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Chapter 2

II.

One day in the midst of this Sewell was called from his study to see some one who was waiting for him in the reception-room, but who sent in no name by the housemaid.

"I don't know as you remember me," the visitor said, rising awkwardly, as Sewell came forward with a smile of inquiry. "My name's Barker."

"Barker?" said the minister, with a cold thrill of instant recognition, but playing with a factitious uncertainty till he could catch his breath in the presence of the calamity. "Oh yes! How do you do?" he said; and then planting himself adventurously upon the commandment to love one's neighbour as one's-self, he added: "I'm very glad to see you!"

In token of his content, he gave Barker his hand and asked him to be seated.

The young man complied, and while Sewell waited for him to present himself in some shape that he could grapple with morally, he made an involuntary study of his personal appearance. That morning, before starting from home by the milk-train that left Willoughby Pastures at 4.5, Barker had given his Sunday boots a coat of blacking, which he had eked out with stove-polish, and he had put on his best pantaloons, which he had outgrown, and which, having been made very tight a season after tight pantaloons had gone out of fashion in Boston, caught on the tops of his boots and stuck there in spite of his efforts to kick them loose as he stood up, and his secret attempts to smooth them down when he had reseated himself. He wore a single-breasted coat of cheap broadcloth, fastened across his chest with a carnelian clasp-button of his father's, such as country youth wore thirty years ago, and a belated summer scarf of gingham, tied in a breadth of knot long since abandoned by polite society.

Sewell had never thought his wife's reception-room very splendidly appointed, but Barker must have been oppressed by it, for he sat in absolute silence after resuming his chair, and made no sign of intending to open the matter upon which he came. In the kindness of his heart Sewell could not refrain from helping him on.

"When did you come to Boston?" he asked with a cheeriness which he was far from feeling.

"This morning," said Barker briefly, but without the tremor in his voice which Sewell expected.

"You've never been here before, I suppose," suggested Sewell, with the vague intention of generalising or particularising the conversation, as the case might be.

Barker abruptly rejected the overture, whatever it was. "I don't know as you got a letter from me a spell back," he said.

"Yes, I did," confessed Sewell. "I did receive that letter," he repeated, "and I ought to have answered it long ago. But the fact is—" He corrected himself when it came to his saying this, and said, "I mean that I put it by, intending to answer it when I could do so in the proper way, until, I'm very sorry to say, I forgot it altogether. Yes, I forgot it, and I certainly ask your pardon for my neglect. But I can't say that as it's turned out I altogether regret it. I can talk with you a great deal better than I could write to you in regard to your"—Sewell hesitated between the words poems and verses, and finally said—"work. I have blamed myself a great deal," he continued, wincing under the hurt which he felt that he must be inflicting on the young man as well as himself, "for not being more frank with you when I saw you at home in September. I hope your mother is well?"

"She's middling," said Barker, "but my married sister that came to live with us since you was there has had a good deal of sickness in her family. Her husband's laid up with the rheumatism most of the time."

"Oh!" murmured Sewell sympathetically. "Well! I ought to have told you at that time that I could not see much hope of your doing acceptable work in a literary way; and if I had supposed that you ever expected to exercise your faculty of versifying to any serious purpose,—for anything but your own pleasure and entertainment,—I should certainly have done so. And I tell you now that the specimens of the long poem you have sent me give me even less reason to encourage you than the things you read me at home."

Sewell expected the audible crash of Barker's air-castles to break the silence which the young man suffered to follow upon these words; but nothing of the kind happened, and for all that he could see, Barker remained wholly unaffected by what he had said. It nettled Sewell a little to see him apparently so besotted in his own conceit, and he added: "But I think I had better not ask you to rely altogether upon my opinion in the matter, and I will go with you to a publisher, and you can get a professional judgment. Excuse me a moment."

He left the room and went slowly upstairs to his wife. It appeared to him a very short journey to the third story, where he knew she was decking the guest-chamber for the visit of a friend whom they expected that evening. He imagined himself saying to her when his trial was well over that he did not see why she complained of those stairs; that he thought they were nothing at all. But this sense of the absurdity of the situation which played upon the surface of his distress flickered and fled at sight of his wife bustling cheerfully about, and he was tempted to go down and get Barker out of the house, and out of Boston if possible, without letting her know anything of his presence.

"Well?" said Mrs. Sewell, meeting his face of perplexity with a penetrating glance. "What is it, David?"

"Nothing. That is—everything! Lemuel Barker is here!"

"Lemuel Barker? Who is Lemuel Barker?" She stood with the pillow- sham in her hand which she was just about to fasten on the pillow, and Sewell involuntarily took note of the fashion in which it was ironed.

"Why, surely you remember! That simpleton at Willoughby Pastures." If his wife had dropped the pillow-sham, and sunk into a chair beside the bed, fixing him with eyes of speechless reproach; if she had done anything dramatic, or said anything tragic, no matter how unjust or exaggerated, Sewell could have borne it; but she only went on tying the sham on the pillow, without a word. "The fact is, he wrote to me some weeks ago, and sent me some specimens of a long poem."

