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The Enchanted City, and Beyond
THEY KNEW none of the hotels in Rochester, and they had chosen a certain one in reliance upon their handbook. When they named it, there stepped forth a porter of an incredibly cordial and pleasant countenance, who took their travelling-bags, and led them to the omnibus. As they were his only passengers, the porter got inside with them, and seeing their interest in the streets through which they rode, he descanted in a strain of cheerful pride upon the city's prosperity and character, and gave the names of the people who lived in the finer houses, just as if it had been an Old-World town, and he some eager historian expecting reward for his comment upon it. He cast quite a glamour over Rochester, so that in passing a body of water, bordered by houses, and overlooked by odd balconies and galleries, and crossed in the distance by a bridge upon which other houses were built, they boldlydeclared, being at their wit's end for a comparison, and taken with the unhoped-for picturesqueness, that it put them in mind of Verona. Thus they reached their hotel in almost a spirit of foreign travel, and very willing to verify the pleasant porter's assurance that they would like it, for everybody liked it; and it was with a sudden sinking of the heart that Basil beheld presiding over the register the conventional American hotel clerk. He was young, he had a neat mustache and well-brushed hair; jewelled studs sparkled in his shirt-front, and rings on his white hands; a gentle disdain of the travelling public breathed from his person in the mystical odors of Ihlang-ihlang. He did not lift his haughty head to look at the wayfarer who meekly wrote his name in the register; he did not answer him when he begged for a cool room; he turned to the board on which the keys hung, and, plucking one from it, slid it towards Basil on the marble counter, touched a bell for a call-boy, whistled a bar of Offenbach, and as he wrote the number of the room against Basil's name, said to a friend lounging near him, as if resuming a conversation, "Well, she's a mighty pooty gul, any way, Chawley!"
When I reflect that this was a type of the hotel clerk throughout the United States, that behind unnumbered registers at this moment he is snubbing travellers into the dust, and that they are suffering and perpetuating him, I am lost in wonder at the national meekness. Not that I am one to refuse the humble pie his jewelled fingers offer me. Abjectly I take my key, and creep off upstairs after the call-boy, and try to give myself the genteel air of one who has not been stepped upon. But I think homicidal things, all the same, and I rejoice that in the safety of print I can cry out against the despot, whom I have not the presence to defy. "You vulgar and cruel little soul," I say, and I imagine myself breathing the words to his teeth, "why do you treat a weary stranger with this ignominy? I am to pay well for what I get, and I shall not complain of that. But look at me, and own my humanity; confess by some civil action, by some decent phrase, that I have rights and that they shall be respected. Answer my proper questions; respond to my fair demands. Do not slide my key at me; do not deny me the poor politeness of a nod as you give it in my hand. I am not your equal; few men are; but I shall not presume upon your clemency. Come, I also am human!"
Basil found that, for his sin in asking for a cool room, the clerk had given them a chamber into which the sun had been shining the whole afternoon; but when his luggage had been put in it seemed useless to protest, and like a true American, like you, like me, he shrank from asserting himself. When the sun went down it would be cool enough; and they turned their thoughts to supper, not venturing to hope that, as it proved, the handsome clerk was the sole blemish of the house.
Isabel viewed with innocent surprise the evidences of luxury afforded by all the appointments of a hotel so far west of Boston, and they both began to feel that natural ease and superiority which an inn always inspires in its guests, and which our great hotels, far from impairing, enhance in flattering degree; in fact, the clerk once forgotten, I protest, for my own part, I am never more conscious of my merits and riches in any other place. One has there the romance of being a stranger and a mystery to every one else, and lives in the alluring possibility of not being found out a most ordinary person.
They were so late in coming to the supper-room, that they found themselves alone in it. At the door they had a bow from the head-waiter, who ran before them and drew out chairs for them at a table, and signalled waiters to serve them, first laying before them with a gracious flourish the bill of fare. A force of servants flocked about them, as if to contest the honor of ordering their supper; one set upon the table a heaping vase of strawberries, another flanked it with flagons of cream, a third accompanied it with cates of varied flavor and device; a fourth obsequiously smoothed the table-cloth; a fifth, the youngest of the five, with folded arms stood by and admired the satisfaction the rest were giving. When these had been despatched for steak, for broiled white-fish of the lakes--noblest and delicatest of the fish that swim--for broiled chicken, for fried potatoes, for muffins, for whatever the lawless fancy and ravening appetites of the wayfarers could suggest, this fifth waiter remained to tempt them to further excess and vainly proposed some kind of eggs,--fried eggs, poached eggs, scrambled eggs, boiled eggs, or omelette.
