The Undiscovered Country – William Dean Howells
In “The Undiscovered Country”, Mr. Howells appears in a new phase, and adds somewhat of the definite moral purpose of the teacher to the grace and finish of the literary artist. From the opening of the first chapter it is evident that the author has this time a further object in mind than the mere portrayal of character. Half-page monologues and whole-page conversations on matters of speculative inquiry are not altogether in the line of Mr. Howell’s genius, which has always disclosed more of the artist than of the moralist; the lesson of his literary work being in its perfection and its correspondence to truth, rather than in any serious intent or design which serves as an appendage to the artistic motive. Happily, in “The Undiscovered Country” the author does not pursue his object in that dead-in-earnest style which so commonly tends to overthrow the mental equipoise of a writer and dull his finer perceptions; – happily, that is, so far as the artistic results of his works are concerned, though otherwise, one cannot help thinking, as regards the actual gain accomplished in the elucidation of a very difficult subject. The title of Mr. Howells’s book is both ingenious and suggestive. “The Undiscovered Country” remains undiscovered to the last; and the fact that no way of its discovery is found but that of the solitary exploration of death, proves of valuable service to the author, supplying the element of mystery which throws a poetic glamour over the subject he is treating, while it compels no self-betrayal to any opinion or theory, and at the end leads him to revert to the homelier scenes and occupations of practical life for the solution, not of his problem, but of his heroine’s happiness and well-being.
The Undiscovered Country.
Excerpt from the text:
SOME years ago, at a time when the rapid growth of the city was changing the character of many localities, two young men were sitting, one afternoon early in April, in the parlor of a house on one of those streets which, without having yet accomplished their destiny as business thoroughfares, were no longer the homes of the decorous ease that once inhabited them. The young men held their hats and canes in their hands, and they had that air of having just been admitted and of waiting to be received by the people of the house which rests gracefully only on persons of the other sex. One was tall and spare, and he sat stiffly expectant; the other, who was much shorter and stouter, with the mature bloom which comes of good living and a cherished digestion, was more restless. As he rose from his chair, after a few moments, and went to examine some detail of the dim room, he moved with a quick, eager step, and with a stoop which suggested a connoisseur’s habit of bending over and peering at things. He returned to his seat, and glanced round the parlor, as if to seize the whole effect more accurately.
“So this is the home of the Pythoness, is it?” he said.
“If you like to call her a Pythoness,” answered the other.
“Oh, I don’t know that I prefer it: I’m quite willing to call her a test-medium. I thought perhaps Pythoness would respectfully idealize the business. What a queer, melancholy house; what a queer, melancholy street! I don’t think I was ever in a street before where quite so many professional ladies, with English surnames, preferred Madame to Mrs. on their door-plates. And the poor old place has such a desperately conscious air of going to the deuce. Every house seems to wince as you go by, and button itself up to the chin for fear you should find out it had no shirt on,—so to speak. I don’t know what’s the reason, but these material tokens of a social decay afflict me terribly: a tipsy woman isn’t dreadfuller than a haggard old house, that’s once been a home, in a street like this.”
“The street’s going the usual way,” said the other. “It will be all business in a few years.”
“But in the meantime, it causes me inexpressible anguish, and it will keep doing it.
If I know where there’s a thorn, I can’t help going up and pressing my waistcoat against it. I foresee that I shall keep coming. This parlor alone is poignant enough to afford me the most rapturous pain; it pierces my soul. This tawdry red velvet wall-paper; the faded green reps of that sofa; those family photographs in their oval papier-mâché frames; that round table there in the corner, with its subscription literature and its tin-type albums; and this frantic tapestry carpet! I know now why the ghost-seers affect this sort of street and this sort of parlor: the spirits can’t resist the deadly fascination! No ghost, with any strength of character, could keep away. I suppose that this apartment is swarming now, with disembodied ladies and gentlemen of the first distinction. Well, I like your going into this.
I respect everybody’s superstition—except my own; I can’t respect that, you know.”
” Do you think I believe in these people’s rubbish?”
“I didn’t know. A man must believe in something. I couldn’t think of anything else you believed in. I’m not sure I don’t believe in it a trifle, myself; my nerves do. May I ask why you come here, if you refuse the particular rubbish afforded by the establishment? You’re not a curious man.”
“Why did you come?”
“You asked me. Besides, I have no occasion for a reason. I am an emotional, not a rational being, as I’ve often told you.”
The taller man laughed drily. “Very well, then, you don’t need a reason from me. You can wait and see why I came.”
The short man gave a shrug. ” I hope I shan’t have to wait long. An emotional being has a right to be unreasonably impatient.”
A light sound of hesitating steps made itself heard in the next room; the two men remained silent, and presently one of the partition doors was rolled back, and a tall young girl in a somewhat theatrical robe of white serge, with a pale green scarf on her shoulders, appeared at the threshold. Her beautiful, serious face had a pallid quiet, broken by what seemed the unnatural alertness of her blue eyes, which glanced quickly, like those of a child too early obliged to suspect and avert; her blonde hair, which had a plastic massiveness, was drawn smoothly back from her temples, and lay heaped in a heavy coil on her neck, where its rich abundance showed when she turned her profile away, as if to make sure that someone was following in the room behind her. A door opened and closed there, and she came on towards the two men, who had risen. At sight of the taller of the two she halted, while an elderly gentleman hurried forward, with a bustling graciousness, and offered him his small, short hand. He had the same fair complexion as the girl, but his face was bright and eager; his thin, light hair was wavy and lusterless; he looked hardly so tall as she. He had a mouth of delicacy and refinement, and a smile of infantine sweetness.
