St. Botolphs was an old place, an old river town. It had been an inland port in the great days of the Massachusetts sailing fleets and now it was left with a factory that manufactured table silver and a few other small industries. The natives did not consider that it had diminished much in size or importance, but the long roster of the Civil War dead, bolted to the cannon on the green, was a reminder of how populous the village had been in the 1860’s. St. Botolphs would never muster as many soldiers again. The green was shaded by a few great elms and loosely enclosed by a square of store fronts. The Cartwright Block, which made the western wall of the square, had along the front of its second story a row of lancet windows, as delicate and reproachful as the windows of a church. Behind these windows were the offices of the Eastern Star, Dr. Bulstrode the dentist, the telephone company and the insurance agent. The smells of these offices—the smell of dental preparations, floor oil, spittoons and coal gas—mingled in the downstairs hallway like an aroma of the past. In a drilling autumn rain, in a world of much change, the green at St. Botolphs conveyed an impression of unusual permanence. On Independence Day in the morning, when the parade had begun to form, the place looked prosperous and festive.
The two Wapshot boys—Moses and Coverly—sat on a lawn on Water Street watching the floats arrive. The parade mixed spiritual and commercial themes freely and near the Spirit of ’76 was an old delivery wagon with a sign saying: get your fresh fish from mr. hiram. The wheels of the wagon, the wheels of every vehicle in the parade were decorated with red, white and blue crepe paper and there was bunting everywhere. The front of the Cartwright Block was festooned with bunting. It hung in folds over the front of the bank and floated from all the trucks and wagons.
The Wapshot boys had been up since four; they were sleepy and sitting in the hot sun they seemed to have outlived the holiday. Moses had burned his hand on a salute. Coverly had lost his eyebrows in another explosion. They lived on a farm two miles below the village and had canoed upriver before dawn when the night air made the water of the river feel tepid as it rose around the canoe paddle and over their hands. They had forced a window of Christ Church as they always did and had rung the bell, waking a thousand songbirds, many villagers and every dog within the town limits including the Pluzinskis’ bloodhound miles away on Hill Street. “It’s only the Wapshot boys.” Moses had heard a voice from the dark window of the parsonage. “Git back to sleep.” Coverly was sixteen or seventeen then—fair like his brother but long necked and with a ministerial dip to his head and a bad habit of cracking his knuckles. He had an alert and a sentimental mind and worried about the health of Mr. Hiram’s cart horse and looked sadly at the inmates of the Sailor’s Home—fifteen or twenty very old men who sat on benches in a truck and looked unconscionably tired. Moses was in college and in the last year he had reached the summit of his physical maturity and had emerged with the gift of judicious and tranquil self-admiration. Now, at ten o’clock, the boys sat on the grass waiting for their mother to take her place on the Woman’s Club float.
Mrs. Wapshot had founded the Woman’s Club in St. Botolphs and this moment was commemorated in the parade each year. Coverly could not remember a Fourth of July when his mother had not appeared in her role as founder. The float was simple. An Oriental rug was spread over the floor of a truck or wagon. The six or seven charter members sat in folding chairs, facing the rear of the truck. Mrs. Wapshot stood at a lectern, wearing a hat, sipping now and then from a glass of water, smiling sadly at the charter members or at some old friend she recognized along the route. Thus above the heads of the crowd, jarred a little by the motion of the truck or wagon, exactly like those religious images that are carried through the streets of Boston’s north end in the autumn to quiet great storms at sea, Mrs. Wapshot appeared each year to her friends and neighbors, and it was fitting that she should be drawn through the streets for there was no one in the village who had had more of a hand in its enlightenment. It was she who had organized a committee to raise money for a new parish house for Christ Church. It was she who had raised a fund for the granite horse trough at the corner and who, when the horse trough became obsolete, had had it planted with geraniums and petunias. The new high school on the hill, the new firehouse, the new traffic lights, the war memorial—yes, yes—even the clean public toilets in the railroad station by the river were the fruit of Mrs. Wapshot’s genius. She must have been gratified as she traveled through the square.
