A Modern Instance – William Dean Howells
“A Modern Instance” is among the most vigorous performances that Mr. Howells has given to the public. The fine humor of his previous writings is here; the descriptive power, which with a few words enables us to understand the visible surroundings of the characters, the close reading of character, analyzing without seeming to do so, and all that. But the book is a deeper one than most that Mr. Howells has written, not merely because it treats of a subject that has an element of the tragic in it, but because it treats a more important theme than has yet engaged its author’s attention, in a manner commensurate with its importance, and in a manner which leaves the reader with the impression that the theme has been discussed for all that it is artistically and morally worth. This story, like others that have proceeded from the same pen, is a study of certain characteristic phases of American, or rather New England, life-for Mr. Howells appears to be under the impression that there is a certain flavor-savory or unsavory- about New England life which is not to be found elsewhere, or at least nowhere else in the same intensity. The hero of “A Modern Instance” is one of those smart fellows whose smartness from the first takes quite a positive bend in the direction of scampishness. We all know of such, and the essentials of Mr. Howells’ careful characterization refer themselves easily to many examples in real life. But while Bartley Hubbard is a type, he is also a distinct individuality, and the tragedy of “A Modern Instance” comes from mating his conscienceless and superficial smartness with the limited intelligence, Puritanical bringing-up, imperfect culture, and strong affections of a girl who is as much a typical New Englander as any of the smart young women who have done so much duty as representative Americans in the writings of Mr. Howells and Mr. James. There is nothing better in Mr. Howells’ book than the glimpse that is given at the family surroundings of Marcia, and an Indiana divorce court is the legitimate winding-up of the mating of such a woman with such a man as Bartley Hubbard. The smart fellow literally wears out the patience of his not at all smart wife-wrecking her life just as he wrecks his own moral and physical natures. The moral of such a story is obvious, and Mr. Howells might have satisfied every requirement of artistic propriety by permitting it to point itself. He has not, however, found it possible to let go of his subject without a bit of sermonizing, which is very excellent in its particular way, but which adds nothing to the impressiveness of the narrative.
A Modern Instance.
Excerpt from the text:
The village stood on a wide plain, and around it rose the mountains. They were green to their tops in summer, and in winter white through their serried pines and drifting mists, but at every season serious and beautiful, furrowed with hollow shadows, and taking the light on masses and stretches of iron-gray crag. The river swam through the plain in long curves, and slipped away at last through an unseen pass to the southward, tracing a score of miles in its course over a space that measured but three or four. The plain was very fertile, and its features, if few and of purely utilitarian beauty, had a rich luxuriance, and there was a tropical riot of vegetation when the sun of July beat on those northern fields. They waved with corn and oats to the feet of the mountains, and the potatoes covered a vast acreage with the lines of their intense, coarse green; the meadows were deep with English grass to the banks of the river, that, doubling and returning upon itself, still marked its way with a dense fringe of alders and white birches.
But winter was full half the year. The snow began at Thanksgiving, and fell snow upon snow till Fast Day, thawing between the storms, and packing harder and harder against the break-up in the spring, when it covered the ground in solid levels three feet high, and lay heaped in drifts, that defied the sun far into May. When it did not snow, the weather was keenly clear, and commonly very still. Then the landscape at noon had a stereoscopic glister under the high sun that burned in a heaven without a cloud, and at setting stained the sky and the white waste with freezing pink and violet. On such days the farmers and lumbermen came in to the village stores, and made a stiff and feeble stir about their doorways, and the school children gave the street a little life and color, as they went to and from the Academy in their red and blue woollens. Four times a day the mill, the shrill wheeze of whose saws had become part of the habitual silence, blew its whistle for the hands to begin and leave off work, in blasts that seemed to shatter themselves against the thin air. But otherwise an arctic quiet prevailed.
