An Open-Eyed Conspiracy – William Dean Howells
‘An Open-Eyed Conspiracy’ is an extremely delightful book, and delightful in a way in which many American writers have long striven, and are still striving to attract, or distract, the attention of their readers, but in which Howells alone can be said to have attained distinction. He represents an element in the character of his countrymen, literary and otherwise, which may be roughly described as a sleepless sense of humor, which expends itself in some minds in large exaggerations of thought and speech, in others in the invention of tumultuous incidents and the horseplay of practical jokes, and in others in the exploitation of dialects, Eastern, Western, Southern, which never obtained anywhere, the vagaries and absurdities of bad grammar and worse spelling. Mr. Howells is a humorist of a higher kind -of the highest kind, we venture to think- not so much, perhaps, because his intellectual gifts are more abundant than theirs as because he has a clearer idea of their legitimate value and of the uses to which they should be put, because he is a student of humorous literature in its entirety and its specialties, and, more than all, a thoughtful, skillful master of the literary art. With the exception of Washington Irving, he is the only American man of letters of a humorous kind whom it is always a pleasure to read for the sake of his literature, which fulfils all the conditions and violates none of the minor morals of good writing; it is easy and exact, elegant and felicitous, individual and scholarly, and with a certain unpremeditated charm which defies analysis. Primarily a humorist, he is more than a humorist in his novels, and more than a humorist, pure and simple, in his lesser studies of American life and manners, of which ‘An Open-Eyed Conspiracy’ is a fine example. He calls it ‘An Idyll of Saratoga’, a sub-title which suggests rather than describes the class of productions that it illustrates. It is more than an idyll, as the phrase is commonly understood, so much more, and so different in some respects, that it might not be amiss to call it a comedy instead. It is jeweled with the liveliness of movement and the lightness of truth which is the life of comedy. The characters are sketched rather than drawn, hinted rather than painted; the situations are amusing, and not too provocative of doubt as to their ending, and here and there are little touches of satiric fun, unexpected gleams of wit, which add a sparkle to the freshness and gayety of the whole. No one who has seen, even casually and without reflection, the kind of hotel life which forms the background of this pretty summer play can fail to perceive the fidelity with which Mr. Howells has transferred its spirit to his pages; the closeness of his observation and his enjoyment of it for its own sake. Like the angler of whom Walton tells us, he handles his worms as if he loved them. A kindly, gentle nature and a satisfying writer, Howells is at his best in this ‘Open-Eyed Conspiracy.’
An Open-Eyed Conspiracy.
Excerpt from the text:
The day had been very hot under the tall trees which everywhere embower and stifle Saratoga, for they shut out the air as well as the sun; and after tea (they still have an early dinner at all the hotels in Saratoga, and tea is the last meal of the day) I strolled over to the pretty Congress Park, in the hope of getting a breath of coolness there. Mrs. March preferred to take the chances on the verandah of our pleasant little hotel, where I left her with the other ladies, forty fanning like one, as they rocked to and fro under the roof lifted to the third story by those lofty shafts peculiar to the Saratoga architecture. As far as coolness was concerned, I thought she was wise after I reached the park, for I found none of it there. I tried first a chair in the arabesque pavilion (I call it arabesque in despair; it might very well be Swiss; it is charming, at all events), and studied to deceive myself with the fresh-looking ebullition of the spring in the vast glass bowls your goblets are served from (people say it is pumped, and artificially aërated); but after a few moments this would not do, and I went out to a bench, of the rows beside the gravelled walks. It was no better there; but I fancied it would be better on the little isle in the little lake, where the fountain was flinging a sheaf of spray into the dull air. This looked even cooler than the bubbling spring in the glass vases, and it sounded vastly cooler. There would be mosquitoes there, of course, I admitted in the debate I had with myself before I decided to make experiment of the place, and the event proved me right. There were certainly some mosquitoes in the Grecian temple (if it is not a Turkish kiosk; perhaps we had better compromise, and call it a Grecian kiosk), which you reach by a foot-bridge from the mainland, and there was a damp in the air which might pass for coolness. There were three or four people standing vaguely about in the kiosk; but my idle mind fixed itself upon a young French-Canadian mother of low degree, who sat, with her small boy, on the verge of the pavement near the water. She scolded him in their parlance for having got himself so dirty, and then she smacked his poor, filthy little hands, with a frown of superior virtue, though I did not find her so very much cleaner herself. I cannot see children beaten without a heartache, and I continued to suffer for this small wretch even after he had avenged himself by eating a handful of peanut shells, which would be sure to disagree with him and make his mother more trouble. In fact, I experienced no relief till his mother, having spent her insensate passion, gathered him up with sufficient tenderness, and carried him away. Then, for the first time, I noticed a girl sitting in a chair just outside the kiosk, and showing a graceful young figure as she partly turned to look after the departing mother and her child. When she turned again and glanced in my direction, at the noise I made in placing my chair, I could see two things—that she had as much beauty as grace, and that she was disappointed in me. The latter fact did not wound me, for I felt its profound impersonality. I was not wrong in myself; I was simply wrong in being an elderly man with a grey beard instead of the handsome shape and phase of youth which her own young beauty had a right to in my place. I was not only not wounded, but I was not sorry not to be that shape and phase of youth, except as I hate to disappoint any one.
