AN OPEN-EYED CONSPIRACY—AN IDYL OF SARATOGA
By William Dean Howells
This etext was prepared from the 1898 David Douglas edition by David Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The day had been very hot under the tall trees which everywhere embower and stifle Saratoga, for they shut out the air as well as the sun; and after tea (they still have an early dinner at all the hotels in Saratoga, and tea is the last meal of the day) I strolled over to the pretty Congress Park, in the hope of getting a breath of coolness there. Mrs. March preferred to take the chances on the verandah of our pleasant little hotel, where I left her with the other ladies, forty fanning like one, as they rocked to and fro under the roof lifted to the third story by those lofty shafts peculiar to the Saratoga architecture. As far as coolness was concerned, I thought she was wise after I reached the park, for I found none of it there. I tried first a chair in the arabesque pavilion (I call it arabesque in despair; it might very well be Swiss; it is charming, at all events), and studied to deceive myself with the fresh-looking ebullition of the spring in the vast glass bowls your goblets are served from (people say it is pumped, and artificially aerated); but after a few moments this would not do, and I went out to a bench, of the rows beside the gravelled walks. It was no better there; but I fancied it would be better on the little isle in the little lake, where the fountain was flinging a sheaf of spray into the dull air. This looked even cooler than the bubbling spring in the glass vases, and it sounded vastly cooler. There would be mosquitoes there, of course, I admitted in the debate I had with myself before I decided to make experiment of the place, and the event proved me right. There were certainly some mosquitoes in the Grecian temple (if it is not a Turkish kiosk; perhaps we had better compromise, and call it a Grecian kiosk), which you reach by a foot-bridge from the mainland, and there was a damp in the air which might pass for coolness. There were three or four people standing vaguely about in the kiosk; but my idle mind fixed itself upon a young French-Canadian mother of low degree, who sat, with her small boy, on the verge of the pavement near the water. She scolded him in their parlance for having got himself so dirty, and then she smacked his poor, filthy little hands, with a frown of superior virtue, though I did not find her so very much cleaner herself. I cannot see children beaten without a heartache, and I continued to suffer for this small wretch even after he had avenged himself by eating a handful of peanut shells, which would be sure to disagree with him and make his mother more trouble. In fact, I experienced no relief till his mother, having spent her insensate passion, gathered him up with sufficient tenderness, and carried him away. Then, for the first time, I noticed a girl sitting in a chair just outside the kiosk, and showing a graceful young figure as she partly turned to look after the departing mother and her child. When she turned again and glanced in my direction, at the noise I made in placing my chair, I could see two things—that she had as much beauty as grace, and that she was disappointed in me. The latter fact did not wound me, for I felt its profound impersonality. I was not wrong in myself; I was simply wrong in being an elderly man with a grey beard instead of the handsome shape and phase of youth which her own young beauty had a right to in my place. I was not only not wounded, but I was not sorry not to be that shape and phase of youth, except as I hate to disappoint any one.
Her face was very beautiful; it was quite perfectly beautiful, and of such classic mould that she might well have been the tutelary goddess of that temple (if it was a temple, and not a kiosk), in the white duck costume which the goddesses were wearing that summer. Her features were Greek, but her looks were American; and she was none the less a goddess, I decided, because of that air of something exacting, of not quite satisfied, which made me more and more willing to be elderly and grey-bearded. I at least should not be expected to supply the worship necessary to keep such a goddess in good humour.
I do not know just how I can account for a strain of compassion which mingled with this sense of irresponsibility in me; perhaps it was my feeling of security that attuned me to pity; but certainly I did not look at this young girl long without beginning to grieve for her, and to weave about her a web of possibilities, which grew closer and firmer in texture when she was joined by a couple who had apparently not left her a great while before, and who spoke, without otherwise saluting her, as they sat down on either side of her. I instantly interpreted her friends to be the young wife and middle- aged husband of a second marriage; for they were evidently man and wife, and he must have been nearly twice as old as she. In person he tended to the weight which expresses settled prosperity, and a certain solidification of temperament and character; as to his face, it was kind, and it was rather humorous, in spite of being a little slow in the cast of mind it suggested. He wore an iron-grey beard on his cheeks and chin, but he had his strong upper lip clean shaven; some drops of perspiration stood upon it, and upon his forehead, which showed itself well up toward his crown under the damp strings of his scanty hair. He looked at the young goddess in white duck with a sort of trouble in his friendly countenance, and his wife (if it was his wife) seemed to share his concern, though she smiled, while he let the corners of his straight mouth droop. She was smaller than the young girl, and I thought almost as young; and she had the air of being somehow responsible for her, and cowed by her, though the word says rather more than I mean. She was not so well dressed; that is, not so stylishly, though doubtless her costume was more expensive. It seemed the inspiration of a village dressmaker; and her husband's low-cut waistcoat, and his expanse of plaited shirt-front, betrayed a provincial ideal which she would never decry—which she would perhaps never find different from the most worldly. He had probably, I swiftly imagined, been wearing just that kind of clothes for twenty years, and telling his tailor to make each new suit like the last; he had been buying for the same period the same shape of Panama hat, regardless of the continually changing type of straw hats on other heads. I cannot say just why, as he tilted his chair back on its hind-legs, I felt that he was either the cashier of the village bank at home, or one of the principal business men of the place. Village people I was quite resolute to have them all; but I left them free to have come from some small manufacturing centre in western Massachusetts or southern Vermont or central New York. It was easy to see that they were not in the habit of coming away from their place, wherever it was; and I wondered whether they were finding their account in the present excursion.
I myself think Saratoga one of the most delightful spectacles in the world, and Mrs. March is of the same mind about it. We like all the waters, and drink them without regard to their different properties; but we rather prefer the Congress spring, because it is such a pleasant place to listen to the Troy military band in the afternoon, and the more or less vocal concert in the evening. All the Saratoga world comes and goes before us, as we sit there by day and by night, and we find a perpetual interest in it. We go and look at the deer (a herd of two, I think) behind their wire netting in the southward valley of the park, and we would feed the trout in their blue tank if we did not see them suffering with surfeit, and hanging in motionless misery amid the clear water under a cloud of bread crumbs. We are such devotees of the special attractions offered from time to time that we do not miss a single balloon ascension or pyrotechnic display. In fact, it happened to me one summer that I studied so earnestly and so closely the countenance of the lady who went up (in trunk-hose), in order to make out just what were the emotions of a lady who went up every afternoon in a balloon, that when we met near the end of the season in Broadway I thought I must have seen her somewhere in society, and took off my hat to her (she was not at the moment in trunk-hose). We like going about to the great hotels, and sponging on them for the music in the forenoon; we like the gaudy shops of modes kept by artists whose addresses are French and whose surnames are Irish; and the bazaars of the Armenians and Japanese, whose rugs and bric-a-brac are not such bargains as you would think. We even go to the races sometimes; we are not sure it is quite right, but as we do not bet, and are never decided as to which horse has won, it is perhaps not so wrong as it might be.
Somehow I could not predicate these simple joys of the people I have been talking of, for the very reason, that they were themselves so simple. It was our sophistication which enabled us to taste pleasures which would have been insipidities to them. Their palates would have demanded other flavours—social excitements, balls, flirtations, almost escapades. I speak of the two women; the man, doubtless, like most other Americans of his age, wanted nothing but to get back to business in the small town where he was important; and still more I speak of the young girl; for the young wife I fancied very willing to go back to her house-keeping, and to be staying on in Saratoga only on her friend's account.
I had already made up my mind that they had been the closest friends before one of them married, and that the young wife still thought the young girl worthy of the most splendid fate that marriage could have in store for any of her sex. Women often make each other the idols of such worship; but I could not have justified this lady's adoration so far as it concerned the mental and moral qualities of her friend, though I fully shared it in regard to her beauty. To me she looked a little dull and a little selfish, and I chose to think the husband modestly found her selfish, if he were too modest to find her dull.
Yet, after all, I tacitly argued with him, why should we call her selfish? It was perfectly right and fit that, as a young girl with such great personal advantages, she should wish to see the world— even to show herself to the world,—and find in it some agreeable youth who should admire her, and desire to make her his own for ever. Compare this simple and natural longing with the insatiate greed and ambition of one of our own sex, I urged him, and then talk to me, if you can, of this poor girl's selfishness! A young man has more egoism in an hour than a young girl has in her whole life. She thinks she wishes some one to be devoted to her, but she really wishes some one to let her be devoted to him; and how passively, how negatively, she must manage to accomplish her self-sacrifice! He, on the contrary, means to go conquering and enslaving forward; to be in and out of love right and left, and to end, after many years of triumph, in the possession of the best and wisest and fairest of her sex. I know the breed, my dear sir; I have been a young man myself. We men have liberty, we have initiative; we are not chaperoned; we can go to this one and that one freely and fearlessly. But women must sit still, and be come to or shied off from. They cannot cast the bold eye of interest; they can at most bridle under it, and furtively respond from the corner of the eye of weak hope and gentle deprecation. Be patient, then, with this poor child if she darkles a little under the disappointment of not finding Saratoga so personally gay as she supposed it would be, and takes it out of you and your wife, as if you were to blame for it, in something like sulks.
He remained silent under these tacit appeals, but at the end he heaved a deep sigh, as he might if he were acknowledging their justice, and were promising to do his very best in the circumstances. His wife looked round at him, but did not speak. In fact, they none of them spoke after the first words of greeting to the girl, as I can very well testify; for I sat eavesdropping with all my might, resolved not to lose a syllable, and I am sure I lost none.
The young girl did not look round at that deep-drawn sigh of the man's; she did not lift her head even when he cleared his throat: but I was intent upon him, for I thought that these sounds preluded an overture (I am not sure of the figure) to my acquaintance, and in fact he actually asked, "Do you know just when the concert begins?"
