THIS little volume1 of two hundred and fifty pages contains one story and two sketches. Neither story nor sketch cost the writer much labor, apparently. He has become so skillful in his art that it is almost as easy for him to shape exquisite things as it is for another to fail in the attempt. Prosper Mérimée never offered his reader a lighter or more highly-finished handful of fiction than these three studies. We have seen it written that Mr. Howells is a man of “ mere talent.” Mr. Howells reconciles us to mere talent; it seems to be a finer thing than the more Promethean endowment, for it gives us subtile characterizations, consummate workmanship, wit, humor, and pathos in abundance, and all of a quality not generally discoverable in the prose or verse of contemporary genius.
Mr. Howells’s new book is especially interesting as offering side by side with the author’s latest work an illustration of his earlier manner. A wide and constantly increasing group of listeners has gathered around him since Tonelli’s Marriage was printed in The Atlantic Monthly in 1868. Between this sketch and A Fearful Responsibility comes the episode entitled At the Sign of the Savage. Of the novelette which gives the title to the collection it is only necessary to say that it has all the charm of Mr. Howells’s more elaborate stories. That it has no different charm is perhaps its one fault. It strikes us that Mr. Howells has here repeated himself a little. It seems as if certain actors in some preceding comedy of his were standing at the side-wings, and critically watching the progress of the after-piece. Vague but still recognizable shadows, not otherwise to be accounted for, are projected upon the stage. The principal persons in A Fearful Responsibility have habits of dialogue and gesture not unfamiliar to us. Here and there Owen Elmore and his wife remind one of Mr. and Mrs. Colonel Ellison. Miss Lilly Mayhew is Miss Lydia Blood with a trifle more vivacity, or Miss Florida Vervain with darkened eyelashes and a sweeter disposition, Mr. Howells has given an enchanting atmosphere of reality to his story by laying the scene of it in the Venice of A Foregone Conclusion. We catch a glimpse of Mr. Ferris, the painter who amused himself with “ consuling,” and expect every instant to have Don Ippolito called in to assist bliss Mayhew in her Italian lessons. The war is going on in America ; it is spring again ; there are odors of rose and orange blossom in the small Venetian gardens, and morning and evening the air is sharp enough along the canals. We are more than half disappointed not to meet Don Ippolito coming down the narrow calle with his two handkerchiefs, like a Japanese samurai with his pair of swords. Here, as in others of his stories, Mr. Howells lays bare the intricacies of girl nature, — its shyness and daring, its coquetry and candor, its dove-like wisdom and serpent-like innocence. He has caught all these evanescent and winged things, and transfixed them to his page with the careful tenderness of a naturalist pinning his papilonidæ.
At the Sign of the Savage is a sketch of travel, in which the reader finds himself in Vienna. The narrative hinges on a humorously conceived and artfully presented incident, which seems almost like a plot when compared with the slender thread of story running through A Fearful Responsibility. We have been deterred from referring to the plot of the longer piece by a circumstance similar to that which prevented a certain historian from devoting a chapter to snakes in his work on Ireland. At the Sign of the Savage is notable for its clean-cut characterizations, and for those neat satiric turns which we have learned to regard as a matter of course, though not so many of them as there are in this one brief sketch would make the fortune of a new writer. Colonel Kenton, calmly discrediting everything set down in Baedeker’s guide-book, is a stroke of genuine humor : —
“ As they bowled along in the deliberate German express train through the Black Forest, Colonel Kenton said he had only two things against the region : it was not black, and it was not a forest. He had all his life heard of the Black Forest, and he hoped he knew what it was. The inhabitants burned charcoal, high up the mountains, and carved toys in the winter, when shut in by the heavy snows ; they had Easter eggs all the year round, with overshot mill-wheels in the valleys, and cherry-trees all about, always full of blossoms or ripe fruit, just as you liked to think. They were very poor people, but very devout, and lived in little villages, on a friendly intimacy with their cattle. The young women of these hamlets had each a long braid of yellow hair down her back, blue eyes, and a white bodice with a cat’s-cradle lacing behind. The men had bell-crowned hats and spindle-legs ; they buttoned the breath out of their bodies with round pewter buttons on tight, short crimson waistcoats. ‘ Now, here,’ said the colonel, breathing on the window of the car and rubbing a little space clear of the frost, ‘ I see nothing of the sort. Either I have been imposed upon by what I have heard of the Black Forest, or this is not the Black Forest. I ’m inclined to believe that there is no Black Forest, and never was. There is n’t,’ he added, looking again, so as not to speak hastily, ‘ a charcoal-burner, or an Easter egg, or a cherry blossom, or a yellow braid, or a red waistcoat, to enliven the whole desolate landscape. What are we to think of it, Bessie ? ’ . . . Wherever they stopped, whatever they did, before reaching Vienna, Colonel Kenton chose to preserve his guarded attitude. ‘ Ah, they pretend this is Stuttgart, do they ? ’ he said, on arriving at the Suabian capital. ‘ A likely story ! They pretended that was the Black Forest, you know, Bessie.’ At Munich, ‘ And this is Munich ! ’ he sneered, whenever the conversation flagged during their sojourn. ‘ It’s outrageous, the way they let these swindling little towns palm themselves off upon the traveler for cities he’s heard of. This place will be calling itself Berlin, next.’ ”
In Tonelli’s Marriage the scene is again Venice ; it is not a story, but a study of character, and, happily, of Italian character. The canvas is full of delightful detail and local color, and escapes those incongruities which result from placing the modern American tourist, male or female, against a background of mediæval architecture. The sketch was drawn before Mr. Howells deliberately set himself the task of storytelling. It lacks, perhaps, something of the precision and directness of his later touch, but is still lovely enough to be a model of style. It has that ineffable grace of youth for which an artist in his prime would willingly give all his laboriously acquired technique. — a grace no more possible of recapture than a perfume.