"Just before you preached that sermon on the tender mercies of the wicked?"

"Yes," faltered Sewell. "I had been waiting to show you the letter."

"You waited a good while, David."

"I know—I know," said Sewell miserably. "I was waiting—waiting—" He stopped, and then added with a burst, "I was waiting till I could put it to you in some favourable light."

"I'm glad you're honest about it at last, my dear!"

"Yes. And while I was waiting I forgot Barker's letter altogether. I put it away somewhere—I can't recollect just where, at the moment. But that makes no difference; he's here with the whole poem in his pocket, now." Sewell gained a little courage from his wife's forbearance; she knew that she could trust him in all great matters, and perhaps she thought that for this little sin she would not add to his punishment. "And what I propose to do is to make a complete thing of it, this time. Of course," he went on convicting himself, "I see that I shall inflict twice the pain that I should have done if I had spoken frankly to him at first; and of course there will be the added disappointment, and the expense of his coming to Boston. But," he added brightly, "we can save him any expense while he's here, and perhaps I can contrive to get him to go home this afternoon."

"He wouldn't let you pay for his dinner out of the house anywhere," said Mrs. Sewell. "You must ask him to dinner here."

"Well," said Sewell, with resignation; and suspecting that his wife was too much piqued or hurt by his former concealment to ask what he now meant to do about Barker, he added: "I'm going to take him round to a publisher and let him convince himself that there's no hope for him in a literary way."

"David!" cried his wife; and now she left off adjusting the shams, and erecting herself looked at him across the bed, "You don't intend to do anything so cruel."

"Cruel?"

"Yes! Why should you go and waste any publisher's time by getting him to look at such rubbish? Why should you expose the poor fellow to the mortification of a perfectly needless refusal? Do you want to shirk the responsibility—to put it on some one else?"

"No; you know I don't."

"Well, then, tell him yourself that it won't do."

"I have told him."

"What does he say?"

"He doesn't say anything. I can't make out whether he believes me or not."

"Very well, then; you've done your duty, at any rate." Mrs. Sewell could not forbear saying also, "If you'd done it at first, David, there wouldn't have been any of this trouble."

"That's true," owned her husband, so very humbly that her heart smote her.

"Well, go down and tell him he must stay to dinner, and then try to get rid of him the best way you can. Your time is really too precious, David, to be wasted in this way. You must get rid of him, somehow."

Sewell went back to his guest in the reception-room, who seemed to have remained as immovably in his chair as if he had been a sitting statue of himself. He did not move when Sewell entered.

"On second thoughts," said the minister, "I believe I will not ask you to go to a publisher with me, as I had intended; it would expose you to unnecessary mortification, and it would be, from my point of view, an unjustifiable intrusion upon very busy people. I must ask you to take my word for it that no publisher would bring out your poem, and it never would pay you a cent if he did." The boy remained silent as before, and Sewell had no means of knowing whether it was from silent conviction or from mulish obstinacy. "Mrs. Sewell will be down presently. She wished me to ask you to stay to dinner. We have an early dinner, and there will be time enough after that for you to look about the city."

"I shouldn't like to put you out," said Barker.

"Oh, not at all," returned Sewell, grateful for this sign of animation, and not exigent of a more formal acceptance of his invitation. "You know," he said, "that literature is a trade, like every other vocation, and that you must serve an apprenticeship if you expect to excel. But first of all you must have some natural aptitude for the business you undertake. You understand?" asked Sewell; for he had begun to doubt whether Barker understood anything. He seemed so much more stupid than he had at home; his faculties were apparently sealed up, and he had lost all the personal picturesqueness which he had when he came in out of the barn, at his mother's call, to receive Sewell.

"Yes," said the boy.

"I don't mean," continued Sewell, "that I wouldn't have you continue to make verses whenever you have the leisure for it. I think, on the contrary, that it will give a grace to your life which it might otherwise lack. We are all in daily danger of being barbarised by the sordid details of life; the constantly recurring little duties which must be done, but which we must not allow to become the whole of life." Sewell was so much pleased with this thought, when it had taken form in words, that he made a mental note of it for future use. "We must put a border of pinks around the potato-patch, as Emerson would say, or else the potato-patch is no better than a field of thistles." Perhaps because the logic of this figure rang a little false, Sewell hastened to add: "But there are many ways in which we can prevent the encroachment of those little duties without being tempted to neglect them, which would be still worse. I have thought a good deal about the condition of our young men in the country, and I have sympathised with them in what seems their want of opportunity, their lack of room for expansion. I have often wished that I could do something for them—help them in their doubts and misgivings, and perhaps find some way out of the trouble for them. I regret this tendency to the cities of the young men from the country. I am sure that if we could give them some sort of social and intellectual life at home, they would not be so restless and dissatisfied."

