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Autumn in the Country and City

In the morning the trees stood perfectly still: yellow, yellowish-green, crimson, russet. Not a pulse of air stirred their stricken foliage, but the leaves left the spray and dripped silently, vertically down, with a faint, ticking sound. They fell like the tears of a grief which is too inward for any other outward sign; an absent grief, almost self-forgetful. By-and-by, softly, very softly, as Nature does things when she emulates the best Art and shuns the showiness and noisiness of the second-best, the wind crept in from the leaden sea, which turned iron under it, corrugated iron. Then the trees began to bend, and writhe, and sigh, and moan; and their leaves flew through the air, and blew and scuttled over the grass, and in an hour all the boughs were bare. The summer, which had been living till then and dying, was now dead.

That was the reason why certain people who had been living with it, and seemed dying in it, were now in a manner dead with it, so that their ghosts were glad to get back to town, where the ghosts of thousands and hundreds of thousands of others were hustling in the streets and the trolleys and subways and elevateds, and shops and factories and offices, and making believe to be much more alive than they were in the country. Yet the town, the haunt of those harassed and hurried spectres, who are not without their illusory hilarity, their phantasmal happiness, has a charm which we of the Easy Chair always feel, on first returning to it in the autumn, and which the representative of the family we are imagining finds rather an impassioned pleasure in. He came on to New York, while the others lingered in a dim Bostonian limbo, and he amused himself very well, in a shadowy sort, looking at those other shades who had arrived in like sort, or different, and were there together with him in those fine days just preceding the election; after which the season broke in tears again, and the autumn advanced another step toward winter.

There is no moment of the New York year which is more characteristic of it than that mid-autumnal moment, which the summer and the winter are equally far from. Mid-May is very well, and the weather then is perfect, but that is a moment pierced with the unrest of going or getting ready to go away. The call of the eld in Europe, or the call of the wild in Newport, has already depopulated our streets of what is richest and naturally best in our city life; the shops, indeed, show a fevered activity in the near-richest and near-best who are providing for their summer wants at mountain or sea-shore; but the theatres are closing like fading flowers, and shedding their chorus-girls on every outward breeze; the tables d'hôte express a relaxed enterprise in the nonchalance of the management and service; the hotels yawn wearily from their hollow rooms; the greengroceries try to mask the barrenness of their windows in a show of tropic or semi-tropic fruits; the provision-men merely disgust with their retarded displays of butcher's meats and poultry.


But with what a difference the mid-autumn of the town welcomes its returners! Ghosts, we have called them, mainly to humor a figure we began with, but they are ghosts rather in the meaning of revenants, which is a good meaning enough. They must be a very aged or very stupid sort of revenants if their palingenetic substance does not thrill at the first nightly vision of Broadway, of that fairy flare of electric lights, advertising whiskeys and actresses and beers, and luring the beholder into a hundred hotels and theatres and restaurants. It is now past the hour of roof-gardens with their songs and dances, but the vaudeville is in full bloom, and the play-houses are blossoming in the bills of their new comedies and operas and burlesques. The pavements are filled, but not yet crowded, with people going to dinner at the tables d'hôte; the shop windows glitter and shine, and promise a delight for the morrow which the morrow may or may not realize.

But as yet the town is not replete to choking, as it will be later, when those who fancy they constitute the town have got back to it from their Europes, their Newports, their Bar Harbors, their Lenoxes, their Tuxedos, weary of scorning delights and living laborious days in that round of intellectual and moral events duly celebrated in the society news of the Sunday papers. Fifth Avenue abounds in automobiles but does not yet super-abound; you do not quite take your life in your hand in crossing the street at those corners where there is no policeman's hand to put it in. Everywhere are cars, carts, carriages; and the motorist whirs through the intersecting streets and round the corners, bent on suicide or homicide, and the kind old trolleys and hansoms that once seemed so threatening have almost become so many arks of safety from the furious machines replacing them. But a few short years ago the passer on the Avenue could pride himself on a count of twenty automobiles in his walk from Murray Hill to the Plaza; now he can easily number hundreds, without an emotion of self-approval.

