WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS
W. D. HOWELLS
Author of "Literary Friends And Acquaintance" "Literature And Life"
"The Kentons" "Their Silver Wedding Journey" Etc. Etc.
Published May 1903
THE ANGEL OF THE LORD
THOUGH ONE ROSE FROM THE DEAD
"MRS. ALDERLING CAME OUT WITH A BOOK IN HER HAND"
"'I'M AFRAID I'M RESPONSIBLE FOR THAT'"
"'WHY THERE ISN'T ANY PUNISHMENT SEVERE ENOUGH FOR A CRIME LIKE THAT'"
"HE BROKE INTO A SOBBING THAT SEEMED TO WRENCH AND TEAR"
* * * * *
The incident was of a dignity which the supernatural has by no means
always had and which has been more than ever lacking in it since the
manifestations of professional spiritualism began to vulgarize it. Hewson
appreciated this as soon as he realized that he had been confronted with
an apparition. He had been very little agitated at the moment and it was
not till later when the conflict between sense and reason concerning the
fact itself arose that he was aware of any perturbation. Even then
amidst the tumult of his whirling emotions he had a sort of central calm
in which he noted the particulars of the occurrence with distinctness and
precision. He had always supposed that if anything of the sort happened
to him he would be greatly frightened but he had not been at all
frightened so far as he could make out. His hair had not risen or his
cheek felt a chill; his heart had not lost or gained a beat in its
pulsation; and his prime conclusion was that if the Mysteries had chosen
him an agent in approaching the material world they had not made a
mistake. This becomes grotesque in being put into words but the words do
not misrepresent except by their inevitable excess the mind in which
Hewson rose and flung open his shutters to let in the dawn upon the
scene of the apparition which he now perceived must have been as it
were self-lighted. The robins were yelling from the trees and the
sparrows bickering under them; catbirds were calling from the thickets of
syringa and in the nearest woods a hermit-thrush was ringing its crystal
bells. The clear day was penetrating the east with the subtle light which
precedes the sun and a summer sweetness rose cool from the garden below
gray with dew.
In the solitude of the hour there was an intimation of privity to the
event which had taken place an implication of the unity of the natural
and the supernatural strangely different from that robust gayety of the
plain day which later seemed to disown the affair and leave the burden
of proof altogether to the human witness. By this time Hewson had already
set about to putting it in such phrases as should carry conviction to the
hearer and yet should convey to him no suspicion of the pride which
Hewson felt in the incident as a sort of tribute to himself. He
dramatized the scene at breakfast when he should describe it in plain
matter-of-fact terms and hold every one spellbound as he or she leaned
forward over the table to listen while he related the fact with studied
unconcern for his own part in it but with a serious regard for the
integrity of the fact itself which he had no wish to exaggerate as to
its immediate meaning or remoter implications. It did not yet occur to
him that it had none; they were simply to be matters of future
observation in a second ordeal; for the first emotion which the incident
imparted was the feeling that it would happen again and in this return
would interpret itself. Hewson was so strongly persuaded of something of
the kind that after standing for an indefinite period at the window in
his pajamas he got hardily back into bed and waited for the repetition.
He was agreeably aware of waiting without a tremor and rather eagerly
than otherwise; then he began to feel drowsy and this at first flattered
him as a proof of his strange courage in circumstances which would have
rendered sleep impossible to most men; but in another moment he started
from it. If he slept every one would say he had dreamt the whole thing;
and he could never himself be quite sure that he had not.
He got up and began to dress thinking all the time in a dim way how
very long it would be till breakfast and wondering what he should do
till then with his appetite and his apparition. It was now only a little
after four o'clock of the June morning and nobody would be down till
after eight; most people at that very movable feast which St. John had
in the English fashion did not show themselves before nine. It was
impossible to get a book and read for five hours; he would be dropping
with hunger if he walked so long. Yet he must not sleep; and he must do
something to keep from sleeping. He remembered a little interloping
hotel which had lately forced its way into precincts sacred to cottage
life and had impudently called itself the St. Johnswort Inn after St.
