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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Person of “Literary Tastes”

By William Henry Rideing (1853–1918)

[Born in Liverpool, England, 1853. Died in Brookline, Mass., 1918. A Little Upstart. 1885.]

IF it had been worth looking for, the key to Amelia Bailey’s character would have been found in a reckless ambition frustrated by the lack of any sterling ability. A future of intellectual honors had been predicted for her, and she had been flattered and spoiled in her girlhood by the people of her native village. She had always been opinionated and domineering, and at this period of her life she had not found much resistance in arrogating to herself the leadership of the young folks in Ashville Centre.

She was fortified in her assumption, moreover, by what her friends called her “literary tastes.” To possess “literary tastes” is, in some parts of New England, a consecration which compels obeisance in a people who, however narrow their own education may be, however small their capabilities, revere intellectuality, and willingly bend the knee before the fetich they make of literature. Amelia Bailey had “literary tastes,” and the endowment increased her authority and influence; for in the eyes of her friends she was a participant in the sanctification of letters.

She always had a book in her hands or tucked under her arm, and she read with a rapidity which soon exhausted the contents of the village library. How superficial and unretentive her reading was, her acquaintances never suspected. The frequent quotations which she made in her conversation and in her correspondence were taken as evidence of the opulence of her mind; but in truth they were, in her case, what they are with many a pretender,—the makeshifts and subterfuges of her mental sterility.

No shyness restrained this young lady; she had no scruples about letting her light shine, but magnified it, and intensified it with catoptric reflectors. When the local newspapers printed her verses, she at once enclosed copies of them, with artful little notes, to every poet of eminence in the land. She described herself as a little girl who had caught the gift of song from the person whom she addressed; she adopted the same method with them all, and now she made the poet of Amesbury her involuntary sponsor, then the author of “Evangeline.”

Poets may shut their doors against other bores, but they are always kind with little girls who claim to be learning songs from them; and Amelia insinuated herself into an epistolary intimacy with some very distinguished persons. Long after her frocks had been lengthened above and below in the precautionary manner that denotes the transition from girlhood to womanhood, she still left her correspondents to infer that she was a child. But she did not mean to let the intimacy be simply epistolary; she had a desire to shine, and she was resolved that if her own rays failed to dazzle the world, she would become one of those satellites of fame which in some conditions of the atmosphere appear to be the great star itself.

She visited Boston to make the intimacy personal; and the first call she made was on a poet who had written to say that if she presented herself at one o’clock, he would be glad to have her join him at luncheon. He was a young poet; and he was much embarrassed, in the absence of his wife, when he discovered that he had to entertain a gushing and voluptuous young woman of eighteen instead of the child he had expected. The impropriety of the affair filled him with uneasiness, and he was infinitely relieved when, having occupied a precious afternoon which he had reserved for work, she reluctantly departed.

Her visit led to disaster. She endeavored to take every advantage of it; but her own personality did not prove as attractive to the patrons she sought as the child-poet ambuscaded in a country town had been, and when she returned home the letters with distinguished signatures, which had enriched her autograph album, came to her no more.

The bitterness of defeat was in her cup; bold as her attempts were, she had made no strides. The magazines rejected her contributions, and the local newspaper, which in her heart she despised, was the only medium of publication she could find. All this would have been pitiful if her motives had been worthy, if it had been the failure of honest and modest endeavor; but her incentive was the bubble reputation, and she cultivated literature as a heathen would propitiate his idol,—for the benefits it has to bestow, and not for the love of it.

While she was still smarting from the rebuffs she had received, her mind sought a new diversion….

She thought of marriage, of course; but marriage is not ordinarily a sensational proceeding, and the young men who had done conjugal duty in the domestic dramas which she had imagined for herself were not persons with whom anything very startling could be accomplished. One of them was more sentimental than the rest, and she divined that with some tuition he might be led to propose an elopement. She had visions of Gretna Green in her mind, and of runaway couples flying wildly to the Scottish border and reaching it just in time to escape the pursuing fathers. She pined for days less prosaic than our own; but her sense of humor was not so deficient that she could not see that as Gretna Green and post-chaises had gone out of fashion, there would be nothing romantic in having her kind-hearted and indulgent father following her by the Shore Line express from Providence, and gently remonstrating with her in the ladies’ parlor of the Astor House. A theatrical life would have suited her; but the stage, viewed from Ashville Centre, was too precarious, too daring a venture even for her. Her desire to excite curiosity and to be discussed was consuming her; and anything, no matter how absurd or scandalous, was preferable in her mind to the privacy and obscurity of a humdrum life at home.

