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Chapter 5

"I am doing it entirely on Mrs. Deering's I account," said my wife that evening after tea, as we walked down the side-street that descended from our place to Broadway. "She has that girl on her hands, and I know she must be at her wits' end."

"And I do it entirely on Deering's account," I retorted. "He has both of those women on HIS hands."

We emerged into the glistening thoroughfare in front of the vast hotels, and I was struck, as I never fail to be, with its futile and unmeaning splendour. I think there is nothing in our dun-coloured civilisation prettier than that habit the ladies have in Saratoga of going out on the street after dark in their bare heads. When I first saw them wandering about so in the glitter of the shop-windows and the fitful glare of the electrics everywhere, I thought they must be some of those Spanish-Americans mistaking the warm, dry air of the Northern night for that of their own latitudes; but when I came up with them I could hear, if I could not see, that they were of our own race. Those flat and shapeless tones could come through the noses of no other. The beauty and the elegance were also ours, and the fearless trust of circumstance. They sauntered up and down before the gaunt, high porticoes of the hotels, as much at home as they could have been in their own houses, and in much the same dress as if they had been receiving there. The effect is one of incomparable cheer, and is a promise of social brilliancy which Saratoga no more keeps than she does that of her other characteristic aspects; say the forenoon effect of the same thoroughfare, with the piazzas banked with the hotel guests, and the street full of the light equipages which seem peculiar to the place passing and repassing, in the joyous sunlight and out of it, on the leaf-flecked street. Even the public carriages of Saratoga have a fresh, unjaded air; and to issue from the railway station in the midst of those buoyant top-phaetons and surreys, with their light- limbed horses, is to be thrilled by some such insensate expectation of pleasure as fills the heart of a boy at his first sally into the world. I always expect to find my lost youth waiting for me around the corner of the United States Hotel, and I accuse myself of some fault if it disappoints me, as it always does. I can imagine what gaudy hopes by day and by night the bright staging of the potential drama must awaken in the breast of a young girl when she first sees it, and how blank she must feel when the curtain goes down and there has been no play. It was a real anguish to me when that young girl with the Deerings welcomed my wife and me with a hopeful smile, as if we were the dramatis personae, and now the performance must be going to begin. I could see how much our chance acquaintance had brightened the perspective for her, and how eagerly she had repaired all her illusions; and I thought how much better it would have been if she had been left to the dull and spiritless resignation in which I had first seen her. From that there could no fall, at least, and now she had risen from it only to sink again.

But, in fact, the whole party seemed falsely cheered by the event of the afternoon; and in the few moments that we sat with them on their verandah, before going to the music at the Grand Union, I could hear the ladies laughing together, while Deering joyously unfolded to me his plan of going home the next morning and leaving his wife and Miss Gage behind him. "They will stay in this hotel—they might as well—and I guess they can get along. My wife feels more acquainted since she met Mrs. March, and I shan't feel so much like leavin' her among strangers here I don't know when she's taken such a fancy to any one as she has to your wife, or Miss Gage either. I guess she'll want to ask her about the stores."

I said that I believed the fancy was mutual, and that there was nothing my wife liked better than telling people about stores. I added, in generalisation, that when a woman had spent all her own money on dress, it did her quite as much good to see other women spending theirs; and Deering said he guessed that was about so. He gave me a push on the shoulder to make me understand how keenly he appreciated the joke, and I perceived that we had won his heart too.

We joined the ladies, and I thought that my sufferings for her authorised me to attach myself more especially to Miss Gage, and to find out all I could about her. We walked ahead of the others, and I was aware of her making believe that it was quite the same as if she were going to the music with a young man. Not that she seemed disposed to trifle with my grey hairs; I quickly saw that this would not be in character with her; but some sort of illusion was essential to her youth, and she could not help rejuvenating me. This was quite like the goddess she looked, I reflected, but otherwise she was not formidably divine; and, in fact, I suppose the goddesses were, after all, only nice girls at heart. This one, at any rate, I decided, was a very nice girl when she was not sulking; and she was so brightened by her little adventure, which was really no adventure, that I could not believe I had ever seen her sulking.

