A Brush with the Law & OTHER OFF-SEASON ADVENTURES, or
When Winfield Townley Scott, the American poet, died in 1968, he left among his papers a warm and engaging account of his early boyhood in Newport, Rhode Island. The lavish world of Newport’s summer visitors with their fifty-five-room “cottages” meant little to him as a local boy—only providing background for a small child’s play and wonder. Mr. Scott’s memoir, entitled Alpha Omega, will be published by Doubleday later this month, and A MERICAN H ERITAGE presents some vignettes from this affectionate reminiscence.
Above Tyler Street, Cranston Avenue made a slow incline past hedges and beech trees and lamp-posts and front doors and two or three little side streets, either way, and ended at Kay Street. Kay Street from Bellevue to Cranston Avenue is mostly faced by fine houses. The kind of house that sits safely back from the sidewalk behind a thick hedge or a wooden-posted, iron-pipe fence, and sometimes with a gravel drive. My sister Jeannette and I discovered this street to be an excellent hunting ground for horse chestnuts, especially one estate whose great trees rose above a really extensive lawn where we had to dare to crawl through the fence. In a decaying back yard nearby we found a tiny gravestone that said (I later found out) in French: “To a poor little Mouse.” But when I remember Kay Street I remember it first of all as the scene of my being arrested by the Newport police.
I had had my brief encounter once with the Newport police in the mighty form of an officer known to all as Baby Shea. That was when I had the bow-and-arrow phase: I was intense with desire, as all boys are at one time or another, to possess a bow and arrow. And at last my parents had given me the money, and I went all the way to the Landers’ shop on Thames Street and bought the beautiful painted bow and two beautiful feathered arrows. Halfway home along Broadway I paused, nose against a store window, to study some musical instruments on display. Full of happiness from my errand and otherwise utterly intent on the shop window, I was startled by a touch on the shoulder and petrified when I looked around and then up and up the vast blue bulk of Baby Shea, complete with helmet and billy stick. I responded at once, not by saying a word, but by wetting my pants.
It was Baby Shea who spoke.
He said, “What’s that you’ve got there?”
“Bow and arrow,” I whispered.
“That’s a dangerous thing,” he said, “for a small bye to have. You might put somebody’s eye out, I’m tellin’ ye. If I was you,” he said, “I’d take them things home and put ‘em where you nor nobody else can find ‘em. Then maybe ye won’t be gettin’ into trouble.”
I nodded shakily and began to walk, as well as I could, up Broadway. Half a block on, I turned to see if Baby Shea was still watching me. But no, he had marched placidly off and was bent with interest over a sidewalk stand full of apples. Then I ran, just as fast as I could.
The Kay Street episode was more complex, and it threatened me with the worst eventuality possible (as all boys believed) : going to jail.
It was a drizzly Saturday morning and Jeannette was tagging along after four of us boys. We had tried to skip her. She was smaller and, worse, a girl. Perhaps because none of the other three boys had a smaller sister, they were more tolerant than I. In any case, we finally let her come with us as we set forth to explore further a vacant, shuttered place we had recently discovered a little south of Cranston Avenue on Kay Street.
It was a yellow house made of boards set perpendicularly, its roof and porches all outlined in ginger-bread scrolls. I think now that its architecture is known as carpenter Gothic. To us it was just different from any other house around, and we fancied it might be haunted. Or maybe a witch lived there in the darkness behind all the blinded windows and locked doors. It looked dreary and mysterious enough as we —the other boys were Fred Hall, Donald Manchester, and Brother Barr—trotted into the gravel drive all soft with wet fallen leaves. We lowered our voices, stayed close together, and advanced warily for the mystery of it all. A dark, damp day, pungent with the leaves and bark and earth.
Still, it was day, not night, and we fanned out around the house, quite certain that, as before, we had the place to ourselves. No smoke from the chimneys. No sounds but our own.
Then Brother Barr made an exciting discovery. “Hey, come here!” He was standing by the doors of the yellow barn to the rear of the place, and as the rest of us ran up to him he said, “They’re open!”
Sure enough. And as we pushed the doors a little further apart, our excitement shot up, for there just inside was an automobile.
One by one we all wedged through, into a dim and dusty interior smelling of gasoline and kerosene, hanging with cobwebs and discarded harness and old lanterns. And the great, open touring car. It was absolutely perfect.
We played all over the place, but the marvelous thing, of course, was driving the car. That is, we took turns sitting behind the wheel, moving it what little we could, and carrying on a continual brrr-brrr-brrr sound to simulate the motor. It was the most wonderful time any of us thought he had ever had.
