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Chapter 17


At Sewell's house the maid told Evans to walk up into the study, without seating him first in the reception-room, as if that were needless with so intimate a friend of the family. He found Sewell at his desk, and he began at once, without the forms of greeting:

"If you don't like that other subject, I've got a new one for you, and you could write a sermon on it that would make talk."

"You look at it from the newspaper point of view," returned Sewell, in the same humour. "I'm not an 'enterprise,' and I don't want to make talk in your sense. I don't know that I want to make talk at all; I should prefer to make thought, to make feeling."

"Well," said the editor, "this would do all three."

"Would you come to hear me, if I wrote the sermon?"

"Ah, that's asking a good deal."

"Why don't you develop your idea in an article? You're always bragging that you preach to a larger congregation than I."

"I propose to let you preach to my congregation too, if you'll write this sermon. I've talked to you before about reporting your sermons in Saturday Afternoon. They would be a feature; and if we could open with this one, and have a good 'incisive' editorial on it, disputing some of your positions, and treating certain others with a little satire, at the same time maintaining a very respectful attitude towards you on the whole, and calling attention to the fact that there was a strong and increasing interest in your 'utterances,' which we were the first to recognise,—it would be a card. We might agree beforehand on the points the editorial was to touch, and so make one hand wash another. See?"

"I see that journalism has eaten into your soul. What is your subject?"

"Well, in general terms, and in a single word, Complicity. Don't you think that would be rather taking? 'Mr. Sewell, in his striking sermon on Complicity,' and so forth. It would be a great hit, and it would stand a chance of sticking, like Emerson's 'Compensation.'"

"Delightful! The most amusing part is that you've really a grain of business in your bushel of chaff." Sewell wheeled about in his swivel-chair, and sat facing his guest, deeply sunken in the low easy seat he always took. "When did this famous idea occur to you?" he pursued, swinging his glasses by their cord.

"About three weeks ago, at the theatre. There was one of those pieces on that make you despair of the stage, and ashamed of writing a play even to be rejected by it—a farrago of indecently amusing innuendoes and laughably vile situations, such as, if they were put into a book, would prevent its being sent through the mail. The theatre apparently can still be as filthy in suggestion as it was at the Restoration, and not shock its audiences. There were all sorts of people there that night: young girls who had come with young men for an evening's polite amusement; families; middle-aged husbands and wives; respectable-looking single women; and average bachelors. I don't think the ordinary theatrical audience is of a high grade intellectually; it's third or fourth rate; but morally it seems quite as good as other public assemblages. All the people were nicely dressed, and they sat there before that nasty mess—it was an English comedy where all the jokes turn upon the belief of the characters that their wives and husbands are the parents of illegitimate offspring—and listened with as smooth self- satisfaction as if they were not responsible for it. But all at once it occurred to me that they were responsible, every one of them—as responsible as the players, as the author himself."

"Did you come out of the theatre at that point?" asked Sewell.

"Oh, I was responsible too; but I seemed to be the only one ashamed of my share in the business."

"If you were the only one conscious of it, your merit wasn't very great," suggested the minister.

"Well, I should like the others to be conscious of it too. That's why I want you to preach my sermon. I want you to tell your people and my people that the one who buys sin or shame, or corruption of any sort, is as guilty as the one who sells it."

"It isn't a new theory," said Sewell, still refusing to give up his ironical tone. "It was discovered some time ago that this was so before God."

"Well, I've just discovered that it ought to be so before man," said

"Still you're not the first," said Sewell.

"Yes," said the editor, "I think I am, from my peculiar standpoint. The other day a friend of mine—an upright, just, worthy man, no one more so—was telling me of a shocking instance of our national corruption. He had just got home from Europe, and he had brought a lot of dutiable things, that a customs inspector passed for a trifling sum. That was all very well, but the inspector afterwards came round with a confidential claim for a hundred dollars, and the figures to show that the legal duties would have been eight or ten times as much. My friend was glad to pay the hundred dollars; but he defied me to name any country in Europe where such a piece of official rascality was possible. He said it made him ashamed of America!" Evans leaned his head back against his chair and laughed.

"Yes," said Sewell with a sigh, and no longer feigning lightness.
"That's awful."

"Well, now," said Evans, "don't you think it your duty to help people realise that they can't regard such transactions de haut en bas, if they happen to have taken part in them? I have heard of the shameful condition of things down in Maine, where I'm told the French Canadians who've come in regularly expect to sell their votes to the highest bidder at every election. Since my new system of ethics occurred to me, I've fancied that there must have always been a shameful state of things there, if Americans could grow up in the willingness to buy votes. I want to have people recognise that there is no superiority for them in such an affair; that there's nothing but inferiority; that the man who has the money and the wit to corrupt is a far baser rascal than the man who has the ignorance and the poverty to be corrupted. I would make this principle seek out every weak spot, every sore spot in the whole social constitution. I'm sick to death of the frauds that we practise upon ourselves in order to be able to injure others. Just consider the infernal ease of mind in which men remain concerning men's share in the social evil——"

"Ah, my dear friend, you can't expect me to consider that in my pulpit!" cried the minister.

