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Chapter 11

In the intimacy that grew up between my wife and Miss Gage I found myself less and less included. It seemed to me at times that I might have gone away from Saratoga and not been seriously missed by any one, but perhaps this was not taking sufficient account of my value as a spectator, by whom Mrs. March could verify her own impressions.

The girl had never known a mother's care, and it was affecting to see how willing she was to be mothered by the chance kindness of a stranger. She probably felt more and more her ignorance of the world as it unfolded itself to her in terms so altogether strange to the life of De Witt Point. I was not sure that she would have been so grateful for the efforts made for her enjoyment if they had failed, but as the case stood she was certainly grateful; my wife said that, and I saw it. She seemed to have written home about us to her father, for she read my wife part of a letter from him conveying his "respects," and asking her to thank us for him. She came to me with the cheque it enclosed, and asked me to get it cashed for her; it was for a handsome amount. But she continued to go about at our cost, quite unconsciously, till one day she happened to witness a contest of civility between Kendricks and myself as to which should pay the carriage we were dismissing. That night she came to Mrs. March, and, with many blushes, asked to be allowed to pay for the past and future her full share of the expense of our joint pleasures. She said that she had never thought of it before, and she felt so much ashamed. She could not be consoled till she was promised that she should be indulged for the future, and that I should be obliged to average the outlay already made and let her pay a fourth. When she had gained her point, Mrs. March said that she seemed a little scared, and said, "I haven't offended you, Mrs. March, have I? Because if it isn't right for me to pay—"

"It's quite right, my dear," said my wife, "and it's very nice of you to think of it."

"You know," the girl explained, "I've never been out a great deal at home even; and it's always the custom there for the gentlemen to pay for a ride—or dance—or anything; but this is different."

Mrs March said "Yes," and, in the interest of civilisation, she did a little missionary work. She told her that in Boston the young ladies paid for their tickets to the Harvard assemblies, and preferred to do it, because it left them without even a tacit obligation.

Miss Gage said she had never heard of such a thing before, but she could see how much better it was.

I do not think she got on with the Last Days of Pompeii very rapidly; its immediate interest was superseded by other things. But she always had the book about with her, and I fancied that she tried to read it in those moments of relaxation from our pleasuring when she might better have been day-dreaming, though I dare say she did enough of that too.

What amused me in the affair was the celerity with which it took itself out of our hands. In an incredibly short time we had no longer the trouble of thinking what we should do for Miss Gage; that was provided for by the forethought of Kendricks, and our concern was how each could make the other go with the young people on their excursions and expeditions. We had seen and done all the things that they were doing, and it presently bored us to chaperon them. After a good deal of talking we arrived at a rough division of duty, and I went with them walking and eating and drinking, and for anything involving late hours, and Mrs. March presided at such things as carriage exercise, concerts, and shopping.

There are not many public entertainments at Saratoga, except such as the hotels supply; but a series of Salvation Army meetings did duty as amusements, and there was one theatrical performance—a performance of East Lynne entirely by people of colour. The sentiments and incidents of the heart-breaking melodrama, as the coloured mind interpreted them, were of very curious effect. It was as if the version were dyed with the same pigment that darkened the players' skins: it all came out negro. Yet they had tried to make it white; I could perceive how they aimed not at the imitation of our nature, but at the imitation of our convention; it was like the play of children in that. I should have said that nothing could be more false than the motives and emotions of the drama as the author imagined them, but I had to own that their rendition by these sincere souls was yet more artificial. There was nothing traditional, nothing archaic, nothing autochthonic in their poor art. If the scene could at any moment have resolved myself into a walk-round, with an interspersion of spirituals, it would have had the charm of these; it would have consoled and edified; but as it was I have seldom been so bored. I began to make some sad reflections, as that our American society, in its endeavour for the effect of European society, was of no truer ideal than these coloured comedians, and I accused myself of a final absurdity in having come there with these young people, who, according to our good native usage, could have come perfectly well without me. At the end of the first act I broke into their talk with my conclusion that we must not count the histrionic talent among the gifts of the African race just yet. We could concede them music, I supposed, and there seemed to be hope for them, from what they had some of them done, in the region of the plastic arts; but apparently the stage was not for them, and this was all the stranger because they were so imitative. Perhaps, I said, it was an excess of self-consciousness which prevented their giving themselves wholly to the art, and I began to speak of the subjective and the objective, of the real and the ideal; and whether it was that I became unintelligible as I became metaphysical, I found Kendricks obviously not following me in the incoherent replies he gave. Miss Gage had honestly made no attempt to follow me. He asked, Why, didn't I think it was pretty well done? They had enjoyed it very much, he said. I could only stare in answer, and wonder what had become of the man's tastes or his principles; he was either humbugging himself or he was humbugging me. After that I left them alone, and suffered through the rest of the play with what relief I could get from laughing when the pathetic emotions of the drama became too poignant. I decided that Kendricks was absorbed in the study of his companion's mind, which must be open to his contemporaneous eye as it could never have been to my old-sighted glasses, and I envied him the knowledge he was gaining of that type of American girl. It suddenly came to me that he must be finding his account in this, and I felt a little less regret for the waste of civilities, of attentions, which sometimes seemed to me beyond her appreciation.