I was overjoyed at his question, for I was poignantly interested in the little situation I had created, and I made haste to answer: "Well, nominally at eight o'clock; but the first half-hour is usually taken up in tuning the instruments. If you get into the pavilion at a quarter to nine you won't lose much. It isn't so bad when it really begins."
The man permitted himself a smile of the pleasure we Americans all feel at having a thing understated in that way. His wife asked timidly, "Do we have to engage our seats in the—pavilion?"
"Oh, no," I laughed; "there's no such rush as that. Haven't you been at the concerts before?"
The man answered for her: "We haven't been here but a few days. I should think," he added to her, "it would be about as comfortable outside of the house." I perceived that he maintained his independence of my superior knowledge by refusing to say "pavilion"; and in fact I do not know whether that is the right name for the building myself.
"It will be hot enough anywhere," I assented, as if the remark had been made to me; but here I drew the line out of self-respect, and resolved that he should make the next advances.
The young girl looked up at the first sound of my voice, and verified me as the elderly man whom she had seen before; and then she looked down at the water again. I understood, and I freely forgave her. If my beard had been brown instead of grey I should have been an adventure; but to the eye of girlhood adventure can never wear a grey beard. I was truly sorry for her; I could read in the pensive droop of her averted face that I was again a disappointment.
They all three sat, without speaking again, in the mannerless silence of Americans. The man was not going to feel bound in further civility to me because I had civilly answered a question of his. I divined that he would be glad to withdraw from the overture he had made; he may have thought from my readiness to meet him half way that I might be one of those sharpers in whom Saratoga probably abounded. This did not offend me; it amused me; I fancied his confusion if he could suddenly know how helplessly and irreparably honest I was.
"I don't know but it's a little too damp here, Rufus," said the wife.
"I don't know but it is," he answered; but none of them moved, and none of them spoke again for some minutes. Then the wife said again, but this time to the friend, "I don't know but it's a little too damp here, Julia," and the friend answered, as the husband had -
"I don't know but it is."
I had two surprises in this slight event. I could never have imagined that the girl had so brunette a name as Julia, or anything less blond in sound than, say, Evadne, at the very darkest; and I had made up my mind—Heaven knows why—that her voice would be harsh. Perhaps I thought it unfair that she should have a sweet voice added to all that beauty and grace of hers; but she had a sweet voice, very tender and melodious, with a plangent note in it that touched me and charmed me. Beautiful and graceful as she was, she had lacked atmosphere before, and now suddenly she had atmosphere. I resolved to keep as near to these people as I could, and not to leave the place as long as they stayed; but I did not think it well to let them feel that I was aesthetically shadowing them, and I got up and strolled away toward the pavilion, keeping an eye in the back of my head upon them.
I sat down in a commanding position, and watched the people gathering for the concert; and in the drama of a group of Cubans, or of South Americans, I almost forgot for a moment the pale idyl of my compatriots at the kiosk. There was a short, stout little Spanish woman speaking in the shapely sentences which the Latin race everywhere delights in, and around her was an increasing number of serious Spanish men, listening as if to important things, and paying her that respectful attention which always amuses and puzzles me. In view of what we think their low estimate of women, I cannot make out whether it is a personal tribute to some specific woman whom they regard differently from all the rest of her sex, or whether they choose to know in her for the nouce the abstract woman who is better than woman in the concrete. I am sure I have never seen men of any other race abandon themselves to such a luxury of respect as these black and grey bearded Spaniards of leaden complexion showed this dumpy personification of womanhood, with their prominent eyes bent in homage upon her, and their hands trembling with readiness to seize their hats off in reverence. It appeared presently that the matter they were all canvassing so devoutly was the question of where she should sit. It seemed to be decided that she could not do better than sit just at that point. When she actually took a chair the stately convocation ended, and its members, with low obeisances, dispersed themselves in different directions. They had probably all been sitting with her the whole afternoon on the verandah of the Everett House, where their race chiefly resorts in Saratoga, and they were availing themselves of this occasion to appear to be meeting her, after a long interval, in society.
I said to myself that of course they believed Saratoga was still that centre of American fashion which it once was, and that they came and went every summer, probably in the belief that they saw a great deal of social gaiety there. This made me think, by a natural series of transitions, of the persons of my American idyl, and I looked about the pavilion everywhere for them without discovering, till the last, that they were just behind me.
I found the fact touching. They had not wished to be in any wise beholden to me, and had even tried to reject my friendly readiness to know them better; but they had probably sought my vicinity in a sense of their loneliness and helplessness, which they hoped I would not divine, but which I divined instantly. Still, I thought it best not to show any consciousness of them, and we sat through the first part of the concert without taking notice of one another. Then the man leaned forward and touched me on the shoulder.
"Will you let me take your programme a minute?"
"Why, certainly," said I.
He took it, and after a vague glance at it he passed it to his wife, who gave it in turn to the young girl. She studied it very briefly, and then, after a questioning look, offered it back to me.
"Won't you keep it?" I entreated. "I've quite done with it."
"Oh, thank you," she answered in her tender voice, and she and the wife looked hard at the man, whom they seemed to unite in pushing forward by that means.
He hemmed, and asked, "Have you been in Saratoga much?"
"Why, yes," I said; "rather a good deal. My wife and I have been here three or four summers."
At the confession of my married state, which this statement implicated, the women exchanged a glance, I fancied, of triumph, as if they had been talking about me, and I had now confirmed the ground they had taken concerning me. Then they joined in goading the man on again with their eyes.
"Which hotel," he asked, "should you say had the most going on?"
The young girl and the wife transferred their gaze to me, with an intensified appeal in it. The man looked away with a certain shame- -the shame of a man who feels that his wife has made him make an ass of himself. I tried to treat his question, by the quantity and quality of my answer, as one of the most natural things in the world; and I probably deceived them all by this effort, though I am sure that I was most truthful and just concerning the claims of the different hotels to be the centre of excitement. I thought I had earned the right to ask at the end, "Are you stopping at the Grand Union?"
"No," he said; and he mentioned one of the smaller hotels, which depend upon the great houses for the entertainment of their guests. "Are you there?" he asked, meaning the Grand Union.
"Oh no," I said; "we couldn't do that sort of thing, even if we wanted." And in my turn I named the modest hotel where we were, and said that I thought it by all odds the pleasantest place in Saratoga. "But I can't say," I added, "that there is a great deal going on there, either. If you want that sort of thing you will have to go to some of the great hotels. We have our little amusements, but they're all rather mild." I kept talking to the man, but really addressing myself to the women. "There's something nearly every evening: prestidigitating, or elocutioning, or a little concert, or charades, or impromptu theatricals, or something of that sort. I can't say there's dancing, though really, I suppose, if any one wanted to dance there would be dancing."
I was aware that the women listened intelligently, even if the man did not. The wife drew a long breath, and said, "It must be very pleasant."
The girl said—rather more hungrily, I fancied—"Yes, indeed."
I don't know why their interest should have prompted me to go on and paint the lily a little, but I certainly did so. I did not stop till the music began again, and I had to stop. By the time the piece was finished I had begun to have my misgivings, and I profited by the brief interval of silence to say to the young girl, "I wouldn't have you think we are a whirl of gaiety exactly."
"Oh no," she answered pathetically, as if she were quite past expecting that or anything like it.
We were silent again. At the end of the next piece they all rose, and the wife said timidly to me, "Well, good-evening," as if she might be venturing too far; and her husband came to her rescue with "Well, good-evening, sir." The young girl merely bowed.
I did not stay much longer, for I was eager to get home and tell my wife about my adventure, which seemed to me of a very rare and thrilling kind. I believed that if I could present it to her duly, it would interest her as much as it had interested me. But somehow, as I went on with it in the lamplight of her room, it seemed to lose colour and specific character.
"You are always making up these romances about young girls being off and disappointed of a good time ever since we saw that poor little Kitty Ellison with her cousins at Niagara," said Mrs. March. "You seem to have it on the brain."
"Because it's the most tragical thing in the world, and the commonest in our transition state," I retorted. I was somewhat exasperated to have my romance treated as so stale a situation, though I was conscious now that it did want perfect novelty. "It's precisely for that reason that I like to break my heart over it. I see it every summer, and it keeps me in a passion of pity. Something ought to be done about it."
"Well, don't YOU try to do anything, Basil, unless you write to the newspapers."
"I suppose," I said, "that if the newspapers could be got to take hold of it, perhaps something might be done." The notion amused me; I went on to play with it, and imagined Saratoga, by a joint effort of the leading journals, recolonised with the social life that once made it the paradise of young people.
"I have been writing to the children," said my wife, "and telling them to stay on at York Harbour if the Herricks want them so much. They would hate it here. You say the girl looked cross. I can't exactly imagine a cross goddess."
"There were lots of cross goddesses," I said rather crossly myself; for I saw that, after having trodden my romance in the dust, she was willing I should pick it up again and shake it off, and I wished to show her that I was not to be so lightly appeased.
"Perhaps I was thinking of angels," she murmured.
"I distinctly didn't say she was an angel," I returned.
"Now, come, Basil; I see you're keeping something back. What did you try to do for those people? Did you tell them where you were stopping?"
"Yes, I did. They asked me, and I told them."
"Did you brag the place up?"
"On the contrary, I understated its merits."
"Oh, very well, then," she said, quite as if I had confessed my guilt; "they will come here, and you will have your romance on your hands for the rest of the month. I'm thankful we're going away the first of August."
The next afternoon, while we were sitting in the park waiting for the Troy band to begin playing, and I was wondering just when they would reach the "Washington Post March," which I like because I can always be sure of it, my unknown friends came strolling our way. The man looked bewildered and bored, with something of desperation in his troubled eye, and his wife looked tired and disheartened. The young girl, still in white duck, wore the same air of passive injury I had noted in her the night before. Their faces all three lighted up at sight of me; but they faded again at the cold and meagre response I made to their smiles under correction of my wife's fears of them. I own it was base of me; but I had begun to feel myself that it might be too large a contract to attempt their consolation, and, in fact, after one is fifty scarcely any romance will keep overnight.
