The next afternoon, while we were sitting in the park waiting for the Troy band to begin playing, and I was wondering just when they would reach the "Washington Post March," which I like because I can always be sure of it, my unknown friends came strolling our way. The man looked bewildered and bored, with something of desperation in his troubled eye, and his wife looked tired and disheartened. The young girl, still in white duck, wore the same air of passive injury I had noted in her the night before. Their faces all three lighted up at sight of me; but they faded again at the cold and meagre response I made to their smiles under correction of my wife's fears of them. I own it was base of me; but I had begun to feel myself that it might be too large a contract to attempt their consolation, and, in fact, after one is fifty scarcely any romance will keep overnight.
My wife glanced from them to me, and read my cowardly mind; but she waited till they passed, as they did after an involuntary faltering in front of us, and were keeping on down the path, looking at the benches, which were filled on either hand. She said, "Weren't those your friends?"
"They were the persons of my romance."
"No matter. Go after them instantly and bring them back here, poor things. We can make room for them."
I rose. "Isn't this a little too idyllic? Aren't you rather overdoing it?"
"Don't speak to me, Basil! I never heard of anything so atrocious. Go on your knees to them if they refuse! They can sit here with me, and you and he can stand. Fly!"
I knew she was punishing me for her own reluctance; but I flew, in that sense of the term, and easily overhauled them in the tangle of people coming and going in the path, and the nursemaids pushing their perambulators in either direction. Hat in hand I delivered my message. I could see that it gave the women great pleasure and the man some doubt. His mouth fell open a little; their cheeks flushed and their eyes shone.
"I don't know as we better," the wife hesitated; "I'm afraid we'll crowd you." And she looked wistfully toward my wife. The young girl looked at her.
"Not at all!" I cried. "There's an abundance of room. My wife's keeping the places for you,"—in fact, I saw her putting her arm out along the bench, and explaining to a couple who had halted in front of her that the seats were taken—"and she'll be disappointed."
"Well," the woman consented, with a little sigh of triumph that touched me, and reanimated all my interest in her and in her friend. She said, with a sort of shy, instinctive politeness, "I don't know as you and Mr. Deering got acquainted last night."
"My name is March," I said, and I shook the hand of Mr. Deering. It was rather thick.
"And this—is our friend," Mrs. Peering went on, in presentation of me to the young lady, "Miss Gage, that's come with us."
I was delighted that I had guessed their relative qualities so perfectly, and when we arrived at Mrs. March I glibly presented them. My wife was all that I could have wished her to be of sympathetic and intelligent. She did not overdo it by shaking hands, but she made places for the ladies, smiling cordially; and Mrs. Deering made Miss Gage take the seat between them. Her husband and I stood awhile in front of them, and then I said we would go off and find chairs somewhere.
We did not find any till we had climbed to the upland at the south- east of the park, and then only two iron ones, which it was useless to think of transporting. But there was no reason why we should not sit in them where they were: we could keep the ladies in plain sight, and I could not mistake "Washington Post" when the band came to it. Mr. Deering sank into one of the chairs with a sigh of satisfaction which seemed to complete itself when he discovered in the thick grass at his feet a twig from one of the tall, slim pines above us. He bent over for it, and then, as he took out his penknife and clicked open a blade to begin whittling, he cast up a critical glance at the trees.
"Pretty nice pines," he said; and he put his hand on the one next to us with a sort of appreciation that interested me.
"Yes; the trees of Saratoga are the glory of the place," I returned. "I never saw them grow anywhere else so tall and slim. It doesn't seem the effect of crowding either. It's as if there was some chemical force in the soil that shot them up. They're like rockets that haven't left the ground yet."
"It's the crowding," he said seriously, as if the subject were not to be trifled with. "It's the habit of all these trees—pines and oaks and maples, I don't care what they are—to spread, and that's what we tell our customers. Give the trees plenty of room; don't plant 'em too thick if you want to get all the good out of 'em." As if he saw a question in my eye, he went on: "We do a forest-tree business exclusively; these shade-trees, and walnuts, hickories, chestnuts, and all kinds. It's a big trade, getting to be, and growing all the time. Folks have begun to find out what fools they were to destroy the forests, and the children want to buy back what the fathers threw away."
I scarcely needed to prompt him; he was only too glad to talk on about his business, and he spoke with a sort of homesick fondness. He told me that he had his nurseries at De Witt Point, up on the St. Lawrence, where he could raise stock hardy enough for any climate, and ship by land or water.
"I've got to be getting home right away now," he said finally, clicking his knife-blade half shut and open with his thumb.
"It's about time for our evergreen trade, and I don't want the trees to stay a minute in the ground after the middle of the month."
"Won't the ladies find it hard to tear themselves away from the gaieties of Saratoga?" I asked with apparent vagueness.
"Well, that's it," said Mr. Deering; and he shut his knife and slipped it into his pocket, in order to take his knee between his clasped hands and lift his leg from the ground. I have noticed that this is a philosophical attitude with some people, and I was prepared by it for some thoughtful generalising from my companion. "Women would be willing to stay on in a place for a year to see if something wouldn't happen; and if you take 'em away before anything happens, they'll always think that if they'd stayed something would have happened the next day, or maybe the day they left."
He stared upward into the pine boughs, and I said: "Yes, that's so.
I suppose we should be like them if we had the same conditions.
Their whole life is an expectation of something to happen. Men have
the privilege of making things happen—or trying to."
