Nonfiction > Jacob A. Riis > Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen > XIII. At Home and at Play
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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen. 1904.
 
XIII. At Home and at Play
 
THE Sylph had weighed anchor and was standing out for the open, sped on her way by a small gale that blew out of a bank of black cloud in the southeast. The sailors looked often and hard over the rail at the gathering gloom, the white-caps in the Sound, and the scudding drift overhead, prophesying trouble. A West Indian cyclone that had destroyed the crops in Jamaica and strewn our coast with wrecks had been lost for two days. It looked very much as if the Sylph, carrying the President from Oyster Bay to New York, had found it. And, indeed, before we reached the forts that guard the approach to the city, a furious hurricane churned the waters of the Sound and of the clouds into a maddening whirl in which it seemed as if so small a ship could never live. A tug went down within hail; but only the sailors knew it. The passengers had been cleared from the deck, that the Sylph might be stripped of its awnings and every rag of canvas which might help throw it over if the worst happened. We went gladly enough, for the deck had ceased to be a comfortable or even a safe place,—all except the President, who had fallen out of the general conversation and into a corner by himself, with a book. A sailor confronted him with an open knife in his hand.   1
  “Mr. President,” he said, “orders are to cut away”; and without any more ado he slashed at the awning overhead, cutting its fastenings. The President woke up and retreated. Following him down into the cabin, I came upon Mrs. Roosevelt placidly winding yarn from the hands of the only other woman passenger. They were both as calm as though Government tugs were not chasing up the river as hard as they could go to the rescue of our boat, supposed to be in peril of shipwreck.   2
  But at the moment I am thinking of, the hurricane was as yet only a smart blow. We were steaming out past Centre Island, under the rugged shore where Sagamore Hill lay hid among the foliage. The President stood at the rail surveying the scenes he loves. Here he had played as a boy, and dreamed a boy’s dreams; here he had grown to manhood; here his children were growing up around him, happy and healthy boys and girls. We passed a sandy bluff sloping sheer into the Sound from under its crown of trees.   3
  “See,” he said, pointing to it. “Cooper’s Bluff! Three generations of Roosevelts have raced down its slope. We did, only yesterday. Good run, that!”   4
  And as the Sylph swept by I made out three lines of track, hugging each other close,—a man’s long, sturdy stride and the smaller feet of Archie and Kermit racing their father downhill. Half-way down they had slipped and slid, scooping up the sand in great furrows. I could almost hear their shouts and laughter ringing yet in the woods.   5
  Sagamore Hill is the family sanctuary, whither they come back in June with one long sigh of relief that their holiday is in sight, in which they may have one another. No longer to themselves, it is true. The President is not permitted to be alone even in his own home. But still they have days of seclusion, and nights,—that greatest night in the year, when the President goes camping with the boys. How much it all meant to him I never fully realized till last Election day, when I went with him home to vote. The sun shone so bright and warm, when he came out from among his old neighbors, who crowded around to shake hands, that a longing came over him for the old place, and we drove out to Sagamore Hill to catch a glimpse of it in its Indian-summer glory. Four dogs came bounding out with joyous barks and leaped upon him, and he caressed them and called them by name, each and every one, while they whined with delight,—“Sailor-boy” happiest of the lot, a big, clumsy, but loyal fellow, “of several good breeds,” said the President, whimsically. They followed him around as he went from tree to tree, and from shrub to shrub, visiting with each one, admiring the leaf of this and the bark of that, as if they were personal friends. And so they were; for he planted them all. Seeing him with them, I grasped the real meaning of the family motto, Qui plantavit curabit, that stands carved in the beam over the door looking north toward the hill with the cedars, where the soil is warm and full of white pebbles, and it is nice to lie in the grass when strawberries are ripe.   6
  Roses were blooming still, and heliotrope and sweet alyssum, in Mrs. Roosevelt’s garden, and down at the foot of the long lawn a wild vine crept caressingly over the stone that marks the resting-place of the children’s pets. “Faithful Friends” is hewn in its rough face, with the names of “Susie,” “Jessie,” and “Boz.” How many rabbits, rats, and guinea-pigs keep them company in their ghostly revels I shall not say. No one knows unless it be Kermit, who has his own ways and insists upon decent but secret burial as among the inalienable rights of defunct pets. It was his discovery, one day in the White House, that a rabbit belonging to Archie lay unburied in the garden a whole day after its demise, which brought about a court-martial in the nursery. Ted, the oldest brother, was Judge-Advocate-General, and his judgment was worthy of a Solomon.   7
