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The Night Boat
THERE IS LITTLE proportion about either pain or pleasure: a headache darkens the universe while it lasts, a cup of tea really lightens the spirit bereft of all reasonable consolations. Therefore I do not think it trivial or untrue to say that there is for the moment nothing more satisfactory in life than to have bought your ticket on the night boat up the Hudson and secured your stateroom key an hour or two before departure, and some time even before the pressure at the clerk's office has begun. In the transaction with this castellated baron, you have of course been treatedwith haughtiness, but not with ferocity, and your self-respect swells with a sense of having escaped positive insult; your key clicks cheerfully in your pocket against its gutta-percha number, and you walk up and down the gorgeously carpeted, single-columned, two-story cabin, amid a multitude of plush sofas and chairs, a glitter of glass, and a tinkle of prismatic chandeliers overhead, unawed even by the aristocratic gloom of the yellow waiters. Your own state-room, as you enter it from time to time, is an ever-new surprise of splendors, a magnificent effect of amplitude, of mahogany bedstead, of lace curtains, and of marble-topped wash-stand. In the mere wantonness of an unalloyed prosperity you say to the saffron nobleman nearest your door, "Bring me a pitcher of ice-water, quick, please!" and you do not find the half-hour that he is gone very long.
If the ordinary wayfarer experiences so much pleasure from these things, then imagine the infinite comfort of our wedding-journeyers, transported from Broadway on that pitiless afternoon to the shelter and the quiet of that absurdly palatial steamboat. It was not yet crowded, and by the riverside there was almost a freshness in the air. They disposed of their troubling bags and packages; they complimented the ridiculous princeliness of their state-room, and then they betook themselves to the sheltered space aft of the saloon, where they sat down for the
tranquiller observance of the wharf and whatever should come to be seen by them. Like all people who have just escaped with their lives from some menacing calamity, they were very philosophical in spirit; and having got aboard of their own motion, and being neither of them apparently the worse for the ordeal they had passed through, were of a light, conversational temper.
"What an amusingly superb affair!" Basil cried as they glanced through an open window down the long vista of the saloon. "Good heavens! Isabel, does it take all this to get us plain republicans to Albany in comfort and safety, or are we really a nation of princes in disguise? Well, I shall never be satisfied with less hereafter," he added. "I am spoilt for ordinary paint and upholstery from this hour; I am a ruinous spendthrift, and a humble three-story swell-front up at the South End is no longer the place for me. Dearest,
"'Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,'
never to leave this Aladdin's-palace-like steamboat, but spend our lives in perpetual trips up and down the Hudson."
To which not very costly banter Isabel responded in kind, and rapidly sketched the life they could lead aboard. Since they could not help it, they mocked the public provision which, leaving no interval between disgraceful squalor and ludicrous splendor, accommodates our democratic ménage to the taste of the richest and most extravagant plebeian amongst us. He, unhappily, minds danger and oppression as little as he minds money, so long as he has a spectacle and a sensation; and it is this ruthless imbecile who will have lace curtains to the steamboat berth into which he gets with his pantaloons on, and out of which he may be blown by an exploding boiler at any moment; it is he who will have for supper that overgrown and shapeless dinner in the lower saloon, and will not let any one else buy tea or toast for a less sum than he pays for his surfeit; it is he who perpetuates the insolence of the clerk and the reluctance of the waiters; it is he, in fact, who now comes out of the saloon, with his womenkind, and takes chairs under the awning where Basil and Isabel sit. Personally, he is not so bad; he is good-looking, like all of us; he is better dressed than most of us; he behaves himself quietly, if not easily; and no lord so loathes a scene. Next year he is going to Europe, where he will not show to so much advantage as here; but for the present it would be hard to say in what way he is vulgar, and perhaps vulgarity is not so common a thing after all.
