The Little Locksmith

The autobiography and very human transformation of a Salem child who broke out of her chrysalis of invalidism to meet the challenge of reality.



So, in those first bad times, the talisman my brother gave me was not enough. He had given me intimacy of the mind, and the voluptuousness of poetry. He had tried to make it seem an honor for me to be different from the others. But I was terribly greedy, like the fisherman’s wife, and I wanted more things.

I remained year after year on the outside, destined, it seemed, always to watch the drama and action in other lives. And after several years of hungry onlooking, and of bewildered wanderings and blind seekings, I became somehow at last (instinctively and without knowing what I was doing) a very perfect imitation of a grown-up person, one who was noted for a sort of peaceful, wise detachment. Because of this apparently contented detachment, and a modest air of superiority, and my secret devotion to the art of writing, which kept always intensifying and enlarging my world of imaginary experience, I deceived myself and everybody who knew me into thinking that I knew a great deal about life.

I had always avoided meeting beautiful and worldly-looking girls with the same care and intensity with which I had invariably noticed and stared at them from a safe distance. In theaters and restaurants I always picked them out from among the ordinary people and lost myself in contemplation of them, almost as if I left my own body and entered into theirs. I liked the ones whose arrogance gave them absolute ease and simplicity of movement. I would watch a ravishing beauty go slowly down the aisle of a theater, with her evening cloak hanging off her shoulders and her escort hovering close behind her. I would watch her turn and go into the row where their seats were, and as she moved with cool nonchalance toward her place I could see for a moment her profile or her full face. I would stare at her even after she sat down, when all I could see was her hair, her neck, and her shoulders and the profile of her escort’s face turned toward her smiling, while she coldly disregarded him for a moment until she chose to turn and reward him. It was her purity of movement as she came in that I deeply admired, and then, after she sat down, her essence of stillness — nothing unsure, nothing faltering.

In public places, for I never met them in my private life, wherever one or more of these exalted beings were to be seen, I always picked out one among them and identified myself with her. For in such a girl I remembered something which I had forgotten until each time I saw her again. I remembered the person I secretly, childishly believed I had been meant to be. As I stared at her, I felt toward that regal girl a prescience, a clairvoyant intimacy, as if I had been she in another incarnation: without my present fatal disguise I should feel and look anti move the way she looked and moved, as destructively and cruelly perfect and calm and exalted as she, who by her entrance made the rest of the audience suddenly change into shapeless, comic, wriggling caricatures of human beings.

Whenever I occupied a seat in a theater I slyly managed to sit on one of my feet in order to lift me up a little higher, and also I stuffed a part of my coat under me, furiously intending that nobody should notice my tricks. Without them I could not see over the top of the seat in front of me, much less over the shoulders and around the backs of the heads of other people. Even with these awkward and clumsy devices of mine, my foot and ankle aching painfully after an hour or two in that position, I was not any higher than a ten-year-old child; and yet from this humiliating level I utterly forgot the little locksmith that I was, while my eyes, just clearing the tops of the seats in front of me, made me believe that in the conspicuously beautiful and regal girl I was gazing at, who was in everything the very antithesis of me, I was staring at my own defrauded self and feeling vicariously my own rightful feelings of proud separateness and ease in contrast to the crowd of fidgeting, homely people around us.

Because of this memory or this illusion of identity, nothing would have induced me to face one of these fortunate contemporaries of mine. I owned a little arrogant set of substitutes for those things which I believed were really mine, and these sustained my self-esteem in the world I lived in. My talents and my jokes and my mask of childish charm were always treated in the world I lived in as evidence that I was a superior and valuable human being. In order to maintain my own beguiling jolly feeling of superiority, I could not afford to let anything shatter my precious little set of substitutes. I had to stay always carefully among the kind of people — the literary and artistic people, or the humble, simple people — who valued my various exhibits. Most people I ever met did seem to value them, and my self-esteem rarely suffered.

