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Chapter 3

III.

The silence grew so deep that the young Sewells talked together in murmurs, and the clicking of the knives on the plates became painful. Sewell kept himself from looking at Barker, whom he nevertheless knew to be changing his knife and fork from one hand to the other, as doubt after doubt took him as to their conventional use, and to be getting very little good of his dinner in the process of settling these questions. The door-bell rang, and the sound of a whispered conference between the visitor and the servant at the threshold penetrated to the dining-room. Some one softly entered, and then Mrs. Sewell called out, "Yes, yes! Come in! Come in, Miss Vane!" She jumped from her chair and ran out into the hall, where she was heard to kiss her visitor; she reappeared, still holding her by the hand, and then Miss Vane shook hands with Sewell, saying in a tone of cordial liking, "How d'ye do?" and to each of the young people as she shook hands in turn with them, "How d'ye do, dear?" She was no longer so pretty as she must have once been; but an air of distinction and a delicate charm of manner remained to her from her fascinating youth.

Young Sewell pushed her a chair to the table, and she dropped softly into it, after acknowledging Barker's presentation by Mrs. Sewell with a kindly glance that probably divined him.

"You must dine with us," said Mrs. Sewell. "You can call it lunch."

"No, I can't, Mrs. Sewell," said Miss Vane. "I could once, and should have said with great pleasure, when I went away, that I had been lunching at the Sewells; but I can't now. I've reformed. What have you got for dinner?"

"Roast beef," said Sewell.

"Nothing I dislike more," replied Miss Vane. "What else?" She put on her glasses, and peered critically about the table.

"Stewed tomatoes, baked sweet potatoes, macaroni."

"How unimaginative! What are you going to have afterwards?"

"Cottage pudding."

"The very climax of the commonplace. Well!" Miss Vane began to pull off her gloves, and threw her veil back over her shoulder. "I will dine with you, but when I say dine, and people ask me to explain, I shall have to say, 'Why, the Sewells still dine at one o'clock, you know,' and laugh over your old-fashioned habits with them. I should like to do differently, and to respect the sacredness of broken bread and that sort of thing; but I'm trying to practise with every one an affectionate sincerity, which is perfectly compatible not only with the brotherliness of Christianity, but the politeness of the world." Miss Vane looked demurely at Mrs. Sewell. "I can't make any exceptions."

The ladies both broke into a mocking laugh, in which Sewell joined with sheepish reluctance; after all, one does not like to be derided, even by one's dearest friends.

"As soon as I hear my other little sins denounced from the pulpit, I'm going to stop using profane language and carrying away people's spoons in my pocket."

The ladies seemed to think this also a very good joke, and his children laughed in sympathy, but Sewell hung his head; Barker sat bolt upright behind his plate, and stared at Miss Vane. "I never have been all but named in church before," she concluded, "and I've heard others say the same."

"Why didn't you come to complain sooner?" asked Sewell.

"Well, I have been away ever since that occasion. I went down the next day to Newport, and I've been there ever since, admiring the ribbon-planting."

"On the lawns or on the ladies?" asked Sewell.

"Both. And sowing broadcast the seeds of plain speaking. I don't know what Newport will be in another year if they all take root."

"I dare say it will be different," said Sewell. "I'm not sure it will be worse." He plucked up a little spirit, and added: "Now you see of how little importance you really are in the community; you have been gone these three weeks, and your own pastor didn't know you were out of town."

"Yes, you did, David," interposed his wife. "I told you Miss Vane was away two weeks ago."

"Did you? Well I forgot it immediately; the fact was of no consequence, one way or the other. How do you like that as a bit of affectionate sincerity?"

"I like it immensely," said Miss Vane. "It's delicious. I only wish I could believe you were honest." She leaned back and laughed into her handkerchief, while Sewell regarded her with a face in which his mortification at being laughed at was giving way to a natural pleasure at seeing Miss Vane enjoy herself. "What do you think," she asked, "since you're in this mood of exasperated veracity—or pretend to be—of the flower charity?"

"Do you mean by the barrel, or the single sack? The Graham, or the best Haxall, or the health-food cold-blast?" asked Sewell.

Miss Vane lost her power of answering in another peal of laughter, sobering off, and breaking down again before she could say, "I mean cut flowers for patients and prisoners."

"Oh, that kind! I don't think a single pansy would have an appreciable effect upon a burglar; perhaps a bunch of forget-me-nots might, or a few lilies of the valley carelessly arranged. As to the influence of a graceful little boutonnière, in cases of rheumatism or cholera morbus, it might be efficacious but I can't really say."

"How perfectly cynical!" cried Miss Vane. "Don't you know how much good the flower mission has accomplished among the deserving poor? Hundreds of bouquets are distributed every day. They prevent crime."

"That shows how susceptible the deserving poor are. I don't find that a bowl of the most expensive and delicate roses in the centre of a dinner-table tempers the asperity of the conversation when it turns upon the absent. But perhaps it oughtn't to do so."