She fully appreciated the value of the unexpected in stirring up the interest of yawning mankind, and an unlooked-for opportunity came to exemplify it. It was abruptly announced that she was going to be married, not six, seven, or eight months later, not to the sentimental youth whom she had been encouraging and prompting for some time past, but to Palmyra Phelps, the elderly widower, her father’s friend, who was spending a few weeks at Ashville to console himself for the recent loss of his wife. Palmyra Phelps had been one of the Argonauts of ’49, and had, it was said, amassed a very handsome fortune in California. San Francisco, with a house on Rincon Hill, was the now prospect which opened before Amelia; and she breathed freer as she thought of its gayety and the latitudinarian tolerance of its society.

Mr. Phelps was already prepared for the return journey, and calling to say good-by to her parents, he found Amelia alone. While he waited for them she sat with him in the low-studded parlor of their house, which abutted from behind a screen of chestnuts on the main street of Ashville. She picked up a scrap-book, and was rustling the pages, when after a silence of embarrassed duration she exclaimed: “Oh, Mr. Phelps, what should we be without our poets? Don’t you remember what Wordsworth says?—

  • ‘Blessings be with them, and eternal praise,
  • Who gave us nobler loves and nobler cares,—
  • The Poets, who on earth have made us heirs
  • Of truth and pure delight by heavenly lays!’”
  • “That’s so,” he said; “poetry is elegant; I admire it. What have you got? Got some of it there?”

    “Oh, nothing,—nothing to speak of; only some nonsensical little songs of my own.”

    “Go ahead; read some! Your ma told me you were lit’ry. Strange, too, because she ain’t, nor your pa. Go ahead!”

    She still resisted, but after a little more urging read a sonnet beginning with the line “Ah, Love! with bitter tears bedewed;” and he applauded this with so much vehemence, slapping his knee and crying, “Good!” that she discarded her affected reserve and eagerly read to him every verse she had ever written.

    “Why don’t you get them out in a book?” he inquired.

    “Is it possible that you think that my poor little verses are worthy of being enshrined in a volume? Oh, Mr. Phelps, how you flatter!” She had been so often and so definitely assured by the publishers to whom she had applied that they were not worthy of perpetuation of any kind, that a contrary opinion from any source was comforting.

    “That’s what I say: get them out in a volume. I’ll pay for it. I guess there’ll be no difficulty about that,” he said, with the confident emphasis of a man who was not used to having any of his pecuniary obligations called into question.

    She glowed with pleasure; she knew that there were publishers who would be quite willing to issue her book if they could be guaranteed against loss.

    “Oh, how good of you! It’s too kind. But if they are published in a book—how absurd it sounds! Me, a little country girl, publishing a book! The idea! If they are published in a book I’ll dedicate it to you.”

    “Well, I don’t know as I’ve got any objection to that,” he replied, with some suspicious forethought.

    He sat staring at her mutely for some minutes after this. She was comely to his eye; her figure was large and pulpy, her complexion pink and white, her hair yellow and abundant. Her exterior made a favorable impression upon him, and then, too, she was “lit’ry.” Though he had travelled and shaken off many of the superstitions of Ashville, Palmyra Phelps still clung to his native faith in the exaltation of literature, and Amelia was enhanced in his estimation by her connection with that sacred calling.

    His life had not been ornamental. His late wife had been a plain New England woman to the end of her days, and he had been quite satisfied with her; but now that he had all the money he wanted, it seemed to him that he might venture to “put on some style,” and what better start could he make in that direction than by taking a young wife of attractive appearance and “lit’ry” tastes?

    She was not silent while he sat observing her cogitatively; her mind was filled with radiant visions of the glory her book was to bring her. When it was published and the world was echoing its praises, those former friends of hers who had dropped her would repent and wish they had been sharp enough to discern the budding genius they once spurned; and the thought of their repentance at too late an hour for their salvation was delicious.

    The transitions of her manner, which have been already noticed, were the result of affectation. She was naturally effusive and loquacious, but at times she assumed a pensive languor, which she regarded as a becoming expression of the bruised and lacerated condition of the poetic heart. She had begun the conversation on stilts, but had been brought to her feet by the offer Mr. Phelps had made, and then she babbled with the inconsequential rapidity of which we have had some examples. He paid little heed to her, however, and she had no suspicion of the drift his thoughts were taking.