There were in fact only two kinds of persons, and they were really one kind, who could destroy me and all my little tricks with one casual glance. They were that heartless and worldly and beautiful young woman, wherever I saw her, whoever she happened to be, and the adoring young man who inevitably accompanied her. As long as they were unaware of me, I could stare at them and forget myself utterly as I merged in them, but X could never let it happen that they should look at me or speak to me. For I knew from experience that if they should merely pass by me near enough for either of them to give me an accidental instant’s glance, that glance, first of cold curiosity and then of immediate dismissal, would tell me as cruelly and explicitly as words could have done that by their ruthless standard I didn’t even exist. Whenever that glance touched me, I could not deceive myself. I knew, as they knew, that my substitutes were worthless, that as a young feminine human being I was a pitiable failure, and there was no help for it. One such encounter destroyed all my defenses as one bomb destroys a building, but they were no sooner all in ruins around me than I began to repair and build them up again with a curious, indestructible persistence. But it was much pleasanter not to have the bomb hit me.

And so, when I stumbled upon the idea that it would be a great thing for me to have a house of my own, and when I decided that the kind of house I wanted and the only kind that would be suitable for me was a very cunning little house, a sort of fairytale cottage, it must have been because the rebellious arrogant person who in youth had fought for existence inside the prison of my disguise had somehow been silenced and forgotten, had even learned to submit humbly at last, and had tried to make the most of whatever beguiling charm and appeal there might be in accepting and playing the part of a quaint, crumpled little figure, who, something like a Walter de la Mare character, was ageless and sexless and supernaturally wise.

But the predicament had not been solved. It had merely been ignored and forgotten, and left far behind me, an unopened package containing a time-bomb. And now, at the composed and quiet age of just past thirty, the huge passion, the greedy enormous dream of youth which, unspent and unrecognized, had caused me such bewilderment and pain and then been somehow put aside and made unimportant, must have demanded room at last, for it upset all my modest notions and took for its scene of action the high square house on an azure bay, and I unsuspectingly obeyed the order. Unconsciously I think I was still looking for magic. I think I was still looking, although I didn’t know it, for the secret which would restore me to my true shape.

With all my air of wisdom and knowingness, I knew only one thing that was worth anything at all. I knew enough to follow a crucial instinct, when it came, even though it contradicted everything that I had been or known before. In terror and joy, I went ahead with my negotiations.


On a day early in September I signed the deed. Sitting at a desk with a pen in my hand in Judge Patterson’s office on upper Main Street where the iron deer lurks in the shrubbery, in the town of Castine, on Penobscot Bay in the State of Maine, I felt as if I had already become an entirely new person. With the signing of that document, I changed from being a trifling, detached summer boarder in that town into being one of its citizens with a house and land belonging to me.

In my life that change was epoch-making. For I had become one of the town’s summer boarders, a race of people whose lives are finished, and who therefore are treated by the real citizens with patient compassion, as though they were not quite normal or were victims of a disaster. The abnormality or the disaster which converts normal persons at some period of their lives into chronic summer boarders, and turns them into a mild sort of nuisance and responsibility which good-hearted normal people must look after in exchange for small sums of money, consists in their apparently having no homes of their own, no occupations, and — I hate to say it, but I am afraid it is true — in their being people whom nobody anywhere overwhelmingly wants or needs. They are mostly ladies, not very prosperous, not very young.

I had been one of the worst of these parasitical creatures, but when this miracle happened to me, the town became for me a miraculous town. I opened my eyes, and like every convert, I felt as if nobody else had ever seen what I saw.

My town! I love it. The old possessive eagerness wells up in me now as it always does whenever the chance comes to tell about it, especially to some person who has never heard of it before. Castine is built on a high, wind-swept green peninsula barricaded with granite cliffs and washed on one side by the Penobscot River where it widens into the Bay, and on the other by a winding tidal river. Nowadays Castine is reached by land over two long roads which follow the edges of the peninsula along the shore of its two rivers. One road follows the shore of the Penobscot River, and the other skirts the salt estuary whose name is the Bagaduce. Near the wide root of the peninsula a crossroad joins the two river roads, making what is called by Castinets the Twenty Mile Square, and farther down they are joined again by a shorter crossroad where the peninsula has grown narrower approaching its tip, and that is the Ten Mile Square.

There are no other drives in Castine. The two river roads and the two crossroads are all there are. Going either way, you pass farms sloping down to the river, deep-rooted old houses with work going on around them and geraniums in the windows, you dip up and down over wonderful round roller-coaster hills, you pass little coves circled with fields, every now and then you see a small silverygray deserted house with its old lilac bush and apple orchard, and crossing the Ten Mile Square you go through a piece of woods where in spring and summer you hear whippoorwills and hermit thrushes. Driving toward Castine you have a river either way you come, and either way you come you begin to feel a wildness and excitement in the sea-surrounded air that is stirring and indescribable.

