OUR elder son Tingley, ætas three, has always been as intolerant of any kind of unfilled hole as nature is said to be of a vacuum. The act of inserting something into an orifice is the uniquely characteristic act of his life to date. Stuffing crevices and chasms — that is apparently going to be the leitmotiv of Ting’s existence. If in later life he were to disappear for years and turn up as the subject of a disputed identity, like Charley Ross, this inextinguishable trait would be, to those who once knew him as we do, a psychic counterpart of his fingerprints. We could never quite believe in them unless they were corroborated by it.
The thing began even before his age of crawling, which itself came rather early. In his high chair at the dining-room table he was interested, far more than in eating, in his silver napkin ring, an heirloom. One of his first games was to pass knives, forks, and spoons endlessly back and forth through it. He spent, in the aggregate, hours doing this with the rapt absorption of infancy. When, one day, he got hold of an odd size of bouillon spoon that would squeak through and no more, he fairly glittered with delight. For what Ting really esteems is a fit. The mere act of insertion — anything into anything — will do well enough for the moment, in default of the ideal; but the crowning reward of his tireless experimentation comes only when this will go into that with precisely nothing to spare. If the boy can presently bring to bear on the arrangement of his own affairs a little of the talent that he devotes to the manipulation of mere physical samples of the mortise-and-tenon idea, he will certainly never end as a round peg in a square hole. Also, he might be pretty good at fractions.
Once in active circulation at the floor level, Ting began to operate assiduously on the blue-figured earthen jugs that we use for doorstops — gallon jugs such as tradesmen once used for molasses and vinegar. Into them went a little of everything that would go, from the fat wooden beads that children string on shoelaces down to a pocket comb and up to table silver. There was a period when the disappearance of any small article that was badly needed — for instance, a type eraser — almost automatically sent us on a round of jug-emptying. I once jotted down an exact table of contents as I turned out the dining-room jug: in eight-point type it would fill this column with a trifle of overrun. A fair proportion of the articles had been so tricky to insert that extraction of them called for some nice work with bent wires and tweezers.
As the boy enlarged his sphere of operations we had to develop a new technique of elimination in search for the lost. Essentially it consisted in a careful study of the accessible surroundings for holes of a size to accommodate the desired article. Not having the article to measure by, we were somewhat in the fix of the man who couldn’t find his lost spectacles until he had the spectacles to hunt for them writh. On percentage the chances were against us: if the thing happened to be a hair bigger than we remembered, we disemboweled dry wells and plumbing contraptions for nothing, and even if the sizes tallied, the article could still be in some other hole.
We had, however, our inspired successes, most of them unearned. A memorable one came after three days of intensive search for a big-barreled pen that I cherish and was crippled without. We were living then with one of the abominations known as pipeless furnaces. On the fourth day, as I sat in a brown study, my eye suddenly focused on the large register in the floor — a grille made up of hideous cast scrolls and curlicues. There was one figure in the pattern that — I bolted to the basement, unscrewed one of the handhole covers dowrn next the floor, and turned a flashlight into the dusty air space between the furnace proper and its jacket. There, with a motley of beads, marbles, nails, small cooking utensils, a yardstick, a foot rule, spools of thread, empty spools, a screwdriver, some brook-polished pebbles, and a harmonica, lay the barrel of my pen. The cap had come to rest — also in company — on the top of the furnace, where it was revealed by prying off a cleanout plate.
No admonition could prevail upon Ting at eighteen months to abandon or even to limit his experiments, and no punishment could induce him to let fall a clue to the whereabouts of a single missing item, though his mind was clearly an accurate and complete index of his embezzlements. He took such solid pride in his work, and was, withal, so unaffectedly delighted with himself and us whenever we were able to follow his devious tracks and recover something, that it was absurd to charge malice. There was not the slightest wish to inconvenience anybody: he just had to shove things down holes, whether or no.
What bigger and better holes his two-yearold aspirations may have been in quest of on the day he disappeared pro tem, I shall doubtless never know. He achieved a furlong to the main road and then half a mile more toward the village, and what he said to the stranger who asked him where he was going was, ‘I am going to the war, to tell them not to make one other noise.’ The stranger, a man of sense and persuasiveness, had him back in the right dooryard before any of us even knew he had gone a. w. o. l. The car was out of sight before we discovered that at some point of the transaction its driver had wished on Ting a handful of bank-new pennies. For reasons that we did not appreciate then, the boy set immense store by them, never mislaid one, and carefully switched them from pocket to pocket when he changed his clothes. We got the answer some two weeks later when we took him into the village grocery. In its floor a hole had been bored, perhaps for convenience in siphoning liquids into containers in the basement. The hole was made with what came handy, which happened to be a thirteen-sixteenths-inch bitt. When we glanced around to see what Ting was up to, he was squatting over this hole and sliding his pennies into it one by one, very delicately and deliberately in order to gloat over the anticipated fit, which was so close that each coin seemed to hesitate before it dropped through into the dark.
We have long since stopped fuming at Ting about his little obsession, but we inevitably do more or less fuming about him; and the other day when he had devised some specially intricate burial for a sorely needed Stillson wrench I fumed a little to my mother, who was paying us her annual visit. ‘What makes the boy that way?’ I said. ‘Where could he ever have got such a cock-eyed notion of what to amuse himself with?’
My mother began to chuckle, putting her hand over her mouth in a way she has when something tickles her beyond laughing and almost beyond enduring. When she was able to speak she said: ‘Well, who sat in front of a mirror and carefully put white beans up his two-year-old nose and had to be rushed to the doctor in a borrowed buggy? Who put my pet case knife into the four-gallon vinegar jug? (I used that vinegar in a whole year’s pickling, and it all spoiled, every last jar and crock of it; I never knew what was the matter until the next year when I found the bone handle at the bottom, with the steel all dissolved away.) Who took a five-foot trunk strap and fed it by inches into the molasses, buckle and all?’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘who did?’
‘You did,’ she said.