William Dean Howells.

Their Silver Wedding Journey — Volume 1 online

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their poor variety. Once a ship in the offing, with all its square sails
set, lifted them like three white towers from the deep. On the rim of the
ocean the length of some westward liner blocked itself out against the
horizon, and swiftly trailed its smoke out of sight. A few tramp
steamers, lounging and lunging through the trough of the sea, were
overtaken and left behind; an old brigantine passed so close that her
rusty iron sides showed plain, and one could discern the faces of the
people on board.

The steamer was oftenest without the sign of any life beyond her. One day
a small bird beat the air with its little wings, under the roof of the
promenade, and then flittered from sight over the surface, of the waste;
a school of porpoises, stiff and wooden in their rise, plunged clumsily
from wave to wave. The deep itself had sometimes the unreality, the
artificiality of the canvas sea of the theatre. Commonly it was livid and
cold in color; but there was a morning when it was delicately misted, and
where the mist left it clear, it was blue and exquisitely iridescent
under the pale sun; the wrinkled waves were finely pitted by the falling
spray. These were rare moments; mostly, when it was not like painted
canvas, is was hard like black rock, with surfaces of smooth cleavage.
Where it met the sky it lay flat and motionless, or in the rougher
weather carved itself along the horizon in successions of surges.

If the sun rose clear, it was overcast in a few hours; then the clouds
broke and let a little sunshine through, to close again before the dim
evening thickened over the waters. Sometimes the moon looked through the
ragged curtain of vapors; one night it seemed to shine till morning, and
shook a path of quicksilver from the horizon to the ship. Through every
change, after she had left the fog behind, the steamer drove on with the
pulse of her engines (that stopped no more than a man's heart stops) in a
course which had nothing to mark it but the spread of the furrows from
her sides, and the wake that foamed from her stern to the western verge
of the sea.

The life of the ship, like the life of the sea, was a sodden monotony,
with certain events which were part of the monotony. In the morning the
little steward's bugle called the passengers from their dreams, and half
an hour later called them to their breakfast, after such as chose had
been served with coffee by their bedroom-stewards. Then they went on
deck, where they read, or dozed in their chairs, or walked up and down,
or stood in the way of those who were walking; or played shuffleboard and
ring-toss; or smoked, and drank whiskey and aerated waters over their
cards and papers in the smoking-room; or wrote letters in the saloon or
the music-room. At eleven o'clock they spoiled their appetites for lunch
with tea or bouillon to the music of a band of second-cabin stewards; at
one, a single blast of the bugle called them to lunch, where they glutted
themselves to the torpor from which they afterwards drowsed in their
berths or chairs. They did the same things in the afternoon that they had
done in the forenoon; and at four o'clock the deck-stewards came round
with their cups and saucers, and their plates of sandwiches, again to the
music of the band. There were two bugle-calls for dinner, and after
dinner some went early to bed, and some sat up late and had grills and
toast. At twelve the lights were put out in the saloons and the

There were various smells which stored themselves up in the consciousness
to remain lastingly relative to certain moments and places: a whiff of
whiskey and tobacco that exhaled from the door of the smoking-room; the
odor of oil and steam rising from the open skylights over the
engine-room; the scent of stale bread about the doors of the

The life was like the life at a sea-side hotel, only more monotonous. The
walking was limited; the talk was the tentative talk of people aware that
there was no refuge if they got tired of one another. The flirting
itself, such as there was of it, must be carried on in the glare of the
pervasive publicity; it must be crude and bold, or not be at all.

There seemed to be very little of it. There were not many young people on
board of saloon quality, and these were mostly girls. The young men were
mainly of the smoking-room sort; they seldom risked themselves among the
steamer chairs. It was gayer in the second cabin, and gayer yet in the
steerage, where robuster emotions were operated by the accordion. The
passengers there danced to its music; they sang to it and laughed to it
unabashed under the eyes of the first-cabin witnesses clustered along the
rail above the pit where they took their rude pleasures.

