Nothing mystifies a man more than a woman's aberrations from some point at which he, supposes her fixed as a star. In these unfurnished houses, without steam or elevator, March followed his wife about with patient wonder. She rather liked the worst of them best: but she made him go down into the cellars and look at the furnaces; she exacted from him a rigid inquest of the plumbing. She followed him into one of the cellars by the fitful glare of successively lighted matches, and they enjoyed a moment in which the anomaly of their presence there on that errand, so remote from all the facts of their long-established life in Boston, realized itself for them.
"Think how easily we might have been murdered and nobody been any the wiser!" she said when they were comfortably outdoors again.
"Yes, or made way with ourselves in an access of emotional insanity, supposed to have been induced by unavailing flat-hunting," he suggested. She fell in with the notion. "I'm beginning to feel crazy. But I don't want you to lose your head, Basil. And I don't want you to sentimentalize any of the things you see in New York. I think you were disposed to do it in that street we drove through. I don't believe there's any real suffering—not real suffering—among those people; that is, it would be suffering from our point of view, but they've been used to it all their lives, and they don't feel their' discomfort so much."
"Of course, I understand that, and I don't propose to sentimentalize them. I think when people get used to a bad state of things they had better stick to it; in fact, they don't usually like a better state so well, and I shall keep that firmly in mind."
She laughed with him, and they walked along the L bestridden avenue, exhilarated by their escape from murder and suicide in that cellar, toward the nearest cross town track, which they meant to take home to their hotel. "Now to-night we will go to the theatre," she said, "and get this whole house business out of our minds, and be perfectly fresh for a new start in the morning." Suddenly she clutched his arm. "Why, did you see that man?" and she signed with her head toward a decently dressed person who walked beside them, next the gutter, stooping over as if to examine it, and half halting at times.
"Why, I saw him pick up a dirty bit of cracker from the pavement and cram it into his mouth and eat it down as if he were famished. And look! he's actually hunting for more in those garbage heaps!"
This was what the decent-looking man with the hard hands and broken nails of a workman was doing-like a hungry dog. They kept up with him, in the fascination of the sight, to the next corner, where he turned down the side street still searching the gutter.
They walked on a few paces. Then March said, "I must go after him," and left his wife standing.
"Are you in want—hungry?" he asked the man.
The man said he could not speak English, Monsieur.
March asked his question in French.
The man shrugged a pitiful, desperate shrug, "Mais, Monsieur—"
March put a coin in his hand, and then suddenly the man's face twisted up; he caught the hand of this alms-giver in both of his and clung to it. "Monsieur! Monsieur!" he gasped, and the tears rained down his face.
His benefactor pulled himself away, shocked and ashamed, as one is by such a chance, and got back to his wife, and the man lapsed back into the mystery of misery out of which he had emerged.
March felt it laid upon him to console his wife for what had happened. "Of course, we might live here for years and not see another case like that; and, of course, there are twenty places where he could have gone for help if he had known where to find them."
"Ah, but it's the possibility of his needing the help so badly as that," she answered. "That's what I can't bear, and I shall not come to a place where such things are possible, and we may as well stop our house-hunting here at once."
"Yes? And what part of Christendom will you live in? Such things are possible everywhere in our conditions."
"Then we must change the conditions—"
"Oh no; we must go to the theatre and forget them. We can stop at
Brentano's for our tickets as we pass through Union Square."
"I am not going to the theatre, Basil. I am going home to Boston to-night. You can stay and find a flat."
He convinced her of the absurdity of her position, and even of its selfishness; but she said that her mind was quite made up irrespective of what had happened, that she had been away from the children long enough; that she ought to be at home to finish up the work of leaving it. The word brought a sigh. "Ah, I don't know why we should see nothing but sad and ugly things now. When we were young—"
"Younger," he put in. "We're still young."
"That's what we pretend, but we know better. But I was thinking how pretty and pleasant things used to be turning up all the time on our travels in the old days. Why, when we were in New York here on our wedding journey the place didn't seem half so dirty as it does now, and none of these dismal things happened."
"It was a good deal dirtier," he answered; "and I fancy worse in every way-hungrier, raggeder, more wretchedly housed. But that wasn't the period of life for us to notice it. Don't you remember, when we started to Niagara the last time, how everybody seemed middle-aged and commonplace; and when we got there there were no evident brides; nothing but elderly married people?"
"At least they weren't starving," she rebelled.
"No, you don't starve in parlor-cars and first-class hotels; but if you step out of them you run your chance of seeing those who do, if you're getting on pretty well in the forties. If it's the unhappy who see unhappiness, think what misery must be revealed to people who pass their lives in the really squalid tenement-house streets—I don't mean picturesque avenues like that we passed through."
