Mrs. Farrell

by William Dean Howells

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Chapter XV

IN an orchestra chair at the theater sat a stout, good-natured-looking gentleman, iron gray where he was not bald, with a double chin smooth-shaven between iron-gray whiskers, and beside him sat a lady somewhat his junior in appearance, pale and invalid-like, to whom the strong contrast of her silvery hair and her thick, dark eyebrows gave a singular distinction; from some little attentions and neglects it could be seen that they were husband and wife. The husband seemed tranquilly expectant, and the wife nervously so, and as they talked together, waiting for the curtain to rise, he spoke in a slow, rich, easy voice, with a smile of amiable humor, while she had a more eager and sarcastic air, which at times did not veil a real anxiety of feeling.

“And that is just where you misconceive the whole affair,” the lady was saying.

“I don’t see,” said the gentleman.

“Why,” demanded the lady, despairingly, “can’t you imagine a woman’s liking to triumph over people with her beauty, and yet meaning it to be a purely æsthetic triumph?”

“No, I can’t,” said the gentleman, with placid candor.{258}

“Well, women can,” said the lady, conclusively, and the gentleman submitted in silence.

Presently he asked, “Isn’t she rather old for a novice?”

“She’s twenty-six, if you call that old. She’s a novice to the stage, but she’s been an actress all her life.”

The gentleman laughed in the contented fashion of gentlemen who think their wives are wits, and said: “I think you’re decidedly hard upon her to-night, Susan. It seems to me you have been more merciful at times.”

“Oh, at times! I’ve never been of one mind about her half an hour together, and I don’t expect to be hard upon her the whole evening, now. The last day I saw her at the farm, as I’ve often told you, I pitied her from the bottom of my heart, but before we said good-by I suspected that I had been the subject of one of her little dramatic effects. Can’t you imagine a person who really feels all she thinks she ought to feel at any given time?”

“No,” said the gentleman, with cheerful resignation, “that’s beyond my depth again.”

“Well, she’s that kind; or I’ve fancied so in my skeptical moods about her. If she dramatizes her part to-night half as well as she used to dramatize herself, she’ll be a great actress. But that remains to be seen. When I first heard she was going on the stage, it seemed like a clew to everything; she says she always wanted to be an actress; and I felt that it was a perfect inspiration. It would give her ex{259}citement and admiration, and it would multiply the subjects of her effects to any extent. It always did seem a ridiculous waste that she should merely fascinate one man at a time; she ought to have had thousands. But I’m not so certain, now, after all, that she’s found her destiny.”


“Why, a stage success might be very much to her taste, while she mightn’t at all like the trouble of making it. I think she has a real theatrical genius, but I suppose the stage takes a great deal of self-denial and constancy, and she’s fickle as the wind.”

“Oh, come, now, Susan, you know you said yesterday that, after all, you did believe she had a lasting regard for William’s friend.”

“Yes, that’s a great puzzle and mystery. Perhaps it was because she had broken with him. I didn’t infer from anything she said that their acquaintance now was of anything but a friendly sort. I wish I had felt authorized to ask just how it was renewed,” said the lady, regretfully.

“I wish you had. I should have liked to know. There must be something extraordinary about her to enable her to keep him for a friend after all that happened.”

“Oh, did I ever pretend there wasn’t something extraordinary about her? There was everything extraordinary about her! And there are times when I can’t help admiring a sort of moral heroism she had. I think she was fascinated for a while with the dreadfulness of flirting with William under the circumstances; but not one woman in a thou{260}sand would have had the courage to do what she did when she found it was becoming serious with him.”

“Very likely. But I have a higher opinion of women. My sense of right and wrong has not been shaken, like some people’s, by this enchantress. I can’t help thinking it might not have been so rough on him if her moral heroism had begun a little sooner—say before the flirtation.”

“Oh, the more I think about it, the less I pity him in that matter. He knew perfectly well that he was doing wrong. Men ought to do right, even if it doesn’t please women.”

The gentleman bowed his bald head in a fit of laughter. “I have no doubt those were Eve’s very words to Adam,” he chuckled; but the lady, without laughing, continued—

“And when the worst had come to the worst with Easton, it seems she didn’t spare herself. She told him everything.”

“Perhaps she might have spared him somewhat if she had not been quite so frank.”

“It was her duty to tell him!” rejoined the lady, sternly, “and I honor her for doing it. She never could have gone on and married him, with all that in her heart.”

“At any rate she didn’t go on and marry him. And I shall always contend that she was a hardly used woman; engaging herself to a man she merely pitied, under the mistaken impression that she was in love with him, and then—when she found that she didn’t want his friend either—dismissing the{261} poor fellow with a final misgiving that perhaps she did like him, after all. I say it’s a case of unmerited suffering, if ever there was one.”

“Oh, it’s all very well to talk! But how do you reconcile such contradictions?”

“I don’t. But I’m certain of one thing: she wasn’t trying any of her little dramatic effects on you when she called yesterday and made you her confidante.” The gentleman here laughed so loud that the sound of his own voice alarmed him. He looked round, and saw that the seats about them were rapidly filling up, and he fell to studying his play-bill with conscious zeal.

By and by he turned again to his wife, and whispered, “I don’t think William’s peace of mind was permanently affected by his romance with your friend; he appeared to be in good spirits the other day when I saw him in New York, and was taking a good deal of interest in the fine arts, I fancied, from his behavior to your little protégée.”

“William has been very polite and very good; I shall always feel grateful to him for his kindness to her. He must have found it difficult at first; she’s very odd and doesn’t invite attention, though of course she’s glad of it, at heart. Yes, it was very, very considerate, and I shall take it as the greatest favor that William could have done me.”

“Well, I don’t know. He didn’t seem to be regarding the affair in the light of a self-sacrifice. Suppose he had rather lost the sense of it’s being a favor to you?”