All I knew of Castine in the beginning was the cliffs, and the Brophy Cottage boardinghouse, and an occasional drive around the peninsula. I was a passive and unawakened and virginal summer boarder with no attachment to anything. My eyes had never yet dwelt with faithful tenderness upon the little village on the opposite shore of the salt estuary, the Bagaduce, and my mind had never yet imagined any such devotion to that place as was later to enrich my life. But even in my period of black ignorance I knew enough to adore the cliffs. Sometimes at night, the time when it is most frightening and most wonderful to lie there in the darkness between the sea and the sky. I think I began to be dimly aware of the genius loci which inhabits Castine.

This genius loci is a strong unseen presence which, if we were ancient Greeks, would surely be given the name of a god and be honored by us with an altar in the Witherle Woods, because it is an influence which takes quite simple, everyday human beings out of themselves and astonishes them, during that short, exciting season, with the sudden acquisition of many charming personal qualities they never had before.

In those last sultry days and nights in August, every year, the cliffs, the Witherle Woods, the shores and the fields of the Ten Mile Square, and some of the nearer islands of Castine are filled by a powerful invisible something which makes that peninsula more alive and more stimulating than ordinary places are. The result is a kind of intoxication among the people who happen to be there. The native-born yield to it instinctively without any great change in their habits, but it is interesting to see how, under its influence, the behavior of hitherto conventional, cautious summer visitors can be completely disrupted and can give way to a mood of unprecedented personal allurement and joyous abandon, which they generally lose again after those two or three weeks are over. It is lovely to see in otherwise brittle and conventional people and their lives this short interval of boldness and gayety and this incandescent glow, as if some ancient primitive aphrodisiac charm were working on them. In fact, it is difficult, seeing such things happen there which never could have happened in any ordinary place, not to be struck with the idea that one of the very old pagan spirits must still cling to this place, left over since long before the French and the Jesuit fathers came, when the Indians and their gods had it all to themselves.


I signed the deed for my house just as the summer season ended and my boardinghouse was about to close. I went immediately to call on my new unknown neighbor. I told her I had just bought the house next door to hers, and I asked her if she could let me have a room in her house for a few weeks while I was having repairs and changes made. After a little gentle nervousness and hesitation she consented, and said she thought her married daughter, Lorna Clement, who lived across the road, would be willing to give me meals.

I looked with eager and interested eyes upon my new neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Douglas. I should have liked them whatever they had been, because they were the first neighbors of my own that I ever had. I had an enormous faith in my own way of doing everything, now that I had begun at last. I had an idea that I could make something rare and wonderful out of whatever material I was to find. And I knew, the moment I saw the Douglases, that I had been lucky in the material.

Mr. Douglas had bright blue eyes and a ringing welcoming cordial voice, which pealed forth in song from the Unitarian Church choir every Sunday morning. He had an elegance and style of manner which for some reason usually seems incongruous in a countryman. But it was not a city elegance. He called Mrs. Douglas “Wife" when he spoke to her, just like a woodcutter in a Grimm’s fairy tale. Most conveniently for me, he was a farmer who sold milk and vegetables. Mrs. Douglas was one of those rare slender, middle-aged ladies in whose face and way of moving and talking you can see more clearly the very feminine young girl of the past than you can see the fiftyor sixty-year-old woman who is supposed to have taken her place. She had not acquired the thick disfiguring shell within which most of the boys and girls of a generation ago are so cleverly concealed that you can hardly believe they ever existed. With Mrs. Douglas the shell was so thin that you could look right through it and see, only slightly blurred, the soft, innocently engaging absent-minded girl.

When she and Mr. Douglas talked to me, discussing my house, and I told them my plans and asked them to tell me about carpenters and painters they knew, I was delighted to hear in their voices the inflection which I had learned to recognize as one of the unique characteristics of Castine. Their voices kept going up and down, up and down, indulgent, humorous, and persuasive no matter what the subject of the conversation might be. The effect of this inflection is that even in the most casual remark the inhabitants of Castine always seem to be insisting gently and humorously that they want to comfort you for everything and want to excuse you for all your faults. “There, there, everything is all right, don’t you be frightened or upset about anything,” say the men’s voices as well as the women’s voices in Castine, no matter what words they are saying. That sound was just what I had been needing all my life to hear. I think of it as one of the physical elements of Castine, like the Castine air, which the inhabitants are so used to breathing that if they have to go away they discover to their surprise that they cannot breathe well in other places. In the same way they become so spoiled by the sound of reassurance in every local voice that when they go to cities they are painfully surprised by what seems like inhuman harshness or at best a very strange indifference toward them in their casual encounters with people.