    “Abner Bailey and me were boys together,” he said by and by, referring to her father, who had not been mentioned before; “but,” he added, with extreme solemnity, “there ain’t a man in this village to-day as feels younger than I do.”

    “I’m sure you look young—very young,” Amelia affirmed.

    She saw that he was constrained, as if feeling his way to some avowal of which he was afraid, and she waited for him to proceed, while she still rustled the pages of her scrap-book. Ordinarily he was brisk and self-assertive, but now he was very sheepish.

    “How would you like to go to California?” he said, at last, blurting the words out with visible relief.

    “I? Oh, Mr. Phelps, what do you mean?” Her uncertainty was unfeigned. “Do you mean for a visit?” she continued, when she had recovered her breath.

    “No, not I! I don’t mean nothing of the sort,” he replied, with restored composure. “You understand, Amelia. As Mrs. Phelps is what I mean.”

    She was dazed only for an instant by the suddenness of the proposal, and then she expertly sifted it and weighed it in her mind. This was not what she had hoped for, and yet it was not odious nor unfeasible to her. She glanced at him critically; his face was ruddy, and his eyes had a youthful sparkle; his wealth was irresistibly in his favor. But, curiously enough, the most pleasing part of the prospect to her was the gossip there would be when what had happened was transmitted to the neighbors; it would not be ephemeral, but would have something of historic permanence in the annals of Ashville.

    “But you don’t mean at once?” she inquired.

    “I’ll give you till the day after to-morrow,” he said.

    “To decide?”

    “No, to start. That’s plenty of time. We rush things out in California.”

    When on their return her father and mother were informed of what had happened, they were bewildered; but they were so accustomed to the state of subjection in which an only child can keep her parents in America that they were easily overborne. Amelia’s desire to do something astonishing was thus gratified; in two days she had become the wife of a man as old as her father, and in three days she had started for San Francisco via Panama. A month later she was installed as mistress of a resplendently frescoed house on Rincon Hill.

    The life she now entered on was a reparation for the past. For a time it seemed to her that she was both shining and making a noise. The newspapers noticed her arrival, and one of them published a whole column about it. “The Hon. Pal. Phelps arrived home yesterday,” it said, “bringing with him a young and beautiful wife, who will receive a hearty welcome from the society of this coast. Mrs. Phelps, née Bailey, is a stately blonde of the Anglo-Saxon type; and she is not only a lady of great beauty, but a distinguished poetess, who has been prominent in the literary circles of Boston and Concord since her infancy. It may be said of her, as Pope said of himself, she ‘lisped in numbers,’ and we understand that she now has a volume in press, ‘With Bitter Tears Bedewed, and Other Poems,’ which will be looked for with deep interest. The Hon. Pal. is to be congratulated, and the East had better recognize the stubborn fact that the Pacific coast is gradually absorbing the culture of America.” She read this with hysterical elation, and murmured, melodramatically, “At last! At last! The door is open!” Then she added, musingly, “But I do wish they wouldn’t call him Pal.”

    “With Bitter Tears Bedewed, and Other Poems,” made its appearance, and her name became familiar to the readers of newspaper gossip, usually in connection with “personals” concerning the receptions she had given to some peripatetic lecturer or musician. She counted much on her receptions, and watched from afar, with the predatory vigilance of a Bedouin, for approaching travellers. When they arrived she made Palmyra call on them and invite them to the house on Rincon Hill; but if they consulted their friends before accepting they never came, or if they came they never repeated the visit. She repelled them by her insincerities and tactless extravagances. She was too palpably shallow, too restlessly vain.

    The guests who filled her parlor—or her salon, as she preferred to have it called—were Bohemians of wasted character and debatable talents, and a few friends of her husband, who attended, feeling, as they did when they went to church, that it was not the pleasantest way of spending an hour, but that it was a sign of respectability to mingle with the intellectual society which Mrs. Phelps, according to the “San Francisco Tattler,” always had about her. In her anxiety to shine, Amelia even deceived herself as to the character of her guests; she tried to believe that the dingy impostors actually were distinguished, and that their presence in her house was a proof of her elevation to the peerage of art and letters; the illusion satisfied her for a year or two, but after that the truth gradually forced itself upon her, combat it as she would, and the spurious honors yielded her no more pleasure. She shone, but it was with the diamonds her husband had bought; she made a noise, but it was the blare of vulgar ostentation, not the reverberations of Fame. Fame had not heeded her call, nor dropped one chaplet on her brow; and though a door had been opened, it had not admitted her to the place she yearned for.