The Landlord At Lion’s Head – William Dean Howells
In ‘The Landlord at Lion’s Head’ Mr. Howells has returned to the New England which he knows so well. Indeed, his absolute intimacy with the life there, his vivid power of reproducing it, contradicts Mr. Henry James’ opinion that the literary artist should write only of the impressions received in childhood and early youth. When Mr. Howells became familiar with New England he was a man of nearly thirty. But he had sprung from New England stock, and be fitted into the life of Boston as if he had always belonged to it. Perhaps his early years in Ohio enabled him to see New England with a clearer vision than he could have turned upon if it had always been before his eyes. At any rate, in writing of New England life, he invariably gives the impression of having an absolute understanding of it, if not always an absolute sympathy with it. In the opening chapters of this novel the understanding is plainly there, together with a most beautiful and tender sympathy, translating the wild grandeur of the New England mountains into the fine simplicity of prose that Mr. Howells can make so effective and so convincing. In their way, Mr. Howells has done nothing finer than those chapters; they remind one of the beautiful picture of the Harvard Class Day which he has given in “April Hopes.” The rustic figures introduced belong to the landscape, are, in a sense, a part of it. With swift, sure strokes they are outlined, and their identity is at once established. The first presentation of the hero, Jefferson Durgin, as a young bully delighting in the torture of a little girl, strikes the keynote of the character. Indeed, so accurate and so subtle are all the touches in these chapters that the attention of the reader is absorbed in spite of the slow movement of the narrative. It is plain from the beginning that Mr. Howells is lingering fondly over the life of his people and that in his mind the story is of minor importance.
The Landlord At Lion’s Head.
Excerpt from the text:
If you looked at the mountain from the west, the line of the summit was wandering and uncertain, like that of most mountain-tops; but, seen from the east, the mass of granite showing above the dense forests of the lower slopes had the form of a sleeping lion. The flanks and haunches were vaguely distinguished from the mass; but the mighty head, resting with its tossed mane upon the vast paws stretched before it, was boldly sculptured against the sky. The likeness could not have been more perfect, when you had it in profile, if it had been a definite intention of art; and you could travel far north and far south before the illusion vanished. In winter the head was blotted by the snows; and sometimes the vagrant clouds caught upon it and deformed it, or hid it, at other seasons; but commonly, after the last snow went in the spring until the first snow came in the fall, the Lion’s Head was a part of the landscape, as imperative and importunate as the Great Stone Face itself.
Long after other parts of the hill country were opened to summer sojourn, the region of Lion’s Head remained almost primitively solitary and savage. A stony mountain road followed the bed of the torrent that brawled through the valley at its base, and at a certain point a still rougher lane climbed from the road along the side of the opposite height to a lonely farm-house pushed back on a narrow shelf of land, with a meagre acreage of field and pasture broken out of the woods that clothed all the neighboring steeps. The farm-house level commanded the best view of Lion’s Head, and the visitors always mounted to it, whether they came on foot, or arrived on buckboards or in buggies, or drove up in the Concord stages from the farther and nearer hotels. The drivers of the coaches rested their horses there, and watered them from the spring that dripped into the green log at the barn; the passengers scattered about the door-yard to look at the Lion’s Head, to wonder at it and mock at it, according to their several makes and moods. They could scarcely have felt that they ever had a welcome from the stalwart, handsome woman who sold them milk, if they wanted it, and small cakes of maple sugar if they were very strenuous for something else. The ladies were not able to make much of her from the first; but some of them asked her if it were not rather lonely there, and she said that when you heard the catamounts scream at night, and the bears growl in the spring, it did seem lonesome. When one of them declared that if she should hear a catamount scream or a bear growl she should die, the woman answered, Well, she presumed we must all die some time. But the ladies were not sure of a covert slant in her words, for they were spoken with the same look she wore when she told them that the milk was five cents a glass, and the black maple sugar three cents a cake. She did not change when she owned upon their urgence that the gaunt man whom they glimpsed around the corners of the house was her husband, and the three lank boys with him were her sons; that the children whose faces watched them through the writhing window panes were her two little girls; that the urchin who stood shyly twisted, all but his white head and sunburned face, into her dress and glanced at them with a mocking blue eye, was her youngest, and that he was three years old. With like coldness of voice and face, she assented to their conjecture that the space walled off in the farther corner of the orchard was the family burial ground; and she said, with no more feeling that the ladies could see than she had shown concerning the other facts, that the graves they saw were those of her husband’s family and of the children she had lost there had been ten children, and she had lost four. She did not visibly shrink from the pursuit of the sympathy which expressed itself in curiosity as to the sickness they had died of; the ladies left her with the belief that they had met a character, and she remained with the conviction, briefly imparted to her husband, that they were tonguey.
The summer folks came more and more, every year, with little variance in the impression on either side. When they told her that her maple sugar would sell better if the cake had an image of Lion’s Head stamped on it, she answered that she got enough of Lion’s Head without wanting to see it on all the sugar she made. But the next year the cakes bore a rude effigy of Lion’s Head, and she said that one of her boys had cut the stamp out with his knife; she now charged five cents a cake for the sugar, but her manner remained the same. It did not change when the excursionists drove away, and the deep silence native to the place fell after their chatter. When a cock crew, or a cow lowed, or a horse neighed, or one of the boys shouted to the cattle, an echo retorted from the granite base of Lion’s Head, and then she had all the noise she wanted, or, at any rate, all the noise there was most of the time. Now and then a wagon passed on the stony road by the brook in the valley, and sent up its clatter to the farm-house on its high shelf, but there was scarcely another break from the silence except when the coaching-parties came.
