M. Mulvina: Her Life and Works
WE had fallen into conversation most informally, over griddlecakes and coffee, in the dining-car. The waiter had served us at the same moment, and, as we sat opposite each other, the coincidence between the orders was noticeable. He smiled slightly, and I took the opportunity of speaking, for his face had interested me.
“It’s a habit I got into at college,” I ventured, semi-apologetically. “ I thought they were a luxury then.”
“Yes,” he replied, with a sigh, “and the habit persists after the stomach is no more. I never get them at home; but nobody keeps watch of me on the train.”
I took half the syrup in the jug, and he emptied it. Then we began to eat.
He was an extraordinarily slight man; you wondered if in a strong wind he might not have to carry an anchor with him. Partly, I presume, from the fact that his sallow face reproduced so markedly the contour of the bones behind it, his alert blue eyes seemed to look out almost shyly from the depths of their sockets, and his thin lips, which were close-shaven, had surely become more delicately related than is commonly the case with men to every shade of feeling. For that matter, all his features, from the large ears to the small but prominent white teeth, were what you call expressive; — a composite face, one in which you felt the suggestion of opposite qualities not in the least inharmonious, perhaps, but producing undeniably an effect quite out of the ordinary.
I had figured out his profession before I spoke again. “You are a teacher, I imagine ? ”
“I commend your perspicacity,” he replied dryly. “Perhaps you are a reporter.”
I apologized for my presumption, ventured a few remarks in regard to the change of weather since the previous night, and then waited to see what he would do.
Finally he put down his coffee cup with a sigh. “Yes,” he said. “Why should I hide it ? I am an Associate Professor in Marion University, a thriving institution of learning in the Middle West; my specialty is English composition; and my salary — but no, breakfast is over. If you ’re in an amiable temper come back into the car with me and we ’ll talk, — they don’t let me smoke. Talk helps digestion, and it pleased me to notice that you did not split your infinitive in the third sentence from your last.”
I gasped; he smiled blandly; and we made our way into the forward Pullman.
“Do you always notice points like that ? ” I asked, after we had been seated for a minute or two in silence.
“ Like what ? ” he inquired innocently.
“I mean the split infinitive and that sort of stuff.”
“Why, of course,” he replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “It’s my business; it’s my daily habit; it’s a part of my constitution. I figure out that I have corrected some seventy-three thousand themes since they broke me in a decade ago.”
I made a sympathetic interjection. “How does it happen there’s anything left of you ? ” I added.
“Well, look at me. I’m fading; my roses are past. One dies of it, you know, in the end. Pretty soon there’ll be a blue pencil and a shadow on the wall. No matter; we comfort ourselves with the vain hope that it does them good.”
“You mean your students?”
“Assuredly; whom else? Yes, good boys and girls; one gets to be very fond of them. They’re so refreshingly ingenuous, so very young, so full of the joy of living; of course they lose all that later, but it’s gratifying while it lasts.”
You never could tell, as I had begun to discover, just how serious he was, even when he gave you most the impression of being so. His eyes would look at you with convincing earnestness, but you were likely to notice just the suggestion of a smile lurking in one corner of his upper lip; and you felt baffled. Whimsical is the word that comes nearest, I think, to describing his manner; but it is inadequate: it suggests a flippancy which was certainly not characteristic of him. You always felt that his whimsicality was a kind of protective armor; that a marvelously complex, yet perfectly sincere personality was behind it, perhaps too fastidiously selfrespecting to show itself readily in audience.
“I suppose you find a few,” I pursued, “who really have a literary sense and do promising work.”
“Geniuses,” he replied laconically.
“How much are you in earnest?” I asked.
“Well,” he answered evasively, “you call yourself a literary man” —
I interrupted hastily.
“Oh, I know you did n’t say that, of course,” he went on, “but you are. You write for the magazines, and so forth, don’t you ?”
I admitted it with a curious feeling of self-contempt.
“Well, then,” he continued, “what men or women of genius have you met ? ” He looked at me searchingly.
With some hesitation I produced three or four names, headed by Henry James.
“Not bad,” he commented paternally. “ But tell me, have you ever made the acquaintance of one Marianne Mulvina Sweeney? ... I perceive that you are ignorant.”
“Protégée of yours?” I ventured.
“Yes,” he replied, “my joy and crown.”
“You interest me profoundly,” I urged. “Has she a story?”
