William Dean Howells.

A fearful responsibility, and other stories online

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_Copyright, 1881,_

_All rights reserved._









Every loyal American who went abroad during the first years of our great
war felt bound to make himself some excuse for turning his back on his
country in the hour of her trouble. But when Owen Elmore sailed, no one
else seemed to think that he needed excuse. All his friends said it was
the best thing for him to do; that he could have leisure and quiet over
there, and would be able to go on with his work.

At the risk of giving a farcical effect to my narrative, I am obliged to
confess that the work of which Elmore's friends spoke was a projected
history of Venice. So many literary Americans have projected such a work
that it may now fairly be regarded as a national enterprise. Elmore was
too obscure to have been announced in the usual way by the newspapers as
having this design; but it was well known in his town that he was
collecting materials when his professorship in the small inland college
with which he was connected lapsed through the enlistment of nearly all
the students. The president became colonel of the college regiment; and
in parting with Elmore, while their boys waited on the campus without,
he had said, "Now, Elmore, you must go on with your history of Venice.
Go to Venice and collect your materials on the spot. We're coming
through this all right. Mr. Seward puts it at sixty days, but I'll give
them six months to lay down their arms, and we shall want you back at
the end of the year. Don't you have any compunctions about going. I know
how you feel; but it is perfectly right for you to keep out of it.
Good-by." They wrung each other's hands for the last time, - the
president fell at Fort Donelson; but now Elmore followed him to the
door, and when he appeared there one of the boyish captains shouted,
"Three cheers for Professor Elmore!" and the president called for the
tiger, and led it, whirling his cap round his head.

Elmore went back to his study, sick at heart. It grieved and vexed him
that even these had not thought that he should go to the war, and that
his inward struggle on that point had been idle so far as others were
concerned. He had been quite earnest in the matter; he had once almost
volunteered as a private soldier: he had consulted his doctor, who
sternly discouraged him. He would have been truly glad of any accident
that forced him into the ranks; but, as he used afterward to say, it was
not his idea of soldiership to enlist for the hospital. At the distance
of five hundred miles from the scene of hostilities, it was absurd to
enter the Home Guard; and, after all, there were, even at first, some
selfish people who went into the army, and some unselfish people who
kept out of it. Elmore's bronchitis was a disorder which active service
would undoubtedly have aggravated; as it was, he made a last effort to
be of use to our Government as a bearer of dispatches. Failing such an
appointment, he submitted to expatriation as he best could; and in Italy
he fought for our cause against the English, whom he found everywhere
all but in arms against us.

He sailed, in fine, with a very fair conscience. "I should be perfectly
at ease," he said to his wife, as the steamer dropped smoothly down to
Sandy Hook, "if I were sure that I was not glad to be getting away."

"You are _not_ glad," she answered.

"I don't know, I don't know," he said, with the weak persistence of a
man willing that his wife should persuade him against his convictions;
"I wish that I felt certain of it."

"You are too sick to go to the war; nobody expected you to go."

"I know that, and I can't say that I like it. As for being too sick,
perhaps it's the part of a man to go if he dies on the way to the field.
It would encourage the others," he added, smiling faintly.

She ignored the tint from Voltaire in replying: "Nonsense! It would do
no good at all. At any rate, it's too late now."

"Yes, it's too late now."

The sea-sickness which shortly followed formed a diversion from his
accusing thoughts. Each day of the voyage removed them further, and with
the preoccupations of his first days in Europe, his travel to Italy, and
his preparations for a long sojourn in Venice, they had softened to a
pensive sense of self-sacrifice, which took a warmer or a cooler tinge
according as the news from home was good or bad.