But of course an hour of brrr -ing and arguments over whose turn it was now and whether the present driver hadn’t had a longer turn than anyone else got to be just about sufficient, and we said we could come back any old time, so while Donald Manchester kept on brrr -ing at the wheel, the rest of us pushed our way out to the brighter day where Jeannette had for some time been playing by herself because nobody thought a girl ought to have a turn as driver. There she was standing stock-still on the gravel, and the next instant, stock-still ourselves, we beheld two policemen.
“What you kids think you’re doing here?” We stared in silent terror.
“Just—just playing,” said Brother Barr.
Oh, this wasn’t happening. This was terrible. What had we done? What were they going to do to us? And all the while from the barn came the happy, foolhardy brrr -ing of Donald, now grown to a monstrous, ridiculous betrayal.
“I think there’s more of ‘em in the barn,” said one of the policemen, and he wedged his way inside while the other guarded us suspiciously and while, like the falling of a guillotine, sudden silence came from the barn followed by the emergence of the policeman with Donald in his grip, a stricken Donald whose lips were beginning to quiver.
“You know your way home, little girl? Well, you better get there.” And off went Jeannette on the run, her brown rubbers dancing down the drive, our eyes following her. “As for you kids,” he said, “you’d better come with us.”
How could a day have changed so? Yet there, parked by the curb on Kay Street, was the jing-jing wagon. How could this unbelievable catastrophe have overtaken us? Yet it was ourselves being herded into the wagon, and the doors being closed on us, and one of the men sitting with us while the other drove downstreet to the police station.
Meanwhile, Jeannette had carried the news breathlessly to our house. Mrs. Sharwell, downstairs, had a telephone; my mother was instantly on it, and, in chain reaction, phone bells began ringing for fathers all over town.
We four boys were taken into a room and told to sit down on chairs that lined one wall. It was a smoky room, and it had at one end a little gated fence that enclosed a roll-top desk and a leather swivel chair. Donald was trying to stop sobbing, and the rest of us were trying not to start.
A police captain, a big man, came through a rear door, sat down at the roll-top desk, removed his cap from his bald head, fiddled with some papers on the desk a moment, and then swivelled around and regarded us seriously.
“Well,” he said, “let’s find out who you suspicious fellers are.” He took up a pencil. “Suppose you give me your names—one by one now.”
As one by one we did so, he wrote each name down and he kept talking: “Your grandfather the Manchester who lives on Powel Avenue? Uh-huh … You Commander Barr’s son? Uh-huh … You must be probably Charlie Hall’s boy? Uh-huh … You Will Scott’s grandson? Uh-huh.”
The telephone on his desk rang. After a moment’s listening he said into it: “Sure, sure. They’re all right. Little feeling of being away from home, if you know what I mean. No, I tell you: there’d been a break-in at that Kay Street place and we had a couple of the boys keeping an eye on it. Found these kids fooling around there, so naturally we had to check up on ‘em. I’ve never met this generation before, but you might say I know ‘em all. We’ll have ‘em all home in a jiffy.”
He put down the receiver and swivelled toward us again.
“Well, boys,” he said, “looks like I can’t keep you here after all. But take my advice,” he said. “Be a little more careful where you play. These locked-up summer places don’t do too well for playgrounds. Something goes wrong, then maybe you get the blame for it. You remember that?”
Oh yes yes yes we would yes yes.
That midafternoon Brother Barr and I gathered with Fred on his front steps. Fred and Brother Barr both lived on Griswold Place. So did Donald, but he failed to appear. We went exhaustively back and forth over the whole epic. The more we talked about it the more it began to strike us as one of the biggest things that ever happened to us. It seemed to us, the more we straightened each other out on just what had happened, that we had carried it all off with plenty of courage. Brother, Fred, and I, each of us described how he had looked and felt and acted, and it turned out pretty fine. Then we told each other how, when we were all outside facing the policemen, there was old dumb Donald brrr-ing away in the car not knowing a thing about what was going on till the cop reached in and grabbed him. We laughed so wildly over that that we kept repeating it, finding new shades of comedy in little details that came to us, until finally we just couldn’t talk anymore, we were gasping and laughing so hard, our hands pressed to our aching stomachs. We just sat there exhausted, sort of sobbing with laughter, and even if we couldn’t talk we would just look at each other and go off again laughing like crazy.
When our doorbell on Cranston Avenue rang in the middle of one afternoon, my mother said, as she always said, “Oh, dear, I wonder who that can be at this time of day.”
She hurried down the stairs. Jeannette and I hung over the rail, heedless of “The Preacher and the Bear,” which we were playing for the tenth round on the cylinder gramophone, morning-glory-horned, in the front hall.
“Mrs. Scott?” said the lady at the door.
“I understand you have small children?”
“Yes, I have a boy almost nine and a girl nearly seven.”
“Isn’t that nice!” said the lady.