One of my new treasures was the brick path along the front of the house. It was an old brick path laid in the grass, leading in from the road to my front door — a door which had a fanlight above it, in whose thin old glass the light of the sea was reflected. I had been brought up in a city famous for its Georgian architecture, where fanlights and brick garden paths arc found even in the slums. I had been brought up never to pass any beautiful specimen of our architecture without noticing and admiring it. And yet our family happened never to have owned or lived in one of those Georgian houses. I could not believe at first that I myself now possessed a fanlight and a brick path, and not in the slums or the too familiar and respectable streets of Salem, but surrounded by the enhancing light and air of a town where I was alone and free.

Even out in the water I owned property. My wreck was out there. If you rowed out at low tide you could look down through the water and see it, I was told. It was a historical wreck, the British transport St. Helena, which had been sunk in 1778 by American guns firing on her from Nautilus Island opposite. I was told about it first by a man named Frank Grindle, whom I had hired to paint the outside of the house. Mr. Douglas told me he was very quick and wouldn’t charge so much as some of the other painters. He had an eager, nervous face, and he was a great talker. When he came down off his ladder, he used to stop to talk with me, and one day he told me I owned a wreck. He said he had often been out in his dory and reached down and got pieces of wood off her — old oak that had been so long in the water that it was hard as a rock and black as ebony after it was carved into something and oiled and polished. Several people owned carved chairs and other things that had been made out of it.

One day when he came to work he brought me one of his pieces of my wreck. He promised he would take me out in his dory at what he called the next low dreen of tide, so that I might look down and see the halfburied vessel for myself. I liked Frank Grindle because when he first began to talk to me his eyes shone with witty amusement at the idea of my being the proprietor of the St. Helena, and because he seemed to know it would amuse me too. He used to talk very fast and eagerly about other things besides, — all kinds of things, — and while he was talking his eyes would dwell on me with an attentive, indulgent, smiling look, somewhat as if I were a child. He told me things about himself. He told me he had been around the world, working on what he called “them palace yachts,”one time with a Vanderbilt and again with an Astor. That was where he learned manners, he said.

He told me that after he came home from sea he got to drinking so, he was drunk and a disgrace all the time, and how he had cured himself by going into the Maine woods as a lumberman, and how he had hurt his thumb in the woods and amputated it himself because there was no doctor there. Very proudly he made me look at the stump so that I could see what a neat job he had done.

I asked my neighbor, Lorna, if Frank Grindle’s stories were true. For in spite of his candor there was something extravagant and unbelievable about him. She declared that, strange as they did sound, they were true. He had been a terrible drunkard; since he cured himself he had never drunk again. He was a great reader as well as a talker, she said. He took four or five books a week out of the library. He liked books about science. Everybody in town believed that if he had had an education he would have been somebody. I could believe that too. There was something magnetic in his eagerness.

Frank Grindle played a part in the beginning of my life in Castine, and he played a part very near the end of my eight years there. After I had lived in my house several summers he told me one day how glad he always was to see the lights in my windows the first night I came back in the spring. He liked a pink lamp-shade which he could see from his house at the bottom of the field. It made a rosy light, he said, and it was nice to see it after the house had stood up there dark and empty all winter.

One spring morning, the next to the last year that I went there, as I was driving along the road from Bucksport toward Castine, I was anticipating my arrival and, among all the other familiar things deliciously reawakening in my mind as I came nearer and nearer, I was thinking of how Frank Grindle would probably be pleased to see the rosy lamp that night. The first piece of news I heard as I stepped out of my car was that he had been killed an hour before. He had always been too impatient, too quick, people said, and didn’t take time enough to make his staging solid, and that morning he had just gone up on it to paint the eaves of the Castine Inn when the staging gave way and he was killed the instant he struck the ground.

The thought of him has interrupted my attempt to describe my house and land. For when I think of the first autumn, and remember myself sitting on the terrace doorstep meditating about the St. Helena, I cannot help remembering Frank Grindle too, and how he spoke and smiled. He was so alive that he is even now more vivid to me than any of the other men who worked for me at the same time. That first autumn his ladder was always somewhere up against the house and he was slapping thick white paint onto the clapboards while I sat at a lower altitude on the terrace doorstep, enjoying the warm sense of unspoken friendship and protection surrounding me.