"Oh, you're sure, dearest, that this isn't a vision of fairy-land, which will vanish presently, and leave us empty and forlorn?" plaintively murmured Isabel, as the menial train re-appeared, bearing the supper they had ordered, and set it smoking down.
Suddenly a look of apprehension dawned upon her face, and she let fall her knife and fork. "You don't think, Basil," she faltered, "that they could have found out we're a bridal party, and that they're serving us so magnificently because--because--Oh, I shall be miserable every moment we're here!" she concluded, desperately.
She looked, indeed, extremely wretched for a woman with so much broiled white-fish on her plate, and such a banquet array about her; and her husband made haste to reassure her. "You're still demoralized, Isabel, by our sufferings at the Albany depot, and you exaggerate the blessings we enjoy, though I should be sorry to undervalue them. I suspect it's the custom to use people well at this hotel; or if we are singled out for uncommon favor, I think I can explain the cause. It has been discovered by the register that we are from Boston, and we are merely meeting the reverence, affection, and homage which the name everywhere commands. It's our fortune to represent for the time being the intellectual and moral virtue of Boston. This supper is not a tribute to you as a bride, but as a Bostonian."
It was a cheap kind of raillery, to be sure, but it served. It kindled the local pride of Isabel to self-defence, and in the distraction of the effort she forgot her fears; she returned with renewed appetite to the supper, and in its excellence they both let fall their dispute,--which ended, of course, in Basil's abject confession that Boston was the best place in the world, and nothing but banishment could make him live elsewhere,--and gave themselves up, as usual, to the delight of being just what and where they were. At last, the natural course brought them to the strawberries, and when the fifth waiter approached from the corner of the table at which he stood, to place the vase near them, he did not retire at once, but presentiy asked if they were from the West.
Isabel smiled, and Basil answered that they were from the East.
He faltered at this, as if doubtful of the result ifhe went further, but took heart, then, and asked, "Don't you think this is a pretty nice hotel"--hastily adding as a concession of the probable existence of much finer things at the East--"for a small hotel?"
They imagined this waiter as new to his station in life, as perhaps just risen to it from some country tavern, and unable to repress his exultation in what seemed their sympathetic presence. They were charmed to have invited his guileless confidence, to have evoked possibly all the simple poetry of his soul; it was what might have happened in Italy, only there so much naiveté would have meant money; they looked at each other with rapture, and Basil answered warmly while the waiter flushed as at a personal compliment: "Yes, it's a nice hotel; one of the best I ever saw, East or West, in Europe or America."
They rose and left the room, and were bowed out by the headwaiter.
"How perfectly idyllic!" cried Isabel. "Is this Rochester, New York, or is it some vale of Arcady? Let's go out and see."
They walked out into the moonlit city, up and down streets that seemed very stately and fine, amidst a glitter of shop-window lights; and then, less of their own motion than of mere error, they quitted the business quarter, and found themselves in a quiet avenue of handsome residences,--the Beacon Street of Rochester, whatever it was called. They said it was a night and a place for lovers, for none but lovers, for lovers newly plighted, andthey made believe to bemoan themselves that, hold each other dear as they would, the exaltation, the thrill, the glory of their younger love was gone. Some of the houses had gardened spaces about them, from which stole, like breaths of sweetest and saddest regret, the perfume of midsummer flowers--the despair of the rose for the bud. As they passed a certain house, a song fluttered out of the open window and ceased, the piano warbled at the final rush of fingers over its chords, and they saw her with her fingers resting lightly on the keys, and her graceful head lifted to look into his; they saw him with his arm yet stretched across to the leaves of music he had been turning, and his face lowered to meet her gaze.
"Ah, Basil, I wish it was we, there!"
"And if they knew that we, on our wedding journey, stood outside, would not they wish it was they, here?"
"I suppose so, dearest, and yet, once-upon-a-time was sweet. Pass on; and let us see what charm we shall find next in this enchanted city."