John's place by a name which he prided himself on having poetically
invented from his own and that of a prevalent wild flower. Upon the
chance of getting an early cup of coffee at this hotel Hewson finished
dressing and crept down stairs to let himself out of the house.
He not only found the door locked as he had expected but the key taken
out; and after some misgiving he decided to lift one of the long library
windows from which he could get into the garden closing the window
after him and so make his escape. No one was stirring outside the house
any more than within; he knocked down a trellis by which a clematis was
trying to climb over the window he emerged from and found his way out of
the grounds without alarming any one. He was not so successful at the
hotel where a lank boy sweeping the long piazzas recognized one of the
St. Johnswort guests in the figure approaching the steps and apparently
had his worst fears roused for Hewson's sanity when Hewson called to him
and wondered if he could get a cup of coffee at that hour; he openly
owned it was an unnatural hour and he had a fine inward sense that it
was supernatural. The boy dropped his broom without a word and vanished
through the office door reappearing after a blank interval to pick up
his broom and say "I guess so" as he began sweeping again. It was well
for one reason that he did not state his belief too confidently Hewson
thought; but after another interval of unknown length a rude sad girl
came to tell him his coffee was waiting for him. He followed her back
into the still dishevelled dining room and sat down at a long table to a
cup of lukewarm drink that in color and quality recalled terrible
mornings of Atlantic travel when he haplessly rose and descended to the
dining-saloon of the steamer and had a marine version of British coffee
brought him by an alien table-steward.
He remembered the pock-marked nose of one alien steward and how he had
questioned whether he should give the fellow six-pence or a shilling
seeing that apart from this tribute he should have to fee his own steward
for the voyage; at the same time his fancy played with the question
whether that uncouth melancholy waitress had found a moment to wash her
face before hurrying to fetch his coffee. He amused himself by
contrasting her sloven dejection with the brisk neatness of the service
at St. Johnswort; but through all he never lost the awe the sense of
responsibility which he bore to the vision vouchsafed him doubtless for
some reason and to some end that it behooved him to divine.
He found a yesterday's paper in the office of the hotel and read it till
he began to drowse over it when he pulled himself up with a sharp jerk.
He discovered that it was now six o'clock and he thought if he could
walk about for an hour he might return to St. Johnswort and worry
through the remaining hour till breakfast somehow. He was still framing
in his thoughts some sort of statement concerning the apparition which he
should make when the largest number of guests had got together at the
table with a fine question whether he should take them between the
cantaloupe and the broiled chicken or wait till they had come to the
corn griddle-cakes which St. John's cook served of a filigree perfection
in homage to the good old American breakfast ideal. There would be more
women if he waited and he should need the sympathy and countenance of
women; his story would be wanting in something of its supreme effect
without the electrical response of their keener nerves.
When Hewson came up to the cottage he was sensible of a certain agitation
in the air which was intensified to him by the sight of St. John in his
bare bald head and the neglige of a flannel housecoat inspecting with
the gardener and one of the grooms the fallen trellis under the library
window which from time to time they looked up at as they talked. Hewson
made haste to join them through the garden gate and to say shamefacedly
enough "Oh I'm afraid I'm responsible for that" and he told how he
must have thrown down the trellis in getting out of the window.
"Oh!" said St. John while the two men walked away with dissatisfied
grins at being foiled of their sensation. "We thought it was burglars.
I'm so glad it was only you." But in spite of his profession St. John
did not give Hewson any very lively proof of his enjoyment. "Deuced
uncomfortable to have had one's guests murdered in their beds. Don't say
anything about it please Hewson. The women would all fly the premises
if there'd been even a suspicion of burglars."
