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William Dean Howells.

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said, "We will take it."

He thought it was his free will, but perhaps one's will is never free;
and this may have been an instance of pure determinism from all the
events before it. No event that followed affected it, though the day
after they had taken their passage on the Norumbia he heard that she had
once been in the worst sort of storm in the month of August. He felt
obliged to impart the fact to his wife, but she said that it proved
nothing for or against the ship, and confounded him more by her reason
than by all her previous unreason. Reason is what a man is never prepared
for in women; perhaps because he finds it so seldom in men.




V.

During nearly the whole month that now passed before the date of sailing
it seemed to March that in some familiar aspects New York had never been
so interesting. He had not easily reconciled himself to the place after
his many years of Boston; but he had got used to the ugly grandeur, to
the noise and the rush, and he had divined more and more the careless
good-nature and friendly indifference of the vast, sprawling, ungainly
metropolis. There were happy moments when he felt a poetry unintentional
and unconscious in it, and he thought there was no point more favorable
for the sense of this than Stuyvesant Square, where they had a flat.
Their windows looked down into its tree-tops, and across them to the
truncated towers of St. George's, and to the plain red-brick,
white-trimmed front of the Friends' Meeting House; he came and went
between his dwelling and his office through the two places that form the
square, and after dinner his wife and he had a habit of finding seats by
one of the fountains in Livingston Place, among the fathers and mothers
of the hybrid East Side children swarming there at play. The elders read
their English or Italian or German or Yiddish journals, or gossiped, or
merely sat still and stared away the day's fatigue; while the little ones
raced in and out among them, crying and laughing, quarrelling and
kissing. Sometimes a mother darted forward and caught her child from the
brink of the basin; another taught hers to walk, holding it tightly up
behind by its short skirts; another publicly nursed her baby to sleep.

While they still dreamed, but never thought, of going to Europe, the
Marches often said how European all this was; if these women had brought
their knitting or sewing it would have been quite European; but as soon
as they had decided to go, it all began to seem poignantly American. In
like manner, before the conditions of their exile changed, and they still
pined for the Old World, they contrived a very agreeable illusion of it
by dining now and then at an Austrian restaurant in Union Square; but
later when they began to be homesick for the American scenes they had not
yet left, they had a keener retrospective joy in the strictly New York
sunset they were bowed out into.

The sunsets were uncommonly characteristic that May in Union Square. They
were the color of the red stripes in the American flag, and when they
were seen through the delirious architecture of the Broadway side, or
down the perspective of the cross-streets, where the elevated trains
silhouetted themselves against their pink, they imparted a feeling of
pervasive Americanism in which all impression of alien savors and
civilities was lost. One evening a fire flamed up in Hoboken, and burned
for hours against the west, in the lurid crimson tones of a conflagration
as memorably and appealingly native as the colors of the sunset.

The weather for nearly the whole month was of a mood familiar enough in
our early summer, and it was this which gave the sunsets their vitreous
pink. A thrilling coolness followed a first blaze of heat, and in the
long respite the thoughts almost went back to winter flannels. But at
last a hot wave was telegraphed from the West, and the week before the
Norumbia sailed was an anguish of burning days and breathless nights,
which fused all regrets and reluctances in the hope of escape, and made
the exiles of two continents long for the sea, with no care for either
shore.




VI.

Their steamer was to sail early; they were up at dawn because they had
scarcely lain down, and March crept out into the square for a last breath
of its morning air before breakfast. He was now eager to be gone; he had
broken with habit, and he wished to put all traces of the past out of
sight. But this was curiously like all other early mornings in his
consciousness, and he could not alienate himself from the wonted
environment. He stood talking on every-day terms of idle speculation with
the familiar policeman, about a stray parrot in the top of one of the
trees, where it screamed and clawed at the dead branch to which it clung.
Then he went carelessly indoors again as if he were secure of reading the
reporter's story of it in that next day's paper which he should not see.