“Well, I have something I’d like to talk to you about that concerns the children. I wonder if I may come in a few moments?”
“Why—yes,” my mother said. “Do come in. We live upstairs.” And she came up, followed by the lady.
Jeannette and I were dumb with curiosity, and it was evident my mother was puzzled. But all the same, this was a very nicely dressed lady, middle-aged, flawlessly corseted, and with her hands in a large fur muff. My mother not only led her upstairs, she took her into the parlor. And Jeannette and I promptly tagged along.
As soon as the elegant lady was seated she said, “I have something I’d like to show the children,” and she drew from her muff a big green and black book.
Altogether she stayed more than an hour, and skillfully she made a great many points. This was—in the first place—a sample volume of a new encyclopedia, The World Book . Its great merit was that though it would be useful to adults, it had been conceived especially with children in mind. Unlike any other encyclopedia, it used hundreds of illustrations. And in all the realms of science, art, literature, history, or whatever, the growing child had never before been offered anything to compare with The World Book . The set was an education in itself, and no child allowed near it could help but acquire such superior amounts of information as to guarantee his forging ahead in school and indeed in all his future life.
I remember—Jeannette and I hovering by her knees as she turned the glittering pages of the book and poured out her glittering messages—that the lady came one momentary cropper. Pointing to a picture of a group of black-backed, white-fronted birds, she said, “Now, I imagine the little girl can’t tell me the name of these birds?”
“Yup,” Jeannette replied. “Penguins.”
There was just an instant of pause, while my mother smiled.
“Well,” said the lady, “I could see the minute I came into this house that you have exceptional children, Mrs. Scott. While The World Book will be a boon to all kinds of families, I don’t mind saying that their greatest value will be for bright children. Bright children can bring to these books the intelligence that will get the most out of them,” she went on. And on and on.
Jeannette and I were entranced by all the pictures and, for that matter, by the lady herself. There was something about her that made you feel she must have a carriage and pair, complete with coachman, right outside at the corner of Tyler Street. As for my mother, she was at least as much impressed and of course she was gratified, though unsurprised, to be confirmed in her conviction that she indeed had very bright children: even a complete stranger could see that, my mother realized, at once. And at last, shyly, she asked the lady about the price of The World Book.
Well, it seemed that there were nine volumes in all and I forget how many thousands of pages and of illustrations. The volumes, as we could see from the sample, were magnificently bound in heavy green boards backed with genuine black leather and stamped in genuine gold. The expense of producing these unprecedented books was enormous, and yet the publisher yearned so to improve the youth of America that they could be had for a ridiculously low price. In fact, all Mrs. Scott had to do to secure the set was to make a deposit of twenty-five dollars.
But what was the cost of the set? Well, the cost was a mere seventytwo dollars. No one could be anything but amazed at such an economical price, the lady pointed out, as my mother pointed out that seventy-two dollars was a lot of money. But, as the lady said, it was nothing to worry about at all. Once you’d put down your twenty-five dollars the rest was an unnoticeable bill: just a little to pay each month, in no time the books were paid for, and all the while this painless installment plan went on, completely arranged for the benefit and comfort of the consumer, the books were in your possession, as good as yours.
Even twenty-five dollars was a lot of money: it was as much as my father earned in a week. But it so happened that my mother had exactly twenty-five dollars in the house, an extra twenty-five dollars. It was, to be sure, earmarked. My Grandfather Townlcy had sent it to us to cover train fares for an imminent Kaster trip to his house in Haverhill, Massachusetts. But there was the accomplished lady, there was the fascinating sample book, and there were the two bright children to whom my mother would deny nothing she could help in this world. Her hesitation had a kind of fright about it. Then she went to her bedroom, returned with the money, gave it to the lady, who gave her a receipt and who then, in a skirmish of congratulations all around, quickly departed —the magic volume once more vanishing into the big fur muff.
My mother seemed abstracted as she came and went in the kitchen getting ready to make supper. It was late afternoon now, the early spring twilight beginning. Once or twice she spoke in complimentary fashion of what a nice lady the book agent was. Jeannette and I for a time hovered in front of the bookcase in the parlor trying to decide which outgrown books of our own we might remove to make room for the new set. We advocated, as an alternative, my father buying an extra shelf.
Then, just after six o’clock, as my mother was lighting the gaslights, we heard my father’s step on the backstairs and both ran to meet him, Jeannette yelling, “We’re gonna have The World Book! We’re gonna have The World Book! ”
In the kitchen, my father said, “What’s she talking about?”
“A lady came and Ma gave her some money and we’re gonna have a lot of books with lots of pictures,” Jeannette said.
“It’s a set,” I said. “It’s an encyclopedia.”