It was something besides the river that made the air so much more sufferable than it had been. Over the city, since our friends had come aboard the boat, a black cloud had gathered and now hung low upon it, while the wind from the face of the water took the dust in the neighboring streets, and frolicked it about the house-tops, and in the faces of the
arriving passengers, who, as the moment of departure drew near, appeared in constantly increasing numbers and in greater variety, with not only the trepidation of going upon them, but also with the electrical excitement people feel before a tempest. The breast of the black cloud was now zigzagged from moment to moment by lightning, and claps of deafening thunder broke from it. At last the long endurance of the day was spent, and out of its convulsion burst floods of rain, again and again sweeping the promenade-deck where the people sat, and driving them disconsolate into the saloon. The air was darkened as by night, and with many regrets for the vanishing prospect, mingled with a sense of relief from the heat, our friends felt the boat tremble away from her moorings and set forth upon her trip.
"Ah! if we had only taken the day boat!" moaned Isabel. "Now, we shall see nothing of the river landscape, and we shall never be able to put ourselves down when we long for Europe, by declaring that the scenery of the Hudson is much finer than that of the Rhine."
Yet they resolved, this indomitably good-natured couple, that they would be just even to the elements, which had by no means been generous to them; and they owned that if so noble a storm had celebrated their departure upon some storied river from some more romantic port than New York, they would have thought it an admirable thing. Even whilst they contented themselves, the storm passed, and left a veiled and humid sky overhead, that gave a charming softness to the scene on which their eyes fell when they came out of the saloon again, and took their places with a largely increased companionship on the deck.
They had already reached that part of the river where the uplands begin, and their course was between stately walls of rocky steepness, or wooded slopes, or grassy hollows,the scene forever losing and taking grand and lovely shape. Wreaths of mist hung about the tops of the loftier headlands, and long shadows draped their sides. As the night grew, lights twinkled from a lonely house here and there in the valleys; a swarm of lamps showed a town where it lay upon the lap or at the foot of the hills. Behind them stretched the great gray river, haunted with many sails; now a group of canal-boats grappled together, and having an air of cosiness in their adventure upon this strange current out of their own sluggish waters, drifted out of sight; and now a smaller and slower steamer, making a laborious show of keeping up, was passed, and reluctantly fell behind; along the water's edge rattled and hooted the frequent trains. They could not tell at any time what part of the river they were on, and they could not, if they would, have made its beauty a matter of conscientious observation; but all the more, therefore, they deeply enjoyed it without reference to time or place. They felt some natural pain when they thought that they might unwittingly pass the scenes that Irving has made part of the common dreamland, and they would fain have seen the lighted windows of the house out of which a cheerful ray has penetrated to so many hearts; but being sure of nothing, as they were, they had the comfort of finding the Tappan Zee in every expanse of the river, and of discovering Sunny-Side on every pleasant slope. By virtue of this helplessness, the Hudson, without ceasing to be the Hudson, became from moment to moment all fair and stately streams upon which they had voyaged or read of voyaging, from the Nile to the Mississippi. There is no other travel like river travel; it is the perfection of movement, and one might well desire never to arrive at one's destination. The abundance of room, the free, pure air, the constant delight of the eyes in the changing landscape, the soft tremor of the boat, so steady upon her keel, the variety of the little world on board,--all form a charm which no good heart in a sound body can resist. So, whilst the twilight held, well content, in contiguous chairs, they purred in flattery of their kindly fate, imagining different pleasures, certainly, but none greater, and tasting to its subtlest flavor the happiness conscious of itself.
Their own satisfaction, indeed, was so interesting to them in this objective light, that they had little desire to turn from its contemplation to the people around them; and when at last they did so, it was still with lingering glances of self-recognition and enjoyment. They divined rightly that one of the main conditions of their present felicity was the fact that they had seen so much of time and of the world, that they had no longer any desire to take beholding eyes, or to make any sort of impressive figure, and they understood that their prosperous love accounted as much as years and travel for this result. If they had had a loftier opinion of themselves, their indifference to others might have made them offensive; but with their modest estimate of their own value in the world, they could have all the comfort of self-sufficiency, without its vulgarity.
