I longed to have the chance of bragging to my wife; but this chance did not come till the concert was quite over, after I rejoined her with my companion, and she could take leave of them all without seeming to abandon them. Then I judged it best to let her have the word; for I knew by the way she ran her hand through my arm, and began pushing me along out of earshot, that she was full of it.
"Well, Basil, I think that is the sweetest and simplest and kindest creature in the world, and I'm perfectly in love with her."
I did not believe somehow that she meant the girl, but I thought it best merely to suggest, "There are two."
"You know very well which I mean, and I would do anything I could for her. She's got a difficult problem before her, and I pity her. The girl's very well, and she IS a beauty; and I suppose she HAS been having a dull time, and of course you couldn't please Mrs. Deering half so well as by doing something for her friend. I suppose you're feeling very proud that they're just what you divined."
"Not at all; I'm so used to divining people. How did you know I knew it?"
"I saw you talking to him, and I knew you were pumping him."
"Pumping? He asked nothing better than to flow. He would put to shame the provoked spontaneity of any spring in Saratoga."
"Well, did he say that he was going to leave them here?"
"He would like to do it—yes. He was very sweet and simple and kind, too, Isabel. He complained bitterly of the goddess, and all but said she sulked."
"Why, I don't know," said my wife. "I think, considering, that she is rather amiable. She brightened up more and more."
"That was prosperity, or the hope of it, my dear. Nothing illumines us like the prospect of pleasant things. She took you for society smiling upon her, and of course she smiled back. But it's only the first smile of prosperity that cheers. If it keeps on smiling it ends by making us dissatisfied again. When people are getting into society they are very glad; when they have got in they seem to be rather gloomy. We mustn't let these things go too far. Now that you've got your friends in good humour, the right way is to drop them—to cut them dead when you meet them, to look the other way. That will send them home perfectly radiant."
"Nonsense! I am going to do all I can for them. What do you think we can do? They haven't the first idea how to amuse themselves here. It's a miracle they ever got that dress the girl is wearing. They just made a bold dash because they saw it in a dressmaker's window the first day, and she had to have something. It's killingly becoming to her; but I don't believe they know it, and they don't begin to know how cheap it was: it was simply THROWN away. I'm going shopping with them in the morning."
"But now the question is, what we can do to give them some little glimpse of social gaiety. That's what they've come for."
We were passing the corner of a large enclosure which seems devoted in Saratoga to the most distracting of its pleasures, and I said: "Well, we might give them a turn on the circular railway or the switchback; or we could take them to the Punch and Judy drama, or get their fortunes told in the seeress's tent, or let them fire in the shooting-gallery, or buy some sweet-grass baskets of the Indians; and there is the pop-corn and the lemonade."
"I will tell you what," said Mrs March, who had not been listening to a word I said; for if she had heard me she would not have had patience with my ironical suggestions.
"Or, no; that wouldn't do, either."
"I'm glad you don't approve of the notion, on second thoughts. I didn't like it from the beginning, and I didn't even know what it was."
"We could have them up to the house this evening, and introduce them to some of our friends,—only there isn't a young man in the whole place,—and have them stay to the charades."
"What do you think," I said, "of their having come up this morning and tried to get rooms at our house?"
"Yes; they told me."
"And don't you call that rather forth-putting? It seems to me that it was taking a mean advantage of my brags."
"It was perfectly innocent in them. But now, dearest, don't be tiresome. I know that you like them as well as I do, and I will take all your little teasing affectations for granted. The question is, what can we do for them?"
"And the answer is, I don't in the least know. There isn't any society life at Saratoga that I can see; and if there is, we are not in it. How could we get any one else in? I see that's what you're aiming at. Those public socialities at the big hotels they could get into as well as we could; but they wouldn't be anywhere when they got there, and they wouldn't know what to do. You know what hollow mockeries those things are. Don't you remember that hop we went to with the young Braceys the first summer? If those girls hadn't waltzed with each other they wouldn't have danced a step the whole evening."
"I know, I know," sighed my wife; "it was terrible. But these people are so very unworldly that don't you think they could be deluded into the belief that they were seeing society if we took a little trouble? You used to be so inventive! You could think up something now if you tried."
"My dear, a girl knows beyond all the arts of hoodwinking whether she's having a good time, and your little scheme of passing off one of those hotel hops for a festivity would never work in the world."