"But we are not unhappy," she protested, bringing the talk back to the personal base again, as women must to get any good out of talk. "We're really no unhappier than we were when we were young."
"We're more serious."
"Well, I hate it; and I wish you wouldn't be so serious, if that's what it brings us to."
"I will be trivial from this on," said March. "Shall we go to the Hole in the Ground to-night?"
"I am going to Boston."
"It's much the same thing. How do you like that for triviality? It's a little blasphemous, I'll allow."
"It's very silly," she said.
At the hotel they found a letter from the agent who had sent them the permit to see Mrs. Grosvenor Green's apartment. He wrote that she had heard they were pleased with her apartment, and that she thought she could make the terms to suit. She had taken her passage for Europe, and was very anxious to let the flat before she sailed. She would call that evening at seven.
"Mrs. Grosvenor Green!" said Mrs. March. "Which of the ten thousand flats is it, Basil?"
"The gimcrackery," he answered. "In the Xenophon, you know."
"Well, she may save herself the trouble. I shall not see her. Or yes—I must. I couldn't go away without seeing what sort of creature could have planned that fly-away flat. She must be a perfect—"
"Parachute," March suggested.
"No! anybody so light as that couldn't come down."
"Well, toy balloon."
"Toy balloon will do for the present," Mrs. March admitted. "But I feel that naught but herself can be her parallel for volatility."
When Mrs. Grosvenor-Green's card came up they both descended to the hotel parlor, which March said looked like the saloon of a Moorish day-boat; not that he knew of any such craft, but the decorations were so Saracenic and the architecture so Hudson Riverish. They found there on the grand central divan a large lady whose vast smoothness, placidity, and plumpness set at defiance all their preconceptions of Mrs. Grosvenor Green, so that Mrs. March distinctly paused with her card in her hand before venturing even tentatively to address her. Then she was astonished at the low, calm voice in which Mrs. Green acknowledged herself, and slowly proceeded to apologize for calling. It was not quite true that she had taken her passage for Europe, but she hoped soon to do so, and she confessed that in the mean time she was anxious to let her flat. She was a little worn out with the care of housekeeping—Mrs. March breathed, "Oh yes!" in the sigh with which ladies recognize one another's martyrdom—and Mrs. Green had business abroad, and she was going to pursue her art studies in Paris; she drew in Mr. Ilcomb's class now, but the instruction was so much better in Paris; and as the superintendent seemed to think the price was the only objection, she had ventured to call.
"Then we didn't deceive him in the least," thought Mrs. March, while she answered, sweetly: "No; we were only afraid that it would be too small for our family. We require a good many rooms." She could not forego the opportunity of saying, "My husband is coming to New York to take charge of a literary periodical, and he will have to have a room to write in," which made Mrs. Green bow to March, and made March look sheepish. "But we did think the apartment very charming", (It was architecturally charming, she protested to her conscience), "and we should have been so glad if we could have got into it." She followed this with some account of their house-hunting, amid soft murmurs of sympathy from Mrs. Green, who said that she had been through all that, and that if she could have shown her apartment to them she felt sure that she could have explained it so that they would have seen its capabilities better, Mrs. March assented to this, and Mrs. Green added that if they found nothing exactly suitable she would be glad to have them look at it again; and then Mrs. March said that she was going back to Boston herself, but she was leaving Mr. March to continue the search; and she had no doubt he would be only too glad to see the apartment by daylight. "But if you take it, Basil," she warned him, when they were alone, "I shall simply renounce you. I wouldn't live in that junk-shop if you gave it to me. But who would have thought she was that kind of looking person? Though of course I might have known if I had stopped to think once. It's because the place doesn't express her at all that it's so unlike her. It couldn't be like anybody, or anything that flies in the air, or creeps upon the earth, or swims in the waters under the earth. I wonder where in the world she's from; she's no New-Yorker; even we can see that; and she's not quite a country person, either; she seems like a person from some large town, where she's been an aesthetic authority. And she can't find good enough art instruction in New York, and has to go to Paris for it! Well, it's pathetic, after all, Basil. I can't help feeling sorry for a person who mistakes herself to that extent."
"I can't help feeling sorry for the husband of a person who mistakes herself to that extent. What is Mr. Grosvenor Green going to do in Paris while she's working her way into the Salon?"
"Well, you keep away from her apartment, Basil; that's all I've got to say to you. And yet I do like some things about her."
"I like everything about her but her apartment," said March.
