Mary E. Wilkins

From Understudies (Harper & Brothers; New York: 1901)

All over the stone wall in front of the Bemis house the morning-glories thrived, and not only there, but on the trellis-work over the east door. They even trailed along the ground their garlands of purple, and rosy, and white blossoms, when support failed them. The morning-glory prefers a prop for her tender growth, but such is her rapture of youth and morning that she blossoms anywhere. From the face of the rock, from the depths of the dewy grass, from tree, and trellis, prone in the dust of the highway at the mercy of the feet of men, the morning-glories shout out their great silent chorus of triumph through a hundred trumpets of delicate bloom.

The morning-glories had always been a distinctive feature of the Bemis place. Madam Bemis, as she was called, was very fond of them. Madam Bemis was the daughter of old Squire Bemis, and she had married her own cousin, the son of Minister Bemis. Now, squires were out of date, and even ministers of as many years' settlement as her husband's father had lost prestige, but there was still recognition on the part of the villagers for the descendants of such notables, hence the “Madam Bemis.” They were emulous of her notice, and they had a pride which was like feudal loyalty in Alexander.

Alexander's father had died when he was a child too young to remember him clearly. The little boy always had a face appear to his mental vision whenever the dead man's name was mentioned, but whether it was true or not he never knew. This vision was not in the least like a portrait of his father, done crudely in oil, which hung in the best parlor. This portrait represented his father as a very young boy, with a face as puffed out with a wind of innocent gayety as a cherub's. He was dressed in the artlessly grotesque fashion of a former generation, in an awkward little nankeen suit, with a wide frill around the neck, and strapped shoes. “I could never see the least resemblance to your father after he was grown up, in that portrait,” Alexander's mother used to say; “but I suppose he must have been like that when he was a child, for a good artist painted it. Your father never looked in the least like you, Alexander.”

When Madam Bemis said that she would gaze up at her son with a perfect assent of admiration with which she had never gazed at his father. Her married life had not been altogether satisfactory to her. Her husband had been something of a disappointment. He was very much a Bemis, as was she, and there had been a constant, wearying echoing of family traits. “I wish, Addison, when you lose your temper, you would not lose it in exactly the same way that I do,” she told her husband once.

The tastes of the two had been so similar that they gave rise to that curious discord which may result from harmony. With such an identity of hereditary tastes, there was at once a loss of individuality, and a maddening intensifying of it as in a convex mirror, and the result was either weariness or a monstrous egotism. In the woman's case it was weariness; in the man's, egotism. The woman, when her son came, had for the first time in her life a distinct interest in something outside herself, and yet belonging to her. She did not have to admire or dislike in the child her own appearance and traits, or her husband's. He was essentially different from both parents, or appeared to be so. Certainly, he differed from them physically. Both Alexander's parents were small, with fair hair, and he was exactly the reverse. Madam Bemis said that he resembled her own father, who had not been a true Bemis, but had inherited from the mother's side. “My father was the first dark Bemis who ever lived, so far as I know,” she said, “and he was like my grandmother, who was a Morril, and was said to have Indian blood. Alexander seems more like father than he does like me or his own father.” Then Madam Bemis concluded, as she always concluded everything, all her paragraphs of life, with, as it were, a little tail-piece of a look of boundless admiration at Alexander.

Alexander was accustomed to that look, and not on his mother's face alone. Everybody whom he met looked at him in that fashion. He was never at any time particularly elated by it. He merely acquiesced in it as his rightful due, and had done so from the first. Alexander had been a very precocious child, and not in the least slow to recognize his own relation to his environments. Long before people thought that he understood, when they talked before his face of his beauty and brilliancy, he was fully alive to the situation.

“Oh, that baby can't understand what we say,” one woman replied to another, who remonstrated with her for her outspoken admiration in the presence of the child. “He doesn't know what a beauty he is, do you, darling?”

But Alexander, who could speak few words, and understood many, and who, besides, had as keen an intelligence for variations of voice and expressions of face as a dog, would look at her with his wonderful contemplative black eyes and understand perfectly.

