Mrs. Farrell

by William Dean Howells

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Chapter III

IN the evening Gilbert walked over to Woodward farm from the hotel where he and Easton had stopped that morning, and called on his sister-in-law. He had brought word from her husband in Boston, whom he had gone out of his course to see on his journey up from New York. When she found out that he had been in West Pekin all day, he owned that he had spent the time fishing. “I didn’t suppose you’d be in any hurry to hear of Bob’s detention; and really, you know, I came for the fishing.”

“You needn’t be so explicit, William,” said Mrs. Gilbert. “I’m not vain.”

“I was merely apologizing.”

“Were you? What luck did you have?”

“The brooks are fished to death. I’ve had bad enough luck to satisfy even Easton, who had a conscience against fishing, among other things.”

“Easton! Your Easton? Is Wayne Easton with you?” demanded Mrs. Gilbert, with impetuous interest. “You don’t mean it!”

“No, but I say it,” answered Gilbert, unperturbed.

“What in the world brought him?” pursued his sister-in-law more guardedly, as if made aware by{27} some lurking pain that an impetuous interest was not for invalids.

“The ideal of friendship. I happened to say that I was feeling a little out of sorts and was coming up here, and he jumped at the chance to disarrange himself by coming with me. He was illustrating his great principle that New York is the best place to spend the summer, and it cost him something of a struggle to give it up, but he conquered.”

“Is he really so queer?”

“He or we. I won’t make so bold as to say which.”

“Has he still got that remarkable protégé of his on his hands?”

“No; Rogers has given Easton his freedom. He’s gone on to a farm, with all Easton’s board and lodging, Latin and French, in him. His modest aspiration is finally to manage a market garden.”

“What a wicked waste of beneficence!”

“Easton looks at it differently. He says that no one else would ever have given Rogers an education, and that the learning wasn’t more thrown away on him than on many, perhaps most, people who are sent to college; learning has to be thrown away somehow. Besides, he economized by sharing his room with Rogers, you know.”

“No, I didn’t know that. Don’t you think that was rather more than Providence required of Mr. Easton?”

“I can’t say, Mrs. Gilbert.”

“But to take such a hopeless case—so hopelessly common!{28}”

“There are some odd instances of the kind on record. The Christian religion was originally sent to rather a common lot.”

“Yes, but Latin wasn’t, and French wasn’t, and first-class board wasn’t. You needn’t try to gammon me with that sort of thing, William. I won’t stand it.”

“Well, I wouldn’t, myself. But I thought perhaps a lady might. Why did you put me on the defensive? I didn’t try to form Rogers, or reform him.”

“No, but you countenanced your Mr. Easton in it. He ought to have married and supported a wife, instead of risking his money on such a wild venture; it’s no better than gambling.”

“That’s your old hobby, Susan. A man can’t always be marrying and supporting a wife. And as for countenancing Easton, if he thought a thing was right, it’s very little of my cheek he would want to uphold him.”

“Oh, I dare say. That’s his insufferable conceit; conscientious people are always so conceited! They’re always so sure that they know just what is right and wrong. Ugh! I can’t endure ’em.”

“I don’t think Easton’s conscientiousness is of that aggravating type, exactly,” said Gilbert, with a lazy laugh.

“He has got a good many principles, ready cut and dried, but I should say life in general was something of a puzzler to him. He’s one of the wrecks of the war. Easton was peculiarly fitted to go on fighting forever in a sacred cause; he’s a born{29} crusader; and this piping time of peace takes him at a disadvantage. He hates rest, and ease, and all the other nice things; what he wants is some good, disagreeable, lasting form of self-sacrifice: I believe it’s a real grief to him that he didn’t lose a leg; a couple of amputations would have made him perfectly happy; though of course he would choose another war of emancipation, for he wouldn’t want to be happy in such a useless way. As it is, he is a wretched castaway on the shores of the Fortunate Isles.”

“Why doesn’t he do something? Why does he idle away even the contemptible hours of peace and prosperity?”

“He does; he doesn’t. He’s at work on that book of his, all the time.”

“Oh, I don’t call that work.”

“He makes it work. Even if he went merely to literature for his material, his Contributions to the Annals of Heroism might be a serious labor; but he goes to life for it. He hunts up his heroes in the streets and in the back alleys, in domestic service, in the newspaper offices, in bank parlors, and even in the pulpits: he has a most catholic taste in heroism; he spares neither age, sex, nor condition. I suppose it isn’t an idle thing to instruct the world that all the highest dreams of self-devotion and courage and patience are daily realized in our blackguard metropolis: we leave culture and refinement to Boston. And if it were so, it must be allowed that even with a futile object in view, Easton does some incidental good: he half supports about{30} half of his heroes, and he’s always wasting his time and substance in good deeds.”

