I had already made up my mind that they had been the closest friends before one of them married, and that the young wife still thought the young girl worthy of the most splendid fate that marriage could have in store for any of her sex. Women often make each other the idols of such worship; but I could not have justified this lady's adoration so far as it concerned the mental and moral qualities of her friend, though I fully shared it in regard to her beauty. To me she looked a little dull and a little selfish, and I chose to think the husband modestly found her selfish, if he were too modest to find her dull.
Yet, after all, I tacitly argued with him, why should we call her selfish? It was perfectly right and fit that, as a young girl with such great personal advantages, she should wish to see the world— even to show herself to the world,—and find in it some agreeable youth who should admire her, and desire to make her his own for ever. Compare this simple and natural longing with the insatiate greed and ambition of one of our own sex, I urged him, and then talk to me, if you can, of this poor girl's selfishness! A young man has more egoism in an hour than a young girl has in her whole life. She thinks she wishes some one to be devoted to her, but she really wishes some one to let her be devoted to him; and how passively, how negatively, she must manage to accomplish her self-sacrifice! He, on the contrary, means to go conquering and enslaving forward; to be in and out of love right and left, and to end, after many years of triumph, in the possession of the best and wisest and fairest of her sex. I know the breed, my dear sir; I have been a young man myself. We men have liberty, we have initiative; we are not chaperoned; we can go to this one and that one freely and fearlessly. But women must sit still, and be come to or shied off from. They cannot cast the bold eye of interest; they can at most bridle under it, and furtively respond from the corner of the eye of weak hope and gentle deprecation. Be patient, then, with this poor child if she darkles a little under the disappointment of not finding Saratoga so personally gay as she supposed it would be, and takes it out of you and your wife, as if you were to blame for it, in something like sulks.
He remained silent under these tacit appeals, but at the end he heaved a deep sigh, as he might if he were acknowledging their justice, and were promising to do his very best in the circumstances. His wife looked round at him, but did not speak. In fact, they none of them spoke after the first words of greeting to the girl, as I can very well testify; for I sat eavesdropping with all my might, resolved not to lose a syllable, and I am sure I lost none.
The young girl did not look round at that deep-drawn sigh of the man's; she did not lift her head even when he cleared his throat: but I was intent upon him, for I thought that these sounds preluded an overture (I am not sure of the figure) to my acquaintance, and in fact he actually asked, "Do you know just when the concert begins?"
I was overjoyed at his question, for I was poignantly interested in the little situation I had created, and I made haste to answer: "Well, nominally at eight o'clock; but the first half-hour is usually taken up in tuning the instruments. If you get into the pavilion at a quarter to nine you won't lose much. It isn't so bad when it really begins."
The man permitted himself a smile of the pleasure we Americans all feel at having a thing understated in that way. His wife asked timidly, "Do we have to engage our seats in the—pavilion?"
"Oh, no," I laughed; "there's no such rush as that. Haven't you been at the concerts before?"
The man answered for her: "We haven't been here but a few days. I should think," he added to her, "it would be about as comfortable outside of the house." I perceived that he maintained his independence of my superior knowledge by refusing to say "pavilion"; and in fact I do not know whether that is the right name for the building myself.
"It will be hot enough anywhere," I assented, as if the remark had been made to me; but here I drew the line out of self-respect, and resolved that he should make the next advances.
The young girl looked up at the first sound of my voice, and verified me as the elderly man whom she had seen before; and then she looked down at the water again. I understood, and I freely forgave her. If my beard had been brown instead of grey I should have been an adventure; but to the eye of girlhood adventure can never wear a grey beard. I was truly sorry for her; I could read in the pensive droop of her averted face that I was again a disappointment.
They all three sat, without speaking again, in the mannerless silence of Americans. The man was not going to feel bound in further civility to me because I had civilly answered a question of his. I divined that he would be glad to withdraw from the overture he had made; he may have thought from my readiness to meet him half way that I might be one of those sharpers in whom Saratoga probably abounded. This did not offend me; it amused me; I fancied his confusion if he could suddenly know how helplessly and irreparably honest I was.
