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A Modern Instance
By William Dean Howells
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The village stood on a wide plain, and around it rose the mountains. They were green to their tops in summer, and in winter white through their serried pines and drifting mists, but at every season serious and beautiful, furrowed with hollow shadows, and taking the light on masses and stretches of iron-gray crag. The river swam through the plain in long curves, and slipped away at last through an unseen pass to the southward, tracing a score of miles in its course over a space that measured but three or four. The plain was very fertile, and its features, if few and of purely utilitarian beauty, had a rich luxuriance, and there was a tropical riot of vegetation when the sun of July beat on those northern fields. They waved with corn and oats to the feet of the mountains, and the potatoes covered a vast acreage with the lines of their intense, coarse green; the meadows were deep with English grass to the banks of the river, that, doubling and returning upon itself, still marked its way with a dense fringe of alders and white birches.
But winter was full half the year. The snow began at Thanksgiving, and fell snow upon snow till Fast Day, thawing between the storms, and packing harder and harder against the break-up in the spring, when it covered the ground in solid levels three feet high, and lay heaped in drifts, that defied the sun far into May. When it did not snow, the weather was keenly clear, and commonly very still. Then the landscape at noon had a stereoscopic glister under the high sun that burned in a heaven without a cloud, and at setting stained the sky and the white waste with freezing pink and violet. On such days the farmers and lumbermen came in to the village stores, and made a stiff and feeble stir about their doorways, and the school children gave the street a little life and color, as they went to and from the Academy in their red and blue woollens. Four times a day the mill, the shrill wheeze of whose saws had become part of the habitual silence, blew its whistle for the hands to begin and leave off work, in blasts that seemed to shatter themselves against the thin air. But otherwise an arctic quiet prevailed.
Behind the black boles of the elms that swept the vista of the street with the fine gray tracery of their boughs, stood the houses, deep-sunken in the accumulating drifts, through which each householder kept a path cut from his doorway to the road, white and clean as if hewn out of marble. Some cross streets straggled away east and west with the poorer dwellings; but this, that followed the northward and southward reach of the plain, was the main thoroughfare, and had its own impressiveness, with those square white houses which they build so large in Northern New England. They were all kept in scrupulous repair, though here and there the frost and thaw of many winters had heaved a fence out of plumb, and threatened the poise of the monumental urns of painted pine on the gateposts. They had dark-green blinds, of a color harmonious with that of the funereal evergreens in their dooryards; and they themselves had taken the tone of the snowy landscape, as if by the operation of some such law as blanches the fur-bearing animals of the North. They seemed proper to its desolation, while some houses of more modern taste, painted to a warmer tone, looked, with their mansard roofs and jig-sawed piazzas and balconies, intrusive and alien.
At one end of the street stood the Academy, with its classic façade and its belfry; midway was the hotel, with the stores, the printing-office, and the churches; and at the other extreme, one of the square white mansions stood advanced from the rank of the rest, at the top of a deep-plunging valley, defining itself against the mountain beyond so sharply that it seemed as if cut out of its dark, wooded side. It was from the gate before this house, distinct in the pink light which the sunset had left, that, on a Saturday evening in February, a cutter, gay with red-lined robes, dashed away, and came musically clashing down the street under the naked elms. For the women who sat with their work at the windows on either side of the way, hesitating whether to light their lamps, and drawing nearer and nearer to the dead-line of the outer cold for the latest glimmer of the day, the passage of this ill-timed vehicle was a vexation little short of grievous. Every movement on the street was precious to them, and, with all the keenness of their starved curiosity, these captives of the winter could not make out the people in the cutter. Afterward it was a mortification to them that they should not have thought at once of Bartley Hubbard and Marcia Gaylord. They had seen him go up toward Squire Gaylord's house half an hour before, and they now blamed themselves for not reflecting that of course he was going to take Marcia over to the church sociable at Lower Equity. Their identity being established, other little proofs of it reproached the inquirers; but these perturbed spirits were at peace, and the lamps were out in the houses (where the smell of rats in the wainscot and of potatoes in the cellar strengthened with the growing night), when Bartley and Marcia drove back through the moonlit silence to her father's door. Here, too, the windows were all dark, except for the light that sparely glimmered through the parlor blinds; and the young man slackened the pace of his horse, as if to still the bells, some distance away from the gate.
The girl took the hand he offered her when he dismounted at the gate, and, as she jumped from the cutter, "Won't you come in?" she asked.