"0h yes!" said Basil, in answer to some apostrophe to their bliss from Isabel, "it's the greatest imaginable satisfaction to have lived past certain things. I always knew that I was not a very handsome or otherwise captivating person, but I can remember years--now blessedly remote--when I never could see a young girl without hoping she would mistake me for something of that sort. I couldn't help desiring that some fascination of mine, which had escaped my own analysis, would have an effect upon her. I dare say all young men are so.I used to live for the possible interest I might inspire in your sex, Isabel. They controlled my movements, my attitudes; they forbade me repose; and yet I believe I was no ass, but a tolerably sensible fellow. Blessed be marriage, I am free at last! All the loveliness that exists outside of you, dearest--and it's mighty little--is mere pageant to me; and I thank heaven that I can meet the most stylish girl now upon the broad level of our common humanity. Besides, it seems to me that our experience of life has quieted us in many other ways. What a luxury it is to sit here, and reflect that we do not want any of these people to suppose us rich or distinguished or beautiful or well dressed, and do not care to show off in any sort of way before them!"
This content was heightened, no doubt, by a just sense of their contrast to the group of people nearest them,--a young man of the second or third quality and two young girls. The eldest of these was carrying on a vivacious flirtation with the young man, who was apparently an acquaintance of brief standing; the other was scarcely more than a child, and sat somewhat abashed at the sparkle of the colloquy. They were conjecturally sisters going home from some visit, and not skilled in the world, but of a certain repute in their country neighborhood for beauty and wit. The young man presently gave himself out as one who, in pursuit of trade for the dry-goods house he represented, had travelled many thousands of miles in all parts of the country. The encounter was visibly that kind of adventure which both would treasure up for future celebration to their different friends; and it had a brilliancy and interest which they could not even now consent to keep to themselves. They talked to each other and at all the company within hearing, and exchanged curt speeches which had for them all the sensation of repartee.
Young Man. They say that beauty unadorned is adorned the most.
Young Woman (bridling, and twitching her head from side to side, in the high excitement of the dialogue). Flattery is out of place.
Young Man. Well, never mind. If you don't believe me, you ask your mother when you get home.
(Titter from the younger sister.)
Young Woman (scornfully). Umph! my mother has no control over me!
Young Man. Nobody else has, either, I should say. (Admiringly.)
Young Woman. Yes, you've told the truth for once, for a wonder. I'm able to take care of myself--perfectly. (Almost hoarse with a sense of sarcastic performance.)
Young Man. "Whole team and big dog under the wagon," as they say out West.
Young Woman. Better a big dog than a puppy, any day.
(Giggles and horror from the younger sister, sensation in the young man, and so much rapture in the young woman that she drops the key of her state-room from her hand. They both stoop, and a jocose scuffle for it ensues, after which the talk takes an autobiographical turn on the part of the young man, and drops into an unintelligible murmur. Ah! poor Real Life, which I love, can I make others share the delight I find in thy foolish and insipid face?)
Not far from this group sat two Hebrews, one young and the other old, talking of some business out of which the latter had retired. The younger had been asked his opinion upon some point, and he was expanding with a flattered consciousness of the elder's perception of his importance, and toadying to him with the pleasure which all young men feel in winning the favor of seniors in their vocation. "Well, as I was a-say'n', Isaac don't seem to haf no natcheral pent for the glothing business. Man gomes in and wands a goat,"--he seemed to be speaking of a garment and not a domestic animal,--"Isaac'll zell him the goat he wands him to puy, and he'll make him believe it's the goat he was a-lookin' for. Well, now, that's well enough as far as it goes; but you know and I know, Mr. Rosenthal, that that's no way to do business. A man gan't zugzeed that goes upon that brincible. Id's wrong. Id's easy enough to make a man puy the goat you want him to, if he wands a goat, but the thing is to make him puy the goat that you wand to zell when he don't wand no goat at all. You've asked me what I thought and I've dold you. Isaac'll never zugzeed in the redail glothing business in the world!"
"Well," sighed the elder, who filled his arm-chair quite full, and quivered with a comfortable jelly-like tremor in it, at every pulsation of the engine, "I was afraid of something of the kind. As you say, Benjamin, he don't seem to have no pent for it. And yet I proughd him up to the business; I drained him to it, myself."