Sewell felt as if he had been preaching to a dead wall; but now the wall opened, and a voice came out of it, saying: "You mean something to occupy their minds?"

"Exactly so!" cried Sewell. "Something to occupy their minds. Now," he continued, with a hope of getting into some sort of human relations with his guest which he had not felt before, "why shouldn't a young man on a farm take up some scientific study, like geology, for instance, which makes every inch of earth vocal, every rock historic, and the waste places social?" Barker looked so blankly at him that he asked again, "You understand?"

"Yes," said Barker; but having answered Sewell's personal question, he seemed to feel himself in no wise concerned with the general inquiry which Sewell had made, and he let it lie where Sewell had let it drop. But the minister was so well pleased with the fact that Barker had understood anything of what he had said, that he was content to let the notion he had thrown out take its chance of future effect, and rising, said briskly: "Come upstairs with me into my study, and I will show you a picture of Agassiz. It's a very good photograph."

He led the way out of the reception-room, and tripped lightly in his slippered feet up the steps against which Barker knocked the toes of his clumsy boots. He was not large, nor naturally loutish, but the heaviness of the country was in every touch and movement. He dropped the photograph twice in his endeavour to hold it between his stiff thumb and finger.

Sewell picked it up each time for him, and restored it to his faltering hold. When he had securely lodged it there, he asked sweetly: "Did you ever hear what Agassiz said when a scheme was once proposed to him by which he could make a great deal of money?"

"I don't know as I did," replied Barker.

"'But, gentlemen, I've no time to make money.'" Barker received the anecdote in absolute silence, standing helplessly with the photograph in his hand; and Sewell with a hasty sigh forbore to make the application to the ordinary American ambition to be rich that he had intended. "That's a photograph of the singer Nilsson," he said, cataloguing the other objects on the chimney-piece. "She was a peasant, you know, a country girl in Norway. That's Grévy, the President of the French Republic; his father was a peasant. Lincoln, of course. Sforza, throwing his hoe into the oak," he said, explaining the picture that had caught Barker's eye on the wall above the mantel. "He was working in the field, when a band of adventurers came by, and he tossed his hoe at the tree. If it fell to the ground, he would keep on hoeing; if it caught in the branches and hung there, he would follow the adventurers. It caught, and he went with the soldiers and became Duke of Milan. I like to keep the pictures of these great Originals about me," said Sewell, "because in our time, when we refer so constantly to law, we are apt to forget that God is creative as well as operative." He used these phrases involuntarily; they slipped from his tongue because he was in the habit of saying this about these pictures, and he made no effort to adapt them to Barker's comprehension, because he could not see that the idea would be of any use to him. He went on pointing out the different objects in the quiet room, and he took down several books from the shelves that covered the whole wall, and showed them to Barker, who, however, made no effort to look at them for himself, and did not say anything about them. He did what Sewell bade him do in admiring this thing or that; but if he had been an Indian he could not have regarded them with a greater reticence. Sewell made him sit down from time to time, but in a sitting posture Barker's silence became so deathlike that Sewell hastened to get him on his legs again, and to walk him about from one point to another, as if to keep life in him. At the end of one of these otherwise aimless excursions Mrs. Sewell appeared, and infused a gleam of hope into her husband's breast. Apparently she brought none to Barker; or perhaps he did not conceive it polite to show any sort of liveliness before a lady. He did what he could with the hand she gave him to shake, and answered the brief questions she put to him about his family to precisely the same effect as he had already reported its condition to Sewell.

"Dinner's ready now," said Mrs. Sewell, for all comment. She left the expansiveness of sympathy and gratulation to her husband on most occasions, and on this she felt that she had less than the usual obligation to make polite conversation. Her two children came downstairs after her, and as she unfolded her napkin across her lap after grace she said, "This is my son, Alfred, Mr. Barker; and this is Edith." Barker took the acquaintance offered in silence, the young Sewells smiled with the wise kindliness of children taught to be good to all manner of strange guests, and the girl cumbered the helpless country boy with offers of different dishes.

Mr. Sewell as he cut at the roast beef lengthwise, being denied by his wife a pantomimic prayer to be allowed to cut it crosswise, tried to make talk with Barker about the weather at Willoughby Pastures. It had been a very dry summer, and he asked if the fall rains had filled up the springs. He said he really forgot whether it was an apple year. He also said that he supposed they had dug all their turnips by this time. He had meant to say potatoes when he began, but he remembered that he had seen the farmers digging their potatoes before he came back to town, and so he substituted turnips; afterwards it seemed to him that dig was not just the word to use in regard to the harvesting of turnips. He wished he had said, "got your turnips in," but it appeared to make no difference to Barker, who answered, "Yes, sir," and "No, sir," and "Yes, sir," and let each subject drop with that.

William Dean Howells