"Oh no; I won't" Hewson willingly assented; but he perceived a
disappointment in St. John's tone and manner and he suspected him
however unjustly of having meant to give himself importance with his
guests by the rumor of a burglary in the house.
He was a man quite capable of that Hewson believed and failing it
capable of pretending that he wanted the matter hushed up in the interest
In any case he saw that it was not to St. John primarily or secondarily
to St. John's guests that he could celebrate the fact of his apparition.
In the presence of St. John's potential vulgarity he keenly felt his own
and he recoiled from what he had imagined doing. He even realized that he
would have been working St. John an injury by betraying his house to his
guests as the scene of a supernatural incident.
Nobody believes in ghosts but there is not one in a thousand of us who
would not be uncomfortable in a haunted house or a house so reputed. If
Hewson told what he had seen he would not only scatter St. John's
house-party to the four winds but he would cast such a blight upon St.
Johnswort that it would never sell for a tenth of its cost.
From that instant Hewson renounced his purpose and he remained true to
this renunciation in spite of the behavior of St. John which might well
have tempted him to a revenge in kind. No one seemed to have slept late
that morning; several of the ladies complained that they had not slept a
wink the whole night and two or three of the men owned to having waked
early and not been able to hit it off again in a morning nap though it
appeared that they were adepts in that sort of thing. The hour of their
vigils corresponded so nearly with that of Hewson's apparition that he
wondered if a mystical influence from it had not penetrated the whole
house. The adventitious facts were of such a nature that he controlled
with the greater difficulty the wish to explode upon an audience so aptly
prepared for it the prodigious incident which he was keeping in reserve;
but he did not yield even when St. John carefully led up to the point
through the sensation of his guests by recounting the evidences of the
supposed visit of a burglar and then made his effect by suddenly turning
upon Hewson and saying with his broad guffaw: "And here you have the
burglar in person. He has owned his crime to me and I've let him off the
penalty on condition that he tells you all about it." The humor was not
too rank for the horsey people whom St. John had mainly about him but
some of the women said "Poor Mr. Hewson!" when the host failing
Hewson's confession went on to betray that he had risen at that
unearthly hour to go down to the St. Johnswort Inn for a cup of its
famous coffee. The coffee turned out to be the greatest kind of joke; one
of the men asked Hewson if he could say on his honor that it was really
any better than St. John's coffee there before them and another
professed to be in a secret more recondite than had yet been divined: it
was that long grim girl who served it; she had lured Hewson from his
rest at five o'clock in the morning; and this humorist proposed a Welsh
rarebit some night at the inn where they could all see for themselves
why Hewson broke out of the house and smashed a trellis before sunrise.
Hewson sat silent not even attempting a defensive sally. In fact it was
only his surface mind which was employed with what was going on; as
before his deeper thought was again absorbed with his great experience.
He could not if his conscience had otherwise suffered him have spoken
of it in that company and the laughter died away from his silence as if
it had been his offence. He was not offended but he was ashamed and
not ashamed so much for St. John as for himself that he could have ever
imagined acquiring merit in such company by exploiting an experience
which should have been sacred to him. How could he have been so shabby?
He was justly punished in the humiliating contrast between being the butt
of these poor wits and the hero of an incident which whatever its real
quality was had an august character of mystery. He had recognized this
from the first instant; he had perceived that the occurrence was for him
and for him alone until he had reasoned some probable meaning into it or
from it; and yet he had been willing he saw it he owned it! to win the
applause of that crowd as a man who had just seen a ghost.
He thought of them as that crowd but after all they were good-natured
people and when they fancied that he was somehow vexed with the turn the
talk had taken they began to speak of other things; St. John himself led
the way and when he got Hewson alone after breakfast he made him a sort
of amend. "I didn't mean to annoy you old fellow" he said "with my
story about the burglary."
"Oh that's all right" Hewson brisked up in response as he took the
cigar St. John offered him. "I'm afraid I must have seemed rather stupid.