The sense of an inseverable continuity persisted through the breakfast,
which was like other breakfasts in the place they would be leaving in
summer shrouds just as they always left it at the end of June. The
illusion was even heightened by the fact that their son was to be in the
apartment all summer, and it would not be so much shut up as usual. The
heavy trunks had been sent to the ship by express the afternoon before,
and they had only themselves and their stateroom baggage to transport to
Hoboken; they came down to a carriage sent from a neighboring
livery-stable, and exchanged good-mornings with a driver they knew by
name.

March had often fancied it a chief advantage of living in New York that
you could drive to the steamer and start for Europe as if you were
starting for Albany; he was in the enjoyment of this advantage now, but
somehow it was not the consolation he had expected. He knew, of course,
that if they had been coming from Boston, for instance, to sail in the
Norumbia, they would probably have gone on board the night before, and
sweltered through its heat among the strange smells and noises of the
dock and wharf, instead of breakfasting at their own table, and smoothly
bowling down the asphalt on to the ferryboat, and so to the very foot of
the gangway at the ship's side, all in the cool of the early morning. But
though he had now the cool of the early morning on these conditions,
there was by no means enough of it.

The sun was already burning the life out of the air, with the threat of
another day of the terrible heat that had prevailed for a week past; and
that last breakfast at home had not been gay, though it had been lively,
in a fashion, through Mrs. March's efforts to convince her son that she
did not want him to come and see them off. Of, her daughter's coming all
the way from Chicago there was no question, and she reasoned that if he
did not come to say good-by on board it would be the same as if they were
not going.

"Don't you want to go?" March asked with an obscure resentment.

"I don't want to seem to go," she said, with the calm of those who have
logic on their side.

As she drove away with her husband she was not so sure of her
satisfaction in the feint she had arranged, though when she saw the
ghastly partings of people on board, she was glad she had not allowed her
son to come. She kept saying this to herself, and when they climbed to
the ship from the wharf, and found themselves in the crowd that choked
the saloons and promenades and passages and stairways and landings, she
said it more than once to her husband.

She heard weary elders pattering empty politenesses of farewell with
friends who had come to see them off, as they stood withdrawn in such
refuges as the ship's architecture afforded, or submitted to be pushed
and twirled about by the surging throng when they got in its way. She
pitied these in their affliction, which she perceived that they could not
lighten or shorten, but she had no patience with the young girls, who
broke into shrieks of nervous laughter at the coming of certain young
men, and kept laughing and beckoning till they made the young men see
them; and then stretched their hands to them and stood screaming and
shouting to them across the intervening heads and shoulders. Some girls,
of those whom no one had come to bid good-by, made themselves merry, or
at least noisy, by rushing off to the dining-room and looking at the
cards on the bouquets heaping the tables, to find whether any one had
sent them flowers. Others whom young men had brought bunches of violets
hid their noses in them, and dropped their fans and handkerchiefs and
card-cases, and thanked the young men for picking them up. Others, had
got places in the music-room, and sat there with open boxes of
long-stemmed roses in their laps, and talked up into the faces of the
men, with becoming lifts and slants of their eyes and chins. In the midst
of the turmoil children struggled against people's feet and knees, and
bewildered mothers flew at the ship's officers and battered them with
questions alien to their respective functions as they amiably stifled
about in their thick uniforms.

Sailors, slung over the ship's side on swinging seats, were placidly
smearing it with paint at that last moment; the bulwarks were thickly set
with the heads and arms of passengers who were making signs to friends on
shore, or calling messages to them that lost themselves in louder noises
midway. Some of the women in the steerage were crying; they were probably
not going to Europe for pleasure like the first-cabin passengers, or even
for their health; on the wharf below March saw the face of one young girl
twisted with weeping, and he wished he had not seen it. He turned from
it, and looked into the eyes of his son, who was laughing at his
shoulder. He said that he had to come down with a good-by letter from his
sister, which he made an excuse for following them; but he had always
meant to see them off, he owned. The letter had just come with a special
delivery stamp, and it warned them that she had sent another good-by
letter with some flowers on board. Mrs. March scolded at them both, but
with tears in her eyes, and in the renewed stress of parting which he
thought he had put from him, March went on taking note, as with alien
senses, of the scene before him, while they all talked on together, and
repeated the nothings they had said already.