With March it came to his spending many hours of each long, swift day in
his berth with a book under the convenient electric light. He was safe
there from the acquaintances which constantly formed themselves only to
fall into disintegration, and cling to him afterwards as inorganic
particles of weather-guessing, and smoking-room gossip about the ship's

In the earliest hours of the voyage he thought that he saw some faces of
the great world, the world of wealth and fashion; but these afterward
vanished, and left him to wonder where they hid themselves. He did not
meet them even in going to and from his meals; he could only imagine them
served in those palatial state-rooms whose interiors the stewards now and
then rather obtruded upon the public. There were people whom he
encountered in the promenades when he got up for the sunrise, and whom he
never saw at other times; at midnight he met men prowling in the dark
whom he never met by day. But none of these were people of the great
world. Before six o'clock they were sometimes second-cabin passengers,
whose barrier was then lifted for a little while to give them the freedom
of the saloon promenade.

From time to time he thought he would look up his Ohioan, and revive from
a closer study of him his interest in the rare American who had never
been to Europe. But he kept with his elderly wife, who had the effect of
withholding him from March's advances. Young Mr. and Mrs. Leffers threw
off more and more their disguise of a long-married pair, and became
frankly bride and groom. They seldom talked with any one else, except at
table; they walked up and down together, smiling into each others faces;
they sat side by side in their steamer chairs; one shawl covered them
both, and there was reason to believe that they were holding each other's
hands under it.

Mrs. Adding often took the chair beside Mrs. March when her husband was
straying about the ship or reading in his berth; and the two ladies must
have exchanged autobiographies, for Mrs. March was able to tell him just
how long Mrs. Adding had been a widow, what her husband died of, and what
had been done to save him; how she was now perfectly wrapt up in her boy,
and was taking him abroad, with some notion of going to Switzerland,
after the summer's travel, and settling down with him at school there.
She and Mrs. March became great friends; and Rose, as his mother called
him, attached himself reverently to March, not only as a celebrity of the
first grade in his quality of editor of 'Every Other Week', but as a sage
of wisdom and goodness, with whom he must not lose the chance of counsel
upon almost every hypothesis and exigency of life.

March could not bring himself to place Burnamy quite where he belonged in
contemporary literature, when Rose put him very high in virtue of the
poem which he heard Burnamy was going to have printed in 'Every Other
Week', and of the book which he was going to have published; and he let
the boy bring to the young fellow the flattery which can come to any
author but once, in the first request for his autograph that Burnamy
confessed to have had. They were so near in age, though they were ten
years apart, that Rose stood much more in awe of Burnamy than of others
much more his seniors. He was often in the company of Kenby, whom he
valued next to March as a person acquainted with men; he consulted March
upon Kenby's practice of always taking up the language of the country he
visited, if it were only for a fortnight; and he conceived a higher
opinion of him from March's approval.

Burnamy was most with Mrs. March, who made him talk about himself when he
supposed he was talking about literature, in the hope that she could get
him to talk about the Triscoes; but she listened in vain as he poured
out-his soul in theories of literary art, and in histories of what he had
written and what he meant to write. When he passed them where they sat
together, March heard the young fellow's perpetually recurring I, I, I,
my, my, my, me, me, me; and smiled to think how she was suffering under
the drip-drip of his innocent egotism.

She bore in a sort of scientific patience his attentions to the pivotal
girl, and Miss Triscoe's indifference to him, in which a less penetrating
scrutiny could have detected no change from meal to meal. It was only at
table that she could see them together, or that she could note any break
in the reserve of the father and daughter. The signs of this were so fine
that when she reported them March laughed in scornful incredulity. But at
breakfast the third day out, the Triscoes, with the authority of people
accustomed to social consideration, suddenly turned to the Marches, and
began to make themselves agreeable; the father spoke to March of 'Every
Other Week', which he seemed to know of in its relation to him; and the
young girl addressed herself to Mrs. March's motherly sense not the less
acceptably because indirectly. She spoke of going out with her father for
an indefinite time, as if it were rather his wish than hers, and she made
some inquiries about places in Germany; they had never been in Germany.
They had some idea of Dresden; but the idea of Dresden with its American
colony seemed rather tiresome; and did Mrs. March know anything about

Mrs. March was obliged to say that she knew nothing about anyplace in
Germany; and she explained perhaps too fully where and why she was going
with her husband. She fancied a Boston note in that scorn for the
tiresomeness of Dresden; but the girl's style was of New York rather than
of Boston, and her accent was not quite of either place. Mrs. March began
to try the Triscoes in this place and in that, to divine them and to
class them. She had decided from the first that they were society people,
but they were cultivated beyond the average of the few swells whom she
had met; and there had been nothing offensive in their manner of holding
themselves aloof from the other people at the table; they had a right to
do that if they chose.

