Our friends returned by the shore of the Canadian rapids, having traversed the island by a path through the heart of the woods, and now drew slowly near the Falls again. All parts of the prodigious pageant have an eternal novelty, and they beheld the ever-varying effect of that constant sublimity with the sense of discoverers, or rather of people whose great fortune it is to see the marvel in its beginning, and new from the creating hand. The morning hour lent its sunny charm to this illusion, while in the cavernous precipices of the shores, dark with evergreens, a mystery as of primeval night seemed to linger. There was a wild fluttering of their nerves, a rapture with an under-consciousness of pain, the exaltation of peril and escape, when they came to the three little isles that extend from Goat Island, one beyond another far out into the furious channel. Three pretty suspension-bridges connect them now with the larger island, and under each of these flounders a huge rapid, and hurls itself away to mingle with the ruin of the fall. The Three Sisters are mere fragments of wilderness, clumps of vine-tangled woods, planted upon masses of rock; but they are part of the fascination of Niagara which no one resists; nor could Isabel have been persuaded from exploring them. It wants no courage to do this, but merely submission to the local sorcery, and the adventurer has no other reward than the consciousness of having been where but a few years before no human being had perhaps set foot. She grossed from bridge to bridge with a quaking heart, and at last stood upon the outermost isle, whence, through the screen of vines and boughs, she gave fearful glances at the heaving and tossing flood beyond, from every wave of which at every instant she rescued herself with a desperate struggle. The exertion told heavily upon her strength unawares, and she suddenly made Basil another revelation of character. Without the slightest warning she sank down at the root of a tree, and said, with serious composure, that she could never go back on those bridges; they were not safe. He stared at her cowering form in blank amaze, and put his hands in his pockets. Then it occurred to his dull masculine sense that it must be a joke; and he said, "Well, I'll have you taken off in a boat."
"O do, Basil, do, have me taken off in a boat!" implored Isabel. "You see yourself the Midges are not safe. Do get a boat."
"Or a balloon," he suggested, humoring the pleasantry.
Isabel burst into tears; and now he went on his knees at her side, and took her hands in his. "Isabel! Isabel! Are you crazy?" he cried, as if he meant to go mad himself. She moaned and shuddered in reply; he said, to mend matters, that it was a jest, about the boat; and he was driven to despair when Isabel repeated, "I never can go back by the bridges, never."
"But what do you propose to do?"
"I don't know, I don't know!"
He would try sarcasm. "Do you intend to set up a hermitage here, and have your meals sent out from the hotel? It's a charming spot, and visited pretty constantly; but it's small, even for a hermitage."
Isabel moaned again with her hands still on her eyes, and wondered that he was not ashamed to make fun of her.
He would try kindness. "Perhaps, darling, you'll let me carry you ashore."
"No, that will bring double the weight on the bridge at once."
"Couldn't you shut your eyes, and let me lead you?"
"Why, it isn't the sight of the rapids," she said, looking up fiercely. "The bridges "are not safe. I'm not a child, Basil. O, what shall we do?"
"I don't know," said Basil, gloomily. "It's an exigency for which I wasn't prepared." Then he silently gave himself to the Evil One, for having probably overwrought Isabel's nerves by repeating that poem about Avery, and by the ensuing talk about Niagara, which she had seemed to enjoy so much. He asked her if that was it; and she answered, "O no, it's nothing but the bridges." He proved to her that the bridges, upon all known principles, were perfectly safe, and that they could not give way. She shook her head, but made no answer, and he lost his patience.
"Isabel," he cried, "I'm ashamed of you!"
"Don't say anything you'll be sorry for afterwards, Basil," she replied, with the forbearance of those who have reason and justice on their side.
The rapids beat and shouted round their little prison-isle, each billow leaping as if possessed by a separate demon. The absurd horror of the situation overwhelmed him. He dared not attempt to carry her ashore, for she might spring from his grasp into the flood. He could not leave her to call for help; and what if nobody came till she lost her mind from terror? Or, what if somebody should come and find them in that ridiculous affliction?
Somebody was coming!
"Isabel!" he shouted in her ear, "here come those people we saw in the parlor last night."
Isabel dashed her veil over her face, clutched Basil's with her icy hand, rose, drew her arm convulsively through his, and walked ashore without a word.
In a sheltered nook they sat down, and she quickly "repaired her drooping head and tricked her beams" again. He could see her tearfully smiling through her veil. "My dear," he said, "I don't ask an explanation of your fright, for I don't suppose you could give it. But should you mind telling me why those people were so sovereign against it?"
"Why, dearest! Don't you understand? That Mrs. Richard—whoever she is —is so much like me."
She looked at him as if she had made the most satisfying statement, and he thought he had better not ask further then, but wait in hope that the meaning would come to him. They walked on in silence till they came to the Biddle Stairs, at the head of which is a notice that persons have been killed by pieces of rock from the precipice overhanging the shore below, and warning people that they descend at their peril. Isabel declined to visit the Cave of the Winds, to which these stairs lead, but was willing to risk the ascent of Terrapin Tower. "Thanks; no," said her husband. "You might find it unsafe to come back the way you went up. We can't count certainly upon the appearance of the lady who is so much like you; and I've no fancy for spending my life on Terrapin Tower." So he found her a seat, and went alone to the top of the audacious little structure standing on the verge of the cataract, between the smooth curve of the Horse-Shoe and the sculptured front of the Central Fall, with the stormy sea of the Rapids behind, and the river, dim seen through the mists, crawling away between its lofty bluffs before. He knew again the awful delight with which so long ago he had watched the changes in the beauty of the Canadian Fall as it hung a mass of translucent green from the brink, and a pearly white seemed to crawl up from the abyss, and penetrate all its substance to the very crest, and then suddenly vanished from it, and perpetually renewed the same effect. The mystery of the rising vapors veiled the gulf into which the cataract swooped; the sun shone, and a rainbow dreamed upon them.
Near the foot of the tower, some loose rocks extend quite to the verge, and here Basil saw an elderly gentleman skipping from one slippery stone to another, and looking down from time to time into the abyss, who, when he had amused himself long enough in this way, clambered up on the plank bridge. Basil, who had descended by this time, made bold to say that he thought the diversion an odd one and rather dangerous. The gentleman took this in good part, and owned it might seem so, but added that a distinguished phrenologist had examined his head, and told him he had equilibrium so large that he could go anywhere.
"On your bridal tour, I presume," he continued, as they approached the bench where Basil had left Isabel. She had now the company of a plain, middle-aged woman, whose attire hesitatingly expressed some inward festivity, and had a certain reluctant fashionableness. "Well, this is my third bridal tour to Niagara, and my wife 's been here once before on the same business. We see a good many changes. I used to stand on Table Rock with the others. Now that's all gone. Well, old lady, shall we move on?" he asked; and this bridal pair passed up the path, attended, haply, by the guardian spirits of those who gave the place so many sad yet pleasing associations.
At dinner, Mr. Richard's party sat at the table next Basil's, and they were all now talking cheerfully over the emptiness of the spacious dining-hall.
"Well, Kitty," the married lady was saying, you can tell the girls what you please about the gayeties of Niagara, when you get home. They'll believe anything sooner than the truth."
"O yes, indeed," said Kitty, "I've got a good deal of it made up already. I'll describe a grand hop at the hotel, with fashionable people from all parts of the country, and the gentlemen I danced with the most. I'm going to have had quite a flirtation with the gentleman of the long blond mustache, whom we met on the bridge this morning and he's got to do duty in accounting for my missing glove. It'll never do to tell the girls I dropped it from the top of Terrapin Tower. Then you know, Fanny, I really can say something about dining with aristocratic Southerners, waited upon by their black servants."
This referred to the sad-faced patrician whom Basil and Isabel had noted in the cars from Buffalo as a Southerner probably coming North for the first time since the war. He had an air at once fierce and sad, and a half-barbaric, homicidal gentility of manner fascinating enough in its way. He sat with his wife at a table farther down the room, and their child was served in part by a little tan-colored nurse-maid. The fact did not quite answer to the young lady's description of it, and get it certainly afforded her a ground-work. Basil fancied a sort of bewilderment in the Southerner, and explained it upon the theory that he used to come every year to Niagara before the war, and was now puzzled to find it so changed.