A rank odor of beet-root sugar rose from the far-branching sheds where
some freight steamers of the line lay, and seemed to mingle chemically
with the noise which came up from the wharf next to the Norumbia. The
mass of spectators deepened and dimmed away into the shadow of the roofs,
and along their front came files of carriages and trucks and carts, and
discharged the arriving passengers and their baggage, and were lost in
the crowd, which they penetrated like slow currents, becoming clogged and
arrested from time to time, and then beginning to move again.

The passengers incessantly mounted by the canvas-draped galleries
leading, fore and aft, into the ship. Bareheaded, blue-jacketed,
brass-buttoned stewards dodged skillfully in and out among them with
their hand-bags, holdalls, hat-boxes, and state-room trunks, and ran
before them into the different depths and heights where they hid these
burdens, and then ran back for more. Some of the passengers followed them
and made sure that their things were put in the right places; most of
them remained wedged among the earlier comers, or pushed aimlessly in and
out of the doors of the promenades.

The baggage for the hold continually rose in huge blocks from the wharf,
with a loud clucking of the tackle, and sank into the open maw of the
ship, momently gathering herself for her long race seaward, with harsh
hissings and rattlings and gurglings. There was no apparent reason why it
should all or any of it end, but there came a moment when there began to
be warnings that were almost threats of the end. The ship's whistle
sounded, as if marking a certain interval; and Mrs. March humbly
entreated, sternly commanded, her son to go ashore, or else be carried to
Europe. They disputed whether that was the last signal or not; she was
sure it was, and she appealed to March, who was moved against his reason.
He affected to talk calmly with his son, and gave him some last charges
about 'Every Other Week'.

Some people now interrupted their leave-taking; but the arriving
passengers only arrived more rapidly at the gang-ways; the bulks of
baggage swung more swiftly into the air. A bell rang, and there rose
women's cries, "Oh, that is the shore-bell!" and men's protests, "It is
only the first bell!" More and more began to descend the gangways, fore
and aft, and soon outnumbered those who were coming aboard.

March tried not to be nervous about his son's lingering; he was ashamed
of his anxiety; but he said in a low voice, "Better be off, Tom."

His mother now said she did not care if Tom were really carried to
Europe; and at last he said, Well, he guessed he must go ashore, as if
there had been no question of that before; and then she clung to him and
would not let him go; but she acquired merit with herself at last by
pushing him into the gangway with her own hands: he nodded and waved his
hat from its foot, and mixed with the crowd.

Presently there was hardly any one coming aboard, and the sailors began
to undo the lashings of the gangways from the ship's side; files of men
on the wharf laid hold of their rails; the stewards guarding their
approach looked up for the signal to come aboard; and in vivid pantomime
forbade some belated leavetakers to ascend. These stood aside, exchanging
bows and grins with the friends whom they could not reach; they all tried
to make one another hear some last words. The moment came when the saloon
gangway was detached; then it was pulled ashore, and the section of the
bulwarks opening to it was locked, not to be unlocked on this side of the
world. An indefinable impulse communicated itself to the steamer: while
it still seemed motionless it moved. The thick spread of faces on the
wharf, which had looked at times like some sort of strange flowers in a
level field, broke into a universal tremor, and the air above them was
filled with hats and handkerchiefs, as if with the flight of birds rising
from the field.

The Marches tried to make out their son's face; they believed that they
did; but they decided that they had not seen him, and his mother said
that she was glad; it would only have made it harder to bear, though she
was glad he had come over to say good-by it had seemed so unnatural that
he should not, when everybody else was saying good-by.

On the wharf color was now taking the place of form; the scene ceased to
have the effect of an instantaneous photograph; it was like an
impressionistic study. As the ship swung free of the shed and got into
the stream, the shore lost reality. Up to a certain moment, all was still
New York, all was even Hoboken; then amidst the grotesque and monstrous
shows of the architecture on either shore March felt himself at sea and
on the way to Europe.