I have always loved willows, because they are the only trees which have wantonly escaped from the classic idea of a tree; instead of growing straight up into the air they lean sideways at all sorts of sad and desperate angles, their branches jetting out of them anywhere, like soft green spray, instead of being placed symmetrically on each side of the trunk, and because sometimes several trunks grow fanwise out of one root. This waywardness in their structure gives willows a look of wild, romantic abandon, as though they were changelings and held the spirits of people who have been crossed in love. I like them too because they can be so old, all tumble-down and rotten and apparently dead; and yet when April comes, there will rise out of those black, crumbling ruins the most tender and youthful green wands, holding new leaves high in the air in great round, soft, billowy bouquets, more expressive of spring than any other tree. Because of this wonderful mingling of agedness and tender youth, willows seem to belong to a race of trees apart, one that is ancient and magic and lorn. I felt very rich and lucky indeed as I stared at my own row of willows arching down the slope. Their shapes made a wonderful decorated border against the eastern sky, of whirls and scallops and festoons, which my eyes were never to grow tired of tracing.

Just in front of the willows stood a little weather-beaten building, which I always made sure to include in each of my roaming, exploring, appreciative glances round my place. My glance not only included it without fail but always stopped for a moment or longer to give a special secret caressing attention to it, and a promise for the future. I had not forgotten that when the idea of buying a house first struck me I had believed that I wanted to buy a thimble, and nothing but a thimble — that is, a small weather-beaten outbuilding or cluster of outbuildings which I would transform into something fascinating on a doll-size scale. Afterward, when to my surprise I had bought a large and very real house on a grand scale, again to my surprise I discovered that I had also bought a thimble, without even knowing it. For, along with my house, land, brick path, fanlight, willows, and historical wreck, — along with all these magnificent incredible treasures, — a thimble had been thrown in free.

And a perfect thimble. It was no mere ramshackle old shed, but a solid, well-proportioned little building, containing one room with six windows and two doors. I was told by my neighbors that it had originally been a cream-house, later used as a henhouse, but for a long time it had not been used at all. Inside, when I first looked in, it was as uninviting as an ex-henhouse is likely to be. The half-open loft appeared to be stuffed with old boards and dust and cobwebs, but the dark beams were sound and the lower floor was firm and strong. After it had been thoroughly washed and scrubbed a good many times, I discovered that the floor of the thimble was particularly beautiful, made of very wide old boards, curiously rich in color, mottled and stained from use and age until they had become a deep purplish brown, blending into purplish gray and dark brown.

It became my close-fitting, protecting shell which held only me alone during the hours I worked at writing every day. I was the little soft, amorphous, silent one who lived inside it, like a snail, and almost grew to be a part of it during those hours. When I was writing, I tended to become my original shell-less impressionable, unguarded self, the unworldly child of God who exists inside of every person, more or less imprisoned, and it was therefore necessary to acquire a shell, such as my thimble, for protection during those hours when one took off the protection of the outer self.

When I was in my thimble, and in this impressionable state, I used to be aware of other living but non-human inhabitants who shared my shell with me. They were silent as I was, or their voices were too small to hear. Against those deep purplish boards one morning I watched in shocked horror the convulsions of a chalk-white butterfly being carefully strangled by a spider, after it had flown into the web and caught its wings. I watched the spider clasp the butterfly until it shook in the orgasm of death, and its wings drooped, and it did not move again. Then the spider turned it over and over on his thread until it had ceased to have any resemblance to a butterfly and was only a narrow little bundle hanging in the web.

A hummingbird darted in one day and flew up into the peaked roof, high above the windows and the open door by which he had come in. He flew back and forth, and back and forth, in what appeared to be a frenzy of terror. I opened every window and both doors, hoping to show him that he was free to go. He couldn’t seem to see what was so simple. Finally I left him, thinking that he might do better if he were alone. When I came back several hours later, he was gone. At last he had made the great discovery that what he had imagined was a prison was really open wide.

My thimble, I adored it ! I planted morning-glory vines that grew up on strings over the outside. Sometimes I used to feel and hear a brisk little wind suddenly seize the thimble in its clutch, and knock the vines against the outside walls; then the capricious little Castine wind would go away as suddenly as it had come and leave the thimble and me in our usual stillness.

(To be continued)