A DAY’S RAILROADING.
HAPPINESS has commonly a good appetite ; and the thought of the fortunately ended adventures of the night, the fresh morning air, and the content of their own hearts, gifted outfriends, by the time the boat reached Albany, with a wholesome hunger, so that they debated with spirit the question of breakfast and the best place of breakfasting in a city which neither of them knew, save in the most fugitive and sketchy way.
They decided, at last, in view of the early departure of the train, and the probability that they -would be more hurried at a hotel, to breakfast at the station, and thither they went and took places at one of the many tables within, where they seemed to have been expected only by the flies. The waitress plainly had not looked for them, and for a time found their presence so incredible that she would not acknowledge the rattling that Basil was obliged to make on his glass. Then it appeared that the cook would not believe in them, and did not send them till they were quite faint the peppery and muddy draught which impudently affected to be coffee, the oily slices of fugacious potatoes slipping about in their shallow dish and skilfully evading pursuit, the pieces of beef that simulated steak, the hot, hot, greasy biscuit, steaming evilly up into the face when opened, and then soddening into masses of condensed dyspepsia.
The wedding -journeyers looked at each other with eyes of sad amaze. They bowed themselves for a moment to the viands, and then by an equal impulse refrained. They were sufficiently young, they were happy, they were hungry: nature is great and strong, but art is greater, and before these triumphs of the cook at the Albany depot appetite succumbed. By a terrible tour de force they swallowed the fierce and turbid liquor in their cups, and then speculated fantastically upon the character and history of the materials of that breakfast.
Presently Isabel paused, played a little with her knife, and, after a moment, looked up at her husband with an arch regard and said : “ I was just thinking of a small station somewhere in the South of France where our train once stopped for breakfast. I remember the freshness and brightness of everything on the little tables,— the plates, the napkins, the gleaming half-bottles of wine. They seemed to have been preparing that breakfast for us from the beginning of time, and we were hardly seated before they served us with great cups of café-aulait, and the sweetest rolls and butter ; then a delicate cutlet, with an unspeakable gravy, and potatoes — such potatoes ! Dear me, how little I ate of it! I wish, for once, I’d had your appetite, Basil ; I do indeed.”
She ended with a heartless laugh, in which, despite the tragical contrast her words had suggested, Basil finally joined. So much amusement had probably never been got before out of the misery indicted in that place ; but their lightness did not at all commend them. The waitress had not liked it from the first, and had served them with reluctance ; and the proprietor did not like it, and kept his eye upon them as if he believed them about to escape without payment. Here, then, they had enforced a great fact of travelling, — that people who serve the public are kindly and pleasant in proportion as they serve it well. The unjust and the inefficient have always that consciousness of evil which will not let a man forgive his victim, or like him to be cheerful.
Our friends, however, did not heat themselves over the fact. There was already such heat from without, even at eight o’clock in the morning, that they chose to be as cool as possible in mind, and they placidly took their places in the train, which had been made up for departure. They had deliberately rejected the notion of a drawing-room car as affording a less varied prospect of humanity, and as being less in the spirit of ordinary American travel. Now, in reward, they found themselves quite comfortable in the common passenger-car, and disposed to view the scenery, into which they struck an hour after leaving the city, with much complacency. There was sufficient draught through the open window to make the heat tolerable, and the great brooding warmth gave to the landscape the charm which it alone can impart. It is a landscape that I greatly love for its mild beauty and tranquil picturesqueness, and it is in honor of our friends that I say they enjoyed it. There are nowhere any considerable hills, but everywhere generous slopes and pleasant hollows and the wide meadows of a grazing country, with the pretty brown Mohawk River rippling down through all, and at frequent intervals the life of the canal, now near, now far away, with the lazy boats that seem not to stir, and the horses that the train passes with a whirl, and leaves slowly stepping forward and swiftly slipping backward. There are farms that had once, or still have, the romance to them of being Dutch farms, — if there is any romance in that, — and one conjectures a Dutch thrift in their waving grass and grain. Spaces of woodland here and there dapple the slopes, and the cosev red farm-houses repose by the side of their capacious red barns. Truly, there is no ground on which to defend the idleness, and yet as the train strives furiously onward amid these scenes of fertility and abundance, I like in fancy to loiter behind it, and to saunter at will up and down the landscape. I stop at the farm-yard gates, and sit upon the porches or thresholds, and am served with cups of buttermilk by old Dutch ladies who have done their morning’s work and have leisure to be knitting or sewing ; or it there are no old ladies, with decent caps upon their gray hair, then I do not complain if the drink is brought me by some redcheeked, comely young girl, out of Washington Irving’s pages, with no cap on her golden braids, who mirrors my diffidence, and takes an attitude of pretty awkwardness while she waits till I have done drinking. In the same easily contented spirit as I lounge through the barn-yard, if I find the old hens gone about their family affairs, I do not mind a meadow-lark’s singing in the top of the elm-tree beside the pump. In these excursions the watch-clogs know me for a harmless person, and will not open their eyes as they lie coiled up in the sun before the gate. At all the places, I have them keep bees, and, in the garden full of worthy potherbs, such idlers in the vegetable world as hollyhocks and larkspurs and four-o’clocks, near a great bed in which the asparagus has gone to sleep for the season with a dream of delicate and vapory spray hanging over it. I walk unmolested through the farmer’s tall grass, and ride with him upon the perilous seat of his voluble mowing-machine, and learn to my heart’s content that his name begins with Van, and that his family has owned that farm ever since the days of the Patroon ; which I dare say is not true. Then I fall asleep in a corner of the hay-field, and wake up on the tow-path of the canal beside that wonderfully lean horse, whose bones you cannot count only because they are so many. He never wakes up, but with a faltering under lip and half-shut eyes hobbles stiffly on, unconscious of his anatomical interest. The captain hospitably asks me on board, with a twist of the rudder swinging the stern of the boat up to the path, so that I can step on. She is laden with flour from the valley of the Genesee, and may have started on her voyage shortly after the canal was made. She is succinctly manned by the captain, the driver, and the cook, a fiery-haired lady of imperfect temper ; and the cabin, which I explore, is plainly furnished with a cookstove and a flask of whiskey. Nothing but profane language is allowed on board ; and so, in a life of wicked jollity and ease, we glide imperceptibly down the canal, unvexed by the far-off future of arrival.