My wife glanced from them to me, and read my cowardly mind; but she waited till they passed, as they did after an involuntary faltering in front of us, and were keeping on down the path, looking at the benches, which were filled on either hand. She said, "Weren't those your friends?"
"They were the persons of my romance."
"No matter. Go after them instantly and bring them back here, poor things. We can make room for them."
I rose. "Isn't this a little too idyllic? Aren't you rather overdoing it?"
"Don't speak to me, Basil! I never heard of anything so atrocious. Go on your knees to them if they refuse! They can sit here with me, and you and he can stand. Fly!"
I knew she was punishing me for her own reluctance; but I flew, in that sense of the term, and easily overhauled them in the tangle of people coming and going in the path, and the nursemaids pushing their perambulators in either direction. Hat in hand I delivered my message. I could see that it gave the women great pleasure and the man some doubt. His mouth fell open a little; their cheeks flushed and their eyes shone.
"I don't know as we better," the wife hesitated; "I'm afraid we'll crowd you." And she looked wistfully toward my wife. The young girl looked at her.
"Not at all!" I cried. "There's an abundance of room. My wife's keeping the places for you,"—in fact, I saw her putting her arm out along the bench, and explaining to a couple who had halted in front of her that the seats were taken—"and she'll be disappointed."
"Well," the woman consented, with a little sigh of triumph that touched me, and reanimated all my interest in her and in her friend. She said, with a sort of shy, instinctive politeness, "I don't know as you and Mr. Deering got acquainted last night."
"My name is March," I said, and I shook the hand of Mr. Deering. It was rather thick.
"And this—is our friend," Mrs. Peering went on, in presentation of me to the young lady, "Miss Gage, that's come with us."
I was delighted that I had guessed their relative qualities so perfectly, and when we arrived at Mrs. March I glibly presented them. My wife was all that I could have wished her to be of sympathetic and intelligent. She did not overdo it by shaking hands, but she made places for the ladies, smiling cordially; and Mrs. Deering made Miss Gage take the seat between them. Her husband and I stood awhile in front of them, and then I said we would go off and find chairs somewhere.
We did not find any till we had climbed to the upland at the south- east of the park, and then only two iron ones, which it was useless to think of transporting. But there was no reason why we should not sit in them where they were: we could keep the ladies in plain sight, and I could not mistake "Washington Post" when the band came to it. Mr. Deering sank into one of the chairs with a sigh of satisfaction which seemed to complete itself when he discovered in the thick grass at his feet a twig from one of the tall, slim pines above us. He bent over for it, and then, as he took out his penknife and clicked open a blade to begin whittling, he cast up a critical glance at the trees.
"Pretty nice pines," he said; and he put his hand on the one next to us with a sort of appreciation that interested me.
"Yes; the trees of Saratoga are the glory of the place," I returned. "I never saw them grow anywhere else so tall and slim. It doesn't seem the effect of crowding either. It's as if there was some chemical force in the soil that shot them up. They're like rockets that haven't left the ground yet."
"It's the crowding," he said seriously, as if the subject were not to be trifled with. "It's the habit of all these trees—pines and oaks and maples, I don't care what they are—to spread, and that's what we tell our customers. Give the trees plenty of room; don't plant 'em too thick if you want to get all the good out of 'em." As if he saw a question in my eye, he went on: "We do a forest-tree business exclusively; these shade-trees, and walnuts, hickories, chestnuts, and all kinds. It's a big trade, getting to be, and growing all the time. Folks have begun to find out what fools they were to destroy the forests, and the children want to buy back what the fathers threw away."
I scarcely needed to prompt him; he was only too glad to talk on about his business, and he spoke with a sort of homesick fondness. He told me that he had his nurseries at De Witt Point, up on the St. Lawrence, where he could raise stock hardy enough for any climate, and ship by land or water.
"I've got to be getting home right away now," he said finally, clicking his knife-blade half shut and open with his thumb.
"It's about time for our evergreen trade, and I don't want the trees to stay a minute in the ground after the middle of the month."
"Won't the ladies find it hard to tear themselves away from the gaieties of Saratoga?" I asked with apparent vagueness.
"Well, that's it," said Mr. Deering; and he shut his knife and slipped it into his pocket, in order to take his knee between his clasped hands and lift his leg from the ground. I have noticed that this is a philosophical attitude with some people, and I was prepared by it for some thoughtful generalising from my companion. "Women would be willing to stay on in a place for a year to see if something wouldn't happen; and if you take 'em away before anything happens, they'll always think that if they'd stayed something would have happened the next day, or maybe the day they left."
He stared upward into the pine boughs, and I said: "Yes, that's so. I suppose we should be like them if we had the same conditions. Their whole life is an expectation of something to happen. Men have the privilege of making things happen—or trying to."
"Oh, I don't know as I want to criticise 'em. As you say, I guess WE should be just so." He dropped his leg, and bent over as if to examine the grass; he ended by taking a blade of it between his teeth before he spoke again, with his head still down. "I don't want to hurry 'em; I want to give 'em a fair show now we're here, and I'll let the stock go as long as I can. But I don't see very much gaiety around."
I laughed. "Why, it's all gaiety, in one way. Saratoga is a perpetual Fourth of July, we think."
"Oh yes; there's enough going on, and my wife and me we could enjoy it first rate."
"If the young lady could?" I ventured, with a smile of sympathetic intelligence.
"Well, yes. You see, we don't know anybody, and I suppose we didn't take that into account. Well, I suppose it's like this: they thought it would be easy to get acquainted in the hotel, and commence having a good time right away. I don't know; my wife had the idea when they cooked it up amongst 'em that she was to come with us. But I SWEAR I don't know how to go about it. I can't seem to make up my mouth to speak to folks first; and then you can't tell whether a man ain't a gambler, or on for the horse-races anyway. So we've been here a week now, and you're the first ones we've spoken to besides the waiters since we came."
I couldn't help laughing, their experience was so exactly as I had imagined it when I first saw this disconsolate party. In my triumph at my own penetration, I would not have had their suffering in the past one pang the less; but the simple frankness of his confession fixed me in the wish that the future might be brighter for them. I thought myself warranted by my wife's imprudence in taking a step toward their further intimacy on my own account, and I said:
"Well, perhaps I ought to tell you that I haven't been inside the Saratoga Club or bet on the races since I've been here. That's my name in full,"—and I gave him my card,—"and I'm in the literary line; that is, I'm the editor of a magazine in New York—the Every Other Week."
"Oh yes; I know who you are," said my companion, with my card in his hand. "Fact is, I was round at your place this morning trying to get rooms, and the clerk told me all about you from my description. I felt as mean as pu'sley goin'; seemed to be takin' kind of an advantage of you."
"Not at all; it's a public house," I interrupted; but I thought I should be stronger with Mrs. March if I did not give the fact away to her, and I resolved to keep it.
"But they couldn't rest easy till I tried, and I was more than half glad there wasn't any rooms."
"Oh, I'm very sorry," I said; and I indulged a real regret from the vantage I had. "It would have been very pleasant to have you there. Perhaps later—we shall be giving up our rooms at the end of the month."
"No," he said, with a long breath. "If I've got to leave 'em, I guess it'll be just as well to leave 'em where they're acquainted with the house anyway." His remark betrayed a point in his thinking which had not perhaps been reached in his talk with the ladies. "It's a quiet place, and they're used to it; and I guess they wouldn't want to stay through the rest of the month, quite. I don't believe my wife would, anyway."
He did not say this very confidently, but hopefully rather, and I thought it afforded me an opening to find out something yet more definite about the ladies.
"Miss Gage is remarkably fine-looking," I began.
"Think so?" he answered. "Well, so does my wife. I don't know as I like her style exactly," he said, with a kind of latent grudge.
"Her style is magnificent," I insisted.
"Well, maybe so. I guess she's good enough looking, if that's what you mean. But I think it's always a kind of a mistake for three persons to come off together, I don't care who they are. Then there's three opinions. She's a nice girl, and a good girl, and she don't put herself forward. But when you've got a young lady on your hands, you've GOT her, and you feel bound to keep doin' something for her all the time; and if you don't know what to do yourself, and your wife can't tell—"
I added intelligently, "Yes."
"Well, that's just where it is. Sometimes I wish the whole dumb town would burn up." I laughed and laughed; and my friend, having begun to unpack his heart, went on to ease it of the rest of its load. I had not waited for this before making some reflections concerning him, but I now formulated them to myself. He really had none of that reserve I had attributed to him the night before; it was merely caution and this is the case with most country people. They are cautious, but not reserved; if they think they can trust you, they keep back none of their affairs; and this is the American character, for we are nearly all country people. I understood him perfectly when he said, "I ruther break stone than go through what I have been through the last week! You understand how it is. 'Tain't as if she said anything; I wish she would; but you feel all the while that it ain't what she expected it to be, and you feel as if it was you that was to blame for the failure. By George! if any man was to come along and make an offer for my contract I would sell out cheap. It's worse because my wife asked her to come, and thought she was doin' her all kinds of a favour to let her. They've always been together, and when we talked of coming to Saratoga this summer, nothing would do my wife but Julia must come with us. Her and her father usually take a trip off somewhere in the hot weather, but this time he couldn't leave; president of our National Bank, and president of the village, too." He threw in the fact of these dignities explanatorily, but with a willingness, I could see, that it should affect me. He went on: "They're kind of connections of my first wife's. Well, she's a nice girl; too nice, I guess, to get along very fast. I see girls all the way along down gettin' acquainted on the cars and boats—we come east on the Ogdensburg road to Rouse's Point, and then took the boat down Lake Champlain and Lake George—but she always seemed to hold back. I don't know's she's proud either; I can't make it out. It balls my wife all up, too. I tell her she's fretted off all the good her trip's goin' to do her before she got it."
