A Fearful Responsibility (And Other Stories) – William Dean Howells
Mr. Howells’ refined humor is one of his most charming characteristics. It creeps out, however, on the most solemn occasions, and many a situation that might have been pathetic or commonplace is given a piquant turn by some deft touch of mellow satire which pleases and never wounds. This delicate, subdued humor, appealing to the finer sensibilities of the reader, is purely American. It is allied to the French in subtlety, but it has none of the Gallic dash and effervescence. It is a Puritan heritage, with a rich and mellow flavor. The average American combines the cynical penetration of the Frenchman with the mild contemplativeness of the Briton. The one does not sour him, it suggests piquant similes ; the other does not render him indifferent, it only makes him tolerant. Mr. James is also able to start with a satirical purpose and do effective work, but the finer touches are beyond his reach. Mr. Howells, as we have said, has this gift to perfection ; it gives his writings their broadly human interest ; but it is not often that he surrenders himself entirely to the mood of the moment. When he does, the reader is sure of a treat, and this he has in “A Fearful Responsibility.” The very idea of a modest and scholarly man of Professor Elmore’s unsophisticated nature being burdened with the guardianship of a brilliant young American girl in a foreign city at once suggests ludicrous possibilities. In this instance the motive is wrought out with rare skill. The hesitation and remorse of the Professor in managing Lily’s love affairs ; the querulousness of Mrs. Elmore ; and the perfect resignation of the young lady to whatever fate may have in store are pleasantly depicted. Upon the humorous relations of the dramatis personae the chief interest of the story depends. With the exception of Hoskins, none of the characters is much more than a shadow. But the artist-consul is among the finest personages that Mr. Howells has introduced to us.
A Fearful Responsibility (And Other Stories).
Excerpt from the text:
Every loyal American who went abroad during the first years of our great war felt bound to make himself some excuse for turning his back on his country in the hour of her trouble. But when Owen Elmore sailed, no one else seemed to think that he needed excuse. All his friends said it was the best thing for him to do; that he could have leisure and quiet over there, and would be able to go on with his work.
At the risk of giving a farcical effect to my narrative, I am obliged to confess that the work of which Elmore’s friends spoke was a projected history of Venice. So many literary Americans have projected such a work that it may now fairly be regarded as a national enterprise. Elmore was too obscure to have been announced in the usual way by the newspapers as having this design; but it was well known in his town that he was collecting materials when his professorship in the small inland college with which he was connected lapsed through the enlistment of nearly all the students. The president became colonel of the college regiment; and in parting with Elmore, while their boys waited on the campus without, he had said, “Now, Elmore, you must go on with your history of Venice. Go to Venice and collect your materials on the spot. We’re coming through this all right. Mr. Seward puts it at sixty days, but I’ll give them six months to lay down their arms, and we shall want you back at the end of the year. Don’t you have any compunctions about going. I know how you feel; but it is perfectly right for you to keep out of it. Good-by.” They wrung each other’s hands for the last time,—the president fell at Fort Donelson; but now Elmore followed him to the door, and when he appeared there one of the boyish captains shouted, “Three cheers for Professor Elmore!” and the president called for the tiger, and led it, whirling his cap round his head.
Elmore went back to his study, sick at heart. It grieved and vexed him that even these had not thought that he should go to the war, and that his inward struggle on that point had been idle so far as others were concerned. He had been quite earnest in the matter; he had once almost volunteered as a private soldier: he had consulted his doctor, who sternly discouraged him. He would have been truly glad of any accident that forced him into the ranks; but, as he used afterward to say, it was not his idea of soldiership to enlist for the hospital. At the distance of five hundred miles from the scene of hostilities, it was absurd to enter the Home Guard; and, after all, there were, even at first, some selfish people who went into the army, and some unselfish people who kept out of it. Elmore’s bronchitis was a disorder which active service would undoubtedly have aggravated; as it was, he made a last effort to be of use to our Government as a bearer of dispatches. Failing such an appointment, he submitted to expatriation as he best could; and in Italy he fought for our cause against the English, whom he found everywhere all but in arms against us.