I had got to thinking about something else and I couldn't pull myself
away from it. I wasn't annoyed at all."
Whether St. John thought this sufficient gratitude for his reparation did
not appear. As Hewson did not offer to break the silence in which they
went on smoking his host made a pretext toward the end of their cigars
after bearing the burden of the conversation apparently as long as he
could of being reminded of something by the group of women descending
into the garden from the terraced walk beyond it and then slowly with
little pauses trailing their summer draperies among the flower-beds and
bushes toward the house.
"Oh by-the-way" he said "I should like to introduce you to Miss
Hernshaw; she came last night with Mrs. Rock: that tall girl there
lagging behind a little. She's an original."
"I noticed her at breakfast" Hewson answered now first aware of having
been struck with the strange beauty and strange behavior of the slim
girl who drooped in her chair with her little head fallen forward and
played with her bread ignoring her food otherwise while she listened
with a bored air to the talk which made Hewson its prey. She had an
effect of being both shy and indifferent in this retrospect; and when
St. John put up the window and led the way out to the women in the
garden and presented Hewson she had still this effect. She did not
smile or speak in acknowledgement of Hewson's bow; she merely looked at
him with a sort of swift intensity and then when one of the women said
"We were coming to view the scene of your burglarious exploit Mr.
Hewson. Was that the very window?" the girl looked impatiently away.
"The very window" Hewson owned. "You wouldn't know it. St. John has had
the trellis put up and the spot fresh turfed" and he detached the
interlocutory widow in the direction of their bachelor host as she
perhaps intended he should and dropped back to the side of Miss
She was almost spiritually slender. In common with all of us he had
heard that shape of girl called willowy but he made up his mind that
sweetbriery would be the word for Miss Hernshaw in whose face a virginal
youth suggested the tender innocence and surprise of the flower while
the droop of her figure at once delicate and self-reliant arrested the
fancy with a sense of the pendulous thorny spray. She looked not above
sixteen in age but as she was obviously out in the society sense of the
word this must have been a moral effect; and Hewson was casting about in
his mind for some appropriate form of thought and language to make talk
in when she abruptly addressed him.
"I don't see" she said with her face still away "why people make fun
of those poor girls who have to work in that sort of public way."
Hewson silently picked his steps back through the intervening events to
the drolling at breakfast and with some misgiving took his stand in the
declaration "You mean the waitress at the inn?"
"Yes!" cried the girl with a gentle indignation which was so dear to
the young man that he would have given anything to believe that it veiled
a measure of sympathy for himself as well as for the waitress. "We went
in there last night when we arrived for some pins--Mrs. Rock had had her
dress stepped on getting out of the car--and that girl brought them. I
never saw such a sad face. And she was very nice; she had no more manners
than a cow."
Miss Hernshaw added the last sentence as if it followed and in his poor
masculine pride of sequence Hewson wanted to ask if that were why she was
so nice; but he obeyed a better instinct in saying "Yes there's a whole
tragedy in it. I wonder if it's potential or actual." He somehow felt
safe in being so metaphysical.
"Does it make any difference?" Miss Hernshaw demanded whirling her face
round and fixing him with eyes of beautiful fierceness. "Tragedy is
tragedy whether you have lived it or not isn't it? And sometimes it's
all the more tragical if you have it still to live: you've got it before
you! I don't see how any one can look at that girl's face and laugh at
her. I should never forgive any one who did."
"Then I'm glad I didn't do any of the laughing" said Hewson willing to
relieve himself from the strain of this high mood and yet anxious not to
fall too far below it. "Perhaps I should though if I hadn't been the
victim of it in some degree."
"It was the vulgarest thing I ever heard!" said the girl.