"No; I couldn't consider it in my paper. I suppose we must leave that where it is, unless we can affect it by analogy, and show that there is infamy for both parties to any sin committed in common. You must select your instances in other directions, but you can find plenty of them—enough and to spare. It would give the series a tremendous send-off," said Evans, relapsing into his habitual tone, "if you would tackle this subject in your first sermon for publication. There would be money in it. The thing would make a success in the paper, and you could get somebody to reprint it in pamphlet form. Come, what do you say?"

"I should say that you had just been doing something you were ashamed of," answered Sewell. "People don't have these tremendous moral awakenings for nothing."

"And you don't think my present state of mind is a gradual outgrowth of my first consciousness of the common responsibility of actors and audience in the representation of a shameless comedy?"

"No, I shouldn't think it was," said the minister securely.

"Well you're right." Evans twisted himself about in his chair, and hung his legs over one of the arms.

"The real reason why I wish you to preach this sermon is because I have just been offering a fee to the head-waiter at our hotel."

"And you feel degraded with him by his acceptance? For it is a degradation."

"No, that's the strangest thing about it. I have a monopoly of the degradation, for he didn't take my dollar."

"Ah, then a sermon won't help you! Why wouldn't he take it?"

"He said he didn't know as he wanted any money he hadn't earned," said Evans, with a touch of mimicry.

The minister started up from his lounging attitude. "Is his name—
Barker?" he asked, with unerring prescience.

"Yes," said Evans with a little surprise. "Do you know him?"

"Yes," returned the minister, falling back in his chair helplessly, not luxuriously. "So well that I knew it was he almost as soon as you came into the room to-night."

"What harm have you been doing him?" demanded the editor, in parody of the minister's acuteness in guessing the guilty operation of his own mind.

"The greatest. I'm the cause of his being in Boston."

"This is very interesting," said Evans. "We are companions in crime—pals. It's a great honour. But what strikes me as being so interesting is that we appear to feel remorse for our misdeeds; and I was almost persuaded the other day by an observer of our species, that remorse had gone out, or rather had never existed, except in the fancy of innocent people; that real criminals like ourselves were afraid of being found out, but weren't in the least sorry. Perhaps, if we are sorry, it proves that we needn't be. Let's judge each other. I've told you what my sin against Barker is, and I know yours in general terms. It's a fearful thing to be the cause of a human soul's presence in Boston; but what did you do to bring it about? Who is Barker? Where did he come from? What was his previous condition of servitude? He puzzles me a good deal."

"Oh, I'll tell you," said Sewell; and he gave his personal chapter in Lemuel's history.

Evans interrupted him at one point. "And what became of the poem he brought down with him?"

"It was stolen out of his pocket, one night when he slept in the common."

"Ah, then he can't offer it to me! And he seems very far from writing any more. I can still keep his acquaintance. Go on."

Sewell told, in amusing detail, of the Wayfarer's Lodge, where he had found Barker after supposing he had gone home. Evans seemed more interested in the place than in the minister's meeting with Lemuel there, which Sewell fancied he had painted rather well, describing Lemuel's severity and his own anxiety.

"There!" said the editor. "There you have it—a practical illustration! Our civilisation has had to come to it!"

"Come to what?"


Sewell made an impatient gesture.

"Don't sacrifice the consideration of a great principle," cried Evans, "to the petty effect of a good story on an appreciative listener. I realise your predicament. But don't you see that in establishing and regulating a place like that the city of Boston has instinctively sanctioned my idea? You may say that it is aiding and abetting the tramp-nuisance by giving vagrants food and shelter, but other philosophers will contend that it is—blindly perhaps— fulfilling the destiny of the future State, which will at once employ and support all its citizens; that it is prophetically recognising my new principle of Complicity?"

"Your new principle!" cried Sewell. "You have merely given a new name to one of the oldest principles in the moral world."

"And that is a good deal to do, I can tell you," said Evans. "All the principles are pretty old now. But don't give way to an ignoble resentment of my interruption. Go on about Barker."

After some feints that there was nothing more important to tell, Sewell went on to the end; and when he had come to it, Evans shook his head. "It looks pretty black for you, but it's a beautifully perfect case of Complicity. What do you propose to do, now you've rediscovered him?"