"I guess I can blanket my horse and stand him under the wood-shed," answered the young man, going around to the animal's head and leading him away.
When he returned to the door the girl opened it, as if she had been listening for his step; and she now stood holding it ajar for him to enter, and throwing the light upon the threshold from the lamp, which she lifted high in the other hand. The action brought her figure in relief, and revealed the outline of her bust and shoulders, while the lamp flooded with light the face she turned to him, and again averted for a moment, as if startled at some noise behind her. She thus showed a smooth, low forehead, lips and cheeks deeply red, a softly rounded chin touched with a faint dimple, and in turn a nose short and aquiline; her eyes were dark, and her dusky hair flowed crinkling above her fine black brows, and vanished down the curve of a lovely neck. There was a peculiar charm in the form of her upper lip: it was exquisitely arched, and at the corners it projected a little over the lower lip, so that when she smiled it gave a piquant sweetness to her mouth, with a certain demure innocence that qualified the Roman pride of her profile. For the rest, her beauty was of the kind that coming years would only ripen and enrich; at thirty she would be even handsomer than at twenty, and be all the more southern in her type for the paling of that northern color in her cheeks. The young man who looked up at her from the doorstep had a yellow mustache, shadowing either side of his lip with a broad sweep, like a bird's wing; his chin, deep-cut below his mouth, failed to come strenuously forward; his cheeks were filled to an oval contour, and his face had otherwise the regularity common to Americans; his eyes, a clouded gray, heavy-lidded and long-lashed, were his most striking feature, and he gave her beauty a deliberate look from them as he lightly stamped the snow from his feet, and pulled the sealskin gloves from his long hands.
"Come in," she whispered, coloring with pleasure under his gaze; and she made haste to shut the door after him, with a luxurious impatience of the cold. She led the way into the room from which she had come, and set down the lamp on the corner of the piano, while he slipped off his overcoat and swung it over the end of the sofa. They drew up chairs to the stove, in which the smouldering fire, revived by the opened draft, roared and snapped. It was midnight, as the sharp strokes of a wooden clock declared from the kitchen, and they were alone together, and all the other inmates of the house were asleep. The situation, scarcely conceivable to another civilization, is so common in ours, where youth commands its fate and trusts solely to itself, that it may be said to be characteristic of the New England civilization wherever it keeps its simplicity. It was not stolen or clandestine; it would have interested every one, but would have shocked no one in the village if the whole village had known it; all that a girl's parents ordinarily exacted was that they should not be waked up.
"Ugh!" said the girl. "It seems as if I never should get warm." She leaned forward, and stretched her hands toward the stove, and he presently rose from the rocking-chair in which he sat, somewhat lower than she, and lifted her sack to throw it over her shoulders. But he put it down and took up his overcoat.
"Allow my coat the pleasure," he said, with the ease of a man who is not too far lost to be readily flattering.
"Much obliged to the coat," she replied, shrugging herself into it and pulling the collar close about her throat. "I wonder you didn't put it on the sorrel. You could have tied the sleeves around her neck."
"Shall I tie them around yours?" He leaned forward from the low rocking-chair into which he had sunk again, and made a feint at what he had proposed.
But she drew back with a gay "No!" and added: "Some day, father says, that sorrel will be the death of us. He says it's a bad color for a horse. They're always ugly, and when they get heated they're crazy."
"You never seem to be very much frightened when you're riding after the sorrel," said Bartley.
"Oh, I've great faith in your driving."
"Thanks. But I don't believe in this notion about a horse being vicious because he's of a certain color. If your father didn't believe in it, I should call it a superstition; but the Squire has no superstitions."
"I don't know about that," said the girl. "I don't think he likes to see the new moon over his left shoulder."
"I beg his pardon, then," returned Bartley. "I ought to have said religions: the Squire has no religions." The young fellow had a rich, caressing voice, and a securely winning manner which comes from the habit of easily pleasing; in this charming tone, and with this delightful insinuation, he often said things that hurt; but with such a humorous glance from his softly shaded eyes that people felt in some sort flattered at being taken into the joke, even while they winced under it. The girl seemed to wince, as if, in spite of her familiarity with the fact, it wounded her to have her father's scepticism recognized just then. She said nothing, and he added, "I remember we used to think that a red-headed boy was worse-tempered on account of his hair. But I don't believe the sorrel-tops, as we called them, were any more fiery than the rest of us."
