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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

The Harrises

By Anne Sheldon Coombs (1858–1890)

[Born in Albany, N. Y., 1858. Died in Brooklyn, N. Y., 1890. As Common Mortals. A Novel. 1886.]

MRS. BARRON was a much-regarded member of a family which had, numerically speaking, nothing to complain of, whatever might be the opinion of the outside world on that point. Her three sisters and two brothers had set up their household gods in Goverick locations of more or less eligibility; the Harris family always had lived in Goverick and were Goverick born, bred, and buried in turn. They were also Goverick married, it not being considered the thing in the Harris family to marry a dangerously unfamiliar person from another city who might possess lax views on the subjects of religion and housekeeping. There is a tradition to the effect that an otherwise unobjectionable young man had once asked for the fair hand of the second Miss Harris (subsequently Mrs. Elkins), and had been sternly denied that blessing by her father, simply on the ground that the unfortunate suitor had once travelled extensively in Mexico.

Excellent people, collectively and individually, were the Harrises, so eminently respectable that no one thought of applying the word to them, seeking few interests outside of family relations, and living and dying in the faith that to be a born Harris was a career in itself.

No pride of birth or wealth gave rise to this cherished conviction; the Harrises were not conspicuously endowed in these particulars, and they would have scorned to attain the isolated distinction of special achievement. It was a mere consciousness of general worth, a calm certainty that the Harris blood flowed in unexceptionable veins, and temperately found show and shabbiness alike distasteful. Keenly alive to their own interests, they showed honorable deference to those of others, and this form of “worldliness without side-dishes” had its touch of poetry which poor humanity is nowhere poor enough to be entirely without. The cloak of simple egotism which kept them warm in a cold and (probably) unappreciative world had its soft lining of genuine family affection and helpful kinship, and, perhaps, the blindness to all unrelated forms of virtue arose from preoccupation with the real excellence to be found at home.

When the four husbands of the whilom Misses Harris and the two Harris brothers went severally through the failure to which every American man of business is doomed once in the course of his mercantile life, the others were ready with prompt aid, advice, and not more regretful head-shaking and reminding of neglected counsel than the occasion demanded. This amiable community of goods extended to views on all subjects, the four sisters only reserving for themselves, unshared by the two brothers, an unbiassed opinion concerning the merits of Mrs. John and Mrs. Edward Harris, who, though distinguished from the ordinary mass of humanity by marrying into the Harris family, yet left something to be desired (by their sisters-in-law) in “ways” acquired in years wasted outside the pale of that desirable connection.

Mrs. Barron and Mrs. Mercer agreed that, considering John’s salary, Gertrude’s dresses fitted far too well, and Mrs. Elkins, whose lot chronic biliousness, complicated with the unsatisfactory state of the commission business, had much embittered, often remarked that it would be well if Gertrude Harris would remember that as Miss Lawrence she never had a thing made out of the house.

Mrs. White, the most spiritually minded among the sisters, felt that the lukewarm temperature of Mrs. Edward’s zeal for the Presbyterian faith (which she had adopted perforce with the name of Harris) was greatly to be deplored, and with the others decided that if Edward could be to blame in any matter, his culpable tendency to indulge his wife with frequent attendance at the services of the Episcopal Church would be that matter.

The husbands of these ladies, who regarded the condescension in discarding the name of Harris for their respective patronymics as equivalent to a future of concessions from themselves, fully shared the views of their wives on these points. Mr. Elkins felt that Mrs. John’s many bonnets were not quite compatible with full development of the domestic affections, and Mr. White, a warm-hearted man, with—the usual accompaniment of such a temperament—much warmth of language, characterized Mrs. Edward’s leaning to candlesticks as “poppy-cock,” to which his wife assented with even more than her usual ready meekness, remarking that Maria was always fond of show.

Milly had early been given to understand the fact that to be lacking in proper appreciation of the uncles and aunts was to demonstrate, to a marked degree, her undue share in the total depravity with which the human race is so fatally dowered. But indeed this parental instruction had been hardly necessary. The child had brought into the world with her a heart so rich in affection that there was enough and to spare for all immediate and collateral relatives, and she found herself much restricted in the expression thereof, even with so wide a field for its display.

Mrs. Barron possessed, to a marked degree, the maternal instinct, and loved her children with a fierce motherliness which made her fairly jealous of other childish charms; but after the days of toddling, lisping babyhood were passed she rarely petted them, feeling herself shrink shyly from their perception of her intense affection, which, as infants, they had accepted with the uncomprehending satisfaction of all small, tame animals under caresses.

The pretty boys had never lived to outgrow the little jackets that had been fashioned by the motherly hands for their first “term” at school. The same hands had taken them off one night and hung them up, only to take them down, alas! to fold away with other useless little garments, with worthless, priceless childish treasures, and small books and slates, laid aside now for the long recess.

That grief was many years old now, and Milly had come, a willing comforter, whose powers of consolation were much mitigated by her red curls, indifference to dolls, and general lack of Harris characteristics.

In her earliest days Milly accepted the infallibility of the uncles and aunts with loving fervor, and to have dared discriminate in her loyal affection, to have preferred one to the other, would have seemed as sacrilegious as distinguishing one of the four Gospels for especial regard. She prayed for them all after papa and mamma, and hoped she might grow good enough to please them. The child was no innate rebel; hers was not a soul to which opposition is dear. The pathetic faith of childhood, that “whatever is, is right,” was strong within her, and this innocent optimism helped over many of the rough places encountered before her years were numbered by two figures.