Her face was very beautiful; it was quite perfectly beautiful, and of such classic mould that she might well have been the tutelary goddess of that temple (if it was a temple, and not a kiosk), in the white duck costume which the goddesses were wearing that summer. Her features were Greek, but her looks were American; and she was none the less a goddess, I decided, because of that air of something exacting, of not quite satisfied, which made me more and more willing to be elderly and grey-bearded. I at least should not be expected to supply the worship necessary to keep such a goddess in good humour.
I do not know just how I can account for a strain of compassion which mingled with this sense of irresponsibility in me; perhaps it was my feeling of security that attuned me to pity; but certainly I did not look at this young girl long without beginning to grieve for her, and to weave about her a web of possibilities, which grew closer and firmer in texture when she was joined by a couple who had apparently not left her a great while before, and who spoke, without otherwise saluting her, as they sat down on either side of her. I instantly interpreted her friends to be the young wife and middle-aged husband of a second marriage; for they were evidently man and wife, and he must have been nearly twice as old as she. In person he tended to the weight which expresses settled prosperity, and a certain solidification of temperament and character; as to his face, it was kind, and it was rather humorous, in spite of being a little slow in the cast of mind it suggested. He wore an iron-grey beard on his cheeks and chin, but he had his strong upper lip clean shaven; some drops of perspiration stood upon it, and upon his forehead, which showed itself well up toward his crown under the damp strings of his scanty hair. He looked at the young goddess in white duck with a sort of trouble in his friendly countenance, and his wife (if it was his wife) seemed to share his concern, though she smiled, while he let the corners of his straight mouth droop. She was smaller than the young girl, and I thought almost as young; and she had the air of being somehow responsible for her, and cowed by her, though the word says rather more than I mean. She was not so well dressed; that is, not so stylishly, though doubtless her costume was more expensive. It seemed the inspiration of a village dressmaker; and her husband’s low-cut waistcoat, and his expanse of plaited shirt-front, betrayed a provincial ideal which she would never decry—which she would perhaps never find different from the most worldly. He had probably, I swiftly imagined, been wearing just that kind of clothes for twenty years, and telling his tailor to make each new suit like the last; he had been buying for the same period the same shape of Panama hat, regardless of the continually changing type of straw hats on other heads. I cannot say just why, as he tilted his chair back on its hind-legs, I felt that he was either the cashier of the village bank at home, or one of the principal business men of the place. Village people I was quite resolute to have them all; but I left them free to have come from some small manufacturing centre in western Massachusetts or southern Vermont or central New York. It was easy to see that they were not in the habit of coming away from their place, wherever it was; and I wondered whether they were finding their account in the present excursion.