"Yes, it is an enchanted city to us," mused Basil, aloud, as they wandered on, "and all strange cities are enchanted. What is Rochester to the Rochesterese? A place of a hundred thousand people, as we read in our guide, an immense flour interest, a great railroad entrepot, an unrivalled nursery trade, a university, two commercial colleges, three collegiate institutes, eight or ten newspapers, and a free library. I dare say any respectable resident would laugh at us sentimentalizing over his city. But Rochester is for us, who don't know it at all, a city of any time or country, moonlit, filled with lovers hovering over piano-fortes, of a palatial hotel with pastoral waiters and porters,--a city of handsome streets wrapt in beautiful quiet and dreaming of the golden age. The only definite association with it in our minds is the tragically romantic thought that here Sam Patch met his fate."
"And who in the world was Sam Patch?"
"Isabel, your ignorance of all that an American woman should be proud of distresses me. Have you really, then, never heard of the man who invented the saying, 'Some things can be done as well as others,' and proved it by jumping over Niagara Falls twice? Spurred on by this belief he attempted the leap of the Genesee Falls. The leap was easy enough, but the coming up again was another matter. He failed in that. It was the one thing that could not be done as well as others."
"Dreadful!" said Isabel, with the cheerfullest satisfaction. "But what has all that to do with Rochester?"
"Now, my dear! You don't mean to say you didn't know that the Genesee Falls were at Rochester? Upon my word, I'm ashamed. Why, we're within ten minutes' walk of them now."
"Then walk to them at once!" cried Isabel, wholly unabashed, and in fact unable to see what he had to be ashamed of. "Actually, I believe you would have allowed me to leave Rochester without telling me the falls were here, if you hadn't happened to think of Sam Patch."
Saying this, she persuaded herself that a chief object of their journey had been to visit the scene of Sam Patch's fatal exploit, and she drew Basil with a nervous swiftness in the direction of the railroad station, beyond which he said were the falls. Presently, after threading their way among a multitude of locomotives, with and without trains attached, that backed and advanced, or stood still, hissing impatiently on every side, they passed through the station to a broad planking above the river on the other side, and thence, after encounter of more locomotives, they found, by dint of much asking, a street winding up the hillside to the left, and leading to the German Bierhaus that gives access to the best view of the cataract.
The Americans have characteristically bordered the river with manufactures, making every drop work its passage to the brink; while the Germans have as characteristically made use of the beauty left over, and have built a Bierhaus where they may regale both soul and sense in the presence of the cataract. Our travellers might, in another mood and place, have thought it droll to arrive at that sublime spectacle through a Bierhaus, but in this enchanted city it seemed to have a peculiar fitness.
A narrow corridor gave into a wide festival space occupied by many tables, each of which was surrounded by a group of clamorous Germans of either sex and every age, with tall beakers of beaded lager before them, and slim flasks of Rhenish; overhead flamed the gas in globes of varicolored glass; the walls were painted like those of such haunts in the fatherland; and the wedding-journeyers were fain to linger on their way, to dwell upon that scene of honest enjoyment, to inhale the mingling odors of beer and of pipes, and of the pungent cheeses in which the children of the fatherland delight. Amidst the inspiriting clash of plates and glasses, the rattle of knives and forks, and the hoarse rush of gutturals, they could catch the words Franzosen, Kaiser, Koenig, and Schlacht, and they knew that festive company to be exulting in the first German triumphs of the war, which were then the day's news; they saw fists shaken at noses in fierce exchange of joy, arms tossed abroad in wild congratulation, and health-pouring goblets ofbeer lifted in air. Then they stepped into the moonlight again, and heard only the solemn organ stops of the cataract. Through garden-ground they were led by the little maid, their guide, to a small pavilion that stood on the edge of the precipitous shore, and commanded a perfect view of the falls. As they entered this pavilion, a youth and maiden, clearly lovers, passed out, and they were left alone with that sublime presence. Something of definiteness was to be desired in the spectacle, but there was ample compensation in the mystery with which the broad effulgence and the dense unluminous shadows of the moonshine invested it. The light touched all the tops of the rapids, that seemed to writhe away from the brink of the cataract, and then desperately breaking and perishing to fall, the white disembodied ghosts of rapids, down to the bottom of the vast and deep ravine through which the river rushed away. Now the waters seemed to mass themselves a hundred feet high in a wall of snowy compactness, now to disperse into their multitudinous particles and hang like some vaporous cloud from the cliff. Every moment renewed the vision of beauty in some rare and fantastic shape; and its loveliness isolated it, in spite of the great town on the other shore, the station with its bridge and its trains, the mills that supplied their feeble little needs from the cataract's strength.