Mr. Wapshot—Captain Leander—was not around. He was at the helm of the S.S. Topaze, taking her down the river to the bay. He took the old launch out on every fine morning in the summer, stopping at Travertine to meet the train from Boston and then going across the bay to Nangasakit, where there were a white beach and an amusement park. He had been many things in his life; he had been a partner in the table-silver company and had legacies from relations, but nothing much had stuck to his fingers and three years ago Cousin Honora had arranged for him to have the captaincy of the Topaze to keep him out of mischief. The work suited him. The Topaze seemed to be his creation; she seemed to mirror his taste for romance and nonsense, his love of the seaside girls and the long, foolish, brine-smelling summer days. She had a sixty-foot water line, an old Harley engine with a single screw and enough room in her cabin and on her decks for forty passengers. She was an unseaworthy hulk that moved—Leander said so himself—like real estate, her decks packed with school children, whores, Sisters of Mercy and other tourists, her wake sewn with hard-boiled-egg shells and sandwich papers and her bones shaking so wildly at each change of speed that the paint flaked off her hull. But the voyage seemed to Leander, from his place at the helm, glorious and sad. The timbers of the old launch seemed held together by the brilliance and transitoriness of summer and she smelled of summery refuse—sneakers, towels, bathing suits and the cheap fragrant matchboard of old bathhouses. Down the bay she went over water that was sometimes the violet color of an eye to where the land wind brought aboard the music of the merry-go-round and where you could see the distant shore of Nangasakit—the scrim of nonsensical rides, paper lanterns, fried food and music that breasted the Atlantic in such a fragile jumble that it seemed like the rim of flotsam, the starfish and orange skins that came up on the waves. “Tie me to the mast, Perimedes,” Leander used to shout when he heard the merry-go-round. He did not mind missing his wife’s appearance in the parade.
There were some delays about the commencement of the parade that morning. These seemed to center around the Woman’s Club float. One of the charter members came up the street to ask Moses and Coverly if they knew where their mother was. They said they hadn’t been home since dawn. They were beginning to worry when Mrs. Wapshot appeared suddenly in the doorway of Moody’s drugstore and took her place. The Grand Marshal blew his whistle, the drummer with his head in a bloody bandage played a measure and the fifes and drums began to squeal, discharging a dozen pigeons from the roof of the Cartwright Block. A little wind came off the river, bringing into the square the dark, raw smell of mud. The parade picked up its scattered bones and moved.
The fire-department volunteers had been up until midnight, washing and polishing the gear of the Niagara Hose Company. They seemed proud of their work, but under some enjoinder to appear serious. The fire truck was followed by old Mr. Starbuck, who sat in an open car wearing the uniform of the G.A.R., although it was well known that he had never had anything to do with the Civil War. Next came the Historical Society float where a direct—an authenticated—descendant of Priscilla Alden sweated under a heavy wig. She was followed by a truckful of lighthearted girls from the table-silver company who scattered coupons into the crowd. Then came Mrs. Wapshot, standing at her lectern, a woman of forty whose fine skin and clear features could be counted among her organizational gifts. She was beautiful but when she tasted the water from the glass on her lectern she smiled sadly as if it were bitter for, in spite of her civil zeal, she had a taste for melancholy—for the smell of orange rinds and wood smoke—that was extraordinary. She was more admired among the ladies than the men and the essence of her beauty may have been disenchantment (Leander had deceived her) but she had brought all the resources of her sex to his infidelity and had been rewarded with such an air of wronged nobility and luminous vision that some of her advocates sighed as she passed through the square as if they saw in her face a life passing by.
