A Woman’s Reason – William Dean Howells
“A Woman’s Reason” is certainly one of the most ambitious novels Mr. Howells has written, not merely because it is so long, but because the author has reached out for effects which he neglected in his earlier books. It is not a radical departure from his established methods, but it indicates a larger and broader conception of the scope, the opportunities, and the resources of his art. The story of Helen Harkness’s struggles has an enduring claim upon every reader’s sympathy, the incidents of the book are spirited, and the movement is alert, vigorous, and at times highly dramatic in its surprises and suspended interest. The author is so loyal to his heroine that she is rarely permitted to disappear from the scene, but such constancy denotes a steadfastness of purpose and leads to a concentration of interest; this method is always artistic if it can be sustained without becoming tiresome, and there are few para graphs in “A Woman’s Reason” which even one who reads for the story alone will care to skip. The keynote is sounded within the first few pages, but the revelation of the motive does not clog the interest of development, and the intelligent reader is the more gratified because the author has paid him the compliment of taking him into his confidence. The story is that of a Boston girl who has been reared without any thought of possible necessity for self-support, is left almost penniless at the death of her father, and surrenders voluntarily the small remnant of the paternal estate to which she had a perfect legal title in order to satisfy her own high sense of principle. She refuses to be de pendent upon friends, and she is separated from her sweetheart by a misunderstanding for which she was to blame. These are conditions which could be made heartrending or sensational, according to the treatment there of; Mr. Howells has the delicate art of making them interesting and sympathetic without straining the probabilities or exciting morbid sentiment.
A Woman’s Reason.
Excerpt from the text:
The day had been very oppressive, and at half past five in the afternoon, the heat had scarcely abated, to the perception of Mr. Joshua Harkness, as he walked heavily up the Park Street mall in Boston Common. When he came opposite the Brewer Fountain, with its Four Seasons of severe drouth, he stopped short, and stared at the bronze group with its insufficient dribble, as if he had never seen it before. Then he felt infirmly about the ground with his stick, stepped aside, and sank tremulously into one of the seats at the edge of the path. The bench was already partly occupied by a young man and a young woman; the young man had his arm thrown along the back of the seat behind the young woman; their heads were each tilted toward the other, and they were making love almost as frankly in that public place as they might in the seclusion of a crowded railway train.
They both glanced at the intruder, and exchanged smiles, apparently of pity for his indecency, and then went on with their love-making, while Mr. Harkness, unconscious of his offence, stared eagerly out over the Common, and from time to time made gestures or signals with his stick in that direction. It was that one day of the week when people are not shouted at by a multitude of surly signboards to keep off the grass, and the turf was everywhere dotted with lolling and lounging groups. Perhaps to compensate for the absence of the signboards (which would reappear overnight like a growth of disagreeable fungi), there was an unusual number of policemen sauntering about, and it was one of these whom Mr. Harkness was trying to attract with his cane. If any saw him, none heeded, and he had to wait till a policeman came down the mall in front of him. This could not have been so long a time as it seemed to Mr. Harkness, who was breathing thickly, and now and then pressing his hand against his forehead, like one who tries to stay a reeling brain.
“Please call a carriage,” he panted, as the officer whom he had thrust in the side with his cane stopped and looked down at him ; and then as the man seemed to hesitate, he added: “My name is Harkness; I live at 9 Beacon Steps. I wish to go home at once; I’ve been taken faint.”
Beacon Steps is not Beacon Street, but it is of like blameless social tradition, and the name, together with a certain air of moneyed respectability in Mr. Harkness, had its effect with the policeman.
“Sick?” he asked. “Well, you are pale. You just hold on, a minute. Heh, there! heh !” he shouted to a passing hackman, who promptly stopped, turned his horses, and drew up beside the curb next the Common. “Now you take my arm, Mr. Harkness, and I’ll help you to the carriage.” He raised the gentleman to his benumbed feet, and got him away through the gathering crowd; when he was gone, the crowd continued to hang about the place where he had been sitting in such numbers, that the young man first took his arm down from the back of the seat, and the young woman tilted her head away from his, and then they both, with vexed and impatient looks, rose and walked away, seeking some other spot for the renewal of their courtship.
