"For shame, Basil!" retorted Isabel. "You know it was you who were afraid of that bridge."
The children, who knew the story by heart, laughed with their father at the monstrous pretension; and his simulated hilarity only increased upon paying a toll of two dollars at the Goat Island bridge.
"What extortion!" cried Isabel, with an indignation that secretly unnerved him. He trembled upon the verge of confession; but he had finally the moral force to resist. He suffered her to compute the cost of their stop at Niagara without allowing those three dollars to enter into her calculation; he even began to think what justificative extravagance he could tempt her to. He suggested the purchase of local bricabrac; he asked her if she would not like to dine at the International, for old times' sake. But she answered, with disheartening virtue, that they must not think of such a thing, after what they had spent already. Nothing, perhaps, marked the confirmed husband in Basil more than these hidden fears and reluctances.
In the meantime Isabel ignorantly abandoned herself to the charm of the place, which she found unimpaired, in spite of the reported ravages of improvement about Niagara. Goat Island was still the sylvan solitude of twelve years ago, haunted by even fewer nymphs and dryads than of old. The air was full of the perfume that scented it at Prospect Park; the leaves showered them with shade and sun, as they drove along. "If it were not for the children here," she said, "I should think that our first drive on Goat Island had never ended."
She sighed a little, and Basil leaned forward and took her hand in his. "It never has ended; it's the same drive; only we are younger now, and enjoy it more." It always touched him when Isabel was sentimental about the past, for the years had tended to make her rather more seriously maternal towards him than towards the other children; and he recognized that these fond reminiscences were the expression of the girlhood still lurking deep within her heart.
She shook her head. "No, but I'm willing the children should be young in our place. It's only fair they should have their turn."
She remained in the carriage, while Basil visited the various points of view on Luna Island with the boy and girl. A boy is probably of considerable interest to himself, and a man looks back at his own boyhood with some pathos. But in his actuality a boy has very little to commend him to the toleration of other human beings. Tom was very well, as boys go; but now his contribution to the common enjoyment was to venture as near as possible to all perilous edges; to throw stones into the water, and to make as if to throw them over precipices on the people below; to pepper his father with questions, and to collect cumbrous mementos of the vegetable and mineral kingdoms. He kept the carriage waiting a good five minutes, while he could cut his initials on a hand-rail. "You can come back and see 'em on your bridal tower," said the driver. Isabel gave a little start, as if she had almost thought of something she was trying to think of.
They occasionally met ladies driving, and sometimes they encountered a couple making a tour of the island on foot. But none of these people were young, and Basil reported that the Three Sisters were inhabited only by persons of like maturity; even a group of people who were eating lunch to the music of the shouting Rapids, on the outer edge of the last Sister, were no younger, apparently.
Isabel did not get out of the carriage to verify his report; she preferred to refute his story of her former panic on those islands by remaining serenely seated while he visited them. She thus lost a superb novelty which nature has lately added to the wonders of this Fall, in that place at the edge of the great Horse Shoe where the rock has fallen and left a peculiarly shaped chasm: through this the spray leaps up from below, and flashes a hundred feet into the air, in rocket-like jets and points, and then breaks and dissolves away in the pyrotechnic curves of a perpetual Fourth of July. Basil said something like this in celebrating the display, with the purpose of rendering her loss more poignant; but she replied, with tranquil piety, that she would rather keep her Niagara unchanged; and she declared that, as she understood him, there must be something rather cheap and conscious in the new feature. She approved, however, of the change that had removed that foolish little Terrapin Tower from the brink on which it stood, and she confessed that she could have enjoyed a little variety in the stories the driver told them of the Indian burial-ground on the island: they were exactly the stories she and Basil had heard twelve years before, and the ill-starred goats, from which the island took its name, perished once more in his narrative.
Under the influence of his romances our travelers began to find the whole scene hackneyed; and they were glad to part from him a little sooner than they had bargained to do. They strolled about the anomalous village on foot, and once more marveled at the paucity of travel and the enormity of the local preparation. Surely the hotels are no- where else in the world so large! Could there ever have been visitors enough at Niagara to fill them? They were built so big for some good reason, no doubt; but it is no more apparent than why all these magnificent equipages are waiting about the empty streets for the people who never come to hire them.
"It seems to me that I don't see so many strangers here as I used," Basil had suggested to their driver.
"Oh, they haven't commenced coming yet," he replied, with hardy cheerfulness, and pretended that they were plenty enough in July and August.
They went to dine at the modest restaurant of a colored man, who advertised a table d'hote dinner on a board at his door; and they put their misgivings to him, which seemed to grieve him, and he contended that Niagara was as prosperous and as much resorted to as ever. In fact, they observed that their regret for the supposed decline of the Falls as a summer resort was nowhere popular in the village, and they desisted in their offers of sympathy, after their rebuff from the restaurateur.