He knew that he was a beautiful, marvellous little boy; that no other child in the village could equal him; and everybody admired him.

He used to view his small image in the mirror with no vanity, but entire comprehension of its beauty. There had really never been such a beautiful child as Alexander in the village, or perhaps in the State. There was something about that noble, gentle little face lighted with those great black stars of eyes, and that little figure full of the touching majesty of innocence and childhood, which made a woman's heart ache with love and desire, and a man's with ambition and desire.

“That boy is going to be something, if he lives,” they said. They repeated his bright sayings, which were many. He was a talented child. When he went to school he soon outstripped those of his own age, and graduated the youngest of his class, and was ready for college at seventeen.

Madam Bemis went to college with Alexander. She could not bear her beautiful, noble son to be long out of her sight. The Bemis place was shut up during the long terms, and Madam Bemis lived in the college town, and made a home for Alexander. But when the morning-glories were in blossom the two were home again, and Alexander, resplendent with new clothes, and new stature, and new knowledge, was passing in and out of the east door, under the trellis, purple, and rosy, and white with the trumpet-shaped flowers.

The admiration of Alexander grew and grew. He was making a brilliant record at college; he seemed to be moving on an ascendent scale in everything — mind, looks, and attainments. People began to think that he might in time become almost anything: representative, senator, perhaps even President, at least governor of the State. His mother had the fullest faith in it.

“There is no reason why you cannot be anything that you want to be, Alexander,” she would say, and Alexander would flash upon her one of his brilliant, contemplative looks, and make no dissent. There was in reality something sublime in the boy's consciousness of his own power. It was completely removed from vanity. It was a simple, ingenuous recognition of the truth.

“Alexander Bemis does think he's awful smart,” said one sharp-tongued, dissenting young girl to another, who retorted:

“Well, he is awful smart.”

“I would rather he didn't know it,” said the first.

“Then he wouldn't be bright,” said the other.

Alexander was worshipped afar off by the young girls of the village, but he made a sweetheart of none of them until he had graduated from college. He came home laden with honors. He had won prize after prize. He had been mentioned in the newspapers. Madam Bemis was so proud of him that life was to her like a triumphal march. If the church-bell in this little New England village, which never rang in the interest of any individual, unless his house was on fire or he was on his way to his tomb, had pealed for joy when Alexander came home from college, she would have considered it quite appropriate. What demonstration in greeting of such magnificent promise as that of her son could be out of place?

However, although the bell was not rung, Alexander was made much of in his native village. Young as he was, he was elected a member of the school committee, and was made chairman of the selectmen. At every public meeting he was called upon as “our talented and promising young townsman” to speak. He sat upon the platform with the local dignitaries; his name, prinked out with laudatory adjectives, appeared often in the local paper. Alexander at that time could scarcely sit down, or stand up, or eat his breakfast but it was made the subject of admiring chronicle. He could not speak without a listening hush. He held undisputed moral sway over the whole village, but his head was not in the least turned. He bore all his honors with the magnificent ease and unconcern of one born to a crown.

The year after Alexander graduated Amanda Doane came to live in the village. Her father was a rich manufacturer, who bought out the little factory, and established a gigantic plant, which might in time convert the small town into a city. His daughter was a beauty of a coarse, emphatic type. Not a line wavered, not a color was indeterminate. Her loud, clear voice never faltered in the expression of her opinions. Alexander lost his heart to her at once. The village people quite approved of the match, but Madam Bemis hesitated. For the first time a doubt as to whether the king could not do wrong seized her. When her son told her of his engagement, she looked at him uncertainly.

“Why, what is the matter, mother?” Alexander asked, with wonder.

“She is not like the women of our family,” Madam Bemis replied, falteringly.

Alexander laughed. “She is a lady at heart,” he replied, “and as for the rest, she can acquire it. Not that I am not entirely satisfied,” he added, generously.

But Amanda Doane acquired nothing. She remained a fact, settled and incontrovertible. Her period for receptivity had passed. Although she was still young, her character had formed and developed to a perfect flower of resistance to all outside influence.

