English Literature

A Likely Story by W. D. Howells

A Likely Story by W. D. Howells.jpg

A LIKELY STORY

I

MR. AND MRS. WILLIS CAMPBELL

Mrs. Campbell: “Now this, I think, is the most exciting part of the whole affair, and the pleasantest.” She is seated at breakfast in her cottage at Summering-by-the-Sea. A heap of letters of various stylish shapes, colors, and superscriptions lies beside her plate, and irregularly straggles about among the coffee-service. Vis-à-vis with her sits Mr. Campbell behind a newspaper. “How prompt they are! Why, I didn’t expect to get half so many answers yet. But that shows that where people have nothing to do but attend to their social duties they are always prompt—even the men; women, of course, reply early anyway,[Pg 8] and you don’t really care for them; but in town the men seem to put it off till the very last moment, and then some of them call when it’s over to excuse themselves for not having come after accepting. It really makes you wish for a leisure class. It’s only the drive and hurry of American life that make our men seem wanting in the convenances; and if they had the time, with their instinctive delicacy, they would be perfect: it would come from the heart: they’re more truly polite now. Willis, just look at this!”

Campbell, behind his paper: “Look at what?”

Mrs. Campbell: “These replies. Why, I do believe that more than half the people have answered already, and the invitations only went out yesterday. That comes from putting on R.S.V.P. I knew I was right, and I shall always do it, I don’t care what you say.”

Campbell: “You didn’t put on R.S.V.P. after all I said?” He looks round the edge of his paper at her.

Mrs. Campbell: “Yes, I did. The idea[Pg 9] of your setting up for an authority in such a thing as that!”

Campbell: “Then I’m sorry I didn’t ask you to do it. It’s a shame to make people say whether they’ll come to a garden-party from four till seven or not.”

Mrs. Campbell: “A shame? How can you provide if you don’t know how many are coming? I should like to know that. But of course I couldn’t expect you to give in gracefully.”

Campbell: “I should give in gracefully if I gave in at all, but I don’t.” He throws his paper down beside his chair. “Here, hand over the letters, and I’ll be opening them for you while you pour out the coffee.”

Mrs. Campbell, covering the letters with her hands: “Indeed you won’t!”

Campbell: “Well, pour out the coffee, then, anyway.”

Mrs. Campbell, after a moment’s reflection: “No, I shall not do it. I’m going to open them every one before you get a drop of coffee—just to punish you.”

Campbell: “To punish me? For what?”[Pg 10] Mrs. Campbell hesitates, as if at a loss what to say. “There! you don’t know.”

Mrs. Campbell: “Yes, I do: for saying I oughtn’t to have put on R.S.V.P. Do you take it back?”

Campbell: “How can I till I’ve had some coffee? My mind won’t work on an empty stomach. Well—” He rises and goes round the table towards her.

Mrs. Campbell, spreading both arms over the letters: “Willis, if you dare to touch them, I’ll ring for Jane, and then she’ll see you cutting up.”

Campbell: “Touch what? I’m coming to get some coffee.”

Mrs. Campbell: “Well, I’ll give you some coffee; but don’t you touch a single one of those letters—after what you’ve said.”

Campbell: “All right!” He extends one hand for the coffee, and with the other sweeps all the letters together, and starts back to his place. As she flies upon him, “Look out, Amy; you’ll make me spill this coffee all over the table-cloth.”

Mrs. Campbell, sinking into her seat:[Pg 11] “Oh, Willis, how can you be so base? Give me my letters. Do!

Campbell, sorting them over: “You may have half.”

Mrs. Campbell: “No; I shall have all. I insist upon it.”

Campbell: “Well, then, you may have all the ladies’ letters. There are twice as many of them.”

Mrs. Campbell: “No; I shall have the men’s, too. Give me the men’s first.”

Campbell: “How can I tell which are the men’s without opening them?”

Mrs. Campbell: “How could you tell which were the ladies’? Come, now, Willis, don’t tease me any longer. You know I hate it.”

Campbell, studying the superscriptions, one after another: “I want to see if I can guess who wrote them. Don’t you like to guess who wrote your letters before you open them?”