“Money?” said my father, still not looking at us but at my mother, busy over the sink.
“Now,” said my mother, “you youngsters keep quiet and I’ll tell your father all about it.” She proceeded to tell him. She paraphrased the sales talk. She laid special stress on the elegance of the lady who had. called on us. And so, she said, omitting the financial details, yes, it had seemed a good thing to get the books for the children’s sake.
But my father pressed for the financial details, which he was given more or less in the gentle way we had first received them.
“Twenty-five dollars!” he said. “But where did we get twenty-five dollars?”
My mother looked anxious.
“You know,” she said. “The money Papa sent me.”
“But that was for your train fares,” my father said.
My mother looked at him.
“Oh, Betty, Betty,” he said, “you’ve been taken in by a smooth-talking salesman. Whatever made you do it?”
“What’s this woman’s name?” he said. “Did she give you any receipt?”
“Oh, yes,” my mother said, brightening a little. “Of course I saw to it I got a receipt. It’s right on the mantle in the dining room.” She hurried in there and back again, holding out the little square of printed paper to my father.
He examined it, while we all waited.
“It’s all signed and everything,” my mother said.
“Signed?” Pa said. “You know what it’s signed? It’s signed ‘Mrs. K.’ That’s all. Why, you don’t even know the woman’s name. Do you? Did she give you her name?”
My mother stood stricken. “No, I guess she didn’t.”
“Why,” he said, “how are we even going to find this woman again?”
Then my mother turned away to the sink and began to cry.
“And how,” said my father, “are you and the children going to go to Haverhill, I’d like to know?”
My father seemed almost more flabbergasted than angry. Through him we saw that what had seemed a jolly occasion was in fact a disaster. New books, but no Haverhill. And how about the new books, even? Who was this woman of mystery, this Mrs. K.? My mother’s sniffles were loud in the room, and Jeannette and I stood there as though all the lights had gone out.
At once Mrs. K. became the most absorbing character in our lives. By the next morning, at least, my mother had been won over to my father’s point of view, and Mrs. K., in the process, had suffered a sea change. It was evident Mrs. K. was an oily, untrustworthy charlatan. The deliberate anonymity of her signature on the receipt was of a deeply suspicious nature. Why, the way she insinuated herself into the house before explaining her errand! Why, the way she concealed the sample book in her big fur muff! Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, my mother pointed out, as she recounted this amazing deception in several interviews with my Grandmother Scott, with Mrs. Sharwell and Til Peabody, with Essie Wilbar. It was as though, sweet-talked into the supposition we were in the presence of a grand lady, we had been unaware of an identity comparable with that of an international spy. Who had ever heard of The World Book ? Who could say there even was such an encyclopedia?
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.
Now the youngsters were quieted, as everybody of all ages always is, by digging. Save, now and then, the individual cry of triumph. The successful digger sometimes raced at once to the boardwalk committee to claim her gorgeous doll or his—alas—painted pillow. Higher types of youngsters packed the block under one arm and explored for more. Near us our cousins, the twins Olga and Bertha and their sister Margaret, quickly unearthed several blocks, enhancing their everlasting superiority over us. For there was our kind of kid who stayed luckless. No matter where we thrust in our shovels, we were wrong again. Instead of concentrating, we more and more frantically dashed about on the beach, prodding here, slashing there. The crowd had thinned down to a handful of the determined—some staggering with a wealth of blocks and mad for another; some like Jeannette and me, wildly hopeful that we could yet, despite the multitude’s onslaught, uncover just one miraculously missed block. Oh, not to have the beautiful, looked-forward-to, exciting day leave us, after all, empty-handed.
But it did. Presently there were only a few desperate children, like ourselves, now aimlessly, shovel in hand, wandering the beach, heads unmovingly down as though the eyes might x-ray a treasure-trove. Or as though some heedless youngster among the successful might have left exposed the corner of one ultimate block. But no. My father strolled across the sand to us and said, “Well, never mind: everybody can’t be lucky all the time. Just wait till next year.” I thought, as we tagged along beside him back to the boardwalk, what an eon away next year was, and neither Jeannette nor I said anything.
We were somewhat cheered by a ride on the merry-go-round and a bag apiece of saltwater taffy and boxes of Cracker Jack. These last we chewed as we started up Bath Road on the walk to Cranston Avenue. And so with each step we walked out of summer and its fragrances and sounds. Distanter, steadily, the clump of the great surf on the beach and amidst it the cascading roar of the roller coaster and tinkling across it the bell of the merry-go-round as though hectically sounding—as in a few hours it would —for the last ride of all. Even a short way along Rhode Island Avenue we lost all the sounds, and the wet smell of sea breeze yielded to the dusty smell of yellowing leaves on the maple and chestnut trees lining the street.