Niagara Revisited,—Twelve Years After Their Wedding Journey

A short story

LIFE had not used them ill in this time, and the fairish treatment they had received was not wholly unmerited. The twelve years past had made them older, as the years must in passing. Basil was now forty-two, and his moustache was well sprinkled with gray. Isabel was thirty-nine, and the parting of her hair had thinned and retreated; but she managed to give it an effect of youthful abundance by combing it low down upon her forehead, and roughing it there with a wet brush. By gas light she was still very pretty; she believed that she looked more interesting, and she thought Basil's gray moustache distinguished. He had grown stouter; he filled his double-breasted frock coat compactly, and from time to time he had the buttons set forward; his hands were rounded up on the backs, and he no longer wore his old number of gloves by two sizes; no amount of powder or manipulation from the young lady in the shop would induce them to go on. But this did not matter much now, for he seldom wore gloves at all. He was glad that the fashion suffered him to spare in that direction, for he was obliged to look somewhat carefully after the out-goes. The insurance business was not what it had been, and though Basil had comfortably established himself in it, he had not made money. He sometimes thought that he might have done quite as well if he had gone into literature; but it was now too late. They had not a very large family: they had a boy of eleven, who "took after" his father, and a girl of nine, who took after the boy; but with the American feeling that their children must have the best of everything, they made it an expensive family, and they spent nearly all Basil earned.

The narrowness of their means, as well as their household cares, had kept them from taking many long journeys. They passed their winters in Boston, and their summers on the South Shore,—cheaper than the North Shore, and near enough for Basil to go up and down every day for business; but they promised themselves that some day they would revisit certain points on their wedding journey, and perhaps somewhere find their lost second-youth on the track. It was not that they cared to be young, but they wished the children to see them as they used to he when they thought themselves very old; and one lovely afternoon in June they started for Niagara.

It had been very hot for several days, but that morning the east wind came in, and crisped the air till it seemed to rustle like tinsel, and the sky was as sincerely and solidly blue as if it had been chromoed. They felt that they were really looking up into the roof of the world, when they glanced at it; but when an old gentleman hastily kissed a young woman, and commended her to the conductor as being one who was going all the way to San Francisco alone, and then risked his life by stepping off the moving train, the vastness of the great American fact began to affect Isabel disagreeably. "Isn't it too big, Basil?" she pleaded, peering timidly out of the little municipal consciousness in which she had been so long housed. In that seclusion she had suffered certain original tendencies to increase upon her: her nerves were more sensitive and electrical; her apprehensions had multiplied quite beyond the ratio of the dangers that beset her; and Basil had counted upon a tonic effect of the change the journey would make in their daily lives. She looked ruefully out of the window at the familiar suburbs whisking out of sight, and the continental immensity that advanced devouringly upon her. But they had the best section in the very centre of the sleeping-car,—she drew what consolation she could from the fact,—and the children's premature demand for lunch helped her to forget her anxieties; they began to be hungry as soon as the train started. She found that she had not put up sandwiches enough; and when she told Basil that he would have to get out somewhere and buy some cold chicken, he asked her what in the world had become of that whole ham she had had boiled. It seemed to him, he said, that there was enough of it to subsist them to Niagara and back; and he went on as men do, while Somerville vanished, and even Tufts College, which assails the Bostonian vision from every point of the compass, was shut out by the curve at the foot of the Belmont hills.

They had chosen the Hoosac Tunnel route to Niagara, because, as Basil said, their experience of travel had never yet included a very long tunnel, and it would be a signal fact by which the children would always remember the journey, if nothing else remarkable happened to impress it upon them. Indeed, they were so much concerned in it that they began to ask when they should come to this tunnel, even before they began to ask for lunch; and the long time before they reached it was not perceptibly shortened by Tom's quarter-hourly consultations of his father's watch.