  “It was Archie’s rabbit,” he said gravely, when all the evidence was in, “and it is Archie’s funeral. Let him have it in peace.”   8
  Poor “Susie”—ill named, for “she” was a he—came nearer to provoking irreverence in me, by making me laugh in church, than anything that has happened since I was a boy. I had come out on a Sunday, and finding the President’s carriage at the church, went in to join in the worship while waiting for him. “Susie” lay in the vestibule, and at sight of me manifested his approval by pounding the floor with his club tail until the sound of it reverberated through the building like rolling thunder. The door opened, and a pale young man came out to locate the source of the disturbance. Discovering it in “Susie’s” tail, he grabbed him by the hind legs and dragged him around so that the blows might fall on the soft door-mat. But “Susie,” pleased with the extra attention paid him, hammered harder than ever, and in his delight stretched himself so far that his tail still struck the hollow floor. I was convulsed with laughter, but never a smile crossed the countenance of the proper young man. He studied “Susie” thoughtfully, made a mental diagram of his case, then took a fresh hold and dragged him around, this time to a safe harbor, where he might wag as he would without breaking the Sabbath peace. I am glad I sat five seats behind Mr. Roosevelt during the rest of the service, and that he knew nothing of “Susie’s” doings; for if he had turned his head and given me as much as one look, I should have broken right out laughing and made a scandal.   9
  When we drove back to the village that November day I caught him looking back once or twice toward the house in its bower of crimson shrubs, and I saw that his heart was there. You would not wonder if you knew it. I never go away from Sagamore Hill without a feeling that if I lived there I would never leave it, and that nothing would tempt me to exchange it for the White House, with all it stands for. But then I am ten years older than Theodore Roosevelt; though it isn’t always the years that count. For I think if it came to a vote, the children would carry my proposition with a shout. Not that Sagamore Hill has anything to suggest a palace. Quite the contrary: it is a very modest home for the President of the United States. On a breezy hilltop overlooking field and forest and Sound, with the Connecticut shore on the northern horizon, its situation is altogether taking. The house is comfortable, filled with reminders of the stirring life its owner has led in camp and on the hunting-trail, and with a broad piazza on the side that catches the cool winds of summer. But it is homelike rather than imposing. It is the people themselves who put the stamp upon it,—the life they live there together.   10
  Truly, together. The President is boy with his boys there. He puts off the cares of state and takes a hand in their games; and if they lagged before, they do not lag then. It is he who sets Josiah, the badger, free, and bids all hands skip, and skip lively; for Josiah’s one conscious aim, when out of his cage, appears to be to nip a leg,—any leg, even a Presidential leg, within reach,—and he makes for them all successively in his funny, preoccupied way. Josiah, then a very small baby badger, was heaved on board the Presidential train out in Kansas last year, by a little girl who shouted his name after the train, and was brought up on a nursing-bottle till he cut his teeth. Since then he has been quite able to shift for himself. At present he looks more like a small, flat mattress, with a leg under each corner, than anything else. That is the President’s description of him, and it is a very good one. I wish I could have shown you him one morning last summer when, having vainly chased the President and all the children, he laid siege to Archie in his hammock. Archie was barelegged and prudently stayed where he was, but the hammock hung within a few inches of the grass. Josiah promptly made out a strategic advantage there, and went for the lowest point of it with snapping jaws. Archie’s efforts to shift continuously his center of gravity while watching his chance to grab the badger by its defenseless back, was one of the funniest performances I ever saw. Josiah lost in the end.   11
  The President himself teaches his boys how to shoot; he swims with them in the cove and goes with them on long horseback rides, starting sometimes before sunrise. On fine days, as often as he can get away, luncheon is packed in the row-boat and he takes the whole family rowing to some distant point on the shore, which even the secret service men have not discovered, and there they spend the day, the President pulling the oars going and coming. Or else he takes Mrs. Roosevelt alone on a little jaunt, and these two, over whose honeymoon the years have no dominion, have a day to themselves, from which he returns to wrestle with powers and principalities and postmasters with twice the grip he had before; for she is truly his helpmeet and as wise as she is gentle and good.   12