He laughed ruefully, and just then the band began to play the "Washington Post."
"What tune's that?" he demanded.
"'Washington Post,'" I said, proud of knowing it.
"By George! that tune goes right to a fellow's legs, don't it?"
"It's the new march," I said.
He listened with a simple joy in it, and his pleasure strengthened the mystic bond which had formed itself between us through the confidences he had made me, so flatteringly corroborative of all my guesses concerning him and his party.
I longed to have the chance of bragging to my wife; but this chance did not come till the concert was quite over, after I rejoined her with my companion, and she could take leave of them all without seeming to abandon them. Then I judged it best to let her have the word; for I knew by the way she ran her hand through my arm, and began pushing me along out of earshot, that she was full of it.
"Well, Basil, I think that is the sweetest and simplest and kindest creature in the world, and I'm perfectly in love with her."
I did not believe somehow that she meant the girl, but I thought it best merely to suggest, "There are two."
"You know very well which I mean, and I would do anything I could for her. She's got a difficult problem before her, and I pity her. The girl's very well, and she IS a beauty; and I suppose she HAS been having a dull time, and of course you couldn't please Mrs. Deering half so well as by doing something for her friend. I suppose you're feeling very proud that they're just what you divined."
"Not at all; I'm so used to divining people. How did you know I knew it?"
"I saw you talking to him, and I knew you were pumping him."
"Pumping? He asked nothing better than to flow. He would put to shame the provoked spontaneity of any spring in Saratoga."
"Well, did he say that he was going to leave them here?"
"He would like to do it—yes. He was very sweet and simple and kind, too, Isabel. He complained bitterly of the goddess, and all but said she sulked."
"Why, I don't know," said my wife. "I think, considering, that she is rather amiable. She brightened up more and more."
"That was prosperity, or the hope of it, my dear. Nothing illumines us like the prospect of pleasant things. She took you for society smiling upon her, and of course she smiled back. But it's only the first smile of prosperity that cheers. If it keeps on smiling it ends by making us dissatisfied again. When people are getting into society they are very glad; when they have got in they seem to be rather gloomy. We mustn't let these things go too far. Now that you've got your friends in good humour, the right way is to drop them—to cut them dead when you meet them, to look the other way. That will send them home perfectly radiant."
"Nonsense! I am going to do all I can for them. What do you think we can do? They haven't the first idea how to amuse themselves here. It's a miracle they ever got that dress the girl is wearing. They just made a bold dash because they saw it in a dressmaker's window the first day, and she had to have something. It's killingly becoming to her; but I don't believe they know it, and they don't begin to know how cheap it was: it was simply THROWN away. I'm going shopping with them in the morning."
"But now the question is, what we can do to give them some little glimpse of social gaiety. That's what they've come for."
We were passing the corner of a large enclosure which seems devoted in Saratoga to the most distracting of its pleasures, and I said: "Well, we might give them a turn on the circular railway or the switchback; or we could take them to the Punch and Judy drama, or get their fortunes told in the seeress's tent, or let them fire in the shooting-gallery, or buy some sweet-grass baskets of the Indians; and there is the pop-corn and the lemonade."
"I will tell you what," said Mrs March, who had not been listening to a word I said; for if she had heard me she would not have had patience with my ironical suggestions.
"Or, no; that wouldn't do, either."
"I'm glad you don't approve of the notion, on second thoughts. I didn't like it from the beginning, and I didn't even know what it was."
"We could have them up to the house this evening, and introduce them to some of our friends,—only there isn't a young man in the whole place,—and have them stay to the charades."
"What do you think," I said, "of their having come up this morning and tried to get rooms at our house?"
"Yes; they told me."
"And don't you call that rather forth-putting? It seems to me that it was taking a mean advantage of my brags."
"It was perfectly innocent in them. But now, dearest, don't be tiresome. I know that you like them as well as I do, and I will take all your little teasing affectations for granted. The question is, what can we do for them?"
"And the answer is, I don't in the least know. There isn't any society life at Saratoga that I can see; and if there is, we are not in it. How could we get any one else in? I see that's what you're aiming at. Those public socialities at the big hotels they could get into as well as we could; but they wouldn't be anywhere when they got there, and they wouldn't know what to do. You know what hollow mockeries those things are. Don't you remember that hop we went to with the young Braceys the first summer? If those girls hadn't waltzed with each other they wouldn't have danced a step the whole evening."
"I know, I know," sighed my wife; "it was terrible. But these people are so very unworldly that don't you think they could be deluded into the belief that they were seeing society if we took a little trouble? You used to be so inventive! You could think up something now if you tried."
"My dear, a girl knows beyond all the arts of hoodwinking whether she's having a good time, and your little scheme of passing off one of those hotel hops for a festivity would never work in the world."
"Well, I think it is too bad! What has become of all the easy gaiety there used to be in the world?"
"It has been starched and ironed out of it, apparently. Saratoga is still trying to do the good old American act, with its big hotels and its heterogeneous hops, and I don't suppose there's ever such a thing as a society person at any of them. That wouldn't be so bad. But the unsociety people seem to be afraid of one another. They feel that there is something in the air—something they don't and can't understand; something alien, that judges their old-fashioned American impulse to be sociable, and contemns it. No; we can't do anything for our hapless friends—I can hardly call them our acquaintances. We must avoid them, and keep them merely as a pensive colour in our own vivid memories of Saratoga. If we made them have a good time, and sent them on their way rejoicing, I confess that I should feel myself distinctly a loser. As it is, they're a strain of melancholy poetry in my life, of music in the minor key. I shall always associate their pathos with this hot summer weather, and I shall think of them whenever the thermometer registers eighty-nine. Don't you see the advantage of that? I believe I can ultimately get some literature out of them. If I can think of a fitting fable for them Fulkerson will feature it in Every Other Week. He'll get out a Saratoga number, and come up here and strike the hotels and springs for ad's."
"Well," said Mrs. March, "I wish I had never seen them; and it's all your fault, Basil. Of course, when you played upon my sympathies so about them, I couldn't help feeling interested in them. We are a couple of romantic old geese, my dear."
"Not at all, or at least I'm not. I simply used these people conjecturally to give myself an agreeable pang. I didn't want to know anything more about them than I imagined, and I certainly didn't dream of doing anything for them. You'll spoil everything if you turn them from fiction into fact, and try to manipulate their destiny. Let them alone; they will work it out for themselves."
"You know I can't let them alone now," she lamented. "I am not one of those who can give themselves an agreeable pang with the unhappiness of their fellow-creatures. I'm not satisfied to study them; I want to relieve them."
She went on to praise herself to my disadvantage, as I notice wives will with their husbands, and I did not attempt to deny her this source of consolation. But when she ended by saying, "I believe I shall send you alone," and explained that she had promised Mrs. Deering we would come to their hotel for them after tea, and go with them to hear the music at the United States and the Grand Union, I protested. I said that I always felt too sneaking when I was prowling round those hotels listening to their proprietary concerts, and I was aware of looking so sneaking that I expected every moment to be ordered off their piazzas. As for convoying a party of three strangers about alone, I should certainly not do it.
"Not if I've a headache?"
"Not if you've a headache."
"Oh, very well, then."
"What are you two quarrelling about?" cried a gay voice behind us, and we looked round into the laughing eyes of Miss Dale. She was the one cottager we knew in Saratoga, but when we were with her we felt that we knew everybody, so hospitable was the sense of world which her kindness exhaled.
"It was Mrs. March who was quarrelling," I said. "I was only trying to convince her that she was wrong, and of course one has to lift one's voice. I hope I hadn't the effect of halloaing."
"Well, I merely heard you above the steam harmonicon at the switchback," said Miss Dale. "I don't know whether you call THAT holloaing."
"Oh, Miss Dale," said my wife, "we are in such a fatal—"
"Pickle," I suggested, and she instantly adopted the word in her extremity.
"—pickle with some people that Providence has thrown in our way, and that we want to do something for"; and in a labyrinth of parentheses that no man could have found his way into or out of, she possessed Miss Dale of the whole romantic fact. "It was Mr. March, of course, who first discovered them," she concluded, in plaintive accusation.
"Poor Mr. March!" cried Miss Dale. "Well, it is a pathetic case, but it isn't the only one, if that's any comfort. Saratoga is reeking with just such forlornities the whole summer long; but I can quite understand how you feel about it, Mrs. March." We came to a corner, and she said abruptly: "Excuse my interrupting your quarrel! Not quite so LOUD, Mr. March!" and she flashed back a mocking look at me as she skurried off down the street with astonishing rapidity.
"How perfectly heartless!" cried my wife. "I certainly thought she would suggest something—offer to do something."
"I relied upon her, too," I said; "but now I have my doubts whether she was really going down that street till she saw that it was the best way to escape. We're certainly in trouble, my dear, if people avoid us in this manner."
"I am doing it entirely on Mrs. Deering's I account," said my wife that evening after tea, as we walked down the side-street that descended from our place to Broadway. "She has that girl on her hands, and I know she must be at her wits' end."
"And I do it entirely on Deering's account," I retorted. "He has both of those women on HIS hands."