It scarcely seemed to Basil and Isabel that their fellow passengers were so interesting as their fellow-passengers used to be in their former days of travel. They were soberly dressed, and were all of a middle-aged sobriety of deportment, from which nothing salient offered itself for conjecture or speculation; and there was little within the car to take their minds from the brilliant young world that flashed and sang by them outside. The belated spring had ripened, with its frequent rains, into the perfection of early summer; the grass was thicker and the foliage denser than they had ever seen it before; and when they had run out into the hills beyond Fitchburg, they saw the laurel in bloom. It was everywhere in the woods, lurking like drifts among the underbrush, and overflowing the tops, and stealing down the hollows, of the railroad embankments; a snow of blossom flushed with a mist of pink. Its shy, wild beauty ceased whenever the train stopped, but the orioles made up for its absence with their singing in the village trees about the stations; and though Fitchburg and Ayer's Junction and Athol are not names that invoke historical or romantic associations, the hearts of Basil and Isabel began to stir with the joy of travel before they had passed these points. At the first Basil got out to buy the cold chicken which had been commanded, and he recognized in the keeper of the railroad restaurant their former conductor, who had been warned by the spirits never to travel without a flower of some sort carried between his lips, and who had preserved his own life and the lives of his passengers for many years by this simple device. His presence lent the sponge cake and rhubarb pie and baked beans a supernatural interest, and reconciled Basil to the toughness of the athletic bird which the mystical ex-partner of fate had sold him; he justly reflected that if he had heard the story of the restaurateur's superstition in a foreign land, or another time, he would have found in it a certain poetry. It was this willingness to find poetry in things around them that kept his life and Isabel's fresh, and they taught their children the secret of their elixir. To be sure, it was only a genre poetry, but it was such as has always inspired English art and song; and now the whole family enjoyed, as if it had been a passage from Goldsmith or Wordsworth, the flying sentiment of the railroad side. There was a simple interior at one place,—a small shanty, showing through the open door a cook stove surmounted by the evening coffee-pot, with a lazy cat outstretched upon the floor in the middle distance, and an old woman standing just outside the threshold to see the train go by,—which had an unrivaled value till they came to a superannuated car on a siding in the woods, in which the railroad workmen boarded: some were lounging on the platform and at the open windows, while others were "washing up" for supper, and the whole scene was full of holiday ease and sylvan comradery that went to the hearts of the sympathetic spectators. Basil had lately been reading aloud the delightful history of Rudder Grange, and the children, who had made their secret vows never to live in anything but an old canal-boat when they grew up, owned that there were fascinating possibilities in a worn-out railroad car.

The lovely Deerfield Valley began to open on either hand, with smooth stretches of the quiet river, and breadths of grassy intervale and table-land; the elms grouped themselves like the trees of a park; here and there the nearer hills broke away, and revealed long, deep, chasmed hollows, full of golden light and delicious shadow. There were people rowing on the water; and every pretty town had some touch of picturesqueness or pastoral charm to offer: at Greenfield, there were children playing in the new-mown hay along the railroad embankment; at Shelburne Falls, there was a game of cricket going on (among the English operatives of the cutlery works, as Basil boldly asserted). They looked down from their car-window on a young lady swinging in a hammock, in her door-yard, and on an old gentleman hoeing his potatoes; a group of girls waved their handkerchiefs to the passing train, and a boy paused in weeding a garden bed,—and probably denied that he had paused, later. In the meantime the golden haze along the mountainside changed to a clear, pearly lustre, and the quiet evening possessed the quiet landscape. They confessed to each other that it was all as sweet and beautiful as it used to be; and in fact they had seen palaces, in other days, which did not give them the pleasure they found in a wood- cutter's shanty, losing itself among the shadows in a solitude of the hills. The tunnel, after this, was a gross and material sensation; but they joined the children in trying to hold and keep it, and Basil let the boy time it by his watch. "Now," said Tom, when five minutes were gone, "we are under the very centre of the mountain." But the tunnel was like all accomplished facts, all hopes fulfilled, valueless to the soul, and scarcely appreciable to the sense; and the children emerged at North Adams with but a mean opinion of that great feat of engineering. Basil drew a pretty moral from their experience. "If you rode upon a comet you would be disappointed. Take my advice, and never ride upon a comet. I shouldn't object to your riding on a little meteor,—you wouldn't expect much of that; but I warn you against comets; they are as bad as tunnels."