"Yes," he said, "I can't account for him except as the ghost of Southern travel, and I can't help feeling a little sorry for him. I suppose that almost any evil commends itself by its ruin; the wrecks of slavery are fast growing a fungus crop of sentiment, and they may yet outflourish the remains of the feudal system in the kind of poetry they produce. The impoverished slave-holder is a pathetic figure, in spite of all justice and reason, the beaten rebel does move us to compassion, and it is of no use to think of Andersonville in his presence. This gentleman, and others like him, used to be the lords of our summer resorts. They spent the money they did not earn like princes; they held their heads high; they trampled upon the Abolitionist in his lair; they received the homage of the doughface in his home. They came up here from their rice-swamps and cotton-fields, and bullied the whole busy civilization of the North. Everybody who had merchandise or principles to sell truckled to them, and travel amongst us was a triumphal progress. Now they're moneyless and subjugated (as they call it), there's none so poor to do them reverence, and it's left for me, an Abolitionist from the cradle, to sigh over their fate. After all, they had noble traits, and it was no great wonder they got, to despise us, seeing what most of us were. It seems to me I should like to know our friend. I can't help feeling towards him as towards a fallen prince, heaven help my craven spirit! I wonder how our colored waiter feels towards him. I dare say he admires him immensely."
There were not above a dozen other people in tie room, and Basil contrasted the scene with that which the same place formerly presented. "In the old time," he said, "every table was full, and we dined to the music of a brass band. I can't say I liked the band, but I miss it. I wonder if our Southern friend misses it? They gave us a very small allowance of brass band when we arrived, Isabel. Upon my word, I wonder what's come over the place," he said, as the Southern party, rising from the table, walked out of the dining-room, attended by many treacherous echoes in spite of an ostentatious clatter of dishes that the waiters made.
After dinner they drove on the Canada shore up past the Clifton House, towards the Burning Spring, which is not the least wonder of Niagara. As each bubble breaks upon the troubled surface, and yields its flash of infernal flame and its whiff of sulphurous stench, it seems hardly strange that the Neutral Nation should have revered the cataract as a demon; and another subtle spell (not to be broken even by the business- like composure of the man who shows off the hell-broth) is added to those successive sorceries by which Niagara gradually changes from a thing of beauty to a thing of terror. By all odds, too, the most tremendous view of the Falls is afforded by the point on the drive whence you look down upon the Horse-Shoe, and behold its three massive walls of sea rounding and sweeping into the gulf together, the color gone, and the smooth brink showing black and ridgy.
Would they not go to the battle-field of Lundy's Lane? asked the driver at a certain point on their return; but Isabel did not care for battle- fields, and Basil preferred to keep intact the reminiscence of his former visit. "They have a sort of tower of observation built on the battle- ground," he said, as they drove on down by the river, "and it was in charge of an old Canadian militia-man, who had helped his countrymen to be beaten in the fight. This hero gave me a simple and unintelligible account of the battle, asking me first if I had ever heard of General Scott, and adding without flinching that here he got his earliest laurels. He seemed to go just so long to every listener, and nothing could stop him short, so I fell into a revery until he came to an end. It was hard to remember, that sweet summer morning, when the sun shone, and the birds sang, and the music of a piano and a girl's voice rose from a bowery cottage near, that all the pure air had once been tainted with battle-smoke, that the peaceful fields had been planted with cannon, instead of potatoes and corn, and that where the cows came down the farmer's lane, with tinkling bells, the shock of armed men had befallen. The blue and tranquil Ontario gleamed far away, and far away rolled the beautiful land, with farm-houses, fields, and woods, and at the foot of the tower lay the pretty village. The battle of the past seemed only a vagary of mine; yet how could I doubt the warrior at my elbow?—grieved though I was to find that a habit of strong drink had the better of his utterance that morning. My driver explained afterwards, that persons visiting the field were commonly so much pleased with the captain's eloquence, that they kept the noble old soldier in a brandy and-water rapture throughout the season, thereby greatly refreshing his memory, and making the battle bloodier and bloodier as the season advanced and the number of visitors increased. There my dear," he suddenly broke off, as they came in sight of a slender stream of water that escaped from the brow of a cliff on the American side below the Falls, and spun itself into a gauze of silvery mist, "that's the Bridal Veil; and I suppose you think the stream, which is making such a fine display, yonder, is some idle brooklet, ending a long course of error and worthlessness by that spectacular plunge. It's nothing of the kind; it's an honest hydraulio canal, of the most straightforward character, a poor but respectable mill-race which has devoted itself strictly to business, and has turned mill-wheels instead of fooling round water-lilies. It can afford that ultimate finery. What you behold in the Bridal Veil, my love, is the apotheosis of industry."
"What I can't help thinking of," said Isabel, who had not paid the smallest attention to the Bridal Veil, or anything about it, "is the awfulness of stepping off these places in the night-time." She referred to the road which, next the precipice, is unguarded by any sort of parapet. In Europe a strong wall would secure it, but we manage things differently on our continent, and carriages go running over the brink from time to time.
"If your thoughts have that direction," answered her husband, "we had better go back to the hotel, and leave the Whirlpool for to-morrow morning. It's late for it to-day, at any rate." He had treated Isabel since the adventure on the Three Sisters with a superiority which he felt himself to be very odious, but which he could not disuse.
"I'm not afraid," she sighed, "but in the words of the retreating soldier, I—I'm awfully demoralized;" and added, "You know we must reserve some of the vital forces for shopping this evening."
Part of their business also was to buy the tickets for their return to Boston by way of Montreal and Quebec, and it was part of their pleasure to get these of the heartiest imaginable ticket-agent. He was a colonel or at least a major, and he made a polite feint of calling Basil by some military title. He commended the trip they were about to make as the most magnificent and beautiful on the whole continent, and he commended them for intending to make it. He said that was Mrs. General Bowdur of Philadelphia who just went out; did they know her? Somehow, the titles affected Basil as of older date than the late war, and as belonging to the militia period; and he imagined for the agent the romance of a life spent at a watering-place, in contact with rich money-spending, pleasure- taking people, who formed his whole jovial world. The Colonel, who included them in this world, and thereby brevetted them rich and fashionable, could not secure a state-room for them on the boat,—a perfectly splendid Lake steamer, which would take them down the rapids of the St. Lawrence, and on to Montreal without change,—but he would give them a letter to the captain, who was a very particular friend of his, and would be happy to show them as his friends every attention; and so he wrote a note ascribing peculiar merits to Basil, and in spite of all reason making him feel for the moment that he was privileged by a document which was no doubt part of every such transaction. He spoke in a loud cheerful voice; he laughed jollily at no apparent joke; he bowed very low and said, "GOOD-evening!" at parting, and they went away as if he had blessed them.
The rest of the evening they spent in wandering through the village, charmed with its bizarre mixture of quaintness and commonplaceness; in hanging about the shop-Windows with their monotonous variety of feather fans,—each with a violently red or yellow bird painfully sacrificed in its centre,—moccasons, bead-wrought work-bags, tobacco-pouches, bows and arrows, and whatever else the savage art of the neighboring squaws can invent; in sauntering through these gay booths, pricing many things, and in hanging long and undecidedly over cases full of feldspar crosses, quartz bracelets and necklaces, and every manner of vase, inoperative pitcher, and other vessel that can be fashioned out of the geological formations at Niagara, tormented meantime by the heat of the gas-lights and the persistence of the mosquitoes. There were very few people besides themselves in the shops, and Isabel's purchases were not lavish. Her husband had made up his mind to get her some little keepsake; and when he had taken her to the hotel he ran back to one of the shops, and hastily bought her a feather fan,—a magnificent thing of deep magenta dye shading into blue, with a whole yellow-bird transfixed in the centre. When he triumphantly displayed it in their room, "Who's that for, Basil?" demanded his wife; "the cook?" But seeing his ghastly look at this, she fell upon his neck, crying, "O you poor old tasteless darling! You've got it for me!" and seemed about to die of laughter.
"Didn't you start and throw up your hands," he stammered, "when you came to that case of fans?"
"Yes,—in horror! Did you think I liked the cruel things, with their dead birds and their hideous colors? O Basil, dearest! You are incorrigible. Can't you learn that magenta is the vilest of all the hues that the perverseness of man has invented in defiance of nature? Now, my love, just promise me one thing," she said pathetically. "We're going to do a little shopping in Montreal, you know; and perhaps you'll be wanting to surprise me with something there. Don't do it. Or if you must, do tell me all about it beforehand, and what the color of it's to be; and I can say whether to get it or not, and then there'll be some taste about it, and I shall be truly surprised and pleased."
She turned to put the fan into her trunk, and he murmured something about exchanging it. "No," she said, "we'll keep it as a—a—monument." And she deposed him, with another peal of laughter, from the proud height to which he had climbed in pity of her nervous fears of the day. So completely were their places changed, that he doubted if it were not he who had made that scene on the Third Sister; and when Isabel said, "O, why won't men use their reasoning faculties?" he could not for himself have claimed any, and he could not urge the truth: that he had bought the fan more for its barbaric brightness than for its beauty. She would not let him get angry, and he could say nothing against the half-ironical petting with which she soothed his mortification.