“I should like that all the better.”

Those who remember the impression made among people who knew of her, by the announcement that Mrs. Farrell was going upon the stage, will recall the curiosity which attended her appearance in Boston, after her debut in a Western city, where she had played a season. There is always something vastly pitiable in the first attempts of a woman to please the public from the stage; this is especially the case if she is not to the theater born, and confronts in her audience the faces she has known in the world; and her audience may have felt a peculiar forlornness in Mrs. Farrell’s position: at any rate it showed itself the kindest of houses, and seized with eager applause every good point of her performance. Her beauty in itself was almost sufficient to achieve success for her. It had never appeared to greater advantage. During the first two acts, it seemed to prosper from moment to moment, under all those admiring eyes, like the immediate gift of Heaven, as if she were inspired to be more and more beautiful by her consciousness of her beauty’s power; and whether she walked or sat, or only stirred in some chosen posture amid the volume of her robes, she expressed a grace that divinely fascinated. Her girlish presence enabled her to realize that Juliet to many whose sensitive ideal refused the robust pretensions of more mature actresses; she might have played the part well or not, but there could be no question but she looked it. She had costumed it with a splendor which the modern taste might have accused of overdressing, but which was not discordant with a poetic sense of{263} the magnificence of mediæval Verona. Her Juliet was no blond, Gretchen-like maiden in blue and white, but an impassioned southern girl in the dark reds and rich greens that go well with that beauty; she might have studied her dress from that of some superb patrician in a canvas of Cagliari. But with her beauty, her grace, and her genius for looking and dressing the character, her perfect triumph ended; there was something perplexingly indefinite in the nature or the cause of her failure, at those points where she failed. To some she simply appeared unequal to a sustained imagination of the character. Others thought her fatigued by the physical effort, which must be a very great one. Perhaps no one was of a very decided mind about her performance.

“It was good, yes—and it wasn’t good, either,” said one of those critical spirits, rather commoner in Boston than elsewhere, who analyze and refine and re-refine and shrink from a final impression, with a perseverance that leaves one in doubt whether they have any opinion about the matter. “I should say she had genius, yes; genius for something— I don’t know; I suppose the drama. I dare say I saw her without the proper perspective; I was crowded so close to her by what I’d heard of her off the stage, don’t you know. I don’t think the part was well chosen; and yet she did some things uncommonly well; all that passionate lovemaking of the first part was magnificent; but there was some detracting element, even there— I do{264}n’t know what; I suppose she didn’t let you think enough of Juliet; you couldn’t help thinking how very charming she was, herself; she realized the part the wrong way. There was inspiration in it, and I should say study; yes, there was a good deal of study; but, after all, it wasn’t so much art as it was nature and artifice. It wanted smoothness, unity; perhaps that might come, by and by. She had a very kind house; you know what our audiences usually are; they wouldn’t turn the thumb down, but they’d make an unlucky gladiator wish they would. But they were very good to her, last night, and applauded her hits like a little man. She didn’t seem to have given herself a fair chance. Perhaps she wasn’t artistically large enough for the theater. I shouldn’t have said, at first, that she was particularly suggestive of the home circle; very likely, if I’d met her off the stage, I should have pronounced her too theatrical; and yet there was a sort of appealing domesticity about her, after all—especially in her failures. It’s a pity she couldn’t take some particular line of the profession, in which she could somehow produce a social effect, don’t you know! I’ll tell you what; she could do something perfectly charming in the way of what they call sketches—character sketches—little morsels of drama that she could have all to herself, with the audience in her confidence—a sort of partner in the enterprise, like the audience at private theatricals. That’s it; that’s the very thing! She’d be the greatest possible success in private theatricals.”

“Well, Robert, it’s better than I ever dreamt she could do,” said Mrs. Gilbert, as they drove home from the theater. “But what a life for a woman! How hard and desolate at the best. Well, she’s sufficiently punished!”

“Yes,” said her husband, “it’s a great pity they couldn’t somehow make up their minds to marry each other.”

“Never! There are things they can never get over.”

“Oh, people get over all sorts of things. And even according to your own showing, she behaved very well when it came to the worst.”

“Yes, I shall always say that of her. But she was to blame for it’s coming to the worst. No, a whole lifetime wouldn’t be enough to atone for what she’s done.”

“It wouldn’t, in a romance. But in life you have to make some allowance for human nature. I had no idea she was so charming.”

“Robert,” said Mrs. Gilbert, sternly, “do you think it would be right for a woman to be happy after she had made others so wretched?”

“Well, not at once. But I don’t see how her remaining unhappy is to help matters. You say that you really think she does like him, after all?”

“She would hardly talk of anything else—where he was, and what he saw, and what he said. Yes, I should say she does like him.”

“Then I don’t see why he shouldn’t come back from Europe and marry her, when she makes her final failure on the stage. I would, in his place.{266}”

“My dear, you know you wouldn’t!”

“Well, then, he would in my place. Have it your own way, my love.”

Mr. Gilbert seemed to think he had made a joke, but his wife did not share his laugh.

“Robert,” she said, after a thoughtful pause, “the lenient way in which you look at her is worse than wrong; it’s weak.”

“Very likely, my dear; but I can’t help feeling it’s a noble weakness. Why, of course I know that she spread a ruin round, for a while, but, as you say, it seems to have been more of a ruin than she meant; and there’s every probability that she’s been sorry enough for it since.”

“Oh! And so you think such a person as that can change by trying—and atone for what she’s done by being sorry for it!” said Mrs. Gilbert, with scorn.

“Well, Susan, I should not like to be such a heathen as not to think so,” responded her husband, with an assumption none the less intolerable because, while his position was in itself impregnable, it left a thousand things to be said.



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