The children thought this moral was a joke at their expense, and as they were a little sleepy they permitted themselves the luxury of feeling trifled with. But they woke, refreshed and encouraged, from slumbers that had evidently been unbroken, though they both protested that they had not slept a wink the whole night, and gave themselves up to wonder at the interminable levels of Western New York over which the train was running. The longing to come to an edge, somewhere, that the New England traveler experiences on this plain was inarticulate with the children; but it breathed in the sigh with which Isabel welcomed even the architectural inequalities of a city into which they drew in the early morning. This city showed to their weary eyes a noble stretch of river, from the waters of which lofty piles of buildings rose abruptly; and Isabel, being left to guess where they were, could think of no other place so picturesque as Rochester. "Yes," said her husband; "it is our own Enchanted City. I wonder if that unstinted hospitality is still dispensed by the good head waiter at the hotel where we stopped, to bridal parties who have passed the ordeal of the haughty hotel clerk. I wonder what has become of that hotel clerk. Has he fallen, through pride, to some lower level, or has he bowed his arrogant spirit to the demands of advancing civilization, and realized that he is the servant, and not the master, of the public? I think I 've noticed, since his time, a growing kindness in hotel clerks; or perhaps I have become of a more impressive presence; they certainly unbend to me a little more. I should like to go up to our hotel, and try myself on our old enemy, if he is still there. I can fancy how his shirt front has expanded in these twelve years past; he has grown a little bald, after the fashion of middle-aging hotel clerks, but he parts his hair very much on one side, and brushes it squarely across his forehead to hide his loss; the forefinger that he touches that little snap-bell with, when he doesn't look at you, must be quite pudgy now. Come, let us get out and breakfast at Rochester; they will give us broiled white-fish; and we can show the children where Sam Patch jumped over Genesee Falls, and--"

"No, no, Basil," cried his wife. "It would be sacrilege! All that is sacred to those dear young days of ours; and I wouldn't think of trying to repeat it. Our own ghosts would rise up in that dining-room to reproach us for our intrusion! Oh, perhaps we have done a wicked thing in coming this journey! We ought to have left the past alone; we shall only mar our memories of all these beautiful places. Do you suppose Buffalo can be as poetical as it was then? Buffalo! The name doesn't invite the Muse very much. Perhaps it never was very poetical! Oh, Basil, dear, Niagara Revisited. I'm afraid we have only come to find out that we were mistaken about everything! Let's leave Rochester alone, at any rate!"

"I'm not troubled! We won't disturb our dream of Rochester; but I don't despair of Buffalo. I'm sure that Buffalo will be all that our fancy ever painted it. I believe in Buffalo."

"Well, well," murmured Isabel, "I hope you're right;" and she put some things together for leaving their car at Buffalo, while they were still two hours away.

When they reached a place where the land mated its level with the level of the lake, they ran into a wilderness of railroad cars, in a world where life seemed to be operated solely by locomotives and their helpless minions. The bellowing and bleating trains were arriving in every direction, not only along the ground floor of the plain, but stately stretches of trestle-work, which curved and extended across the plain, carried them to and fro overhead. The travelers owned that this railroad suburb had its own impressiveness, and they said that the trestle-work was as noble in effect as the lines of aqueduct that stalk across the Roman Campagna. Perhaps this was because they had not seen the Campagna or its aqueducts for a great while; but they were so glad to find themselves in the spirit of their former journey again that they were amiable to everything. When the children first caught sight of the lake's delicious blue, and cried out that it was lovelier than the sea, they felt quite a local pride in their preference. It was what Isabel had said twelve years before, on first beholding the lake.

But they did not really see the lake till they had taken the train for Niagara Falls, after breakfasting in the depot, where the children, used to the severe native or the patronizing Irish ministrations of Boston restaurants and hotels, reveled for the first time in the affectionate devotion of a black waiter. There was already a ridiculous abundance and variety on the table; but this waiter brought them strawberries and again strawberries, and repeated plates of griddle cakes with maple syrup; and he hung over the back of first one chair and then another with an unselfish joy in the appetites of the breakfasters which gave Basil renewed hopes of his race. "Such rapture in serving argues a largeness of nature which will be recognized hereafter," he said, feeling about in his waist- coat pocket for a quarter. It seemed a pity to render the waiter's zeal retroactively interested, but in view of the fact that he possibly expected the quarter, there was nothing else to do; and by a mysterious stroke of gratitude the waiter delivered them into the hands of a friend, who took another quarter from them for carrying their bags and wraps to the train. This second retainer approved their admiration of the aesthetic forms and colors of the depot colonnade; and being asked if that were the depot whose roof had fallen in some years before, he proudly replied that it was.