Such, I say, are my own unambitious mental pastimes, but I am aware that less superficial spirits could not be satisfied with them, and I do not pretend that my wedding-journeyers were so. They cast an absurd poetry over the landscape; they invited themselves to be reminded of passages of European travel by it ; and they placed villas and castles and palaces upon all the eligible building-sites. Ashamed of these devices, presently, Basil patriotically tried to reconstruct the Dutch and Indian past of the Mohawk Valley, but here he was foiled by the immense ignorance of his wile, who, as a true American woman, knew nothing of the history of her own country, and less than nothing of the barbarous regions beyond the borders of her native province. She proved a bewildering labyrinth of error concerning all the events which Basil mentioned ; and she had never even heard of the massacres by the French and Indians at Schenectady, which he in his boyhood had known so vividly that he was scalped every night in his dreams, and woke up in the morning expecting to see marks of the tomahawk on the headboard. So, failing at last to extract any sentiment from the scenes without, they turned their faces from the window, and looked about them for amusement within the car.
It was in all respects an ordinary carful of human beings, and it was perhaps the more worthy to be studied on that account. As in literature the true artist will shun the use even of real events if they are of an improbable character, so the sincere observer of man will not desire to look upon his heroic or occasional phases, but will seek him in his habitual moods of vacancy and tiresomeness. To me, at any rate, he is at such times very precious ; and I never perceive him to be so much a man and a brother as when I feel the pressure of his vast, natural, unaffected dulness. Then I am able to enter confidently into his life and inhabit there, to think his shallow and feeble thoughts, to be moved by his dumb, stupid desires, to be dimly illumined by his stinted inspirations, to share his foolish prejudices, to practise his obtuse selfishness. Yes, it is a very amusing world, if you do not refuse to be amused; and our friends were very willing to be entertained. They delighted in the very precise, thick-fingered old ladies who bought sweet apples of the boys come aboard with baskets, and who were so long in finding the right change, that our travellers, leaping in thought with the boys from the moving train, felt that they did so at the peril of their lives. Then they were interested in people who went out and found their friends waiting for them, or else did not find them, and wandered disconsolately up and down before the country stations, carpet-bag in hand ; in women who came aboard, and were awkwardly shaken hands with or sheepishly kissed by those who hastily got seats for them, and placed their bags or their babies in their laps, and turned for a nod at the door ; in young ladies who were seen to places by young men (the latter seemed not to care if the train did go off with them), and then threw up their windows and talked with girl-friends on the platform without, till the train began to move, and at last turned with gleaming eyes and moist red lips, and panted hard in the excitement of thinking about it, and could not calm themselves to the dull level of the travel around them ; in the conductor, coldly and inaccessibly vigilant, as he went his rounds, reaching blindly for the tickets with one hand while he bent his head from time to time, and listened with a faint, sarcastic smile to the questions of passengers who supposed they were going to get some information out of him ; in the train-boy, who passed through on his many errands with prize-candies, gum-drops, pop-corn, papers and magazines, and distributed books and the police journals with a blind impartiality, or a prodigious ignorance, or a supernatural perception of character in those who received them.