But all troubles passed with the night, and the next morning they spent a charming hour about Prospect Point, and in sauntering over Goat Island, somewhat daintily tasting the flavors of the place on whose wonders they had so hungrily and indiscriminately feasted at first. They had already the feeling of veteran visitors, and they loftily marveled at the greed with which newer-comers plunged at the sensations. They could not conceive why people should want to descend the inclined railway to the foot of the American Fall; they smiled at the idea of going up Terrapin Tower; they derided the vulgar daring of those who went out upon the Three Weird Sisters; for some whom they saw about to go down the Biddle Stairs to the Cave of the Winds, they had no words to express their contempt.
Then they made their excursion to the Whirlpool, mistakenly going down on the American side, for it is much better seen from the other, though seen from any point it is the most impressive feature of the whole prodigious spectacle of Niagara.
Here within the compass of a mile, those inland seas of the North, Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and the multitude of smaller lakes, all pour their floods, where they swirl in dreadful vortices, with resistless under-currents boiling beneath the surface of that mighty eddy. Abruptly from this scene of secret power, so different from the thunderous splendors of the cataract itself, rise lofty cliffs on every side, to a height of two hundred feet, clothed from the water's edge almost to their create with dark cedars. Noiselessly, so far as your senses perceive, the lakes steal out of the whirlpool, then, drunk and wild, with brawling rapids roar away to Ontario through the narrow channel of the river. Awful as the scene is, you stand so far above it that you do not know the half of its terribleness; for those waters that look so smooth are great ridges and rings, forced, by the impulse of the currents, twelve feet higher in the centre than at the margin. Nothing can live there, and with what is caught in its hold, the maelstrom plays for days, and whirls and tosses round and round in its toils, with a sad, maniacal patience. The guides tell ghastly stories, which even their telling does not wholly rob of ghastliness, about the bodies of drowned men carried into the whirlpool and made to enact upon its dizzy surges a travesty of life, apparently floating there at their pleasure, diving and frolicking amid the waves, or frantically struggling to escape from the death that has long since befallen them.
On the American side, not far below the railway suspension bridge, is an elevator more than a hundred and eighty feet high, which is meant to let people down to the shore below, and to give a view of the rapids on their own level. From the cliff opposite, it looks a terribly frail structure of pine sticks, but is doubtless stronger than it looks; and at any rate, as it has never yet fallen to pieces, it may be pronounced perfectly safe.
In the waiting-room at the top, Basil and Isabel found Mr. Richard and his ladies again, who got into the movable chamber with them, and they all silently descended together. It was not a time for talk of any kind, either when they were slowly and not quite smoothly dropping through the lugubrious upper part of the structure, where it was darkened by a rough weatherboarding, or lower down, where the unobstructed light showed the grim tearful face of the cliff, bedrabbled with oozy springs, and the audacious slightness of the elevator.
An abiding distrust of the machinery overhead mingled in Isabel's heart with a doubt of the value of the scene below, and she could not look forward to escape from her present perils by the conveyance which had brought her into them, with any satisfaction. She wanly smiled, and shrank closer to Basil; while the other matron made nothing of seizing her husband violently by the arm and imploring him to stop it whenever they experienced a rougher jolt than usual.
At the bottom of the cliff they were helped out of their prison by a humid young Englishman, with much clay on him, whose face was red and bathed in perspiration, for it was very hot down there in his little inclosure of baking pine boards, and it was not much cooler out on the rocks upon which the party issued, descending and descending by repeated and desultory flights of steps, till at last they stood upon a huge fragment of stone right abreast of the rapids. Yet it was a magnificent sight, and for a moment none of them were sorry to have come. The surges did not look like the gigantic ripples on a river's course as they were, but like a procession of ocean billows; they arose far aloft in vast bulks of clear green, and broke heavily into foam at the crest. Great blocks and shapeless fragments of rock strewed the margin of the awful torrent; gloomy walls of dark stone rose naked from these, bearded here and there with cedar, and everywhere frowning with shaggy brows of evergreen. The place is inexpressibly lonely and dreadful, and one feels like an alien presence there, or as if he had intruded upon some mood or haunt of Nature in which she had a right to be forever alone. The slight, impudent structure of the elevator rises through the solitude, like a thing that merits ruin, yet it is better than something more elaborate, for it looks temporary, and since there must be an elevator, it is well to have it of the most transitory aspect. Some such quality of rude impermanence consoles you for the presence of most improvements by which you enjoy Niagara; the suspension bridges for their part being saved from offensiveness by their beauty and unreality.
Ascending, none of the party spoke; Isabel and the other matron blanched in each other's faces; their husbands maintained a stolid resignation. When they stepped out of their trap into the waiting room at the top, "What I like about these little adventures," said Mr. Richard to Basil, abruptly, "is getting safely out of them. Good-morning, sir." He bowed slightly to Isabel, who returned his politeness, and exchanged faint nods, or glances, with the ladies. They got into their separate carriages, and at that safe distance made each other more decided obeisances.
"Well," observed Basil, "I suppose we're introduced now. We shall be meeting them from time to time throughout our journey. You know how the same faces and the same trunks used to keep turning up in our travels on the other side. Once meet people in travelling, and you can't get rid of them."
"Yes," said Isabel, as if continuing his train of thought, "I'm glad we're going to-day."
"Truly. When we first arrived I felt only the loveliness of the place. It seemed more familiar, too, then; but ever since, it's been growing stranger and dreadfuller. Somehow it's begun to pervade me and possess me in a very uncomfortable way; I'm tossed upon rapids, and flung from cataract brinks, and dizzied in whirlpools; I'm no longer yours, Basil; I'm most unhappily married to Niagara. Fly with me, save me from my awful lord!"
She lightly burlesqued the woes of a prima donna, with clasped hands and uplifted eyes.
"That'll do very well," Basil commented, "and it implies a reality that can't be quite definitely spoken. We come to Niagara in the patronizing spirit in which we approach everything nowadays, and for a few hours we have it our own way, and pay our little tributes of admiration with as much complacency as we feel in acknowledging the existence of the Supreme Being. But after a while we are aware of some potent influence undermining our self-satisfaction; we begin to conjecture that the great cataract does not exist by virtue of our approval, and to feel that it will not cease when we go away. The second day makes us its abject slaves, and on the third we want to fly from it in terror. I believe some people stay for weeks, however, and hordes of them have written odes to Niagara."
"I can't understand it, at all," said Isabel. "I don't wonder now that the town should be so empty this season, but that it should ever be full. I wish we'd gone after our first look at the Falls from the suspension bridge. How beautiful that was! I rejoice in everything that I haven't done. I'm so glad I haven't been in the Cave of the Winds; I'm so happy that Table Rock fell twenty years ago! Basil, I couldn't stand another rainbow today. I'm sorry we went out on the Three Weird Sisters. O, I shall dream about it! and the rush, and the whirl, and the dampness in one's face, and the everlasting chirr-r-r-r of everything!"
She dipped suddenly upon his shoulder for a moment's oblivion, and then rose radiant with a question: "Why in the world, if Niagara is really what it seems to us now, do so many bridal parties come here?"
"Perhaps they're the only people who've the strength to bear up against it, and are not easily dispersed and subjected by it."
"But we're dispersed and subjected."
"Ah, my dear, we married a little late. Who knows how it would be if you were nineteen instead of twenty-seven, and I twenty-five and not turned of thirty?"
"Basil, you're very cruel."
"No, no. But don't you see how it is? We've known too much of life to desire any gloomy background for our happiness. We're quite contented to have things gay and bright about us. Once we couldn't have made the circle dark enough. Well, my dear, that's the effect of age. We're superannuated."
"I used to think I was before we were married," answered Isabel simply; "but now," she added triumphantly, "I'm rescued from all that. I shall never be old again, dearest; never, as long as you love me!"
They were about to enter the village, and he could not make any open acknowledgment of her tenderness; but her silken mantle (or whatever) slipped from her shoulder, and he embracingly replaced it, flattering himself that he had delicately seized this chance of an unavowed caress and not allowing (O such is the blindness of our sex!) that the opportunity had been yet more subtly afforded him, with the art which women never disuse in this world, and which I hope they will not forget in the next.
They had an early dinner, and looked their last upon the nuptial gayety of the otherwise forlorn hotel. Three brides sat down with them in travelling-dress; two occupied the parlor as they passed out; half a dozen happy pairs arrived (to the music of the band) in the omnibus that was to carry our friends back to the station; they caught sight of several about the shop windows, as that drove through the streets. Thus the place perpetually renews itself in the glow of love as long as the summer lasts. The moon which is elsewhere so often of wormwood, or of the ordinary green cheese at the best, is of lucent honey there from the first of June to the last of October; and this is a great charm in Niagara. I think with tenderness of all the lives that have opened so fairly there; the hopes that have reigned in the glad young hearts; the measureless tide of joy that ebbs and flows with the arriving and departing trains. Elsewhere there are carking cares of business and of fashion, there are age, and sorrow, and heartbreak: but here only youth, faith, rapture. I kiss my hand to Niagara for that reason, and would I were a poet for a quarter of an hour.
