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Chapter 3

III.

Bartley woke on Sunday morning with the regrets that a supper of mince-pie and toasted cheese is apt to bring. He woke from a bad dream, and found that he had a dull headache. A cup of coffee relieved his pain, but it left him listless, and with a longing for sympathy which he experienced in any mental or physical discomfort. The frankness with which he then appealed for compassion was one of the things that made people like him; he flung himself upon the pity of the first he met. It might be some one to whom he had said a cutting or mortifying thing at their last encounter, but Bartley did not mind that; what he desired was commiseration, and he confidingly ignored the past in a trust that had rarely been abused. If his sarcasm proved that he was quick and smart, his recourse to those who had suffered from it proved that he did not mean anything by what he said; it showed that he was a man of warm feelings, and that his heart was in the right place.

Bartley deplored his disagreeable sensations to the other boarders at breakfast, and affectionately excused himself to them for not going to church, when they turned into the office, and gathered there before the Franklin stove, sensible of the day in freshly shaven chins and newly blacked boots. The habit of church-going was so strong and universal in Equity that even strangers stopping at the hotel found themselves the object of a sort of hospitable competition with the members of the different denominations, who took it for granted that they would wish to go somewhere, and only suffered them a choice between sects. There was no intolerance in their offer of pews, but merely a profound expectation, and one might continue to choose his place of worship Sabbath after Sabbath without offence. This was Bartley's custom, and it had worked to his favor rather than his disadvantage: for in the rather chaotic liberality into which religious sentiment had fallen in Equity, it was tacitly conceded that the editor of a paper devoted to the interests of the whole town ought not to be of fixed theological opinions.

Religion there had largely ceased to be a fact of spiritual experience, and the visible church flourished on condition of providing for the social needs of the community. It was practically held that the salvation of one's soul must not be made too depressing, or the young people would have nothing to do with it. Professors of the sternest creeds temporized with sinners, and did what might be done to win them to heaven by helping them to have a good time here. The church embraced and included the world. It no longer frowned even upon social dancing,—a transgression once so heinous in its eyes; it opened its doors to popular lectures, and encouraged secular music in its basements, where, during the winter, oyster suppers were given in aid of good objects. The Sunday school was made particularly attractive, both to the children and the young men and girls who taught them. Not only at Thanksgiving, but at Christmas, and latterly even at Easter, there were special observances, which the enterprising spirits having the welfare of the church at heart tried to make significant and agreeable to all, and promotive of good feeling. Christenings and marriages in the church were encouraged, and elaborately celebrated; death alone, though treated with cut-flowers in emblematic devices, refused to lend itself to the cheerful intentions of those who were struggling to render the idea of another and a better world less repulsive. In contrast with the relaxation and uncertainty of their doctrinal aim, the rude and bold infidelity of old Squire Gaylord had the greater affinity with the mood of the Puritanism they had outgrown. But Bartley Hubbard liked the religious situation well enough. He took a leading part in the entertainments, and did something to impart to them a literary cast, as in the series of readings from the poets which he gave, the first winter, for the benefit of each church in turn. At these lectures he commended himself to the sober elders, who were troubled by the levity of his behavior with young people on other occasions, by asking one of the ministers to open the exercises with prayer, and another, at the close, to invoke the Divine blessing; there was no especial relevancy in this, but it pleased. He kept himself, from the beginning, pretty constantly in the popular eye. He was a speaker at all public meetings, where his declamation was admired; and at private parties, where the congealed particles of village society were united in a frozen mass, he was the first to break the ice, and set the angular fragments grating and grinding upon one another.

He now went to his room, and opened his desk with some vague purpose of bringing up the arrears of his correspondence. Formerly, before his interest in the newspaper had lapsed at all, he used to give his Sunday leisure to making selections and writing paragraphs for it; but he now let the pile of exchanges lie unopened on his desk, and began to rummage through the letters scattered about in it. They were mostly from young ladies with whom he had corresponded, and some of them enclosed the photographs of the writers, doing their best to look as they hoped he might think they looked. They were not love-letters, but were of that sort which the laxness of our social life invites young people, who have met pleasantly, to exchange as long as they like, without explicit intentions on either side; they commit the writers to nothing; they are commonly without result, except in wasting time which is hardly worth saving. Every one who has lived the American life must have produced them in great numbers. While youth lasts, they afford an excitement whose charm is hard to realize afterward.

