Marsena

Source: Harold Frederic, extract from ‘Marsena’, in In the Sixties (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1897 [orig. pub. in ‘Marsena’ and Other Stories of the Wartime, 1894]), pp. 196-199

Text: … On the second and final evening, after the oyster supper, the Philharmonics played and a choir of girls sang patriotic songs. Then the gas was turned down and the stereopticon show began.

As the last concerted achievement of the firm of Pulford & Shull, this magic-lantern performance is still remembered. The idea of it, of course, was Julia’s. She suggested it to Marsena, and he gladly volunteered to make any number of positive plates from appropriate pictures and portraits for the purpose. Then she pressed Newton Shull into the service to get a stereopticon on hire, to rig up the platform and canvas for it, and finally to consent to quit his post among the Philharmonics when the music ceased, and to go off up into the gallery to work the slides. He also, during Marsena’s absence one day, made a slide on his own account.

Mr. Shull had not taken very kindly to the idea when Miss Julia first broached it to him.

“No, I don’t know as I ever worked a stereopticon,” he said, striving to look with cold placidity into the winsome and beaming smile with which she confronted him one day out in the reception-room. She had never smiled at him before or pretended even to know his name. “I guess you’d better hire a man up from Tecumseh to bring the machine and run it himself.”

“But you can do it so much better, my dear Mr. Shull!” she urged. “You do everything so much better! Mr. Pulford often says that he never knew such a handy man in all his life. It seems that there is literally nothing that you can’t do — except — perhaps — refuse a lady a great personal favor.”

Miss Julia put this last so delicately, and with such a pretty little arch nod of the head and turn of the eyes, that Newton Shull surrendered at discretion. He promised everything on the spot, and he kept his word. In fact, he more than kept it.

The great evening came, as I have said, and when the lights were turned down to extinction’s verge those who were nearest the front could distinguish the vacant chair which Mr. Shull had been occupying, with his bass viol leaning against it. They whispered from one to another that he had gone up in the gallery to work this new-fangled contrivance. Then came a flashing broad disk of light on the screen above the judges’ bench, a spreading sibilant murmur of interest, and the show began.

It was an oddly limited collection of pictures — mainly thin and feeble copies of newspaper engravings, photographic portraits, and ideal heads from the magazines. Winfield Scott followed in the wake of Kossuth, and Garibaldi led the way for John C. Fremont and Lola Montez. There was applause for the long, homely, familiar face of Lincoln, and a derisive snicker for the likeness of Jeff Davis turned upside down. Then came local heroes from the district round about — Gen. Boyce, Col. Mclntyre, and young Adjt. Heron, who had died so bravely at Ball’s Bluff — mixed with some landscapes and statuary, and a comic caricature or two. The rapt assemblage murmured its recognitions, sighed its deeper emotions, chuckled over the funny plates — deeming it all a most delightful entertainment. From time to time there were long hitches, marked by a curious spluttering noise above, and the abortive flashes of meaningless light on the screen, and the explanation was passed about in undertones that Mr. Shull was having difficulties with the machine.

It was after the longest of these delays that, all at once, an extremely vivid picture was jerked suddenly upon the canvas, and, after a few preliminary twitches, settled in place to stare us out of countenance. There was no room for mistake. It was the portrait of Miss Julia Parmalee standing proudly erect in statuesque posture, with one hand resting on the back of a chair, and seated in this chair was Lieut. Dwight Ransom, smiling amiably. There was a moment’s deadly hush, while we gazed at this unlooked-for apparition. It seemed, upon examination, as if there was a certain irony in the Lieutenant’s grin. Some one in the darkness emitted an abrupt snort of amusement, and a general titter arose, hung in the air for an awkward instant, and then was drowned by a generous burst of applause. While the people were still clapping their hands the picture was withdrawn from the screen, and we heard Newton Shull call down from his perch in the gallery:

“You kin turn up the lights now. They ain’t no more to this.”

In another minute we were sitting once again in the broad glare of the gaslight, blinking confusedly at one another, and with a dazed consciousness that something rather embarrassing had happened. The boldest of us began to steal glances across to where Miss Parmalee and Marsena sat, just in front of the steps to the bench …

Comments: Harold Frederic (1856-1898) was an American journalist and novelist. ‘Marsena’ is a short story set during the 1860s period in America, following the Civil War. Magic lanterns were commonly referred to as stereopticons in America.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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