A Foregone Conclusion – William Dean Howells
For many readers, this story belongs to Mr. Howells’ most perfect pieces of work. In saying this, these people are not unmindful of the delicious humor and exquisite descriptions of ” A Chance Acquaintance,” of Kitty’s breezy freshness and Mr. Arbuton’s typical Bostonism. But Mr. Howells has lived in Venice till the melancholy beauty of its decay has so taken possession of him that he can describe all phases of its life more perfectly than any other English writer; and against a background of palaces and canals’ he creates a picture of the drama of love, ever old, yet ever new, which causes a soul to dwell among the shadows of that great past. The American mother and daughter wandering forlorn in foreign lands, in quest of the health for the elder which never is found, the artist consul, the priest wearily going through the round of offices which are a lie to him, and dreaming over his inventions, till he wakes to find himself in love with the young girl whom he has taught Italian, the group of lesser characters, from gondolier to canonico, briefly drawn, but instinct with life, are delineated with the same subtle skill of portraiture, keen irony, and delicious pen, which makes a new book of Mr. Howells’ a literary event. The atmosphere of the ” Queen of the Sea ” hangs over all. Those who know Venice inhale its unique beauty again from these pages, and those who have never floated on those still waters, away from the common world, can see its very spirit reflected here, as the outlines of its buildings and the hues of its skies are imaged in the canals below them.
A Foregone Conclusion.
Excerpt from the text:
As Don Ippolito passed down the long narrow calle or footway leading from the Campo San Stefano to the Grand Canal in Venice, he peered anxiously about him: now turning for a backward look up the calle, where there was no living thing in sight but a cat on a garden gate; now running a quick eye along the palace walls that rose vast on either hand and notched the slender strip of blue sky visible overhead with the lines of their jutting balconies, chimneys, and cornices; and now glancing toward the canal, where he could see the noiseless black boats meeting and passing. There was no sound in the calle save his own footfalls and the harsh scream of a parrot that hung in the sunshine in one of the loftiest windows; but the note of a peasant crying pots of pinks and roses in the campo came softened to Don Ippolito’s sense, and he heard the gondoliers as they hoarsely jested together and gossiped, with the canal between them, at the next gondola station.
The first tenderness of spring was in the air though down in that calle there was yet enough of the wintry rawness to chill the tip of Don Ippolito’s sensitive nose, which he rubbed for comfort with a handkerchief of dark blue calico, and polished for ornament with a handkerchief of white linen. He restored each to a different pocket in the sides of the ecclesiastical talare, or gown, reaching almost to his ankles, and then clutched the pocket in which he had replaced the linen handkerchief, as if to make sure that something he prized was safe within. He paused abruptly, and, looking at the doors he had passed, went back a few paces and stood before one over which hung, slightly tilted forward, an oval sign painted with the effigy of an eagle, a bundle of arrows, and certain thunderbolts, and bearing the legend, CONSULATE OF THE UNITED STATES, in neat characters. Don Ippolito gave a quick sigh, hesitated a moment, and then seized the bell-pull and jerked it so sharply that it seemed to thrust out, like a part of the mechanism, the head of an old serving-woman at the window above him.
“Who is there?” demanded this head.
“Friends,” answered Don Ippolito in a rich, sad voice.
“And what do you command?” further asked the old woman.
Don Ippolito paused, apparently searching for his voice, before he inquired, “Is it here that the Consul of America lives?”
“Is he perhaps at home?”
“I don’t know. I will go ask him.”
“Do me that pleasure, dear,” said Don Ippolito, and remained knotting his fingers before the closed door. Presently the old woman returned, and looking out long enough to say, “The consul is at home,” drew some inner bolt by a wire running to the lock, that let the door start open; then, waiting to hear Don Ippolito close it again, she called out from her height, “Favor me above.” He climbed the dim stairway to the point where she stood, and followed her to a door, which she flung open into an apartment so brightly lit by a window looking on the sunny canal, that he blinked as he entered. “Signor Console,” said the old woman, “behold the gentleman who desired to see you;” and at the same time Don Ippolito, having removed his broad, stiff, three-cornered hat, came forward and made a beautiful bow. He had lost for the moment the trepidation which had marked his approach to the consulate, and bore himself with graceful dignity.