Besides these talkers, there were scattered singly, or grouped about in twos and threes and fours, the various people one encounters on a Hudson River boat, who are on the whole different from the passengers on other rivers, though they all have features in common. There was that man of the sudden gains, who has already been typified; and there was also the smoother rich man of inherited wealth, from whom you can somehow know the former so readily. They were each attended by their several retinues of womankind, the daughters all much alike, but the mothers somewhat different. They were going to Saratoga, where perhaps the exigencies of fashion would bring them acquainted, and where the blue blood of a quarter of a century would be kind to the yesterday's fluid of warmer hue. There was something pleasanter in the face of the hereditary aristocrat, but not so strong nor, altogether, so admirable; particularly if you reflected that he really represented nothing in the world, no great culture, no political influence, no civic aspiration, not even a pecuniary force, nothing but a social set, an alien club-life, a tradition of dining. We live in a true fairy-land after all, where the hoarded treasure turns to a heap of dry leaves. The almighty dollar defeats itself and finally buys nothing that a man cares to have. The very highest pleasure that such an American's money can purchase is exile, and to this rich man doubtless Europe is a twice-told tale. Let us clap our empty pockets, dearest reader, and be glad.
We can be as glad, apparently, and with the same reason as the poorly dressed young man standingnear beside the guard, whose face Basil and Isabel chose to fancy that of a poet, and concerning whom they romanced that he was going home, wherever his home was, with the manuscript of a rejected book in his pocket. They imagined him no great things of a poet, to be sure, but his pensive face claimed delicate feeling for him, and a graceful, sombre fancy, and they conjectured unconsciously caught flavors of Tennyson and Browning in his verse, with a moderner tint from Morris; for was it not a story out of mythology, with gods and heroes of the nineteenth century, that he was now carrying back from New York with him? Basil sketched from the colors of his own long-accepted disappointments a moving little picture of this poor imagined poet's adventures; with what kindness and unkindness he had been put to shame by publishers, and how, descending from his high hopes of a book, he had tried to sell to the magazines some of the shorter pieces out of the "And other Poems" which were to have filled up the volume. "He's going back rather stunned and bewildered; but it's something to have tasted the city, and its bitter may turn to sweet on his palate, at last, till he finds himself longing for the tumult that he abhors now. Poor fellow! one compassionate cutthroat of a publisher even asked him to lunch, being struck, as we are, with something fine in his face. I hope he's got somebody who believes in him, at home. Otherwise he'd be more comfortable, for the present, if he went over the railing there."
So the play of which they were both actors and spectators went on about them. Like all passages of life, it seemed now a grotesque mystery, with a bluntly enforced moral, now a farce of the broadest, now a latent tragedy folded in the disguises of comedy. All the elements, indeed, of either were at work there, and this was but one brief scene of the immense complex drama which was to proceed so variously in such different times and places, and to have its dénouement only in eternity. The contrasts were sharp; each group had its travesty in some other; the talk of one seemed the rude burlesque, the bitter satire of the next; but of all these parodies none was so terribly effective as the two women, who sat in the midst of the company, yet were somehow distinct from the rest. One wore the deepest black of widowhood, the other was dressed in bridal white, and they were both alike awful in their mockery of guiltless sorrow and guiltless joy. They were not old, but the soul of youth was dead in their pretty, lamentable faces, and ruin ancient as sin looked from their eyes; their talk and laughter seemed the echo of an innumerable multitude of the lost haunting the world in every land and time, each solitary forever, yet all bound together in the unity of an imperishable slavery and shame.
What a stale effect! What hackneyed characters! Let us be glad the night drops her curtain upon the cheap spectacle, and shuts these with the other actors from our view.
Within the cabin through which Basil and Isabel now slowly moved there were numbers of people lounging about on the sofas, in various attitudes of talk or vacancy; and at the tables there were others reading "Lothair," a new book in the remote epoch of which I write, and a very fashionable book indeed. There was in the air that odor of paint and carpet which prevails on steamboats; the glass drops of the chandeliers ticked softly against each other, as the vessel shook with her respiration, like a comfortable sleeper, and imparted a delicious feeling of cosiness and security to our travellers.