Marcia did not answer at once, and then she said, with the vagueness of one not greatly interested by the subject, "You've got a sorrel-top in your office that's fiery enough, if she's anything like what she used to be when she went to school."
"Oh, she isn't so bad. She's pretty lively, but she's very eager to learn the business, and I guess we shall get along. I think she wants to please me."
"Does she! But she must be going on seventeen now."
"I dare say," answered the young man, carelessly, but with perfect intelligence. "She's good-looking in her way, too."
"Oh! Then you admire red hair?"
He perceived the anxiety that the girl's pride could not keep out of her tone, but he answered indifferently, "I'm a little too near that color myself. I hear that red hair's coming into fashion, but I guess it's natural I should prefer black."
She leaned back in her chair, and crushed the velvet collar of his coat under her neck in lifting her head to stare at the high-hung mezzotints and family photographs on the walls, while a flattered smile parted her lips, and there was a little thrill of joy in her voice. "I presume we must be a good deal behind the age in everything at Equity."
"Well, you know my opinion of Equity," returned the young man. "If I didn't have you here to free my mind to once in a while, I don't know what I should do."
She was so proud to be in the secret of his discontent with the narrow world of Equity that she tempted him to disparage it further by pretending to identify herself with it. "I don't see why you abuse Equity to me. I've never been anywhere else, except those two winters at school. You'd better look out: I might expose you," she threatened, fondly.
"I'm not afraid. Those two winters make a great difference. You saw girls from other places—from Augusta, and Bangor, and Bath."
"Well, I couldn't see how they were so very different from Equity girls."
"I dare say they couldn't, either, if they judged from you."
She leaned forward again, and begged for more flattery from him with her happy eyes. "Why, what does make me so different from all the rest? I should really like to know."
"Oh, you don't expect me to tell you to your face!"
"Yes, to my face! I don't believe it's anything complimentary."
"No, it's nothing that you deserve any credit for."
"Pshaw!" cried the girl. "I know you're only talking to make fun of me. How do I know but you make fun of me to other girls, just as you do of them to me? Everybody says you're sarcastic."
"Have I ever been sarcastic with you?"
"You know I wouldn't stand it."
He made no reply, but she admired the ease with which he now turned from her, and took one book after another from the table at his elbow, saying some words of ridicule about each. It gave her a still deeper sense of his intellectual command when he finally discriminated, and began to read out a poem with studied elocutionary effects. He read in a low tone, but at last some responsive noises came from the room overhead; he closed the book, and threw himself into an attitude of deprecation, with his eyes cast up to the ceiling.
"Chicago," he said, laying the book on the table and taking his knee between his hands, while he dazzled her by speaking from the abstraction of one who has carried on a train of thought quite different from that on which he seemed to be intent—"Chicago is the place for me. I don't think I can stand Equity much longer. You know that chum of mine I told you about; he's written to me to come out there and go into the law with him at once."
"Why don't you go?" the girl forced herself to ask.
"Oh, I'm not ready yet. Should you write to me if I went to Chicago?"
"I don't think you'd find my letters very interesting. You wouldn't want any news from Equity."
"Your letters wouldn't be interesting if you gave me the Equity news; but they would if you left it out. Then you'd have to write about yourself."
"Oh, I don't think that would interest anybody."
"Well, I feel almost like going out to Chicago to see."
"But I haven't promised to write yet," said the girl, laughing for joy in his humor.
"I shall have to stay in Equity till you do, then. Better promise at once."
"Wouldn't that be too much like marrying a man to get rid of him?"
"I don't think that's always such a bad plan—for the man." He waited for her to speak; but she had gone the length of her tether in this direction. "Byron says—
'Man's love is of man's life a thing apart,— 'Tis woman's whole existence.'
Do you believe that?" He dwelt upon her with his free look, in the happy embarrassment with which she let her head droop.
"I don't know," she murmured. "I don't know anything about a man's life."
"It was the woman's I was asking about."
"I don't think I'm competent to answer."
"Well, I'll tell you, then. I think Byron was mistaken. My experience is, that, when a man is in love, there's nothing else of him. That's the reason I've kept out of it altogether of late years. My advice is, don't fall in love: it takes too much time." They both laughed at this. "But about corresponding, now; you haven't said whether you would write to me, or not. Will you?"
"Can't you wait and see?" she asked, slanting a look at him, which she could not keep from being fond.
Excerpted from A Modern Instance by William Dean Howells. Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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