Behind the black boles of the elms that swept the vista of the street with the fine gray tracery of their boughs, stood the houses, deep-sunken in the accumulating drifts, through which each householder kept a path cut from his doorway to the road, white and clean as if hewn out of marble. Some cross streets straggled away east and west with the poorer dwellings; but this, that followed the northward and southward reach of the plain, was the main thoroughfare, and had its own impressiveness, with those square white houses which they build so large in Northern New England. They were all kept in scrupulous repair, though here and there the frost and thaw of many winters had heaved a fence out of plumb, and threatened the poise of the monumental urns of painted pine on the gate-posts. They had dark-green blinds, of a color harmonious with that of the funereal evergreens in their dooryards; and they themselves had taken the tone of the snowy landscape, as if by the operation of some such law as blanches the fur-bearing animals of the North. They seemed proper to its desolation, while some houses of more modern taste, painted to a warmer tone, looked, with their mansard roofs and jig-sawed piazzas and balconies, intrusive and alien.
At one end of the street stood the Academy, with its classic façade and its belfry; midway was the hotel, with the stores, the printing-office, and the churches; and at the other extreme, one of the square white mansions stood advanced from the rank of the rest, at the top of a deep-plunging valley, defining itself against the mountain beyond so sharply that it seemed as if cut out of its dark, wooded side. It was from the gate before this house, distinct in the pink light which the sunset had left, that, on a Saturday evening in February, a cutter, gay with red-lined robes, dashed away, and came musically clashing down the street under the naked elms. For the women who sat with their work at the windows on either side of the way, hesitating whether to light their lamps, and drawing nearer and nearer to the dead-line of the outer cold for the latest glimmer of the day, the passage of this ill-timed vehicle was a vexation little short of grievous. Every movement on the street was precious to them, and, with all the keenness of their starved curiosity, these captives of the winter could not make out the people in the cutter. Afterward it was a mortification to them that they should not have thought at once of Bartley Hubbard and Marcia Gaylord. They had seen him go up toward Squire Gaylord’s house half an hour before, and they now blamed themselves for not reflecting that of course he was going to take Marcia over to the church sociable at Lower Equity. Their identity being established, other little proofs of it reproached the inquirers; but these perturbed spirits were at peace, and the lamps were out in the houses (where the smell of rats in the wainscot and of potatoes in the cellar strengthened with the growing night), when Bartley and Marcia drove back through the moonlit silence to her father’s door. Here, too, the windows were all dark, except for the light that sparely glimmered through the parlor blinds; and the young man slackened the pace of his horse, as if to still the bells, some distance away from the gate.
The girl took the hand he offered her when he dismounted at the gate, and, as she jumped from the cutter, “Won’t you come in?” she asked.
“I guess I can blanket my horse and stand him under the wood-shed,” answered the young man, going around to the animal’s head and leading him away.
When he returned to the door the girl opened it, as if she had been listening for his step; and she now stood holding it ajar for him to enter, and throwing the light upon the threshold from the lamp, which she lifted high in the other hand. The action brought her figure in relief, and revealed the outline of her bust and shoulders, while the lamp flooded with light the face she turned to him, and again averted for a moment, as if startled at some noise behind her. She thus showed a smooth, low forehead, lips and cheeks deeply red, a softly rounded chin touched with a faint dimple, and in turn a nose short and aquiline; her eyes were dark, and her dusky hair flowed crinkling above her fine black brows, and vanished down the curve of a lovely neck. There was a peculiar charm in the form of her upper lip: it was exquisitely arched, and at the corners it projected a little over the lower lip, so that when she smiled it gave a piquant sweetness to her mouth, with a certain demure innocence that qualified the Roman pride of her profile. For the rest, her beauty was of the kind that coming years would only ripen and enrich; at thirty she would be even handsomer than at twenty, and be all the more southern in her type for the paling of that northern, color in her cheeks. The young man who looked up at her from the doorstep had a yellow mustache, shadowing either side of his lip with a broad sweep, like a bird’s wing; his chin, deep-cut below his mouth, failed to come strenuously forward; his cheeks were filled to an oval contour, and his face had otherwise the regularity common to Americans; his eyes, a clouded gray, heavy-lidded and long-lashed, were his most striking feature, and he gave her beauty a deliberate look from them as he lightly stamped the snow from his feet, and pulled the seal-skin gloves from his long hands.