"I don't know about that," said Miss Vane; "but if you had an impulsive niece to supply with food for the imagination, you would be very glad of anything that seemed to combine practical piety and picturesque effect."

"Oh, if you mean that," began Sewell more soberly, and his wife leaned forward with an interest in the question which she had not felt while the mere joking went on.

"Yes. When Sibyl came in this morning with an imperative demand to be allowed to go off and do good with flowers in the homes of virtuous poverty, as well as the hospitals and prisons, I certainly felt as if there had been an interposition, if you will allow me to say so."

Miss Vane still had her joking air, but a note of anxiety had crept into her voice.

"I don't think it will do the sick and poor any harm," said Sewell, "and it may do Sibyl some good." He smiled a little in adding: "It may afford her varied energies a little scope."

Miss Vane shook her head, and some lines of age came into her face which had not shown themselves there before. "And you would advise letting her go into it?" she asked.

"By all means," replied Sewell. "But if she's going to engage actively in the missionary work, I think you'd better go with her on her errands of mercy."

"Oh, of course, she's going to do good in person. What she wants is the sensation of doing good—of seeing and hearing the results of her beneficence. She'd care very little about it if she didn't."

"Oh, I don't know that you can say that," replied Sewell in deprecation of this extreme view. "I don't believe," he continued, "that she would object to doing good for its own sake."

"Of course she wouldn't, David! Who in the world supposed she would?" demanded his wife, bringing him up roundly at this sign of wandering, and Miss Vane laughed wildly.

"And is this what your doctrine of sincerity comes to? This fulsomeness! You're very little better than one of the wicked, it seems to me! Well, I hoped that you would approve of my letting Sibyl take this thing up, but such unbounded encouragement!"

"Oh, I don't wish to flatter," said Sewell, in the spirit of her raillery. "It will be very well for her to go round with flowers; but don't let her," he continued seriously—"don't let her imagine it's more than an innocent amusement. It would be a sort of hideous mockery of the good we ought to do one another if there were supposed to be anything more than a kindly thoughtfulness expressed in such a thing."

"Oh, if Sibyl doesn't feel that it's real, for the time being she won't care anything about it. She likes to lose herself in the illusion, she says."

"Well!" said Sewell with a slight shrug, "then we must let her get what good she can out of it as an exercise of the sensibilities."

"O my dear!" exclaimed his wife, "You don't mean anything so abominable as that! I've heard you say that the worst thing about fiction and the theatre was that they brought emotions into play that ought to be sacred to real occasions."

"Did I say that? Well, I must have been right. I—"

Barker made a scuffling sound with his boots under the table, and rose to his feet. "I guess," he said, "I shall have to be going."

They had all forgotten him, and Sewell felt as if he had neglected this helpless guest. "Why, no, you mustn't go! I was in hopes we might do something to make the day pleasant to you. I intended proposing—"

"Yes," his wife interrupted, believing that he meant to give up one of his precious afternoons to Barker, and hastening to prevent the sacrifice, "my son will show you the Public Garden and the Common, and go about the town with you." She rose too, and young Sewell, accustomed to suffer, silently acquiesced. "If your train isn't to start very soon—"

"I guess I better be going," said Barker, and Mrs. Sewell now gave her husband a look conveying her belief that Barker would be happier if they let him go. At the same time she frowned upon the monstrous thought of asking him to stay the night with them, which she detected in Sewell's face.

She allowed him to say nothing but, "I'm sorry; but if you really must—"

"I guess I better," persisted Barker. He got himself somehow to the door, where he paused a moment, and contrived to pant, "Well, good day," and without effort at more cordial leave-taking, passed out.

Sewell followed him, and helped him find his hat, and made him shake hands. He went with him to the door, and, beginning to suffer afresh at the wrong he had done Barker, he detained him at the threshold. "If you still wish to see a publisher, Mr. Barker, I will gladly go with you."

"Oh, not at all, not at all. I guess I don't want to see any publisher this afternoon. Well, good afternoon!" He turned away from Sewell's remorseful pursuit, and clumsily hurrying down the steps, he walked up the street and round the next corner. Sewell stood watching him in rueful perplexity, shading his eyes from the mild October sun with his hand; and some moments after Barker had disappeared, he remained looking after him.

When he rejoined the ladies in the dining-room they fell into a conscious silence.

"Have you been telling, Lucy?" he asked.

"Yes, I've been telling, David. It was the only way. Did you offer to go with him to a publisher again?"

"Yes, I did. It was the only way," said Sewell.

Miss Vane and his wife both broke into a cry of laughter. The former got her breath first. "So that was the origin of the famous sermon that turned all our heads grey with good resolutions." Sewell assented with a sickly grin. "What in the world made you encourage him?"

"My goodness of heart, which I didn't take the precaution of mixing with goodness of head before I used it."

Everything was food for Miss Vane's laugh, even this confession. "But what is the natural history of the boy? How came he to write poetry? What do you suppose he means by it?"

