Fennel And Rue – William Dean Howells
A young New York novelist receives a letter from a girl asking for the solution of a serial story he is writing, for she is so ill that she does not believe she will live to finish it. His publishers answer the letter in good faith only to find out that it was all a girlish prank. The vanity wounded author writes her a scathing letter. Later at a Long Island house-party he meets her, as she is the hostess’s paid assistant to entertain the guests. The unspoken love story that ensues ends most unexpectedly. Mr. Howells’s delicate satire and pungent irony is nowhere more apparent than in this skeleton romance. He sees the weakness and absurdity of human nature as unerringly as he does its strength and weakness and one closes the book feeling it to be merciless but masterly.
Fennel And Rue.
Excerpt from the text:
The success of Verrian did not come early, and it did not come easily. He had been trying a long time to get his work into the best magazines, and when he had won the favor of the editors, whose interest he had perhaps had from the beginning, it might be said that they began to accept his work from their consciences, because in its way it was so good that they could not justly refuse it. The particular editor who took Verrian’s serial, after it had come back to the author from the editors of the other leading periodicals, was in fact moved mainly by the belief that the story would please the better sort of his readers. These, if they were not so numerous as the worse, he felt had now and then the right to have their pleasure studied.
It was a serious story, and it was somewhat bitter, as Verrian himself was, after his struggle to reach the public with work which he knew merited recognition. But the world which does not like people to take themselves too seriously also likes them to take themselves seriously, and the bitterness in Verrian’s story proved agreeable to a number of readers unexpectedly great. It intimated a romantic personality in the author, and the world still likes to imagine romantic things of authors. It likes especially to imagine them of novelists, now that there are no longer poets; and when it began to like Verrian’s serial, it began to write him all sorts of letters, directly, in care of the editor, and indirectly to the editor, whom they asked about Verrian more than about his story.
It was a man’s story rather than a woman’s story, as these may be distinguished; but quite for that reason women seemed peculiarly taken with it. Perhaps the women had more leisure or more courage to write to the author and the editor; at any rate, most of the letters were from women; some of the letters were silly and fatuous enough, but others were of an intelligence which was none the less penetrating for being emotional rather than critical. These maids or matrons, whoever or whichever they were, knew wonderfully well what the author would be at, and their interest in his story implied a constant if not a single devotion. Now and then Verrian was tempted to answer one of them, and under favor of his mother, who had been his confidant at every point of his literary career, he yielded to the temptation; but one day there came a letter asking an answer, which neither he nor his mother felt competent to deal with. They both perceived that they must refer it to the editor of the magazine, and it seemed to them so important that they decided Verrian must go with it in person to the editor. Then he must be so far ruled by him, if necessary, as to give him the letter and put himself, as the author, beyond an appeal which he found peculiarly poignant.
The letter, which had overcome the tacit misgivings of his mother as they read it and read it again together, was from a girl who had perhaps no need to confess herself young, or to own her inexperience of the world where stories were written and printed. She excused herself with a delicacy which Verrian’s correspondents by no means always showed for intruding upon him, and then pleaded the power his story had over her as the only shadow of right she had in addressing him. Its fascination, she said, had begun with the first number, the first chapter, almost the first paragraph. It was not for the plot that she cared; she had read too many stories to care for the plot; it was the problem involved. It was one which she had so often pondered in her own mind that she felt, in a way she hoped he would not think conceited, almost as if the story was written for her. She had never been able to solve the problem; how he would solve it she did not see how she could wait to know; and here she made him a confidence without which, she said, she should not have the courage to go on. She was an invalid, and her doctor had told her that, though she might live for months, there were chances that she might die at any moment suddenly. He would think it strange, and it was strange that she should tell him this, and stranger still that she should dare to ask him what she was going to ask. The story had yet four months to run, and she had begun to have a morbid foreboding that she should not live to read it in the ordinary course. She was so ignorant about writers that she did not know whether such a thing was ever done, or could be done; but if he could tell her how the story was to come out he would be doing more for her than anything else that could be done for her on earth. She had read that sometimes authors began to print their serial stories before they had written them to the end, and he might not be sure of the end himself; but if he had finished this story of his, and could let her see the last pages in print, she would owe him the gratitude she could never express.
The letter was written in an educated hand, and there were no foibles of form or excesses of fashion in the stationery to mar the character of sincerity the simple wording conveyed. The postal address, with the date, was fully given, and the name signed at the end was evidently genuine.
