A Counterfeit Presentment – William Dean Howells
Out of a mere thread of a plot and a few characters Mr. Howells weaves a very charming little comedy. His characters consist of Miss Constance Wyatt, her father and mother, a Mr. Bartlett, a painter and his friend Rev. Arthur Cummings. The scene opens in the parlor of the Ponkwasset Hotel, the time being in the fall, and the house almost deserted by boarders. Mr. Bartlett and his friend are in the midst of a discussion of Mr. Bartlett’s affairs, when Gen. Wyatt and his daughter enter the room, having but recently come from Paris. Constance, at the sight of Bartlett, faints and Gen. Wyatt behaves like a crazy man. Bartlett’s anger is aroused, and he is about leaving the house, where he had just determined to spend the fall, when an explanation is offered him of the extraordinary scene he had witnessed. It seems he possesses a remarkable resemblance to a former lover of Constance, whom she imagines has jilted her, and for whom she is dying. The scenes which follow, in which Constance and Bartlett learn to love each other and the full baseness of the first lover is made known, are full of wit, sentiment, and fire.
A Counterfeit Presentment.
Excerpt from the text:
ON a lovely day in September, at that season when the most sentimental of the young maples have begun to redden along the hidden courses of the meadow streams, and the elms, with a sudden impression of despair in their languor, betray flecks of yellow on the green of their pendulous boughs,—on such a day at noon, two young men enter the parlour of the Ponkwasset Hotel, and deposit about the legs of the piano the burdens they have been carrying: a camp-stool namely, a field-easel, a closed box of colours, and a canvas to which, apparently, some portion of reluctant nature has just been transferred. These properties belong to one of the young men, whose general look and bearing readily identify him as their owner: he has a quick, somewhat furtive eye, a full brown beard, and hair that falls in a careless mass down his forehead, which, as he dries it with his handkerchief, sweeping the hair aside, shows broad and white; his figure is firm and square, without heaviness, and in his movement as well as in his face there is something of stubbornness, with a suggestion of arrogance. The other, who has evidently borne his share of the common burdens from a sense of good comradeship, has nothing of the painter in him, nor anything of this painter’s peculiar temperament: he has a very abstracted look and a dark, dreaming eye: he is pale, and does not look strong. The painter flings himself into a rocking chair and draws a long breath.
Cummings (for that is the name of the slighter man, who remains standing as he speaks).—”It’s warm, isn’t it?” His gentle face evinces a curious and kindly interest in his friend’s sturdy demonstrations of fatigue.
Bartlett.—”Yes, hot—confoundedly.” He rubs his handkerchief vigorously across his forehead, and then looks down at his dusty shoes, with apparently no mind to molest them in their dustiness. “The idea of people going back to town in this weather! However, I’m glad they’re such asses; it gives me free scope here. Every time I don’t hear some young woman banging on that piano, I fall into transports of joy.”
Cummings, smiling.—”And after to-day you won’t be bothered even with me.”
Bartlett.—”Oh, I shall rather miss you, you know. I like somebody to contradict.”
Cummings.—”You can contradict the ostler.”
Bartlett.—”No, I can’t. They’ve sent him away; and I believe you’re going to carry off the last of the table-girls with you in the stage to-morrow. The landlord and his wife are to run the concern themselves the rest of the fall. Poor old fellow! The hard times have made lean pickings for him this year. His house wasn’t full in the height of the season, and it’s been pretty empty since.”
Cummings.—”I wonder he doesn’t shut up altogether.”
Bartlett.—”Well, there are a good many transients, as they call them, at this time of year,—fellows who drive over from the little hill-towns with their girls in buggies, and take dinner and supper; then there are picnics from the larger places, ten and twelve miles off, that come to the grounds on the pond, and he always gets something out of them. And as long as he can hope for anything else, my eight dollars a week are worth hanging on to. Yes, I think I shall stay here all through October. I’ve got no orders, and it’s cheap. Besides, I’ve managed to get on confidential terms with the local scenery; I thought we should like each other last summer, and I feel now that we’re ready to swear eternal friendship. I shall do some fairish work here, yet. Phew!” He mops his forehead again, and springing out of his chair he goes up to the canvas, which he has faced to the wall, and turning it about retires some paces, and with a swift, worried glance at the windows falls to considering it critically.
Cummings.—”You’ve done some fairish work already, if I’m any judge.” He comes to his friend’s side, as if to get his effect of the picture. “I don’t believe the spirit of a graceful elm that just begins to feel the approach of autumn was ever better interpreted. There is something tremendously tragical to me in the thing. It makes me think of some lovely and charming girl, all grace and tenderness, who finds the first grey hair in her head. I should call that picture The First Grey Hair.”
Bartlett, with unheeding petulance.—”The whole thing’s too infernally brown! I beg your pardon, Cummings: what were you saying? Go on! I like your prattle about pictures; I do, indeed. I like to see how far you art-cultured fellows can miss all that was in a poor devil’s mind when he was at work. But I’d rather you’d sentimentalise my pictures than moralise them. If there’s anything that makes me quite limp, it’s to have an allegory discovered in one of my poor stupid old landscapes. But The First Grey Hair isn’t bad, really. And a good, senseless, sloppy name like that often sells a picture.”