I myself think Saratoga one of the most delightful spectacles in the world, and Mrs. March is of the same mind about it. We like all the waters, and drink them without regard to their different properties; but we rather prefer the Congress spring, because it is such a pleasant place to listen to the Troy military band in the afternoon, and the more or less vocal concert in the evening. All the Saratoga world comes and goes before us, as we sit there by day and by night, and we find a perpetual interest in it. We go and look at the deer (a herd of two, I think) behind their wire netting in the southward valley of the park, and we would feed the trout in their blue tank if we did not see them suffering with surfeit, and hanging in motionless misery amid the clear water under a cloud of bread crumbs. We are such devotees of the special attractions offered from time to time that we do not miss a single balloon ascension or pyrotechnic display. In fact, it happened to me one summer that I studied so earnestly and so closely the countenance of the lady who went up (in trunk-hose), in order to make out just what were the emotions of a lady who went up every afternoon in a balloon, that when we met near the end of the season in Broadway I thought I must have seen her somewhere in society, and took off my hat to her (she was not at the moment in trunk-hose). We like going about to the great hotels, and sponging on them for the music in the forenoon; we like the gaudy shops of modes kept by artists whose addresses are French and whose surnames are Irish; and the bazaars of the Armenians and Japanese, whose rugs and bric-à-brac are not such bargains as you would think. We even go to the races sometimes; we are not sure it is quite right, but as we do not bet, and are never decided as to which horse has won, it is perhaps not so wrong as it might be.
Somehow I could not predicate these simple joys of the people I have been talking of, for the very reason, that they were themselves so simple. It was our sophistication which enabled us to taste pleasures which would have been insipidities to them. Their palates would have demanded other flavours—social excitements, balls, flirtations, almost escapades. I speak of the two women; the man, doubtless, like most other Americans of his age, wanted nothing but to get back to business in the small town where he was important; and still more I speak of the young girl; for the young wife I fancied very willing to go back to her house-keeping, and to be staying on in Saratoga only on her friend’s account.
I had already made up my mind that they had been the closest friends before one of them married, and that the young wife still thought the young girl worthy of the most splendid fate that marriage could have in store for any of her sex. Women often make each other the idols of such worship; but I could not have justified this lady’s adoration so far as it concerned the mental and moral qualities of her friend, though I fully shared it in regard to her beauty. To me she looked a little dull and a little selfish, and I chose to think the husband modestly found her selfish, if he were too modest to find her dull.
Yet, after all, I tacitly argued with him, why should we call her selfish? It was perfectly right and fit that, as a young girl with such great personal advantages, she should wish to see the world—even to show herself to the world,—and find in it some agreeable youth who should admire her, and desire to make her his own for ever. Compare this simple and natural longing with the insatiate greed and ambition of one of our own sex, I urged him, and then talk to me, if you can, of this poor girl’s selfishness! A young man has more egoism in an hour than a young girl has in her whole life. She thinks she wishes some one to be devoted to her, but she really wishes some one to let her be devoted to him; and how passively, how negatively, she must manage to accomplish her self-sacrifice! He, on the contrary, means to go conquering and enslaving forward; to be in and out of love right and left, and to end, after many years of triumph, in the possession of the best and wisest and fairest of her sex. I know the breed, my dear sir; I have been a young man myself. We men have liberty, we have initiative; we are not chaperoned; we can go to this one and that one freely and fearlessly. But women must sit still, and be come to or shied off from. They cannot cast the bold eye of interest; they can at most bridle under it, and furtively respond from the corner of the eye of weak hope and gentle deprecation. Be patient, then, with this poor child if she darkles a little under the disappointment of not finding Saratoga so personally gay as she supposed it would be, and takes it out of you and your wife, as if you were to blame for it, in something like sulks.
He remained silent under these tacit appeals, but at the end he heaved a deep sigh, as he might if he were acknowledging their justice, and were promising to do his very best in the circumstances. His wife looked round at him, but did not speak. In fact, they none of them spoke after the first words of greeting to the girl, as I can very well testify; for I sat eavesdropping with all my might, resolved not to lose a syllable, and I am sure I lost none.
The young girl did not look round at that deep-drawn sigh of the man’s; she did not lift her head even when he cleared his throat: but I was intent upon him, for I thought that these sounds preluded an overture (I am not sure of the figure) to my acquaintance, and in fact he actually asked, “Do you know just when the concert begins?”
