Miss Bellard’s Inspiration – William Dean Howells
‘Miss Bellard’s Inspiration’ has a charm altogether out of proportion to its pretensions. It is no more than a novelette in dimensions, and its story is of the simplest. but displays in the telling a very delicate art. There are six people concerned – Miss Ballard and her ¿ancé, the aunt and uncle with whom they spend a few days in the country, and a married couple who are their guests by chance. This couple proves to be singularly mismated, and the spectacle afforded by their bickerings so alarms the heroine that she discards her lover, lest some such future may be in store for them also. She speaks by way of explanation, about ‘that strange sort of feeling I had that we would be like them, if we married, and that there was not room in the world for two such quarrelsome couples’ Later on, when the jangling pair have reached the point of imminent divorce, the rejected lover makes the following plea for a resumption of the old relations: ‘If they are separated for good and all, don’t you see that it gives us our chance?’ The argument is convincing, and these are the words in which the heroine describes her capitulation: ‘The point was a very ¿ne one, and I kept losing it; but he never did; and he held me to it, so that when he did go away, I promised him that I would think about it. I did think about it, and before morning I had a perfect inspiration. My inspiration was that when I was so helpless to reason it out for myself, I ought to leave it altogether to him, and that is why we are going to be married in the spring.’ This is the orthodox conclusion, if brought about by whimsical means, but we cannot escape a certain concern for the young man’s future.
Miss Bellard’s Inspiration.
Excerpt from the text:
“MY dear, will you please read that letter again?” Mrs. Crombie said, in tones that might . either be those of entreaty for her husband’s compliance, or command of his obedience, or appeal to his clearer impression from the confusion which her niece’s letter had cast her into. She began in a high, imperative note, and ended in something like an imploring whimper. She had first read the letter herself, and then thrown it across the breakfast table to Crombie; and as he began to read it to himself she now added, “Aloud!”
“I don’t see any use in that,” he said. “There’s no mystery about it.”
“No mystery, when a girl like Lillias Bellard starts up out of space and asks a thing like that? We might as well sell the place at once. It will be as bad as The Surges before the summer is over; and I did think that if we came and built inland, we could have a little peace of our lives.” Crombie trivially thought of saying, ” Little pieces of our lives,” but he did not, and she went on: “If it’s going on like this, the mountains will be as bad as the seashore, and there will be nothing left but Europe. Give me that letter, Archibald!”
She recovered it from his wonderingly extended left hand, his right being employed in filling up his cup with the exactly proportioned due of hot milk which he poured so as to make a bead on the surface of the coffee.
“I can’t make Lillias out,” Mrs. Crombie flamed forth again. “She is a sly girl; or at least I have always considered her so.”
“It isn’t a sly letter,” Crombie suggested, impartially.
” No; and that is just it. Anything franker, or bolder, even, I’ve never seen in my family.” Crombie might have felt the emphasis a blow at his own family, but as he had none except the wife before him, he did not suffer it to alienate his sympathy from her. ” If it was anybody but my own sister’s child, I should call it brazen. It’s a liberty, yes, a liberty, even if I am her aunt. She had no right to presume upon our relationship. If the Mellays are not able to receive her now, she might go somewhere else.”
” I don’t see where. Her people are abroad, and the Mellays’ telegram postponing her a week, seems to have caught her at the end of her stipulated stay with the Franklings; and she can’t go to a hotel alone.”
” I don’t see why she can’t, with these advanced ideas of hers.”
” Because the hotel men are not as advanced in their ideas, and won’t receive a pretty young girl if she presents herself with no escort but her youth and beauty. She might as well be a Hebrew or an Ethiopian.”
“Well, it’s a shame! There ought to be a law to make them.”
” Oh, I dare say there is one now,” Crombie easily assented. ” But come, Hester! This isn’t going to kill you. A niece for a week is no such mortal matter. One voluntary, or involuntary, guest doesn’t imply a succession of house-parties.”
“No, but it is the disappointment! My family, at least, know that we sold The Surges because I was completely worn out with people, and that we came up here into this by-gone hollow of the hills, on the wrong side of the Saco, and built a tumble-down old farm-house over so as to be alone in it.”
“Then you oughtn’t to have built the old farm-house over so nicely. Lillias will go away, and tell everybody that you’ve got electric lights, and hot and cold water, and a furnace, and all the modem conveniences, and the most delightful rambling camp, with ten or twenty bedrooms, and open fires for cold days in everyone. She will say that it isn’t dull here a bit; that there’s a hotel full of delightful people just across the Saco, which you get to by private ferry, and hops every night, with a young man to every ten girls, and picnics all the time, and lots of easy mountain-climbing.”