“Well, well,” said Mrs. Gilbert, “I can’t admire such an eccentric, and you needn’t ask me.”

“I don’t. But this is just what shows the hopeless middlingness of your character. If you were a very much better or a very much worse woman, you would admire him immensely.”

“Oh, don’t talk to me, William! He’s a man’s man, and that’s the end of him. Why didn’t you bring him with you to-night?”

“He wouldn’t come.”

“Did you tell him there were fifteen ladies in the house?”

“It was that very stroke of logic which seemed to settle his mind about it. He is a man’s man, you’re right; he’s shyer of your admirable sex than any country boy; it’s no use to tell him you’re not so dangerous as you look. But even if he hadn’t been afraid of your ladies, the force of my argument might have been weakened by the fact of the twenty-five at the hotel. What are the superior inducements of your fifteen?”

“They are all very nice.”

“How many?”

“Well, three or four: and none of them are disagreeable.”

“Are you going to introduce me?”

“They’re in bed now—it’s half past eight—and they’d be asleep if it didn’t keep them awake to wonder who you are. If you’ll come to-morrow I’ll introduce you.{31}”

“Good! Now I’ve been pretty satisfactory about Easton, I think—”

“I don’t see how you could have said less. Every word was extorted from you.”

“What I want to know,” continued Gilbert, “is whether the loveliest being in West Pekin, not to say the world, counts among your fair fifteen.”

When Mrs. Gilbert married, her husband’s youngest brother, William, had come to live with them, his father and mother being dead, and his brothers and sisters preoccupied with their own children. He was not in his teens yet, and she had taken the handsome, dark-eyed, black-headed boy under the fond protection which young married ladies sometimes like to bestow upon pretty boy brothers-in-law. This kindness, at first a little romantic, became, with the process of years that brought her no children of her own, a love more like that of mother and son between them. Her condescension had vastly flattered the handsome lad; as he grew older, she seemed to him the brightest as well as the kindest woman in the world; and now, after a score of years, when the crow was beginning to leave his footprints at the corners of her merry eyes, and she had fallen into that permanent disrepair which seems the destiny of so much youthful strength and spirit among our women, he knew no one whose company was more charming. The tacit compliment of his devotion doubtless touched a woman who was long past compliments in most things; something like health and youth he always seemed to bring back to her{32} whenever he returned to her from absences that grew longer and longer after her husband removed to Boston—Mrs. Gilbert’s native city—and left William to follow his young man’s devices in New York. Through all changes and chances she had remained constant to this pet of her early matronhood, now a man past thirty. It was her great affliction that she could not watch over him at that distance in the dangerous and important matter of marriage, for she was both zealous and jealous that he should marry to the utmost advantage that the scant resources of her sex allowed, and it was but a partial consolation that she still had him to be anxious about.

They were sitting together in her hospitable room by the light of a kerosene lamp, with the mosquitoes, which swarm in West Pekin up to the end of July, baffled by window nettings. She rose dramatically, shut the window that opened upon the piazza, and said, “You haven’t seen her already! Where?”

“In one of the back pastures.”

“I’ll never believe it! How did she look? Dark or fair?”

“Dark; Greek; hair fluffy over the forehead; eyes that ‘stared on you silent and still, like the eyes in the house of the idols.’ I know it was she, for there can’t be two of her.” Gilbert gave a brief account of their meeting.

“It was, it was,” sighed Mrs. Gilbert, tragically. “It was Mrs. Belle Farrell!”


“A widow. The most opportunely bereft of women!”

“Susan, you interest me.”

“Oh, very likely! So will she. She must be famishing for a flirtation, and it’s you she’ll bend her devouring eyes upon, for I infer that your Mr. Easton, whatever he is, isn’t a flirt.”

“Easton? Well, no, I should think he wasn’t.”

Mrs. Gilbert leaned back, staring with a vacant smile across the room. But directly, as she began to talk of Mrs. Farrell, her eyes lighted up with the enjoyment that women feel in analyzing one of themselves for a man who likes women and knows how to make the due allowances and supply all the skipped details of the process. Gilbert had taken his place in her easy-chair when she shut the window, and she had disposed herself among the cushions and pillows of her lounge; he listened with lazy luxury and a smile of intelligence.