He lost no time in going to work in the Marcian Library, and he early
applied to the Austrian authorities for leave to have transcripts made
in the archives. The permission was negotiated by the American consul
(then a young painter of the name of Ferris), who reported a mechanical
facility on the part of the authorities, - as if, he said, they were used
to obliging American historians of Venice. The foreign tyranny which
cast a pathetic glamour over the romantic city had certainly not
appeared to grudge such publicity as Elmore wished to give her heroic
memories, though it was then at its most repressive period, and formed a
check upon the whole life of the place. The tears were hardly yet dry in
the despairing eyes that had seen the French fleet sail away from the
Lido, after Solferino, without firing a shot in behalf of Venice; but
Lombardy, the Duchies, the Sicilies, had all passed to Sardinia, and the
Pope alone represented the old order of native despotism in Italy. At
Venice the Germans seemed tranquilly awaiting the change which should
destroy their system with the rest; and in the meantime there had
occurred one of those impressive pauses, as notable in the lives of
nations as of men, when, after the occurrence of great events, the
forces of action and endurance seem to be gathering themselves against
the stress of the future. The quiet was almost consciously a truce and
not a peace; and this local calm had drawn into it certain elements that
picturesquely and sentimentally heightened the charm of the place. It
was a refuge for many exiled potentates and pretenders; the gondolier
pointed out on the Grand Canal the palaces of the Count of Chambord, the
Duchess of Parma, and the Infante of Spain; and one met these fallen
princes in the squares and streets, bowing with distinct courtesy to any
that chose to salute them. Every evening the Piazza San Marco was filled
with the white coats of the Austrian officers, promenading to the
exquisite military music which has ceased there forever; the patrol
clanked through the footways at all hours of the night, and the lagoon
heard the cry of the sentinel from fort to fort, and from gunboat to
gunboat. Through all this the demonstration of the patriots went on,
silent, ceaseless, implacable, annulling every alien effort at gayety,
depopulating the theatres, and desolating the ancient holidays.

There was something very fine in this, as a spectacle, Elmore said to
his young wife, and he had to admire the austere self-denial of a people
who would not suffer their tyrants to see them happy; but they secretly
owned to each other that it was fatiguing. Soon after coming to Venice
they had made some acquaintance among the Italians through Mr. Ferris,
and had early learned that the condition of knowing Venetians was not to
know Austrians. It was easy and natural for them to submit,
theoretically. As Americans, they must respond to any impulse for
freedom, and certainly they could have no sympathy with such a system as
that of Austria. By whatever was sacred in our own war upon slavery,
they were bound to abhor oppression in every form. But it was hard to
make the application of their hatred to the amiable-looking people whom
they saw everywhere around them in the quality of tyrants, especially
when their Venetian friends confessed that personally they liked the
Austrians. Besides, if the whole truth must be told, they found that
their friendship with the Italians was not always of the most
penetrating sort, though it had a superficial intensity that for a while
gave the effect of lasting cordiality. The Elmores were not quite able
to decide whether the pause of feeling at which they arrived was through
their own defect or not. Much was to be laid to the difference of race,
religion, and education; but something, they feared, to the personal
vapidity of acquaintances whose meridional liveliness made them yawn,
and in whose society they did not always find compensation for the
sacrifices they made for it.

"But it is right," said Elmore. "It would be a sort of treason to
associate with the Austrians. We owe it to the Venetians to let them see
that our feelings are with them."

"Yes," said his wife pensively.

"And it is better for us, as Americans abroad, during this war, to be

"Well, we are retired," said Mrs. Elmore.

"Yes, there is no doubt of that," he returned.

They laughed, and made what they could of chance American acquaintances
at the _caffès_. Elmore had his history to occupy him, and doubtless he
could not understand how heavy the time hung upon his wife's hands. They
went often to the theatre, and every evening they went to the Piazza,
and ate an ice at Florian's. This was certainly amusement; and routine
was so pleasant to his scholarly temperament that he enjoyed merely
that. He made a point of admitting his wife as much as possible into his
intellectual life; he read her his notes as fast as he made them, and he
consulted her upon the management of his theme, which, as his research
extended, he found so vast that he was forced to decide upon a much
lighter treatment than he had at first intended. He had resolved upon a
history which should be presented in a series of biographical studies,
and he was so much interested in this conclusion, and so charmed with
the advantages of the form as they developed themselves, that he began
to lose the sense of social dulness, and ceased to imagine it in his