"I like her going to be out of the country," said his wife. "We shouldn't be overlooked. And the place was prettily shaped, you can't deny it. And there was an elevator and steam heat. And the location is very convenient. And there was a hall-boy to bring up cards. The halls and stairs were kept very clean and nice. But it wouldn't do. I could put you a folding bed in the room where you wrote, and we could even have one in the parlor."
"Behind a portiere? I couldn't stand any more portieres!"
"And we could squeeze the two girls into one room, or perhaps only bring Margaret, and put out the whole of the wash. Basil!" she almost shrieked, "it isn't to be thought of!"
He retorted, "I'm not thinking of it, my dear."
Fulkerson came in just before they started for Mrs. March's train, to find out what had become of them, he said, and to see whether they had got anything to live in yet.
"Not a thing," she said. "And I'm just going back to Boston, and leaving Mr. March here to do anything he pleases about it. He has 'carte blanche.'"
"But freedom brings responsibility, you know, Fulkerson, and it's the same as if I'd no choice. I'm staying behind because I'm left, not because I expect to do anything."
"Is that so?" asked Fulkerson. "Well, we must see what can be done. I supposed you would be all settled by this time, or I should have humped myself to find you something. None of those places I gave you amounts to anything?"
"As much as forty thousand others we've looked at," said Mrs. March. "Yes, one of them does amount to something. It comes so near being what we want that I've given Mr. March particular instructions not to go near it."
She told him about Mrs. Grosvenor Green and her flats, and at the end he said:
"Well, well, we must look out for that. I'll keep an eye on him, Mrs. March, and see that he doesn't do anything rash, and I won't leave him till he's found just the right thing. It exists, of course; it must in a city of eighteen hundred thousand people, and the only question is where to find it. You leave him to me, Mrs. March; I'll watch out for him."
Fulkerson showed some signs of going to the station when he found they were not driving, but she bade him a peremptory good-bye at the hotel door.
"He's very nice, Basil, and his way with you is perfectly charming. It's very sweet to see how really fond of you he is. But I didn't want him stringing along with us up to Forty-second Street and spoiling our last moments together."
At Third Avenue they took the Elevated for which she confessed an infatuation. She declared it the most ideal way of getting about in the world, and was not ashamed when he reminded her of how she used to say that nothing under the sun could induce her to travel on it. She now said that the night transit was even more interesting than the day, and that the fleeing intimacy you formed with people in second and third floor interiors, while all the usual street life went on underneath, had a domestic intensity mixed with a perfect repose that was the last effect of good society with all its security and exclusiveness. He said it was better than the theatre, of which it reminded him, to see those people through their windows: a family party of work-folk at a late tea, some of the men in their shirt-sleeves; a woman sewing by a lamp; a mother laying her child in its cradle; a man with his head fallen on his hands upon a table; a girl and her lover leaning over the window-sill together. What suggestion! what drama? what infinite interest! At the Forty-second Street station they stopped a minute on the bridge that crosses the track to the branch road for the Central Depot, and looked up and down the long stretch of the Elevated to north and south. The track that found and lost itself a thousand times in the flare and tremor of the innumerable lights; the moony sheen of the electrics mixing with the reddish points and blots of gas far and near; the architectural shapes of houses and churches and towers, rescued by the obscurity from all that was ignoble in them, and the coming and going of the trains marking the stations with vivider or fainter plumes of flame-shot steam-formed an incomparable perspective. They often talked afterward of the superb spectacle, which in a city full of painters nightly works its unrecorded miracles; and they were just to the Arachne roof spun in iron over the cross street on which they ran to the depot; but for the present they were mostly inarticulate before it. They had another moment of rich silence when they paused in the gallery that leads from the Elevated station to the waiting-rooms in the Central Depot and looked down upon the great night trains lying on the tracks dim under the rain of gas-lights that starred without dispersing the vast darkness of the place. What forces, what fates, slept in these bulks which would soon be hurling themselves north and south and west through the night! Now they waited there like fabled monsters of Arab story ready for the magician's touch, tractable, reckless, will-less—organized lifelessness full of a strange semblance of life.
The Marches admired the impressive sight with a thrill of patriotic pride in the fact that the whole world perhaps could not afford just the like. Then they hurried down to the ticket-offices, and he got her a lower berth in the Boston sleeper, and went with her to the car. They made the most of the fact that her berth was in the very middle of the car; and she promised to write as soon as she reached home. She promised also that, having seen the limitations of New York in respect to flats, she would not be hard on him if he took something not quite ideal. Only he must remember that it was not to be above Twentieth Street nor below Washington Square; it must not be higher than the third floor; it must have an elevator, steam heat, hail-boys, and a pleasant janitor. These were essentials; if he could not get them, then they must do without. But he must get them.
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