At last Basil pointed out the table-rock in the middle of the fall, from which Sam Patch had made his fatal leap; but Isabel refused to admit that tragical figure to the honors of her emotions. "I don't care for him!" she said fiercely. "Patch! What a name to be linked in our thoughts with this superb cataract."
"Well, Isabel, I think you are very unjust. It's as good a name as Leander, to my thinking, and it was immortalized in support of a great idea--the feasibility of all things; while Leander's has come down to us as that of the weak victim of a passion. We shall never have a poetry of our own till we get over this absurd reluctance from facts, till we make the ideal embrace and include the real, till we consent to face the music in our simple common names, and put Smith into a lyric and Jones into a tragedy. The Germans are braver than we, and in them you find facts and dreams continually blended and confronted. Here is a fortunate illustration. The people we met coming out of this pavilion were lovers, and they had been here sentimentalizing on this superb cataract, as you call it, with which my heroic Patch is not worthy to be named. No doubt they had been quoting Uhland or some other of their romantic poets, perhaps singing some of their tender German love-songs, the tenderest, unearthliest love-songs in the world. At the same time they did not disdain the matter-of-fact corporeity in which their sentiment was enshrined; they fed it heartily and abundantly with the banquet whose relics we see here."
On a table before them stood a pair of beer-glasses, in the bottoms of which lurked scarce the foam of the generous liquor lately brimming them; some shreds of sausage, some rinds of Swiss cheese, bits of cold ham, crusts of bread, and the ashes of a pipe.
Isabel shuddered at the spectacle, but made no comment, and Basil went on: "Do you suppose they scorned the idea of Sam Patch as they gazed upon the falls? On the contrary, I've no doubt that he recalled to her the ballad which a poet of their language made about him. It used to go the rounds of the German newspapers, and I translated it, a long while ago, when I thought that I too was in Arkadien geboren.
"'In the Bierhausgarten I linger
By the Falls of the Genesee:
From the Table-Rock in the middle
Leaps a figure bold and free.
"'Aloof in the air it rises
O'er the rush, the plunge, the death;
On the thronging banks of the river
There is neither pulse nor breath.
"'Forever it hovers and poises
Aloof in the moonlit air;
As light as mist from the rapids,
As heavy as nightmare.
"'In anguish I cry to the people,
The long-since vanished hosts;
I see them stretch forth in answer,
The helpless hands of ghosts.'
I once met the poet who wrote this. He drank too much beer."
"I don't see that he got in the name of Sam Patch, after all," said Isabel.
"Oh yes, he did; but I had to yield to our taste, and where he said, 'Springt der Sam Patsch kuehn und frei,' I made it 'Leaps a figure bold and free."'
As they passed through the house on their way out, they saw the youth and maiden they had met at the pavilion door. They were seated at a table; two glasses of beer towered before them; on their plates were odorous crumbs of Limburger cheese. They both wore a pensive air.
The next morning the illusion that had wrapt the whole earth was gone with the moonlight. By nine o'clock, when the wedding-journeyers resumed their way toward Niagara, the heat had already set in with the effect of ordinary midsummer's heat at high noon. The car into which they got had come the past night from Albany, and had an air of almost conscious shabbiness, griminess, and over-use. The seats were covered with cinders, which also crackled under foot. Dust was on everything, especially the persons of the crumpled and weary passengers of overnight. Those who came aboard at Rochester failed to lighten the spiritual gloom, and presently they sank into the common bodily wretchedness. The train was somewhat belated, and as it drew nearer Buffalo they knew the conductor to have abandoned himself to that blackest of the arts, making time. The long irregular jolt of the ordinary progress was reduced to an incessant shudder and a quick lateral motion. The air within the cars was deadly; if a window was raised, a storm of dust and cinders blew in and quick gusts caught away the breath. So they sat with closed windows, sweltering and stifling, and all the faces on which a lively horror was not painted were dull and damp with apathetic misery.
The incidents were in harmony with the abject physical tone of the company. There was a quarrel between a thin, shrill-voiced, highly dressed, much-bedizened Jewess, on the one side, and a fat, greedy old woman, half asleep, and a boy with large pink transparent ears that stood out from his head like the handles of a jar, on the other side, about a seat which the Hebrew wanted, and which the others had kept filled with packages on the pretence that it was engaged. It was a loud and fierce quarrel enough, but it won no sort of favor; and when the Jewess had given a final opinion that the greedy old woman was no lady, and the boy, who disputed in an ironical temper, replied, "Highly complimentary, I must say," there was no sign of relief or other acknowledgment in any of the spectators, that there had been a quarrel.