“Not so much a story as a character,” he corrected. “ I will tell you about her if you like, for the finished product is what I could wish to be a model for all women geniuses, and perhaps you can use her sometime.”
I wish you could have heard that man talk. He gave you the odd impression of always picking his words in advance of his utterance, and yet they came with an immediate pertinency that was captivating. It resulted, of course, from his having accustomed himself to speaking under the most watchful censure, and now and then he would interrupt himself with critical asides on his own diction which gave you exactly the impression of a blue pencil comment on a neatly-written sheet. It was to allow me some insight, he said, when I remarked upon the curiousness of the custom, into the workings of a morbidly specialized mind — “assuming,” he “ explained,” “that, as an author in these decadent days, you are interested in abnormal psychology.”
Marianne Mulvina Sweeney [he began] entered my Sophomore elective, English 27, a course open to any who have passed the required Freshman work, in nineteen-four. Yes, this is all modern history.
“I desire to take the work,” she said, “ because I am fitting myself to be a writer.” She had, you see. that sense of dedication which is supposed to be characteristic of the great.
“ Oh! ” I replied, somewhat overcome, for one does not often meet with such frankness.
“Well, do you object ? ” she persisted, and the tone spoke far more than the words themselves, as if she had asked, “Are you, too, going to put barriers in my way ? ” It was clear that she was prepared to surmount any obstacles; it would be folly to think of impeding her.
“What has your record been in your previous English work ? ” I asked, as a preliminary to giving my consent.
For a moment I thought that I must have insulted her; but she regained control of herself with an effort. “It is not,” she answered, “all that I could desire. I blame no one.” These last words she uttered with a sententious emphasis which indicated clearly that she might say more if she chose.
Marianne Mulvina was a remarkablelooking girl, — most remarkable. What you could see of her eyes through a pair of enormously thick glasses gave you the impression that they were unusually large, in color pale blue, with small pupils that glittered. This might have been due in part to the distortion of the lenses; but the rest of her physiognomy was en rapport — (Avoid the affectation of foreign phrases. Simple English is best.)
She had a mass of pale brown hair parted on the side and looped down savagely across a broad forehead. I say savagely, though admitting that the word may mislead: there was always a wildness about that hair, an abandon, as if she defied the world to criticise it. In moments of excitement she would sometimes unconsciously lift this loop and work it into a sort of unpremeditated pompadour, an act which seemed to throw out those large pale eyes of hers into unexpected relief — if I may be allowed the expression; — and then, recollecting herself, she would push and thump it back into place again, something as a mother thumps a refractory child. I never knew that forelocks could be so subtly indicative of states of mind.
But I learned all this later, — as it were, experimentally, — for, as I have implied, I consented at once — glad to be let off so easily — to admit her to the course, which means (Avoid indefinite uses of the relative) that I have spent seventy-two hours, not including formal conferences and informal conyersations, in her presence.
I asked my Freshman instructor about her at the first opportunity.
“Marianne Mulvina — can I tell you about her ?” he answered sadly. “Well, where shall I begin? Antenatally ?”
“First of all, who is she?”
“She is,” he began, “a genius. For evidence see Mrs. Sweeney. Her father came of good stock, though in unfortunate circumstances. Yes, there’s the blood of many a good New England family in Mulvina’s veins, as one may well say without boasting, — I quote the mother. Brought up humbly in one of our rural districts, she showed at an excessively tender age a most surprising precocity. Like Pope, she
her first recorded product being the couplet, —
And she was a little girl.”
“Interesting work for the historical critic,” I interrupted. “I seem to detect sources already. But tell me,” I added, “is this curl still preserved ?” — and I put my hand suggestively to my forehead.
“ Mrs. Sweeney can tell you the few details of M. Mulvina’s career with which I am still unacquainted. She has come to Marion with her daughter to supervise and protect her. You will doubtless meet her soon. And I may add,” he concluded, “that the Sweeney family is very sensitive.”
I started to leave the room, but he called me back. “One word more,” he whispered darkly. “She is a Wordsworthian and a Mabieite, — a real lover of Nature, as spelled with the capital N.”
“Enough,” I replied, and left him. I felt that I knew Mulvina.