Basil got his family away to the station after dinner, and left them there, while he walked down the village street, for a closer inspection of the hotels. At the door of the largest a pair of children sported in the solitude, as fearlessly as the birds on Selkirk's island; looking into the hotel, he saw a few porters and call-boys seated in statuesque repose against the wall, while the clerk pined in dreamless inactivity behind the register; some deserted ladies flitted through the door of the parlor at the side. He recalled the evening of his former visit, when he and Isabel had met the Ellisons in that parlor, and it seemed, in the retrospect, a scene of the wildest gayety. He turned for consolation into the barber's shop, where he found himself the only customer, and no busy sound of "Next" greeted his ear. But the barber, like all the rest, said that Niagara was not unusually empty; and he came out feeling bewildered and defrauded. Surely the agent of the boats which descend the Rapids of the St. Lawrence must be frank, if Basil went to him and pretended that he was going to buy a ticket. But a glance at the agent's sign showed Basil that the agent, with his brave jollity of manner and his impressive " Good-morning," had passed away from the deceits of travel, and that he was now inherited by his widow, who in turn was absent, and temporarily represented by their son. The boy, in supplying Basil with an advertisement of the line, made a specious show of haste, as if there were a long queue of tourists waiting behind him to be served with tickets. Perhaps there was, indeed, a spectral line there, but Basil was the only tourist present in the flesh, and he shivered in his isolation, and tied with the advertisement in his hand. Isabel met him at the door of the station with a frightened face.
"Basil," she cried, "I have found out what the trouble is! Where are the brides?"
He took her outstretched hands in his, and passing one of them through his arm walked with her apart from the children, who were examining at the newsman's booth the moccasins and the birch-bark bricabrac of the Irish aborigines, and the cups and vases of Niagara spar imported from Devonshire. "My dear," he said, "there are no brides; everybody was married twelve years ago, and the brides are middle-aged mothers of families now, and don't come to Niagara if they are wise."
"Yes," she desolately asserted, "that is so! Something has been hanging over me ever since we came, and suddenly I realized that it was the absence of the brides. But—but—Down at the hotels—Didn't you see anything bridal there? When the omnibuses arrived, was there no burst of minstrelsy? Was there"—She could not go on, but sank nervelessly into the nearest seat.
"Perhaps," said Basil, dreamily regarding the contest of Tom and Bella for a newly-purchased paper of sour cherries, and helplessly forecasting in his remoter mind the probable consequences, "there were both brides and minstrelsy at the hotel, if I had only had the eyes to see and the ears to hear. In this world, my dear, we are always of our own time, and we live amid contemporary things. I dare say there were middle-aged people at Niagara when we were here before, but we did not meet them, nor they us. I dare say that the place is now swarming with bridal couples, and it is because they are invisible and inaudible to us that it seems such a howling wilderness. But the hotel clerks and the restaurateurs and the hackmen know them, and that is the reason why they receive with surprise and even offense our sympathy for their loneliness. Do you suppose, Isabel, that if you were to lay your head on my shoulder, in a bridal manner, it would do anything to bring us en rapport with that lost bridal world again?"
Isabel caught away her hand. "Basil," she cried, " it would be disgusting! I wouldn't do it for the world—not even for that world. I saw one middle-aged couple on Goat Island, while you were down at the Cave of the Winds, or somewhere, with the children. They were sitting on some steps, he a step below her, and he seemed to want to put his head on her knee; but I gazed at him sternly, and he didn't dare. We should look like them, if we yielded to any outburst of affection. Don't you think we should look like them?"
"I don't know," said Basil. "You are certainly a little wrinkled, my dear."
"And you are very fat, Basil."
They glanced at each other with a flash of resentment, and then they both laughed. "We couldn't look young if we quarreled a week," he said. "We had better content ourselves with feeling young, as I hope we shall do if we live to be ninety. It will be the loss of others if they don't see our bloom upon us. Shall I get you a paper of cherries, Isabel? The children seem to be enjoying them."
Isabel sprang upon her offspring with a cry of despair. "Oh, what shall I do? Now we shall not have a wink of sleep with them tonight. Where is that nux?" She hunted for the medicine in her bag, and the children submitted; for they had eaten all the cherries, and they took their medicine without a murmur. "I wonder at your letting them eat the sour things, Basil," said their mother, when the children had run off to the newsstand again.
"I wonder that you left me to see what they were doing," promptly retorted their father.
"It was your nonsense about the brides," said Isabel; "and I think this has been a lesson to us. Don't let them get anything else to eat, dearest."
