THE roots of my skepticism and raillery are to be found, I imagine, in a certain huge cardboard box still to be seen on the topmost shelf of a rather inaccessible closet in the old home. A film of dust lies upon it; a length of pale, fuzzy string binds it about; and within it are photographs, numberless and, for the most part, anonymous. Most of them picture babies, — for my father was a physician, — babies with vague eyes, expressionless features, and a terrifying hold on life. Mingled with the infants linger unknown grown-ups and adolescents, holding violins or prize books. There are ‘ cabinets,’warped, uncompromising, board-like memorials of the eighties; a number of the first timid and frightful metropolitan ‘folders’ of the early nineteen-hundreds; and even a score of the giant ducal portrait photographs which are the rage to-day. Unvisited, forlorn, and mostly nameless, the collection dwells in its paper tomb, pointing a moral on the vanity of humankind and the ingratitude of time.
O photographs, to what uses have I not seen you dedicated! I have seen you snatched from the mantel shelf to amuse babies without number; I have beheld you cut up for cardboard, and serving as mats for home-framed pictures; I have seen you facing a broken pane; and a kinsman, whom I know to be a cynical but entirely veracious observer, once saw a large expensive modern form of you serving as a dustpan!
A dreadful catalogue to be sure, but who among us shall cast the first stone? For after all, what can one do with the giant photographs which Clorinda distributes annually, ‘registering’ the while that modesty which good form requires of givers of their own likenesses? Of course, Clorinda is a dear good sort, we are touched by her testimony of friendship, but bless us, we can’t have an almost life-size Clorinda forever posing on the mantel! Such a privilege is for rich uncles alone. What can one do with Clorinda’s photograph, once one has accepted it — and whoever had the audacity to refuse a photograph? Almost the size of a casement window, the affair seems far too grand and costly to destroy in any casual manner; and moreover, Clorinda, who is given to tours of inquisition, may visit you, to see what you have done with her gift. Then waits Clorinda unusually long at the front door (one can see her through the Victorian design on the glass), while somebody or other rushes around upstairs like a crazy thing, and disinters Clorinda’s picture from under a pile of National Geographic magazines laid flat on the lower shelf of a bookcase. There follows a hurried rearrangement of bric-abrac, during which Clorinda never fails to ring the bell a second time. Next, the maid is unleashed, and Clorinda, entering, meets Clorinda face to face.
Dreadful hypocrisy, you say? Look within your own heart! Where, O guilty one, is that photograph which Strephon pressed upon you when you called on him last June? You know you would have a time finding it! You remember the morning he offered it, — the parlor table laden with pearl-gray and wood-brown folders, the goings to the window to get a better light, the wise comment on expressions, the judicial lookings from Strephon to the photograph and from the photograph to Strephon, and the desperate feeling which seized you as you felt yourself being manœuvred into ‘taking your pick,’— but where is it now? Did you put it with the other photographs?
There are clubs and societies, too, with a passion for photographs, and individual members who buy them, frame them, and hang them in their dens. You never fail to find at least one example in the furnished cottage you hire for the summer. Dinnergroups are huge favorites. Those vaguely human pin-points, apparently three slanting miles from the camera; those queer folk in the foreground, with flat, steam-rollered faces; those curiously immobile and frozen visages, with staring eyes transfixed above a cloud of tables; the inevitable waiters who would get in — who can they be? Your host will tell you, if you give him a chance, ‘This man here [the moving finger rests] is the biggest frozen-fish man in the northeast!' And one tries to look impressed. Beware, however, of showing too flattering an interest! Believe it or not, there are actually people so abandoned that they will offer to give you a copy of the group; and you will find yourself staggering home with the frozen-fish man under your arm.
But enough of raillery. The truth is that we have another box of photographs, of photographs eagerly sought and affectionately retained; and this box is locked away in the family safe, no less.
I doubt if there is an heirloom we prize more highly than this handful of amusing, beloved, pathetic, and slightly ridiculous likenesses. When the collection is unveiled, I always look at my own, and thus learn to practise humility.
Oh, that awful one with the pepperand-salt suit! To think that I was misguided enough to scatter it abroad!
But I must draw my moralizing to a close, for I hear the bell ringing. Bless us, ’t is Clorinda with a photograph!