S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
 January 18, 1947: 28-30

One day not long ago, when I was in Boston for a brief stay, a friend called me at my hotel and asked me if I would go with her that afternoon to have tea with Miss Eleonora Sears. I demurred. My friend misunderstood my hesitation and began to bolster her invitation with a host of facts about Miss Sears: she was the most spectacular daughter of a long line of Boston Searses, famous in her youth for feats of strength and skill and endurance; a debutante of the early nineteen-hundreds who had kept on going for years after she came out; one of the first well-known American girl athletes and, in a way, the first of the outdoor girls; ex-tennis champion, equestrienne, athlete at large, friend of man and beast—Boston at its briskest, Boston at its most emancipated. As my hesitation nevertheless continued, the encomiums came faster and finally gathered into an avalanche of satiric invective. It was high time for me to abandon this pose of shyness. Miss Sears was friendly and simple and nobody to be afraid of, and, in any case, my friend would be right over to fetch me.

Had she but known it, she did not have to tell me about Miss Sears. My hesitation had been due to amazement; I was stunned by this sudden and unexpected intrusion of the actual into the legendary. For I had suffered over Miss Eleonora. Because of my youthful preoccupation with her, I had endured the taunts of my companions when I was a boy in Worcester, Massachusetts. For many years, I was not only in love with Miss Sears but, as I shall later explain, I had made with her an identification of which she was unaware. Thus when my friend tossed this astonishing invitation into my lap, it was as startling to me as if I had been an art-struck youth asked casually to go to a tea dance with Venus de Milo or to drop in for lunch with Mona Lisa. I knew, of course, that Miss Sears still existed and that she was in all probability almost as active a lady as she had been when, in my adolescence, I had cut her pictures out of the Boston papers. I had known then that she existed, but I had not thought that it was in a world where one could go and see her. She might just as well have been living on Mars.

Actually, I owed Miss Sears for more than serving as the unwitting object of my affections. Through her, I got my first glimpse into the mysterious and rather frightening world that I sensed must be spinning outside the close confines of Providence Street, Worcester. The revelation came one summer morning when I was making my daily trudge to Lake Quinsigamond. It was an illumination, not, perhaps, as profound or disturbing or epochal as those described in the memoirs of the saints and prophets, but cozier.

Miss Sears first attracted me by wearing a derby hat. I had thought that this was a form of headgear reserved especially for men; my uncles, who were peddlers and small tradesmen, wore derbies. When I came upon a news picture of Miss Sears in hers, I saw at once that she did it with more chic. The photograph—from the Sunday-magazine section of the Boston Herald, I believe—also showed her getting on a horse. There was something about her that appealed to me so strongly that I cut the picture out and tucked it into the frame of the mirror over the bureau in my bedroom. This was a mistake. One of my best friends saw the picture when he dropped in the next morning to pick me up for our walk to Lake Quinsigamond. He was contemptuous; in his bedroom, he pointed out disdainfully, he had William McKinley.

In the summer, the lives of the boys of the Providence Street School centered around Lake Quinsigamond. This was a lovely lake—or so it seemed to us then—four miles long, dotted with islands, about four miles distant from the double-decker tenement houses of Providence Street. We went to sleep at night dreaming of the Lake and of the moment when we would arrive the next morning at what we called "the tank"—a swimming pool built at the edge of the water and presided over by a wizened deity in trunks named Jerry Daly. Non-swimmers and weak swimmers were confined to the tank. The great day was when Jerry considered you an able enough swimmer to be allowed to dive from the platform outside and swim in the lake itself. And the feat for which, as we grew older, we lived and labored was to swim from Jerry Daly's to an island about a mile and a half distant. The day I accomplished this, I felt an ecstasy of achievement I have not known since.