At this point I ought to tell you something about English 27, though I am aware that such information is of no great interest to the layman. (Might not this sentence have been made periodic ?) There is no work specifically assigned; the children simply hand in every day a page of written work on subjects of their own choice. In the classroom we discuss some of the more recondite principles of composition, and I read aloud for open criticism any of the recent themes that I judge provocative of fruitful discussion.
M. Mulvina — ’t was thus she invariably signed her work — took always a seat two rows back and directly in front of the desk. She looked at me almost undeviatingly from the opening of the hour to the close; there was something judicial, uncompromising, in this scrutiny; it partook in some degree of the nature of eternity, as if she were forever recording your remarks relentlessly in the book of judgment. You could not forget her, you could not neglect her; those pale, much-magnified eyes, half discovered through the lenses of her black-bowed glasses, seemed somehow, as you saw her from the desk, to enlarge her personality, until it dominated the room, vague, severe, unseducible.
She rarely descended to take part in the discussions; but she had a way of putting in a word at the end, which, you felt, was intended as final, like the capstone of a monument. It frequently occurred to me, when I saw her preparing to speak, that her words deserved a Biblical introduction, such as, “ And she opened her mouth and taught them, saying,” for the effect was august and oracular.
M. Mulvina was particularly jealous in regard to the truth or untruth of what she called “Nature-touches,” and she was also on the lookout for that irreducible quality termed Inspiration.
“This work,” she would observe, slowly erecting her forelock, “seems to me careful, conscientious, correct; but may we not say that it lacks Inspiration ? ”
Of the effect of her remarks upon the class, she was altogether oblivious: a genius must be so, I think, if he is to live at peace among the children of this world.
The general character of her own work might be suggested by the titles, as, “Communion,” “The Message of the Snowdrop,” “Thoughts at Dawn, ” — Oh, I could go on endlessly, but you recognize the type, and when I remind you that she was a Sophomore, you may judge as you like. I ought to add that her age was twenty-two, extreme nervousness, as her mother informed me, having made it advisable to keep her for two or three years out of school. (Dangling participles destroy Force.) During these years she had, it is to be supposed, communed.
I always hesitated — was it cowardice ? — to find serious fault with her work. My blue pencil was incapacitated, crippled. There are certain types of mind, you know, which, though morbidly sensitive to criticism, are completely incorrigible by it. They are rendered miserable, for they feel that they have been wantonly misunderstood; that is all.
I ventured, therefore, to censure the product of her inspirations only in what I term my tactful manner, “ where more is meant than meets the eye,” you know. For example, “Ought one not to keep in mind a little more the capacity of one’s readers?” or again, “Is not your title, ‘Moods of the Sea,’ the least bit suggestive of work of an inferior order ? ” Thus by indirections one seeks to deal with the race of Sensitive Souls.
But it was no use. The second week I received my first call from Mrs. Sweeney. As she mounted the doorstep my intuitions declared her identity. She was massive, indeed, one might say monumental. In one hand she gripped a closed umbrella, from the other dangled a black silk bag, out of the top of which protruded a clump of manuscript. She was the daughter, I think, of Jupiter Tonans, and on her brow sat Horror Plumed. That’s a fact; you ought to have seen her hat.
I opened the door as obsequiously as possible, though inwardly trembling.
“ My name is Sweeney,” she said, “ and I have come to talk to you.” She said to, not with.
I showed her in and seated myself at a judicious distance from her. Diplomacy bade me leave her a clear field; therefore I waited.
“You have, sir,” she began, after a considerable pause, “in one of your classes my daughter, Mulvina.”
I conceded the point, venturing farther that Miss Sweeney seemed much interested in her work, and was an unusual young woman.
“ She is,” boomed her mother. “ Literature and Nature are passions with her. And it is because I judge that you have failed to completely understand this” (she split her infinitives) “ that I have come this afternoon.”
Without allowing me to interrupt, she went on.
“Mulvina, professor, is not only an unusual child, but an unusually gifted child. Her father was a gifted man, though in unfortunate circumstances, and so was her grandfather — I make no reference to the maternal side of her inheritance. But in her veins, as I may say without boasting, flows the blood of many a good New England family.”
“Indeed ” — I began; but she took no notice, and after that I held my peace.
“I hope, professor, that it is your ideal to enter into personal relations with your students. I therefore desire to tell you something further of Mulvina. At the age of three she had begun to compose verses, and she has always been passionately given to poetry. I have urged her to offer some of her own poems to you; but she is too sensitive. Indeed, I may say that in the word sensitive is the key to Mulvina’s disposition. It is clear to me that you have failed to realize this, and through this failure you have been the cause of much pain and no little harm.”