The policeman had not been able to refrain from driving home with Mr. Harkness, whom he patronized with a sort of municipal kindness, on the way; and for whom, when he had got him in-doors, and comfortably stretched upon a lounge in the library, he wanted to go and call the doctor. But Mr. Harkness refused, saying that he had had these attacks before, and would soon be all right. He thanked the officer by name, after asking him for it, and the officer went away, leaving Mr. Harkness to the care of the cook who, in that midsummer time, seemed to have sole charge of the house and its master. The policeman flipped the dust from the breast and collar of his coat, in walking back to his beat, with the right feeling of a man who would like to be better prepared if summoned a second time to befriend a gentleman of Mr. Harkness’s standing, and to meet in coming out of his house a young lady of such beauty and elegance as he had just encountered. This young lady, as he closed the door behind him, had run up the steps with the loop of her train in one hand—after the fashion of ten years ago, and in the other a pretty travelling-bag, carried with the fearlessness of a lady who knows that people are out of town. She glanced a little wonderingly, a little defiantly, at the policeman, who, seeing that she must drop one or other of her burdens to ring, politely rang for her.
“Thank you!” said the young lady, speaking a little more wonderingly, a little more defiantly than she had looked.
“Quite welcome, Miss,” returned the policeman, and touched his hat in going down the steps, while the young lady turned and stared after him, leaning a little over the top step on which she stood, with her back to the door. She was very pretty indeed, with blue eyes at once tender and honest, and the fair hair, that goes with their beauty, hanging loosely upon her forehead. Her cheeks, in their young perfection of outline, had a flush beyond their usual delicate color; the heat, and her eager dash up the steps had suffused them with a dewy bloom, that seemed momently to deepen and soften. Her loveliness was saved from the insipidity of faultless lines by a little downward curve, a quirk, or call it dimple, at one corner of her mouth, which, especially in repose, gave it a touch of humorous feeling and formed its final charm: it seemed less a trait of face than of character. That fine positive grace, which is called style, and which is so eminently the gift of exquisite nerves, had not cost her too much; she was slim, but not fragile, and her very motionlessness suggested a vivid bird-like mobility; she stood, as if she had alighted upon the edge of the step. At the opening of the door behind her she turned alertly from the perusal of the policeman’s retreating back, and sprang within.
“How d’ do, Margaret?” She greeted the cook in a voice whose bright kindness seemed the translation of her girlish beauty into sound. “Surprised to see me?” She did not wait for the cook’s answer, but put down her bag, and began pulling off her gloves, after shaking out her skirt, and giving that penetrating sidelong downward look at it, which women always give their drapery at moments of arrival or departure. She turned into the drawing-room from the hall, and went up to the long, old-fashioned mirror, and glanced at the face which it dimly showed her in the close-shuttered room. The face had apparently not changed since she last saw it in that mirror, and one might have fancied that the young lady was somehow surprised at this.
“May I ask why policemen are coming and going in and out of our house, Margaret?” she demanded of the cook’s image, which, further down in the mirror, hesitated at the doorway.
“He come home with your father, Miss Helen,” answered the cook, and as Helen turned around and stared at her in the flesh, she continued: “He had one of his faint turns in the Common. He’s laying down in the library now, Miss Helen.”