  When he wants to be alone, he dons a flannel shirt, shoulders an ax, and betakes himself to some secluded spot in the woods where there are trees to fell. Then the sounds that echo through the forest glade tell sometimes, unless I greatly mistake, of other things than lifeless logs that are being smitten,—postmasters let us say. I remember the story of Lincoln, whom one of the foreign ambassadors found pacing the White House garden in evident distress, at a time when Lee was having his own way with the Union armies; whereat the ambassador expressed his regret that the news from the field so distressed the President.   13
  “From the field?” said Mr. Lincoln. “If that were all! No, it is that wretched postmastership of Brownsville that makes life a burden.”   14
  I have met Mr. Roosevelt coming in with his ax, and with a look that told of obstinate knots smashed—yes, I think they were smashed. I fancy tougher things than postmasters would have a hard time resisting the swing of that strong and righteous arm bound on hewing its way; wolves howling in the woods would n’t stay it, I know,—not for a minute.   15
  The great day is when he goes camping with the boys. The Sagamore Hill boys and their cousins whose summer homes are near plan it for months ahead. A secluded spot alongshore is chosen, with good water and a nice sand beach handy, and the expedition sets out with due secrecy, the White House guardsmen being left behind to checkmate the reporters and the camera fiends. Mr. Roosevelt is sailing-master and chief of the jolly band. Along in the afternoon they reach their hiding-place; then bait and fishing-poles are got ready—for they are real campers-out, not make-believes, and though they have grub on board, fish they must. When they have caught enough, the boys bring wood and build a fire. The President rolls up his sleeves and turns cook.   16
  “Um-m!” says Archie; “you oughter taste my father’s beefsteak! He tumbles them all in together,—meat, onions, and potatoes,—but, um-m! it is good.”   17
  I warrant it is, and that they eat their fill! I have n’t forgotten the potatoes I roasted by the brook in the wood-lot when I was a boy. No such potatoes grow nowadays.   18
  Afterward, they sit around the fire, wrapped in blankets, and tell bear-stories and ghost-stories, while the children steal furtive glances at the shadows closing in upon the circle of flickering light. They are not afraid, those children. The word is not in the Sagamore Hill dictionary. The spectacle of little Archie, hatless, guiding a stalwart Rough-Rider through the twilight woods, telling him to follow his white head and not be afraid of bogies,—they won’t hurt him,—is a joy to me forever. But when owls are hooting in the dark woods I like to hug the fire myself. It feels twice as good then.   19
  When the stars shine out in the sky overhead, they stretch themselves with their feet to the fire, roll up in their blankets, and sleep the untroubled sleep of the woods. The sun, peeping over the trees, finds them sporting in the cool, salt water; and long before the day begins for the world of visitors they are back home, a happy, roistering crew.   20
  The Roosevelts have found (if they have not always had it; certainly the President’s father did) the secret that binds families together with bonds which nothing can break: they are children with their boys and girls. How simple a secret, yet how many of us have lost it! I did not even know I was one of them, or what it was that had come between me and my little lad—the one who figured out after hours of deep study, when our second grandchild was born, that now he was “two uncles”—until one bright day last summer when I went fishing with him. I wanted to know where he went when he disappeared for whole days at a time; and when I volunteered to dig the bait by a new method that made the worms come up of themselves to locate a kind of earthquake I was causing, he took me by many secret paths to a pond hidden deep in the woods a mile away, which was his preserve. There we sat solemnly angling for shiners an inch long, with bent pins on lines of thread, and were nearly eaten up by mosquitoes. But to him it was lovely, and so it was to me, for it gave me back my boy. That evening, on the way home, his boyish hand stole into mine with a new confidence. We were chums now, and all was well.   21
  When they were little, the Roosevelt boys and girls went to the Cove school, which is the public school of the district, where the children of the gardener and the groom go, as well as those of their employers if they live there in the school season. Now, in Washington, the Roosevelts follow the same plan. The public school first, as far as it will carry the children to advantage, thereafter the further training for college. It is the thoroughly sound and sensible way in which they do all things in the Sagamore Hill family. So only can we get a grip on the real life we all have to live in a democracy of which, when all is said and done, the public school is the main prop. So, and in no other way, can we hold the school to account, and so do we fight from the very start the class spirit that is the arch enemy of the republic. If it could be done that way, I would have it ordered by law that every American child, be its parents rich or poor, should go certain years to public school. Only it cannot be done that way, but must be left to the citizens’ common sense that in the end has to be counted with everywhere.   22