A sort of indolence of the sensibilities, in fact, enabled him to endure
_ennui_ that made her frantic, and he was often deeply bored without
knowing it at the time, or without a reasoned suffering. He suffered as
a child suffers, simply, almost ignorantly: it was upon reflection that
his nerves began to quiver with retroactive anguish. He was also able to
idealize the situation when his wife no longer even wished to do so. His
fancy cast a poetry about these Venetian friends, whose conversation
displayed the occasional sparkle of Ollendorff-English on a dark ground
of lagoon-Italian, and whose vivid smiling and gesticulation she
wearied herself in hospitable efforts to outdo. To his eyes their
historic past clothed them with its interest, and the long patience of
their hope and hatred under foreign rule ennobled them, while to hers
they were too often only tiresome visitors, whose powers of silence and
of eloquence were alike to be dreaded. It did not console her as it did
her husband to reflect that they probably bored the Italians as much in
their turn. When a young man, very sympathetic for literature and the
Americans, spent an evening, as it seemed to her, in crying nothing but
"Per Bácco!" she owned that she liked better his oppressor, who once
came by chance, in the figure of a young lieutenant, and who unbuckled
his wife, as he called his sword, and, putting her in a corner, sat up
on a chair in the middle of the room and sang like a bird, and then told
ghost-stories. The songs were out of Heine, and they reminded her of her
girlish enthusiasm for German. Elmore was troubled at the lieutenant's
visit, and feared it would cost them all their Italian friends; but she
said boldly that she did not care; and she never even tried to believe
that the life they saw in Venice was comparable to that of their little
college town at home, with its teas and picnics, and simple, easy social
gayeties. There she had been a power in her way; she had entertained,
and had helped to make some matches: but the Venetians ate nothing, and
as for young people, they never saw each other but by stealth, and their
matches were made by their parents on a money-basis. She could not adapt
herself to this foreign life; it puzzled her, and her husband's
conformity seemed to estrange them, as far as it went. It took away her
spirit, and she grew listless and dull. Even the history began to lose
its interest in her eyes; she doubted if the annals of such a people as
she saw about her could ever be popular.

There were other things to make them melancholy in their exile. The war
at home was going badly, where it was going at all. The letters now
never spoke of any term to it; they expressed rather the dogged patience
of the time when it seemed as if there could be no end, and indicated
that the country had settled into shape about it, and was pushing
forward its other affairs as if the war did not exist. Mrs. Elmore felt
that the America which she had left had ceased to be. The letters were
almost less a pleasure than a pain, but she always tore them open, and
read them with eager unhappiness. There were miserable intervals of days
and even weeks when no letters came, and when the Reuter telegrams in
the Gazette of Venice dribbled their vitriolic news of Northern
disaster through a few words or lines, and Galignani's long columns were
filled with the hostile exultation and prophecy of the London press.


They had passed eighteen months of this sort of life in Venice when one
day a letter dropped into it which sent a thousand ripples over its
stagnant surface. Mrs. Elmore read it first to herself, with gasps and
cries of pleasure and astonishment, which did not divert her husband
from the perusal of some notes he had made the day before, and had
brought to the breakfast-table with the intention of amusing her. When
she flattened it out over his notes, and exacted his attention, he
turned an unwilling and lack-lustre eye upon it; then he looked up at

"Did you expect she would come?" he asked, in ill-masked dismay.

"I don't suppose they had any idea of it at first. When Sue wrote me
that Lily had been studying too hard, and had to be taken out of school,
I said that I wished she could come over and pay us a visit. But I don't
believe they dreamed of letting her - Sue says so - till the Mortons'
coming seemed too good a chance to be lost. I am so glad of it, Owen!
You know how much they have always done for me; and here is a chance now
to pay a little of it back."

"What in the world shall we do with her?" he asked.

"Do? Everything! Why, Owen," she urged, with pathetic recognition of his
coldness, "she is Susy Stevens's own sister!"

"Oh, yes - yes," he admitted.

"And it was Susy who brought us together!"

"Why, of course."