Then some hoodlum—it must have been one of the foreigners who lived across the river—set off a firecracker under the rump of Mr. Pincher’s old mare and she bolted. In recalling this disaster much later the people of St. Botolphs would recall its fortunate aspects. They would say how providential it had been that none of the women and children who lined the route of the parade had been trampled. The float had been only a few feet from the junction of Water and Hill streets and the horse took off hell for leather in this direction with old Mr. Pincher shouting whoaa, whoaa. The first marchers had their backs to the accident and while they could hear the cries of excitement and the noise of hoofs they did not guess the magnitude of the disaster and the fifes went on squealing. Mr. Starbuck went on bowing to the left and the right, the girls from the table silver company went on scattering coupons into the crowd. As the wagon heaved up Hill Street Sarah Wapshot’s lectern could be seen to go over and with it her water pitcher and glass; but none of the ladies of the Woman’s Club was cowardly or foolish and they took a firm hold on some nonportable part of the wagon and trusted in the Lord. Hill Street was then a dirt road and that being a dry summer the horse’s hoofs beat up such a pillar of dust that in a few minutes the float was gone.
The Harcourts and the Wheelwrights, the Coffins and the Slaters, the Lowells and the Cabots and the Sedgewicks and the Kimballs—yes, even the Kimballs—have all had their family histories investigated and published and now we come to the Wapshots, who would not want to be considered without some reference to their past. A cousin by marriage had had the name traced back to its Norman beginnings—Vaincre-Chaud. The declension from Vaincre-Chaud through Fanshaw, Wapeshaw, Wapshafftes, Wapshottes and Wapshot had been found in Northumberland and Dorsetshire parish records. In St. Botolphs it was given the catarrhal pronunciation “Warpshart.” The branch of the family that concerns us was founded by Ezekiel Wapshot, who emigrated from England aboard the Arbella in 1630. Ezekiel settled in Boston, where he taught Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and gave lessons on the flute. He was offered a post in the Royal Government but he judiciously refused, establishing a family tradition of thoughtful regret that would—three hundred years later—chaff Leander and his sons. Someone wrote of Ezekiel that he “abominated periwigs and had the welfare of the Commonwealth always upon his conscience.” Ezekiel begat David, Micabah and Aaron. Cotton Mather spoke the eulogy at Ezekiel’s grave.
David begat Lorenzo, John, Abadiah and Stephen. Stephen begat Alpheus and Nestor. Nestor—a leftenant in the war with England—was tendered a decoration by General Washington which he declined. This was in the tradition established by Ezekiel and while these regrets sprang in part from a candid assessment of the man’s self-knowledge there was also some Yankee shrewdness here, for to be conspicuous—to be a hero—might entail some untoward financial responsibilities. No man of the family had ever accepted an honor and in upholding this tradition of unworthiness the ladies of the family had so enlarged it that when they dined out they merely picked at their food, feeling that to refuse the sandwiches at tea or the chicken on Sunday—to refuse anything—was a mark of character. The ladies were always hungry when they left the dinner table but their sense of purpose was always refreshed. In their own bailiwick, of course, they ate like wolves.
Nestor begat Lafayette, Theophilus, Darcy and James. James was captain of the first Topaze and later a “merchant” in the trade with the West Indies. He begat three sons and four daughters but Benjamin is the only one that concerns us here. Benjamin married Elizabeth Merserve and begat Thaddeus and Lorenzo. Elizabeth died when Benjamin was seventy. He then married Mary Hale and begat Aaron and Ebenezer. In St. Botolphs the two sets of children were known as “first crop” and “second crop.”
Benjamin prospered and was responsible for most of the additions to the house on River Street. Among his relics were a phrenological chart and a portrait. In the phrenological chart the circumference of his head was given as twenty-three and one-half inches “from the occipital spinalis to individuality.” He measured six and one-half inches from the “orifice of his ear to benevolence.” His brain was calculated to be unusually large. Among his largest propensities were amativeness, excitability and self-esteem. He was moderately secretive and showed no signs of marvelousness, piety and veneration. In the portrait he appeared with yellow sideburns and very small blue eyes, but his descendants, studying the picture and trying to divine what, buried beneath the hair ornaments, the man had been, always came away with an impression of harshness and dishonesty—an uneasy feeling that was increased by the conviction that Benjamin would have detested his descendants in their gabardine suits. The force of mutual disapproval in the portrait was so great that it was kept in the attic.
Copyright © 2020 by John Cheever. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.