"There were a great many killed, weren't there?" asked Basil, with sympathetic satisfaction in the disaster. The porter seemed humiliated; he confessed the mortifying truth that the loss of life was small, but he recovered a just self-respect in adding, "If the roof had fallen in five minutes sooner, it would have killed about three hundred people." Basil had promised the children a sight of the Rapids before they reached the Falls, and they held him rigidly accountable from the moment they entered the train, and began to run out of the city between the river and the canal. He attempted a diversion with the canal boats, and tried to bring forward the subject of Rudder Grange in that connection. They said that the canal boats were splendid, but they were looking for the Rapids now; and they declined to be interested in a window in one of the boats, which Basil said was just like the window that the Rudder Granger and the boarder had popped Pomona out of when they took her for a burglar.

"You spoil those children, Basil," said his wife, as they clambered over him, and clamored for the Rapids.

"At present I'm giving them an object-lesson in patience and self-denial; they are experiencing the fact that they can't have the Rapids till they get to them, and probably they'll be disappointed in them when they arrive."

In fact, they valued the Rapids very little more than the Hoosac Tunnel, when they came in sight of them, at last; and Basil had some question in his own mind whether the Rapids had not dwindled since his former visit. He did not breathe this doubt to Isabel, however, and she arrived at the Falls with unabated expectations. They were going to spend only half a day there; and they turned into the station, away from the phalanx of omnibuses, when they dismounted from their train. They seemed, as before, to be the only passengers who had arrived, and they found an abundant choice of carriages waiting in the street, outside the station. The Niagara hackman may once have been a predatory and very rampant animal, but public opinion, long expressed through the public prints, has reduced him to silence and meekness. Apparently, he may not so much as beckon with his whip to the arriving wayfarer; it is certain that he cannot cross the pavement to the station door; and Basil, inviting one of them to negotiation, was himself required by the attendant policeman to step out to the curbstone, and complete his transaction there. It was an impressive illustration of the power of a free press, but upon the whole Basil found the effect melancholy; it had the saddening quality which inheres in every sort of perfection. The hackman, reduced to entire order, appealed to his compassion, and he had not the heart to beat him down from his moderate first demand, as perhaps he ought to have done.

They drove directly to the cataract, and found themselves in the pretty grove beside the American Fall, and in the air whose dampness was as familiar as if they had breathed it all their childhood. It was full now of the fragrance of some sort of wild blossom; and again they had that old, entrancing sense of the mingled awfulness and loveliness of the great spectacle. This sylvan perfume, the gayety of the sunshine, the mildness of the breeze that stirred the leaves overhead, and the bird-singing that made itself heard amid the roar of the Rapids and the solemn incessant plunge of the cataract, moved their hearts, and made them children with the boy and girl, who stood rapt for a moment and then broke into joyful wonder. They could sympathize with the ardor with which Tom longed to tempt fate at the brink of the river, and over the tops of the parapets which have been built along the edge of the precipice, and they equally entered into the terror with which Bella screamed at his suicidal zeal. They joined her in restraining him; they reduced him to a beggarly account of half a dozen stones, flung into the Rapids at not less than ten paces from the brink; and they would not let him toss the smallest pebble over the parapet, though he laughed to scorn the notion that anybody should be hurt by them below.

It seemed to them that the triviality of man in the surroundings of the Falls had increased with the lapse of time. There were more booths and bazars, and more colored feather fans with whole birds spitted in the centres; and there was an offensive array of blue and green and yellow glasses on the shore, through which you were expected to look at the Falls gratis. They missed the simple dignity of the blanching Indian maids, who used to squat about on the grass, with their laps full of moccasins and pincushions. But, as of old, the photographer came out of his saloon, and invited them to pose for a family group; representing that the light and the spray were singularly propitious, and that everything in nature invited them to he taken. Basil put him off gently, for the sake of the time when he had refused to be photographed in a bridal group, and took refuge from him in the long low building from which you descend to the foot of the cataract.