Isabel departed in almost a forgiving mood towards the weak sisterhood of evident brides, and both our friends felt a lurking fondness for Niagara at the last moment. I do not know how much of their content was due to the fact that they had suffered no sort of wrong there, from those who are apt to prey upon travellers. In the hotel a placard warned them to have nothing to do with the miscreant hackmen on the streets, but always to order their carriage at the office; on the street the hackmen whispered to them not to trust the exorbitant drivers in league with the landlords; yet their actual experience was great reasonableness and facile contentment with the sum agreed upon,
This may have been because the hackmen so far outnumbered the visitors, that the latter could dictate terms; but they chose to believe it a triumph of civilization; and I will never be the cynic to sneer at their faith. Only at the station was the virtue of the Niagarans put in doubt, by the hotel porter who professed to find Basil's trunk enfeebled by travel, and advised a strap for it, which a friend of his would sell for a dollar and a half. Yet even he may have been a benevolent nature unjustly suspected.
DOWN THE ST. LAWRENCE.
They were to take the Canadian steamer at Charlotte, the port of Rochester, and they rattled uneventfully down from Niagara by rail. At the broad, low-banked river-mouth the steamer lay beside the railroad station; and while Isabel disposed of herself on board, Basil looked to the transfer of the baggage, novelly comforted in the business by the respectfulness of the young Canadian who took charge of the trunks for the boat. He was slow, and his system was not good,—he did not give checks for the pieces, but marked them with the name of their destination; and there was that indefinable something in his manner which hinted his hope that you would remember the porter; but he was so civil that he did not snub the meekest and most vexatious of the passengers, and Basil mutely blessed his servile soul. Few white Americans, he said to himself, would behave so decently in his place; and he could not conceive of the American steamboat clerk who would use the politeness towards a waiting crowd that the Canadian purser showed when they all wedged themselves in about his window to receive their stateroom keys. He was somewhat awkward, like the porter, but he was patient, and he did not lose his temper even when some of the crowd, finding he would not bully them, made bold to bully him. He was three times as long in serving them as an American would have been, but their time was of no value there, and he served them well. Basil made a point of speaking him fair, when his turn came, and the purser did not trample on him for a base truckler, as an American jack-in-office would have done.
Our tourists felt at home directly on this steamer, which was very comfortable, and in every way sufficient for its purpose, with a visible captain, who answered two or three questions very pleasantly, and bore himself towards his passengers in some sort like a host.
In the saloon Isabel had found among the passengers her semi- acquaintances of the hotel parlor and the Rapids-elevator, and had glanced tentatively towards them. Whereupon the matron of the party had made advances that ended in their all sitting down together and wondering when the boat would start, and what time they would get to Montreal next evening, with other matters that strangers going upon the same journey may properly marvel over in company. The introduction having thus accomplished itself, they exchanged addresses, and it appeared that Richard was Colonel Ellison, of Milwaukee, and that Fanny was his wife. Miss Kitty Ellison was of Western New York, not far from Erie. There was a diversion presently towards the different state-rooms; but the new acquaintances sat vis-a-vas at the table, and after supper the ladies drew their chairs together on the promenade deck, and enjoyed the fresh evening breeze. The sun set magnificent upon the low western shore which they had now left an hour away, and a broad stripe of color stretched behind the steamer. A few thin, luminous clouds darkened momently along the horizon, and then mixed with the land. The stars came out in a clear sky, and a light wind softly buffeted the cheeks, and breathed life into nerves that the day's heat had wasted. It scarcely wrinkled the tranquil expanse of the lake, on which loomed, far or near, a full-sailed schooner, and presently melted into the twilight, and left the steamer solitary upon the waters. The company was small, and not remarkable enough in any way to take the thoughts of any one off his own comfort. A deep sense of the coziness of the situation possessed them all which was if possible intensified by the spectacle of the captain, seated on the upper deck, and smoking a cigar that flashed and fainted like a stationary fire-fly in the gathering dusk. How very distant, in this mood, were the most recent events! Niagara seemed a fable of antiquity; the ride from Rochester a myth of the Middle Ages. In this pool, happy world of quiet lake, of starry skies, of air that the soul itself seemed to breathe, there was such consciousness of repose as if one were steeped in rest and soaked through and through with calm.
The points of likeness between Isabel and Mrs. Ellison shortly made them mutually uninteresting, and, leaving her husband to the others, Isabel frankly sought the companionship of Miss Kitty, in whom she found a charm of manner which puzzled at first, but which she presently fancied must be perfect trust of others mingling with a peculiar self-reliance.
"Can't you see, Basil, what a very flattering way it is? "she asked of her husband, when, after parting with their friends for the night, she tried to explain the character to him. "Of course no art could equal such a natural gift; for that kind of belief in your good-nature and sympathy makes you feel worthy of it, don't you know; and so you can't help being good-natured and sympathetic. This Miss Ellison, why, I can tell you, I shouldn't be ashamed of her anywhere.' By anywhere Isabel meant Boston, and she went on to praise the young lady's intelligence and refinement, with those expressions of surprise at the existence of civilization in a westerner which westerners find it so hard to receive graciously. Happily, Miss Ellison had not to hear them. "The reason she happened to come with only two dresses is, she lives so near Niagara that she could come for one day, and go back the next. The colonel's her cousin, and he and his wife go East every year, and they asked her this time to see Niagara with them. She told me all over again what we eavesdropped so shamefully in the hotel parlor;—and I don't know whether she was better pleased with the prospect of what's before her, or with the notion of making the journey in this original way. She didn't force her confidence upon me, any more than she tried to withhold it. We got to talking in the most natural manner; and she seemed to tell these things about herself because they amused her and she liked me. I had been saying how my trunk got left behind once on the French side of Mont Cenis, and I had to wear aunt's things at Turin till it could be sent for."
"Well, I don't see but Miss Ellison could describe you to her friends very much as you've described her to me," said Basil. "How did these mutual confidences begin? Whose trustfulness first flattered the other's? What else did you tell about yourself?"
"I said we were on our wedding journey," guiltily admitted Isabel.
"O, you did!"
"Why, dearest! I wanted to know, for once, you see, whether we seemed honeymoon-struck."
"And do we?"
"No," came the answer, somewhat ruefully. "Perhaps, Basil," she added, "we've been a little too successful in disguising our bridal character. Do you know," she continued, looking him anxiously in the face, "this Miss Ellison took me at first for—your sister!"
Basil broke forth in outrageous laughter. "One more such victory," he said, "and we are undone;" and he laughed again, immoderately. "How sad is the fruition of human wishes! There 's nothing, after all, like a good thorough failure for making people happy."
Isabel did not listen to him. Safe in a dim corner of the deserted saloon, she seized him in a vindictive embrace; then, as if it had been he who suggested the idea of such a loathsome relation, hissed out the hated words, "Your sister!" and released him with a disdainful repulse.
A little after daybreak the steamer stopped at the Canadian city of Kingston, a handsome place, substantial to the water's edge, and giving a sense of English solidity by the stone of which it is largely built. There was an accession of many passengers here, and they and the people on the wharf were as little like Americans as possible. They were English or Irish or Scotch, with the healthful bloom of the Old World still upon their faces, or if Canadians they looked not less hearty; so that one must wonder if the line between the Dominion and the United States did not also sharply separate good digestion and dyspepsia. These provincials had not our regularity of features, nor the best of them our careworn sensibility of expression; but neither had they our complexions of adobe; and even Isabel was forced to allow that the men were, on the whole, better dressed than the same number of average Americans would have been in a city of that size and remoteness. The stevedores who were putting the freight aboard were men of leisure; they joked in a kindly way with the orange-women and the old women picking up chips on the pier; and our land of hurry seemed beyond the ocean rather than beyond the lake.