"And oughtn't you to be glad of the opportunity?"

"I _am_ glad - _very_ glad."

"It will be a relief to you instead of a care. She's such a bright,
intelligent girl that we can both sympathize with your work, and you
won't have to go round with me all the time, and I can matronize her

"I see, I see," Elmore replied, with scarcely abated seriousness.
"Perhaps, if she is coming here for her health, she won't need much

"Oh, pshaw! She'll be well enough for _that_! She's overdone a little at
school. I shall take good care of her, I can tell you; and I shall make
her have a real good time. It's quite flattering of Susy to trust her
to us, so far away, and I shall write and tell her we both think so."

"Yes," said Elmore, "it's a fearful responsibility."

There are instances of the persistence of husbands in certain moods or
points of view on which even wheedling has no effect. The wise woman
perceives that in these cases she must trust entirely to the softening
influences of time, and as much as possible she changes the subject; or
if this is impossible she may hope something from presenting a still
worse aspect of the affair. Mrs. Elmore said, in lifting the letter from
the table: "If she sailed the 3d in the City of Timbuctoo, she will be
at Queenstown on the 12th or 13th, and we shall have a letter from her
by Wednesday saying when she will be at Genoa. That's as far as the
Mortons can bring her, and there's where we must meet her."

"Meet her in Genoa! How?"

"By going there for her," replied Mrs. Elmore, as if this were the
simplest thing in the world. "I have never seen Genoa."

Elmore now tacitly abandoned himself to his fate. His wife continued: "I
needn't take anything. Merely run on, and right back."

"When must we go?" he asked.

"I don't know yet; but we shall have a letter to-morrow. Don't worry on
my account, Owen. Her coming won't be a bit of care to me. It will give
me something to do and to think about, and it will be a pleasure all the
time to know that it's for Susy Stevens. And I shall like the

Elmore looked at his wife in surprise, for it had not occurred to him
before that with his company she could desire any other companionship.
He desired none but hers, and when he was about his work he often
thought of her. He supposed that at these moments she thought of him,
and found society, as he did, in such thoughts. But he was not a jealous
or exacting man, and he said nothing. His treatment of the approaching
visit from Susy Stevens's sister had not been enthusiastic, but a spark
had kindled his imagination, and it burned warmer and brighter as the
days went by. He found a charm in the thought of having this fresh young
life here in his charge, and of teaching the girl to live into the great
and beautiful history of the city: there was still much of the
school-master in him, and he intended to make her sojourn an education
to her; and as a literary man he hoped for novel effects from her mind
upon material which he was above all trying to set in a new light before

When the time had arrived for them to go and meet Miss Mayhew at Genoa,
he was more than reconciled to the necessity. But at the last moment,
Mrs. Elmore had one of her old attacks. What these attacks were I find
myself unable to specify, but as every lady has an old attack of some
kind, I may safely leave their precise nature to conjecture. It is
enough that they were of a nervous character, that they were accompanied
with headache, and that they prostrated her for several days. During
their continuance she required the active sympathy and constant presence
of her husband, whose devotion was then exemplary, and brought up long
arrears of indebtedness in that way.

"Well, what shall we do?" he asked, as he sank into a chair beside the
lounge on which Mrs. Elmore lay, her eyes closed, and a slice of lemon
placed on each of her throbbing temples with the effect of a new sort of
blinders. "Shall I go alone for her?"

She gave his hand the kind of convulsive clutch that signified,
"Impossible for you to leave me."

He reflected. "The Mortons will be pushing on to Leghorn, and somebody
_must_ meet her. How would it do for Mr. Hoskins to go?"

Mrs. Elmore responded with a clutch tantamount to "Horrors! How could
you think of such a thing?"

"Well, then," he said, "the only thing we can do is to send a _valet de
place_ for her. We can send old Cazzi. He's the incarnation of
respectability; five francs a day and his expenses will buy all the
virtues of him. She'll come as safely with him as with me."

Mrs. Elmore had applied a vividly thoughtful pressure to her husband's
hand; she now released it in token of assent, and he rose.