At this point she opened her bag and imperturbably drew thence half a dozen of her daughter’s themes. Selecting one of them, she read, with a voice in which an accent of scorn was surely discernible, one of those blue-pencil commentaries on which I had most plumed myself. “You have put some real feeling into this, I am sure; but do you not possibly run a little danger of seeming slightly inclined toward the sentimental ? ”
“Ha!” she ejaculated, in a tone that would have won her renown in melodrama. “She’s sentimental, is she? Professor, I never knew a girl so free from that vice; the whole plan of her educa tion has been opposed to it. Enough. I will read another.”
Well, I need n’t recount to you the rest of that meeting. It lasted an hour so they told me afterwards, and during that time I think I had uttered rather less than two dozen words myself. I don’t want to be misleading. There was, of course, something magnificent, something almost aweinspiring, in this exhibition of maternal solicitude. It had the instinctive grandeur in it of a lioness jealous for her young. Only at the time, you understand, I was hardly in a position to feel the full beauty of it. Besides, my prophetic soul told me that it would happen again. And it did, many a time and oft.
M. Mulvina came, too, ordinarily alone, and with the air of one willing to consider me her equal. She became even confidential. She told me of her loneliness, her aspirations, her disappointments,— Oh, I’m sure I don’t know what could have moved her in that direction ; but she felt somehow, that though I had hurt her cruelly by my misguided comments on her work, I desired to be sympathetic. As the year went by she became an obsession, a haunting presence; at every ring of the bell I dreaded M. Mulvina, or M. Mulvina’s progenitress; and on Saturday afternoons I sneaked into the habit of spending hours at work in the University library in order to avoid her.
My Freshman instructor watched it with delight, with malicious delight, for you see he had been through it the year before. He never encountered me without inquiring after the welfare of M. Mulvina’s soul. He could laugh; he had been her father-confessor for a year, and that was the end of it: but I —well, you see, she was only a Sophomore, and I offer Junior and Senior electives in Composition, and on alternate years a course in the Lake Poets. Mulvina confided to me that, despite much to which she found it hard to reconcile herself, much that she could not approve of, my methods on the whole seemed to her both stimulating and suggestive, sometimes even inspiring, and that she had, in short, resolved thenceforth to elect all the work I offered in the catalogue. What I said to her when she announced this decision I cannot remember; but what I felt, I remember very well. I will not detain you with an account of it.
He sank back in his seat and shut his eyes with a look of whimsical resignation. “ Perhaps you ’ve never had such an insight before into the life of a college professor.”
“No,” I replied. “It is all a new field to me. I wonder no one has worked it. College stories always take the student’s point, of view.”
“Well, there is, as you see, another side. And the world seems to think it is an easy life.”
“But how about Mulvina?” I pursued. “That is n’t the end, is it?”
“ Why, no, of course not. This is only the climax. Are all the trains of cause and effect clear? Do you see her in all her nobleness and intrepidity of resolution bearing down upon my poor little electives, backed and reinforced by that Titaness of a mother ? And do you see me, ‘amid the blaze of noon, irrevocably dark, total eclipse, without all hope of day?’”
“Yes, it is all plain.”
“Well, then, I resolved to break my bonds, — and I broke them.”
There was a moment’s pause. Those deep-set eyes of his kept their look of utter seriousness; but curious wrinkles of humor were flickering across his upper lip.
“Go on,” I said, “for the love of Mike. How did you do it?”
“Your diction,” he observed impersonally, “is what we label ‘falsely robust.’ ”
“All right,” I consented impatiently.
He leaned forward and put his finger lightly on my shoulder. “Listen,” he whispered. “I married her.”
“What!” I ejaculated.
“Oh, no, not to myself. That would have been banal. Any one could have done that. No, sir, I selected a husband for her with great discretion. I brought them together with the utmost tact, and when I had safely piloted them through the preliminary stages, I quietly withdrew — and was heard of no more.”
“Who was he?” I inquired.
“A student of divinity, with a vacant, open face, simple-minded and transpicuous as a young jelly-fish.”
“But don’t you recognise any responsibility in the matter?” I put in, not a little dazed at his candor.
