Entire PG Edition of The Works of William Dean Howells
William Dean Howells
Part 38 out of 78
when he gets to New York. I'll take the whole responsibility, Basil, and
I'll risk all the consequences."
March's face had sobered more and more as she followed one hopeful burst
with another, and now it expressed a positive pain. But he forced a
smile and said: "There's a little condition attached. Where did you
suppose it was to be published?"
"Why, in Boston, of course. Where else should it be published?"
She looked at him for the intention of his question so searchingly that
he quite gave up the attempt to be gay about it. "No," he said, gravely,
"it's to be published in New York."
She fell back in her chair. "In New York?" She leaned forward over the
table toward him, as if to make sure that she heard aright, and said,
with all the keen reproach that he could have expected: "In New York,
Basil! Oh, how could you have let me go on?"
He had a sufficiently rueful face in owning: "I oughtn't to have done it,
but I got started wrong. I couldn't help putting the best foot, forward
at first--or as long as the whole thing was in the air. I didn't know
that you would take so much to the general enterprise, or else I should
have mentioned the New York condition at once; but, of course, that puts
an end to it."
"Oh, of course," she assented, sadly. "We COULDN'T go to New York."
"No, I know that," he said; and with this a perverse desire to tempt her
to the impossibility awoke in him, though he was really quite cold about
the affair himself now. "Fulkerson thought we could get a nice flat in
New York for about what the interest and taxes came to here, and
provisions are cheaper. But I should rather not experiment at my time of
life. If I could have been caught younger, I might have been inured to
New York, but I don't believe I could stand it now."
"How I hate to have you talk that way, Basil! You are young enough to
try anything--anywhere; but you know I don't like New York. I don't
approve of it. It's so big, and so hideous! Of course I shouldn't mind
that; but I've always lived in Boston, and the children were born and
have all their friendships and associations here." She added, with the
helplessness that discredited her good sense and did her injustice,
"I have just got them both into the Friday afternoon class at Papanti's,
and you know how difficult that is."
March could not fail to take advantage of an occasion like this.
"Well, that alone ought to settle it. Under the circumstances, it would
be flying in the face of Providence to leave Boston. The mere fact of a
brilliant opening like that offered me on 'The Microbe,' and the halcyon
future which Fulkerson promises if we'll come to New York, is as dust in
the balance against the advantages of the Friday afternoon class."
"Basil," she appealed, solemnly, "have I ever interfered with your
"I never had any for you to interfere with, my dear."
"Basil! Haven't I always had faith in you? And don't you suppose that
if I thought it would really be for your advancement I would go to New
York or anywhere with you?"
"No, my dear, I don't," he teased. "If it would be for my salvation,
yes, perhaps; but not short of that; and I should have to prove by a
cloud of witnesses that it would. I don't blame you. I wasn't born in
Boston, but I understand how you feel. And really, my dear," he added,
without irony, "I never seriously thought of asking you to go to New
York. I was dazzled by Fulkerson's offer, I'll own that; but his choice
of me as editor sapped my confidence in him."
"I don't like to hear you say that, Basil," she entreated.
"Well, of course there were mitigating circumstances. I could see that
Fulkerson meant to keep the whip-hand himself, and that was reassuring.
And, besides, if the Reciprocity Life should happen not to want my
services any longer, it wouldn't be quite like giving up a certainty;
though, as a matter of business, I let Fulkerson get that impression; I
felt rather sneaking to do it. But if the worst comes to the worst, I
can look about for something to do in Boston; and, anyhow, people don't
starve on two thousand a year, though it's convenient to have five. The
fact is, I'm too old to change so radically. If you don't like my saying
that, then you are, Isabel, and so are the children. I've no right to
take them from the home we've made, and to change the whole course of
their lives, unless I can assure them of something, and I can't assure
them of anything. Boston is big enough for us, and it's certainly
prettier than New York. I always feel a little proud of hailing from
Boston; my pleasure in the place mounts the farther I get away from it.
But I do appreciate it, my dear; I've no more desire to leave it than you
have. You may be sure that if you don't want to take the children out of
the Friday afternoon class, I don't want to leave my library here, and
all the ways I've got set in. We'll keep on. Very likely the company
won't supplant me, and if it does, and Watkins gets the place, he'll give
me a subordinate position of some sort. Cheer up, Isabel! I have put
Satan and his angel, Fulkerson, behind me, and it's all right. Let's go
in to the children."
He came round the table to Isabel, where she sat in a growing
distraction, and lifted her by the waist from her chair.
She sighed deeply. "Shall we tell the children about it?"
"No. What's the use, now?"
"There wouldn't be any," she assented. When they entered the family
room, where the boy and girl sat on either side of the lamp working out
the lessons for Monday which they had left over from the day before, she
asked, "Children, how would you like to live in New York?"