“Yes, she will interest you, William; she interests me, and I don’t dislike her as I might if I were a youthful beauty myself. In fact, she fascinates me, and I rather like her, on the whole. And I don’t see why I don’t approve of her. I don’t know anything against her.”

Gilbert laughed. “That’s rather a damaging thing to say of a lady.”

“Yes,” answered his sister-in-law, “I wouldn’t say it to everybody. But really, it seems odd that one doesn’t know anything against her. She’s very peculiar—for a woman; and I don’t know whether her peculiarity comes from her character or from{34} her circumstances. It’s a trying thing to be just the kind of handsome young widow that Mrs. Farrell is in Boston.”

Gilbert did not comment audibly, but he lifted his eyebrows, and his sister-in-law went on: “Not but that we approve of youth and beauty as much as any one. In fact, if Mrs. Farrell had simply devoted herself to youth and beauty, and waited for the right man, she could have married again splendidly and been living abroad by this time. But, no! And that’s been her ruin.”

“She’s rather a picturesque ruin—to look at,” said Gilbert. “What has she done to desolate herself? What was she when in good repair?”

“Well, that isn’t quite so easy to make you understand. Originally she was something in the seafaring line. Her father was a ship’s captain, from somewhere in Maine, I believe; and when her mother died, this young lady was left at a tender age with her seafaring father on her hands, and they didn’t know what to do with each other. But the paternal pirate had a particular friend in a Mr. Farrell, the merchant who owned most of his vessel, and this Mr. Farrell had the little girl brought up and educated with his half sisters—he was a bachelor and very much their elder. One day the captain came home from a voyage, and was drowned by the capsizing of his sailboat in the bay; I believe that’s the death that old sea captains generally die; and this seemed to suggest a new idea to old Mr. Farrell. He thought he would get married, and he observed that the little girl under his charge{35} was an extremely beautiful young woman, and he fell in love with her, and married her—to the disgust of his half sisters, who didn’t like her. He was a very respectable old party; Robert knew him quite well in the way of business, but I never saw anything of her in society; and if she liked age and respectability, it was all very well, especially as he died pretty soon afterward— I don’t know exactly how soon.”

“He left her his money, I suppose?”

“Yes, he did; and that’s the oddest part of it; there was very little of the money, and Mr. Farrell was supposed to be rich. Still, there was enough to have supported her in comfort while she quietly waited for her second husband, if she’d been content to wait quietly; and she could easily have kept Mr. Farrell’s level in society if she had remained with his family. In fact, she could have risen some notches higher; there are plenty of people who would have been glad of her as a sort of ornamental protégée, don’t you know; and if she had got a few snubs, it would have done her good. But she wouldn’t be patronized and she wouldn’t wait quietly.”

“Perhaps you’ve grown to be something of a snob, Susan.”

“I know it; I own it. Did I ever deny it? It’s the only safe ground for a woman. But Mrs. Farrell preferred to go living on in that demi-semi-Bohemian way—”

“What demi-semi-Bohemian way?”

“Oh, skirmishing round from one shabby-genteel{36} boarding house to another, and one family hotel to another, and setting up housekeeping in rooms, and studying music at the Conservatory, and taking lessons in all the fine arts, and trying to give parlor readings, and that—and not doing it in earnest, but making a great display and spectacle of it. And so instead of keeping her little income to dress on, and getting invitations to Newport for the summer, she’s here in a farmhouse with us old fogies and decayed gentles and cultivated persons of small means. But it’s rather odd about Mrs. Farrell. I don’t believe she would enjoy herself in society; it has limitations; it doesn’t afford her the kind of scope she wants; it doesn’t respond with the sort of immediate effects that she likes—at least Boston society doesn’t. What Mrs. Belle Farrell wishes to do is something vivid, stunning; and that isn’t quite what society smiles upon—in Boston. Besides, society may be very selfish, but it really requires great self-sacrifice, and I don’t believe Mrs. Belle Farrell is quite equal to that. Don’t you see?”

“Dimly. Did she ever try the Cause of Woman, among her other experiments?”

“Well, that requires self-sacrifice, too, in its way; and Mrs. Farrell doesn’t like women very much, and she does like men very much; and she couldn’t bear to be grotesque in men’s eyes. Not that she would respect men much, or more than she does women. She’s very queer. I suppose she has streaks of genius; just enough to spoil her for human nature’s daily food.{37}”

“We do find genius indigestible—in women,” allowed Gilbert, thoughtfully. “But isn’t life a little less responsive to her vivid intentions at Woodward farm than it would be anywhere else? Forgive the remark if there seems to be any unpleasant implication in it.”