We emerged into the glistening thoroughfare in front of the vast hotels, and I was struck, as I never fail to be, with its futile and unmeaning splendour. I think there is nothing in our dun-coloured civilisation prettier than that habit the ladies have in Saratoga of going out on the street after dark in their bare heads. When I first saw them wandering about so in the glitter of the shop-windows and the fitful glare of the electrics everywhere, I thought they must be some of those Spanish-Americans mistaking the warm, dry air of the Northern night for that of their own latitudes; but when I came up with them I could hear, if I could not see, that they were of our own race. Those flat and shapeless tones could come through the noses of no other. The beauty and the elegance were also ours, and the fearless trust of circumstance. They sauntered up and down before the gaunt, high porticoes of the hotels, as much at home as they could have been in their own houses, and in much the same dress as if they had been receiving there. The effect is one of incomparable cheer, and is a promise of social brilliancy which Saratoga no more keeps than she does that of her other characteristic aspects; say the forenoon effect of the same thoroughfare, with the piazzas banked with the hotel guests, and the street full of the light equipages which seem peculiar to the place passing and repassing, in the joyous sunlight and out of it, on the leaf-flecked street. Even the public carriages of Saratoga have a fresh, unjaded air; and to issue from the railway station in the midst of those buoyant top-phaetons and surreys, with their light- limbed horses, is to be thrilled by some such insensate expectation of pleasure as fills the heart of a boy at his first sally into the world. I always expect to find my lost youth waiting for me around the corner of the United States Hotel, and I accuse myself of some fault if it disappoints me, as it always does. I can imagine what gaudy hopes by day and by night the bright staging of the potential drama must awaken in the breast of a young girl when she first sees it, and how blank she must feel when the curtain goes down and there has been no play. It was a real anguish to me when that young girl with the Deerings welcomed my wife and me with a hopeful smile, as if we were the dramatis personae, and now the performance must be going to begin. I could see how much our chance acquaintance had brightened the perspective for her, and how eagerly she had repaired all her illusions; and I thought how much better it would have been if she had been left to the dull and spiritless resignation in which I had first seen her. From that there could no fall, at least, and now she had risen from it only to sink again.
But, in fact, the whole party seemed falsely cheered by the event of the afternoon; and in the few moments that we sat with them on their verandah, before going to the music at the Grand Union, I could hear the ladies laughing together, while Deering joyously unfolded to me his plan of going home the next morning and leaving his wife and Miss Gage behind him. "They will stay in this hotel—they might as well—and I guess they can get along. My wife feels more acquainted since she met Mrs. March, and I shan't feel so much like leavin' her among strangers here I don't know when she's taken such a fancy to any one as she has to your wife, or Miss Gage either. I guess she'll want to ask her about the stores."
I said that I believed the fancy was mutual, and that there was nothing my wife liked better than telling people about stores. I added, in generalisation, that when a woman had spent all her own money on dress, it did her quite as much good to see other women spending theirs; and Deering said he guessed that was about so. He gave me a push on the shoulder to make me understand how keenly he appreciated the joke, and I perceived that we had won his heart too.
We joined the ladies, and I thought that my sufferings for her authorised me to attach myself more especially to Miss Gage, and to find out all I could about her. We walked ahead of the others, and I was aware of her making believe that it was quite the same as if she were going to the music with a young man. Not that she seemed disposed to trifle with my grey hairs; I quickly saw that this would not be in character with her; but some sort of illusion was essential to her youth, and she could not help rejuvenating me. This was quite like the goddess she looked, I reflected, but otherwise she was not formidably divine; and, in fact, I suppose the goddesses were, after all, only nice girls at heart. This one, at any rate, I decided, was a very nice girl when she was not sulking; and she was so brightened by her little adventure, which was really no adventure, that I could not believe I had ever seen her sulking.
The hotel people did not keep us from going into the court of the hotel, as I was afraid they might, and we all easily found places. In the pauses of the music I pointed out such notables and characters as I saw about us, and tried to possess her of as much of the Saratoga world as I knew. It was largely there in that bold evidence it loves, and in that social solitude to which the Saratoga of the hotels condemns the denizens of her world. I do not mean that the Saratoga crowd is at all a fast-looking crowd. There are sporting people and gamblers; but the great mass of the frequenters are plain, honest Americans, out upon a holiday from all parts of the country, and of an innocence too inveterate to have grasped the fact that there is no fashion in Saratoga now but the fashion of the ladies' dresses. These, I must say, are of the newest and prettiest; the dressing of the women always strikes me there. My companion was eager to recognise the splendours which she had heard of, and I pointed out an old lady by the door, who sat there displaying upon her vast person an assortment of gems and jewels which she seemed as personally indifferent to as if she were a show- window, and I was glad to have the girl shrink from the spectacle in a kind of mute alarm. I tried to make her share my pleasure in a group of Cubans—fat father, fat mother, fat daughter—who came down the walk toward us in the halo of tropical tradition; but she had not the taste for olives, and I saw that I failed to persuade her of the aesthetic value of this alien element among us. She apparently could do almost as little with some old figures of bygone beaus spectrally revisiting the hotel haunts of their youth; but she was charmed with the sylvan loveliness of that incomparable court. It is, in fact, a park of the tall, slim Saratoga trees enclosed by the quadrangle of the hotel, exquisitely kept, and with its acres of greensward now showing their colour vividly in the light of the electrics, which shone from all sides on the fountain flashing and plashing in the midst. I said that here was that union of the sylvan and the urban which was always the dream of art, and which formed the delicate charm of pastoral poetry; and although I do not think she quite grasped the notion, I saw that she had a pleasure in the visible fact, and that was much better. Besides, she listened very respectfully, and with no signs of being bored.
In the wait between the two parts of the concert I invited her to walk around the court with me, and under the approving eye of Mrs. March we made this expedition. It seemed to me that I could not do a wiser thing, both for the satisfaction of my own curiosity and for the gratification of the autobiographical passion we all feel, than to lead her on to speak of herself. But she had little or nothing to say of herself, and what she said of other things was marked by a straightforward good sense, if not a wide intelligence. I think we make a mistake when we suppose that a beautiful woman must always be vain or conscious.
I fancy that a beauty is quite as often a solid and sensible person, with no inordinate wish to be worshipped, and this young lady struck me as wholly unspoiled by flattery. I decided that she was not the type that would take the fancy of De Witt Point, and that she had grown up without local attention for that reason, or possibly because a certain coldness in her overawed the free spirit of rustic love-making. No doubt she knew that she was beautiful, and I began to think that it was not so much disappointment at finding Saratoga as indifferent as De Witt Point which gave her the effect of disgust I had first noted in her the night before. That might rather have come from the sense of feeling herself a helpless burden on her friends, and from that young longing for companionship which is as far as may be from the desire of conquest, of triumph. Finding her now so gratefully content with the poor efforts to amuse her which an old fellow like me could make, I perceived that the society of other girls would suffice to make Saratoga quite another thing for her, and I cast about in my mind to contrive this somehow.
I confess that I liked her better and better, and before the evening was out I had quite transferred my compassion from the Deerings to her. It WAS forlorn and dreary for her to be attached to this good couple, whose interests were primarily in each other, and who had not the first of those arts which could provide her with other company. She willingly told about their journey to Saratoga, and her story did not differ materially from the account Deering had already given me; but even the outward form of adventure had fallen from their experience since they had come to Saratoga. They had formed the habit of Congress Park by accident; but they had not been to the lake, or the races, or the House of Pansa, or Mount M'Gregor, or Hilton Park, or even the outlying springs. It was the first time they had been inside of the Grand Union. "Then you have never seen the parlour?" I asked; and after the concert I boldly led the way into the parlour, and lavished its magnificence upon them as if I had been the host, or one of the hotel guests at the very least. I enjoyed the breathlessness of the Deerings so much, as we walked up and down the vast drawing-rooms accompanied by our images in the mirrors, that I insisted upon sitting down with them all upon some of the richest pieces of furniture; and I was so flown with my success as cicerone that I made them come with me to the United States. I showed them through the parlours there, and then led them through to the inner verandah, which commanded another wooded court like that of the Grand Union. I tried to make them feel the statelier sentiment of the older hotel, and to stir their imaginations with a picture of the old times, when the Southern planters used to throng the place, and all that was gay and brilliant in fashionable society was to be seen there some time during the summer. I think that I failed in this, but apparently I succeeded in giving them an evening of dazzling splendour.
"Well, sir, this has been a great treat," said Mr. Deering, when he bade us goodbye as well as good-night; he was going early in the morning.
The ladies murmured their gratitude, Mrs. Deering with an emotion that suited her thanks, and Miss Gage with a touch of something daughterly toward me that I thought pretty.
"Well, what DID you make of her, my dear?" Mrs. March demanded the instant she was beyond their hearing. "I must say, you didn't spare yourself in the cause; you did bravely. What is she like?"
"Really, I don't know," I answered, after a moment's reflection. "I should say she was almost purely potential. She's not so much this or that kind of girl; she's merely a radiant image of girlhood."
"Now, your chicquing it, you're faking it," said Mrs. March, borrowing the verbs severally from the art editor and the publisher of Every Other Week. "You have got to tell me just how much and how little there really is of her before I go any further with them. Is she stupid?"
"No—no; I shouldn't say stupid exactly. She is—what shall I say?- -extremely plain-minded. I suppose the goddesses were plain-minded. I'm a little puzzled by her attitude toward her own beauty. She doesn't live her beauty any more than a poet lives his poetry or a painter his painting; though I've no doubt she knows her gift is hers just as they do."
"I think I understand. You mean she isn't conscious."
"No. Conscious isn't quite the word," I said fastidiously. "Isn't there some word that says less, or more, in the same direction?"
"No, there isn't; and I shall think you don't mean anything at all if you keep on. Now, tell me how she really impressed you. Does she know anything? Has she read anything? Has she any ideas?"
"Really, I can't say whether they were ideas or not. She knew what Every Other Week was; she had read the stories in it; but I'm not sure she valued it at its true worth. She is very plain-minded."
"Don't keep repeating that! What do you mean by plain-minded?"
"Well, honest, single, common-sense, coherent, arithmetical."
"Horrors! Do you mean that she is MANNISH?"
"No, not mannish. And yet she gave me the notion that, when it came to companionship, she would be just as well satisfied with a lot of girls as young men."
Mrs. March pulled her hand out of my arm, and stopped short under one of those tall Saratoga shade-trees to dramatise her inference. "Then she is the slyest of all possible pusses! Did she give you the notion that she would be just as well satisfied with you as with a young man!"