Verrian himself had no question of the genuineness of the letter in any respect; his mother, after her first misgivings, which were perhaps sensations, thought as he did about it. She said the story dealt so profoundly with the deepest things that it was no wonder a person, standing like that girl between life and death, should wish to know how the author solved its problem. Then she read the letter carefully over again, and again Verrian read it, with an effect not different from that which its first perusal had made with him. His faith in his work was so great, so entire, that the notion of any other feeling about it was not admissible.
“Of course,” he said, with a sigh of satisfaction, “I must show the letter to Armiger at once.”
“Of course,” his mother replied. “He is the editor, and you must not do anything without his approval.”
The faith in the writer of the letter, which was primary with him, was secondary with her, but perhaps for that reason, she was all the more firmly grounded in it.
There was nothing to cloud the editor’s judgment, when Verrian came to him, except the fact that he was a poet as well as an editor. He read in a silence as great as the author’s the letter which Verrian submitted. Then he remained pondering it for as long a space before he said, “That is very touching.”
Verrian jumped to his question. “Do you mean that we ought to send her the proofs of the story?”
“No,” the editor faltered, but even in this decision he did not deny the author his sympathy. “You’ve touched bottom in that story, Verrian. You may go higher, but you can never go deeper.”
Verrian flushed a little. “Oh, thank you!”
“I’m not surprised the girl wants to know how you manage your problem—such a girl, standing in the shadow of the other world, which is always eclipsing this, and seeing how you’ve caught its awful outline.”
Verrian made a grateful murmur at the praise. “That is what my mother felt. Then you have no doubt of the good faith—”
“No,” the editor returned, with the same quantity, if not the same quality, of reluctance as before. “You see, it would be too daring.”
“Then why not let her have the proofs?”
“The thing is so unprecedented—”
“Our doing it needn’t form a precedent.”
“And if you’ve no doubt of its being a true case—”
“We must prove that it is, or, rather, we must make her prove it. I quite feel with you about it. If I were to act upon my own impulse, my own convictions, I should send her the rest of the story and take the chances. But she may be an enterprising journalist in disguise it’s astonishing what women will do when they take to newspaper work—and we have no right to risk anything, for the magazine’s sake, if not yours and mine. Will you leave this letter with me?”
“I expected to leave the whole affair in your hands. Do you mind telling me what you propose to do? Of course, it won’t be anything—abrupt—”
“Oh no; and I don’t mind telling you what has occurred to me. If this is a true case, as you say, and I’ve no question but it is, the writer will be on confidential terms with her pastor as well as her doctor and I propose asking her to get him to certify, in any sort of general terms, to her identity. I will treat the matter delicately—Or, if you prefer to write to her yourself—”
“Oh no, it’s much better for you to do it; you can do it authoritatively.”
“Yes, and if she isn’t the real thing, but merely a woman journalist trying to work us for a ‘story’ in her Sunday edition, we shall hear no more from her.”
“I don’t see anything to object to in your plan,” Verrian said, upon reflection. “She certainly can’t complain of our being cautious.”
“No, and she won’t. I shall have to refer the matter to the house—”
“Oh, will you?”
“Why, certainly! I couldn’t take a step like that without the approval of the house.”
“No,” Verrian assented, and he made a note of the writer’s address from the letter. Then, after a moment spent in looking hard at the letter, he gave it back to the editor and went abruptly away.
He had proof, the next morning, that the editor had acted promptly, at least so far as regarded the house. The house had approved his plan, if one could trust the romantic paragraph which Verrian found in his paper at breakfast, exploiting the fact concerned as one of the interesting evidences of the hold his serial had got with the magazine readers. He recognized in the paragraph the touch of the good fellow who prepared the weekly bulletins of the house, and offered the press literary intelligence in a form ready for immediate use. The case was fairly stated, but the privacy of the author’s correspondent was perfectly guarded; it was not even made known that she was a woman. Yet Verrian felt, in reading the paragraph, a shock of guilty dismay, as if he had betrayed a confidence reposed in him, and he handed the paper across the table to his mother with rather a sick look.
After his return from the magazine office the day before, there had been a good deal of talk between them about that girl. Mrs. Verrian had agreed with him that no more interesting event could have happened to an author, but she had tried to keep him from taking it too personally, and from making himself mischievous illusions from it. She had since slept upon her anxieties, with the effect of finding them more vivid at waking, and she had been casting about for an opening to penetrate him with them, when fortune put this paragraph in her way.