"Oh, I don't know as I want to criticise 'em. As you say, I guess WE should be just so." He dropped his leg, and bent over as if to examine the grass; he ended by taking a blade of it between his teeth before he spoke again, with his head still down. "I don't want to hurry 'em; I want to give 'em a fair show now we're here, and I'll let the stock go as long as I can. But I don't see very much gaiety around."
I laughed. "Why, it's all gaiety, in one way. Saratoga is a perpetual Fourth of July, we think."
"Oh yes; there's enough going on, and my wife and me we could enjoy it first rate."
"If the young lady could?" I ventured, with a smile of sympathetic intelligence.
"Well, yes. You see, we don't know anybody, and I suppose we didn't take that into account. Well, I suppose it's like this: they thought it would be easy to get acquainted in the hotel, and commence having a good time right away. I don't know; my wife had the idea when they cooked it up amongst 'em that she was to come with us. But I SWEAR I don't know how to go about it. I can't seem to make up my mouth to speak to folks first; and then you can't tell whether a man ain't a gambler, or on for the horse-races anyway. So we've been here a week now, and you're the first ones we've spoken to besides the waiters since we came."
I couldn't help laughing, their experience was so exactly as I had imagined it when I first saw this disconsolate party. In my triumph at my own penetration, I would not have had their suffering in the past one pang the less; but the simple frankness of his confession fixed me in the wish that the future might be brighter for them. I thought myself warranted by my wife's imprudence in taking a step toward their further intimacy on my own account, and I said:
"Well, perhaps I ought to tell you that I haven't been inside the Saratoga Club or bet on the races since I've been here. That's my name in full,"—and I gave him my card,—"and I'm in the literary line; that is, I'm the editor of a magazine in New York—the Every Other Week."
"Oh yes; I know who you are," said my companion, with my card in his hand. "Fact is, I was round at your place this morning trying to get rooms, and the clerk told me all about you from my description. I felt as mean as pu'sley goin'; seemed to be takin' kind of an advantage of you."
"Not at all; it's a public house," I interrupted; but I thought I should be stronger with Mrs. March if I did not give the fact away to her, and I resolved to keep it.
"But they couldn't rest easy till I tried, and I was more than half glad there wasn't any rooms."
"Oh, I'm very sorry," I said; and I indulged a real regret from the vantage I had. "It would have been very pleasant to have you there. Perhaps later—we shall be giving up our rooms at the end of the month."
"No," he said, with a long breath. "If I've got to leave 'em, I guess it'll be just as well to leave 'em where they're acquainted with the house anyway." His remark betrayed a point in his thinking which had not perhaps been reached in his talk with the ladies. "It's a quiet place, and they're used to it; and I guess they wouldn't want to stay through the rest of the month, quite. I don't believe my wife would, anyway."
He did not say this very confidently, but hopefully rather, and I thought it afforded me an opening to find out something yet more definite about the ladies.
"Miss Gage is remarkably fine-looking," I began.
"Think so?" he answered. "Well, so does my wife. I don't know as I like her style exactly," he said, with a kind of latent grudge.
"Her style is magnificent," I insisted.
"Well, maybe so. I guess she's good enough looking, if that's what you mean. But I think it's always a kind of a mistake for three persons to come off together, I don't care who they are. Then there's three opinions. She's a nice girl, and a good girl, and she don't put herself forward. But when you've got a young lady on your hands, you've GOT her, and you feel bound to keep doin' something for her all the time; and if you don't know what to do yourself, and your wife can't tell—"
I added intelligently, "Yes."
"Well, that's just where it is. Sometimes I wish the whole dumb town would burn up." I laughed and laughed; and my friend, having begun to unpack his heart, went on to ease it of the rest of its load. I had not waited for this before making some reflections concerning him, but I now formulated them to myself. He really had none of that reserve I had attributed to him the night before; it was merely caution and this is the case with most country people. They are cautious, but not reserved; if they think they can trust you, they keep back none of their affairs; and this is the American character, for we are nearly all country people. I understood him perfectly when he said, "I ruther break stone than go through what I have been through the last week! You understand how it is. 'Tain't as if she said anything; I wish she would; but you feel all the while that it ain't what she expected it to be, and you feel as if it was you that was to blame for the failure. By George! if any man was to come along and make an offer for my contract I would sell out cheap. It's worse because my wife asked her to come, and thought she was doin' her all kinds of a favour to let her. They've always been together, and when we talked of coming to Saratoga this summer, nothing would do my wife but Julia must come with us. Her and her father usually take a trip off somewhere in the hot weather, but this time he couldn't leave; president of our National Bank, and president of the village, too." He threw in the fact of these dignities explanatorily, but with a willingness, I could see, that it should affect me. He went on: "They're kind of connections of my first wife's. Well, she's a nice girl; too nice, I guess, to get along very fast. I see girls all the way along down gettin' acquainted on the cars and boats—we come east on the Ogdensburg road to Rouse's Point, and then took the boat down Lake Champlain and Lake George—but she always seemed to hold back. I don't know's she's proud either; I can't make it out. It balls my wife all up, too. I tell her she's fretted off all the good her trip's goin' to do her before she got it."
He laughed ruefully, and just then the band began to play the
"What tune's that?" he demanded.
"'Washington Post,'" I said, proud of knowing it.
"By George! that tune goes right to a fellow's legs, don't it?"
"It's the new march," I said.
He listened with a simple joy in it, and his pleasure strengthened the mystic bond which had formed itself between us through the confidences he had made me, so flatteringly corroborative of all my guesses concerning him and his party.