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   Chapter 2 No.2

A Modern Instance By William Dean Howells Characters: 12834

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

Bartley Hubbard drove his sorrel colt back to the hotel stable through the moonlight, and woke up the hostler, asleep behind the counter, on a bunk covered with buffalo-robes. The half-grown boy did not wake easily; he conceived of the affair as a joke, and bade Bartley quit his fooling, till the young man took him by his collar, and stood him on his feet. Then he fumbled about the button of the lamp, turned low and smelling rankly, and lit his lantern, which contributed a rival stench to the choking air. He kicked together the embers that smouldered on the hearth of the Franklin stove, sitting down before it for his greater convenience, and, having put a fresh pine-root on the fire, fell into a doze, with his lantern in his hand. "Look here, young man!" said Bartley, shaking him by the shoulder, "you had better go out and put that colt up, and leave this sleeping before the fire to me."

"Guess the colt can wait awhile," grumbled the boy; but he went out, all the same, and Bartley, looking through the window, saw his lantern wavering, a yellow blot in the white moonshine, toward the stable. He sat down in the hostler's chair, and, in his turn, kicked the pine-root with the heel of his shoe, and looked about the room. He had had, as he would have said, a grand good time; but it had left him hungry, and the table in the middle of the room, with the chairs huddled around it, was suggestive, though he knew that it had been barrenly put there for the convenience of the landlord's friends, who came every night to play whist with him, and that nothing to eat or drink had ever been set out on it to interrupt the austere interest of the game. It was long since there had been anything on the shelves behind the counter more cheerful than corn-balls and fancy crackers for the children of the summer boarders; these dainties being out of season, the jars now stood there empty. The young man waited in a hungry reverie, in which it appeared to him that he was undergoing unmerited suffering, till the stable-boy came back, now wide awake, and disposed to let the house share his vigils, as he stamped over the floor in his heavy boots.

"Andy," said Bartley, in a pathetic tone of injury, "can't you scare me up something to eat?"

"There aint anything in the buttery but meat-pie," said the boy.

He meant mince-pie, as Hubbard knew, and not a pasty of meat; and the hungry man hesitated. "Well, fetch it," he said, finally. "I guess we can warm it up a little by the coals here."

He had not been so long out of college but the idea of this irregular supper, when he had once formed it, began to have its fascination. He took up the broad fire-shovel, and, by the time the boy had shuffled to and from the pantry beyond the dining-room, Bartley had cleaned the shovel with a piece of newspaper and was already heating it by the embers which he had raked out from under the pine-root. The boy silently transferred the half-pie he had brought from its plate to the shovel. He pulled up a chair and sat down to watch it. The pie began to steam and send out a savory odor; he himself, in thawing, emitted a stronger and stronger smell of stable. He was not without his disdain for the palate which must have its mince-pie warm at midnight,-nor without his respect for it, either. This fastidious taste must be part of the splendor which showed itself in Mr. Hubbard's city-cut clothes, and in his neck-scarfs and the perfection of his finger-nails and mustache. The boy had felt the original impression of these facts deepened rather than effaced by custom; they were for every day, and not, as he had at first conjectured, for some great occasion only.

"You don't suppose, Andy, there is such a thing as cold tea or coffee anywhere, that we could warm up?" asked Bartley, gazing thoughtfully at the pie.

The boy shook his head. "Get you some milk," he said; and, after he had let the dispiriting suggestion sink into the other's mind, he added, "or some water."

"Oh, bring on the milk," groaned Bartley, but with the relief that a choice of evils affords. The boy stumped away for it, and when he came back the young man had got his pie on the plate again, and had drawn his chair up to the table. "Thanks," he said, with his mouth full, as the boy set down the goblet of milk. Andy pulled his chair round so as to get an unrestricted view of a man who ate his pie with his fork as easily as another would with a knife. "That sister of yours is a smart girl," the young man added, making deliberate progress with the pie.

The boy made an inarticulate sound of satisfaction, and resolved in his heart to tell her what Mr. Hubbard had said.

"She's as smart as time," continued Bartley.

This was something concrete. The boy knew he should remember that comparison. "Bring you anything else?" he asked, admiring the young man's skill in getting the last flakes of the crust on his fork. The pie had now vanished.

"Why, there isn't anything else, is there?" Bartley demanded, with the plaintive dismay of a man who fears he has flung away his hunger upon one dish when he might have had something better.

"Cheese," replied the boy.

"Oh!" said Bartley. He reflected awhile. "I suppose I could toast a piece on this fork. But there isn't any more milk."

The boy took away the plate and goblet, and brought them again replenished.

Bartley contrived to get the cheese on his fork and rest it against one of the andirons so that it would not fall into the ashes. When it was done, he ate it as he had eaten the pie, without offering to share his feast with the boy. "There'" he said. "Yes, Andy, if she keeps on as she's been doing, she won't have any trouble. She's a bright girl." He stretched his legs before the fire again, and presently yawned.

"Want your lamp, Mr. Hubbard?" asked the boy.

"Well, yes, Andy," the young man consented. "I suppose I may as well go to bed."

