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Chapter 6

VI.

They had time for no more talk between the drawing-room and the dinner table, and when Miss Hernshaw's chair had been pushed in behind her, and she sat down, she turned instantly to the man on her right and began speaking to him, and left Hewson to make conversation with any one he liked or could.

He did not get on very well, not because there were not enough amusing people beside him and over against him, but because he was all the time trying to eavesdrop what was saying between Miss Hernshaw and the man on her right. It seemed to be absolute trivialities they were talking; so far as Hewson made out they got no deeper than the new play which was then commanding the public favor apparently for the reason that it was altogether surface, with no measure upwards or downwards. Upon this surface the comment of the man on Miss Hernshaw's right wandered indefatigably.

Hewson could not imagine of her sincerity a deliberate purpose of letting the poor fellow show all the shallowness that was in him, and of amusing itself with his satisfaction in turning his empty mind inside out for her inspection. She seemed, if not genuinely interested, to be paying him an unaffected attention; but when the lady across the table addressed a word to him, Miss Hernshaw, as if she had been watching for some such chance, instantly turned to Hewson.

"What do you think of 'Ghosts'?" she asked, with imperative suddenness.

"Ghosts?" he echoed.

"Or perhaps you didn't go?" she suggested, and he perceived that she meant Ibsen's tragedy. But he did not answer at once. He had had a shock, and for a timeless space he had been back in his room at St. Johnswort, with that weird figure seated at his table. It seemed to vanish again when he gave a second glance, as it had vanished before, and he drew a long sigh, and looked a little haggardly at Miss Hernshaw. "Ah, I see you did! Wasn't it tremendous? I think the girl who did Regina was simply awful, don't you?"

"I don't know," said Hewson, still so trammeled in his own involuntary associations with the word as not fully to realize the strangeness of discussing "Ghosts" with a young lady. But he pulled himself together, and nimbly making his reflection that the latitude of the stage gave room for the meeting of cultivated intelligences in regions otherwise tabooed, if they were of opposite sexes, he responded in kind. "I think that the greatest miracle of the play—and to me it was altogether miraculous"—

"Oh, I'm glad to hear you say that!" cried the girl. "It was the greatest experience of my life. I can't bear to have people undervalue it. I want to hit them. But go on!"

Hewson went on as gravely as he could in view of her potential violence: he pictured Miss Hernshaw beating down the inadequate witnesses of "Ghosts" with her fan, which lay in her lap, with her cobwebby handkerchief, drawn through its ring, and her long limp gloves looking curiously like her pretty young arms in their slenderness. "I was merely going to say that the most prodigious effect of the play was among the actors—I won't venture on the spectators—"

"No, don't! It isn't speakable."

"It's astonishing the effect a play of Ibsen's has with the actors. They can't play false. It turns the merest theatrical sticks into men and women, and it does it through the perfect honesty of the dramatist. He deals so squarely with himself that they have to deal squarely with themselves. They have to be, and not just seem."

Miss Hernshaw sighed deeply. "I'm glad you think that," she said, and
Hewson felt very glad too that he thought that.

"Why?" he asked.

"Why? Because that is what I always want to do; and it's what I always shall do, I don't care what they say."

"But I don't know whether I understand exactly."

"Deal squarely with everybody. Say what I really feel. Then they say what they really feel."

There was an obscure resentment unworthily struggling at the bottom of Hewson's heart for her long neglect of him in behalf of the man on her left. "Yes," he said, "if they are capable of really feeling anything."

"What do you mean? Everybody really feels."

"Well, then, thinking anything."

She drew herself up a little with an air of question. "I believe everybody really thinks, too, and it's your duty to let them find out what they're thinking, by truly saying what you think."

"Then she isn't dealing quite honestly with him," said Hewson, with a malicious smile.

The man at Miss Hernshaw's left was still talking about the play, and he was at that moment getting off a piece of pure parrotry about it to the lady across the table: just what everybody had been saying about it from the first.

"No, I should think she was not," said the girl, gravely. She looked hurt, as if she had been unfairly forced to the logic of her postulate, and Hewson was not altogether pleased with himself; but at least he had had his revenge in making her realize the man's vacuity.

He tried to get her back to talk about "Ghosts," again, but she answered with indifference, and just then he was arrested by something a man was saying near the head of the table.

William Dean Howells

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