There was a trolley to the Lake, but for us boys from Providence Street the five-cent fare was prohibitive. Every day of our summer vacation, we would roll our bathing trunks into towels and walk to the Lake for a blissful hour or two with Jerry Daly, and then walk home again. There was a tradition among us that swimming in the rain had a special excitement, so storms did not deter us. We would walk down the steep decline of Providence Street—past the mercifully shut winter prison of the school, past the dingy small shops of Grafton Street, with their proprietors lounging skeptically in the doorways, waiting for customers—until we came to the old Union Station, with its tall clock tower, where we were sometimes held up for twenty minutes by the slow crawl of interminable freight trains. This station was very familiar to me, principally because, to satisfy an itch for travel, I had often boarded the incoming trains from Springfield or Boston and sat on the plush seats while the train stopped to take on Worcester passengers. I would get off at the last minute before departure, with the worldly air of one who has just completed a fatiguing journey. Beyond the station began the upgrade of Shrewsbury Street, which was almost as steep as Providence. It climbed into Belmont Street, and Belmont led to the Lake. We would settle down to the long climb like passengers settling down for a transcontinental tour, and pass the time by discussing technical questions about the breast stroke and the Australian crawl. On lower Shrewsbury lived the Italian colony, and the women were usually out on summer days, hanging up their washing. On the Fourth of July, the fireworks display furnished by this group of citizens was the most flamboyant in town. Almost at the end of the long trek, we would pass the State Insane Asylum. That was always a landmark we were glad to see ahead, for when we got to it, we knew the promised water was tantalizingly near. We would cross the street to get closer to the fence around the great enclosure of the Asylum, because in that way we could sometimes catch glimpses of the inmates, who would glower and scream at us or laugh obscenely, and this was both terrifying and diverting. Many years later, when I was at Harvard and taking a course in abnormal psychology, my class made a trip to inspect this very institution. I remember a horrid demonstration of a disease of immobility; a patient's arm, pushed up into the air by an attendant, remained fixed where the attendant put it and the sufferer's position would not change, although it was grotesquely uncomfortable, until the attendant moved the arm down again. I remember, too, that I looked away from this spectacle for a moment and realized suddenly that from here I could easily get to Jerry Daly's. But it was December, and we were summoned peremptorily to inspect some paretics.

For our mothers, the Lake was a terror and a menace, and it made the summer holidays hateful to them. There were occasional drownings, and scandals that were even darker events than sudden death. The Lake took you right through the various stages of adolescence; it was the focus of a mass libido. At first, your god was Jerry Daly. When you got a little older, it was Mr. Coburn, the proprietor of Coburn's Boat House, at whose establishment, for twenty-five cents an hour, you might rent a rowboat or a canoe. When we young stalwarts took to rowing, four or five of us would chip in to hire a boat for an hour. Canoeing was considered effeminate, and we made fun of the older boys who took girls out in canoes. But a day came when we did it ourselves, and from then on the reign of Jerry Daly receded. Graceful manipulation of the canoe became the ideal, rather than feats of endurance and strength in the water. One summer, there was a revolution, when we all abandoned ordinary paddling and took up the "Indian stroke." This meant that you never took your paddle out of the water but instead right-angled it swiftly at the end of each stroke and cut the water, as if with a blade, for the next push. Once we had mastered the stroke, we felt very swan-like.

The Providence Street mothers had a special hatred for canoeing. Canoes were volatile and dangerous. Jerry Daly used to boast that he had never lost a boy, and I'm sure he never did. But every once in a while the Worcester Gazette reported drownings from canoes, especially at night. For us boys, a yearning to paddle the Lake at night succeeded our earlier longing to swim in it in the daytime. But for our mothers, the physical hazard of canoeing was almost eclipsed by their sense of its threat to chastity. One day, the whole street buzzed with scandal. Because of an evening in a canoe, one of our best-known young ladies had hastily to announce her engagement to a young man far below her in the Providence Street social scale. (The outsider might have thought that all Providence Street was fairly homogeneous as far as class distinction went, but he would have been wrong. Socially, it was as stratified as a geologic formation.) There was sufficient reason that the statement "He took her canoeing" had a knowing overtone of the illicit.

It was, therefore, a tremulous moment when you handed your girl off Coburn's rather rickety dock and she settled herself against the cushions while you masterfully seized the paddle in the back seat and shoved off. Across the lake, the water mirrored resplendently the dazzling lights of White City, an amusement park with ferris wheel, chute-the-chutes, and penny peep shows. You paddled past the merry-go-round on the near side as it churned out the "Poet and Peasant Overture," and presently von Suppé's rhythms competed with those of the dance-hall orchestra just beyond, which was probably playing a popular tune of the time, a song extolling the delights of travel on "The Old Fall River Line," the lyric of which conveyed the impression that for general indulgence the Fall River boats were no more than enlarged canoes. By the time you went under the Old Aqueduct, the sounds of the merry-go-round and the dance band had become faint and, ahead, the Lake opened out into darkness, mystery, and that unknown danger of which the Providence Street mothers were afraid.

