Growing Up In Newport


The whole affair, of course, took on the atmospherics of a detective story. The great question was, How to find Mrs. K.? To Jeannette and myself, altogether drawn into this fresh aspect of the case, it seemed not unlikely that having bilked us of so much money as twenty-five dollars, Mrs. K. had fled town and by now was far away living in splendor under another name. It must be said for our innocence that the adults enlisted in the scandal also held very dubious views of the mystery woman. More calmly, it was recognized as questionable that she could have created a sample book—it was too elaborate. Certainly, therefore, she was an agent. But an agent for what? An agent for whom? One thing to be sure of: Mrs. K. did not work alone.

Days went by. My mother continued her recapitulations, sifting every clue as she talked over details of the chicanery. My father sought counsel at the store. A kind of excitement, however desperate—after all, there was money involved—had replaced the initial melancholy. Yet nobody, nobody we could find anywhere, had ever encountered Mrs. K.

After a week of this, my mother happened to glance out a window one morning just as Mrs. K. happened to turn the corner and proceed serenely, muff and all, up Tyler Street. At once my mother flung open the window and called, “Mrs. K.!”

The lady looked up.

“Would you come in, please?” Mrs. K. would and did.

I was not present, I was in school. But of course my mother earnestly regretted the whole deal and requested that it be called off. Mrs. K. was gracious but firm. She pointed out that my mother had acceded to the purchase, had made the deposit, had accepted a receipt. Nothing could be clearer or more businesslike and aboveboard. Further, the order had long since gone through to headquarters, it was out of Mrs. K.’s hands, there was nothing she could do about it.

That was the upshot : there seemed to be nothing anyone could do about it.

Word of all this had to be sent on to Haverhill. My Grandfather Townley’s response was characteristic. He first remarked, “Those young folks seem to have more money than sense.” He then mailed another twenty-five dollars to my mother, and she and Jeannette and I had our week’s vacation in Haverhill after all.

We had not long been back in Newport when the heavy wooden box arrived. My father uncrated the books that evening, and at first we did not put them on the shelf in the parlor but piled up the nine green and black and gold volumes on the dining-room table where we all looked at them. Could anybody, even on The Avenue, possess anything richer or handsomer in the way of books?

My mother warned us to handle them carefully. My father, going into the dark parlor to clear shelf space for them, called back, “Oh, come see! There’re northern lights.”

We all rushed to the windows and watched the great fans of light pulsing and swaying over the roof of Cranston School. As they diminished and we returned to the dining room, my father said, “Well, let’s look ‘em up.”

N . Look up under N for northern lights,” I said.

“No,” Pa said. “You look up aurora borealis. It’ll be here in Volume One.”

We all gathered close around and listened while he read aloud. And there was a picture, too; all just as Mrs. K. had said.

Early in September on the Sunday after Labor Day, Easton’s Beach (not unmindful of a profitably extended season) held its block-dig for children. The block-dig was the climax, the high point, of the beach year. School had begun the Tuesday before; we were captured again. Yet this Sunday morning we could step back into summer for a few hours.

The dig began at nine o’clock, and by eight Jeannette and I left the house with Pa to walk the long way through Rhode Island Avenue to Bath Road and then down the hill to the beach. We were all togged out in our Sunday best and each of us carried a sand shovel.

There were hundreds of us there, parents and children. We jammed the boardwalk in front of the concessions that already were jingling and jangling the cool morning air and scenting it with saltwater taffy, popcorn, peanuts, and fried clams. None of these, yet, for us. We strained toward the roped-off beach. Everywhere in the soft sand between the boardwalk and high-tide line were buried flat square blocks of wood. Each was numbered, its number corresponding to a prize that the successful digger would receive.

Nine o’clock, and at a signal, ropes were whipped away from the various steps leading down, and with horrendous whoops all the kids in Newport—so it seemed—pushed, pummelled, swarmed their way onto the sand, Jeannette and I among them. Parents regrouped themselves and became observers over the rails above.