When the young Lefferses came in to breakfast, the talk went on between
these and the Marches; the Triscoes presently left the table, and Mrs.
March rose soon after, eager for that discussion of their behavior which
March knew he should not be able to postpone.

He agreed with her that they were society people, but she could not at
once accept his theory that they had themselves been the objects of an
advance from them because of their neutral literary quality, through
which they were of no social world, but potentially common to any. Later
she admitted this, as she said, for the sake of argument, though what she
wanted him to see, now, was that this was all a step of the girl's toward
finding out something about Burnamy.

The same afternoon, about the time the deck-steward was making his round
with his cups, Miss Triscoe abruptly advanced upon her from a neighboring
corner of the bulkhead, and asked, with the air of one accustomed to have
her advances gratefully received, if she might sit by her. The girl took
March's vacant chair, where she had her cup of bouillon, which she
continued to hold untasted in her hand after the first sip. Mrs. March
did the same with hers, and at the moment she had got very tired of doing
it, Burnamy came by, for the hundredth time that day, and gave her a
hundredth bow with a hundredth smile. He perceived that she wished to get
rid of her cup, and he sprang to her relief.

"May I take yours too?" he said very passively to Miss Triscoe.

"You are very good." she answered, and gave it.

Mrs. March with a casual air suggested, "Do you know Mr. Burnamy, Miss
Triscoe?" The girl said a few civil things, but Burnamy did not try to
make talk with her while he remained a few moments before Mrs. March. The
pivotal girl came in sight, tilting and turning in a rare moment of
isolation at the corner of the music-room, and he bowed abruptly, and
hurried off to join her.

Miss Triscoe did not linger; she alleged the necessity of looking up her
father, and went away with a smile so friendly that Mrs. March might
easily have construed it to mean that no blame attached itself to her in
Miss Triscoe's mind.

"Then you don't feel that it was a very distinct success?" her husband
asked on his return.

"Not on the surface," she said.

"Better let ill enough alone," he advised.

She did not heed him. "All the same she cares for him. The very fact that
she was so cold shows that."

"And do you think her being cold will make him care for her?"

"If she wants it to."


At dinner that day the question of 'The Maiden Knight' was debated among
the noises and silences of the band. Young Mrs. Leffers had brought the
book to the table with her; she said she had not been able to lay it down
before the last horn sounded; in fact she could have been seen reading it
to her husband where he sat under the same shawl, the whole afternoon.

"Don't you think it's perfectly fascinating," she asked Mrs. Adding, with
her petted mouth.

"Well," said the widow, doubtfully, "it's nearly a week since I read it,
and I've had time to get over the glow."

"Oh, I could just read it forever!" the bride exclaimed.

"I like a book," said her husband, "that takes me out of myself. I don't
want to think when I'm reading."

March was going to attack this ideal, but he reflected in time that Mr.
Leffers had really stated his own motive in reading. He compromised.
"Well, I like the author to do my thinking for me."

"Yes," said the other, "that is what I mean."

"The question is whether 'The Maiden Knight' fellow does it," said Kenby,
taking duck and pease from the steward at his shoulder.

"What my wife likes in it is to see what one woman can do and be
single-handed," said March.

"No," his wife corrected him, "what a man thinks she can."

"I suppose," said Mr. Triscoe, unexpectedly, "that we're like the English
in our habit of going off about a book like a train of powder."

"If you'll say a row of bricks," March assented, "I'll agree with you.
It's certainly Anglo-Saxon to fall over one another as we do, when we get
going. It would be interesting to know just how much liking there is in
the popularity of a given book."

"It's like the run of a song, isn't it?" Kenby suggested. "You can't
stand either, when it reaches a given point."

