his parents in a kind of armed truce. This was not difficult with two persons as self-absorbed as Elias and Fanny, particularly as the routine of their domestic life was as fixed as the rotation of the planets. He had only to avoid any open friction, which, with a father who at home passed the greater part of his time alone in his study, the silence of which was broken only by the occasional clink of decanters, and with a mother intent upon preserving her body from the least exhaustion, was no great task. And his mornings were all spent in class and his afternoons in the school gym.
It helped, too, that Stuffy and Rosebud were both now married and away from home. Ambrose’s family life, and even social life, were mostly reduced to Bertha, on whom her mother had largely given up after her adamant refusal to “come out” or even to attend any debutante parties. Bertha, stout, plain and emphatic, was allowed to come and go pretty much as she pleased. She adored Ambrose, and her passionate espousal of his side in any family dispute contributed to the comparative silence in which meals at the Vollards were held. And when, in Ambrose’s first year at Columbia, he came home drunk one night and encountered his shocked mother in a corridor, it was Bertha who quieted the ensuing furor by suggesting that he move to a college dormitory, which the very next day he did.
He had chosen Columbia because he had no wish to resume his old acquaintance with Chelton classmates at Yale or Harvard. The Chelton values, which he now associated with the parental ones, he had repudiated. As an angry young man he cultivated the radical elements of his new institution, inveighed against the trusts and found President Taft a sad step backwards after the great Teddy. But his political liberalism was tempered by moods of deep depression when nothing seemed really worth fighting for, when the world seemed a flourishing garden only for such noodles as Stuffy and Rosebud, and a desert for the likes of him. Then he would turn away from his dogmatic and obstreperous new friends and solace himself alone in his room with whiskey. He had no opportunity to travel or even to wine and dine expensively; his father, fearful that he would give his money to some leftist cause, kept him on a spare allowance.
But he had one salvation; he read. As with his hero, Teddy Roosevelt, reading with him was a “disease.” He reveled in the English poets, especially Byron and Shelley, whose fire and cynicism he tried to emulate; he delighted in the madness of Dostoyevsky, the oratory of Milton’s Satan, and the violence of Ahab in the newly appreciated Moby-Dick. He wrote stories himself, about evil men who preyed on dolts, women who betrayed their lovers, bankers who degenerated into vampires, and clergymen who dwindled into sheep. He sent them to magazine editors who invariably rejected them, though one more percipient reader commented on the vigor of his style and suggested that he try his hand at more neutral subject matter. “For neutral read neuter,” he snorted in disgust.
It was Bertha who promoted the idea of his going to law school. She was just as antagonistic to the old world as he was, but more objective. And she was less wrapped up in Bertha than he was in Ambrose. She was capable of putting herself in his shoes while preserving her own outlook. But then she loved him, and he, as yet, loved no one.
“Male and female twins aren’t really twins, you know,” she told him one day as they lunched in a Broadway café, which they frequently did now that she was enrolled in Barnard. “Obviously they can’t resemble each other in all respects. Vive la différence! as the French say, though I’m not sure what good it’s done me. But the point is that you’ve got a bigger brain than I do. And a bigger spirit, a bigger future. Your trouble is that you don’t know what to do with it. You need time to decide. And the classic way to spend that time is in law school. For whatever you ultimately decide on, a law degree will be a bonus. Except perhaps in medicine, but I don’t see you becoming a doctor.” Of course he had thought of this. But now she helped it to take root. “Will Papa stake me to it?” he wondered.
“Leave that to me!” In fact she had already crossed that bridge, by persuading her parents that the study of law was really the study of law and order and might have a mollifying effect on their wide-eyed son.
Which it did. Or rather which Professor Gideon Gregg did. He was a small dry neat bald sexagenarian, with a voice so low that he lectured through an amplifier, who had devoted his life to the study and teaching of contract law, with rare but well-paid appearances in court as an expert witness to edify the bench. He was supposed to have thus answered a judge’s question as to who was the foremost authority in his field: “I believe, your honor, that Mr. Williston at Harvard is generally deemed the second.” Unlike many law professors he disdained the barking approach; he was invariably kind and courteous to his students, and was notorious, when questioning one of them in class, for offering broad hints as to the correct answer. He wanted to believe that every man or woman seated before him was a natural lawyer, but he nonetheless had a keen eye for a real talent, and when he found a paper of Ambrose’s on unilateral contracts unusually perspicacious, he called him into his office and offered him on the spot a job assisting him in revising an edition of his famous casebook. It was, of course, quite a load to take on in addition to Ambrose’s class work, but as the stipend was generous, thanks to Gregg’s soft heart, and as the Vollard allowance, from a still doubting father, was still on the stingy side, he jumped at the chance.
The close relationship that ensued between master and apprentice gave Ambrose his first real purpose and incentive in life. He came to see his wonderful little mentor as an inspired artist who could use words as his tools to clamp the golden wires of civility around the dark chaos of life. Offer and acceptance, good faith and bad, the meeting or non-meeting of minds, consideration and specific performance, breach and damages — the areas of contractual obligation opened up to him like a massive clearing in a dense dark threatening jungle, and the beauty of Gideon Gregg’s prose in the essay portions of his casebook, the tight flashing mesh of his Anglo-Saxon short words and his Latinized long ones, seamlessly concise and pregnant with meaning, provided Ambrose with a kind of creed, or art, or even faith that might be almost enough to live on.
By the middle of his second year at law school Ambrose had completed his work on the casebook, which was just as well, as he had accepted, at the professor’s strong urging, an editorship on the Law Journal that would henceforth preempt his every spare moment.
“Whatever else happens to me in life, sir,” he told his mentor, “I know now that I will always be a lawyer.” Gregg stared at him in astonishment. “Great Scott, my boy, was there ever a doubt in your mind about that? What the devil else did you come to law school for?” “Oh, I heard it was a good preparation for almost everything.” “It’s a good preparation for the practice of law, that’s what it is. And if ever I saw a born attorney, it’s you, my boy. If you do anything else, you’re a fool, and if you’re that it’s time I retired. For if I’m wrong on that, I’m wrong on everything.” “But is it necessary to practice, sir? Couldn’t I be a teacher like you and the writer of treatises?” Gregg was silent for a moment, and his face expressed the seriousness of his thought. “You could, yes. But I think your particular forte will be for an active practice. I see you as a fighter, my boy. Nor do I for a minute minimize that. The judge, the law professor, the treatise writer and the practicing lawyer are all equally indispensable to our sacred profession. The law comes out of our words: words penned for books and treatises in sober reflection, words used less temperately in briefs and oral argument, words chosen wisely in opinions or dramatically in classrooms, it’s all the same game!” Ambrose had another talk with the professor about his future a year later, in the spring before his graduation.
“Am I not correct, Ambrose, in supposing that Charles de Peyster is a relative of yours?” “He’s my uncle, sir. My mother’s brother.” “May I suggest, then, that you apply to his firm for a position? It’s one of the first, perhaps the best, of the great corporation law firms of our city. I have had the occasion to testify for them in a number of cases. They do fine work.” “But I’m afraid, sir, I’ve been rather remiss in my family duties. I have seen my uncle only at Christmas or birthday gatherings. And I’m afraid he may have formed an unfavorable opinion of me when I dropped out of Chelton.” “Pish tush, that water’s long under the bridge. You’ll find he’ll take a very different view of you when he hears my recommendation. And that he is certainly going to have!”
Copyright © 2003 by Louis Auchincloss. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.