"But don't be gone long," she whispered.

On his way to the caffè which Cazzi frequented, Elmore fell in with the

By this time a change had taken place in the consular office. Mr.
Ferris, some months before, had suddenly thrown up his charge and gone
home; and after the customary interval of ship-chandler, the California
sculptor, Hoskins, had arrived out, with his commission in his pocket,
and had set up his allegorical figure of The Pacific Slope in the room
where Ferris had painted his too metaphysical conception of A Venetian
Priest. Mrs. Elmore had never liked Ferris; she thought him cynical and
opinionated, and she believed that he had not behaved quite well towards
a young American lady, - a Miss Vervain, who had stayed awhile in Venice
with her mother. She was glad to have him go; but she could not admire
Mr. Hoskins, who, however good-hearted, was too hopelessly Western. He
had had part of one foot shot away in the nine months' service, and
walked with a limp that did him honor; and he knew as much of a consul's
business as any of the authors or artists with whom it is the tradition
to fill that office at Venice. Besides he was at least a
fellow-American, and Elmore could not forbear telling him the trouble he
was in: a young girl coming from their town in America as far as Genoa
with friends, and expecting to be met there by the Elmores, with whom
she was to pass some months; Mrs. Elmore utterly prostrated by one of
her old attacks, and he unable to leave her, or to take her with him to
Genoa; the friends with whom Miss Mayhew travelled unable to bring her
to Venice; she, of course, unable to come alone. The case deepened and
darkened in Elmore's view as he unfolded it.

"Why," cried the consul sympathetically, "if I could leave my post I'd

"Oh, thank you!" cried Elmore eagerly, remembering his wife. "I couldn't
think of letting you."

"Look here!" said the consul, taking an official letter, with the seal
broken, from his pocket. "This is the first time I couldn't have left my
post without distinct advantage to the public interests, since I've been
here. But with this letter from Turin, telling me to be on the lookout
for the Alabama, I couldn't go to Genoa even to meet a young lady. The
Austrians have never recognized the rebels as belligerents: if she
enters the port of Venice, all I've got to do is to require the deposit
of her papers with me, and then I should like to see her get out again.
I _should_ like to capture her. Of course, I don't mean Miss Mayhew,"
said the consul, recognizing the double sense in which his language
could be taken.

"It would be a great thing for you," said Elmore, - "a _great_ thing."

"Yes, it would set me up in my own eyes, and stop that infernal clatter
inside about going over and taking a hand again."

"Yes," Elmore assented, with a twinge of the old shame. "I didn't know
you had it too."

"If I could capture the Alabama, I could afford to let the other fellows
fight it out."

"I congratulate you, with all my heart," said Elmore sadly, and he
walked in silence beside the consul.

"Well," said the latter, with a laugh at Elmore's pensive rapture, "I'm
as much obliged to you as if I _had_ captured her. I'll go up to the
Piazza with you, and see Cazzi."

The affair was easily arranged; Cazzi was made to feel by the consul's
intervention that the shield of American sovereignty had been extended
over the young girl whom he was to escort from Genoa, and two days later
he arrived with her. Mrs. Elmore's attack now was passing off, and she
was well enough to receive Miss Mayhew half-recumbent on the sofa where
she had been prone till her arrival. It was pretty to see her fond
greeting of the girl, and her joy in her presence as they sat down for
the first long talk; and Elmore realized, even in his dreamy withdrawal,
how much the bright, active spirit of his wife had suffered merely in
the restriction of her English. Now it was not only English they spoke,
but that American variety of the language of which I hope we shall grow
less and less ashamed; and not only this, but their parlance was
characterized by local turns and accents, which all came welcomely back
to Mrs. Elmore, together with those still more intimate inflections
which belonged to her own particular circle of friends in the little
town of Patmos, N. Y. Lily Mayhew was of course not of her own set,
being five or six years younger; but women, more easily than men, ignore
the disparities of age between themselves and their juniors; and in Susy

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Online LibraryWilliam Dean HowellsA fearful responsibility, and other stories → online text (page 1 of 13)