A few hours later they struggled awake at the sharp sound of the pilot's bell signalling the engineer to slow the boat. There was a moment of perfect silence; then all the drops of the chandeliers in the saloon clashed musically together; then fell another silence; and at last came wild cries for help, strongly qualified with blasphemies and curses. "Send out a boat!" "There was a woman aboard that steamboat!" "Lower your boats!" "Run a craft right down, with your big boat!" "Send out a boat and pick up the crew!" The cries rose and sank, and finally ceased; through the lattice of the state-room window some lights shone faintly on the water at a distance.
"Wait here, Isabel!" said her husband. "We've run down a boat. We don't seem hurt; but I'll go see. I'll be back in a minute.
Isabel had emerged into a world of dishabille, a world wildly unbuttoned and unlaced, where it was the fashion for ladies to wear their hair down their backs, and to walk about in their stockings, and to speak to each other without introduction. The place with which she had felt so familiar a little while before was now utterly estranged. There was no motion of the boat, and in the momentary suspense a quiet prevailed, in which those grotesque shapes of disarray crept noiselessly round whispering panic-stricken conjectures. There was no rushing to and fro, nor tumult of any kind, and there was not a man to be seen, for apparently they had all gone like Basil to learn the extent of the calamity. A mist of sleep involved the whole, and it was such a topsy-turvy world that it would have seemed only another dreamland, but that it was marked for reality by one signal fact. With the rest appeared the woman in bridal white and the woman in widow's black, and there, amidst the fright that made all others friends, and for aught that most knew, in the presence of death itselt, these two moved together shunned and friendless.
Somehow, even before Basil returned, it had become known to Isabel and the rest that their own steamer had suffered no harm, but that she had struck and sunk another convoying a flotilla of canal-boats, from which those alarming cries and curses had come. The steamer was now lying by for the small boats she had sent out to pick up the crew of the sunken vessel.
"Why, I only heard a little tinkling of the chandeliers," said one of the ladies. "Is it such a very slight matter to run down another boat and sink it?"
She appealed indirectly to Basil, who answered lightly, "I don't think you ladies ought to have been disturbed at all. In running over a common tow-boat on a perfectly clear night like this there should have been no noise and no perceptible jar. They manage better on the Mississippi, and both boats often go down without waking the lightest sleeper on board."
The ladies, perhaps from a deficient sense of humor, listened with undisguised displeasure to this speech. It dispersed them, in fact; some turned away to bivouac for the rest of the night upon the arm-chairs and sofas, while others returned to their rooms. With the latter went Isabel. "Lock me in, Basil," she said, with a bold meekness, "and if anything more happens don't wake me till the last moment." It was hard to part from him, but she felt that his vigil would somehow be useful to the boat, and she confidingly fell into a sleep that lasted till daylight.
Meantime, her husband, on whom she had tacitly devolved so great a responsibility, went forward to the promenade in front of the saloon, in hopes of learning something more of the catastrophe from the people whom he had already found gathered there.
A large part of the passengers were still there, seated or standing about in earnest colloquy. They were in that mood which follows great excitement, and in which the feeblest-minded are sure to lead the talk. At such times one feels that a sensible frame of mind is unsympathetic, and if expressed, unpopular, or perhaps not quite safe; and Basil, warned by his fate with the ladies, listened gravely to the voice of the common imbecility and incoherence.
The principal speaker was a tall person, wearing a silk travelling-cap. He had a face of stupid benignity and a self-satisfied smirk; and he was formally trying to put at his ease, and hopelessly confusing the loutish youth before him. "You say you saw the whole accident, and you're probably the only passenger that did see it. You'll be the most important witness at the trial," he added, as if there would ever be any trial about it. "Now, how did the tow-boat hit us?"
"Well, she came bows on."
"Ah! bows on," repeated the other, with great satisfaction; and a little murmur of "Bows on!" ran round the listening circle.
"That is," added the witness, "it seemed as if we struck her amidships, and cut her in two, and sunk her."
"Just so," continued the examiner, accepting the explanation, "bows on. Now I want to ask if you saw our captain or any of the crew about?"
"Not a soul," said the witness, with the solemnity of a man already on oath.