A through train from East to West presents some peculiar features as well as the traits common to all railway travel; and our friends decided that this was not a very well-dressed company, and would contrast with the people on an express-train between Boston and New York to no better advantage than these would show beside the average passengers between London and Paris. And it seems true that on a westering line, the blacking fades gradually from the boots, the bat softens and sinks, the coat loses its rigor of cut, and the whole person lounges into increasing informality of costume. I speak of the undressful sex alone : woman, wherever she is, appears in the last attainable effects of fashion, which are now all but telegraphic and universal. But most of the passengers here were men, and they were plainly of the free-and-easy West rather than the dapper East. They wore faces thoughtful with the problem of buying cheap and selling dear, and they could be known by their silence from the loquacious acquaintance-making way-travellers. In these, the mere coming aboard seemed to beget an aggressively confidential mood. Perhaps they clutched recklessly at any means of relieving their ennui; or they felt that they might here indulge safely in the pleasures of autobiography, so dear to all of us ; or else, in view of the many possible catastrophes, they desired to leave some little memory of themselves behind. At any rate, whenever the train stopped, the wedding-journeyers caught fragments of the personal histories of their fellow-passengers which had been rehearsing to those that sat next the narrators. It was no more than fair that these should somewhat magnify themselves, and put the best complexion on their actions and the worst upon their sufferings ; that they should all appear the luckiest or the unluckiest, the healthiest or the sickest, people that ever were, and should all have made or lost the most money. There was a prevailing desire among them to make out that they came from or were going to some very large place ; and our friends fancied an actual mortification in the face of a modest gentleman who got out at Penelope (or some other insignificant classical station, in the ancient Greek and Roman part of New York State), after having listened to the life of a somewhat rustic-looking person who had described himself as belonging near New York City.
Basil also found diversion in all the tender couples, who publicly comported themselves as if in a sylvan solitude, and, as it had been on the bank of some umbrageous stream, far from the ken of envious or unsympathetic eyes, reclined upon each other’s shoulders and slept ; but Isabel declared that this behavior was perfectly indecent. She granted, of course, that they were foolish, innocent people, who meant no offence, and did not feel guilty of an impropriety, but she said that this sort of thing was a national reproach. If it were merely rustic lovers, she should not care so much, but you saw people who ought to know better, welldressed, stylish people, flaunting their devotion in the face of the world, and going to sleep on each other’s shoulders on every railroad train. It was outrageous, it was scandalous, it was really infamous. Before she would allow herself to do such a thing she would — well, she hardly knew what she would not do ; she would have a divorce, at any rate. She wondered that Basil could laugh at it ; and he would make her hate him if he kept on.
From the seat behind their own they were now made listeners to the history of a ten weeks’ typhoid fever, from the moment when the narrator noticed that he had not felt very well for a day or two back, and all at once a kind of shiver took him, till he lay fourteen days perfectly insensible, and could eat nothing but a little pounded ice ; and his wife — a small woman, too — used to lift him back and forth between the bed and sofa like a feather, and the neighbors did not know half the time whether he was dead or alive. This history, from which not the smallest particular or the least significant symptom of the case was omitted, occupied an hour in recital, and was told as it seemed for the entertainment of one who had been five minutes before it began a stranger to the historian.
At last the train came to a stand, and Isabel wailed forth in accents of desperation the words, “O, disgusting!” The monotony of the narrative in the seat behind, fatally combining with the heat of the day, had lulled her into slumbers from which she awoke at the stopping of the train, to find her head resting tenderly upon her husband’s shoulder.
She confronted his merriment with eyes of mournful rebuke ; but as she could not find him, by the harshest construction, in the least to blame, she was silent.
“ Never mind, dear, never mind,” he coaxed, “you were really not responsible. It was fatigue, destiny, the spite of fortune, — whatever you like. In the case of the others, whom you despise so justly, I dare say it is sheer, disgraceful affection. But see that ravishing placard, swinging from the roof: ‘ This train stops twenty minutes for dinner at Utica.’ In a few minutes more we shall be at Utica. If they have anything edible there, it shall never contract my powers. I could dine at the Albany station, even.”
In a little while they found themselves in an airy, comfortable diningroom, eating a dinner, which it seemed to them France in the flush of her prosperity need not have blushed to serve ; for if it wanted a little in the last graces of art, it redeemed itself in abundance, variety, and wholesomeness. At the elbow of every famishing passenger stood a beneficent, coalblack glossy fairy in a white linen apron and jacket, serving him with that alacrity and kindliness and grace which make the negro waiter the master, not the slave of his calling, which disenthral it of servility, and constitute him your eager host, not your menial, for the moment. From table to table passed a calming influence in the person of the proprietor, who, as he took his richly earned money, checked the rising fears of the guests by repeated proclamations that there was plenty of time, and that he would give them due warning before the train started. Those who had flocked out of the cars, to prey with beak and claw, as the vulture-like fashion is, upon everything in reach, remained to eat like Christians ; and even a poor, scantilyEnglished Frenchman, who wasted half his time in trying to ask how long the cars stopped and in looking at his watch, made a good dinner in spite of himself.