“Responsibility? Of course. It seems to me almost an ideal match: I think they were made for each other.” He seemed almost hurt at my intimation.
“No doubt,” I hastened to concede. “ But give me an account of it. I won’t interrupt again.”
There is n’t much to tell [he continued]. You know the way a Western university is composed. There are a college and a preparatory school, of course; then a school of dentistry, or mines, or something of the sort, perhaps a conservatory of music, and invariably a theological seminary.
In thinking over the matrimonial requirements of M. Mulvina, it became increasingly clear to me that they could only be met by a theologue — pardon the cant term — and by a theologue of a certain type, — shall we say, the elder type ? — where an habitual yearning after things of the spirit has been attractively combined with a marked immunity from the demands of — shall we say — common sense. Take notice, I am not ridiculing the type; my views are especially catholic in such matters; the world finds a place for all. For example, this particular specimen, now the Rev. Elihu Brown, finds his place in the scheme of things as the one man, who, according to Mrs. Sweeney, has ever been able really to understand and appreciate Marianne Mulvina.
I had met him some months before at a faculty reception, and had been impressed with his qualities; but it had not occurred to me then that I could ever so aptly minister to his happiness. Now I sought him out, and, as occasion offered, invited him to my house, and together we took rambles into the country,
“There is a green, flower-besprinkled hill,” M. Mulvina had written, “not far from the dusty highway, where I am wont to go on many a balmy afternoon in May, to be alone with Nature and to muse on Her Beauty.” And she had gone on to describe the view, the trees, the babbling brook, in terms rather vague and idealistic, it is true, but yet distinct enough for me to identify the locality.
I felt that my card was made out for me. Mulvina musing on Nature was Mulvina ready to fall in love.
On our previous rambles the theologus simplex and myself had discussed many serious subjects, including what he insisted on terming the relations of the sexes. He was a champion of equality, and considered his views extremely audacious, in view of the fact that historically the woman was derived from the rib of man. He would demand of her intellect, aspiration, sympathy, — just the qualities, in short, that he longed to find in a Man, only softened and beautified. Sentimentality and all that smacked of it he hated inveterately. It made his gorge rise, he said.
But one carefully predetermined afternoon I directed our steps randomly toward a sheep-pasture, half an hour’s walk from town. I fell to talking about my classes, told him something of what they were doing, described some of my more earnest students, and thus quite innocuously reached at last the subject of Mulvina.
“There,” I said, “is a young woman who interests me, and who would, I think, interest you, too;” and I told him of her independence, her resolution, her love of Nature.
“Is she sentimental?” he asked.
“I don’t know how you judge a woman, Mr. Brown,” I answered, “but I do not believe that you would discover a trace of sentimentality in Miss Sweeney.”
Just then I espied the damsel, seated under an oak tree, musing.
“Look,” I said, “what a coincidence! I think that is she now. If you care to have me, I will introduce you.”
In moments of discouragement, sir, I love to recall that first meeting. Nothing could have gone better. I made them known to each other, and waited.
“Miss Sweeney,” remarked the theologus, in a voice where the professional accent was already discernible, “I see that you are a true child of Nature.”
She looked up at him with a smile of recognition, and then quickly turned her eyes across the fields. “Yes,” she said simply, “I love Her in all Her moods.”
It was enough. I felt that I had won.
A few weeks later she came to call on me, — a matter extremely personal, she prologued. I had never seen her really diffident before.
“The fact is,” she managed to say at last, after a number of false starts, “that I find myself forced to make a very important decision, one that touches my future very intimately,” — she began to finger her forelock with agitation, — “ and my course of action depends upon my answer to this question: Is it a nobler thing to devote one’s life to Art than to devote it to Love ? As you know, I was preparing myself for a writer; it has been my passion, and I have never considered an alternative; but now” — she hesitated, working her loop of hair into a terrific pompadour under the shelter of her tam-o-shanter.
I completed her sentence for her. I protested that I understood the situation. We went over the case together. I do not care to discuss here the value of the arguments I resorted to; but they satisfied Mulvina.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” she said. “And as mother agrees with you, and Mr. Brown also, I think we may as well consider my decision made.”
So she went out and left me there alone, and I was very happy. As I said, it seems to me an ideal match, and I hope you will agree with me now. You see, she will be able to supply Nature-touches and Inspiration to his sermons. Thus the world may not have lost Mulvina irretrievably, after all.