Bella made haste to get in her word first. "And give up the Friday
afternoon class?" she wailed.
Tom growled from his book, without lifting his eyes: "I shouldn't want to
go to Columbia. They haven't got any dormitories, and you have to board
round anywhere. Are you going to New York?" He now deigned to look up
at his father.
"No, Tom. You and Bella have decided me against it. Your perspective
shows the affair in its true proportions. I had an offer to go to New
York, but I've refused it."
March's irony fell harmless from the children's preoccupation with their
own affairs, but he knew that his wife felt it, and this added to the
bitterness which prompted it. He blamed her for letting her provincial
narrowness prevent his accepting Fulkerson's offer quite as much as if he
had otherwise entirely wished to accept it. His world, like most worlds,
had been superficially a disappointment. He was no richer than at the
beginning, though in marrying he had given up some tastes, some
preferences, some aspirations, in the hope of indulging them later, with
larger means and larger leisure. His wife had not urged him to do it; in
fact, her pride, as she said, was in his fitness for the life he had
renounced; but she had acquiesced, and they had been very happy together.
That is to say, they made up their quarrels or ignored them.
They often accused each other of being selfish and indifferent, but she
knew that he would always sacrifice himself for her and the children;
and he, on his part, with many gibes and mockeries, wholly trusted in
her. They had grown practically tolerant of each other's disagreeable
traits; and the danger that really threatened them was that they should
grow too well satisfied with themselves, if not with each other. They
were not sentimental, they were rather matter-of-fact in their motives;
but they had both a sort of humorous fondness for sentimentality. They
liked to play with the romantic, from the safe vantage-ground of their
real practicality, and to divine the poetry of the commonplace. Their
peculiar point of view separated them from most other people, with whom
their means of self-comparison were not so good since their marriage as
before. Then they had travelled and seen much of the world, and they had
formed tastes which they had not always been able to indulge, but of
which they felt that the possession reflected distinction on them. It
enabled them to look down upon those who were without such tastes; but
they were not ill-natured, and so they did not look down so much with
contempt as with amusement. In their unfashionable neighborhood they had
the fame of being not exclusive precisely, but very much wrapped up in
themselves and their children.
Mrs. March was reputed to be very cultivated, and Mr. March even more so,
among the simpler folk around them. Their house had some good pictures,
which her aunt had brought home from Europe in more affluent days, and it
abounded in books on which he spent more than he ought. They had
beautified it in every way, and had unconsciously taken credit to them
selves for it. They felt, with a glow almost of virtue, how perfectly it
fitted their lives and their children's, and they believed that somehow
it expressed their characters--that it was like them. They went out very
little; she remained shut up in its refinement, working the good of her
own; and he went to his business, and hurried back to forget it, and
dream his dream of intellectual achievement in the flattering atmosphere
of her sympathy. He could not conceal from himself that his divided life
was somewhat like Charles Lamb's, and there were times when, as he had
expressed to Fulkerson, he believed that its division was favorable to
the freshness of his interest in literature. It certainly kept it a high
privilege, a sacred refuge. Now and then he wrote something, and got it
printed after long delays, and when they met on the St. Lawrence
Fulkerson had some of March's verses in his pocket-book, which he had cut
out of astray newspaper and carried about for years, because they pleased
his fancy so much; they formed an immediate bond of union between the men
when their authorship was traced and owned, and this gave a pretty color
of romance to their acquaintance. But, for the most part, March was
satisfied to read. He was proud of reading critically, and he kept in
the current of literary interests and controversies. It all seemed to
him, and to his wife at second-hand, very meritorious; he could not help
contrasting his life and its inner elegance with that of other men who
had no such resources. He thought that he was not arrogant about it,
because he did full justice to the good qualities of those other people;
he congratulated himself upon the democratic instincts which enabled him
to do this; and neither he nor his wife supposed that they were selfish
persons. On the contrary, they were very sympathetic; there was no good
cause that they did not wish well; they had a generous scorn of all kinds
of narrow-heartedness; if it had ever come into their way to sacrifice
themselves for others, they thought they would have done so, but they
never asked why it had not come in their way. They were very gentle and
kind, even when most elusive; and they taught their children to loathe
all manner of social cruelty. March was of so watchful a conscience in
some respects that he denied himself the pensive pleasure of lapsing into
the melancholy of unfulfilled aspirations; but he did not see that, if he
had abandoned them, it had been for what he held dearer; generally he
felt as if he had turned from them with a high, altruistic aim. The
practical expression of his life was that it was enough to provide well
for his family; to have cultivated tastes, and to gratify them to the
extent of his means; to be rather distinguished, even in the
simplification of his desires. He believed, and his wife believed, that
if the time ever came when he really wished to make a sacrifice to the
fulfilment of the aspirations so long postponed, she would be ready to
join with heart and hand.
