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Chapter 14

We were to go the next day to the races, and I woke with more anxiety about the weather than about the lovers, or potential lovers. But after realising that the day was beautiful, on that large scale of loveliness which seems characteristic of the summer days at Saratoga, where they have them almost the size of the summer days I knew when I was a boy, I was sensible of a secondary worry in my mind, which presently related itself to Kendricks and Miss Gage. It was a haze of trouble merely, however, such as burns off, like a morning fog, when the sun gets higher, and it was chiefly on my wife's account.

I suppose that the great difference between her conscience and one originating outside of New England (if any conscience can originate outside of New England) is that it cannot leave the moral government of the universe in the hands of divine Providence. I was willing to leave so many things which I could not control to the Deity, who probably could that she accused me of fatalism, and I was held to be little better than one of the wicked because I would not forecast the effects of what I did in the lives of others. I insisted that others were also probably in the hands of the somma sapienza e il primo amore, and that I was so little aware of the influence of other lives upon my own, even where there had been a direct and strenuous effort to affect me, that I could not readily believe others had swerved from the line of their destiny because of me. Especially I protested that I could not hold myself guilty of misfortunes I had not intended, even though my faulty conduct had caused them. As to this business of Kendricks and Miss Gage, I denied in the dispute I now began tacitly to hold with Mrs. March's conscience that my conduct had been faulty. I said that there was no earthly harm in my having been interested by the girl's forlornness when I first saw her; that I did not do wrong to interest Mrs. March in her; that she did not sin in going shopping with Miss Gage and Mrs. Deering; that we had not sinned, either of us, in rejoicing that Kendricks had come to Saratoga, or in letting Mrs. Deering go home to her sick husband and leave Miss Gage on our hands; that we were not wicked in permitting the young fellow to help us make her have a good time. In this colloquy I did all the reasoning, and Mrs. March's conscience was completely silenced; but it rose triumphant in my miserable soul when I met Miss Gage at breakfast, looking radiantly happy, and disposed to fellowship me in an unusual confidence because, as I clearly perceived, of our last night's adventure. I said to myself bitterly that happiness did not become her style, and I hoped that she would get away with her confounded rapture before Mrs. March came down. I resolved not to tell Mrs. March if it fell out so, but at the same time, as a sort of atonement, I decided to begin keeping the sharpest kind of watch upon Miss Gage for the outward signs and tokens of love.

She said, "When you began to talk that way last night, Mr. March, it almost took my breath, and if you hadn't gone so far, and mentioned about the sunset through the sleety trees, I never should have suspected you."

"Ah, that's the trouble with men, Miss Gage." And when I said "men" I fancied she flushed a little. "We never know when to stop; we always overdo it; if it were not for that we should be as perfect as women. Perhaps you'll give me another chance, though."

"No; we shall be on our guard after this." She corrected herself and said, "I shall always be looking out for you now," and she certainly showed herself conscious in the bridling glance that met my keen gaze.

"Good heavens!" I thought. "Has it really gone so far?" and more than ever I resolved not to tell Mrs. March.

I went out to engage a carriage to take us to the races, and to agree with the driver that he should wait for us at a certain corner some blocks distant from our hotel, where we were to walk and find him. We always did this, because there were a number of clergymen in our house, and Mrs. March could not make it seem right to start for the races direct from the door, though she held that it was perfectly right for us to go. For the same reason she made the driver stop short of our destination on our return, and walked home the rest of the way. Almost the first time we practised this deception I was met at the door by the sweetest and dearest of these old divines, who said, "Have you ever seen the races here? I'm told the spectacle is something very fine," and I was obliged to own that I had once had a glimpse of them. But it was in vain that I pleaded this fact with Mrs. March; she insisted that the appearance of not going to the races was something that we owed the cloth, and no connivance on their part could dispense us from it.

As I now went looking up and down the street for the driver who was usually on the watch for me about eleven o'clock on a fair day of the races, I turned over in my mind the several accidents which are employed in novels to bring young people to a realising sense of their feelings toward each other, and wondered which of them I might most safely invoke. I was not anxious to have Kendricks and Miss Gage lovers; it would be altogether simpler for us if they were not; but if they were, the sooner they knew it and we knew it the better. I thought of a carriage accident, in which he should seize her and leap with her from the flying vehicle, while the horses plunged madly on, but I did not know what in this case would become of Mrs. March and me. Besides, I could think of nothing that would frighten our driver's horses, and I dismissed the fleeting notion of getting any others because Mrs. March liked their being so safe, and she had, besides, interested herself particularly in the driver, who had a family and counted upon our custom. The poor fellow came in sight presently, and smilingly made the usual arrangement with me, and an hour later he delivered us all sound in wind and limb at the racecourse.

I watched in vain for signs of uncommon tenderness in the two young people. If anything they were rather stiff and distant with each other, and I asked myself whether this might not be from an access of consciousness. Kendricks was particularly devoted to Mrs. March, who, in the airy detachment with which she responded to his attentions, gave me the impression that she had absolutely dismissed her suspicions of the night before, or else had heartlessly abandoned the affair to me altogether. If she had really done this, then I saw no way out of it for me but by an accident which should reveal them to each other. Perhaps some one might insult Miss Gage- -some ruffian—and Kendricks might strike the fellow; but this seemed too squalid. There might be a terrible jam, and he interpose his person between her and the danger of her being crushed to death; or the floor of the grand stand might give way, and everybody be precipitated into the space beneath, and he fight his way, with her senseless form on his arm, over the bodies of the mangled and dying. Any of these things would have availed in a novel, and something of the kind would have happened, too. But, to tell the truth, nothing whatever happened, and if it had not been for that anxiety on my mind I should have thought it much pleasanter so.