He spoke to March and ignored Triscoe, who had hitherto ignored the rest
of the table.

"It's very curious," March said. "The book or the song catches a mood, or
feeds a craving, and when one passes or the other is glutted - "

"The discouraging part is," Triscoe put in, still limiting himself to the
Marches, "that it's never a question of real taste. The things that go
down with us are so crude, so coarsely spiced; they tickle such a vulgar
palate - Now in France, for instance," he suggested.

"Well, I don't know," returned the editor. "After all, we eat a good deal
of bread, and we drink more pure water than any other people. Even when
we drink it iced, I fancy it isn't so bad as absinthe."

The young bride looked at him gratefully, but she said, "If we can't get
ice-water in Europe, I don't know what Mr. Leffers will do," and the talk
threatened to pass among the ladies into a comparison of American and
European customs.

Burnamy could not bear to let it. "I don't pretend to be very well up in
French literature," he began, "but I think such a book as 'The Maiden
Knight' isn't such a bad piece of work; people are liking a pretty
well-built story when they like it. Of course it's sentimental, and it
begs the question a good deal; but it imagines something heroic in
character, and it makes the reader imagine it too. The man who wrote that
book may be a donkey half the time, but he's a genius the other half.
By-and-by he'll do something - after he's come to see that his 'Maiden
Knight' was a fool - that I believe even you won't be down on, Mr. March,
if he paints a heroic type as powerfully as he does in this book."

He spoke with the authority of a journalist, and though he deferred to
March in the end, he deferred with authority still. March liked him for
coming to the defence of a young writer whom he had not himself learned
to like yet. "Yes," he said, "if he has the power you say, and can keep
it after he comes to his artistic consciousness!"

Mrs. Leffers, as if she thought things were going her way, smiled; Rose
Adding listened with shining eyes expectantly fixed on March; his mother
viewed his rapture with tender amusement. The steward was at Kenby's
shoulder with the salad and his entreating "Bleace!" and Triscoe seemed
to be questioning whether he should take any notice of Burnamy's general
disagreement. He said at last: "I'm afraid we haven't the documents. You
don't seem to have cared much for French books, and I haven't read 'The
Maiden Knight'." He added to March: "But I don't defend absinthe.
Ice-water is better. What I object to is our indiscriminate taste both
for raw whiskey - and for milk-and-water."

No one took up the question again, and it was Kenby who spoke next. "The
doctor thinks, if this weather holds, that we shall be into Plymouth
Wednesday morning. I always like to get a professional opinion on the
ship's run."

In the evening, as Mrs. March was putting away in her portfolio the
journal-letter which she was writing to send back from Plymouth to her
children, Miss Triscoe drifted to the place where she sat at their table
in the dining-room by a coincidence which they both respected as casual.

"We had quite a literary dinner," she remarked, hovering for a moment
near the chair which she later sank into. "It must have made you feel
very much at home. Or perhaps you're so tired of it at home that you
don't talk about books."

"We always talk shop, in some form or other," said Mrs. March. "My
husband never tires of it. A good many of the contributors come to us,
you know."

"It must be delightful," said the girl. She added as if she ought to
excuse herself for neglecting an advantage that might have been hers if
she had chosen, "I'm sorry one sees so little of the artistic and
literary set. But New York is such a big place."

"New York people seem to be very fond of it," said Mrs. March. "Those who
have always lived there."

"We haven't always lived there," said the girl. "But I think one has a
good time there - the best time a girl can have. It's all very well coming
over for the summer; one has to spend the summer somewhere. Are you going
out for a long time?"

"Only for the summer. First to Carlsbad."

"Oh, yes. I suppose we shall travel about through Germany, and then go to
Paris. We always do; my father is very fond of it."

"You must know it very well," said Mrs. March, aimlessly.

"I was born there, - if that means knowing it. I lived there - till I was
eleven years old. We came home after my mother died."

"Oh!" said Mrs. March.

The girl did not go further into her family history; but by one of those
leaps which seem to women as logical as other progressions, she arrived
at asking, "Is Mr. Burnamy one of the contributors?"

Mrs. March laughed. "He is going to be, as soon as his poem is printed."


"Yes. Mr. March thinks it's very good."