Kingston has romantic memories of being Fort Frontenac two hundred years ago; of Count Frontenac's splendid advent among the Indians; of the brave La Salle, who turned its wooden walls to stone; of wars with the savages and then with the New York colonists, whom the French and their allies harried from this point; of the destruction of La Salle's fort in the Old French War; and of final surrender a few years later to the English. It is as picturesque as it is historical. All about the city, the shores are beautifully wooded, and there are many lovely islands,—the first indeed of those Thousand Islands with which the head of the St. Lawrence is filled, and among which the steamer was presently threading her way. They are still as charming and still almost as wild as when, in 1673, Frontenac's flotilla of canoes passed through their labyrinth and issued upon the lake. Save for a light-house upon one of them, there is almost nothing to show that the foot of man has ever pressed the thin grass clinging to their rocky surfaces, and keeping its green in the eternal shadow of their pines and cedars. In the warm morning light they gathered or dispersed before the advancing vessel, which some of them almost touched with the plumage of their evergreens; and where none of them were large, some were so small that it would not have been too bold to figure them as a vaster race of water-birds assembling and separating in her course. It is curiously affecting to find them so unclaimed yet from the solitude of the vanished wilderness, and scarcely touched even by tradition. But for the interest left them by the French, these tiny islands have scarcely any associations, and must be enjoyed for their beauty alone. There is indeed about them a faint light of legend concerning the Canadian rebellion of 1837, for several patriots are said to have taken refuge amidst their lovely multitude; but this episode of modern history is difficult for the imagination to manage, and somehow one does not take sentimentally even to that daughter of a lurking patriot, who long baffled her father's pursuers by rowing him from one island to another, and supplying him with food by night.
Either the reluctance is from the natural desire that so recent a heroine should be founded on fact, or it is mere perverseness. Perhaps I ought to say; in justice to her, that it was one of her own sex who refused to be interested in her, and forbade Basil to care for her. When he had read of her exploit from the guide-book, Isabel asked him if he had noticed that handsome girl in the blue and white striped Garibaldi and Swiss hat, who had come aboard at Kingston. She pointed her out, and courageously made him admire her beauty, which was of the most bewitching Canadian type. The young girl was redeemed by her New World birth from the English heaviness; a more delicate bloom lighted her cheeks; a softer grace dwelt in her movement; yet she was round and full, and she was in the perfect flower of youth. She was not so ethereal in her loveliness as an American girl, but she was not so nervous and had none of the painful fragility of the latter. Her expression was just a little vacant, it must be owned; but so far as she went she was faultless. She looked like the most tractable of daughters, and as if she would be the most obedient of wives. She had a blameless taste in dress, Isabel declared; her costume of blue and white striped Garibaldi and Swiss hat (set upon heavy masses of dark brown hair) being completed by a black silk skirt. "And you can see," she added, "that it's an old skirt made over, and that she's dressed as cheaply as she is prettily." This surprised Basil, who had imputed the young lady's personal sumptuousness to her dress, and had thought it enormously rich. When she got off with her chaperone at one of the poorest-looking country landings, she left them in hopeless conjecture about her. Was she visiting there, or was the interior of Canada full of such stylish and exquisite creatures? Where did she get her taste, her fashions, her manners? As she passed from sight towards the shadow of the woods, they felt the poorer for her going; yet they were glad to have seen her, and on second thoughts they felt that they could not justly ask more of her than to have merely existed for a few hours in their presence. They perceived that beauty was not only its own excuse for being, but that it flattered and favored and profited the world by consenting to be.
At Prescott, the boat on which they had come from Charlotte, and on which they had been promised a passage without change to Montreal, stopped, and they were transferred to a smaller steamer with the uncomfortable name of Banshee. She was very old, and very infirm and dirty, and in every way bore out the character of a squalid Irish goblin. Besides, she was already heavily laden with passengers, and, with the addition of the other steamer's people had now double her complement; and our friends doubted if they were not to pass the Rapids in as much danger as discomfort. Their fellow-passengers were in great variety, however, and thus partly atoned for their numbers. Among them of course there was a full force of brides from Niagara and elsewhere, and some curious forms of the prevailing infatuation appeared. It is well enough, if she likes, and it may even be very noble for a passably good-looking young lady to marry a gentleman of venerable age; but to intensify the idea of self- devotion by furtively caressing his wrinkled front seems too reproachful of the general public; while, on the other hand, if the bride is very young and pretty, it enlists in behalf of the white-haired husband the unwilling sympathies of the spectator to see her the centre of a group of young people, and him only acknowledged from time to time by a Parthian snub. Nothing, however, could have been more satisfactory than the sisterly surrounding of this latter bride. They were of a better class of Irish people; and if it had been any sacrifice for her to marry so old a man, they were doing their best to give the affair at least the liveliness of a wake. There were five or six of those great handsome girls, with their generous curves and wholesome colors, and they were every one attended by a good-looking colonial lover, with whom they joked in slightly brogued voices, and laughed with careless Celtic laughter. One of the young fellows presently lost his hat overboard, and had to wear the handkerchief of his lady about his head; and this appeared to be really one of the best things in the world, and led to endless banter. They were well dressed, and it could be imagined that the ancient bridegroom had come in for the support of the whole good-looking, healthy, light-hearted family. In some degree he looked it, and wore but a rueful countenance for a bridegroom; so that a very young newly married couple, who sat next the jolly sister-and-loverhood could not keep their pitying eyes off his downcast face. "What if he, too, were young at heart!" the kind little wife's regard seemed to say.
For the sake of the slight air that was stirring, and to have the best view of the Rapids, the Banshee's whole company was gathered upon the forward promenade, and the throng was almost as dense as in a six-o'clock horse-car out from Boston. The standing and sitting groups were closely packed together, and the expanded parasols and umbrellas formed a nearly unbroken roof. Under this Isabel chatted at intervals with the Ellisons, who sat near; but it was not an atmosphere that provoked social feeling, and she was secretly glad when after a while they shifted their position.
It was deadly hot, and most of the people saddened and silenced in the heat. From time to time the clouds idling about overhead met and sprinkled down a cruel little shower of rain that seemed to make the air less breathable than before. The lonely shores were yellow with drought; the islands grew wilder and barrener; the course of the river was for miles at a stretch through country which gave no signs of human life. The St. Lawrence has none of the bold picturesqueness of the Hudson, and is far more like its far-off cousin the Mississippi. Its banks are low like the Mississippi's, its current, swift, its way through solitary lands. The same sentiment of early adventure hangs about each: both are haunted by visions of the Jesuit in his priestly robe, and the soldier in his mediaeval steel; the same gay, devout, and dauntless race has touched them both with immortal romance. If the water were of a dusky golden color, instead of translucent green, and the shores and islands were covered with cottonwoods and willows instead of dark cedars, one could with no great effort believe one's self on the Mississippi between Cairo and St. Louis, so much do the great rivers strike one as kindred in the chief features of their landscape. Only, in tracing this resemblance you do not know just what to do with the purple mountains of Vermont, seen vague against the horizon from the St. Lawrence, or with the quaint little French villages that begin to show themselves as you penetrate farther down into Lower Canada. These look so peaceful, with their dormer-windowed cottages clustering about their church-spires, that it seems impossible they could once have been the homes of the savages and the cruel peasants who, with fire-brand and scalping-knife and tomahawk, harassed the borders of New England for a hundred years. But just after you descend the Long Sault you pass the hamlet of St. Regis, in which was kindled the torch that wrapt Deerfield in flames, waking her people from their sleep to meet instant death or taste the bitterness of a captivity. The bell which was sent out from France for the Indian converts of the Jesuits, and was captured by an English ship and carried into Salem, and thence sold to Deerfield, where it called the Puritans to prayer, till at last it also summoned the priest-led Indians and 'habitans' across hundreds of miles of winter and of wilderness to reclaim it from that desecration,—this fateful bell still hangs in the church-tower of St. Regis, and has invited to matins and vespers for nearly two centuries the children of those who fought so pitilessly and dared and endured so much for it. Our friends would fair have heard it as they passed, hoping for some mournful note of history in its sound; but it hung silent over the silent hamlet, which, as it lay in the hot afternoon sun by the river's side, seemed as lifeless as the Deerfield burnt long ago.
They turned from it to look at a gentleman who had just appeared in a mustard-colored linen duster, and Basil asked, "Shouldn't you like to know the origin, personal history, and secret feelings of a gentleman who goes about in a duster of that particular tint? Or, that gentleman yonder with his eye tied up in a wet handkerchief, do you suppose he's travelling for pleasure? Look at those young people from Omaha: they haven't ceased flirting or cackling since we left Kingston. Do you think everybody has such spirits out at Omaha? But behold a yet more surprising figure than any we have yet seen among this boat-load of nondescripts."
This was a tall, handsome young man, with a face of somewhat foreign cast, and well dressed, with a certain impressive difference from the rest in the cut of his clothes. But what most drew the eye to him was a large cross, set with brilliants, and surmounted by a heavy double-headed eagle in gold. This ornament dazzled from a conspicuous place on the left lappet of his coat; on his hand shone a magnificent diamond ring, and he bore a stately opera-glass, with which, from time to time, he imperiously, as one may say, surveyed the landscape. As the imposing apparition grew upon Isa-bel, "O here," she thought, "is something truly distinguished. Of course, dear," she added aloud to Basil, "he's some foreign nobleman travelling here"; and she ran over in her mind the newspaper announcements of patrician visitors from abroad and tried to identify him with some one of them. The cross must be the decoration of a foreign order, and Basil suggested that he was perhaps a member of some legation at Washington, who had ran up there for his summer vacation. The cross puzzled him, but the double-headed eagle, he said, meant either Austria or Russia; probably Austria, for the wearer looked a trifle too civilized for a Russian.