But their abundance is only provisional, a mere forecast of the superabundance to come. All things are provisional, all sights, all sounds, and this forms the peculiar charm of the hour, its haunting and winning charm. If you take the omnibus-top to be trundled whiningly up to one of the farther east-side entrances of the Park, and then dismount and walk back to the Plaza through it, you are even more keenly aware of the suspensive quality of the time. The summer, which you left for dead by mountain or sea-shore, stirs with lingering consciousness in the bland air of the great pleasance. Many leaves are yet green on the trees, and where they are not green and not there they are gay on the grass under the trees. There are birds, not, to be sure, singing, but cheerfully chirping; and there are occasional blazons of courageous flowers; the benches beside the walks, which the northern blasts will soon sweep bare, are still kept by the lovers and loafers who have frequented them ever since the spring, and by the nurses, who cumber the footway before them with their perambulators. The fat squirrels waddle over the asphalt, and cock the impudent eye of the sturdy beggar at the passer whom they suspect of latent peanuts; it is high carnival of the children with hoops and balls; it is the supreme moment of the saddle-donkeys in the by-paths, and the carriage-goats in the Mall, and of the rowboats on the ponds, which presently will be withdrawn for their secret hibernation, where no man can find them out. When the first snow flies, even while it is yet poising for flight in the dim pits of air, all these delights will have vanished, and the winter, which will claim the city for its own through a good four months, will be upon it.

Always come back, therefore, if you must come at all, about the beginning of November, and if you can manage to take in Election Day, and especially Election Night, it will not be a bad notion. New York has five saturnalia every year: New Year's Night, Decoration Day, Fourth of July, Election Night, and Thanksgiving, and not the least of these is Election Night. If it is a right first Tuesday of November, the daytime wind will be veering from west to south and back, sun and cloud will equally share the hours between them, and a not unnatural quiet, as of political passions hushed under the blanket of the Australian ballot, will prevail. The streets will be rather emptied than filled, and the litter of straw and scrap-paper, and the ordure and other filth of the great slattern town, will blow agreeably about under your feet and into your eyes and teeth. But with the falling of the night there will be a rise of the urban spirits; the sidewalks will thicken with citizens of all ages and sexes and nations; and if you will then seek some large centre for the cinematographic dissemination of the election news, you will find yourself one of a multitude gloating on the scenes of comedy and tragedy thrown up on the canvas to stay your impatience for the returns. Along the curbstones are stationed wagons for the sale of the wind and string instruments, whose raw, harsh discords of whistling and twanging will begin with the sight of the vote from the first precinct. Meantime policemen, nervously fondling their clubs in their hands, hang upon the fringes of the crowd, which is yet so good-natured that it seems to have no impulse but to lift children on its shoulders and put pretty girls before it, and caress old women and cripples into favorable positions, so that they may see better. You will wish to leave it before the clubbing begins, and either go home to the slumbers which the whistling and twanging will duly attend; or join the diners going into or coming out of the restaurants, or the throngs strolling down into the fairy realms of Broadway, under the flare of the whiskeys and the actresses.

At such a time it is best to be young, but it is not so very bad to be old, for the charm of the hour, the air, and the place is such that even the heart of age must rise a little at it. What the night may really be, if it is not positively raining, you "do not know or need to know." Those soft lamps overhead, which might alike seem let garlanding down from the vault above or flowering up from the gulfs below out of a still greater pyrotechnic richness, supply the defect, if there is any, of moon and stars. Only the air is actual, the air of the New York night, which is as different from that of the London night as from that of the Paris night, or, for all we know, the St. Petersburg night. At times we have fancied in its early autumnal tones something Florentine, something Venetian, but, after all, it is not quite either, even when the tones of these are crudest. It is the subtlest, the most penetrating expression of the New York temperament; but what that is, who shall say? That mystic air is haunted little from the past, for properly speaking there never was a city so unhistorical in temperament. A record of civic corruption, running back to the first servants of the Dutch Companies, does not constitute municipal history, and our part in national events from the time we felt the stirrings of national consciousness has not been glorious, as these have not been impressive. Of New York's present at any given moment you wish to say in her patient-impatient slang, "Forget it, forget it." There remains only the future from which she can derive that temperamental effect in her night air; but, again, what that is, who shall say? If any one were so daring, he might say it was confidence modified by anxiety; a rash expectation of luck derived from immunity for past transgression; the hopes of youth shot with youth's despairs: not sweet, innocent youth, but youth knowing and experienced, though not unwilling to shun evil because of the bad morrow it sometimes brings. No other city under the sun, we doubt, is so expressive of that youth: that modern youth, able, agile, eager, audacious; not the youth of the poets, but the youth of the true, the grim realists.