"Oh, I don't know! I hope no more mischief. If I could only get him back on his farm!"

"Yes, I suppose that would be the best thing. But I dare say he wouldn't go back!"

"That's been my experience with him."

They talked this aspect of the case over more fully, and Evans said: "Well, I wouldn't go back to such a place myself after I'd once had a glimpse of Boston, but I suppose it's right to wish that Barker would. I hope his mother will come to visit him while he's in the hotel. I would give a good deal to see her. Fancy her coming down in her bloomers, and the poor fellow being ashamed of her? It would be a very good subject for a play. Does she wear a hat or a bonnet? What sort of head-gear goes with that 'sleek odalisque' style of dress? A turban, I suppose."

"Mrs. Barker," said the minister, unable to deny himself the fleeting comfort of the editor's humorous view of the situation, "is as far from a 'sleek odalisque' as any lady I've ever seen, in spite of her oriental costume. If I remember, her yashmak was not gathered at the ankles, but hung loose like occidental trousers; and the day we met she wore simply her own hair. There was not much of it on top, and she had it cut short in the neck. She was rather a terrible figure. Her having ever been married would have been inconceivable, except for her son."

"I should like to have seen her," said Evans, laughing back in his chair.

"She was worth seeing as a survival of the superficial fermentation of the period of our social history when it was believed that women could be like men if they chose, and ought to be if they ever meant to show their natural superiority. But she was not picturesque."

"The son's very handsome. I can see that the lady boarders think him so."

"Do you find him at all remarkable otherwise? What dismayed me more than his poetry even was that when he gave that up he seemed to have no particular direction."

"Oh, he reads a good deal, and pretty serious books; and he goes to hear all the sermons and lectures in town."

"I thought he came to mine only," sighed the minister, with, a retrospective suffering. "Well, what can be done for him now? I feel my complicity with Barker as poignantly as you could wish."

"Ah, you see how the principle applies everywhere!" cried the editor joyously. He added: "But I really think that for the present you can't do better than let Barker alone. He's getting on very well at Mrs. Harmon's, and although the conditions at the St. Albans are more transitory than most sublunary things, Barker appears to be a fixture. Our little system has begun to revolve round him unconsciously; he keeps us going."

"Well," said Sewell, consenting to be a little comforted. He was about to go more particularly into the facts; but Mrs. Sewell came in just then, and he obviously left the subject.

Evans did not sit down again after rising to greet her; and presently he said good night.

She turned to her husband: "What were you talking about when I came in?"

"When you came in?"

"Yes. You both had that look—I can always tell it—of having suddenly stopped."

"Oh!" said Sewell, pretending to arrange the things on his desk. "Evans had been suggesting the subject for a sermon." He paused a moment, and then he continued hardily, "And he'd been telling me about—Barker. He's turned up again."

"Of course!" said Mrs. Sewell. "What's happened to him now?"

"Nothing, apparently, but some repeated strokes of prosperity. He has become clerk, elevator-boy, and head-waiter at the St. Albans."

"And what are you going to do about him?"

"Evans advises me to do nothing."

"Well, that's sensible, at any rate," said Mrs. Sewell. "I really think you've done quite enough, David, and now he can be left to manage for himself, especially as he seems to be doing well."

"Oh, he's doing as well as I could hope, and better. But I'm not sure that I shouldn't have personally preferred a continued course of calamity for him. I shall never be quite at peace about him till I get him back on his farm at Willoughby Pastures."

"Well, that you will never do; and you may as well rest easy about it."

"I don't know as to never doing it," said Sewell. "All prosperity, especially the prosperity connected with Mrs. Harmon's hotel, is transitory; and I may succeed yet."

"Does everything go on there in the old way, does Mr. Evans say?" Mrs. Sewell did not refer to any former knowledge of the St. Albans, but to a remote acquaintance with the character and methods of Mrs. Harmon, with whom the Sewells had once boarded. She was then freshly widowed by the loss of her first husband, and had launched her earliest boarding-house on that sea of disaster, where she had buoyantly outridden every storm and had floated triumphantly on the top of every ingulfing wave. They recalled the difficult navigation of that primitive craft, in which each of the boarders had taken a hand at the helm, and their reminiscences of her financial embarrassments were mixed with those of the unfailing serenity that seemed not to know defeat, and with fond memories of her goodness of heart, and her ideal devotion in any case of sickness or trouble.

"I should think the prosperity of Mrs. Harmon would convince the most negative of agnostics that there was an overruling Providence, if nothing else did," said Sewell. "It's so defiant of all law, so delightfully independent of causation."

"Well, let Barker alone with her, then," said his wife, rising to leave him to the hours of late reading which she had never been able to break up.

William Dean Howells