"I thought he spoke very nicely about 'The Maiden Knight'. And he has
been very nice to papa. You know they have the same room."

"I think Mr. Burnamy told me," Mrs. March said.

The girl went on. "He had the lower berth, and he gave it up to papa;
he's done everything but turn himself out of doors."

"I'm sure he's been very glad," Mrs. March ventured on Burnamy's behalf,
but very softly, lest if she breathed upon these budding confidences they
should shrink and wither away.

"I always tell papa that there's no country like America for real
unselfishness; and if they're all like that, in Chicago!" The girl
stopped, and added with a laugh, "But I'm always quarrelling with papa
about America."

"We have a daughter living in Chicago," said Mrs. March, alluringly.

But Miss Triscoe refused the bait, either because she had said all she
meant, or because she had said all she would, about Chicago, which Mrs.
March felt for the present to be one with Burnamy. She gave another of
her leaps. "I don't see why people are so anxious to get it like Europe,
at home. They say that there was a time when there were no chaperons
before hoops, you know." She looked suggestively at Mrs. March, resting
one slim hand on the table, and controlling her skirt with the other, as
if she were getting ready to rise at any moment. "When they used to sit
on their steps."

"It was very pleasant before hoops - in every way," said Mrs. March. "I
was young, then; and I lived in Boston, where I suppose it was always
simpler than in New York. I used to sit on our steps. It was delightful
for girls - the freedom."

"I wish I had lived before hoops," said Miss Triscoe.

"Well, there must be places where it's before hoops yet: Seattle, and
Portland, Oregon, for all I know," Mrs. March suggested. "And there must
be people in that epoch everywhere."

"Like that young lady who twists and turns?" said Miss Triscoe, giving
first one side of her face and then the other. "They have a good time. I
suppose if Europe came to us in one way it had to come in another. If it
came in galleries and all that sort of thing, it had to come in
chaperons. You'll think I'm a great extremist, Mrs. March; but sometimes
I wish there was more America instead of less. I don't believe it's as
bad as people say. Does Mr. March," she asked, taking hold of the chair
with one hand, to secure her footing from any caprice of the sea, while
she gathered her skirt more firmly into the other, as she rose, "does he
think that America is going - all wrong?"

"All wrong? How?"

"Oh, in politics, don't you know. And government, and all that. And
bribing. And the lower classes having everything their own way. And the
horrid newspapers. And everything getting so expensive; and no regard for
family, or anything of that kind."

Mrs. March thought she saw what Miss Triscoe meant, but she answered,
still cautiously, "I don't believe he does always. Though there are times
when he is very much disgusted. Then he says that he is getting too
old - and we always quarrel about that - to see things as they really are.
He says that if the world had been going the way that people over fifty
have always thought it was going, it would have gone to smash in the time
of the anthropoidal apes."

"Oh, yes: Darwin," said Miss Triscoe, vaguely. "Well, I'm glad he doesn't
give it up. I didn't know but I was holding out just because I had argued
so much, and was doing it out of - opposition. Goodnight!" She called her
salutation gayly over her shoulder, and Mrs. March watched her gliding
out of the saloon with a graceful tilt to humor the slight roll of the
ship, and a little lurch to correct it, once or twice, and wondered if
Burnamy was afraid of her; it seemed to her that if she were a young man
she should not be afraid of Miss Triscoe.

The next morning, just after she had arranged herself in her steamer
chair, he approached her, bowing and smiling, with the first of his many
bows and smiles for the day, and at the same time Miss Triscoe came
toward her from the opposite direction. She nodded brightly to him, and
he gave her a bow and smile too; he always had so many of them to spare.

"Here is your chair!" Mrs. March called to her, drawing the shawl out of
the chair next her own. "Mr. March is wandering about the ship

"I'll keep it for him," said Miss Triscoe, and as Burnamy offered to take
the shawl that hung in the hollow of her arm, she let it slip into his
hand with an "Oh; thank you," which seemed also a permission for him to
wrap it about her in the chair.

He stood talking before the ladies, but he looked up and down the

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Online LibraryWilliam Dean HowellsTheir Silver Wedding Journey — Volume 1 → online text (page 5 of 10)