Mrs. Campbell, with dignity: “I don’t like to guess who wrote other people’s letters.” She looks down at the table-cloth with a menace of tears, and Campbell instantly returns all the notes.[Pg 12]

Campbell: “There, Amy; you may have them. I don’t care who wrote them, nor what’s in them. And I don’t want you to interrupt me with any exclamations over them, if you please.” He reaches to the floor for his newspaper, and while he sips his coffee, Mrs. Campbell loses no time in opening her letters.

Mrs. Campbell: “I shall do nothing but exclaim. The Curwens accept, of course—the very first letter. That means Mrs. Curwen; that is one, at any rate. The New York Addingses do, and the Philadelphia Addingses don’t; I hardly expected they would, so soon after their aunt’s death, but I thought I ought to ask them. Mr. and Mrs. Roberts, naturally; it was more a joke than anything, sending their invitation. Mrs. and the Misses Carver regret very much; well, I don’t. Professor and Mrs. Traine are very happy, and so am I; he doesn’t go everywhere, and he’s awfully nice. Mr. and Mrs. Lou Bemis are very happy, too, and Dr. Lawton is very happy. Mrs. Bridges Dear Mrs. Campbells me, and is very sorry in the first person; she’s always[Pg 13] nice. Mr. Phillips, Mr. Rangeley, Mr. Small, Mr. Peters, Mr. Staples, Mr. Thornton, all accept, and they’re all charming young fellows.”

Campbell, around his paper: “Well, what of that?”

Mrs. Campbell, with an air of busy preoccupation: “Don’t eavesdrop, please; I wasn’t talking to you. The Merrills have the pleasure, and the Morgans are sorrow-stricken; the—”

Campbell: “Yes, but why should you care whether those fellows are charming or not? Who’s going to marry them?”

Mrs. Campbell: “I am. Mrs. Stevenson is bowed to the earth; Colonel Murphree is overjoyed; the Misses Ja—”

Campbell, putting his paper down: “Look here, Amy. Do you know that you have one little infinitesimal ewe-lamb of a foible? You think too much of young men.”

Mrs. Campbell: “Younger men, you mean. And you have a multitude of perfectly mammoth peccadilloes. You interrupt.” She goes on opening and reading her letters. “Well, I didn’t expect[Pg 14] the Macklines could; but everybody seems to be coming.”

Campbell: “You pay them too much attention altogether. It spoils them; and one of these days you’ll be getting some of them in love with you, and then what will you do?”

Mrs. Campbell, with affected distraction: “What are you talking about? I’d refer them to you, and you could kill them. I suppose you killed lots of people in California. That’s what you always gave me to understand.” She goes on with her letters.

Campbell: “I never killed a single human being that I can remember; but there’s no telling what I might do if I were provoked. Now, there’s that young Welling. He’s about here under my feet all the time; and he’s got a way lately of coming in through the window from the piazza that’s very intimate. He’s a nice fellow enough, and sweet, as you say. I suppose he has talent, too, but I never heard that he had set any of the adjacent watercourses on fire; and I don’t know that he could give the Apollo Belvedere[Pg 15] many points in beauty and beat him.”

Mrs. Campbell: “I do. Mrs. and Miss Rice accept, and her friend Miss Greenway, who’s staying with her, and—yes! here’s one from Mr. Welling! Oh, how glad I am! Willis, dearest, if I could be the means of bringing those two lovely young creatures together, I should be so happy! Don’t you think, now, he is the most delicate-minded, truly refined, exquisitely modest young fellow that ever was?” She presses the unopened note to her corsage, and leans eagerly forward entreating a sympathetic acquiescence.

Campbell: “Well, as far as I can remember my own youth, no. But what does he say?”

Mrs. Campbell, regarding the letter: “I haven’t looked yet. He writes the most characteristic hand, for a man, that I ever saw. And he has the divinest taste in perfumes! Oh, I wonder what that is? Like a memory—a regret.” She presses it repeatedly to her pretty nose, in the endeavor to ascertain.

Campbell: “Oh, hello!”[Pg 16]

Mrs. Campbell, laughing: “Willis, you are delightful. I should like to see you really jealous once.”

Campbell: “You won’t, as long as I know my own incomparable charm. But give me that letter, Amy, if you’re not going to open it. I want to see whether Welling is going to come.”