"I don't know but it's a little too damp here, Rufus," said the wife.
"I don't know but it is," he answered; but none of them moved, and none of them spoke again for some minutes. Then the wife said again, but this time to the friend, "I don't know but it's a little too damp here, Julia," and the friend answered, as the husband had -
"I don't know but it is."
I had two surprises in this slight event. I could never have imagined that the girl had so brunette a name as Julia, or anything less blond in sound than, say, Evadne, at the very darkest; and I had made up my mind—Heaven knows why—that her voice would be harsh. Perhaps I thought it unfair that she should have a sweet voice added to all that beauty and grace of hers; but she had a sweet voice, very tender and melodious, with a plangent note in it that touched me and charmed me. Beautiful and graceful as she was, she had lacked atmosphere before, and now suddenly she had atmosphere. I resolved to keep as near to these people as I could, and not to leave the place as long as they stayed; but I did not think it well to let them feel that I was aesthetically shadowing them, and I got up and strolled away toward the pavilion, keeping an eye in the back of my head upon them.
I sat down in a commanding position, and watched the people gathering for the concert; and in the drama of a group of Cubans, or of South Americans, I almost forgot for a moment the pale idyl of my compatriots at the kiosk. There was a short, stout little Spanish woman speaking in the shapely sentences which the Latin race everywhere delights in, and around her was an increasing number of serious Spanish men, listening as if to important things, and paying her that respectful attention which always amuses and puzzles me. In view of what we think their low estimate of women, I cannot make out whether it is a personal tribute to some specific woman whom they regard differently from all the rest of her sex, or whether they choose to know in her for the nouce the abstract woman who is better than woman in the concrete. I am sure I have never seen men of any other race abandon themselves to such a luxury of respect as these black and grey bearded Spaniards of leaden complexion showed this dumpy personification of womanhood, with their prominent eyes bent in homage upon her, and their hands trembling with readiness to seize their hats off in reverence. It appeared presently that the matter they were all canvassing so devoutly was the question of where she should sit. It seemed to be decided that she could not do better than sit just at that point. When she actually took a chair the stately convocation ended, and its members, with low obeisances, dispersed themselves in different directions. They had probably all been sitting with her the whole afternoon on the verandah of the Everett House, where their race chiefly resorts in Saratoga, and they were availing themselves of this occasion to appear to be meeting her, after a long interval, in society.
I said to myself that of course they believed Saratoga was still that centre of American fashion which it once was, and that they came and went every summer, probably in the belief that they saw a great deal of social gaiety there. This made me think, by a natural series of transitions, of the persons of my American idyl, and I looked about the pavilion everywhere for them without discovering, till the last, that they were just behind me.
I found the fact touching. They had not wished to be in any wise beholden to me, and had even tried to reject my friendly readiness to know them better; but they had probably sought my vicinity in a sense of their loneliness and helplessness, which they hoped I would not divine, but which I divined instantly. Still, I thought it best not to show any consciousness of them, and we sat through the first part of the concert without taking notice of one another. Then the man leaned forward and touched me on the shoulder.
"Will you let me take your programme a minute?"
"Why, certainly," said I.
He took it, and after a vague glance at it he passed it to his wife, who gave it in turn to the young girl. She studied it very briefly, and then, after a questioning look, offered it back to me.
"Won't you keep it?" I entreated. "I've quite done with it."
"Oh, thank you," she answered in her tender voice, and she and the wife looked hard at the man, whom they seemed to unite in pushing forward by that means.
He hemmed, and asked, "Have you been in Saratoga much?"
"Why, yes," I said; "rather a good deal. My wife and I have been here three or four summers."
At the confession of my married state, which this statement implicated, the women exchanged a glance, I fancied, of triumph, as if they had been talking about me, and I had now confirmed the ground they had taken concerning me. Then they joined in goading the man on again with their eyes.
"Which hotel," he asked, "should you say had the most going on?"