"Yes, indeed! What an air he has. Never tell me. Basil, that there's nothing in blood!" cried Isabel, who was a bitter aristocrat at heart, like all her sex, though in principle she was democratic enough. As she spoke, the object of her regard looked about him on the different groups, not with pride, not with hauteur, but with a glance of unconscious, unmistakable superiority. "O, that stare!" she added; nothing but high birth and long descent can give it! Dearest, he's becoming a great affliction to me. I want to know who he is. Couldn't you invent some pretext for speaking to him?"
"No, I couldn't do it decently; and no doubt he'd snub me as I deserved if I intruded upon him. Let's wait for fortune to reveal him."
"Well, I suppose I must, but it's dreadful; it's really dreadful. You can easily see that's distinction," she continued, as her hero moved about the promenade and gently but loftily made a way for himself among the other passengers and favored the scenery through his opera-glass from one point and another. He spoke to no one, and she reasonably supposed that he did not know English.
In the mean time it was drawing near the hour of dinner, but no dinner appeared. Twelve, one, two came and went, and then at last came the dinner, which had been delayed, it seemed, till the cook could recruit his energies sufficiently to meet the wants of double the number he had expected to provide for. It was observable of the officers and crew of the Banshee, that while they did not hold themselves aloof from the passengers in the disdainful American manner, they were of feeble mind, and not only did everything very slowly (in the usual Canadian fashion), but with an inefficiency that among us would have justified them in being insolent. The people sat down at several successive tables to the worst dinner that ever was cooked; the ladies first, and the gentlemen afterwards, as they made conquest of places. At the second table, to Basil's great satisfaction, he found a seat, and on his right hand the distinguished foreigner.
"Naturally, I was somewhat abashed," he said in the account he was presently called to give Isabel of the interview, "but I remembered that I was an American citizen, and tried to maintain a decent composure. For several minutes we sat silent behind a dish of flabby cucumbers, expecting the dinner, and I was wondering whether I should address him in French or German,—for I knew you'd never forgive me if I let slip such a chance,—when he turned and spoke himself."
"O what did he say, dearest?"
He said, "Pretty tejious waitin,' ain't it? in she best New York State accent."
"You don't mean it!" gasped Isabel.
"But I do. After that I took courage to ask what his cross and double- headed eagle meant. He showed the condescension of a true nobleman. 'O,' says he, 'I 'm glad you like it, and it 's not the least offense to ask,' and he told me. "Can you imagine what it is? It 's the emblem of the fifty-fourth degree in the secret society he belongs to!"
"I don't believe it!"
"Well, ask him yourself, then," returned Basil; "he 's a very good fellow. 'O, that stare! nothing but high birth and long descent could give it!'" he repeated, abominably implying that he had himself had no share in their common error.
What retort Isabel might have made cannot now be known, for she was arrested at this moment by a rumor amongst the passengers that they were coming to the Long Sault Rapids. Looking forward she saw the tossing and flashing of surges that, to the eye, are certainly as threatening as the rapids above Niagara. The steamer had already passed the Deplau and the Galopes, and they had thus had a foretaste of whatever pleasure or terror there is in the descent of these nine miles of stormy sea. It is purely a matter of taste, about shooting the rapids of the St. Lawrence. The passengers like it better than the captain and the pilot, to guesses by their looks, and the women and children like it better than the men. It is no doubt very thrilling and picturesque and wildly beautiful: the children crow and laugh, the women shout forth their delight, as the boat enters the seething current; great foaming waves strike her bows, and brawl away to the stern, while she dips, and rolls, and shoots onward, light as a bird blown by the wind; the wild shores and islands whirl out of sight; you feel in every fibre the career of the vessel. But the captain sits in front of the pilothouse smoking with a grave face, the pilots tug hard at the wheel; the hoarse roar of the waters fills the air; beneath the smoother sweeps of the current you can see the brown rocks; as you sink from ledge to ledge in the writhing and twisting steamer, you have a vague sense that all this is perhaps an achievement rather than an enjoyment. When, descending the Long Sault, you look back up hill, and behold those billows leaping down the steep slope after you, "No doubt," you confide to your soul, "it is magnificent; but it is not pleasure." You greet with silent satisfaction the level river, stretching between the Long Sault and the Coteau, and you admire the delightful tranquillity of that beautiful Lake St. Francis into which it expands. Then the boat shudders into the Coteau Rapids, and down through the Cedars and Cascades. On the rocks of the last lies the skeleton of a steamer wrecked upon them, and gnawed at still by the white-tusked wolfish rapids. No one, they say, was lost from her. "But how," Basil thought, "would it fare with all these people packed here upon her bow, if the Banshee should swing round upon a ledge?" As to Isabel, she looked upon the wrecked steamer with indifference, as did all the women; but then they could not swim, and would not have to save themselves. "The La Chine's to come yet," they exulted, "and that 's the awfullest of all!"
They passed the Lake St. Louis; the La Chin; rapids flashed into sight. The captain rose up from his seat, took his pipe from his mouth, and waved a silence with it. "Ladies and gentlemen," said he, "it's very important in passing these rapids to keep the boat perfectly trim. Please to remain just as you are."
It was twilight, for the boat was late. From the Indian village on the shore they signaled to know if he wanted the local pilot; the captain refused; and then the steamer plunged into the leaping waves. From rock to rock she swerved and sank; on the last ledge she scraped with a deadly touch that went to the heart.
Then the danger was passed, and the noble city of Montreal was in full sight, lying at the foot of her dark green mountain, and lifting her many spires into the rosy twilight air: massive and grand showed the sister towers of the French cathedral.
Basil had hoped to approach this famous city with just associations. He had meant to conjure up for Isabel's sake some reflex, however faint, of that beautiful picture Mr. Parkman has painted of Maisonneuve founding and consecrating Montreal. He flushed with the recollection of the historian's phrase; but in that moment there came forth from the cabin a pretty young person who gave every token of being a pretty young actress, even to the duenna-like, elderly female companion, to be detected in the remote background of every young actress. She had flirted audaciously during the day with some young Englishmen and Canadians of her acquaintance, and after passing the La Chine Rapids she had taken the hearts of all the men by springing suddenly to her feet, apostrophizing the tumult with a charming attitude, and warbling a delicious bit of song. Now as they drew near the city the Victoria Bridge stretched its long tube athwart the river, and looked so low because of its great length that it seemed to bar the steamer's passage.
"I wonder," said one of the actress's adorers, a Canadian, whose face was exactly that of the beaver on the escutcheon of his native province, and whose heavy gallantries she had constantly received with a gay, impertinent nonchalance,—"I wonder if we can be going right under that bridge?"
"No, sir!" answered the pretty young actress with shocking promptness, "we're going right over it!"
"'Three groans and a guggle, And an awful struggle, And over we go!'"
At this witless, sweet impudence the Canadian looked very sheepish—for a beaver; and all the other people laughed; but the noble historical shades of Basil's thought vanished in wounded dignity beyond recall, and left him feeling rather ashamed,—for he had laughed too.
THE SENTIMENT OF MONTREAL.
The feeling of foreign travel for which our tourists had striven throughout their journey, and which they had known in some degree at Kingston and all the way down the river, was intensified from the first moment in Montreal; and it was so welcome that they were almost glad to lose money on their greenbacks, which the conductor of the omnibus would take only at a discount of twenty cents. At breakfast next morning they could hardly tell on what country they had fallen. The waiters had but a thin varnish of English speech upon their native French, and they spoke their own tongue with each other; but most of the meats were cooked to the English taste, and the whole was a poor imitation of an American hotel. During their stay the same commingling of usages and races bewildered them; the shops were English and the clerks were commonly French; the carriage-drivers were often Irish, and up and down the streets with their pious old-fashioned names, tinkled American horse- cars. Everywhere were churches and convents that recalled the ecclesiastical and feudal origin of the city; the great tubular bridge, the superb water-front with its long array of docks only surpassed by those of Liverpool, the solid blocks of business houses, and the substantial mansions on the quieter streets, proclaimed the succession of Protestant thrift and energy.