Bartley's correspondents were young ladies of his college town, where he had first begun to see something of social life in days which he now recognized as those of his green youth. They were not so very far removed in point of time; but the experience of a larger world in the vacation he had spent with a Boston student had relegated them to a moral remoteness that could not readily be measured. His friend was the son of a family who had diverted him from the natural destiny of a Boston man at Harvard, and sent him elsewhere for sectarian reasons. They were rich people, devout in their way, and benevolent, after a fashion of their own; and their son always brought home with him, for the holidays and other short vacations, some fellow-student accounted worthy of their hospitality through his religious intentions or his intellectual promise. These guests were indicated to the young man by one of the faculty, and he accepted their companionship for the time with what perfunctory civility he could muster. He and Bartley had amused themselves very well during that vacation. The Hallecks were not fashionable people, but they lived wealthily: they had a coachman and an inside man (whom Bartley at first treated with a consideration, which it afterward mortified him to think of); their house was richly furnished with cushioned seats, dense carpets, and heavy curtains; and they were visited by other people of their denomination, and of a like abundance. Some of these were infected with the prevailing culture of the city, and the young ladies especially dressed in a style and let fall ideas that filled the soul of the country student with wonder and worship. He heard a great deal of talk that he did not understand; but he eagerly treasured every impression, and pieced it out, by question or furtive observation, into an image often shrewdly true, and often grotesquely untrue, to the conditions into which he had been dropped. He civilized himself as rapidly as his light permitted. There was a great deal of church-going; but he and young Halleck went also to lectures and concerts; they even went to the opera, and Bartley, with the privity of his friend, went to the theatre. Halleck said that he did not think there was much harm in a play; but that his people stayed away for the sake of the example,—a reason that certainly need not hold with Bartley.

At the end of the vacation he returned to college, leaving his measure with Halleck's tailor, and his heart with all the splendors and elegances of the town. He found the ceilings very low and the fashions much belated in the village; but he reconciled himself as well as he could. The real stress came when he left college and the question of doing something for himself pressed upon him. He intended to study law, but he must meantime earn his living. It had been his fortune to be left, when very young, not only an orphan, but an extremely pretty child, with an exceptional aptness for study; and he had been better cared for than if his father and mother had lived. He had been not only well housed and fed, and very well dressed, but pitied as an orphan, and petted for his beauty and talent, while he was always taught to think of himself as a poor boy, who was winning his own way through the world. But when his benefactor proposed to educate him for the ministry, with a view to his final use in missionary work, he revolted. He apprenticed himself to the printer of his village, and rapidly picked up a knowledge of the business, so that at nineteen he had laid by some money, and was able to think of going to college. There was a fund in aid of indigent students in the institution to which he turned, and the faculty favored him. He finished his course with great credit to himself and the college, and he was naturally inclined to look upon what had been done for him earlier as an advantage taken of his youthful inexperience. He rebelled against the memory of that tutelage, in spite of which he had accomplished such great things. If he had not squandered his time or fallen into vicious courses in circumstances of so much discouragement, if he had come out of it all self-reliant and independent, he knew whom he had to thank for it. The worst of the matter was that there was some truth in all this.