The young girl and the wife transferred their gaze to me, with an intensified appeal in it. The man looked away with a certain shame- -the shame of a man who feels that his wife has made him make an ass of himself. I tried to treat his question, by the quantity and quality of my answer, as one of the most natural things in the world; and I probably deceived them all by this effort, though I am sure that I was most truthful and just concerning the claims of the different hotels to be the centre of excitement. I thought I had earned the right to ask at the end, "Are you stopping at the Grand Union?"
"No," he said; and he mentioned one of the smaller hotels, which depend upon the great houses for the entertainment of their guests. "Are you there?" he asked, meaning the Grand Union.
"Oh no," I said; "we couldn't do that sort of thing, even if we wanted." And in my turn I named the modest hotel where we were, and said that I thought it by all odds the pleasantest place in Saratoga. "But I can't say," I added, "that there is a great deal going on there, either. If you want that sort of thing you will have to go to some of the great hotels. We have our little amusements, but they're all rather mild." I kept talking to the man, but really addressing myself to the women. "There's something nearly every evening: prestidigitating, or elocutioning, or a little concert, or charades, or impromptu theatricals, or something of that sort. I can't say there's dancing, though really, I suppose, if any one wanted to dance there would be dancing."
I was aware that the women listened intelligently, even if the man did not. The wife drew a long breath, and said, "It must be very pleasant."
The girl said—rather more hungrily, I fancied—"Yes, indeed."
I don't know why their interest should have prompted me to go on and paint the lily a little, but I certainly did so. I did not stop till the music began again, and I had to stop. By the time the piece was finished I had begun to have my misgivings, and I profited by the brief interval of silence to say to the young girl, "I wouldn't have you think we are a whirl of gaiety exactly."
"Oh no," she answered pathetically, as if she were quite past expecting that or anything like it.
We were silent again. At the end of the next piece they all rose, and the wife said timidly to me, "Well, good-evening," as if she might be venturing too far; and her husband came to her rescue with "Well, good-evening, sir." The young girl merely bowed.
I did not stay much longer, for I was eager to get home and tell my wife about my adventure, which seemed to me of a very rare and thrilling kind. I believed that if I could present it to her duly, it would interest her as much as it had interested me. But somehow, as I went on with it in the lamplight of her room, it seemed to lose colour and specific character.
"You are always making up these romances about young girls being off and disappointed of a good time ever since we saw that poor little Kitty Ellison with her cousins at Niagara," said Mrs. March. "You seem to have it on the brain."
"Because it's the most tragical thing in the world, and the commonest in our transition state," I retorted. I was somewhat exasperated to have my romance treated as so stale a situation, though I was conscious now that it did want perfect novelty. "It's precisely for that reason that I like to break my heart over it. I see it every summer, and it keeps me in a passion of pity. Something ought to be done about it."
"Well, don't YOU try to do anything, Basil, unless you write to the newspapers."
"I suppose," I said, "that if the newspapers could be got to take hold of it, perhaps something might be done." The notion amused me; I went on to play with it, and imagined Saratoga, by a joint effort of the leading journals, recolonised with the social life that once made it the paradise of young people.
"I have been writing to the children," said my wife, "and telling them to stay on at York Harbour if the Herricks want them so much. They would hate it here. You say the girl looked cross. I can't exactly imagine a cross goddess."
"There were lots of cross goddesses," I said rather crossly myself; for I saw that, after having trodden my romance in the dust, she was willing I should pick it up again and shake it off, and I wished to show her that I was not to be so lightly appeased.
"Perhaps I was thinking of angels," she murmured.
"I distinctly didn't say she was an angel," I returned.
"Now, come, Basil; I see you're keeping something back. What did you try to do for those people? Did you tell them where you were stopping?"
"Yes, I did. They asked me, and I told them."
"Did you brag the place up?"
"On the contrary, I understated its merits."
"Oh, very well, then," she said, quite as if I had confessed my guilt; "they will come here, and you will have your romance on your hands for the rest of the month. I'm thankful we're going away the first of August."