"She couldn't deceive me so far as THAT, my dear."
"Very well; I shall take her in hand myself to-morrow, and find out what she really is."
Mrs. March went shopping the next forenoon with what was left of the Deering party; Deering had taken the early train north, and she seemed to have found the ladies livelier without him. She formed the impression from their more joyous behaviour that he kept his wife from spending as much money as she would naturally have done, and that, while he was not perhaps exactly selfish, he was forgetful of her youth, of the difference in years between them, and of her capacity for pleasures which he could not care for. She said that Mrs. Deering and Miss Gage now acted like two girls together, and, if anything, Miss Gage seemed the elder of the two.
"And what did you decide about her?" I inquired.
"Well, I helped her buy a hat and a jacket at one of those nice shops just below the hotel where they're stopping, and we've started an evening dress for her. She can't wear that white duck morning, noon, and night."
"But her character—her nature?"
"Oh! Well, she is rather plain-minded, as you call it. I think she shows out her real feelings too much for a woman."
"Why do you prefer dissimulation in your sex, my dear?"
"I don't call it dissimulation. But of course a girl ought to hide her feelings. Don't you think it would have been better for her not to have looked so obviously out of humour when you first saw her the other night?"
"She wouldn't have interested me so much, then, and she probably wouldn't have had your acquaintance now."
"Oh, I don't mean to say that even that kind of girl won't get on, if she gives her mind to it; but I think I should prefer a little less plain-mindedness, as you call it, if I were a man."
I did not know exactly what to say to this, and I let Mrs. March go on.
"It's so in the smallest thing. If you're choosing a thing for her, and she likes another, she lets you feel it at once. I don't mean that she's rude about it, but she seems to set herself so square across the way, and you come up with a kind of bump against her. I don't think that's very feminine. That's what I mean by mannish. You always know where to find her."
I don't know why this criticism should have amused me so much, but I began to laugh quite uncontrollably, and I laughed on and on. Mrs. March kept her temper with me admirably. When I was quiet again, she said -
"Mrs. Deering is a person that wins your heart at once; she has that appealing quality. You can see that she's cowed by her husband, though he means to be kind to her; and yet you may be sure she gets round him, and has her own way all the time. I know it was her idea to have him go home and leave them here, and of course she made him think it was his. She saw that as long as he was here, and anxious to get back to his 'stock,' there was no hope of giving Miss Gage the sort of chance she came for, and so she determined to manage it. At the same time, you can see that she is true as steel, and would abhor anything like deceit worse than the pest."
"I see; and that is why you dislike Miss Gage?"
"Dislike her? No, I don't dislike her; but she is disappointing. If she were a plain girl her plain-mindedness would be all right; it would be amusing; she would turn it to account and make it seem humorous. But it doesn't seem to go with her beauty; it takes away from that—I don't know how to express it exactly."
"You mean that she has no charm."
"No; I don't mean that at all. She has a great deal of charm of a certain kind, but it's a very peculiar kind. After all, the truth is the truth, Basil, isn't it?"
"It is sometimes, my dear," I assented.
"And the truth has its charm, even when it's too blunt."
"Ah, I'm not so sure of that."
"Yes—yes, it has. You mustn't say so, Basil, or I shall lose all my faith in you. If I couldn't trust you, I don't know what I should do."
"What are you after now, Isabel?"
"I am not after anything. I want you to go round to all the hotels and see if there is not some young man you know at one of them. There surely must be."
"Would one young man be enough?"
"If he were attentive enough, he would be. One young man is as good as a thousand if the girl is the right kind."
"But you have just been implying that Miss Gage is cold and selfish and greedy. Shall I go round exploring hotel registers for a victim to such a divinity as that?"
"No; you needn't go till I have had a talk with her. I am not sure she is worth it; I am not sure that I want to do a single thing for her."
The next day, after another forenoon's shopping with her friends, Mrs. March announced: "Well, now, it has all come out, Basil, and I wonder you didn't get the secret at once from your Mr. Deering. Have you been supposing that Miss Gage was a poor girl whom the Deerings had done the favour of bringing with them?"
"Why, what of it?" I asked provisionally.
"She is very well off. Her father is not only the president, as they call it, of the village, but he's the president of the bank."
"Yes; I told you that Deering told me so—"
"But he is very queer. He has kept her very close from the other young people, and Mrs. Deering is the only girl friend she's ever had, and she's grown up without having been anywhere without him. They had to plead with him to let her come with them—or Mrs. Deering had,—but when he once consented, he consented handsomely. He gave her a lot of money, and told them he wanted her to have the best time that money could buy; and of course you can understand how such a man would think that money would buy a good time anywhere. But the Deerings didn't know how to go about it. She confessed as much when we were talking the girl over. I could see that she stood in awe of her somehow from the beginning, and that she felt more than the usual responsibility for her. That was the reason she was so eager to get her husband off home; as long as he was with them she would have to work everything through him, and that would be double labour, because he is so hopelessly villaginous, don't you know, that he never could rise to the conception of anything else. He took them to a cheap, second-class hotel, and he was afraid to go with them anywhere because he never was sure that it was the right thing to do; and he was too proud to ask, and they had to keep prodding him all the time."
"Oh, I dare say you think so; but if you knew how it wounded a woman's self-respect you would feel differently; or you wouldn't, rather. But now, thank goodness; they've got him off their hands, and they can begin to breathe freely. That is, Mrs. Deering could, if she hadn't her heart in her mouth all the time, wondering what she can do for the girl, and bullying herself with the notion that she is to blame if she doesn't have a good time. You can understand just how it was with them always. Mrs. Deering is one of those meek little things that a great, splendid, lonely creature like Miss Gage would take to in a small place, and perfectly crush under the weight of her confidence; and she would want to make her husband live up to her ideal of the girl, and would be miserable because he wouldn't or couldn't."
"I believe the good Deering didn't even think her handsome."
"That's it. And he thought anything that was good enough for his wife was good enough for Miss Gage, and he'd be stubborn about doing things on her account, even to please his wife."
"Such conduct is imaginable of the good Deering. I don't think he liked her."
"Nor she him. Mrs. Deering helplessly hinted as much. She said he didn't like to have her worrying so much about Miss Gage's not having a good time, and she couldn't make him feel as she did about it, and she was half glad for his own sake that he had to go home."
"Did she say that?"
"Not exactly; but you could see that she meant it. Do you think it would do for them to change from their hotel, and go to the Grand Union or the States or Congress Hall?"
"Have you been putting them up to that, Isabel?"
"I knew you would suspect me, and I wouldn't have asked for your opinion if I had cared anything for it, really. What would be the harm of their doing it?"
"None whatever, if you really want my worthless opinion. But what could they do there?"
"They could see something if they couldn't do anything, and as soon as Miss Gage has got her new gowns I'm going to tell them you thought they could do it. It was their own idea, at any rate."
"Mrs. Deering's. She has the courage of a—I don't know what. She sees that it's a desperate case, and she wouldn't stop at anything."
"Now that her husband has gone home."
"Well, which hotel shall they go to?"
"Oh, that requires reflection."
"Very well, then, when you've reflected I want you to go to the hotel you've chosen, and introduce yourself to the clerk, and tell him your wife has two friends coming, and you want something very pleasant for them. Tell him all about yourself and Every Other Week."
"He'll think I want them deadheaded."
"No matter, if your conscience is clear; and don't be so shamefully modest as you always are, but speak up boldly. Now, will you? Promise me you will!"
"I will try, as the good little boy says. But, Isabel, we don't know these people except from their own account."
"And that is quite enough."
"It will be quite enough for the hotel-keeper if they run their board. I shall have to pay it."
"Now, Basil dear, don't be disgusting, and go and do as you're bid."
It was amusing, but it was perfectly safe, and there was no reason why I should not engage rooms for the ladies at another hotel. I had not the least question of them, and I had failed to worry my wife with a pretended doubt. So I decided that I would go up at once and inquire at the Grand Union. I chose this hotel because, though it lacked the fine flower of the more ancient respectability and the legendary charm of the States, it was so spectacular that it would be in itself a perpetual excitement for those ladies, and would form an effect of society which, with some help from us, might very well deceive them. This was what I said to myself, though in my heart I knew better. Whatever Mrs. Deering might think, that girl was not going to be taken in with any such simple device, and I must count upon the daily chances in the place to afford her the good time she had come for.
As I mounted the steps to the portico of the Grand Union with my head down, and lost in a calculation of these chances, I heard my name gaily called, and I looked up to see young Kendricks, formerly of our staff on Every Other Week, and still a frequent contributor, and a great favourite of my wife's and my own. My heart gave a great joyful bound at sight of him.
"My dear boy, when in the world did you come?"
"This morning by the steamboat train, and I am never, never going away!"
"You like it, then?"
"Like it! It's the most delightful thing in the universe. Why, I'm simply wild about it, Mr. March. I go round saying to myself, Why have I thrown away my life? Why have I never come to Saratoga before? It's simply supreme, and it's American down to the ground. Yes; that's what makes it so delightful. No other people could have invented it, and it doesn't try to be anything but what we made it."
"I'm so glad you look at it in that way. WE like it. We discovered it three or four years ago, and we never let a summer slip, if we can help it, without coming here for a week or a month. The place," I enlarged, "has the charm of ruin, though it's in such obvious repair; it has a past; it's so completely gone by in a society sense. The cottage life here hasn't killed the hotel life, as it has at Newport and Bar Harbour; but the ideal of cottage life everywhere else has made hotel life at Saratoga ungenteel. The hotels are full, but at the same time they are society solitudes."
"How gay it is!" said the young fellow, as he gazed with a pensive smile into the street, where all those festive vehicles were coming and going, dappled by the leaf-shadows from the tall trees overhead. "What air! what a sky!" The one was indeed sparkling, and the other without a cloud, for it had rained in the night, and it seemed as if the weather could never be hot and close again.