He sailed, in fine, with a very fair conscience. “I should be perfectly at ease,” he said to his wife, as the steamer dropped smoothly down to Sandy Hook, “if I were sure that I was not glad to be getting away.”
“You are not glad,” she answered.
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he said, with the weak persistence of a man willing that his wife should persuade him against his convictions; “I wish that I felt certain of it.”
“You are too sick to go to the war; nobody expected you to go.”
“I know that, and I can’t say that I like it. As for being too sick, perhaps it’s the part of a man to go if he dies on the way to the field. It would encourage the others,” he added, smiling faintly.
She ignored the tint from Voltaire in replying: “Nonsense! It would do no good at all. At any rate, it’s too late now.”
“Yes, it’s too late now.”
The sea-sickness which shortly followed formed a diversion from his accusing thoughts. Each day of the voyage removed them further, and with the preoccupations of his first days in Europe, his travel to Italy, and his preparations for a long sojourn in Venice, they had softened to a pensive sense of self-sacrifice, which took a warmer or a cooler tinge according as the news from home was good or bad.
He lost no time in going to work in the Marcian Library, and he early applied to the Austrian authorities for leave to have transcripts made in the archives. The permission was negotiated by the American consul (then a young painter of the name of Ferris), who reported a mechanical facility on the part of the authorities,—as if, he said, they were used to obliging American historians of Venice. The foreign tyranny which cast a pathetic glamour over the romantic city had certainly not appeared to grudge such publicity as Elmore wished to give her heroic memories, though it was then at its most repressive period, and formed a check upon the whole life of the place. The tears were hardly yet dry in the despairing eyes that had seen the French fleet sail away from the Lido, after Solferino, without firing a shot in behalf of Venice; but Lombardy, the Duchies, the Sicilies, had all passed to Sardinia, and the Pope alone represented the old order of native despotism in Italy. At Venice the Germans seemed tranquilly awaiting the change which should destroy their system with the rest; and in the meantime there had occurred one of those impressive pauses, as notable in the lives of nations as of men, when, after the occurrence of great events, the forces of action and endurance seem to be gathering themselves against the stress of the future. The quiet was almost consciously a truce and not a peace; and this local calm had drawn into it certain elements that picturesquely and sentimentally heightened the charm of the place. It was a refuge for many exiled potentates and pretenders; the gondolier pointed out on the Grand Canal the palaces of the Count of Chambord, the Duchess of Parma, and the Infante of Spain; and one met these fallen princes in the squares and streets, bowing with distinct courtesy to any that chose to salute them. Every evening the Piazza San Marco was filled with the white coats of the Austrian officers, promenading to the exquisite military music which has ceased there forever; the patrol clanked through the footways at all hours of the night, and the lagoon heard the cry of the sentinel from fort to fort, and from gunboat to gunboat. Through all this the demonstration of the patriots went on, silent, ceaseless, implacable, annulling every alien effort at gayety, depopulating the theatres, and desolating the ancient holidays.
There was something very fine in this, as a spectacle, Elmore said to his young wife, and he had to admire the austere self-denial of a people who would not suffer their tyrants to see them happy; but they secretly owned to each other that it was fatiguing. Soon after coming to Venice they had made some acquaintance among the Italians through Mr. Ferris, and had early learned that the condition of knowing Venetians was not to know Austrians. It was easy and natural for them to submit, theoretically. As Americans, they must respond to any impulse for freedom, and certainly they could have no sympathy with such a system as that of Austria. By whatever was sacred in our own war upon slavery, they were bound to abhor oppression in every form. But it was hard to make the application of their hatred to the amiable-looking people whom they saw everywhere around them in the quality of tyrants, especially when their Venetian friends confessed that personally they liked the Austrians. Besides, if the whole truth must be told, they found that their friendship with the Italians was not always of the most penetrating sort, though it had a superficial intensity that for a while gave the effect of lasting cordiality. The Elmores were not quite able to decide whether the pause of feeling at which they arrived was through their own defect or not. Much was to be laid to the difference of race, religion, and education; but something, they feared, to the personal vapidity of acquaintances whose meridional liveliness made them yawn, and in whose society they did not always find compensation for the sacrifices they made for it.