“You’ve nothing to be forgiven, William. We know we are dull; we glory in our torpidity. But I suppose Mrs. Farrell has had the immense relief, here, of not trying to produce any effect. Consciously, I mean; unconsciously, she never can stop trying it till she’s in her grave.”

Gilbert, who had leaned forward with interest, in the course of Mrs. Gilbert’s tale, now fell back again in his chair, and said: “Oh, I see. You are prejudiced against Mrs. Belle Farrell. You have among you here a woman of extraordinary beauty, who strives in her own fashion after the ideal, who struggles to escape from the stupid round of your cares and duties and proprieties, and you want to hem her in with the same dread and misapprehension that imprison her life in your brutal Boston. She longs for a breath of free mountain air, and you stifle her with your dense social atmosphere. I see it all, plainly enough. You misinterpret that sensitive, generous, proud spirit. But no matter; I shall soon be able to make my own version.”

“She’ll give you every facility. I have no doubt she’s in her room now, preparing little hints and suggestions for your fancy to-morrow. Her dress at breakfast will tell the tale. But you needn’t flatter yourself, William, that she’ll care for you personally{38} or individually; it’s you in the abstract that will interest her, as a handsome young man that certain effects of posture and drapery and gesture may be tried upon. I should like to know just how she stood and stared when you met her, you two, there in the berry pasture, alone. Did she look magnificently startled, splendidly frightened? The woman wouldn’t really have minded meeting a panther.”

“I didn’t say she was alone.”

“So you didn’t! Who was with her?”

“Oh, a little thrush of a girl, slim and shy-looking.”

“Well, William! You may as well take your Mr. Easton and go back to your New York at once.”

“What have I done?”

“Nothing; you have simply exhausted our resources; you have devoured with the same indiscriminate glance our Beauty and our Genius.”

“What do you mean?”

“That little thrush of a girl is the Rosa Bonheur of West Pekin.”

“Truly? Do I understand that the young lady does horse fairs for a living?”

“Not exactly, or not yet. She is the daughter of our landlady. She teaches school for a living, and last year she waited on table in vacation. I don’t know how long she may have been in the habit of doing horse fairs in secret, but she produced her first work in public this morning—or rather Mrs. Farrell did for her; the exhibition was too much for the artist’s modesty, and we{39} no chance to congratulate her. She had done a head of Blossom, the Alderney cow, in charcoal.”

“Was it good?” asked Gilbert, indifferently.

“That was the saddest part of it: if it had been bad, I should have had some hopes of her, but it was really very promising; and it made my heart ache to think of another woman of talent struggling with the world. She would be so much happier if she had no talent. I suppose, now it’s out, she’ll be obliged by public opinion to take some sort of lessons, and go abroad, and worry commissions out of people. Honestly, don’t you think it’s a pity, William?”

“It isn’t a winning prospect,” said Gilbert. “What did you all say and do?”

Mrs. Gilbert relaxed the half seriousness of her face. “Oh, it was a very pretty scene, I can tell you. They brought the sketch into my room after breakfast, with Mrs. Belle Farrell at the head of the procession, and set it down on my mantelpiece, and all crowded round it, and praised it with that enthusiasm for genius which Boston people always feel.”

Gilbert smiled insult, and his sister-in-law went on.

“It was really very touching to hear our two youngest girls rave over it in that fresh, worshiping way young Boston girls have; and we have another artist in the house (she paints cat-tail rushes, and has her whole room looking like a swamp) who hailed it with effusion. She said that Miss Wood{40}ward’s talent was God-given, and ought to be cultivated.”

“Of course.”

“Then everybody else said so, too, and wondered that they hadn’t thought of God-given before Mrs. Stevenson did. It seemed to describe it so exactly.”

“I see,” said Gilbert. “Mrs. Stevenson embodies the average Boston art feeling. How long has she left off chromos? How does her husband like the cat-tails?”

“He thinks they’re beautiful and he attributes all sorts of sentiment to them. He’s a very good man.”

Gilbert laughed aloud. “He must be. What did the Woodward family think of Blossom’s head in charcoal?”

“Nobody knows what the Woodward family think of that or of anything else,” said Mrs. Gilbert. “I hope they don’t despise us, for I respect Mrs. Woodward very much; she has character, and she looks as if she had history; but they draw the line very strictly between themselves and the boarders, all except Mrs. Farrell.”

“Ah?” said Gilbert, who had visibly not cared to hear about the Woodwards, “and why except Mrs. Farrell?”