Our friends cared far less for the modern splendor of Montreal than for the remnants of its past, and for the features that identified it with another faith and another people than their own. Isabel would almost have confessed to any one of the black-robed priests upon the street; Basil could easily have gone down upon his knees to the white-hooded, pale-faced nuns gliding among the crowd. It was rapture to take a carriage, and drive, not to the cemetery, not to the public library, not to the rooms of the Young Men's Christian Association, or the grain elevators, or the new park just tricked out with rockwork and sprigs of evergreen,—not to any of the charming resorts of our own cities, but as in Europe to the churches, the churches of a pitiless superstition, the churches with their atrocious pictures and statues, their lingering smell of the morning's incense, their confessionals, their fee-taking sacristans, their worshippers dropped here and there upon their knees about the aisles and saying their prayers with shut or wandering eyes according as they were old women or young! I do not defend the feeble sentimentality,—call it wickedness if you like,—but I understand it, and I forgive it from my soul.
They went first, of course, to the French cathedral, pausing on their way to alight and walk through the Bonsecours Market, where the habitans have all come in their carts, with their various stores of poultry, fruit, and vegetables, and where every cart is a study. Here is a simple-faced young peasant-couple with butter and eggs and chickens ravishingly displayed; here is a smooth-checked, blackeyed, black-haired young girl, looking as if an infusion of Indian blood had darkened the red of her cheeks, presiding over a stock of onions, potatoes, beets, and turnips; there an old woman with a face carven like a walnut, behind a flattering array of cherries and pears; yonder a whole family trafficking in loaves of brown-bread and maple-sugar in many shapes of pious and grotesque device. There are gay shows of bright scarfs and kerchiefs and vari- colored yarns, and sad shows of old clothes and second-hand merchandise of other sorts; but above all prevails the abundance of orchard and garden, while within the fine edifice are the stalls of the butchers, and in the basement below a world of household utensils, glass-ware, hard- ware, and wooden-ware. As in other Latin countries, each peasant has given a personal interest to his wares, but the bargains are not clamored over as in Latin lands abroad. Whatever protest and concession and invocation of the saints attend the transacting of business at Bonsecours Market are in a subdued tone. The fat huckster-women drowsing beside their wares, scarce send their voices beyond the borders of their broad- brimmed straw hats, as they softly haggle with purchasers, or tranquilly gossip together.
At the cathedral there are, perhaps, the worst paintings in the world, and the massive pine-board pillars are unscrupulously smoked to look like marble; but our tourists enjoyed it as if it had been St. Peter's; in fact it has something of the barnlike immensity and impressiveness of St. Peter's. They did not ask it to be beautiful or grand; they desired it only to recall the beloved ugliness, the fondly cherished hideousness and incongruity of the average Catholic churches of their remembrance, and it did this and more: it added an effect of its own; it offered the spectacle of a swarthy old Indian kneeling before the high altar, telling his beads, and saying with many sighs and tears the prayers which it cost so much martyrdom and heroism to teach his race. "O, it is only a savage man," said the little French boy who was showing them the place, impatient of their interest in a thing so unworthy as this groaning barbarian. He ran swiftly about from object to object, rapidly lecturing their inattention. "It is now time to go up into the tower," said he, and they gladly made that toilsome ascent, though it is doubtful if the ascent of towers is not too much like the ascent of mountains ever to be compensatory. From the top of Notre Dame is certainly to be had a prospect upon which, but for his fluttered nerves and trembling muscles and troubled respiration, the traveller might well look with delight, and as it is must behold with wonder. So far as the eye reaches it dwells only upon what is magnificent. All the features of that landscape are grand. Below you spreads the city, which has less that is merely mean in it than any other city of our continent, and which is everywhere ennobled by stately civic edifices, adorned by tasteful churches, and skirted by full foliaged avenues of mansions and villas. Behind it rises the beautiful mountain, green with woods and gardens to its crest, and flanked on the east by an endless fertile plain, and on the west by another expanse, through which the Ottawa rushes, turbid and dark, to its confluence with the St. Lawrence. Then these two mighty streams commingled flow past the city, lighting up the vast Champaign country to the south, while upon the utmost southern verge, as on the northern, rise the cloudy summits of far-off mountains.
As our travellers gazed upon all this grandeur, their hearts were humbled to the tacit admission that the colonial metropolis was not only worthy of its seat, but had traits of a solid prosperity not excelled by any of the abounding and boastful cities of the Republic. Long before they quitted Montreal they had rallied from this weakness, but they delighted still to honor her superb beauty.
The tower is naturally bescribbled to its top with the names of those who have climbed it, and most of these are Americans, who flock in great numbers to Canada in summer. They modify its hotel life, and the objects of interest thrive upon their bounty. Our friends met them at every turn, and knew them at a glance from the native populations, who are also easily distinguishable from each other. The French Canadians are nearly always of a peasant-like commonness, or where they rise above this have a bourgeois commonness of face and manner, and the English Canadians are to be known from the many English sojourners by the effort to look much more English than the latter. The social heart of the colony clings fast to the mother-country, that is plain, whatever the political tendency may be; and the public monuments and inscriptions celebrate this affectionate union.
At the English cathedral the effect is deepened by the epitaphs of those whose lives were passed in the joint service of England and her loyal child; and our travellers, whatever their want of sympathy with the sentiment, had to own to a certain beauty in that attitude of proud reverence. Here, at least, was a people not cut off from its past, but holding, unbroken in life and death, the ties which exist for us only in history. It gave a glamour of olden time to the new land; it touched the prosaic democratic present with the waning poetic light of the aristocratic and monarchical tradition. There was here and there a title on the tablets, and there was everywhere the formal language of loyalty and of veneration for things we have tumbled into the dust. It is a beautiful church, of admirable English Gothic; if you are so happy, you are rather curtly told you may enter by a burly English figure in some kind of sombre ecclesiastical drapery, and within its quiet precincts you may feel yourself in England if you like,—which, for my part, I do not. Neither did our friends enjoy it so much as the Church of the Jesuits, with its more than tolerable painting, its coldly frescoed ceiling, its architectural taste of subdued Renaissance, and its black-eyed peasant- girl telling her beads before a side altar, just as in the enviably deplorable countries we all love; nor so much even as the Irish cathedral which they next visited. That is a very gorgeous cathedral indeed, painted and gilded 'a merveille', and everywhere stuck about with big and little saints and crucifixes, and pictures incredibly bad—but for those in the French cathedral. There is, of course, a series representing Christ's progress to Calvary; and there was a very tattered old man,— an old man whose voice had been long ago drowned in whiskey, and who now spoke in a ghostly whisper,—who, when he saw Basil's eye fall upon the series, made him go the round of them, and tediously explained them.
"Why did you let that old wretch bore you, and then pay him for it?" Isabel asked.
"O, it reminded me so sweetly of the swindles of other lands and days, that I couldn't help it," he answered; and straightway in the eyes of both that poor, whiskeyfied, Irish tatterdemalion stood transfigured to the glorious likeness of an Italian beggar.
They were always doing something of this kind, those absurdly sentimental people, whom yet I cannot find it in my heart to blame for their folly, though I could name ever so many reasons for rebuking it. Why, in fact, should we wish to find America like Europe? Are the ruins and impostures and miseries and superstitions which beset the traveller abroad so precious, that he should desire to imagine them at every step in his own hemisphere? Or have we then of our own no effective shapes of ignorance and want and incredibility, that we must forever seek an alien contrast to our native intelligence and comfort? Some such questions this guilty couple put to each other, and then drove off to visit the convent of the Gray Nuns with a joyful expectation which I suppose the prospect of the finest public-school exhibition in Boston could never have inspired. But, indeed, since there must be Gray Nuns, is it not well that there are sentimentalists to take a mournful pleasure in their sad, pallid existence?
The convent is at a good distance from the Irish cathedral, and in going to it the tourists made their driver carry them through one of the few old French streets which still remain in Montreal. Fires and improvements had made havoc among the quaint horses since Basil's first visit; but at last they came upon a narrow, ancient Rue Saint Antoine, —or whatever other saint it was called after,—in which there was no English face or house to be seen. The doors of the little one-story dwellings opened from the pavement, and within you saw fat madame the mother moving about her domestic affairs, and spare monsieur the elderly husband smoking beside the open window; French babies crawled about the tidy floors; French martyrs (let us believe Lalement or Brebeuf, who gave up their heroic lives for the conversion of Canada) sifted their eyes in high-colored lithographs on the wall; among the flower-pots in the dormer-window looking from every tin roof sat and sewed a smooth haired young girl, I hope,—the romance of each little mansion. The antique and foreign character of the place was accented by the inscription upon a wall of "Sirop adoucissant de Madame Winslow."