“ O Basil, Basil! ” cried Isabel, when the train was again in motion, “ have we really dined once more ? It seems too good to be true. Cleanliness, plenty, wholesomeness, civility ! Yes, as you say, they cannot be civil where they are not just; honesty and courtesy go together ; and wherever they give you outrageous things to eat, they add indigestible insults. Basil, dear, don’t be jealous ; I shall never meet him again ; but I ’m in love with that black waiter at our table. I never saw such perfect manners, such a winning and affectionate politeness. He made me feel that every mouthful I ate was a personal favor to him. What a complete gentleman ! There ought never to be a white waiter. None but negroes are able to render their service a pleasure and distinction to you.”
So they prattled on, doing, in their eagerness to be satisfied, a homage perhaps beyond its desert to the good dinner and the decent service of it. But here they erred in the right direction, and I find nothing more admirable in their behavior throughout a wedding journey which certainly had its trials, than their willingness to make the very best of whatever would suffer itself to be made anything at all of. They celebrated its pleasures with magnanimous excess, they passed over its griefs with a wise forbearance. That which they found the most difficult of management was the want of incident for the most part ot the time; and I who write their history might also sink under it, but that I am supported by the fact that it is so typical in this respect. I even imagine that ideal reader for whom one writes as yawning over these barren details with the life-like weariness of an actual travelling companion of theirs. Their own silence often sufficed my wedded lovers, or then, when there was absolutely nothing to engage them, they fell back upon the story of their love, which they were never tired of hearing as they severally knew it. Let it not be a reproach to human nature or to me if I say that there was something in the comfort of having well dined which now touched the springs of sentiment with magical effect, and that they had never so rejoiced in these tender reminiscences.
They had planned to stop over at Rochester till the morrow, that they might arrive at Niagara by daylight, and at Utica they had suddenly resolved to make the rest of the day’s journey in a drawing-room car. The change gave them an added reason for content; and they realized how much they had previously sacrificed to the idea of travelling in the most American manner, without achieving it after all, for this seemed a touch of Americanism beyond the oldfashioned car. They reclined in luxury upon the easy-cushioned, revolving chairs; they surveyed with infinite satisfaction the elegance of the flying-parlor in which they sat, or turned their contented regard through the broad plate-glass windows upon the landscape without. I hey said that none but Americans or enchanted princes in the Arabian Nights ever travelled in such state ; and when the stewards of the car came round successively with tropical fruits, ice-creams, and claret - punches, — they felt a heightened assurance that they were either enchanted princes — or Americans. There were more ladies and more fashion than in the other cars ; and prettily dressed children played about on the carpet; but the general appearance of the passengers hardly suggested greater wealth than elsewhere ; and they were plainly in that car because they were of the American race, which finds nothing too good for it that its money can buy.
THE ENCHANTED CITY, AND BEYOND.
THEY knew none of the hotels in Rochester, and they had chosen a certain one in reliance upon their handbook. When they named it, there stepped forth a porter of an incredibly cordial and pleasant countenance, who took their travelling-bags, and led them to the omnibus. As they were his only passengers, the porter got inside with them, and seeing their interest in the streets through which they rode, he descanted in a strain of cheerful pride upon the city’s prosperity and character, and gave the names of the people who lived in the finer houses, just as if it had been an Old-World town, and be some eager historian expecting reward for his comment upon it. He cast quite a glamour over Rochester, so that in passing a body of water, bordered by houses, and overlooked by odd balconies and galleries, and crossed in the distance by a bridge upon which other houses were built, they boldly declared, being at their wit’s end for a comparison, and taken with the unhoped-for picturesqueness, that it put them in mind of Verona. Thus they reached their hotel in almost a spirit of foreign travel, and very willing to verify the pleasant porter’s assurance that they would like it, for everybody liked it; and it was with a sudden sinking of the heart that Basil beheld presiding over the register the conventional American hotel clerk. He was young, he had a neat mustache and wellbrushed hair ; jewelled studs sparkled in his shirt-front, and rings on his white hands ; a gentle disdain of the travelling public breathed from his person in the mystical odors of Ihlangihlang. He did not lift his haughty head to look at the wayfarer who meekly wrote his name in the register ; he did not answer him when he begged for a cool room ; he turned to the board on which the keys hung, and, plucking one from it, slid it towards Basil on the marble counter, touched a bell for a call-boy, whistled a bar of Offenbach, and as he wrote the number of the room against Basil’s name, said to a friend lounging near him, as if resuming a conversation, “Well, she’s a mighty pooty gul, any way, Chawley ! ”
When I reflect that this was a type of the hotel clerk throughout the United States, that behind unnumbered registers at this moment he is snubbing travellers into the dust, and that they are suffering and perpetuating him, I am lost in wonder at the national meekness. Not that I am one to refuse the humble pie his jewelled fingers offer me. Abjectly I take my key, and creep off up stairs after the call-boy, and try to give myself the genteel air of one who has not been stepped upon. But I think homicidal things, all the same, and I rejoice that in the safety of print I can cry out against the despot, whom I have not the presence to defy. “ You vulgar and cruel little soul,” I say, and I imagine myself breathing the words to his teeth, “ why do you treat a weary stranger with this ignominy ? I am to pay well for all I get, and I shall not complain of that. But look at me, and own my humanity; confess by some civil action, by some decent phrase, that I have rights and that they shall be respected. Answer my proper questions; respond to my fair demands. Do not slide my key at me ; do not deny me the poor politeness of a nod as you give it in my hand. I am not your equal; tew men are ; but I shall not presume upon your clemency. Come, I also am human ! ”
Basil found that, for his sin in asking for a cool room, the clerk had given them a chamber into which the sun had been shining the whole afternoon ; but when his luggage had been put in it seemed useless to protest, and like a true American, like you, like me, he shrank from asserting himself. When the sun went down it would be cool enough ; and they turned their thoughts to supper, not venturing to hope that, as it proved, the handsome clerk was the sole blemish of the house.