At the time of my involvement with Miss Sears, these hazards were still well ahead of me. After my friend had made fun of me for having Miss Sears' photograph in my bedroom, my affair with her went underground. I went on gathering photographs and clippings of my heroine, but in secret. I had photographs of Miss Sears getting on and off horses, sitting securely on them, and leaping fences. That there existed people who used horses merely for riding was in itself extraordinary, and it added greatly to the aura surrounding Miss Sears. Once, I am sure, she not only rode a horse but wore simultaneously a glittering silk hat of the kind we called "stovepipes." Stovepipes, as we knew them, were the hats rented by bridegrooms for public weddings in Horticultural Hall, on Front Street, an auditorium that was considered the last word for elegant Providence Street weddings. It had a highly polished floor, and before the ceremony we boys would skate madly about on it till we were stopped by our elders. An uncle of mine was married there, and I remember him in a long, rented frock coat and a stovepipe hat as he stood in position, enduring the protracted, rather sad service conducted in Hebrew.

One day, Miss Sears' life took on a new direction that brought her, in a moment of ecstatic amalgamation, close to me. She developed a new and unexpected talent, a potentiality of which she herself, perhaps, had only recently become aware. She had always ridden horses and played tennis and danced, but now she began to walk. The newspapers started to apply to her a strange, new word. She became what they reverently called a pedestrian. I carefully spelled the odd word out to myself and kept repeating it wonderingly on my walks to the Lake. I hadn't the faintest idea what it meant. I thought it must be the noun to describe some obscurely fashionable habit that could be familiar only to those who lived in the realms inhabited by Miss Sears. For a long time, I did not connect the word in the newspaper headlines and under the photographs with the activities described in the articles that accompanied them.

In these articles, I read with amazement that Miss Sears, when she wanted to go to New York from Boston, disdained the Merchants' Limited and simply walked. She thought nothing, it appeared, of strolling from Newport to Montreal. The records of these extended walks filled columns in the Boston papers, and I took an intense pride in her mileage. And then, one day, as I was passing the Insane Asylum, there happened in my mind one of those instantaneous collocations which, I suppose, in loftier spheres have by quick mutation advanced the frontiers of philosophy and science. When the sportswriters or social-column reporters said that Miss Sears was a pedestrian, they merely meant that she was a walker. Miss Sears and I were pedestrians together!

I began to multiply feverishly in my mind. Every day in summer, I walked eight miles—four miles to the Lake and four miles back. In two weeks, that made a hundred and twelve miles. That must he as far as from Boston to New York. Of course, Miss Sears did it all in a day or two, but after all, I consoled myself, she devoted her entire time to it. As soon as I discovered this community of interest between Miss Sears and myself, I no longer kept my infatuation for her a secret. I became quite brazen about her and flaunted our relationship. I carried my clippings in my pocket on the way to the Lake, showed them to the other boys, and compared my tallies with hers. At first, my companions were amused, and then scornful. One day, one of them taunted me. "Why don't you quit Worcester and walk to Boston and marry Miss Sears?" he asked.

"I don't intend to marry," I said with dignity, "but I think we can be friends."

So odd is the course of destiny that this ambition was actually realized, at least for a few hours, on the occasion that I met Miss Sears for the first and last time. For within an hour after my Boston friend rang me up, I found myself in Miss Sears' drawing room, and there she was coming toward me to greet me. Her pedestrianism, as she crossed the room, met all my expectations; it was still elastic and lively. She was slim, tweedy, and, although her hair was gray, the whole impression she conveyed was youthful. Her eyes were very blue and very clear. She said that she was glad to see me. I told her at once that during my childhood in Worcester I had been, like her, a pedestrian. Miss Sears mistook, somehow, a past avocation for a present one.

"What was your last walk?" she asked, without beating about the bush.

I had just come from the Pacific Coast. I don't know what made me say it, unless I thought it would make Miss Sears smile. "Los Angeles to San Francisco," I told her.

"I've done it." said Miss Sears crisply. "How long did it take you?"

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