But when the boy brought his lamp, he still remained with outstretched legs in front of the fire. Speaking of Hannah Morrison made him think of Marcia again, and of the way in which she had spoken of the girl. He lolled his head on one side in such comfort as a young man finds in the conviction that a pretty girl is not only fond of him, but is instantly jealous of any other girl whose name is mentioned. He smiled at the flame in his reverie, and the boy examined, with clande

stine minuteness, the set and pattern of his trousers, with glances of reference and comparison to his own.

There were many things about his relations with Marcia Gaylord which were calculated to give Bartley satisfaction. She was, without question, the prettiest girl in the place, and she had more style than any other girl began to have. He liked to go into a room with Marcia Gaylord; it was some pleasure. Marcia was a lady; she had a good education; she had been away two years at school; and, when she came back at the end of the second winter, he knew that she had fallen in love with him at sight. He believed that he could time it to a second. He remembered how he had looked up at her as he passed, and she had reddened, and tried to turn away from the window as if she had not seen him. Bartley was still free as air; but if he could once make up his mind to settle down in a hole like Equity, he could have her by turning his hand. Of course she had her drawbacks, like everybody. She was proud, and she would be jealous; but, with all her pride and her distance, she had let him see that she liked him; and with not a word on his part that any one could hold him to.

"Hollo!" he cried, with a suddenness that startled the boy, who had finished his meditation upon Bartley's trousers, and was now deeply dwelling on his boots. "Do you like 'em? See what sort of a shine you can give 'em for Sunday-go-to-meeting to-morrow morning." He put out his hand and laid hold of the boy's head, passing his fingers through the thick red hair. "Sorrel-top!" he said, with a grin of agreeable reminiscence. "They emptied all the freckles they had left into your face,-didn't they, Andy?"

This free, joking way of Bartley's was one of the things that made him popular; he passed the time of day, and was give and take right along, as his admirers expressed it, from the first, in a community where his smartness had that honor which gives us more smart men to the square mile than any other country in the world. The fact of his smartness had been affirmed and established in the strongest manner by the authorities of the college at which he was graduated, in answer to the reference he made to them when negotiating with the committee in charge for the place he now held as editor of the Equity Free Press. The faculty spoke of the solidity and variety of his acquirements, and the distinction with which he had acquitted himself in every branch of study' he had undertaken. They added that he deserved the greater credit because his early disadvantages as an orphan, dependent on his own exertions for a livelihood, had been so great that he had entered college with difficulty, and with heavy conditions. This turned the scale with a committee who had all been poor boys themselves, and justly feared the encroachments of hereditary aristocracy. They perhaps had their misgivings when the young man, in his well-blacked boots, his gray trousers neatly fitting over them, and his diagonal coat buttoned high with one button, stood before them with his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets, and looked down over his mustache at the floor with sentiments concerning their wisdom which they could not explore; they must have resented the fashionable keeping of everything about him, for Bartley wore his one suit as if it were but one of many; but when they understood that he had come by everything through his own unaided smartness, they could no longer hesitate: One, indeed, still felt it a duty to call attention to the fact that the college authorities said nothing of the young man's moral characteristics in a letter dwelling so largely upon his intellectual qualifications. The others referred this point by a silent look to Squire Gaylord.

"I don't know;" said the Squire, "as I ever heard that a great deal of morality was required by a newspaper editor." The rest laughed at the joke, and the Squire continued: "But I guess if he worked his own way through college, as they say, that he haint had time to be up to a great deal of mischief. You know it's for idle hands that the Devil provides, doctor."

"That's true, as far as it goes," said the doctor.

"But it isn't the whole truth. The Devil provides for some busy hands, too."

"There's a good deal of sense in that," the Squire admitted. "The worst scamps I ever knew were active fellows. Still, industry is in a man's favor. If the faculty knew anything against this young man they would have given us a hint of it. I guess we had better take him; we sha'n't do better. Is it a vote?"

The good opinion of Bartley's smartness which Squire Gaylord had formed was confirmed some months later by the development of the fact that the young man did not regard his management of the Equity Free Press as a final vocation. The story went that he lounged into the lawyer's office one Saturday afternoon in October, and asked him to let him take his Blackstone into the woods with him. He came back with it a few hours later.

"Well, sir," said the attorney, sardonically, "how much Blackstone have you read?"

"About forty pages," answered the young man, dropping into one of the empty chairs, and hanging his leg over the arm.

The lawyer smiled, and, opening the book, asked half a dozen questions at random. Bartley answered without changing his indifferent countenance, or the careless posture he had fallen into. A sharper and longer examination followed; the very language seemed to have been unbrokenly transferred to his mind, and he often gave the author's words as well as his ideas.

"Ever looked at this before?" asked the lawyer, with a keen glance at him over his spectacles.

"No," said Bartley, gaping as if bored, and further relieving his weariness by stretching. He was without deference for any presence; and the old lawyer did not dislike him for this: he had no deference himself.

"You think of studying law?" he asked, after a pause.

"That's what I came to ask you about," said Bartley, swinging his leg.

The elder recurred to his book, and put some more questions. Then he said, "Do you want to study with me?"

"That's about the size of it."

He shut the book, and pushed it on the table toward the young man. "Go ahead. You'll get along-if you don't get along too easily."

It was in the spring after this that Marcia returned home from her last term at boarding-school, and first saw him.

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