The engagement was not to be a long one; the wedding-day was set. Then one afternoon Amanda appeared at the Bemis house. Such was her almost brutal directness of action when her mind had once formed a purpose, that she came, rather than send for Alexander. “I don't care if you stay in the room,” said she to Madam Bemis; “I would just as soon you heard.”

Then she confronted the two, the splendid young fellow and his adoring mother, and made her little speech, which was full of revolutionary eloquence. It was the revolt of a daughter of the people — of the modern conditions of things against all inactive superiority. The girl did not speak good English, but she spoke with a force which made her own language. “Now, you look at here, Alexander Bemis,” said she. “I've promised to marry you, and I'm most ready, clothes all bought an' everything. I don't know what you will say, an' I don't know what folks will say, and I can't help it, and I don't care. I'm goin' to back out. I've got to look out for myself, and my father's money, that he's worked so hard to get, without a dollar to start with. I'm goin' to back out. I've liked you, an' I like you now, an' it ain't none too easy for me, an' I've laid awake some nights thinkin' of it, but it's better for both of us. I ain't goin' to marry you. You're good and steady and handsome, and you're awful smart, but you ain't done anythin' but talk smart, an' look smart, an' be smart; you ain't never acted smart, an' I don't believe you ever will. You haven't done anythin'. You've jest laid right back on your reputation, an' that's what you're goin' to do right along. I'd rather have a man with less smartness than you that can use what little he's got. There's no use. I'm goin' to back out.”

The girl's voice broke a little; there were tears in her indignant blue eyes; her red lips pouted into sobs, which she resolutely restrained. Alexander towered over her, pale and magnificent and quite silent. His mother shrank into a little, faintly breathing, wide-eyed heap in a corner of a sofa. Amanda pulled the engagement ring, a little ancient pearl hoop, an heirloom in the Bemis family, from her finger.

“Here,” said she — “here's your ring. I'll always wish you well.”

Alexander took the ring between a long thumb and forefinger — Amanda's were short and stubbed — and looked at it, then at the girl, with a sort of pained and stately acquiescence. “Very well, Amanda,” he replied, quite calmly, but his lips were white. Gentleman born and bred, diametrically different by nature and training, he had been very fond of this girl, who defied, with her coarse but splendid vigor, all laws and rules of growth and advance to which she did not herself subscribe.

“Why ain't the kind of English I speak as good as yours?” she had demanded of him once. They would always have spoken two languages had they lived together for a lifetime, but that had not seemed of much moment to him. She had, perhaps, supplied some inherent need of his nature, and been to him a sort of spiritual trellis-work, which had been essential for his future growth. Be that as it may, after Amanda Doane deserted him he retrograded further and still further from his early promise, though that might have happened in any case.

Amanda soon married a young manufacturer, who went into business with her father. Alexander used often to see her driving in her smart trap, with her keen-looking, alert husband by her side. Later on he saw her with a small brood of children, who were the children of her time as well, who raised a shrill babel of voices, like a multiple of their mother's.

As time went on, and Alexander did no more than he had done, people began gradually to lose faith in him, especially after his mother died. Her faith had served as a prop for that of others. Then slowly Alexander dropped and sagged away from his high estate until he lay nearly prone in his path of life, yet still, even there, with a certain unconquerable beauty and glory. No man could ever say aught against Alexander Bemis, except that he had never done that which he had bade fair to do, and had failed to keep his promise to himself. He lived to be an old man, old and shrunken, going in and out his east door, under the garlands of morning-glories, and people, seeing him, used to speak in this wise: “That is Alexander Bemis. Everybody used to think he was going to be something great, but he never amounted to anything at all. He has never done anything. He used to speak in town-meeting; we thought he would be a Daniel Webster or a Charles Sumner, and go to Congress, but he never did. When he was young everybody thought there was nobody like him in town, but he never came to anything.”

Every spring the morning-glories came again and sent forth their great silent chorus of youth and victory from their hundred trumpet mouths. Then at noon they closed and slept, and remained asleep until the next morning, when they awoke again to their chorus of victory, and Alexander passed beneath them, still old and wrecked and defeated. But the day of a man is longer than that of a flower.