Cummings.—”You’re brutal, Bartlett. I don’t believe your pictures would own you, if they had their way about it.”
Bartlett.—”And I wouldn’t own them if I had mine. I’ve got about forty that I wish somebody else owned—and I had the money for them; but we seem inseparable. Glad you’re going to-morrow? You are a good fellow, Cummings, and I am a brute. Come, I’ll make a great concession to friendship: it struck me, too, while I was at work on that elm, that it was something like—an old girl!” Bartlett laughs, and catching his friend by either shoulder, twists him about in his strong clutch, while he looks him merrily in the face. “I’m not a poet, old fellow; and sometimes I think I ought to have been a painter and glazier instead of a mere painter. I believe it would have paid better.”
Cummings.—”Bartlett, I hate to have you talk in that way.”
Bartlett.—”Oh, I know it’s a stale kind.”
Cummings.—”It’s worse than stale. It’s destructive. A man can soon talk himself out of heart with his better self. You can end by really being as sordid-minded and hopeless and low-purposed as you pretend to be. It’s insanity.”
Bartlett.—”Good! I’ve had my little knock on the head, you know. I don’t deny being cracked. But I’ve a method in my madness.”
Cummings.—”They all have. But it’s a very poor method; and I don’t believe you could say just what yours is. You think because a girl on whom you set your fancy—it’s nonsense to pretend it was your heart—found out she didn’t like you as well as she thought, and honestly told you so in good time, that your wisest course is to take up that rôle of misanthrope which begins with yourself and leaves people to imagine how low an opinion you have of the rest of mankind.”
Bartlett.—”My dear fellow, you know I always speak well of that young lady. I’ve invariably told you that she behaved in the handsomest manner. She even expressed the wish—I distinctly remember being struck by the novelty of the wish at the time—that we should remain friends. You misconceive”—
Cummings.—”How many poor girls have been jilted who don’t go about doing misanthropy, but mope at home and sorrow and sicken over their wrong in secret,—a wrong that attacks not merely their pride, but their life itself. Take the case I was telling you of: did you ever hear of anything more atrocious? And do you compare this little sting to your vanity with a death-blow like that?”
Bartlett.—”It’s quite impossible to compute the number of jilted girls who take the line you describe. But if it were within the scope of arithmetic, I don’t know that a billion of jilted girls would comfort me or reform me. I never could regard myself in that abstract way—a mere unit on one side or other of the balance. My little personal snub goes on rankling beyond the reach of statistical consolation. But even if there were any edification in the case of the young lady in Paris, she’s too far off to be an example for me. Take some jilted girl nearer home, Cummings, if you want me to go round sickening and sorrowing in secret. I don’t believe you can find any. Women are much tougher about the pericardium than we give them credit for, my dear fellow,—much. I don’t see why it should hurt a woman more than a man to be jilted. We shall never truly philosophise this important matter till we regard women with something of the fine penetration and impartiality with which they regard each other. Look at the stabs they give and take—they would kill men! And the graceful ferocity with which they despatch any of their number who happens to be down is quite unexampled in natural history. How much do you suppose her lady friends have left of that poor girl whose case wrings your foolish bosom all the way from Paris? I don’t believe so much as a boot-button. Why, even your correspondent—a very lively woman, by the way—can’t conceal under all her indignation her little satisfaction that so proud a girl as Miss What’s-her-name should have been jilted. Of course, she doesn’t say it.”
Cummings hotly.—”No, she doesn’t say it, and it’s not to your credit to imagine it.”
Bartlett, with a laugh.—”Oh, I don’t ask any praise for the discovery. You deserve praise for not making it. It does honour to your good heart. Well, don’t be vexed, old fellow. And in trying to improve me on this little point—a weak point, I’ll allow, with me—do me the justice to remember that I didn’t flaunt my misanthropy, as you call it, in your face; I didn’t force my confidence upon you.”
Cummings, with compunction.—”I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, Bartlett.”
Bartlett.—”Well, you haven’t. It’s all right.”
Cummings, with anxious concern.—”I wish I could think so.”
Bartlett, dryly.—”You have my leave—my request, in fact.” He takes a turn about the room, thrusting his fingers through the hair on his forehead, and letting it fall in a heavy tangle, and then pulling at either side of his parted beard. In facing away from one of the sofas at the end of the room, he looks back over his shoulder at it, falters, wheels about, and picks up from it a lady’s shawl and hat. “Hallo!” He lets the shawl fall again into picturesque folds on the sofa. “This is the spoil of no local beauty, Cummings. Look here; I don’t understand this. There has been an arrival.”
Cummings, joining his friend in contemplation of the hat and shawl: “Yes; it’s an arrival beyond all question. Those are a lady’s things. I should think that was a Paris hat.” They remain looking at the things some moments in silence.
Bartlett.—”How should a Paris hat get here? I know the landlord wasn’t expecting it. But it can’t be going to stay; it’s here through some caprice. It may be a transient of quality, but it’s a transient. I suppose we shall see the young woman belonging to it at dinner.” He sets the hat on his fist, and holds it at arm’s length from him. “What a curious thing it is about clothes”—
Cummings.—”Don’t, Bartlett, don’t!”
Cummings.—”I don’t know. It makes me feel as if you were offering an indignity to the young lady herself.”