Ever since 1692 the Gray Nuns have made refuge within the ample borders of their convent for infirm old people and for foundling children, and it is now in the regular course of sight-seeing for the traveller to visit their hospital at noonday, when he beholds the Sisters at their devotions in the chapel. It is a bare, white-walled, cold-looking chapel, with the usual paraphernalia of pictures and crucifixes. Seated upon low benches on either side of the aisle were the curious or the devout; the former in greater number and chiefly Americans, who were now and then whispered silent by an old pauper zealous for the sanctity of the place. At the stroke of twelve the Sisters entered two by two, followed by the lady- superior with a prayerbook in her hand. She clapped the leaves of this together in signal for them to kneel, to rise, to kneel again and rise, while they repeated in rather harsh voices their prayers, and then clattered out of the chapel as they had clattered in, with resounding shoes. The two young girls at the head were very pretty, and all the pale faces had a corpse-like peace. As Basil looked at their pensive sameness, it seemed to him that those prettiest girls might very well be the twain that he had seen here so many years ago, stricken forever young in their joyless beauty. The ungraceful gowns of coarse gray, the blue checked aprons, the black crape caps, were the same; they came and went with the same quick tread, touching their brows with holy water and kneeling and rising now as then with the same constrained and ordered movements. Would it be too cruel if they were really the same persons? or would it be yet more cruel if every year two girls so young and fair were self-doomed to renew the likeness of that youthful death?
The visitors went about the hospital, and saw the old men and the little children to whom these good pure lives were given, and they could only blame the system, not the instruments or their work. Perhaps they did not judge wisely of the amount of self-sacrifice involved, for they judged from hearts to which love was the whole of earth and heaven; but nevertheless they pitied the Gray Nuns amidst the unhomelike comfort of their convent, the unnatural care of those alien little ones. Poor 'Soeurs Grises' in their narrow cells; at the bedside of sickness and age and sorrow; kneeling with clasped hands and yearning eyes before the bloody spectacle of the cross!—the power of your Church is shown far more subtly and mightily in such as you, than in her grandest fanes or the sight of her most august ceremonies, with praying priests, swinging censers, tapers and pictures and images, under a gloomy heaven of cathedral arches. There, indeed, the faithful have given their substance; but here the nun has given up the most precious part of her woman's nature, and all the tenderness that clings about the thought of wife and mother.
"There are some things that always greatly afflict me in the idea of a new country," said Basil, as they loitered slowly through the grounds of the convent toward the gate. "Of course, it's absurd to think of men as other than men, as having changed their natures with their skies; but a new land always does seem at first thoughts like a new chance afforded the race for goodness and happiness, for health and life. So I grieve for the earliest dead at Plymouth more than for the multitude that the plague swept away in London; I shudder over the crime of the first guilty man, the sin of the first wicked woman in a new country; the trouble of the first youth or maiden crossed in love there is intolerable. All should be hope and freedom and prosperous life upon that virgin soil. It never was so since Eden; but none the less I feel it ought to be; and I am oppressed by the thought that among the earliest walls which rose upon this broad meadow of Montreal were those built to immure the innocence of such young girls as these and shut them from the life we find so fair. Wouldn't you like to know who was the first that took the veil in this wild new country? Who was she, poor soul, and what was her deep sorrow or lofty rapture? You can fancy her some Indian maiden lured to the renunciation by the splendor of symbols and promises seen vaguely through the lingering mists of her native superstitions; or some weary soul, sick from the vanities and vices, the bloodshed and the tears of the Old World, and eager for a silence profounder than that of the wilderness into which she had fled. Well, the Church knows and God. She was dust long ago."
From time to time there had fallen little fitful showers during the morning. Now as the wedding-journeyers passed out of the convent gate the rain dropped soft and thin, and the gray clouds that floated through the sky so swiftly were as far-seen Gray Sisters in flight for heaven.
"We shall have time for the drive round the mountain before dinner," said Basil, as they got into their carriage again; and he was giving the order to the driver, when Isabel asked how far it was.
"O, then we can't think of going with one horse. You know," she added, "that we always intended to have two horses for going round the mountain."
"No," said Basil, not yet used to having his decisions reached without his knowledge. "And I don't see why we should. Everybody goes with one. You don't suppose we're too heavy, do you?"
"I had a party from the States, ma'am, yesterday," interposed the driver; "two ladies, real heavy apes, two gentlemen, weighin' two hundred apiece, and a stout young man on the box with me. You'd 'a' thought the horse was drawin' an empty carriage, the way she darted along."
"Then his horse must be perfectly worn out to-day," said Isabel, refusing to admit the pool fellow directly even to the honors of a defeat. He had proved too much, and was put out of court with no hope of repairing his error.
"Why, it seems a pity," whispered Basil, dispassionately, "to turn this man adrift, when he had a reasonable hope of being with us all day, and has been so civil and obliging."
"O yes, Basil, sentimentalize him, do! Why don't you sentimentalize his helpless, overworked horse?—all in a reek of perspiration."
"Perspiration! Why, my dear, it 's the rain!"
"Well, rain or shine, darling, I don't want to go round the mountain with one horse; and it 's very unkind of you to insist now, when you've tacitly promised me all along to take two."
"Now, this is a little too much, Isabel. You know we never mentioned the matter till this moment."
"It 's the same as a promise, your not saying you wouldn't. But I don't ask you to keep your word. I don't want to go round the mountain. I'd much rather go to the hotel. I'm tired."
"Very well, then, Isabel, I'll leave you at the hotel."
In a moment it had come, the first serious dispute of their wedded life. It had come as all such calamities come, from nothing, and it was on them in full disaster ere they knew. Such a very little while ago, there in the convent garden, their lives had been drawn closer in sympathy than ever before; and now that blessed time seemed ages since, and they were further asunder than those who have never been friends. "I thought," bitterly mused Isabel, "that he would have done anything for me." "Who could have dreamed that a woman of her sense would be so unreasonable," he wondered. Both had tempers, as I know my dearest reader has (if a lady), and neither would yield; and so, presently, they could hardly tell how, for they were aghast at it all, Isabel was alone in her room amidst the ruins of her life, and Basil alone in the one-horse carriage, trying to drive away from the wreck of his happiness. All was over; the dream was past; the charm was broken. The sweetness of their love was turned to gall; whatever had pleased them in their loving moods was loathsome now, and the things they had praised a moment before were hateful. In that baleful light, which seemed to dwell upon all they ever said or did in mutual enjoyment, how poor and stupid and empty looked their wedding- journey! Basil spent five minutes in arraigning his wife and convicting her of every folly and fault. His soul was in a whirl,
"For to be wroth with one we love Doth work like madness in the brain."
In the midst of his bitter and furious upbraidings he found himself suddenly become her ardent advocate, and ready to denounce her judge as a heartless monster. "On our wedding journey, too! Good heavens, what an incredible brute I am!" Then he said, "What an ass I am!" And the pathos of the case having yielded to its absurdity, he was helpless. In five minutes more he was at Isabel's side, the one-horse carriage driver dismissed with a handsome pour-boire, and a pair of lusty bays with a glittering barouche waiting at the door below. He swiftly accounted for his presence, which she seemed to find the most natural thing that could be, and she met his surrender with the openness of a heart that forgives but does not forget, if indeed the most gracious art is the only one unknown to the sex.
She rose with a smile from the ruins of her life, amidst which she had heart-brokenly sat down with all her things on. "I knew you'd come back," she said.
"So did I," he answered. "I am much too good and noble to sacrifice my preference to my duty."
"I didn't care particularly for the two horses, Basil," she said, as they descended to the barouche. "It was your refusing them that hurt me."
"And I didn't want the one-horse carriage. It was your insisting so that provoked me."
"Do you think people ever quarreled before on a wedding journey?" asked Isabel as they drove gayly out of the city.
"Never! I can't conceive of it. I suppose if this were written down, nobody would believe it."
"No, nobody could," said Isabel, musingly, and she added after a pause, "I wish you would tell me just what you thought of me, dearest. Did you feel as you did when our little affair was broken off, long ago? Did you hate me?"
"I did, most cordially; but not half so much as I despised myself the next moment. As to its being like a lover's quarrel, it wasn't. It was more bitter, so much more love than lovers ever give had to be taken back. Besides, it had no dignity, and a lover's quarrel always has. A lover's quarrel always springs from a more serious cause, and has an air of romantic tragedy. This had no grace of the kind. It was a poor shabby little squabble."
"O, don't call it so, Basil! I should like you to respect even a quarrel of ours more than that. It was tragical enough with me, for I didn't see how it could ever be made up. I knew I couldn't make the advances. I don't think it is quite feminine to be the first to forgive, is it?"
"I'm sure I can't say. Perhaps it would be rather unladylike."
"Well, you see, dearest, what I am trying to get at is this: whether we shall love each other the more or the less for it. I think we shall get on all the better for a while, on account of it. But I should have said it was totally out of character it's something you might have expected of a very young bridal couple; but after what we've been through, it seems too improbable."