“But it is right,” said Elmore. “It would be a sort of treason to associate with the Austrians. We owe it to the Venetians to let them see that our feelings are with them.”
“Yes,” said his wife pensively.
“And it is better for us, as Americans abroad, during this war, to be retired.”
“Well, we are retired,” said Mrs. Elmore.
“Yes, there is no doubt of that,” he returned.
They laughed, and made what they could of chance American acquaintances at the caffès. Elmore had his history to occupy him, and doubtless he could not understand how heavy the time hung upon his wife’s hands. They went often to the theatre, and every evening they went to the Piazza, and ate an ice at Florian’s. This was certainly amusement; and routine was so pleasant to his scholarly temperament that he enjoyed merely that. He made a point of admitting his wife as much as possible into his intellectual life; he read her his notes as fast as he made them, and he consulted her upon the management of his theme, which, as his research extended, he found so vast that he was forced to decide upon a much lighter treatment than he had at first intended. He had resolved upon a history which should be presented in a series of biographical studies, and he was so much interested in this conclusion, and so charmed with the advantages of the form as they developed themselves, that he began to lose the sense of social dulness, and ceased to imagine it in his wife.
A sort of indolence of the sensibilities, in fact, enabled him to endure ennui that made her frantic, and he was often deeply bored without knowing it at the time, or without a reasoned suffering. He suffered as a child suffers, simply, almost ignorantly: it was upon reflection that his nerves began to quiver with retroactive anguish. He was also able to idealize the situation when his wife no longer even wished to do so. His fancy cast a poetry about these Venetian friends, whose conversation displayed the occasional sparkle of Ollendorff-English on a dark ground of lagoon-Italian, and whose vivid smiling and gesticulation she wearied herself in hospitable efforts to outdo. To his eyes their historic past clothed them with its interest, and the long patience of their hope and hatred under foreign rule ennobled them, while to hers they were too often only tiresome visitors, whose powers of silence and of eloquence were alike to be dreaded. It did not console her as it did her husband to reflect that they probably bored the Italians as much in their turn. When a young man, very sympathetic for literature and the Americans, spent an evening, as it seemed to her, in crying nothing but “Per Bácco!” she owned that she liked better his oppressor, who once came by chance, in the figure of a young lieutenant, and who unbuckled his wife, as he called his sword, and, putting her in a corner, sat up on a chair in the middle of the room and sang like a bird, and then told ghost-stories. The songs were out of Heine, and they reminded her of her girlish enthusiasm for German. Elmore was troubled at the lieutenant’s visit, and feared it would cost them all their Italian friends; but she said boldly that she did not care; and she never even tried to believe that the life they saw in Venice was comparable to that of their little college town at home, with its teas and picnics, and simple, easy social gayeties. There she had been a power in her way; she had entertained, and had helped to make some matches: but the Venetians ate nothing, and as for young people, they never saw each other but by stealth, and their matches were made by their parents on a money-basis. She could not adapt herself to this foreign life; it puzzled her, and her husband’s conformity seemed to estrange them, as far as it went. It took away her spirit, and she grew listless and dull. Even the history began to lose its interest in her eyes; she doubted if the annals of such a people as she saw about her could ever be popular.
There were other things to make them melancholy in their exile. The war at home was going badly, where it was going at all. The letters now never spoke of any term to it; they expressed rather the dogged patience of the time when it seemed as if there could be no end, and indicated that the country had settled into shape about it, and was pushing forward its other affairs as if the war did not exist. Mrs. Elmore felt that the America which she had left had ceased to be. The letters were almost less a pleasure than a pain, but she always tore them open, and read them with eager unhappiness. There were miserable intervals of days and even weeks when no letters came, and when the Reuter telegrams in the Gazette of Venice dribbled their vitriolic news of Northern disaster through a few words or lines, and Galignani’s long columns were filled with the hostile exultation and prophecy of the London press.