“Yes, that is the worst of it. Very well, I shall telegraph her not to come, I don’t care what happens. I shall say, ‘ Very sorry. Uncle sick; not dangerously; but all taken up with him.’ That’s just ten words.”
“Twelve; and not one true. Besides, where will you telegraph her? She’s started. She left Kansas City yesterday.”
“All the same, that’s what’s happened.”
“Very well, then, I know what I shall do. I shall engage a room for her at The Saco Shore, if it’s full of such delightful people — “
“Hold on, my dear! That was merely my forecast of her language.”
“No matter! And you can meet her at the station and tell her what I’ve done, and take her there. I am not going to be scooped up, even if she -is my niece. And so Lillias Bellard will find out.”
Mrs. Crombie gathered the offending letter and its envelope violently together, and started from the table as if to go at once and carry out her declared purpose. But she really went up-stairs to decide which of the bedrooms she should give the girl. She began with the worst and ended with the best, which looked eastward in that particular crook of the river towards the Presidential range, and, if you poked your head out, commanded a glimpse of the almost eternal snows of Mount Washington where a drift of the belated winter was glimmering, now at the end of July, in a fold of the pachydermal slope. She had always to play some such comedy with herself before she could reconcile herself to the inevitable; and her husband was content to have her do so, as long as her drama did not involve his complexity with the inevitable. But the wildest stroke of her imagination could not inculpate him in the present affair; and though she felt it somewhat guilty of him to attempt any palliation of Lillias Bellard’s behavior, she also felt it kind, and was very good to him the whole day on account of it; so that he was able honestly to pity her for the base of real tragedy he knew in her comedy. They had not only sold The Surges, where they had spent twenty summers, because of the heavy drain of hospitality upon her energies there, but because they had been offered a very good price for it, and they believed that the air of the mountains would be better for their rheumatisms. It formed at any rate a more decided change from the air of Boston; and the sale of The Surges was not altogether that sacrifice to solitude which her passionate resentment of the first menace of it had made it seem to her. Still there were associations with the things brought from the seaside cottage which supported her in the change, and which now burdened her with unavailing suggestions of how easy it would have been to make Lillias have a nice time in the more familiar environment. She sighed to herself in owning that she did not know what she should do with the girl where they were; for already, as she went through the house, she forgot her own hardship in realizing how difficult, with only the Saco Shore House to draw upon, it would be to amuse the child.
It was an essential part of her comedy to keep this transmutation of moods from Crombie; her self-respect required it, and experience had taught her that the most generous of men would take a mean advantage if he could, and would turn from pitying to mocking her for the change. There was no outward change from the effect of plaintive submission into which she had sunk by their one-o’clock dinnertime, when, in the later afternoon she asked him to take her adrive: the last, she predicted, they should have alone together that summer. Some part of the way she dedicated to a decent pathos in the presence of scenery endeared by their unmolested meanderings, and the thought of the sweet intimacy in which they had all but got back their young married selves. But the time and the place came when she could stand it no longer, and he was hardly surprised to have her break out with the unrelated conjecture, ” I wonder what she has got up her sleeve.”
“A young man, probably,” he suggested.
” Don’t be coarse! What makes you think that?”
” I don’t know that I think that, or anything. What’s the use of worrying about it? She’ll be here so soon.”
“Well, I really believe she has. And I shall watch her, I can tell you. If Aggie Bellard” — Mrs. Crombie branched away in the direction of the girl’s mother — “thinks she can go off to Europe for the summer, and leave Lillias scattered broadcast over the continent, with no one to look after her, she is very much mistaken.” This was the expression of such very complex feeling that Crombie could reply with nothing so well as a spluttering laugh. His wife knew perfectly what his laugh meant, and she went on: “I never approved of her second marriage, anyway, and I am not going to have Lillias shouldered off on me to make room for a second family in her mother’s house. Archibald!” she cried, and she had to use him very sternly in the tone she was really taking with her sister and niece, “do you suppose it’s a plot between them to get Lillias here with us, so that she can ingratiate herself with me, and just keep staying on indefinitely? Because if you do,” she continued to threaten him, while she cast about in her mind for a penalty severe enough to fit the offence, ” I won’t have it!”
This was so ineffective that he had to laugh again, but he reconciled her to his derision by the real compassion with which he said, “You know you don’t suppose anything of the kind yourself. It’s a perfectly simple case, and the only reasonable conjecture is that Lillias has told you the exact truth in her letter. She is coming here because she has nowhere else to put in the time till the Mellays are ready for her, and in a week she will be gone. I don’t think that will make any serious break in the quiet of our summer. At any rate, you can’t help yourself.”
“No, I can’t,” Mrs. Crombie recognized. “But if she imagines that she is going to hoodwink me!”
She did not attempt to say what she would do in such an event, and her husband felt no anxiety as to the sort of time Lillias would have under his roof.