I forgot how I had been sweltering about, and said: "Yes; it is a Saratoga day. It's supposed that the sparkle of the air comes from the healthful gases thrown off by the springs. Some people say the springs are doctored; that's what makes their gases so healthful."
"Why, anything might happen here," Kendricks mused, unheedful of me. "What a scene! what a stage! Why has nobody done a story about Saratoga?" he asked, with a literary turn I knew his thoughts would be taking. All Gerald Kendricks's thoughts were of literature, but sometimes they were not of immediate literary effect, though that was never for long.
"Because," I suggested, "one probably couldn't get his young lady characters to come here if they were at all in society. But of course there must be charming presences here accidentally. Some young girl, say, might come here from a country place, expecting to see social gaiety—"
"Ah, but that would be too heart-breaking!"
"Not at all. Not if she met some young fellow accidentally—don't you see?"
"It would be difficult to manage; and hasn't it been done?"
"Everything has been done, my dear fellow. Or, you might suppose a young lady who comes on here with her father, a veteran politician, delegate to the Republican or Democratic convention—all the conventions meet in Saratoga,—and some ardent young delegate falls in love with her. That would be new ground. There you would have the political novel, which they wonder every now and then some of us don't write." The smile faded from Kendricks's lips, and I laughed. "Well, then, there's nothing for it but the Social Science Congress. Have a brilliant professor win the heart of a lovely sister-in-law of another member by a paper he reads before the Congress. No? You're difficult. Are you stopping here?"
"Yes; are you?"
"I try to give myself the air of it when I am feeling very proud. But really, we live at a most charming little hotel on a back street, out of the whirl and rush that we should prefer to be in if we could afford it." He said it must be delightful, and he made the proper inquiries about Mrs. March. Kendricks never forgot the gentleman in the artist, and he was as true to the convenances as if they had been principles. That was what made Mrs. March like his stories so much more than the stories of some people who wrote better. He said he would drop in during the afternoon, and I went indoors on the pretext of buying a newspaper. Then, without engaging rooms for Mrs. Deering and Miss Gage, I hurried home.
"Well, did you get the rooms?" asked my wife as soon as she saw me.
She did not quite call it across the street to me as I came up from where she sat on the piazza.
"No, I didn't," I said boldly, if somewhat breathlessly.
"Why didn't you? You ought to have gone to the States if they were full at the Grand Union."
"They were not full, unless Kendricks got their last room."
"Do you mean that HE was there? Mr. Kendricks? If you are hoaxing me, Basil!"
"I am not, my dear; indeed I'm not," said I, beginning to laugh, and this made her doubt me the more.
"Because if you are I shall simply never forgive you. And I'm in earnest this time," she replied.
"Why should I want to hoax you about such a vital thing as that. Couldn't Kendricks come to Saratoga as well as we? He's here looking up the ground of a story I should think from what he said."
"No matter what he's here for; he's here, and that's enough. I never knew of anything so perfectly providential. Did you TELL him, Basil? Did you dare?"
"Tell him what?"
"You know; about Miss Gage."
"Well, I came very near it. I dangled the fact before his eyes once, but I caught it away again in time. He never saw it. I thought I'd better let you tell him."
"Is he coming here to see us?"
"He asked if he might."
"He's always nice. I don't know that I shall ask him to do anything for them, after all; I'm not sure that she's worth it. I wish some commoner person had happened along. Kendricks is too precious. I shall have to think about it; and don't you tease me, Basil, will you?"
"I don't know. If I'm not allowed to have any voice in the matter, I'm afraid I shall take it out in teasing. I don't see why Miss Gage isn't quite as good as Kendricks. I believe she's taller, and though he's pretty good-looking, I prefer her style of beauty. I dare say his family is better, but I fancy she's richer; and his family isn't good beyond New York city, and her money will go anywhere. It's a pretty even thing."
"Good gracious, Basil! you talk as if it were a question of marriage."
"And you THINK it is."
"Now I see that you're bent upon teasing, and we won't talk any more, please. What time did he say he would call?"
"If I mayn't talk, I can't tell."
"You may talk that much."
"Well, then, he didn't say."
"Basil," said my wife, after a moment, "if you could be serious, I should like very much to talk with you. I know that you're excited by meeting Mr. Kendricks, and I know what you thought the instant you saw him. But, indeed, it won't do, my dear. It's more than we've any right to ask, and I shall not ask it, and I shall not let you. She is a stiff, awkward village person, and I don't believe she's amiable or intelligent; and to let a graceful, refined, superior man like Mr. Kendricks throw away his time upon her would be wicked, simply wicked. Let those people manage for themselves from this out. Of course you mustn't get them rooms at the Grand Union now, for he'd be seeing us there with them, and feel bound to pay her attention. You must try for them at the States, since the matter's been spoken of, or at Congress Hall. But there's no hurry. We must have time to think whether we shall use Mr. Kendricks with them. I suppose it will do no harm to introduce him. If he stays we can't very well avoid it; and I confess I should like to see how she impresses him! Of course we shall introduce him! But I insist I shall just do it merely as one human being to another; and don't you come in with any of your romantic nonsense, Basil, about her social disappointment. Just how much did you give the situation away?"
I told as well as I could remember. "Well, that's nothing. He'll never think of it, and you mustn't hint anything of the kind again."
I promised devoutly, and she went on -
"It wouldn't be nice—it wouldn't be delicate to let him into the conspiracy. That must be entirely our affair, don't you see? And I don't want you to take a single step without me. I don't want you even to discuss her with him. Will you? Because that will tempt you further."
That afternoon Kendricks came promptly to call, like the little gentleman he was, and he was more satisfactory about Saratoga than he had been in the morning even. Mrs. March catechised him, and she didn't leave an emotion of his unsearched by her vivid sympathy. She ended by saying -
"You must write a story about Saratoga. And I have got just the heroine for you."
I started, but she ignored my start.
Kendricks laughed, delighted, and asked, "Is she pretty?"
"Must a heroine be pretty?"
"She had better be. Otherwise she will have to be tremendously clever and say all sorts of brilliant things, and that puts a great burden on the author. If you proclaim boldly at the start that she's a beauty, the illustrator has got to look after her, and the author has a comparative sinecure."
Mrs. March thought a moment, and then she said: "Well, she is a beauty. I don't want to make it too hard for you."
"When shall I see her?" Kendricks demanded, and he feigned an amusing anxiety.
"Well, that depends upon how you behave, Mr. Kendricks. If you are very, very good, perhaps I may let you see her this evening. We will take you to call upon her."
"Is it possible? Do you mean business? Then she is—in society?"
"MR. Kendricks!" cried Mrs. March, with burlesque severity. "Do you think that I would offer you a heroine who was NOT in society? You forget that I am from Boston!"
"Of course, of course! I understand that any heroine of your acquaintance must be in society. But I thought—I didn't know—but for the moment—Saratoga seems to be so tremendously mixed; and Mr. March says there is no society here: But if she is from Boston—"
"I didn't say she was from Boston, Mr. Kendricks."
"Oh, I beg your pardon!"
"She is from De Witt Point," said Mrs. March, and she apparently enjoyed his confusion, no less than my bewilderment at the course she was taking.
I was not going to be left behind, though, and I said: "I discovered this heroine myself, Kendricks, and if there is to be any giving away—"
"I am going to do it. Mrs. March would never have cared anything about her if it hadn't been for me. I can't let her impose on you. This heroine is no more in society than she is from Boston. That is the trouble with her. She has come here for society, and she can't find any."
"Oh, that was what you were hinting at this morning," said Kendricks. "I thought it a pure figment of the imagination."
"One doesn't imagine such things as that, my dear fellow. One imagines a heroine coming here, and having the most magnificent kind of social career—lawn-parties, lunches, teas, dinners, picnics, hops—and going back to De Witt Point with a dozen offers of marriage. That's the kind of work the imagination does. But this simple and appealing situation—this beautiful young girl, with her poor little illusions, her secret hopes half hidden from herself, her ignorant past, her visionary future—"
"Now, I am going to tell you all about her, Mr. Kendricks," Mrs. March broke in upon me, with defiance in her eye; and she flung out the whole fact with a rapidity of utterance that would have left far behind any attempt of mine. But I made no attempt to compete with her; I contented myself with a sarcastic silence which I could see daunted her a little at last.
"And all that we've done, my dear fellow"—I took in irony the word she left to me—"is to load ourselves up with these two impossible people, to go their security to destiny, and answer for their having a good time. We're in luck."
"Why, I don't know," said Kendricks, and I could see that his fancy was beginning to play with the situation; "I don't see why it isn't a charming scheme."
"Of course it is," cried Mrs. March, taking a little heart from his courage.
"We can't make out yet whether the girl is interesting," I put in maliciously.
"That is what YOU say," said my wife. "She is very shy, and of course she wouldn't show out her real nature to you. I found her VERY interesting."
"Now, Isabel!" I protested.
"She is fascinating," the perverse woman persisted. "She has a fascinating dulness."
Kendricks laughed and I jeered at this complex characterisation.
"You make me impatient to judge for myself," he said.
"Will you go with me to call upon them this evening?" asked Mrs. March.
"I shall be delighted. And you can count upon me to aid and abet you in your generous conspiracy, Mrs. March, to the best of my ability. There's nothing I should like better than to help you—"
"Throw 'dust in her beautiful eyes,'" I quoted.
"Not at all," said my wife. "But to spread a beatific haze over everything, so that as long as she stays in Saratoga she shall see life rose-colour. Of course you may say that it's a kind of deception—"
"Not at all!" cried the young fellow in his turn. "We will make it reality. Then there will be no harm in it."
"What a jesuitical casuist! You had better read what Cardinal Newman says in his Apologia about lying, young man."