The fact was accented by the trouble people were already making with the
deck-steward about their steamer chairs, which they all wanted put in the
best places, and March, with a certain heart-ache, was involuntarily
verifying the instant in which he ceased to be of his native shores,
while still in full sight of them, when he suddenly reverted to them, and
as it were landed on them again in an incident that held him breathless.
A man, bareheaded, and with his arms flung wildly abroad, came flying
down the promenade from the steerage. "Capitan! Capitan! There is a
woman!" he shouted in nondescript English. "She must go hout! She must go
hout!" Some vital fact imparted itself to the ship's command and seemed
to penetrate to the ship's heart; she stopped, as if with a sort of
majestic relenting. A tug panted to her side, and lifted a ladder to it;
the bareheaded man, and a woman gripping a baby in her arms, sprawled
safely down its rungs to the deck of the tug, and the steamer moved
seaward again.

"What is it? Oh, what is it?" his wife demanded of March's share of their
common ignorance. A young fellow passing stopped, as if arrested by the
tragic note in her voice, and explained that the woman had left three
little children locked up in her tenement while she came to bid some
friends on board good-by.

He passed on, and Mrs. March said, "What a charming face he had!" even
before she began to wreak upon that wretched mother the overwrought
sympathy which makes good women desire the punishment of people who have
escaped danger. She would not hear any excuse for her. "Her children
oughtn't to have been out of her mind for an instant."

"Don't you want to send back a line to ours by the pilot?" March asked.

She started from him. "Oh, was I really beginning to forget them?"

In the saloon where people were scattered about writing pilot's letters
she made him join her in an impassioned epistle of farewell, which once
more left none of the nothings unsaid that they had many times
reiterated. She would not let him put the stamp on, for fear it would not
stick, and she had an agonizing moment of doubt whether it ought not to
be a German stamp; she was not pacified till the steward in charge of the
mail decided.

"I shouldn't have forgiven myself," March said, "if we hadn't let Tom
know that twenty minutes after he left us we were still alive and well."

"It's to Bella, too," she reasoned.

He found her making their state-room look homelike with their familiar
things when he came with their daughter's steamer letter and the flowers
and fruit she had sent. She said, Very well, they would all keep, and
went on with her unpacking. He asked her if she did not think these home
things made it rather ghastly, and she said if he kept on in that way she
should certainly go back on the pilot-boat. He perceived that her nerves
were spent. He had resisted the impulse to an ill-timed joke about the
life-preservers under their berths when the sound of the breakfast-horn,
wavering first in the distance, found its way nearer and clearer down
their corridor.




VII.

In one of the many visits to the steamship office which his wife's
anxieties obliged him to make, March had discussed the question of seats
in the dining-saloon. At first he had his ambition for the captain's
table, but they convinced him more easily than he afterwards convinced
Mrs. March that the captain's table had become a superstition of the
past, and conferred no special honor. It proved in the event that the
captain of the Norumbia had the good feeling to dine in a lower saloon
among the passengers who paid least for their rooms. But while the
Marches were still in their ignorance of this, they decided to get what
adventure they could out of letting the head steward put them where he
liked, and they came in to breakfast with a careless curiosity to see
what he had done for them.

There seemed scarcely a vacant place in the huge saloon; through the oval
openings in the centre they looked down into the lower saloon and up into
the music-room, as thickly thronged with breakfasters. The tables were
brightened with the bouquets and the floral designs of ships, anchors,
harps, and doves sent to the lady passengers, and at one time the Marches
thought they were going to be put before a steam-yacht realized to the
last detail in blue and white violets. The ports of the saloon were open,
and showed the level sea; the ship rode with no motion except the tremor
from her screws. The sound of talking and laughing rose with the clatter
of knives and forks and the clash of crockery; the homely smell of the
coffee and steak and fish mixed with the spice of the roses and
carnations; the stewards ran hither and thither, and a young foolish joy
of travel welled up in the elderly hearts of the pair. When the head
steward turned out the swivel-chairs where they were to sit they both
made an inclination toward the people already at table, as if it had been
a company at some far-forgotten table d'hote in the later sixties. The
head steward seemed to understand as well as speak English, but the
table-stewards had only an effect of English, which they eked out with
"Bleace!" for all occasions of inquiry, apology, or reassurance, as the
equivalent of their native "Bitte!" Otherwise there was no reason to
suppose that they did not speak German, which was the language of a good
half of the passengers. The stewards looked English, however, in
conformity to what seems the ideal of every kind of foreign seafaring
people, and that went a good way toward making them intelligible.