"They are safe; they have no more money. They are frugally confining themselves to the admiration of the Japanese bows and arrows yonder. Why have our Indians taken to making Japanese bows and arrows?"
Isabel despised the small pleasantry. "Then you saw nobody at the hotel?" she asked.
"Not even the Ellisons," said Basil.
"Ah, yes," said Isabel; "that was where we met them. How long ago it seems! And poor little Kitty! I wonder what has become of them? But I'm glad they're not here. That's what makes you realize your age: meeting the same people in the same place a great while after, and seeing how old they 'ye grown. I don't think I could bear to see Kitty Ellison again. I 'm glad she didn't come to visit us in Boston, though, after what happened, she couldn't, poor thing! I wonder if she's ever regretted her breaking with him in the way she did. It 's a very painful thing to think of,—such an inconclusive conclusion; it always seemed as if they ought to meet again, somewhere."
"I don't believe she ever wished it."
"A man can't tell what a woman wishes."
"Well, neither can a woman," returned Basil, lightly.
His wife remained serious. "It was a very fine point,—a very little thing to reject a man for. I felt that when I first read her letter about it."
Basil yawned. "I don't believe I ever knew just what the point was."
"Oh yes, you did; but you forget everything. You know that they met two Boston ladies just after they were engaged, and she believed that he didn't introduce her because he was ashamed of her countrified appearance before them."
"It was a pretty fine point," said Basil, and he laughed provokingly.
"He might not have meant to ignore her," answered Isabel thoughtfully; "he might have chosen not to introduce her because he felt too proud of her to subject her to any possible misappreciation from them. You might have looked at it in that way."
"Why didn't you look at it in that way? You advised her against giving him another chance. Why did you?"
"Why?" repeated Isabel, absently. "Oh, a woman doesn't judge a man by what he does, but by what he is! I knew that if she dismissed him it was because she never really had trusted or could trust his love; and I thought she had better not make another trial."
"Well, very possibly you were right. At any rate, you have the consolation of knowing that it's too late to help it now."
"Yes, it's too late," said Isabel; and her thoughts went back to her meeting with the young girl whom she had liked so much, and whose after history had interested her so painfully. It seemed to her a hard world that could come to nothing better than that for the girl whom she had seen in her first glimpse of it that night. Where was she now? What had become of her? If she had married that man, would she have been any happier? Marriage was not the poetic dream of perfect union that a girl imagines it; she herself had found that out. It was a state of trial, of probation; it was an ordeal, not an ecstasy. If she and Basil had broken each other's hearts and parted, would not the fragments of their lives have been on a much finer, much higher plane? Had not the commonplace, every-day experiences of marriage vulgarized them both? To be sure, there were the children; but if they had never had the children, she would never have missed them; and if Basil had, for example, died just before they were married—She started from this wicked reverie, and ran towards her husband, whose broad, honest back, with no visible neck or shirt-collar, was turned towards her, as he stood, with his head thrown up, studying a time-table on the wall; she passed her arm convulsively through his, and pulled him away.
"It 's time to be getting our bags out to the train, Basil! Come, Bella! Tom, we're going! The children reluctantly turned from the newsman's trumpery; and they all went out to the track, and took seats on the benches under the colonnade. While they waited, the train for Buffalo drew in, and they remained watching it till it started. In the last car that passed them, when it was fairly under way, a face looked full at Isabel from one of the windows. In that moment of astonishment she forgot to observe whether it was sad or glad; she only saw, or believed she saw, the light of recognition dawn into its eyes, and then it was gone.
"Basil!" she cried, "stop the train! That was Kitty Ellison!"
"Oh no, it wasn't," said Basil, easily, "It looked like her; but it looked at least ten years older."
"Why, of course it was! We're all ten years older," returned his wife in such indignation at his stupidity that she neglected to insist upon his stopping the train, which was rapidly diminishing in the perspective.
He declared it was only a fancied resemblance; she contended that this was in the neighborhood of Eriecreek, and it must be Kitty; and thus one of their most inveterate disagreements began.
Their own train drew into the depot, and they disputed upon the fact in question till they entered on the passage of the Suspension Bridge. Then Basil rose and called the children to his side. On the left hand, far up the river, the great Fall shows, with its mists at its foot and its rainbow on its brow, as silent and still as if it were vastly painted there; and below the bridge, on the right, leap the Rapids in the narrow gorge, like seas on a rocky shore. "Look on both sides, now," he said to the children. "Isabel, you must see this!"
Isabel had been preparing for the passage of this bridge ever since she left Boston. "Never!" she exclaimed. She instantly closed her eyes, and hid her face in her handkerchief. Thanks to this precaution of hers, the train crossed the bridge in perfect safety.