  All real children are democrats if left to their natural bent, and the Roosevelt children are real children. At Groton I met Ted, the oldest, with his arm in a sling, a token from the football game and also from a scrap he had had with another lad who called him “the first boy in the land” and got a good drubbing for it. “I wish,” said Ted to me in deep disgust, “that my father would soon be done holding office. I am sick and tired of it.”   23
  It was not long after that that Ted fell ill with pneumonia, and his brother Archie sent him his painfully scrawled message of sympathy: “I hop you are beter.” His father keeps it, I know, in that sacred place in his heart where lie treasured the memories of letters in childish scrawl that brought home even to the trenches before Santiago, with the shrapnel cracking overhead.   24
  There are other lessons than spelling and grammar to be learned in Washington,—lessons of democracy, too, in their way. I have heard of the policeman of the White House Squad who was discharged for cause, and appealed to the little lad who answers roll-call with the police on holidays and salutes the sergeant as gravely as the men in blue and brass. Archie heard him out. Appeal to his father direct was cut off—the policeman knew why. But Senator Lodge, who is next friend of the President and is supposed to have a “pull,” lives in Massachusetts Avenue, opposite Archie’s school. That was it.   25
  “You come around,” were Archie’s directions to his friend, “to the Force School tomorrow, and we will see what Lodge can do about it.”   26
  What “Lodge did” I don’t know. I know it would have been hard for me to resist.   27
  It was the privilege of Mr. Roosevelt, when he was nearer home, to give the children at the Cove school their Christmas gifts, and the memory of those occasions is very lively in Oyster Bay. Mr. Roosevelt made a good Santa Claus, never better than when he was just home from the war, with San Juan hill for a background. That time he nearly took the boys’ breath away. Nowadays some one else has to take his place; the gifts come, as in the past, and the little “coves” are made happy. But the President comes into their lives only twice or three times a year—at Christmas and when he comes home for his vacation; perhaps on the Fourth of July. Mrs. Roosevelt is part of it all the time, and a very lovely because a loving part of life in the little village. When I hear of her going about among its people, their friend and neighbor in the true sense, I think of her husband’s father, the elder Theodore, who systematically took one day out of six for personal visitation among his poor friends; and how near they, both he and she, have come to the mark which the rest of us go all around and miss with such prodigious toil and trouble. Neighborliness,—that covers the ground. It is all that is needed.   28
  They have a sewing-circle in Oyster Bay, the St. Hilda chapter of the Society of Christ Church, which the Roosevelts attend; and of its twenty-odd members, embracing the wives of the harness-maker, the conductor, the oysterman,—the townspeople whom she has known all her married life,—there is no more faithful attendant at the Thursday-afternoon meetings than Mrs. Roosevelt. She brings her own thimble and cotton, and hems and sews with the rest of them the little garments of outing-flannel or unbleached muslin that are worn by the child cripples in the House of St. Giles, Brooklyn, the while she gossips with them and tells all about the fine doings in Washington. I saw not long ago in a newspaper that some thoughtless woman who had demanded of Mrs. Roosevelt a gift for a church fair, and had received a handkerchief hemmed by herself, had sent it back with the message that something better was wanted. I hope this which I am writing here will come under her eye and make her sorry for what she did. At that very time the President’s wife, with six children whose bringing up she supervises herself, and with all the social burdens of the mistress of the White House upon her shoulders, was patiently cutting and sewing a half-dozen nightgowns for the little tortured limbs of her crippled friends, and doing it all herself for love’s sake. She had brought them with her from Oyster Bay and finished them in the White House, where, I suppose, the church-fair woman thought she was being amused to keep from perishing of ennui.   29
  They recall in that sewing-circle the days of the war, when Mrs. Roosevelt, walking down from the hill every Thursday to their meeting, and never betraying by word or look the care that gnawed at her heart, grew thin and pale as the days went by with news of fighting and her husband in the thick of it; till on the day of San Juan hill the rector’s wife caught her impetuously into her embrace before them all, and told her that Colonel Roosevelt was a hero, without doubt, “but you are three.”   30