"That isn't so easy to say. As to his natural history, he lives with his mother in a tumbledown, unpainted wooden house in the deepest fastness of Willoughby Pastures. Lucy and I used to drive by it and wonder what kind of people inhabited that solitude. There were milk- cans scattered round the door-yard, and the Monday we were there a poverty-stricken wash flapped across it. The thought of the place preyed upon me till one day I asked about it at the post-office, and the postmistress told me that the boy was quite a literary character, and read everything he could lay his hands on, and 'sat up nights' writing poetry. It seemed to me a very clear case of genius, and the postmistress's facts rankled in my mind till I couldn't stand it any longer. Then I went to see him. I suppose Lucy has told you the rest?"

"Yes, Mrs. Sewell has told me the rest. But still I don't see how he came to write poetry. I believe it doesn't pay, even in extreme cases of genius."

"Ah, but that's just what this poor fellow didn't know. He must have read somewhere, in some deleterious newspaper, about the sale of some large edition of a poem, and have had his own wild hopes about it. I don't say his work didn't show sense; it even showed some rude strength, of a didactic, satirical sort, but it certainly didn't show poetry. He might have taken up painting by a little different chance. And when it was once known about the neighbourhood that he wrote poetry, his vanity was flattered—"

"Yes, I see. But wasn't there any kind soul to tell him that he was throwing his time away?"

"It appears not."

"And even the kind soul from Boston, who visited him," suggested
Mrs. Sewell. "Go on, David."

"Visited him in spite of his wife's omniscience,—even the kind soul from Boston paltered with this plain duty. Even he, to spare himself the pain of hurting the boy's feelings, tried to find some of the lines better than others, and left him with the impression that he had praised them."

"Well, that was pretty bad," said Miss Vane. "You had to tell him to-day, I suppose, that there was no hope for him?"

"Yes, I had to tell him at last, after letting him waste his time and money in writing more stuff and coming to Boston with it. I've put him to needless shame, and I've inflicted suffering upon him that I can't lighten in the least by sharing."

"No, that's the most discouraging thing about pitying people. It does them no manner of good," said Miss Vane, "and just hurts you. Don't you think that in an advanced civilisation we shall cease to feel compassion? Why don't you preach against common pity, as you did against common politeness?"

"Well, it isn't quite such a crying sin yet. But really, really," exclaimed Sewell, "the world seems so put together that I believe we ought to think twice before doing a good action."

"David!" said his wife warningly.

"Oh, let him go on!" cried Miss Vane, with a laugh. "I'm proof against his monstrous doctrines. Go on, Mr. Sewell."

"What I mean is this." Sewell pushed himself back in his chair, and then stopped.

"Is what?" prompted both the ladies.

"Why, suppose the boy really had some literary faculty, should I have had any right to encourage it? He was very well where he was. He fed the cows and milked them, and carried the milk to the crossroads, where the dealer collected it and took it to the train. That was his life, with the incidental facts of cutting the hay and fodder, and bedding the cattle; and his experience never went beyond it. I doubt if his fancy ever did, except in some wild, mistaken excursion. Why shouldn't he have been left to this condition? He ate, he slept, he fulfilled his use. Which of us does more?"

"How would you like to have been in his place?" asked his wife.

"I couldn't put myself in his place; and therefore I oughtn't to have done anything to take him out of it," answered Sewell.

"It seems to me that's very un-American," said Miss Vane. "I thought we had prospered up to the present point by taking people out of their places."

"Yes, we have," replied the minister, "and sometimes, it seems to me, the result is hideous. I don't mind people taking themselves out of their places; but if the particles of this mighty cosmos have been adjusted by the divine wisdom, what are we to say of the temerity that disturbs the least of them?"

"I'm sure I don't know," said Miss Vane, rising. "I'm almost afraid to stir, in view of the possible consequences. But I can't sit here all day, and if Mrs. Sewell will excuse me, I'll go at once. Yes, 'I guess I better be going,' as your particle Barker says. Let us hope he'll get safely back to his infinitesimal little crevice in the cosmos. He's a very pretty particle, don't you think? That thick, coarse, wavy black hair growing in a natural bang over his forehead would make his fortune if he were a certain kind of young lady."

They followed her to the door, chatting, and Sewell looked quickly out when he opened it for her.

As she shook his hand she broke into another laugh. "Really, you looked as if you were afraid of finding him on the steps!"

"If I could only have got near the poor boy," said Sewell to his wife, as they returned withindoors. "If I could only have reached him where he lives, as our slang says! But do what I would, I couldn't find any common ground where we could stand together. We were as unlike as if we were of two different species. I saw that everything I said bewildered him more and more; he couldn't understand me! Our education is unchristian, our civilisation is pagan. They both ought to bring us in closer relations with our fellow-creatures, and they both only put us more widely apart! Every one of us dwells in an impenetrable solitude! We understand each other a little if our circumstances are similar, but if they are different all our words leave us dumb and unintelligible."

William Dean Howells