“Well, nobody exactly knows. She thawed their ice, I suppose, by having a typhoid fever here, summer before last, when she first came; they nursed her through it, and did her no end of kindness, and of course that made them fond of her—so perverse is human nature. Besides, I think she{41} fascinates their straight-up-and-downness by the graceful convolutions of her circuitous character; that’s human nature, too.”

Gilbert laughed again, but did not say anything; and his sister-in-law, after waiting for him to speak, returned to what she had been saying of Rachel Woodward.

“You had better tell Mr. Easton about our artist. He may be on the lookout for another beneficiary, now Rogers is gone, and would like her for a protégée. If some one could only marry her, poor girl, and put her out of her misery in that way! As it stands, it’s a truly deplorable case.”

“I’m sorry you still think so meanly of woman, Susan,” said Gilbert, rising.

“Yes, it is sorrowful; but it’s an old story to you. I take my cue from Nature; she never loses an occasion to show her contempt for us; she knows us so well. Do you see anything hopeful in Miss Woodward’s predicament?”

“I’m a man. If I were a woman I would never go back on my sex.”

“Oh, you can’t tell; a man can have no idea how very little women think of one another. Is Robert really so very busy? I don’t blame him for finding a substitute for West Pekin when he can; but I do blame him for trying to spare my feelings now, when he hasn’t been here but twice this summer. Of course, he hates to come, and I’m going to give him his freedom for the rest of the season.”

“I think he’ll like it,” said Gilbert. He offered his hand for good night, and his sister-in-law allowed{42} him to go, like a wise invalid who knows her own force and endurance.

Gilbert found Easton waiting for him on the upper gallery of the hotel, which overlooked a deep, broad hollow. At the bottom of this the white mist lay so dense that it filled the space of the valley like a shallow lake, and the clumps of trees stood out of it here and there like little isles. The friends sat looking at the pretty illusion in the silence which friends need not break, and Easton’s cigar flashed and darkened in the shadow like the spark of a farseen revolving light. He often lamented this habit of his in vigorous self-reproach, not chiefly as a thing harmful to himself, but as a public wrong and an oppression to many other people; if any one had asked him to give it up, he would gladly have done so; but no one did, and he clung to his cigar with a constancy which Gilbert, who did not smoke, praised as the saving virtue of his character, the one thing that kept him from being a standing rebuke to humanity.

After a while Easton drew the last shameful solace from his cigar and flung the remaining fragment over the rail. He rose to look after it and see that it set nothing on fire; then he returned to his seat and, clasping his hands outside his knees, said, “I’ve been thinking over that encounter of ours with that girl to-day, and I believe you are right. She did leave the book there that she might have an excuse to come back and see what we were like.”


“And I see no harm in her having done so. We{43} shouldn’t have thought it out of the way in a man; and a woman had as much right to do it. The subterfuge is the only thing; I don’t like that, though it was a very frank artifice, and the whole relation of the sexes is a series of subterfuges: it seems to be the design of Nature, who knows what she’s about, I dare say. No doubt we should lose a great deal that’s very pleasant in life without them.”

“There could be no flirting without them,” answered Gilbert, “and no lovely Farrells, consequently.” Easton turned his face toward him, and Gilbert continued: “Farrell is her name: Mrs. Belle Farrell; she is a widow.”

“A widow?” echoed Easton, rather disappointedly.

“Yes,” said Gilbert. “I dare say she would be willing to mend the fault. She’s passing the summer at the Woodward farm; my sister-in-law has been telling me all about her,” he said. He reproduced Mrs. Gilbert’s facts and impressions, but in his version it did not seem to be much about her, after all.

Easton rose from his chair and struck a light on his match case, but he absently suffered it to burn out before lighting his cigar. When he had done this a second time he began to walk nervously up and down the gallery.

“It’s a face to die for!” he said, half musingly.

“Very well,” said Gilbert. “I think Mrs. Farrell would be much pleased to have some one die for her face, and on the whole it would be better than to live for it. But these are abstractions, my dear{44} fellow; I’m going to bed now; there’s no use in being out of sorts if I don’t. Good night.”

“I’m not—yet awhile,” said Easton. “Good night. Are you going over to the farm again in the morning?”

“Yes. Will you go with me?”

“I don’t know; I thought I should go to church.”

“All right. Very likely the Farrell may be there. But I prefer to chance it at the farm.”

Easton did not answer. He struck a third match, and this time lit a cigar. Gilbert went his way, and left him seated on the gallery, looking over into the mist-flooded hollow.


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