Isabel viewed with innocent surprise the evidences of luxury afforded by all the appointments of a hotel so far west of Boston, and they both began to feel that natural ease and superiority which an inn always inspires in its guests, and which our great hotels, far from impairing, enhance in flattering degree ; in fact, the clerk once forgotten, I protest, for my own part, I never am more conscious of my merits and riches in any other place. One has there the romance of being a stranger and a mystery to every one else, and lives in the alluring possibility of not being found out a most ordinary person.
They were so late in coming to the supper-room, that they found themselves alone in it. At the door they had a bow from the head-waiter, who ran before them and drew out chairs for them at a table, and signalled waiters to serve them, first laying before them with a gracious flourish the bill of fare. A force of servants flocked about them, as if to contest the honor of ordering their supper ; one set upon the table a heaping vase of strawberries, another flanked it with flagons of cream, a third accompanied it with cates of varied flavor and device ; a fourth obsequiously smoothed the table-cloth ; a fifth, the youngest of the five, with folded arms stood by and admired the satisfaction the rest were giving. When all these had been despatched for steak, for broiled white-fish of the lakes, — noblest and delicatest of the fish that swim, — for broiled chicken, for fried potatoes, for muffins, for whatever the lawless fancy and ravening appetites of the wayfarers could suggest, this fifth waiter remained to tempt them to further excess and vainly proposed some kind of eggs,— fried eggs, poached eggs, scrambled eggs, boiled eggs, omelette.
“ O, you ’re sure, dearest, that this is n’t a vision of fairy-land, which will vanish presently, and leave us empty and forlorn?” plaintively murmured Isabel, as the menial train reappeared, bearing the supper they had ordered, and set it smoking down.
Suddenly a look of apprehension dawned upon her face, and she let fall her knife and fork. “ You don't think, Basil,” she faltered, “ that they could have found out we ’re a bridal party, and that they ’re serving us so magnificently because — because — O, I shall be miserable every moment we ’re here ! ” she concluded, desperately.
She looked, indeed, extremely wretched for a woman with so much broiled white-fish on her plate, and such a banquet array about her ; and her husband made haste to reassure her. “ You ’re still demoralized, Isabel, by our sufferings at the Albany depot, and you exaggerate the blessings we enjoy, though I should be sorry to undervalue them. I suspect it’s the custom to use people well at this hotel; or if we are singled out for uncommon favor, I think I can explain the cause. It has been discovered by the register that we are from Boston, and we are merely meeting the reverence, affection, and homage which the name everywhere commands. It’s our fortune to represent for the time being the intellectual and moral virtue of Boston. This supper is not a tribute to you as a bride, but as a Bostonian.”
It was a cheap kind of raillery, to be sure, but it served. It kindled the local pride of Isabel to self-defence, and in the distraction of the effort she forgot her fears ; she returned with renewed appetite to the supper, and in its excellence they both let fall their dispute, — which ended, of course, in Basil’s abject confession that Boston was the best place in the world, and nothing but banishment could make him live elsewhere, — and gave themselves up, as usual, to the delight of being just what and where they were. At last, the natural course brought them to the strawberries, and when the fifth waiter approached from the corner of the table at which he stood, to place the vase near them, he did not retire at once, but presently asked if they were from the West.
Isabel smiled, and Basil answered that they were from the East.
He faltered at this, as if doubtful of the result if he went further, but took heart, then, and asked, “ Don’t you think this is a pretty nice hotel” — hastily adding as a concession of the probable existence of much finer things at the East — “fora small hotel ? ”
They imagined this waiter as new to his station in life, as perhaps just risen to it from some country tavern, and unable to repress his exultation in what seemed their sympathetic presence. They were charmed to have invited his guileless confidence, to have evoked possibly all the simple poetry of his soul ; it was what might have happened in Italy, only there so much naïveté would have meant money ; they looked at each other with rapture, and Basil answered warmly while the waiter flushed as at a personal compliment: “ Yes, it’s a nice hotel ; one of the best I ever saw, East or West, in Europe or America.”
Then they rose and left the room, and were bowed out by the headwaiter.
“ How perfectly idyllic ! ” cried Isabel. “Is this Rochester, New York, or is it some vale of Arcady ? Let’s go out and see.”