The grove beside the American Fall has been enclosed, and named Prospect Park, by a company which exacts half a dollar for admittance, and then makes you free of all its wonders and conveniences, for which you once had to pay severally. This is well enough; but formerly you could refuse to go down the inclined tramway, and now you cannot, without feeling that you have failed to get your money's worth. It was in this illogical spirit of economy that Basil invited his family to the descent; but Isabel shook her head. "No, you go with the children," she said, "and I will stay here, till you get back;" her agonized countenance added, "and pray for you;" and Basil took his children on either side of him, and rambled down the terrible descent with much of the excitement that attends travel in an open horse-car. When he stepped out of the car he felt that increase of courage which comes to every man after safely passing through danger. He resolved to brave the mists and slippery stones at the foot of the Fall; and he would have plunged at once into this fresh peril, if he had not been prevented by the Prospect Park Company. This ingenious association has built a large tunnel-like shed quite to the water's edge, so that you cannot view the cataract as you once could, at a reasonable remoteness, but must emerge from the building into a storm of spray. The roof of the tunnel is painted with a lively effect in party-colored stripes, and is lettered "The Shadow of the Rock," so that you take it at first to be an appeal to your aesthetic sense; but the real object of the company is not apparent till you put your head out into the tempest, when you agree with the nearest guide—and one is always very near—that you had better have an oil-skin dress, as Basil did. He told the guide that he did not wish to go under the Fall, and the guide confidentially admitted that there was no fun in that, anyway; and in the mean time he equipped him and his children for their foray into the mist. When they issued forth, under their friend's leadership, Basil felt that, with his children clinging to each hand, he looked like some sort of animal with its young, and, though not unsocial by nature, he was glad to be among strangers for the time. They climbed hither and thither over the rocks, and lifted their streaming faces for the views which the guide pointed out; and in a rift of the spray they really caught one glorious glimpse of the whole sweep of the Fall. The next instant the spray swirled back, and they were glad to turn for a sight of the rainbow, lying in a circle on the rocks as quietly and naturally as if that had been the habit of rainbows ever since the flood. This was all there was to be done, and they streamed back into the tunnel, where they disrobed in the face of a menacing placard, which announced that the hire of a guide and a dress for going under the Fall was one dollar.

"Will they make you pay a dollar for each of us, papa?" asked Tom, fearfully.

"Oh, pooh, no!" returned Basil; "we haven't been under the Fall." But he sought out the proprietor with a trembling heart. The proprietor was a man of severely logical mind: he said that the charge would be three dollars, for they had had the use of the dresses and the guide just the same as if they had gone under the Fall; and he refused to recognize anything misleading in the dressing-room placard. In fine, he left Basil without a leg to stand upon. It was not so much the three dollars as the sense of having been swindled that vexed him; and he instantly resolved not to share his annoyance with Isabel. Why, indeed, should he put that burden upon her? If she were none the wiser, she would be none the poorer; and he ought to be willing to deny himself her sympathy for the sake of sparing her needless pain. He met her at the top of the inclined tramway with a face of exemplary unconsciousness, and he listened with her to the tale their coachman told, as they sat in a pretty arbor looking out on the Rapids, of a Frenchman and his wife. This Frenchman had returned, one morning, from a stroll on Goat Island, and reported with much apparent concern that his wife had fallen into the water, and been carried over the Fall. It was so natural for a man to grieve for the loss of his wife, under the peculiar circumstances, that every one condoled with the widower; but when, a few days later, her body was found, and the distracted husband refused to come back from New York to her funeral, there was a general regret that he had not been arrested. A flash of conviction illumed the whole fact to Basil's guilty consciousness: this unhappy Frenchman had paid a dollar for the use of an oil-skin suit at the foot of the Fall, and had been ashamed to confess the swindle to his wife, till, in a moment of remorse and madness, he shouted the fact into her ear, and then—Basil looked at the mother of his children, and registered a vow that if he got away from Niagara without being forced to a similar excess he would confess his guilt to Isabel at the very first act of spendthrift profusion she committed. The guide pointed out the rock in the Rapids to which Avery had clung for twenty-four hours before he was carried over the Falls, and to the morbid fancy of the deceitful husband Isabel's bonnet ribbons seemed to flutter from the pointed reef. He could endure the pretty arbor no longer. "Come, children!" he cried, with a wild, unnatural gayety; "let us go to Goat Island, and see the Bridge to the Three Sisters, that your mother was afraid to walk back on after she had crossed it."

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