Mrs. Campbell, fondly: “Would you really like to open it? I’ve half a mind to let you, just for a reward.”

Campbell: “Reward! What for?”

Mrs. Campbell: “Oh, I don’t know. Being so nice.”

Campbell: “That’s something I can’t help. It’s no merit. Well, hand over the letter.”

Mrs. Campbell: “I should have thought you’d insist on my opening it, after that.”

Campbell: “Why?”

Mrs. Campbell: “To show your confidence.”

Campbell: “When I haven’t got any?”

Mrs. Campbell, tearing the note open: “Well, it’s no use trying any sentiment with you, or any generosity either. You’re always just the same; a teasing joke is[Pg 17] your ideal. You can’t imagine a woman’s wanting to keep up a little romance all through; and a character like Mr. Welling’s, who’s all chivalry and delicacy and deference, is quite beyond you. That’s the reason you’re always sneering at him.”

Campbell: “I’m not sneering at him, my dear. I’m only afraid Miss Rice isn’t good enough for him.”

Mrs. Campbell, instantly placated: “Well, she’s the only girl who’s anywhere near it. I don’t say she’s faultless, but she has a great deal of character, and she’s very practical; just the counterpart of his dreaminess; and she is very, very good-looking, don’t you think?”

Campbell: “Her bang isn’t so nice as his.”

Mrs. Campbell: “No; and aren’t his eyes beautiful? And that high, serious look! And his nose and chin are perfectly divine. He looks like a young god!”

Campbell: “I dare say; though I never saw an old one. Well, is he coming? I’m not jealous, but I’m impatient. Read it out loud.”[Pg 18]

Mrs. Campbell, sinking back in her chair for the more luxurious perusal of the note: “Indeed I shall not.” She opens it and runs it hastily through, with various little starts, stares, frowns, smiles of arrested development, laughs, and cries: “Why—why! What does it mean? Is he crazy? Why, there’s some mistake. No! It’s his hand—and here’s his name. I can’t make it out.” She reads it again and again. “Why, it’s perfectly bewildering! Why, there must be some mistake. He couldn’t have meant it. Could he have imagined? Could he have dared? There never has been the slightest thing that could be tortured into—But of course not. And Mr. Welling, of all men! Oh, I can’t understand it! Oh, Willis, Willis, Willis! What does it mean?” She flings the note wildly across the table, and catching her handkerchief to her face, falls back into her chair, tumultuously sobbing.

Campbell, with the calm of a man accustomed to emotional superabundance, lifting the note from the toast-rack before him: “Well, let’s see.” He reads[Pg 19] aloud: “‘Oh, my darling! How can I live till I see you? I will be there long before the hour! To think of your asking me! You should have said, “I permit you to come,” and I would have flown from the ends of the earth. The presence of others will be nothing. It will be sweet to ignore them in my heart, and while I see you moving among them, and looking after their pleasure with that beautiful thoughtfulness of yours, to think, “She is mine, mine, mine!”

“Oh, young lord lover, what sighs are thoseFor one that can never be thine?”

I thank you, and thank you a thousand times over, for this proof of your trust in me, and of your love—our love. You shall be the sole keeper of our secret—it is so sweet to think that no one even suspects it!—and it shall live with you, and if you will, it shall die with me. Forever yours, Arthur Welling.'” Campbell turns the note over, and picking up the envelope, examines the address. “Well, upon my word! It’s to you, Amy—on the outside,[Pg 20] anyway. What do you suppose he means?”

Mrs. Campbell, in her handkerchief: “Oh, I don’t know; I don’t know why he should address such language to me!”

Campbell, recurring to the letter: “I never did. ‘Oh, my darling—live till I see you—ends of the earth—others will be nothing—beautiful thoughtfulness—mine, mine, mine—our love—sweet to think no one suspects it—forever yours.‘ Amy, these are pretty strong expressions to use towards the wife of another, and she a married lady! I think I had better go and solve that little problem of how he can live till he sees you by relieving him of the necessity. It would be disagreeable to him, but perhaps there’s a social duty involved.”

