VAN BIBBER AND OTHERS.*
Mn. DAVIS is one of a considerable group of Americans, of whom Miss M. E. Wilkins is the most accomplished artist, who throw off short stories so full of life and significance, that they often seem to tell us more of the social con- ditions they describe within ten or twelve pages, than our own novelists can compress into a volume. Miss Wilkins's pictures of the life of New England, — a life at once strong and squalid, patient and petty, resolute and chill,— are amongst the most remarkable feats of what we may call literary impressionism in our language, so powerfully do they stamp on the reader's mind the image of the classes and individuals they portray, without spending on them a single redundant scene, a single superfluous word. Mrs. Simon, who is more of a dreamer, is a good second in the same school. And Mr. Davis is an excellent third. His pictures of the better side of the New York dandy are very happy and full of humour; and his ironical sketch of the penny- a-liners of the New York Press is still happier and more humorous. Now and then he paints with a very considerable amount of pathos,—not, indeed, so great as Miss Wilkins, for she is a master in that reticence of delineation which reaches the highest kind of pathos,—but still great enough to attain a distinction of his own. " Outside the Prison" is a little masterpiece in this way ; and both " Her First Appearance " and "A Recruit at Christmas," though they are much humbler efforts, are impressive enough after their modest kind. The only failure is "An Unfinished Story," and there Mr. Davis deserts American life, and gives us the elements of a common romance for which apparently he has no special gift.
No one but an American, with the American passion for equality and the consequent American conviction that equality is really a dream, could, for instance, have painted the feel- ings of Van Bibber's English man-servant, Walters, when he was tempted to eat the dinner at Delmonico's, and to drink the wines, which he had ordered for his master, on finding that his master would not be there. His appetite for fine flavours was quite as keen as his master's, possibly even a little keener ; his desire for equality was a very great deal keener, for it was, indeed, an ungratified passion ; and his appearance enabled him to sustain the character of the superior much better than that of the many half-educated plutocracy of New York could sustain it. " Walters," says Mr. Davis, " knew quite as much about ordering a dinner as did his master ; and when Van Bibber was too tired to make out the menu, Walters would look over the card himself, and order the proper wines and side-dishes with such a carelessly severe air, and in such a masterly manner did he discharge this high function, that the waiters looked upon him with much respect. But respect even from your equals, and the satisfaction of having your fellow-servants mistake you for a member of the Few Hundred, were not enough. Walters wanted more. He wanted the further satisfaction of enjoying the delicious dishes he had ordered ; of sitting as a co-equal with the people for whom he had kept a place; of completing the deception he had practised only up to the point at which it became most in- teresting." Only an American writer could have given us such a picture, and he has given it with great force. We are told how Walters was tempted, and fell from the position of an un- rivalled man-servant to the position of a make-believe New York magnate; how he became "grandly content," and full of the fine flavour of the rich wines and the delicate food ; and how he half-closed his eyes, and looked about him with polite courtesy, and felt that "if he mast later pay for this moment, it was worth the paying for." " And then, in the midst of his dreamings, he heard the soft, careless drawl of his master, which sounded at that time and in that place like the awful voice of a condemning judge,"—and his dream was shattered. But he had risen to a point from which he could not again fall into subservience, at least to the master to whom- he had thus asserted his equality, and he discharges himself from the place,
• Van Babel. and Others. By Richard Harding Davis. London : James R. Osgood, licIlvaine, and Co. 1892.
"leaving behind him the twenty-eight dollars which the dinner had cost." It is a very powerful sketch, embodying a double satire, on the failure of the American ideal of equality, an the hopeless craving which it implants in the vulgar heart of 'it first-rate English servant. The chief loser is Van Bibber himself, who reflects disconsolately that " a servant like Walters is worth twenty-eight dollar dinners, twice a day."
Perhaps the most amusing of the stories is that of Van Bibber's experiments in economy, and their frightful failure. This is told with true insight as well as with delicate satire. The moral of it is :—" If you know how to economise, it may be all right. But if you don't understand it, you must leave it alone. It's dangerous. I'll economise no more." Perhaps as good a specimen as any of the power Mr. Davis can wield in giving local colour effectively, is his sketch of the vigorous New York swimmer who, as a model for an artist, wears a complete suit of mediaeval armour, and who is tempted to appear at a masked-ball in this original costume without that gentleman's leave. The contrast between the costly borrowed armour, and the vulgar New York slang of the person who wears it, and the vulgar shindy with the police which ensues, is told with admirable spirit. The pretended Black Knight is provoked by some jealous rival's remark, and bears down upon him " like an ironclad in a heavy sea," where- upon the police interfere, and he is being carried off to the station, when he and his admirers organise a revolt :—
" The blood rushed to Hefty's head like hot liquor. To be arrested for nothing, and by that thing M'Cluire, and to have the noble coat-of-mail of the Marquis de Neuville locked up in a dirty cell and probably ruined, and to lose his position with Carstairs, who had always treated him so well, it was terrible E It could not be ! He looked through his visor; to the right and to the left a policeman walked on each side of him with his hand on his iron sleeve, and M'Cluire marched proudly before. The dim lamps of Stuff M‘Govern's night-hawk shone at the side of the procession and showed the crowd trailing on behind. Sud- denly Hefty threw up his visor. ' Stuff,' he cried, are youse with me ?' He did not wait for any answer, but swung back his two iron arms and then brought them forward with a sweep on to the back of the necks of the two policemen. They went down and forward as if a lamp-post had fallen on them, but were up again in a second. But before they could rise Hefty set his teeth, and with a gurgle of joy butted his iron helmet into M'Cluire's back and sent him flying forward into a snow-bank. Then he threw himself on him and buried him under three hundred pounds of iron and flesh and blood, and beat him with his mailed hand over the head and choked the snow and ice down into his throat and nostrils. ' You'll club me again, will you P' he cried. ' You'll send me to the Island ? ' The two policemen were pounding him with their night-sticks as effectually as though they were rapping on a doorstep ; and the crowd, seeing this, fell on them from behind, led by Stuff APGrovern with his whip, and rolled them in the snow and tried to tear off their coat-tails, which means money out of the policeman's own pocket for repairs, and hurts more than broken ribs, as the Police Benefit Society pays for them. ' Now then, boys, get me into a cab,' cried Hefty. They lifted him in, and obligingly blew out the lights so that the police could not see its number, and Stuff drove Hefty proudly home."
It will be observed that a great part of the stock-in-trade of the American literary class consists in the grotesque situa- tions to which the American love of social equality, and the inevitable incapacity for attaining it, give rise. These they understand and sketch with singular power.