"That'll do," exclaimed the other. "This gentleman's experience coincides exactly with my own. I didn't see the collision, but I did see the cloud of steam from the sinking boat, and I saw her go down. There wasn't an officer to be found anywhere on board our boat. I looked about for the captain and the mate myself and couldn't find either of them high or low."
"The officers ought all to have been sitting here on the promenade deck," suggested one ironical spirit in the crowd, but no one noticed him.
The gentleman in the silk travelling-cap now took a chair, and a number of sympathetic listeners drew their chairs about him, and then began an interchange of experience, in which each related to the last particular all that he felt, thought, and said, and, if married, what his wife felt, thought, and said, at the moment of the calamity. They turned the disaster over and over in their talk, and rolled it under their tongues. Then they reverted to former accidents in which they had been concerned; and the silk-capped gentleman told, to the common admiration, of a fearful escape of his on the Erie Road, from being thrown down a steep embankment fifty feet high by a piece of rock that had fallen on the track. "Now just see, gentlemen, what a little thing, humanly speaking, life depends upon. If that old woman had been able to sleep, and hadn't sent that boy down to warn the train, we should have run into the rock and been dashed to pieces. The passengers made up a purse for the boy, and I wrote a full account of it to the papers."
"Well," said one of the group, a man in a hard hat, "I never lie down on a steamboat or a railroad train. I want to be ready for whatever happens."
The others looked at this speaker with interest, as one who had invented a safe method of travel.
"I happened to be up to-night, but I almost always undress and go to bed, just as if I were in my own house," said the gentleman of the silk cap. "I don't say your way isn't the best, but that's my way."
The champions of the rival systems debated their merits with suavity and mutual respect, but they met with scornful silence a compromising spirit who held that it was better to throw off your coat and boots, but keep your pantaloons on. Meanwhile, the steamer was hanging idle upon the current, against which it now and then stirred a careless wheel, still waiting for the returr of the small boats. Thin gray clouds, through rifts of which a star sparkled keenly here and there, veiled the heavens; shadowy bluffs loomed up on either hand; in a hollow on the left twinkled a drowsy little town; a beautiful stillness lay on all.
After an hour's interval a shout was heard from far down the river; then later the plash of oars; then a cry hailing the approaching boats, and the answer, "All safe!" Presently the boats had come alongside, and the passengers crowded down to the guard to learn the details of the search. Basil heard a hollow, moaning, gurgling sound, regular as that of the machinery, for some note of which he mistook it. "Clear the gangway there!" shouted a gruff voice; "man scalded, here!" And a burden was carried by from which fluttered, with its terrible regularity, that utterance of mortal anguish.
Basil went again to the forward promenade, and sat down to see the morning come.
The boat swiftly ascended the current, and presently the steeper shores were left behind and the banks fell away in long upward sloping fields, with farm-houses and with stacks of harvest dimly visible in the generous expanses. By and by they passed a fisherman drawing his nets, and bending from his boat, there near Albany, N. Y., in the picturesque immortal attitudes of Raphael's Galilean fisherman; and now a flush mounted the pale face of the east, and through the dewy coolness of the dawn there came, more to the sight than any other sense, a vague menace of heat.
But as yet the air was deliciously fresh and sweet, and Basil bathed his weariness in it, thinking with a certain luxurious compassion of the scalded man, and how he was to fare that day. This poor wretch seemed of another order of beings, as the calamitous always seem to the happy, and Basil's pity was quite an abstraction; which, again, amused and shocked him, and he asked his heart of bliss to consider of sorrow a little more earnestly as the lot of all men, and not merely of an alien creature here and there. He dutifully tried to imagine another issue to the disaster of the night, and to realize himself suddenly bereft of her who so filled his life. He bade his soul remember that, in the security of sleep, Death had passed them both so close that his presence might well have chilled their dreams, as the iceberg that grazes the ship in the night freezes all the air about it. But it was quite idle: where love was, life only was; and sense and spirit alike put aside the burden that he would have laid upon them; his revery reflected with delicious caprice the looks, the tones, the movements that he loved, and bore him far away from the sad images that he had invited to mirror themselves in it.