  And they tell, while they wipe a tear away with the apron corner, of the consumptive girl lying in her bed longing for the bright world which she would never see, to whom the then Vice-President’s wife brought back from the inauguration ball her dance-card and her bouquet, and all the little trinkets she could gather for her in Washington, to make her heart glad. No wonder they think her a saint. There are those in Washington, in need and in sorrow, I am told, who would think so, too, did they know the whence of the helping hand that comes just in time. It was so in Albany, I know. No one ever appealed to the Governor’s wife without having his case intelligently and sympathetically inquired into, so that she might know exactly how to help. Mrs. Roosevelt does not believe in wasting anything, least of all sweet charity. With her husband she wisely maintains that the poorest service one can render his neighbor is to carry him when he ought to walk.   31
  As for the St. Hilda circle, its measure was full last summer when Mrs. Roosevelt took it out in a body on the Sylph to the naval review in the Sound, and the great ships gave them the Presidential salute,—or the Sylph, anyway, which was the same thing. Were they not on board, its honored guests?   32
  The same simple way of living that has always been theirs at home, they carried with them to the White House. I do not know how other Presidents lived, for I was never there before, but I imagine no one ever led a more plain and wholesome life than the Roosevelts do. I cannot think that there was ever a family there that had so good a time. The children are still the mother’s chief care. They have their hour that is for them only, when she reads to them or tells them stories in her room, and at all other hours they are privileged to intrude except when, on Tuesday, their mother entertains the cabinet ladies in the library. She is never too busy to listen to their little stories of childish pleasure and trouble, and they bring to her everything, from the first dandelion Quentin found in the White Lot to the latest prank of Algonquin, the calico pony that was smuggled up in the elevator to Archie when he was sick with the measles. Algonquin is about the size of a big Newfoundland dog, but twice as lively with his heels. That was a prank of the stable-boy, aided and abetted, I imagine, by the doorkeeper, who had been a boy himself, and to whom the swiftly flashing legs of Archie in the corridors of the old building are like spring come again. They all love him; no one can help it.   33
  But I must not be tempted to write about the children, since then there would be no end, and this is a story of their father.   34
  I might even be led to betray the secret of the morning battles with pillows when the children, in stealthy, night-robed array, ambush their father and compel him to ignominious surrender if they catch him “down.” That is the rule of the game. I remember the morning when they came swarming down about him, rejoicing in their victory, and his sober counsel to them to go slow thenceforth, for Rose, their maid, whom they brought with them from Oyster Bay, and whom wild horses could n’t drag away from the Roosevelts, had protested that they mussed the beds too much. I have read of President Jackson making an isolated ward of the White House, and himself nursing a faithful attendant who was stricken with the smallpox, when his fellow-servants had run away; and of Lincoln laughingly accepting General Grant’s refusal of the dinner Mrs. Lincoln had planned in his honor, because he had “had enough of the show business.” The Colonel of the Rough-Riders bowing obediently before the law of the household, and retreating before Rose where she was rightfully in command, belongs with them in my gallery of heroes; and not a bit less hero does he seem to me, but more.   35
  The White House in its new shape—or, rather, as restored to the plan that was in the minds of the builders—is in its simple dignity as beautiful a mansion as any land has to show, altogether a fitting residence for the President of the American Republic. The change is apparent to the casual visitor as soon as he enters the great hall, where the noble white pillars have been set free, as it were, from their hideously incongruous environment of stained glass and partition, and stand out in all their massive beauty. Really, the hall is as handsome a place as I have ever seen. Upstairs, where the public does not come, a wide corridor, I should think quite twenty feet, that is in itself a cozy living-room, with its prevailing colors dark green and gray, runs the whole length of the building from east to west, and upon it open the family rooms and the guest-rooms. The great hall makes a splendid ball-ground, as I know from experience, for I joined Ethel and Archie in a game there, which they would have won by about 99 to 0, I should say, if there had been any score, which there was n’t. At the east end of the hall is the President’s den, where the lamp burns late into the small hours many a night when the world sleeps without. There he keeps the swords and the sticks with which he takes vigorous exercise when he cannot ride. The woodman’s ax he leaves behind at Oyster Bay.   36