“Come in,” she whispered, coloring with pleasure under his gaze; and she made haste to shut the door after him, with a luxurious impatience of the cold. She led the way into the room from which she had come, and set down the lamp on the corner of the piano, while he slipped off his overcoat and swung it over the end of the sofa. They drew up chairs to the stove, in which the smouldering fire, revived by the opened draft, roared and snapped. It was midnight, as the sharp strokes of a wooden clock declared from the kitchen, and they were alone together, and all the other inmates of the house were asleep. The situation, scarcely conceivable to another civilization, is so common in ours, where youth commands its fate and trusts solely to itself, that it may be said to be characteristic of the New England civilization wherever it keeps its simplicity. It was not stolen or clandestine; it would have interested every one, but would have shocked no one in the village if the whole village had known it; all that a girl’s parents ordinarily exacted was that they should not be waked up.
“Ugh!” said the girl. “It seems as if I never should get warm.” She leaned forward, and stretched her hands toward the stove, and he presently rose from the rocking-chair in which he sat, somewhat lower than she, and lifted her sack to throw it over her shoulders. But he put it down and took up his overcoat.
“Allow my coat the pleasure,” he said, with the ease of a man who is not too far lost to be really flattering.
“Much obliged to the coat,” she replied, shrugging herself into it and pulling the collar close about her throat. “I wonder you didn’t put it on the sorrel. You could have tied the sleeves around her neck.”
“Shall I tie them around yours?” He leaned forward from the low rocking-chair into which he had sunk again, and made a feint at what he had proposed.
But she drew back with a gay “No!” and added: “Some day, father says, that sorrel will be the death of us. He says it’s a bad color for a horse. They’re always ugly, and when they get heated they’re crazy.”
“You never seem to be very much frightened when you’re riding after the sorrel,” said Bartley.
“Oh, I’ve great faith in your driving.”
“Thanks. But I don’t believe in this notion about a horse being vicious because he’s of a certain color. If your father didn’t believe in it, I should call it a superstition; but the Squire has no superstitions.”
“I don’t know about that,” said the girl. “I don’t think he likes to see the new moon over his left shoulder.”
“I beg his pardon, then,” returned Bartley. “I ought to have said religions: the Squire has no religions.” The young fellow had a rich, caressing voice, and a securely winning manner which comes from the habit of easily pleasing; in this charming tone, and with this delightful insinuation, he often said things that hurt; but with such a humorous glance from his softly shaded eyes that people felt in some sort flattered at being taken into the joke, even while they winced under it. The girl seemed to wince, as if, in spite of her familiarity with the fact, it wounded her to have her father’s scepticism recognized just then. She said nothing, and he added, “I remember we used to think that a redheaded boy was worse-tempered on account of his hair. But I don’t believe the sorrel-tops, as we called them, were any more fiery than the rest of us.”
Marcia did not answer at once, and then she said, with the vagueness of one not greatly interested by the subject, “You’ve got a sorrel-top in your office that’s fiery enough, if she’s anything like what she used to be when she went to school.”
“Oh, she isn’t so bad. She’s pretty lively, but she’s very eager to learn the business, and I guess we shall get along. I think she wants to please me.”
“Does she! But she must be going on seventeen now.”
“I dare say,” answered the young man, carelessly, but with perfect intelligence. “She’s good-looking in her way, too.”
“Oh! Then you admire red hair?”
He perceived the anxiety that the girl’s pride could not keep out of her tone, but he answered indifferently, “I’m a little too near that color myself. I hear that red hair’s coming into fashion, but I guess it’s natural I should prefer black.”
She leaned back in her chair, and crushed the velvet collar of his coat under her neck in lifting her head to stare at the high-hung mezzotints and family photographs on the walls, while a flattered smile parted her lips, and there was a little thrill of joy in her voice. “I presume we must be a good deal behind the age in everything at Equity.”