Neither of them minded me, for just then there was a stir of drapery round the corner of the piazza from where we were sitting, and the next moment Mrs. Deering and Miss Gage showed themselves.
"We were just talking of you," said Mrs. March. "May I present our friend Mr. Kendricks, Mrs. Deering? And Miss Gage?"
At sight of the young man, so well dressed and good-looking, who bowed so prettily to her, and then bustled to place chairs for them, a certain cloud seemed to lift from Miss Gage's beautiful face, and to be at least partly broken on Mrs. Deering's visage. I began to talk to the girl, and she answered in good spirits, and with more apparent interest in my conversation than she had yet shown, while Kendricks very properly devoted himself to the other ladies. Both his eyes were on them, but I felt that he had a third somehow upon her, and that the smallest fact of her beauty and grace was not lost upon him. I knew that her rich, tender voice was doing its work, too, through the commonplaces she vouchsafed to me. There was a moment when I saw him lift a questioning eyebrow upon Mrs. March, and saw her answer with a fleeting frown of affirmation. I cannot tell just how it was that, before he left us, his chair was on the other side of Miss Gage's, and I was eliminated from the dialogue.
He did not stay too long. There was another tableau of him on foot, taking leave of Mrs. March, with a high hand-shake, which had then lately come in, and which I saw the girl note, and then bowing to her and to Mrs. Deering.
"Don't forget," my wife called after him, with a ready invention not lost on his quick intelligence, "that you're going to the concert with us after tea. Eight o'clock, remember."
"You may be sure I shall remember THAT," he returned gaily.
The countenances of the ladies fell instantly when he was gone. "Mrs. March," said Mrs. Deering, with a nervous tremor, "did Mr. March get us those rooms at the Grand Union?"
"No—no," my wife began, and she made a little pause, as if to gather plausibility. "The Grand Union was very full, and he thought that at the States—"
"Because," said Mrs. Deering, "I don't know as we shall trouble him, after all. Mr. Deering isn't very well, and I guess we have got to go home—"
"GO HOME!" Mrs. March echoed, and her voice was a tone-scene of a toppling hope and a widespread desolation. "Why, you mustn't!"
"We must, I guess. It had begun to be very pleasant, and—I guess I have got to go. I can't feel easy about him."
"Why, of course," Mrs. March now assented, and she waved her fan thoughtfully before her face. I knew what she was thinking of, and I looked at Miss Gage, who had involuntarily taken the pose and expression of the moment when I first saw her at the kiosk in Congress Park. "And Miss Gage?"
"Oh yes; I must go too," said the girl wistfully, forlornly. She had tears in her voice, tears of despair and vexation, I should have said.
"That's too bad," said Mrs. March, and, as she did not offer any solution of the matter, I thought it rather heartless of her to go on and rub it in. "And we were just planning some things we could do together."
"It can't be helped now," returned the girl.
"But we shall see you again before you go?" Mrs. March asked of both.
"Well, I don't know," said the girl, with a look at Mrs. Deering, who now said -
"I guess so. We'll let you know when we're going." And they got away rather stiffly.
"Why in the world, my dear," I asked, "if you weren't going to promote their stay, need you prolong the agony of their acquaintance?"
"Did you feel that about it too? Well, I wanted to ask you first if you thought it would do."
"You know; get her a room here. Because if we do we shall have her literally on our hands as long as we are here. We shall have to have the whole care and responsibility of her, and I wanted you to feel just what you were going in for. You know very well I can't do things by halves, and that if I undertake to chaperon this girl I shall chaperon her—"
"To the bitter end. Yes; I understand the conditions of your uncompromising conscience. But I don't believe it will be any such killing matter. There are other semi-detached girls in the house; she could go round with them."
We talked on, and, as sometimes happens, we convinced each other so thoroughly that she came to my ground and I went to hers. Then it was easier for us to come together, and after making me go to the clerk and find out that he had a vacant room, Mrs. March agreed with me that it would not do at all to have Miss Gage stay with us; the fact that there was a vacant room seemed to settle the question.
We were still congratulating ourselves on our escape when Mrs. Deering suddenly reappeared round our corner of the verandah. She was alone, and she looked excited.
"Oh, it isn't anything," she said in answer to the alarm that showed itself in Mrs. March's face at sight of her. "I hope you won't think it's too presuming, Mrs. March, and I want you to believe that it's something I have thought of by myself, and that Julia wouldn't have let me come if she had dreamed of such a thing. I do hate so to take her back with me, now that she's begun to have a good time, and I was wondering—wondering whether it would be asking too much if I tried to get her a room here. I shouldn't exactly like to leave her in the hotel alone, though I suppose it would be perfectly proper; but Mr. Deering found out when he was trying to get rooms before that there were some young ladies staying by themselves here, and I didn't want to ask the clerk for a room unless you felt just right about it."
"Why, of course, Mrs. Deering. It's a public house, like any other, and you have as much right—"
"But I didn't want you to think that I would do it without asking you, and if it is going to be the least bit of trouble to you." The poor thing while she talked stood leaning anxiously over toward Mrs. March, who had risen, and pressing the points of her fingers nervously together.
"It won't, Mrs. Deering. It will be nothing but pleasure. Why, certainly. I shall be delighted to have Miss Gage here, and anything that Mr. March and I can do—Why, we had just been talking of it, and Mr. March has this minute got back from seeing the clerk, and she can have a very nice room. We had been intending to speak to you about it as soon as we saw you."
I do not know whether this was quite true or not, but I was glad Mrs. March said it, from the effect it had upon Mrs. Deering. Tears of relief came into her eyes, and she said: "Then I can go home in the morning. I was going to stay on a day or two longer, on Julia's account, but I didn't feel just right about Mr. Deering, and now I won't have to."
There followed a flutter of polite offers and refusals, acknowledgments and disavowals, and an understanding that I would arrange it all, and that we would come to Mrs. Deering's hotel after supper and see Miss Gage about the when and the how of her coming to us."
"Well, Isabel," I said, after it was all over, and Mrs. Deering had vanished in a mist of happy tears, "I suppose this is what you call perfectly providential. Do you really believe that Miss Gage didn't send her back?"
"I know she didn't. But I know that she HAD to do it just the same as if Miss Gage had driven her at the point of the bayonet."
I laughed at this tragical image. "Can she be such a terror?"
"She is an ideal. And Mrs. Deering is as afraid as death of her. Of course she has to live up to her. It's probably been the struggle of her life, and I can quite imagine her letting her husband die before she would take Miss Gage back, unless she went back satisfied."
"I don't believe I can imagine so much as that exactly, but I can imagine her being afraid of Miss Gage's taking it out of her somehow. Now she will take it out of us. I hope you realise that you've done it now, my dear. To be sure, you will have all your life to repent of your rashness."
"I shall never repent," Mrs. March retorted hardily. "It was the right thing, the only thing. We couldn't have let that poor creature stay on, when she was so anxious to get back to her husband."
"And I confess, Basil, that I feel a little pity for that poor girl, too. It would have been cruel, it would have been fairly wicked, to let her go home so soon, and especially now."
"Oh! And I suppose that by ESPECIALLY NOW, you mean Kendricks," I said, and I laughed mockingly, as the novelists say. "How sick I am of this stale old love-business between young people! We ought to know better—we're old enough; at least YOU are."
She seemed not to feel the gibe. "Why, Basil," she asked dreamily, "haven't you any romance left in you?"
"Romance? Bah! It's the most ridiculous unreality in the world. If you had so much sympathy for that stupid girl, in that poor woman in her anxiety about her disappointment, why hadn't you a little for her sick husband? But a husband is nothing—when you have got him."
"I did sympathise with her."
"You didn't say so."
"Well, she is only his second wife, and I don't suppose it's anything serious. Didn't I really say anything to her?"
"Not a word. It is curious," I went on, "how we let this idiotic love-passion absorb us to the very last. It is wholly unimportant who marries who, or whether anybody marries at all. And yet we no sooner have the making of a love-affair within reach than we revert to the folly of our own youth, and abandon ourselves to it as if it were one of the great interests of life."
"Who is talking about love? It isn't a question of that. It's a question of making a girl have a pleasant time for a few days; and what is the harm of it? Girls have a dull enough time at the very best. My heart aches for them, and I shall never let a chance slip to help them, I don't care what you say."
"Now, Isabel," I returned, "don't you be a humbug. This is a perfectly plain case, and you are going in for a very risky affair with your eyes open. You shall not pretend you're not."
"Very well, then, if I am going into it with my eyes open, I shall look out that nothing happens."
"And you think prevision will avail! I wish," I said, "that instead of coming home that night and telling you about this girl, I had confined my sentimentalising to that young French-Canadian mother, and her dirty little boy who ate the pea-nut shells. I've no doubt it was really a more tragical case. They looked dreadfully poor and squalid. Why couldn't I have amused my idle fancy with their fortunes—the sort of husband and father they had, their shabby home, the struggle of their life? That is the appeal that a genuine person listens to. Nothing does more to stamp me a poseur than the fact that I preferred to bemoan myself for a sulky girl who seemed not to be having a good time."
There was truth in my joking, but the truth did not save me; it lost me rather. "Yes," said my wife; "it was your fault. I should never have seen anything in her if it had not been for you. It was your coming back and working me up about her that began the whole thing, and now if anything goes wrong you will have yourself to thank for it."
She seized the opportunity of my having jestingly taken up this load to buckle it on me tight and fast, clasping it here, tying it there, and giving a final pull to the knots that left me scarcely the power to draw my breath, much less the breath to protest. I was forced to hear her say again that all her concern from the beginning was for Mrs. Deering, and that now, if she had offered to do something for Miss Gage, it was not because she cared anything for her, but because she cared everything for Mrs. Deering, who could never lift up her head again at De Witt Point if she went back so completely defeated in all the purposes she had in asking Miss Gage to come with her to Saratoga.