It was in the first year of the war, and from a motive of patriotism common at that time, Mr. Ferris (one of my many predecessors in office at Venice) had just been crossing his two silken gondola flags above the consular bookcase, where with their gilt lance-headed staves, and their vivid stars and stripes, they made a very pretty effect. He filliped a little dust from his coat, and begged Don Ippolito to be seated, with the air of putting even a Venetian priest on a footing of equality with other men under the folds of the national banner. Mr. Ferris had the prejudice of all Italian sympathizers against the priests; but for this he could hardly have found anything in Don Ippolito to alarm dislike. His face was a little thin, and the chin was delicate; the nose had a fine, Dantesque curve, but its final droop gave a melancholy cast to a countenance expressive of a gentle and kindly spirit; the eyes were large and dark and full of a dreamy warmth. Don Ippolito’s prevailing tint was that transparent blueishness which comes from much shaving of a heavy black beard; his forehead and temples were marble white; he had a tonsure the size of a dollar. He sat silent for a little space, and softly questioned the consul’s face with his dreamy eyes. Apparently he could not gather courage to speak of his business at once, for he turned his gaze upon the window and said, “A beautiful position, Signor Console.”
“Yes, it’s a pretty place,” answered Mr. Ferris, warily.
“So much pleasanter here on the Canalazzo than on the campos or the little canals.”
“Oh, without doubt.”
“Here there must be constant amusement in watching the boats: great stir, great variety, great life. And now the fine season commences, and the Signor Console’s countrymen will be coming to Venice. Perhaps,” added Don Ippolito with a polite dismay, and an air of sudden anxiety to escape from his own purpose, “I may be disturbing or detaining the Signor Console?”
“No,” said Mr. Ferris; “I am quite at leisure for the present. In what can I have the honor of serving you?”
Don Ippolito heaved a long, ineffectual sigh, and taking his linen handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his forehead with it, and rolled it upon his knee. He looked at the door, and all round the room, and then rose and drew near the consul, who had officially seated himself at his desk.
“I suppose that the Signor Console gives passports?” he asked.
“Sometimes,” replied Mr. Ferris, with a clouding face.
Don Ippolito seemed to note the gathering distrust and to be helpless against it. He continued hastily: “Could the Signor Console give a passport for America … to me?”
“Are you an American citizen?” demanded the consul in the voice of a man whose suspicions are fully roused.
“Yes; subject of the American republic.”
“No, surely; I have not that happiness. I am an Austrian subject,” returned Don Ippolito a little bitterly, as if the last words were an unpleasant morsel in the mouth.
“Then I can’t give you a passport,” said Mr. Ferris, somewhat more gently. “You know,” he explained, “that no government can give passports to foreign subjects. That would be an unheard-of thing.”
“But I thought that to go to America an American passport would be needed.”
“In America,” returned the consul, with proud compassion, “they don’t care a fig for passports. You go and you come, and nobody meddles. To be sure,” he faltered, “just now, on account of the secessionists, they do require you to show a passport at New York; but,” he continued more boldly, “American passports are usually for Europe; and besides, all the American passports in the world wouldn’t get you over the frontier at Peschiera. You must have a passport from the Austrian Lieutenancy of Venice.”
Don Ippolito nodded his head softly several times, and said, “Precisely,” and then added with an indescribable weariness, “Patience! Signor Console, I ask your pardon for the trouble I have given,” and he made the consul another low bow.
Whether Mr. Ferris’s curiosity was piqued, and feeling himself on the safe side of his visitor he meant to know why he had come on such an errand, or whether he had some kindlier motive, he could hardly have told himself, but he said, “I’m very sorry. Perhaps there is something else in which I could be of use to you.”
“Ah, I hardly know,” cried Don Ippolito. “I really had a kind of hope in coming to your excellency.”
“I am not an excellency,” interrupted Mr. Ferris, conscientiously.