"Well, I think it is too bad! What has become of all the easy gaiety there used to be in the world?"
"It has been starched and ironed out of it, apparently. Saratoga is still trying to do the good old American act, with its big hotels and its heterogeneous hops, and I don't suppose there's ever such a thing as a society person at any of them. That wouldn't be so bad. But the unsociety people seem to be afraid of one another. They feel that there is something in the air—something they don't and can't understand; something alien, that judges their old-fashioned American impulse to be sociable, and contemns it. No; we can't do anything for our hapless friends—I can hardly call them our acquaintances. We must avoid them, and keep them merely as a pensive colour in our own vivid memories of Saratoga. If we made them have a good time, and sent them on their way rejoicing, I confess that I should feel myself distinctly a loser. As it is, they're a strain of melancholy poetry in my life, of music in the minor key. I shall always associate their pathos with this hot summer weather, and I shall think of them whenever the thermometer registers eighty-nine. Don't you see the advantage of that? I believe I can ultimately get some literature out of them. If I can think of a fitting fable for them Fulkerson will feature it in Every Other Week. He'll get out a Saratoga number, and come up here and strike the hotels and springs for ad's."
"Well," said Mrs. March, "I wish I had never seen them; and it's all your fault, Basil. Of course, when you played upon my sympathies so about them, I couldn't help feeling interested in them. We are a couple of romantic old geese, my dear."
"Not at all, or at least I'm not. I simply used these people conjecturally to give myself an agreeable pang. I didn't want to know anything more about them than I imagined, and I certainly didn't dream of doing anything for them. You'll spoil everything if you turn them from fiction into fact, and try to manipulate their destiny. Let them alone; they will work it out for themselves."
"You know I can't let them alone now," she lamented. "I am not one of those who can give themselves an agreeable pang with the unhappiness of their fellow-creatures. I'm not satisfied to study them; I want to relieve them."
She went on to praise herself to my disadvantage, as I notice wives will with their husbands, and I did not attempt to deny her this source of consolation. But when she ended by saying, "I believe I shall send you alone," and explained that she had promised Mrs. Deering we would come to their hotel for them after tea, and go with them to hear the music at the United States and the Grand Union, I protested. I said that I always felt too sneaking when I was prowling round those hotels listening to their proprietary concerts, and I was aware of looking so sneaking that I expected every moment to be ordered off their piazzas. As for convoying a party of three strangers about alone, I should certainly not do it.
"Not if I've a headache?"
"Not if you've a headache."
"Oh, very well, then."
"What are you two quarrelling about?" cried a gay voice behind us, and we looked round into the laughing eyes of Miss Dale. She was the one cottager we knew in Saratoga, but when we were with her we felt that we knew everybody, so hospitable was the sense of world which her kindness exhaled.
"It was Mrs. March who was quarrelling," I said. "I was only trying to convince her that she was wrong, and of course one has to lift one's voice. I hope I hadn't the effect of halloaing."
"Well, I merely heard you above the steam harmonicon at the switchback," said Miss Dale. "I don't know whether you call THAT holloaing."
"Oh, Miss Dale," said my wife, "we are in such a fatal—"
"Pickle," I suggested, and she instantly adopted the word in her extremity.
"—pickle with some people that Providence has thrown in our way, and that we want to do something for"; and in a labyrinth of parentheses that no man could have found his way into or out of, she possessed Miss Dale of the whole romantic fact. "It was Mr. March, of course, who first discovered them," she concluded, in plaintive accusation.
"Poor Mr. March!" cried Miss Dale. "Well, it is a pathetic case, but it isn't the only one, if that's any comfort. Saratoga is reeking with just such forlornities the whole summer long; but I can quite understand how you feel about it, Mrs. March." We came to a corner, and she said abruptly: "Excuse my interrupting your quarrel! Not quite so LOUD, Mr. March!" and she flashed back a mocking look at me as she skurried off down the street with astonishing rapidity.
"How perfectly heartless!" cried my wife. "I certainly thought she would suggest something—offer to do something."
"I relied upon her, too," I said; "but now I have my doubts whether she was really going down that street till she saw that it was the best way to escape. We're certainly in trouble, my dear, if people avoid us in this manner."