There was a little more interest taken in the misfortune of an old purblind German and his son, who were found by the conductor to be a few hundred miles out of the direct course to their destination, and were with some trouble and the aid of an Americanized fellow-countryman made aware of the fact. The old man then fell back in the prevailing apathy, and the child naturally cared nothing. By and by came the unsparing train-boy on his rounds, bestrewing the passengers successively with papers, magazines, fine-cut tobacco, and packages of candy. He gave the old man a package of candy, and passed on. The German took it as the bounty of the American people, oddly manifested in a situation where he could otherwise have had little proof of their care. He opened it and was sharing it with his son when the train-boy came back, and metallically, like a part of the machinery, demanded, "Ten cents!" The German stared helplessly, and the boy repeated, "Ten cents! ten cents!" with tiresome patience, while the other passengers smiled. When it had passed through the alien's head that he was to pay for this national gift and he took with his tremulous fingers from the recesses of his pocket-book a ten-cent note and handed it to his tormentor, some of the people laughed. Among the rest, Basil and Isabel laughed, and then looked at each other with eyes of mutual reproach.
"Well, upon my word, my dear," he said, "I think we've fallen pretty low. I've never felt such a poor, shabby ruffian before. Good heavens! To think of our immortal souls being moved to mirth by such a thing as this--so stupid, so barren of all reason of laughter. And then the cruelty of it! What ferocious imbeciles we are! Whom have I married? A woman with neither heart nor brain !"
"Oh, Basil, dear, pay him back the money--do."
"I can't. That's the worst of it. He's money enough, and might justly take offence. What breaks my heart is that we could have the depravity to smile at the mistake of a friendless stranger, who supposed he had at last met with an act of pure kindness. It's a thing to weep over. Look at these grinning wretches! What a fiendish effect their smiles have, through their cinders and sweat! Oh, it's the terrible weather; the despotism of the dust and heat; the wickedness of the infernal air. What a squalid and loathsome company!"
At Buffalo, where they arrived late, they found themselves with several hours' time on their hands before the train started for Niagara, and in the first moments of tedium, Isabel forgot herself into saying, "Don't you think we'd have done better to go directly from Rochester to the Falls, instead of coming this way?"
"Why certainly. I didn't propose coming this way."
"I know it, dear. I was only asking," said Isabel, meekly. "But I should think you'd have generosity enough to take a little of the blame, when I wanted to come out of a romantic feeling for you."
This romantic feeling referred to the fact that, many years before, when Basil made his first visit to Niagara, he had approached from the west by way of Buffalo; and Isabel, who tenderly begrudged his having existed before she knew him, and longed to ally herself retrospectively with his past, was resolved to draw near the great cataract by no other route.
She fetched a little sigh which might mean the weather or his hard-heartedness. The sigh touched him, and he suggested a carriage-ride through the city; she assented with eagerness, for it was what she had been thinking of. She had never seen a lakeside city before, and she was taken by surprise. "If ever we leave Boston," she said, "we will not live at Rochester, as I thought last night; we'll come to Buffalo." She found that the place had all the picturesqueness of a seaport, without the ugliness that attends the rising and falling tides. A delicious freshness breathed from the lake, which lying so smooth, faded into the sky at last, with no line between sharper than that which divides drowsing from dreaming. But the color was the most charming thing, that delicate blue of the lake, without the depth of the sea-blue, but infinitely softer and lovelier. The nearer expanses rippled with dainty waves, silver and lucent; the further levels made, with the sun-dimmed summer sky, a vague horizon of turquoise and amethyst, lit by the white sails of ships, and stained by the smoke of steamers.
"Take me away now," said Isabel, when her eyes had feasted upon all this, "and don't let me see another thing till I get to Niagara. Nothing less sublime is worthy the eyes that have beheld such beauty."
However, on the way to Niagara she consented to glimpses of the river which carries the waters of the lake for their mighty plunge, and which shows itself very nobly from time to time as you draw toward the cataract, with wooded or cultivated islands, and rich farms along its low shores, and at last flashes upon the eye the shining white of the rapids,--a hint, no more, of the splendor and awfulness to be revealed.