“O, poor papa !” wailed the young lady, who knew that in spite of the cook’s pronoun, it could not be the policeman who was then reposing from faintness in the library. She whirled away from the mirror, and swooped through the doorway into the hall, and back into the room where her father lay. “The heat has been too much for him,” she moaned, in mixed self-reproach and compassion, as she flew; and she dropped upon her knees beside him, and fondly caressed his grey head, and cooed and lamented over him, with the irreverent tenderness he liked her to use with him. “Poor old fellow,” she murmured. “It’s too bad! You’re working yourself to death, and I’m going to stay with you now, and put a stop to your being brought home by policemen. Why, you ought to be ashamed, breaking down in this way, as soon as my back is turned! Has Margaret done everything for you? Wouldn’t you like a little light?” She started briskly to her feet, flung up the long window, and raising and lowering the shade to get the right level for her father’s eyes, stood silhouetted against the green space without : a grass plot between high brick walls, on one of which clambered a grape-vine, and on the other a wisteria, while a bed of bright-leafed plants gave its color in the center of the yard. “There!” she said, with a glance at this succinct landscape. “That’s the prettiest bit of nature I’ve seen since I left Boston.” She came back and sat down on a low chair beside her father, who smiled fondly upon her, and took one of her hands to hold, while she pushed back his hair with the other.
“Are you awfully glad to see me?”
“Awfully,” said Mr. Harkness, falling in with her mood, and brightening with the light and her presence. “What brought you so suddenly?”
“Oh, that’s a long story. Are you feeling better, now?”
“Yes. I was merely faint. I shall be all right by morning. I’ve been a little worn out.”
“Was it like the last time?” asked Helen.
“Yes,” said her father.
“A little more like?”
“I don’t think it was more severe,” said Mr. Harkness, thoughtfully.
“What had you been doing? Honor bright, now: was it accounts?”
“Yes, it was accounts, my dear.”
“The same old wretches?”
“The same, old ones ; some new ones, too. They’re in hopeless confusion,” sighed Mr. Harkness, who seemed to age and sadden with the thought.
“Well, now, I’ll tell you what, papa,” said Helen, sternly: “I want you to leave all accounts, old and new, quite alone till the cold weather comes. Will you promise?”
Harkness smiled, as wearily as he had sighed. He knew that she was burlesquing somewhat her ignorance of affairs; and yet it was not much burlesqued, after all; for her life, like that of other American girls of prosperous parentage, had been almost as much set apart from the hard realities of bread-winning as the life of a princess, as entirely dedicated to society, to the studies that refine, and the accomplishments that grace society. The question of money had hardly entered into it. Since she was a little child, and used to climb upon her father’s knee, and ask him, in order to fix his status in her fairy tales, whether he was rich or poor, she might be said never to have fairly thought of that matter. Of course, she understood that she was not so rich as some girls, but she had never found that the difference was against her in society; she could not help perceiving that in regard to certain of them it was in her favor, and that she might have patronized them if she had liked, and that they were glad of her friendship on any terms. Her father’s great losses had come when she was too young to see the difference that they made in his way of living; ever since she could remember they had kept to the same scale of simple ease in the house where she was born, and she had known no wish that there had not been money enough to gratify. Pleasures of every kind had always come to her as freely and with as little wonder on her part as if they had been, like her youth, her bounding health, her beauty, the direct gift of heaven. She knew that the money came from her father’s business, but she had never really asked herself how it was earned. It is doubtful if she could have told what his business was; it was the India trade, whatever that was, and of late years he had seemed to be more worried by it than he used to be, and she had vaguely taken this ill, as an ungrateful return on the part of business. Once he had gone so far as to tell her that he had been hurt by the Great Fire somewhat. But the money for all her needs and luxuries (she was not extravagant, and really did not spend much upon herself) had come as before, and walking through the burnt district, and seeing how handsomely it had been rebuilt, she had a comforting sense that its losses had all been repaired.
“You look a little flushed and excited, my dear,” said her father, in evasion of the commands laid upon him, and he touched her fair cheek . He was very fond of her beauty and of her style; in the earlier days of her young ladyhood, he used to go about with her a great deal, and was angry when he thought she did not get all the notice she ought, and a little jealous when she did.