March, to whom his wife mainly left their obeisance, made it so tentative
that if it should meet no response he could feel that it had been nothing
more than a forward stoop, such as was natural in sitting down. He need
not really have taken this precaution; those whose eyes he caught more or
less nodded in return.

A nice-looking boy of thirteen or fourteen, who had the place on the left
of the lady in the sofa seat under the port, bowed with almost
magisterial gravity, and made the lady on the sofa smile, as if she were
his mother and understood him. March decided that she had been some time
a widow; and he easily divined that the young couple on her right had
been so little time husband and wife that they would rather not have it
known. Next them was a young lady whom he did not at first think so
good-looking as she proved later to be, though she had at once a pretty
nose, with a slight upward slant at the point, long eyes under fallen
lashes, a straight forehead, not too high, and a mouth which perhaps the
exigencies of breakfasting did not allow all its characteristic charm.
She had what Mrs. March thought interesting hair, of a dull black,
roughly rolled away from her forehead and temples in a fashion not
particularly becoming to her, and she had the air of not looking so well
as she might if she had chosen. The elderly man on her right, it was easy
to see, was her father; they had a family likeness, though his fair hair,
now ashen with age, was so different from hers. He wore his beard cut in
the fashion of the Second Empire, with a Louis Napoleonic mustache,
imperial, and chin tuft; his neat head was cropt close; and there was
something Gallic in its effect and something remotely military: he had
blue eyes, really less severe than he meant, though be frowned a good
deal, and managed them with glances of a staccato quickness, as if
challenging a potential disagreement with his opinions.

The gentleman on his right, who sat at the head of the table, was of the
humorous, subironical American expression, and a smile at the corner of
his kindly mouth, under an iron-gray full beard cut short, at once
questioned and tolerated the new-comers as he glanced at them. He
responded to March's bow almost as decidedly as the nice boy, whose
mother he confronted at the other end of the table, and with his comely
bulk formed an interesting contrast to her vivid slightness. She was
brilliantly dark, behind the gleam of the gold-rimmed glasses perched on
her pretty nose.

If the talk had been general before the Marches came, it did not at once
renew itself in that form. Nothing was said while they were having their
first struggle with the table-stewards, who repeated the order as if to
show how fully they had misunderstood it. The gentleman at the head of
the table intervened at last, and then, "I'm obliged to you," March said,
for your German. I left mine in a phrase-book in my other coat pocket."

"Oh, I wasn't speaking German," said the other. "It was merely their kind
of English."

The company were in the excitement of a novel situation which disposes
people to acquaintance, and this exchange of small pleasantries made
every one laugh, except the father and daughter; but they had the effect
of being tacitly amused.

The mother of the nice boy said to Mrs. March, "You may not get what you
ordered, but it will be good."

"Even if you don't know what it is!" said the young bride, and then
blushed, as if she had been too bold.

Mrs. March liked the blush and the young bride for it, and she asked,
"Have you ever been on one of these German boats before? They seem very
comfortable."

"Oh, dear, no! we've never been on any boat before." She made a little
petted mouth of deprecation, and added, simple-heartedly, "My husband was
going out on business, and he thought he might as well take me along."

The husband seemed to feel himself brought in by this, and said he did


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Online LibraryWilliam Dean HowellsTheir Silver Wedding Journey — Volume 1 → online text (page 2 of 10)