Mrs. Campbell: “Oh, Willis, don’t torment me! What do you suppose it means? Is it some—mistake? It’s for somebody else!”

Campbell: “I don’t see why he should have addressed it to you, then.”

Mrs. Campbell: “But don’t you see? He’s been writing to some other person[Pg 21] at the same time, and he’s got the answers mixed—put them in the wrong envelopes. Oh dear! I wonder who she is!”

Campbell, studying her with an air of affected abstraction: “Her curiosity gets the better of her anguish. Look here, Amy! I believe you’re afraid it’s to some one else.”

Mrs. Campbell: “Willis!”

Campbell: “Yes. And before we proceed any further I must know just what you wrote to this—this Mr. Welling of yours. Did you put on R.S.V.P.?”

Mrs. Campbell: “Yes; and just a printed card like all the rest. I did want to write him a note in the first person, and urge him to come, because I expected Miss Rice and Miss Greenway to help me receive; but when I found Margaret had promised Mrs. Curwen for the next day, I knew she wouldn’t like to take the bloom off that by helping me first; so I didn’t.”

Campbell: “Didn’t what?”

Mrs. Campbell: “Write to him. I just sent a card.”[Pg 22]

Campbell: “Then these passionate expressions are unprovoked, and my duty is clear. I must lose no time in destroying Mr. Welling. Do you happen to know where I laid my revolver?”

Mrs. Campbell: “Oh, Willis, what are you going to do? You see it’s a mistake.”

Campbell: “Mr. Welling has got to prove that. I’m not going to have young men addressing my wife as Oh their darling, without knowing the reason why. It’s a liberty.”

Mrs. Campbell, inclined to laugh: “Ah, Willis, how funny you are!”

Campbell: “Funny? I’m furious.”

Mrs. Campbell: “You know you’re not. Give me the letter, dearest. I know it’s for Margaret Rice, and I shall see her, and just feel round and find out if it isn’t so, and—”

Campbell: “What an idea! You haven’t the slightest evidence that it’s for Miss Rice, or that it isn’t intended for you, and it’s my duty to find out. And nobody is authority but Mr. Welling. And I’m going to him with the corpus delicti.”[Pg 23]

Mrs. Campbell: “But how can you? Remember how sensitive, how shrinking he is. Don’t, Willis; you mustn’t. It will kill him!”

Campbell: “Well, that may save me considerable bother. If he will simply die of himself, I can’t ask anything better.” He goes on eating his breakfast.

Mrs. Campbell, admiring him across the table: “Oh, Willis, how perfectly delightful you are!”

Campbell: “I know; but why?”

Mrs. Campbell: “Why, taking it in the nice, sensible way you do. Now, some husbands would be so stupid! Of course you couldn’t think—you couldn’t dream—that the letter was really for me; and yet you might behave very disagreeably, and make me very unhappy, if you were not just the lovely, kind-hearted, magnanimous—”

Campbell, looking up from his coffee: “Oh, hello!”

Mrs. Campbell: “Yes; that is what took my fancy in you, Willis: that generosity, that real gentleness, in spite of the brusque[Pg 24] way you have. Refinement of the heart, I call it.”

Campbell: “Amy, what are you after?”

Mrs. Campbell: “We’ve been married a whole year now—”

Campbell: “Longer, isn’t it?”

Mrs. Campbell: “—And I haven’t known you do an unkind thing, a brutal thing.”

Campbell: “Well, I understand the banging around hardly ever begins much under two years.”

Mrs. Campbell: “How sweet you are! And you’re so funny always!”

Campbell: “Come, come, Amy; get down to business. What is it you do want?”

Mrs. Campbell: “You won’t go and tease that poor boy about his letter, will you? Just hand it to him, and say you suppose here is something that has come into your possession by mistake, and that you wish to restore it to him, and then—just run off.”

Campbell: “With my parasol in one hand, and my skirts caught up in the other?”[Pg 25]

Mrs. Campbell: “Oh, how good! Of course I was imagining how I should do it.”

Campbell: “Well, a man can’t do it that way. He would look silly.” He rises from the table, and comes and puts his arm round her shoulders. “But you needn’t be afraid of my being rough with him. Of course it’s a mistake; but he’s a fellow who will enter into the joke too; he’ll enjoy it; he’ll—” He merges his sentence in a kiss on her upturned lips, and she clings to his hand with her right, pressing it fondly to her cheek. “I shall do it in a man’s way; but I guess you’ll approve of it quite as much.”