Even as it was I felt a measure of the hilarity which commonly fills me at a running race, and I began to lose in the charm of the gay scene the sense of my responsibility, and little by little to abate the vigilance apparently left all to me. The day was beautiful; the long heat had burned itself out, and there was a clear sparkle in the sunshine, which seemed blown across the wide space within the loop of the track by the delicate breeze. A vague, remote smell of horses haunted the air, with now and then a breath of the pines from the grove shutting the race-ground from the highway. We got excellent places, as one always may, the grand stand is so vast, and the young people disposed themselves on the bench in front of us, but so near that we were not tempted to talk them over. The newsboys came round with papers, and the boys who sold programmes of the races; from the bar below there appeared from time to time shining negroes in white linen jackets, with trays bearing tall glasses of lemonade, and straws tilted in the glasses. Bookmakers from the pool-rooms took the bets of the ladies, who formed by far the greater part of the spectators on the grand stand, and contributed, with their summer hats and gowns, to the gaiety of the ensemble. They were of all types, city and country both, and of the Southern dark as well as the Northern fair complexion, with so thick a sprinkling of South Americans that the Spanish gutturals made themselves almost as much heard as the Yankee nasals. Among them moved two nuns of some mendicant order, receiving charity from the fair gamblers, who gave for luck without distinction of race or religion.

I leaned forward and called Kendricks's attention to the nuns, and to the admirable literary quality of the whole situation. He was talking to Miss Gage, and he said as impatiently as he ever suffered himself to speak, "Yes, yes; tremendously picturesque."

"You ought to get something out of it, my dear fellow. Don't you feel copy in it?"

"Oh, splendid, of course; but it's your ground, Mr. March. I shouldn't feel it right to do anything with Saratoga after you had discovered it," and he turned eagerly again to Miss Gage.

My wife put her hand on my sleeve and frowned, and I had so far lost myself in my appreciation of the scene that I was going to ask her what the matter was, when a general sensation about me made me look at the track, where the horses for the first race had already appeared, with their jockeys in vivid silk jackets of various dyes. They began to form for the start with the usual tricks and feints, till I became very indignant with them, though I had no bets pending, and did not care in the least which horse won. What I wanted was to see the race, the flight, and all this miserable manoeuvring was retarding it. Now and then a jockey rode his horse far off on the track and came back between the false starts; now and then one kept stubbornly behind the rest and would not start with them. How their several schemes and ambitions were finally reconciled I never could tell, but at last the starter's flag swept down and they were really off. Everybody could have seen perfectly well as they sat, but everybody rose and watched the swift swoop of the horses, bunched together in the distance, and scarcely distinguishable by the colours of their riders. The supreme moment came for me when they were exactly opposite the grand stand, full half a mile away—the moment that I remembered from year to year as one of exquisite illusion—for then the horses seemed to lift from the earth as with wings, and to skim over the track like a covey of low-flying birds. The finish was tame to this. Mrs. March and I had our wonted difference of opinion as to which horse had won, and we were rather uncommonly controversial because we had both decided upon the same horse, as we found, only she was talking of the jockey's colours, and I was talking of the horse's. We appealed to Kendricks, who said that another horse altogether had won the race, and this compromise pacified us.

We were all on foot, and he suggested, "We could see better, couldn't we, if we went farther down in front?" And Mrs. March answered -

"No, we prefer to stay here; but you two can go." And when they had promptly availed themselves of her leave, she said to me, "This is killing me dead, Basil, and if it keeps up much longer I don't believe I can live through it. I don't care now, and I believe I shall throw them together all I can from this out. The quicker they decide whether they're in love or not the better. I have some rights too."

Her whirling words expressed the feeling in my own mind. I had the same sense of being trifled with by these young people, who would not behave so conclusively toward each other as to justify our interference on the ground that they were in love, nor yet treat each other so indifferently as to relieve us of the strain of apprehension. I had lost all faith in accident by this time, and I was quite willing to leave them to their own devices; I was so desperate that I said I hoped they would get lost from us, as they had from me the night before, and never come back, but just keep on wandering round for ever. All sorts of vengeful thoughts went through my mind as I saw them leaning toward each other to say something, and then drawing apart to laugh in what seemed an indefinite comradery instead of an irrepressible passion. Did they think we were going to let this sort of thing go on? What did they suppose our nerves were made of? Had they no mercy, no consideration? It was quite like the selfishness of youth to wish to continue in that fool's paradise, but they would find out that middle age had its rights too. I felt capable of asking them bluntly what they meant by it. But when they docilely rejoined us at the end of the races, hurrying up with some joke about not letting me get lost this time, and Miss Gage put herself at my wife's side and Kendricks dropped into step with me, all I had been thinking seemed absurd. They were just two young people who were enjoying a holiday-time together, and we were in no wise culpable concerning them.

I suggested this to Mrs. March when we got home, and, in the need of some relief from the tension she had been in, she was fain to accept the theory provisionally, though I knew that her later rejection of it would be all the more violent for this respite.

William Dean Howells

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