I was overjoyed at his question, for I was poignantly interested in the little situation I had created, and I made haste to answer: “Well, nominally at eight o’clock; but the first half-hour is usually taken up in tuning the instruments. If you get into the pavilion at a quarter to nine you won’t lose much. It isn’t so bad when it really begins.”
The man permitted himself a smile of the pleasure we Americans all feel at having a thing understated in that way. His wife asked timidly, “Do we have to engage our seats in the—pavilion?”
“Oh, no,” I laughed; “there’s no such rush as that. Haven’t you been at the concerts before?”
The man answered for her: “We haven’t been here but a few days. I should think,” he added to her, “it would be about as comfortable outside of the house.” I perceived that he maintained his independence of my superior knowledge by refusing to say “pavilion”; and in fact I do not know whether that is the right name for the building myself.
“It will be hot enough anywhere,” I assented, as if the remark had been made to me; but here I drew the line out of self-respect, and resolved that he should make the next advances.
The young girl looked up at the first sound of my voice, and verified me as the elderly man whom she had seen before; and then she looked down at the water again. I understood, and I freely forgave her. If my beard had been brown instead of grey I should have been an adventure; but to the eye of girlhood adventure can never wear a grey beard. I was truly sorry for her; I could read in the pensive droop of her averted face that I was again a disappointment.
They all three sat, without speaking again, in the mannerless silence of Americans. The man was not going to feel bound in further civility to me because I had civilly answered a question of his. I divined that he would be glad to withdraw from the overture he had made; he may have thought from my readiness to meet him half way that I might be one of those sharpers in whom Saratoga probably abounded. This did not offend me; it amused me; I fancied his confusion if he could suddenly know how helplessly and irreparably honest I was.
“I don’t know but it’s a little too damp here, Rufus,” said the wife.
“I don’t know but it is,” he answered; but none of them moved, and none of them spoke again for some minutes. Then the wife said again, but this time to the friend, “I don’t know but it’s a little too damp here, Julia,” and the friend answered, as the husband had—
“I don’t know but it is.”
I had two surprises in this slight event. I could never have imagined that the girl had so brunette a name as Julia, or anything less blond in sound than, say, Evadne, at the very darkest; and I had made up my mind—Heaven knows why—that her voice would be harsh. Perhaps I thought it unfair that she should have a sweet voice added to all that beauty and grace of hers; but she had a sweet voice, very tender and melodious, with a plangent note in it that touched me and charmed me. Beautiful and graceful as she was, she had lacked atmosphere before, and now suddenly she had atmosphere. I resolved to keep as near to these people as I could, and not to leave the place as long as they stayed; but I did not think it well to let them feel that I was æsthetically shadowing them, and I got up and strolled away toward the pavilion, keeping an eye in the back of my head upon them.
I sat down in a commanding position, and watched the people gathering for the concert; and in the drama of a group of Cubans, or of South Americans, I almost forgot for a moment the pale idyl of my compatriots at the kiosk. There was a short, stout little Spanish woman speaking in the shapely sentences which the Latin race everywhere delights in, and around her was an increasing number of serious Spanish men, listening as if to important things, and paying her that respectful attention which always amuses and puzzles me. In view of what we think their low estimate of women, I cannot make out whether it is a personal tribute to some specific woman whom they regard differently from all the rest of her sex, or whether they choose to know in her for the nouce the abstract woman who is better than woman in the concrete. I am sure I have never seen men of any other race abandon themselves to such a luxury of respect as these black and grey bearded Spaniards of leaden complexion showed this dumpy personification of womanhood, with their prominent eyes bent in homage upon her, and their hands trembling with readiness to seize their hats off in reverence. It appeared presently that the matter they were all canvassing so devoutly was the question of where she should sit. It seemed to be decided that she could not do better than sit just at that point. When she actually took a chair the stately convocation ended, and its members, with low obeisances, dispersed themselves in different directions. They had probably all been sitting with her the whole afternoon on the verandah of the Everett House, where their race chiefly resorts in Saratoga, and they were availing themselves of this occasion to appear to be meeting her, after a long interval, in society.