But the artistic temperament, eternally young in one respect, matures rapidly in others. Milly’s quick sense of the beautiful soon taught her to single out for special adoration her Aunt Lena, Mrs. Mercer, who was quite remarkably pretty. Milly thought if she could ever look like Aunt Lena, life’s trials would become joyfully endurable. The black-browed, black-lashed blue eyes, the pretty arch with which the fair hair grew on the white forehead, the well-defined roses in the creamy cheeks—all these beauties appealed anew to Milly’s ardent little soul on the day following the episode of the defrauded dog, as she watched Aunt Lena sitting at the piano and singing—a little bit out of tune—a song which seemed to the child mysteriously beautiful. The unhappy frequenter of amateur concerts can hardly appreciate the rapture stirred by the threadbare ballad “Waiting.” It seemed all one to Milly with the sudden rush of passionate admiration that filled her heart, and music and beauty combined proved as fascinating to her as to older mortals.

With a final chase over the key-board, and a vociferous adjuration to the stars and nightingales to guide and speed the flying feet of the expected lover, the music ceased.

“Aunt Lena, I do love you so!” cried Milly, throwing her slender arms around that lady’s neck.

“That is very sweet of you, Milly.” said Aunt Lena, with a careless kiss, and a careful hand arranging the lace at the throat which the child’s impetuous caress had rumpled. “But you should not seize one in that rude manner.”

Milly was wounded, but not in the least offended. It was not easy to chill that warm young heart into permanent alienation. The old fatal persuasion that bodily beauty is the inevitable expression of spiritual loveliness impelled her to utter, with a timid trust in comprehension, a psychic experience that she had hitherto kept shyly hidden in one of the innermost folds of her consciousness.

“Aunt Lena,” she said, in a gentle, hesitating voice, “did you ever—when you were sitting all alone, you know—have it come over you, ‘This is I!’ and be afraid?”

Aunt Lena’s blue eyes widened. “For goodness’ sake! What on earth do you mean, child?”

“I can’t say it in words, aunty, not as it really is, but I know what I mean, and you must too!” Milly’s voice took on a pleading tone. “You must when you look in the glass, deep down into your own eyes, and look and look until by and by it isn’t your own self that is looking at its own self, but something that is you, and isn’t you, and is watching both of them.”

I am not aware if at that time “Kenelm Chillingly” had found a place in Goverick circulating libraries, but it would have attracted Mrs. Mercer at no time, and in her sublime indifference to psychological studies she had thus no soothing parallel in fiction, such as that of the eight-years-old Kenelm astounding his estimable mother with the query: “Mamma, are you not sometimes overcome by a sense of your own identity?”

“I don’t understand you, Milly,” she said, with an alarmed sense of defective hearing. “Say it again, and don’t chatter so fast.”

Milly repeated obediently, word for word, a dawning fear in the brown glory of her eyes. She did not want to have that feeling all alone. No one ever understood what she meant about anything. Any one “so pretty” as Aunt Lena ought to know all about it. Mrs. Mercer seized the hot little hands.

“Have you got a fever?” she asked abruptly.

But the hands were moist as well as hot, and indeed were never cold, so Mrs. Mercer, deprived of this physical basis for Milly’s aberrations, found it convenient to dismiss this problematic infant and carry the tale of her wanderings to Mrs. Elkins, who was regarded as an authority on all matters of domestic economy, including the government of children.

But notwithstanding the fact of her peculiar insight with regard to the workings of the infant mind, that lady frankly declared that Milly was “beyond” her. This not at all in the admiring sense that the words might convey to the uninitiated, but with a conviction that a child so ill-regulated as to be beyond her aunt’s comprehension had little to hope for the future; for the “beyond” was necessarily in the direction of evil, else the Harris divination would never be outstripped.

“That child is more trouble to her mother than all my five are to me,” she said, plaintively. “I don’t see where she gets it from. Mary was always a sensible little thing, and Mark’s people are reasonable folks—though they might be more genteel. It is not ordinary naughtiness with Milly; it would be easier to manage if it was. She isn’t greedy or quarrelsome in the natural way, but she’ll scream if you lay a finger on that kitten of hers, and she just can’t get along with any one. Yesterday she rushed screaming through the streets because she’d had some fuss with my Helen about a dog, and last week she cried herself sick because she said Helen had murdered some roses. Mrs. Banks gave them each a bunch, just common garden roses, and Helen got tired of carrying hers—they were spoiling her glove—so she threw them on the side-walk and then happened to step on them. Milly declared she did it on purpose, said she trampled them to death, and talked about the flowers’ blood, and nonsense enough to drive you wild, and finally rushed home without her supper, though Mary had sent her here to stay. She’s a very trying child; there’s no denying it.”

“Look at the way she is with dolls,” said Mrs. Mercer, whose English had suffered from a too exclusive devotion to the fine arts as represented by “spatter-work” and the ballads of Claribel and Millard. But then the demand for elegant English in Goverick by no means exceeded the supply.

“I never saw her with a doll.”

“That’s just it; look at that doll they gave her Christmas. Mary paid three dollars and seventy-five cents for that doll, undressed, and the things she made for it are too lovely for anything. Well, that child never notices it, but goes into the laundry to wash pebbles in a pail, and when they come out glistening with the water calls them jewels, and says she is a lapidary! And I found her one day sailing chips in the gutter and guiding them with a barrel-hoop, and when I asked her what pleasure she found in such a boy’s play as that, she said it wasn’t a boy’s play, but that each chip was a human soul, and that if she could keep it from going down the sewer at the corner it would be saved, but if not, it was eternally lost. Her mother says she kept one chip for weeks, and took it out to sail after every heavy rain. She absolutely cried when it went down the sewer at last. She thought more of that one chip than all her dolls put together. It’s just no use to give them to her.”

“Well, there isn’t a bit of Harris in her,” said Mrs. Elkins sadly. “And I don’t see as there’s much Barron either.”