Mrs. Campbell: “I know I shall. That’s what I like about you, Willis: your being so helplessly a man always.”

Campbell: “Well, that’s what attracted me to you, Amy; your manliness.”

Mrs. Campbell: “And I liked your finesse. You are awfully inventive, Willis. Why, Willis, I’ve just thought of something. Oh, it would be so good if you only would!”

Campbell: “Would what?”[Pg 26]

Mrs. Campbell: “Invent something now to get us out of the scrape.”

Campbell: “What a brilliant idea! I’m not in any scrape. And as for Mr. Welling, I don’t see how you could help him out unless you sent this letter to Miss Rice, and asked her to send yours back—”

Mrs. Campbell, springing to her feet: “Willis, you are inspired! Oh, how perfectly delightful! And it’s so delicate of you to think of that! I will just enclose his note—give it here, Willis—and he need never know that it ever went to the wrong address. Oh, I always felt that you were truly refined, anyway.” He passively yields the letter, and she whirls away to a writing-desk in the corner of the room. “Now, I’ll just keep a copy of the letter—for a joke; I think I’ve a perfect right to”—scribbling furiously away—”and then I’ll match the paper with an envelope—I can do that perfectly—and then I’ll just imitate his hand—such fun!—and send it flying over to Margaret Rice. Oh, how good! Touch the bell, Willis;” and then—as the serving-maid appears—”Yes, Jane! Run right[Pg 27] across the lawn to Mrs. Rice’s, and give this letter for Miss Margaret, and say it was left here by mistake. Well, it was, Willis. Fly, Jane! Oh, Willis, love! Isn’t it perfect! Of course she’ll have got his formal reply to my invitation, and be all mixed up by it, and now when this note comes, she’ll see through it all in an instant, and it will be such a relief to her; and oh, she’ll think that he’s directed boththe letters to her because he couldn’t think of any one else! Isn’t it lovely? Just like anything that’s nice, it’s ten times as nice as you expected it to be; and—”

Campbell: “But hold on, Amy!” He lifts a note from the desk. “You’ve sent your copy. Here’s the original now. She’ll think you’ve been playing some joke on her.”

Mrs. Campbell, clutching the letter from him, and scanning it in a daze: “What! Oh, my goodness! It is! I have! Oh, I shall die! Run! Call her back! Shriek, Willis!” They rush to the window together. “No, no! It’s too late! She’s given it to their man, and now nothing[Pg 28] can save me! Oh, Willis! Willis! Willis! This is all your fault, with that fatal suggestion of yours. Oh, if you had only left it to me I never should have got into such a scrape! She will think now that I’ve been trying to hoax her, and she’s perfectly implacable at the least hint of a liberty, and she’ll be ready to kill me. I don’t know what she won’t do. Oh, Willis, how could you get me into this!”

Campbell, irately: “Get you into this! Now, Amy, this is a little too much. You got yourself into it. You urged me to think of something—”

Mrs. Campbell: “Well, do, Willis, do think of something, or I shall go mad! Help me, Willis! Don’t be so heartless—so unfeeling.”

Campbell: “There’s only one thing now, and that is to make a clean breast of it to Welling, and get him to help us out. A word from him can make everything right, and we can’t take a step without him; we can’t move!”

Mrs. Campbell: “I can’t let you. Oh, isn’t it horrible!”

Campbell: “Yes; a nice thing is always[Pg 29] ten times nicer than you expected it to be!”

Mrs. Campbell: “Oh, how can you stand there mocking me? Why don’t you go to him at once, and tell him the whole thing, and beg him, implore him, to help us?”

Campbell: “Why, you just told me I mustn’t!”

Mrs. Campbell: “You didn’t expect me to say you might, did you? Oh, how cruel!” She whirls out of the room, and Campbell stands in a daze, in which he is finally aware of Mr. Arthur Welling, seen through the open window, on the veranda without. Mr. Welling, with a terrified and furtive air, seems to be fixed to the spot where he stands.

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