  The day begins at exactly 8:30 at the White House. The President himself pours the coffee at breakfast. It is one of his privileges, and he looks fine as host. I can almost hear my woman reader say, “What do they eat at a White House breakfast?” Oatmeal, eggs and bacon, coffee and rolls—there is one morning’s menu. I don’t think they would object to my telling, and I like to think that in thousands of homes all over our land they are sharing the President’s breakfast, as it were. It brings us all so much nearer together, and that is where we belong. That was why I told of the children’s play. And if there is any who thinks that his sporting with the little ones when it is the hour of play makes him any less fitted for the work he has to do for all of us,—why, he never made a bigger mistake. Ask the politicians and the place-seekers who come to see him in the early hours of the afternoon, and hear what they think of it.   37
  From breakfast to luncheon the President is in his office, seeing the people who come from everywhere to shake hands, or with messages for the Chief Magistrate.   38
  Along in the afternoon the horses are brought up and the President goes riding with Mrs. Roosevelt or alone. Once I heard him tempt Secretary Root to go, and the Secretary agreed if he would guarantee that Wyoming, the horse he offered him, would not kneel. He was averse to foreign customs, he said.   39
  “Yes,” laughed the President, “you are a good American citizen, and home ways are good enough for you.”   40
  I have a ride on Wyoming coming to me, and I am glad. I was cheated out of it the last time, because Washington had so tired me out that the President would not take me. And Wyoming can kneel if he wants to. I think I would let him jump a fence with me where his master led. I guess I know how his Rough-Riders felt.   41
  That was the only time Washington tired me out. I had come to help tackle its slums, for it has them, more’s the pity. Ordinarily it is one of my holiday cities: I have three, Washington, Boston, and Springfield, Massachusetts. As to Boston and Springfield, I suppose it is just because I like them. But Washington is a holiday city to me because he is there. When he was in Albany that was one. To Washington I take my wife when we want to be young again, and we go and sit in the theater and weep over the miseries of the lovers, and rejoice with them when it all comes right in the end. There should be a law to make all lovers happy in the end, and to slay all the villains, at least in the national capital. And then, nowadays, we go to the White House, and that is the best of all. I shall never forget the Christmas before last, when I told the President and Mrs. Roosevelt at breakfast of my old mother who was sick in Denmark and longing for her boy, and my hostess’s gentle voice as she said, “Theodore, let us cable over our love to her.” And they did. Before that winter day was at an end (and the twilight shadows were stealing over the old town by the bleak North Sea even while we breakfasted in Washington) the telegraph messenger, in a state of bewilderment,—I dare say he has not got over it yet,—brought mother this despatch:
       
“THE WHITE HOUSE, Dec. 20, 1902.
“MRS. RIIS, RIBE, DENMARK:
“Your son is breakfasting with us. We send you our loving sympathy.
“THEODORE AND EDITH ROOSEVELT.”
   42
  Where is there a mother who would not get up out of a sick-bed when she received a message like that, even though at first she would not believe it was true? And where is the son who would not cherish the deed and the doer forever in his heart of hearts? But it is the doing of that sort of thing that is their dear delight, those two; and that is why I am writing about them here, for I would like every one to know them just as they are. Here is a friend ’way out in Kansas, whose letter came this minute, writing, “the President who walks through your pages is a very heroic and kingly figure, a very Arthur among his knights at the round table.” Truly the President is that. I think we can all begin to make it out, except those who are misled and those in whose natures there is nothing to which the kingly in true manhood appeals. But could I show you him as he really is, as husband, father, and friend, you would have to love him even if you disagreed with him about everything. You just could n’t help it any more than could one of the old-time employés in the White House who stopped beside me as I stood looking at him coming across from the Executive Office the other day.   43
  “There he is,” said he, and his face lighted up. “I don’t know what there is about that man to make me feel so. I have seen a good many Presidents come and go in this old house, and I liked them all. They were all good and kind; but I declare I feel as if I could go twice as far and twice as quick when he asks me to, and do it twice as gladly.”   44
  I guess he knows, too, how his Rough-Riders felt about their Colonel.   45

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