Hewson looked at her but she had averted her face again. He had a
longing to tell her of his apparition which quelled every other interest
in him and as it were blurred his whole consciousness. She would
understand with her childlike truth and with her unconventionality she
would not find it strange that he should speak to her of such a thing for
no apparent reason or no immediate cause. He walked silent at her side
revolving his longing in his thought and hating the circumstance which
forbade him to speak at once. He did not know how long he was lost in
this when he was suddenly recalled to fearful question of the fact by
her saying with another flash of her face toward him "You _have_ lost
sleep Mr. Hewson!" and she whipped forward and joined the other women
who were following the lead of St. John and the widow.
Mrs. Rock to whom Hewson had been presented at the same time as to Miss
Hernshaw looked vaguely back at him over her shoulder but made no
attempt to include him in her group and he thought for no reason that
she was kept from doing so on account of Miss Hernshaw. He thought he
could be no more mistaken in this than in the resentment of Miss
Hernshaw which he was aware of meriting however unintentionally. Later
after lunch he made sure of this fact when Mrs. Rock got him into a
corner and cozily began "I always feel like explaining Rosalie a
little" and then her vague friendly eye wandered toward Miss Hernshaw
across the room and stopped as if waiting for the girl to look away.
But Miss Hernshaw did not look away and that afternoon Hewson's week
being up he left St. Johnswort before dinner.
The time came before the following winter when Hewson was tempted
beyond his strength and told the story of his apparition. He told it
more than once and kept himself with increasing difficulty from lying
about it. He always wished to add something to amplify the fact to
heighten the mystery of the circumstances to divine the occult
significance of the incident. In itself the incident when stated was
rather bare and insufficient; but he held himself rigidly to the actual
details and he felt that in this at least he was offering the powers
which had vouchsafed him the experience a species of atonement for
breaking faith with them. It seemed like breaking faith with Miss
Hernshaw too though this impression would have been harder to reason
than the other. Both impressions began to wear off after the first
tellings of the story; the wound that Hewson gave his sensibility in the
very first cicatrized before the second and at the fourth or fifth it
had quite calloused over; so that he did not mind anything so much as
what always seemed to him the inadequate effect of his experience with
his hearers. Some listened carelessly; some nervously; some
incredulously as if he were trying to put up a job on them; some
compassionately as if he were not quite right and ought to be looked
after. There was a consensus of opinion among those who offered any sort
of comment that he ought to give it to the Psychical Research and at
the bottom of Hewson's heart there was a dread that the spiritualists
would somehow get hold of him. This remained to stay him when the shame
of breaking faith with Miss Hernshaw and with Mystery no longer
restrained him from exploiting the fact. He was aware of lying in wait
for opportunities of telling it and he swore himself to tell it only
upon direct provocation or when the occasion seemed imperatively to
demand it. He commonly brought it out to match some experience of
another; but he could never deny a friendly appeal when he sat with some
good fellows over their five-o'clock cocktails at the club and one of
them would say in behalf of a newcomer "Hewson tell Wilkins that odd
thing that happened to you up country in the summer." In complying he
tried to save his self-respect by affecting a contemptuous indifference
in the matter and beginning reluctantly and pooh-poohingly. He had pangs
afterwards as he walked home to dress for dinner but his self-reproach
was less afflicting as time passed. His suffering from it was never so
great as from the slight passed upon his apparition when Wilkins or what
other it might be would meet the suggestion that he should tell him
about it with the hurried interposition "Yes I have heard that; good
story." This would make Hewson think that he was beginning to tell his
story too often and that perhaps the friend who suggested his doing so
was playing upon his forgetfulness. He wondered if he were really
something of a bore with it and whether men were shying off from him at
the club on account of it. He fancied that might be the reason why the
circle at the five-o'clock cocktails gradually diminished as the winter
passed. He continued to join it till the chance offered of squarely
refusing to tell Wilkins or whoever about the odd thing that had
happened to him up country in the summer. Then he felt that he had in a
manner retrieved himself and could retire from the five-o'clock
cocktails with honor.
That it was a veridical phantom which had appeared to him he did not in
his inmost at all doubt though in his superficial consciousness he