Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Wednesday, November 17, 2021


"The Reprisal" by H(arry) W(hitney) McVickar  (first published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine #582, November 1898; reprinted in Shapes That Haunt the Dark, edited by William Dean Howells & Henry M. Allen, 1907)

We open on St. Patrick's Day in London.  Jack Mordaunt, an American lawyer, is sitting on the steps leading from the terrace to the road, opposite a well-known hotel.  He had been sitting there for hours, not moving.  For the past fifteen minutes or so, a horse-drawn trap had been moving back and forth in front of the hotel.  Jack still staring ahead, wondered for whom the trap was sent; most likely it was a woman, for the groom had been kept waiting.  Then a well-dressed young woman came from the hotel, stopped to give the horse some sugar, then was assisted onto the trap, where she took the reins and drove away.  From where he sat he couldn't be sure, but he thought the woman might be very attractive. Just then a friend approached him and Jack asked if he knew who the woman was,  She was "Miss Violet Easton, of Washington; very fond of horses; keeps a lot of hunters; rich as mud."  Jack's friend promised him an introduction.  The Jack continued to sit and stare, unmoving, for another hour.

Three weeks later, Jack and Miss Easton were good friends and Jack had ridden her horse to the hunt three times a week.  Local gossips began to couple their names.  Shortly before one hunt, Jack received a letter.  He read it for the third time as Miss Eaton entered.  The letter he told her, contined distressing news:  he must return to New York the next day and would not be returning to Englnd.  The woman was visibly shaken and her feeling for Jack -- previously somewhat hidden -- were now obvious, as were Jack's feeling for her.  They still had that one day's hunt before Jack had to depart.

Coming back from the hunt, the two lagged behind until the other members of the party were out of sight.  For the first time, Jack called Miss Eaton Violet as he drew her to him and kissed her.  Startled, pleased, and upset, she drew away from him.  She told him he hwas the first man ever to kiss her, and declared, "You belong to me, still knowing they must part."

He left the next morning.

A month went by.  Then she received a letter from Jack.  She had previously told him when she expected to next in New York.  He wrote on behalf of himself and his wife, to invite her dine at their home when she reached New York.  Yep.  The cad was married!  Even though Jack had real feelings for Violet, he convinced hinself that his time with her was just a passing flirtation, meaning nothing.  The cad!  (Oh.  I think I called him that already.)  Violet wrote back saying that her plans had changed and she would be visiting New York after all.

More time passed.  Neither one heard from the other.  Then, on St. Patrick's Day, exactly one year after Jack had first seen Violet.  She called at his office.  It was late and the office staff had gone home.  Jack himself was remembering this anniversary and was loathe to go home to his wife yet.  Violet was paler than when he had last seen her and made no comments of their feelings for each other.  She said tht she needed to make her will and would like to do it immediately.  She would dictate it to him and he could put it in proper legal form and she would sign it that night.  And it as done.  Jack gathered the building janitor and his wife to witness the document.  Violet asked that Jack keep the will in his office for the time being and left.  He never saw her again.

The next morning Jack felt a little ill, then wife wife pointed out a brief notice in thhat mornin's newspaper.  Miss Violet Easton of Washington, had died the day before, on March 17, at her father's home.  The cause of death was diphtheria.  She was twenty-three.

Jack knew this was impossible, for he had been with her that night.  He rushed to his office and pulled out her will.  There, in bold strokes, was her signature.  But the building porter insisted that he had let no one in the building, and certainly not a young lady.  He questioned the janitor and his wife and they confirmed the witness signatures were theirs, but there was no young lady present.  They signed simply because Jack asked them to.  Feeling ill, Jack asked for a cab to sent him home.

Four days later, he was dead.  Of malignant diphtheria, the doctor said.

A neat little story.   I don't think there is any moral to it except it may not be wise to toy with a woman's affections if you are already sworn to another.  But we all knew that already, right?

Harry W. McVickar (1860-1905) was a prominent American illustrator and (later) real estate investor.  He was a member of New York society -- one of The Four Hundred -- during the Gilded Age.  His paternal grandfather was twice acting president of Columbia University, a close friend of Washington Irving and John Jay, and was the founder of Bard College.  Much of Harry McVickars artwork appeared in Life and Harper's Bazarr, and he considered one of the founder's of Vogue.  He also did the interior illustrations for book, such as James's Daisy Miller and Kendrick Bangs's Mr. Bonaparte of Corsica.  He made enough money from his artwork to set himself up in the real estate business; through a series of mergers, be became the First Vice President of the Empire Trust Company, taking full charge of the firm's real estate business.  He died at the early age of 44 from pleurisy (which he had caught six weeks earlier while "automobiling in Europe") at his father-in-law's estate, Asher House in Southhampton, New York.  As far as I can tell, McVickar published only one story -- "The Reprisal," for which he did the original illustrations.

Shapes That Haunt the Dark, a collection of stories from Harper's, is available to read on-line.

1 comment:

  1. Another Blast From the Past! You're educating me about a time period I don't know much about! Keep up the Good Work!