The hotel people did not keep us from going into the court of the hotel, as I was afraid they might, and we all easily found places. In the pauses of the music I pointed out such notables and characters as I saw about us, and tried to possess her of as much of the Saratoga world as I knew. It was largely there in that bold evidence it loves, and in that social solitude to which the Saratoga of the hotels condemns the denizens of her world. I do not mean that the Saratoga crowd is at all a fast-looking crowd. There are sporting people and gamblers; but the great mass of the frequenters are plain, honest Americans, out upon a holiday from all parts of the country, and of an innocence too inveterate to have grasped the fact that there is no fashion in Saratoga now but the fashion of the ladies' dresses. These, I must say, are of the newest and prettiest; the dressing of the women always strikes me there. My companion was eager to recognise the splendours which she had heard of, and I pointed out an old lady by the door, who sat there displaying upon her vast person an assortment of gems and jewels which she seemed as personally indifferent to as if she were a show- window, and I was glad to have the girl shrink from the spectacle in a kind of mute alarm. I tried to make her share my pleasure in a group of Cubans—fat father, fat mother, fat daughter—who came down the walk toward us in the halo of tropical tradition; but she had not the taste for olives, and I saw that I failed to persuade her of the aesthetic value of this alien element among us. She apparently could do almost as little with some old figures of bygone beaus spectrally revisiting the hotel haunts of their youth; but she was charmed with the sylvan loveliness of that incomparable court. It is, in fact, a park of the tall, slim Saratoga trees enclosed by the quadrangle of the hotel, exquisitely kept, and with its acres of greensward now showing their colour vividly in the light of the electrics, which shone from all sides on the fountain flashing and plashing in the midst. I said that here was that union of the sylvan and the urban which was always the dream of art, and which formed the delicate charm of pastoral poetry; and although I do not think she quite grasped the notion, I saw that she had a pleasure in the visible fact, and that was much better. Besides, she listened very respectfully, and with no signs of being bored.

In the wait between the two parts of the concert I invited her to walk around the court with me, and under the approving eye of Mrs. March we made this expedition. It seemed to me that I could not do a wiser thing, both for the satisfaction of my own curiosity and for the gratification of the autobiographical passion we all feel, than to lead her on to speak of herself. But she had little or nothing to say of herself, and what she said of other things was marked by a straightforward good sense, if not a wide intelligence. I think we make a mistake when we suppose that a beautiful woman must always be vain or conscious.

I fancy that a beauty is quite as often a solid and sensible person, with no inordinate wish to be worshipped, and this young lady struck me as wholly unspoiled by flattery. I decided that she was not the type that would take the fancy of De Witt Point, and that she had grown up without local attention for that reason, or possibly because a certain coldness in her overawed the free spirit of rustic love-making. No doubt she knew that she was beautiful, and I began to think that it was not so much disappointment at finding Saratoga as indifferent as De Witt Point which gave her the effect of disgust I had first noted in her the night before. That might rather have come from the sense of feeling herself a helpless burden on her friends, and from that young longing for companionship which is as far as may be from the desire of conquest, of triumph. Finding her now so gratefully content with the poor efforts to amuse her which an old fellow like me could make, I perceived that the society of other girls would suffice to make Saratoga quite another thing for her, and I cast about in my mind to contrive this somehow.

I confess that I liked her better and better, and before the evening was out I had quite transferred my compassion from the Deerings to her. It WAS forlorn and dreary for her to be attached to this good couple, whose interests were primarily in each other, and who had not the first of those arts which could provide her with other company. She willingly told about their journey to Saratoga, and her story did not differ materially from the account Deering had already given me; but even the outward form of adventure had fallen from their experience since they had come to Saratoga. They had formed the habit of Congress Park by accident; but they had not been to the lake, or the races, or the House of Pansa, or Mount M'Gregor, or Hilton Park, or even the outlying springs. It was the first time they had been inside of the Grand Union. "Then you have never seen the parlour?" I asked; and after the concert I boldly led the way into the parlour, and lavished its magnificence upon them as if I had been the host, or one of the hotel guests at the very least. I enjoyed the breathlessness of the Deerings so much, as we walked up and down the vast drawing-rooms accompanied by our images in the mirrors, that I insisted upon sitting down with them all upon some of the richest pieces of furniture; and I was so flown with my success as cicerone that I made them come with me to the United States. I showed them through the parlours there, and then led them through to the inner verandah, which commanded another wooded court like that of the Grand Union. I tried to make them feel the statelier sentiment of the older hotel, and to stir their imaginations with a picture of the old times, when the Southern planters used to throng the place, and all that was gay and brilliant in fashionable society was to be seen there some time during the summer. I think that I failed in this, but apparently I succeeded in giving them an evening of dazzling splendour.

"Well, sir, this has been a great treat," said Mr. Deering, when he bade us goodbye as well as good-night; he was going early in the morning.

The ladies murmured their gratitude, Mrs. Deering with an emotion that suited her thanks, and Miss Gage with a touch of something daughterly toward me that I thought pretty.

William Dean Howells

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