The continuous clash and rush of the brook was like a part of the silence, as the red of the farm-house and the barn was like a part of the green of the fields and woods all round them: the black-green of pines and spruces, the yellow-green of maples and birches, dense to the tops of the dreary hills, and breaking like a bated sea around the Lion’s Head. The farmer stooped at his work, with a thin, inward-curving chest, but his wife stood straight at hers; and she had a massive beauty of figure and a heavily moulded regularity of feature that impressed such as had eyes to see her grandeur among the summer folks. She was forty when they began to come, and an ashen gray was creeping over the reddish heaps of her hair, like the pallor that overlies the crimson of the autumnal oak. She showed her age earlier than most fair people, but since her marriage at eighteen she had lived long in the deaths of the children she had lost. They were born with the taint of their father’s family, and they withered from their cradles. The youngest boy alone; of all her brood, seemed to have inherited her health and strength. The rest as they grew up began to cough, as she had heard her husband’s brothers and sisters cough, and then she waited in hapless patience the fulfilment of their doom. The two little girls whose faces the ladies of the first coaching-party saw at the farm-house windows had died away from them; two of the lank boys had escaped, and in the perpetual exile of California and Colorado had saved themselves alive. Their father talked of going, too, but ten years later he still dragged himself spectrally about the labors of the farm, with the same cough at sixty which made his oldest son at twenty-nine look scarcely younger than himself.
One soft noon in the middle of August the farmer came in from the corn-field that an early frost had blighted, and told his wife that they must give it up. He said, in his weak, hoarse voice, with the catarrhal catching in it, that it was no use trying to make a living on the farm any longer. The oats had hardly been worth cutting, and now the corn was gone, and there was not hay enough without it to winter the stock; if they got through themselves they would have to live on potatoes. Have a vendue, and sell out everything before the snow flew, and let the State take the farm and get what it could for it, and turn over the balance that was left after the taxes; the interest of the savings-bank mortgage would soon eat that up.
The long, loose cough took him, and another cough answered it like an echo from the barn, where his son was giving the horses their feed. The mild, wan-eyed young man came round the corner presently toward the porch where his father and mother were sitting, and at the same moment a boy came up the lane to the other corner; there were sixteen years between the ages of the brothers, who alone were left of the children born into and borne out of the house. The young man waited till they were within whispering distance of each other, and then he gasped: “Where you been?”
The boy answered, promptly, “None your business,” and went up the steps before the young man, with a lop-eared, liver-colored mongrel at his heels. He pulled off his ragged straw hat and flung it on the floor of the porch. “Dinner over?” he demanded.
His father made no answer; his mother looked at the boy’s hands and face, all of much the same earthen cast, up to the eaves of his thatch of yellow hair, and said: “You go and wash yourself.” At a certain light in his mother’s eye, which he caught as he passed into the house with his dog, the boy turned and cut a defiant caper. The oldest son sat down on the bench beside his father, and they all looked in silence at the mountain before them. They heard the boy whistling behind the house, with sputtering and blubbering noises, as if he were washing his face while he whistled; and then they heard him singing, with a muffled sound, and sharp breaks from the muffled sound, as if he were singing into the towel; he shouted to his dog and threatened him, and the scuffling of his feet came to them through all as if he were dancing.
“Been after them woodchucks ag’in,” his father huskily suggested.
“I guess so,” said the mother. The brother did not speak; he coughed vaguely, and let his head sink forward.
The father began a statement of his affairs.
The mother said: “You don’t want to go into that; we been all over it before. If it’s come to the pinch, now, it’s come. But you want to be sure.”
The man did not answer directly. “If we could sell off now and get out to where Jim is in Californy, and get a piece of land—” He stopped, as if confronted with some difficulty which he had met before, but had hoped he might not find in his way this time.
His wife laughed grimly. “I guess, if the truth was known, we’re too poor to get away.”
“We’re poor,” he whispered back. He added, with a weak obstinacy: “I d’know as we’re as poor as that comes to. The things would fetch something.”
“Enough to get us out there, and then we should be on Jim’s hands,” said the woman.
“We should till spring, maybe. I d’know as I want to face another winter here, and I d’know as Jackson does.”
The young man gasped back, courageously: “I guess I can get along here well enough.”
“It’s made Jim ten years younger. That’s what he said,” urged the father.
The mother smiled as grimly as she had laughed. “I don’t believe it ‘ll make you ten years richer, and that’s what you want.”
“I don’t believe but what we should ha’ done something with the place by spring. Or the State would,” the father said, lifelessly.
The voice of the boy broke in upon them from behind. “Say, mother, a’n’t you never goin’ to have dinner?” He was standing in the doorway, with a startling cleanness of the hands and face, and a strange, wet sleekness of the hair. His clothes were bedrabbled down the front with soap and water.
His mother rose and went toward him; his father and brother rose like apparitions, and slanted after her at one angle.
“Say,” the boy called again to his mother, “there comes a peddler.” He pointed down the road at the figure of a man briskly ascending the lane toward the house, with a pack on his back and some strange appendages dangling from it.
The woman did not look round; neither of the men looked round; they all kept on in-doors, and she said to the boy, as she passed him: “I got no time to waste on peddlers. You tell him we don’t want anything.”
The boy waited for the figure on the lane to approach. It was the figure of a young man, who slung his burden lightly from his shoulders when he arrived, and then stood looking at the boy, with his foot planted on the lowermost tread of the steps climbing from the ground to the porch.