The ardor of his satisfaction cooled in the two years following his graduation, when in intervals of teaching country schools he was actually reduced to work at his trade on a village newspaper. But it was as a practical printer, through the freemasonry of the craft, that Bartley heard of the wish of the Equity committee to place the Free Press in new hands, and he had to be grateful to his trade for a primary consideration from them which his collegiate honors would not have won him. There had not yet begun to be that talk of journalism as a profession which has since prevailed with our collegians, and if Bartley had thought, as other collegians think, of devoting himself to newspaper life, he would have turned his face toward the city where its prizes are won,—the ten and fifteen dollar reporterships for which a font years' course of the classics is not too costly a preparation. But, to tell the truth, he had never regarded his newspaper as anything but a make-shift, by which he was to be carried over a difficult and anxious period of his life, and enabled to attempt something worthier his powers. He had no illusions concerning it; if he had ever thought of journalism as a grand and ennobling profession, these ideas had perished, in his experience in a village printing-office. He came to his work in Equity with practical and immediate purposes which pleased the committee better. The paper had been established some time before, in one of those flurries of ambition which from time to time seized Equity, when its citizens reflected that it was the central town in the county, and yet not the shire-town. The question of the removal of the county-seat had periodically arisen before; but it had never been so hotly agitated as now. The paper had been a happy thought of a local politician, whose conception of its management was that it might be easily edited by a committee, if a printer could be found to publish it; but a few months' experience had made the Free Press a terrible burden to its founders; it could not be sustained, and it could not be let die without final disaster to the interests of the town; and the committee began to cast about for a publisher who could also be editor. Bartley, to whom it fell, could not be said to have thrown his heart and soul into the work, but he threw all his energy, and he made it more than its friends could have hoped. He espoused the cause of Equity in the pending question with the zeal of a condottiere, and did service no less faithful because of the cynical quality latent in it. When the legislative decision against Equity put an end to its ambitious hopes for the time being, he continued in control of the paper, with a fair prospect of getting the property into his own hands at last, and with some growing question in his mind whether, after all, it might not be as easy for him to go into politics from the newspaper as from the law. He managed the office very economically, and by having the work done by girl apprentices, with the help of one boy, he made it self-supporting. He modelled the newspaper upon the modern conception, through which the country press must cease to have any influence in public affairs, and each paper become little more than an open letter of neighborhood gossip. But while he filled his sheet with minute chronicles of the goings and comings of unimportant persons, and with all attainable particulars of the ordinary life of the different localities, he continued to make spicy hits at the enemies of Equity in the late struggle, and kept the public spirit of the town alive. He had lately undertaken to make known its advantages as a summer resort, and had published a series of encomiums upon the beauty of its scenery and the healthfulness of its air and water, which it was believed would put it in a position of rivalry with some of the famous White Mountain places. He invited the enterprise of outside capital, and advocated a narrow-gauge road up the valley of the river through the Notch, so as to develop the picturesque advantages of that region. In all this, the color of mockery let the wise perceive that Bartley saw the joke and enjoyed it, and it deepened the popular impression of his smartness.

This vein of cynicism was not characteristic, as it would have been in an older man; it might have been part of that spiritual and intellectual unruliness of youth, which people laugh at and forgive, and which one generally regards in after life as something almost alien to one's self. He wrote long, bragging articles about Equity, in a tone bordering on burlesque, and he had a department in his paper where he printed humorous squibs of his own and of other people; these were sometimes copied, and in the daily papers of the State he had been mentioned as "the funny man of the Equity Free Press." He also sent letters to one of the Boston journals, which he reproduced in his own sheet, and which gave him an importance that the best endeavor as a country editor would never have won him with the villagers. He would naturally, as the local printer, have ranked a little above the foreman of the saw-mill in the social scale, and decidedly below the master of the Academy; but his personal qualities elevated him over the head even of the latter. But above all, the fact that he was studying law was a guaranty of his superiority that nothing else could have given; that science is the fountain of the highest distinction in a country town. Bartley's whole course implied that he was above editing the Free Press, but that he did it because it served his turn. That was admirable.

He sat a long time with these girls' letters before him, and lost himself in a pensive reverie over their photographs, and over the good times he used to have with them. He mused in that formless way in which a young man thinks about young girls; his soul is suffused with a sense of their sweetness and brightness, and unless he is distinctly in love there is no intention in his thoughts of them; even then there is often no intention. Bartley might very well have a good conscience about them; he had broken no hearts among them, and had only met them half-way in flirtation. What he really regretted, as he held their letters in his hand, was that he had never got up a correspondence with two or three of the girls whom he had met in Boston. Though he had been cowed by their magnificence in the beginning, he had never had any reverence for them; he believed that they would have liked very well to continue his acquaintance; but he had not known how to open a correspondence, and the point was one on which he was ashamed to consult Halleck. These college belles, compared with them, were amusingly inferior; by a natural turn of thought, he realized that they were inferior to Marcia Gaylord, too, in looks and style, no less than in an impassioned preference for himself. A distaste for their somewhat veteran ways in flirtation grew upon him as he thought of her; he philosophized against them to her advantage; he could not blame her if she did not know how to hide her feelings for him. Yet he knew that Marcia would rather have died than let him suppose that she cared for him, if she had known that she was doing it. The fun of it was, that she should not know; this charmed him, it touched him, even; he did not think of it exultingly, as the night before, but sweetly, fondly, and with a final curiosity to see her again, and enjoy the fact in her presence. The acrid little jets of smoke which escaped from the joints of his stove from time to time annoyed him; he shut his portfolio at last, and went out to walk.

William Dean Howells