They walked out into the moonlit city, up and down streets that seemed very stately and fine, amidst a glitter of shop-window lights ; and then, fess of their own motion than of mere error, they quitted the business quarter, and found themselves in a quiet avenue of handsome residences,— the Beacon Street of Rochester, whatever it was called. They said it was a night and a place for lovers, for none but lovers, for lovers newly plighted, and they made believe to bemoan themselves that, hold each other dear as they would, the exaltation, the thrill, the glory of their younger love was gone. Some of the houses had gardened spaces about them, from which stole, like breaths of sweetest and saddest regret, the perfume of midsummer flowers, — the despair of the rose for the bud. As they passed a certain house, a song fluttered out of the open window and ceased, the piano warbled at the final rush of fingers over its chords, and they saw her with her fingers resting lightly on the keys, and her graceful head lifted to look into his ; they saw him with his arm still stretched across to the leaves of music he had been turning, and his face lowered to meet her gaze.
“ Ah, Basil, I wish it was we, there ! ” “ And if they knew that we, on our wedding journey, stood outside, would not they wish it was they, here ? ”
“ I suppose so, dearest, and yet, once-upon-a-time was sweet. Pass on ; and let us see what charm we shall find next in this enchanted city.”
“ Yes, it is an enchanted city to us,” mused Basil, aloud, as they wandered on, “ and all strange cities are enchanted. What is Rochester to the Rochesterese ? A place of a hundred thousand people, as we read in our guide, an immense flour interest, a great railroad entrepot, an unrivalled nursery trade, a university, two commercial colleges, three collegiate institutes, eight or ten newspapers, and a free library. I dare say any respectable resident would laugh at us sentimentalizing over his city. But Rochester is for us, who don’t know it at all, a city of any time or country, moonlit, filled with lovers hovering over pianofortes, of a palatial hotel with pastoral waiters and porters, — a city of handsome streets wrapt in beautiful quiet and dreaming of the golden age. The only definite association with it in our minds is the tragically romantic thought that here Sam Patch met his fate.”
“ And who in the world was Sam Patch ? ”
“ Isabel, your ignorance of all that an American woman should be proud of distresses me. Have you really, then, never heard of the man who invented the saying, ‘ Some things can be done as well as others,’ and proved it by jumping over Niagara Falls twice ? Spurred on by this belief, he attempted the leap of the Genesee Falls. The leap was easy enough, but the coming up again was another matter. He failed in that. It was the one thing that could not be done as well as others.”
“Dreadful!” said Isabel, with the cheerfullest satisfaction. “ But what has all that to do with Rochester ? ”
“ Now, my dear ! You don’t mean to say you did n’t know that the Genesee Falls were at Rochester ? Upon my word, I ’m ashamed. Why, we ’re within ten minutes’ walk of them now.”
“ Then walk to them at once ! ” cried Isabel, wholly unabashed, and in fact unable to see what she had to be ashamed of. “ Actually, I believe you would have allowed me to leave Rochester without telling me the falls were here, if yon hadn’t happened to think of Sam Patch.”
Saying this, she persuaded herself that a chief object of their journey had been to visit the scene of Sam Patch’s fatal exploit, and she drew Basil with a nervous swiftness in the direction of the railroad station, beyond which he said were the falls. Presently, after threading their way among a multitude of locomotives, with and without trains attached, that backed and advanced, or stood still, hissing impatiently on every side, they passed through the station to a broad planking above the river on the other side, and thence, after encounter of more locomotives, they found, by dint of much asking, a street winding up the hillside to the left, and leading to the German Bierhaus that gives access to the best view of the cataract.
The Americans have characteristically bordered the river with manufactures, making every drop work its passage to the brink ; while the Germans have as characteristically made use of the beauty left over, and have built a Bierhaus where they may regale both soul and sense in the presence of the cataract. Our travellers might, in another mood and place, have thought it droll to arrive at that sublime spectacle through a Bierhaus, but in this enchanted city it seemed to have a peculiar fitness.