“Many excuses! But now it seems a mere bestiality. I was so ignorant about the other matter that doubtless I am also quite deluded in this.”
“As to that, of course I can’t say,” answered Mr. Ferris, “but I hope not.”
“Why, listen, signore!” said Don Ippolito, placing his hand over that pocket in which he kept his linen handkerchief. “I had something that it had come into my head to offer your honored government for its advantage in this deplorable rebellion.”
“Oh,” responded Mr. Ferris with a falling countenance. He had received so many offers of help for his honored government from sympathizing foreigners. Hardly a week passed but a sabre came clanking up his dim staircase with a Herr Graf or a Herr Baron attached, who appeared in the spotless panoply of his Austrian captaincy or lieutenancy, to accept from the consul a brigadier-generalship in the Federal armies, on condition that the consul would pay his expenses to Washington, or at least assure him of an exalted post and reimbursement of all outlays from President Lincoln as soon as he arrived. They were beautiful men, with the complexion of blonde girls; their uniforms fitted like kid gloves; the pale blue, or pure white, or huzzar black of their coats was ravishingly set off by their red or gold trimmings; and they were hard to make understand that brigadiers of American birth swarmed at Washington, and that if they went thither, they must go as soldiers of fortune at their own risk. But they were very polite; they begged pardon when they knocked their scabbards against the consul’s furniture, at the door they each made him a magnificent obeisance, said “Servus!” in their great voices, and were shown out by the old Marina, abhorrent of their uniforms and doubtful of the consul’s political sympathies. Only yesterday she had called him up at an unwonted hour to receive the visit of a courtly gentleman who addressed him as Monsieur le Ministre, and offered him at a bargain ten thousand stand of probably obsolescent muskets belonging to the late Duke of Parma. Shabby, hungry, incapable exiles of all nations, religions, and politics beset him for places of honor and emolument in the service of the Union; revolutionists out of business, and the minions of banished despots, were alike willing to be fed, clothed, and dispatched to Washington with swords consecrated to the perpetuity of the republic.
“I have here,” said Don Ippolito, too intent upon showing whatever it was he had to note the change in the consul’s mood, “the model of a weapon of my contrivance, which I thought the government of the North could employ successfully in cases where its batteries were in danger of capture by the Spaniards.”
“Spaniards? Spaniards? We have no war with Spain!” cried the consul.
“Yes, yes, I know,” Don Ippolito made haste to explain, “but those of South America being Spanish by descent”—
“But we are not fighting the South Americans. We are fighting our own Southern States, I am sorry to say.”
“Oh! Many excuses. I am afraid I don’t understand,” said Don Ippolito meekly; whereupon Mr. Ferris enlightened him in a formula (of which he was beginning to be weary) against European misconception of the American situation. Don Ippolito nodded his head contritely, and when Mr. Ferris had ended, he was so much abashed that he made no motion to show his invention till the other added, “But no matter; I suppose the contrivance would work as well against the Southerners as the South Americans. Let me see it, please;” and then Don Ippolito, with a gratified smile, drew from his pocket the neatly finished model of a breech-loading cannon.
“You perceive, Signor Console,” he said with new dignity, “that this is nothing very new as a breech-loader, though I ask you to observe this little improvement for restoring the breech to its place, which is original. The grand feature of my invention, however, is this secret chamber in the breech, which is intended to hold an explosive of high potency, with a fuse coming out below. The gunner, finding his piece in danger, ignites this fuse, and takes refuge in flight. At the moment the enemy seizes the gun the contents of the secret chamber explode, demolishing the piece and destroying its captors.”
The dreamy warmth in Don Ippolito’s deep eyes kindled to a flame; a dark red glowed in his thin cheeks; he drew a box from the folds of his drapery and took snuff in a great whiff, as if inhaling the sulphurous fumes of battle, or titillating his nostrils with grains of gunpowder. He was at least in full enjoyment of the poetic power of his invention, and no doubt had before his eyes a vivid picture of a score of secessionists surprised and blown to atoms in the very moment of triumph. “Behold, Signor Console!” he said.