Something, a faint, faint consciousness of this, visits even the sad heart of age on any New York night when it is not raining too hard, and one thinks only of getting indoors, where all nights are alike. But mostly it comes when the autumn is dreaming toward winter in that interlude of the seasons which we call Indian Summer. It is a stretch of time which we have handsomely bestowed upon our aborigines, in compensation for the four seasons we have taken from them, like some of those Reservations which we have left them in lieu of the immeasurable lands we have alienated. It used to be longer than it is now; it used to be several weeks long; in the sense of childhood, it was almost months. It is still qualitatively the same, and it is more than any other time expressive of the New York temperament, perhaps because we have honored in the civic ideal the polity of our Indian predecessors, and in Tammany and its recurrently triumphant braves, have kept their memory green. But if this is not so, the spiritual fact remains, and under the sky of the Election Night you feel New York as you do in no other hour. The sense extends through the other autumn nights till that night, sure to come, when the pensive weather breaks in tears, and the next day it rains and rains, and the streets stream with the flood, and the dull air reeks with a sort of inner steam, hot, close, and sticky as a brother: a brother whose wants are many and whose resources are few. The morning after the storm, there will be a keen thrill in the air, keen but wholesome and bracing as a good resolution and not necessarily more lasting. The asphalt has been washed as clean as a renovated conscience, and the city presses forward again to the future in which alone it has its being, with the gay confidence of a sinner who has forgiven himself his sins and is no longer sorry for them.

After that interlude, when the streets of the Advanced Vaudeville, which we know as New York, begin again and continue till the Chasers come in late May, there will be many other sorts of weather, but none so characteristic of her. There will be the sort of weather toward the end of January, when really it seems as if nothing else could console him for the intolerable freezing and thawing, the snow upon snow, the rain upon rain, the winds that soak him and the winds that shrivel him, and the suns that mock him from a subtropic sky through subarctic air. We foresee him then settling into his arm-chair, while the wind whistles as naturally as the wind in the theatre around the angles of his lofty flat, and drives the snow of the shredded paper through the air or beats it in soft clots against the pane. He turns our page, and as he catches our vague drift, before yielding himself wholly to its allure, he questions, as readers like to do, whether the writer is altogether right in his contention that the mid-autumnal moment is the most characteristic moment of the New York year. Is not the mid-winter moment yet more characteristic? He conjures up, in the rich content of his indoor remoteness, the vision of the vile street below his flat, banked high with the garnered heaps of filthy snow, which alternately freeze and thaw, which the rain does not wash nor the wind blow away, and which the shredded-paper flakes are now drifting higher. He sees the foot-passers struggling under their umbrellas toward the avenues where the reluctant trolleys pause jarringly for them, and the elevated trains roar along the trestle overhead; where the saloon winks a wicked eye on every corner; where the signs of the whiskeys and actresses flare through the thickened night; and the cab tilts and rocks across the trolley rails, and the crowds of hotel-sojourners seek the shelter of the theatres, and all is bleak and wet and squalid. In more respectful vision he beholds the darkened mansions of the richest and best, who have already fled the scene of their brief winter revel and are forcing the spring in their Floridas, their Egypts, their Rivieras. He himself remains midway between the last fall and the next spring; and perhaps he decides against the writer, as the perverse reader sometimes will, and holds that this hour of suspense and misgiving is the supreme, the duodecimal hour of the metropolitan dial. He may be right; who knows? New York's hours are all characteristic; and the hour whose mystical quality we have been trying to intimate is already past, and we must wait another year before we can put it to the test again; wait till the trees once more stand perfectly still: yellow, yellowish-green, crimson, russet, and the wind comes up and blows them bare, and yet another summer is dead, and the mourners, the ghosts, the revenants have once more returned to town.

William Dean Howells