A narrow corridor gave into a wide festival space occupied by many tables, each of which was surrounded by a group of clamorous Germans of either sex and every age, with tall beakers of beaded lager before them, and slim flasks of Rhenish ; overhead flamed the gas in globes of varicolored glass ; the walls were painted like those of such haunts in the fatherland ; and the wedding-journeyers were fain to linger on their way, to dwell upon that scene of honest enjoyment, to inhale the mingling odors of beer and of pipes, and of the pungent cheeses in which the children of the fatherland delight. Amidst the inspiriting clash of plates and glasses, the rattle of knives and forks, and the hoarse rush of gutturals, they could catch the words Franzosen, Kaiser, König, and Schlacht, and they knew that festive company to be exulting in the first German triumphs of the war, which were then the day’s news ; they saw fists shaken at noses in fierce exchange of joy, arms tossed abroad in wild congratulation, and health-pouring goblets of beer lifted in air. Then they stepped into the moonlight again, and heard only the solemn organ stops of the cataract. Through garden-ground they were led by the little maid, their guide, to a small pavilion that stood on the edge of the precipitous shore, and commanded a perfect view of the falls. As they entered this pavilion, a youth and maiden, clearly lovers, passed out, and they were left alone with that sublime presence. Something of definiteness was to be desired in the spectacle, but there was ample compensation in the mystery with which the broad effulgence and the dense unluminous shadows of the moonshine invested it. The light touched all the tops of the rapids, that seemed to writhe away from the brink of the cataract, and then desperately breaking and perishing to fall, the white disembodied ghosts of rapids, down to the bottom of the vast and deep ravine through which the river rushed away. Now the waters seemed to mass themselves a hundred feet high in a wall of snowy compactness, now to disperse into their multitudinous particles and hang like some vaporous cloud from the cliff. Every moment renewed the vision of beauty in some rare and fantastic shape ; and its loveliness isolated it, in spite of the great town on the other shore, the station with its bridge and its trains, the mills that supplied their feeble little needs from the cataract’s strength.
At last Basil pointed out the tablerock in the middle of the fall, from which Sam Patch had made his fatal leap ; but Isabel refused to admit that tragical figure to the honors of her emotions. “ I don’t care for him ! ” she said fiercely. “ Patch ! What a name to be linked in our thoughts with this superb cataract.”
“ Well, Isabel, I think you are very unjust. It’s as good a name as Leander, to my thinking, and it was immortalized in support of a great idea, — the feasibility of all things; while Leander’s has come down to us as that of the weak victim of a passion. We shall never have a poetry of our own till we get over this absurd reluctance from facts, till we make the ideal embrace and include the real, till we consent to face the music in our simple common names, and put Smith into a lyric and Jones into a tragedy. The Germans are braver than we, and in them you find facts and dreams continually blended and confronted. Here is a fortunate illustration. The people we met coming out of this pavilion were lovers, and they had been here sentimentalizing on this superb cataract, as you call it, with which my heroic Patch is not worthy to be named. No doubt they had been quoting Uhland or some other of their romantic poets, perhaps singing some of their tender German love-songs, the tenderest, unearthliest love songs in the world. At the same time they did not disdain the matter-of-fact corporeity in which their sentiment was enshrined ; they fed it heartily and abundantly with the banquet whose relics we see here.”
On a table before them stood a pair of beer-glasses, in the bottoms of which lurked scarce the foam of the generous liquor lately brimming them; some shreds of sausage, some rinds of Swiss cheese, bits of cold ham, crusts of bread, and the ashes of a pipe.
Isabel shuddered at the spectacle, but made no comment, and Basil went on: “ Do you suppose they scorned the idea of Sam Patch as they gazed upon the falls ? On the contrary, I ’ve no doubt that he recalled to her the ballad which a poet of their language made about him. It used to go the rounds of the German newspapers, and I translated it, a long while ago, when I thought that I too was in Arkadien geboren.
By the Falls of the Genesee :
From the Table-Rock in the middle
Leaps a figure bold and free.
O’er the rush, the plunge, the death ;
On the thronging banks of the river
There is neither pulse nor breath.
Aloof in the moonlit air ;
As light as mist from the rapids,
As heavy ns nightmare.
The long-since vanished hosts :
I see them stretch forth in answer,
The helpless hands of ghosts,’
I once met the poet who wrote this. He drank too much beer.”
“ I don’t see that he got in the name of Sam Patch, after all,” said Isabel.
“ O yes, he did ; but I had to yield to our taste, and where he said, ‘Springt der Sam Patsch kühn und frei,’ I made it ‘ Leaps a figure bold and free.’ ”
As they passed through the house on their way out, they saw the youth and maiden they had met at the pavilion door. They were seated at a table ; two glasses of beer towered before them; on their plates were odorous crumbs of Limburger cheese. They both wore a pensive air.
The next morning the illusion that had wrapt the whole earth was gone with the moonlight. By nine o’clock, when the wedding-journeyers resumed their way toward Niagara, the heat had already set in with the effect of ordinary midsummer’s heat at high noon. The car into which they got had come the past night from Albany, and had an air of almost conscious shabbiness, griminess, and over-use. The seats were covered with cinders, which also crackled under foot. Dust was on everything, especially the persons of the crumpled and weary passengers of overnight. Those who came aboard at Rochester failed to lighten the spiritual gloom, and presently sank into the common bodily wretchedness. The train was somewhat belated, and as it drew nearer Buffalo they knew the conductor to have abandoned lumself to that blackest of the arts, making time. The long irregular jolt of the ordinary progress was reduced to an incessant shudder and a quick lateral motion. The air within the cars was deadly ; if a window was raised, a storm of dust and cinders blew in and quick gusts caught away the breath. So they sat with closed windows, sweltering and stifling, and all the faces on which a lively horror was not painted were dull and damp with apathetic misery.