I, for my part, gave myself to the study of the types about me, and I dwelt long and luxuriously upon the vision of a florid and massive matron in diaphanous evening dress, whom I imagined to be revisiting the glimpses of her girlhood in the ancient watering-place, and to be getting all the gaiety she could out of it. These are the figures one mostly sees at Saratoga; there is very little youth of the present day there, but the youth of the past abounds, with the belated yellow hair and the purple moustaches, which gave a notion of greater wickedness in a former generation.

I made my observation that the dress, even in extreme cases of elderly prime, was very good—in the case of the women, I mean; the men there, as everywhere with us, were mostly slovens; and I was glad to find that the good taste and the correct fashion were without a colour-line; there were some mulatto ladies present as stylish as their white sisters, or step-sisters.

The most amiable of the human race is in great force at Saratoga, where the vast hotel service is wholly in its hands, and it had honoured the effort of the comedians that night with a full house of their own complexion. We who were not of it showed strangely enough in the dark mass, who let us lead the applause, however, as if doubtful themselves where it ought to come in, and whom I found willing even to share some misplaced laughter of mine. They formed two-thirds of the audience on the floor, and they were a cloud in the gallery, scarcely broken by a gleam of white.

I entertained myself with them a good deal, and I thought how much more delightful they were in their own kindly character than in their assumption of white character, and I tried to define my suffering from the performance as an effect from my tormented sympathies rather than from my offended tastes. When the long stress was over, and we rose and stood to let the crowd get out, I asked Miss Gage if she did not think this must be the case. I do not suppose she was really much more experienced in the theatre than the people on the stage, some of whom I doubted to have ever seen a play till they took part in East Lynne. But I thought I would ask her that in order to hear what she would say; and she said very simply that she had seen so few plays she did not know what to think of it, and I could see that she was abashed by the fact. Kendricks must have seen it too, for he began at once to save her from herself, with all his subtle generosity, and to turn her shame to praise. My heart, which remained sufficiently cold to her, warmed more than ever to him, and I should have liked to tell her that here was the finest and rarest human porcelain using itself like common clay in her behalf, and to demand whether she thought she was worth it.

I did not think she was, and I had a lurid moment when I was tempted to push on and make her show herself somehow at her worst. We had undertaken a preposterous thing in befriending her as we had done, and our course in bringing Kendricks in was wholly unjustifiable. How could I lead her on to some betrayal of her essential Philistinism, and make her so impossible in his eyes that even he, with all his sweetness and goodness, must take the first train from Saratoga in the morning?

We had of course joined the crowd in pushing forward; people always do, though they promise themselves to wait till the last one is out. I got caught in a dark eddy on the first stair-landing; but I could see them farther down, and I knew they would wait for me outside the door.

When I reached it at last they were nowhere to be seen; I looked up this street and down that, but they were not in sight.

William Dean Howells

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