“Ah, you’ve really come,” he said, shaking the young man’s hand cordially. “So many people manifest an interest in our public seances, and then let the matter drop without going any further. I don’t know whether I presented you to my daughter, the other day, Mr. Ford?”
Ford bowed gravely to the girl, who slightly returned his obeisance. “Let me introduce Mr. Phillips, Dr. Boynton, — a friend whom I ventured to bring with me.”
“Very glad to see you, Mr. Phillips. I was about to say—Oh! my daughter, Mr. Phillips, Miss Egeria Boynton. Take seats, gentlemen—I was about to say that one of the most curious facts connected with the phenomena is the ardor with which people take the matter up on first acquaintance, and the entire indifference with which they let it drop. In our line of life, Mr. Phillips, as public exhibitors, we often have occasion to note this. It seldom happens but half a dozen persons come to me at the close of a seance, and ask earnestly for the privilege of pursuing their investigations with the aid of my daughter’s mediumship. But these persons rarely call; I rarely see them at a second public seance, even. If I had not such abiding hopes of the phenomena myself, I should sometimes feel discouraged by the apathy and worse than apathy with which they are received, not the first, but the second time. You must excuse my expression of surprise at first greeting you, Mr. Ford,—you must indeed. It was but too natural under the circumstances.”
“By all means,” answered Ford. “I never thought of not coming. But I can’t promise that you’ll find me a ready believer.”
“Precisely,” returned the other. “That is the very mood in which I could have wished you to come. I am myself, as I think I told you, merely an inquirer. In fact”— Dr. Boynton leaned forward, with his small, plump hands extended, as if the more conveniently to round his periods, but arrested himself, in the explanation he was about to make, at something Mr. Phillips was saying to his daughter.
“I couldn’t help being interested in the character of your parlor, before you came in, Miss Boynton. These old Boston houses all have so much character. It’s surprising what good taste people had fifty or sixty years ago,—the taste of the First Empire. That cornice is very pretty,—very simple and very refined, neither glutted nor starved in design; and that mantel,—how refreshing those sane and decent straight lines are after the squirms and wriggles of subsequent marble! I don’t know that I should have chosen urns for an ornament to the corners; but we must not forget that we are mortal; and there are cinerary associations with fireplaces.”
Miss Boynton said nothing in return for this speech, the full sense of which had perhaps not quite reached her. She stared blankly at Phillips, to whom her father turned with his most winning smile. “An artist?” asked Dr. Boynton.
“A sufferer in the cause of art,” returned Phillips with ironical pathos.
“Ah! A connoisseur,” said the doctor.
“The fact is,” said Phillips, “I was finding the modern equipment of your old-fashioned parlor intolerable, as you came in. You won’t mind my not liking your landlady’s taste, Miss Boynton?” he demanded with suave ingratiation.
Miss Boynton looked about the room, as if she had not seen it before. “It is ugly,” she answered quietly. “But it does as well as any.”
“Yes,” her father eagerly interposed, “better than any other room in any other house in any other quarter of the city. We are still, as I may say, gentlemen, feeling our way towards what we believe a sublime truth. My daughter’s development is yet so recent, so incomplete, that we must not reject any furthering influences, however humble, however disagreeable. It is not by our own preference that we are here. I know, as well as you do, that this is a street inhabited by fortune-tellers and charlatans of low degree. For that very reason I have taken our lodgings here. The element, the atmosphere, of simple, unquestioning faith brought into this vicinity by the dupes of these people is, unknown to them, of the highest use, the most vital advantage, to us in our present attempt. At the same time, I should not, I could not in candor, deny to these pretenders themselves a beneficial, a highly—I may call it—evolutionary, influence upon my daughter. We desire no personal acquaintance with them. But they are of the old tradition of supernaturalism, —a tradition as old as nature,—and we cannot afford to reject the favor of the tradition which they represent. You will understand that, gentlemen. We cannot say, We hold — or we trust we hold — communion with spirits, and yet deny that there is something in second-sight, divination, or whatever mysteries these people pretend to. In some sort, we must psychologically ally ourselves with them. They are, no doubt, for the most part and in most cases, shameless swindlers; hut it seems to be a condition of our success that we shall not deny—I don’t say that we shall believe—the fact of an occult power in some of them. Their neighborhood was very repulsive at first, and still is measurably so; but we accept it, and have found it of advantage. We are mere experimenters, as yet, and claim nothing except that my daughter is the medium, the instrument, of certain phenomena which we can explain only in one way; we do not dispute the different explanations of others. In the course of our investigations, we neglect no theory, however slight, that may assist us. Now, in so simple a matter as dress, even: we have found by repeated experiment that the manifestations have a greater affinity for white than any other color. This may point to some hidden truth—I don’t say —in the old-fashioned ghost-stories, where the specter always appears in white. At any rate, we think it worthwhile that my daughter should wear white, in both her public and her private seances, for the present. And green,—just now we seem to find a good effect in pale green, Mr. Phillips, pale green.”
“If I may say it without impertinence to Miss Boynton’s father, in my character of connoisseur,” said Phillips, with a bow for the young girl, which he delivered to the doctor, “I think the effect is very good indeed.”
“Ah! yes, yes!” cried the doctor. “In that sense. I see. Very good. However, I meant”— Dr. Boynton paused, bending on either visitor an exquisite smile of child-like triumph. A series of light taps, beginning with a sound like a straining of the wood, and then separating into a sharper staccato, was heard at different points in the room, chiefly on the table, and on the valves of the sliding doors. Phillips gave a little nervous start. Ford remained indifferent, but for the slow movement of his eyes in the direction of the young girl, who bent an appealing look on her father. The doctor lifted a hand to invoke attention; the raps died away. “Giorgione, I presume. Will you ask, Egeria?”