The incidents were in harmony with the abject physical tone of the company. There was a quarrel between a thin, shrill-voiced, highly dressed, much-bedizened Jewess, on the one side, and a fat, greedy old woman, half asleep, and a boy with large pink transparent ears that stood out from his head like the handles of a jar, on the other side, about a seat which the Hebrew wanted, and which the others had kept filled with packages on the pretence that it was engaged. It was a loud and fierce quarrel enough, but it won no sort of favor ; and when the Jewess had given a final opinion that the greedy old woman was no lady, and the boy, who disputed in an ironical temper, replied, “Highly complimentary, I must say,” there was no sign of relief or other acknowledgment in any of the spectators, that there had been a quarrel.
There was a little more interest taken in the misfortune of an old purblind German and his son, who were found by the conductor to be a few hundred miles out of the direct course to their destination, and were with some trouble and the aid of an Americanized fellowcountryman made aware of the fact. The old man then fell back in the prevailing apathy, and the child naturally cared nothing. By and by came the unsparing train-boy on his rounds, bestrewing the passengers successively with papers, magazines, fine-cut tobacco, and packages of candy. He gave the old man a package of candy, and passed on. The German took it as the bounty of the American people, oddly manifested in a situation where he could have had little other proof of their care. He opened it and was sharing it with his son when the trainboy came back, and metallically, like a part of the machinery, demanded, “ Ten cents!” The German stared helplessly, and the boy repeated, “Ten cents ! ten cents ! ” with tiresome patience, while all the passengers smiled. When it had passed through the alien’s head that he was to pay for this national gift and he took with his tremulous fingers from the recesses of his pocket-book a ten cent-note and handed it to his tormentor, some of the people laughed. Among the rest, Basil and Isabel laughed, and then looked at each other with eyes of mutual reproach.
“ Well, upon my word, my dear,” he said, “ I think we've fallen pretty low. I’ve never felt such a poor, shabby ruffian before. Good heavens ! To think of our immortal souls being moved to mirth by such a thing as this, — so stupid, so barren of all reason of laughter. And then the cruelty of it! What ferocious imbeciles we are ! Whom have I married ? A woman with neither heart nor brain ! ”
“O Basil, dear, pay him back the money, — do.”
“ I can’t. That’s the worst of it. He’s money enough, and might justly take offence. What breaks my heart is that we could have the depravity to smile at the mistake of a friendless stranger, who supposed he had at last met with an act of pure kindness. It’s a thing to weep over. Look at all these grinning wretches ! What a fiendish effect their smiles have, through their cinders and sweat ! O, it’s the terrible weather; the despotism of the dust and heat; the wickedness of the infernal air. What a squalid and loathsome company!”
At Buffalo, where they arrived late, they found themselves with several hours’ time on their hands before the train started for Niagara, and in the first moments of tedium, Isabel forgot herself into saying, “ Don’t you think we ’d have done better to go directly from Rochester to the Falls, instead of coming this way ? ”
“ Why certainly. I did n’t propose coming this way.”
“ I know it, dear. I was only asking,” said Isabel, meekly, “ but I should think you’d have generosity enough to take a little of the blame, when I wanted to come out of a romantic feeling for you.”
This romantic feeling referred to the fact that, many years before, when Basil made his first visit to Niagara, he had approached from the west by way of Buffalo ; and Isabel, who tenderly begrudged his having existed before she knew him, and longed to ally herself retrospectively with his past, was resolved to draw near the great cataract by no other route.
She fetched a little sigh which might mean the weather or his hard-heartedness. The sigh touched him, and he suggested a carriage-ride through the city; she assented with eagerness, for it was what she had been thinking of. She had never seen a lakeside city before, and she was taken by surprise. “ If ever we leave Boston,” she said, “ we will not live at Rochester, as I thought last night; we ’ll come to Buffalo.” She found that the place had all the picturesqueness of a seaport, without the ugliness that attends the rising and falling tides. A delicious freshness breathed from the lake, which lying so smooth, faded into the sky at last, with no line between sharper than that which divides drowsing from dreaming. But the color was the most charming thing, that delicate blue of the lake, without the depth of the seablue, but infinitely softer and lovelier. The nearer expanses rippled with dainty waves, silver and lucent ; the further levels made, with the sun-dimmed summer sky, a vague horizon of turquoise and amethyst, lit by the white sails of ships, and stained by the smoke of steamers.
“ Take me away now,” said Isabel, when her eyes had feasted upon all this, “ and don’t let me see another thing till I get to Niagara. Nothing less sublime is worthy the eyes that have beheld such beauty.”
However, on the way to Niagara she consented to glimpses of the river which carries the waters of the lake for their mighty plunge, and which shows itself very nobly from time to time as you draw toward the cataract, with wooded or cultivated islands, and rich farms along its low shores, and at last flashes upon the eye the shining white of the rapids, —a hint, no more, of the splendor and awfulness to be revealed.
W. D. Howells.