Mr. Howells has not anywhere painted a young woman more charmingly than in these pages, though the portrait is only in outline. He has probably put all the archness and pathos of Italian girlhood into the Paronsina, hastily as he has sketched her. The Paronsina is the daughter of an old notary named Cenarotti, to whom Tonelli, a faded fop and harmless buon diavolo, acts as clerk and copyist. The history of the Little Mistress’s first love affair, the conduct of which she trusts to the diplomatic Tonelli, insists on quoting itself : —
“ In fact, it was altogether a business affair, and was managed chiefly by Tonelli, who, having met a young doctor, laureled the year before at Padua, had heard him express so pungent a curiosity to know what the Paronsina would have to her dower that he perceived he must be madly in love with her. So, with the consent of the signora, he had arranged a correspondence between the young people ; and all went on well at first, the letters from both passing through his hands. But his office was anything but a sinecure ; for while the Doctor was, on his part, of a cold temperament, and disposed to regard the affair merely as a proper way of providing for the natural affections, the Paronsina cared nothing for him personally, and only viewed him favorably as abstract matrimony, — as the means of escaping from the bondage of her girlhood and the sad seclusion of her life into the world outside her grandfather’s house. So presently the correspondence fell almost wholly upon Tonelli, who worked up to the point of betrothal with an expense of finesse and sentiment that would have made his fortune in diplomacy or poetry. What should he say now ? that stupid young Doctor would cry in a desperation, when Tonelli delicately reminded him that it was time to answer the Paronsina’s last note. Say this, that, and the other, Tonelli would answer, giving him the heads of a proper letter, which the Doctor took down on square bits of paper, neatly fashioned for writing prescriptions. ‘ And for God’s sake, caro dottore, put a little warmth into it! ’ The poor Doctor would try, but it must always end in Tonelli’s suggesting and almost dictating every sentence ; and then the letter, being carried to the Paronsina, made her laugh : ‘ This is very pretty, my poor Tonelli, but it was never my onoratissimo dottore who thought of these tender compliments. Ah ! that allusion to my mouth and eyes could only have come from the heart of a great poet. It is yours, Tonelli; don’t deny it.’ And Tonelli, taken in his weak point of literature, could make but a feeble pretense of disclaiming the child of his fancy; while the Paronsina, being in this reckless humor, more than once responded to the Doctor in such fashion that in the end the inspiration of her altered and amended letter was Tonelli’s. Even after the betrothal the love-making languished, and the Doctor was indecently patient of the late day fixed for the marriage by the notary. In fact, the Doctor was very busy; and, as his practice grew, the dower of the Paronsina dwindled in his fancy, till one day he treated the whole question of their marriage with such coldness and uncertainty in his talk with Tonelli that the latter saw whither his thoughts were drifting, and went home with an indignant heart to the Paronsina, who joyfully sat down and wrote her first sincere letter to the Doctor, dismissing him. ‘ It is finished,’ she said, ‘ and I am glad. After all, perhaps I don’t want to be any freer than I am ; and while I have you, Tonelli, I don’t want a younger lover. Younger? Diana ! You are in the flower of youth, and I believe you will never wither. Did that rogue of a Doctor, then, really give you the elixir of youth for writing him those letters ? Tell me, Tonelli, as a true friend, how long have you been forty-seven ? Ever since your fiftieth birthday ? Listen ! I have been more afraid of losing you than my sweetest Doctor. I thought you would be so much in love with love-making that you would go break-neck and court some one in earnest on your own account! ’ ” Tonelli’s Marriage belongs to the period of the Italian Journeys, and is one of the singularly rich results of Mr. Howells’s three years’ residence in Venice. His Venetian Life, in which the swan city is painted once for all, does not display a more consummate knowledge and appreciation of Italian traits. As a delineation of character, as an absolutely fresh and vitalized creation, Tomaso Tonelli ranks with Dr. Boynton in The Undiscovered Country. These two figures are Mr. Howells’s masterpieces. They prove that he possesses a quality which his critics have not sufficiently recognized, that is, versatility. From Dr. Boynton, with his unconscious charlatanism, to the superannuated notary’s clerk, ogling the ladies at the café in the Piazza of St. Mark; from the subtile self-delusion of the New Englander to the simple conceit of the Italian, as Mr. Howells has drawn them, is as long a step as any novelist need take.
- A Fearful Responsibility, and Other Stories. By WILLIAM D. HOWKLLS, author of The Lady of the Aroostook, The Undiscovered Country, etc. Boston: J. R. Osgood & Co. 1881.↩