When he went to her room from his library, where she left him the whole
evening with the children, he found her before the glass thoughtfully
removing the first dismantling pin from her back hair.
"I can't help feeling," she grieved into the mirror, "that it's I who
keep you from accepting that offer. I know it is! I could go West with
you, or into a new country--anywhere; but New York terrifies me. I don't
like New York, I never did; it disheartens and distracts me; I can't find
myself in it; I shouldn't know how to shop. I know I'm foolish and
narrow and provincial," she went on, "but I could never have any inner
quiet in New York; I couldn't live in the spirit there. I suppose people
do. It can't, be that all these millions--'
"Oh, not so bad as that!" March interposed, laughing. "There aren't
"I thought there were four or five. Well, no matter. You see what I am,
Basil. I'm terribly limited. I couldn't make my sympathies go round two
million people; I should be wretched. I suppose I'm standing in the way
of your highest interest, but I can't help it. We took each other for
better or worse, and you must try to bear with me--" She broke off and
began to cry.
"Stop it!" shouted March. "I tell you I never cared anything for
Fulkerson's scheme or entertained it seriously, and I shouldn't if he'd
proposed to carry it out in Boston." This was not quite true, but in the
retrospect it seemed sufficiently so for the purposes of argument.
"Don't say another word about it. The thing's over now, and I don't want
to think of it any more. We couldn't change its nature if we talked all
night. But I want you to understand that it isn't your limitations that
are in the way. It's mine. I shouldn't have the courage to take such a
place; I don't think I'm fit for it, and that's the long and short of
"Oh, you don't know how it hurts me to have you say that, Basil."
The next morning, as they sat together at breakfast, without the
children, whom they let lie late on Sunday, Mrs. March said to her
husband, silent over his fish-balls and baked beans: "We will go to New
York. I've decided it."
"Well, it takes two to decide that," March retorted. "We are not going
to New York."
"Yes, we are. I've thought it out. Now, listen."
"Oh, I'm willing to listen," he consented, airily.
"You've always wanted to get out of the insurance business, and now with
that fear of being turned out which you have you mustn't neglect this
offer. I suppose it has its risks, but it's a risk keeping on as we are;
and perhaps you will make a great success of it. I do want you to try,
Basil. If I could once feel that you had fairly seen what you could do
in literature, I should die happy."
"Not immediately after, I hope," he suggested, taking the second cup of
coffee she had been pouring out for him. "And Boston?"
"We needn't make a complete break. We can keep this place for the
present, anyway; we could let it for the winter, and come back in the
summer next year. It would be change enough from New York."
"Fulkerson and I hadn't got as far as to talk of a vacation."
"No matter. The children and I could come. And if you didn't like New
York, or the enterprise failed, you could get into something in Boston
again; and we have enough to live on till you did. Yes, Basil, I'm
"I can see by the way your chin trembles that nothing could stop you.
You may go to New York if you wish, Isabel, but I shall stay here."
"Be serious, Basil. I'm in earnest."
"Serious? If I were any more serious I should shed tears. Come, my
dear, I know what you mean, and if I had my heart set on this thing--
Fulkerson always calls it 'this thing' I would cheerfully accept any
sacrifice you could make to it. But I'd rather not offer you up on a
shrine I don't feel any particular faith in. I'm very comfortable where
I am; that is, I know just where the pinch comes, and if it comes harder,
why, I've got used to bearing that kind of pinch. I'm too old to change
"Now, that does decide me."
"It decides me, too."
"I will take all the responsibility, Basil," she pleaded.
"Oh yes; but you'll hand it back to me as soon as you've carried your
point with it. There's nothing mean about you, Isabel, where
responsibility is concerned. No; if I do this thing--Fulkerson again?
I can't get away from 'this thing'; it's ominous--I must do it because I
want to do it, and not because you wish that you wanted me to do it.
I understand your position, Isabel, and that you're really acting from a
generous impulse, but there's nothing so precarious at our time of life
as a generous impulse. When we were younger we could stand it; we could
give way to it and take the consequences. But now we can't bear it. We
must act from cold reason even in the ardor of self-sacrifice."
"Oh, as if you did that!" his wife retorted.
"Is that any cause why you shouldn't?" She could not say that it was,
and he went on triumphantly:
"No, I won't take you away from the only safe place on the planet and
plunge you into the most perilous, and then have you say in your
revulsion of feeling that you were all against it from the first, and you
gave way because you saw I had my heart set on it." He supposed he was
treating the matter humorously, but in this sort of banter between
husband and wife there is always much more than the joking. March had
seen some pretty feminine inconsistencies and trepidations which once
charmed him in his wife hardening into traits of middle-age which were
very like those of less interesting older women. The sight moved him
with a kind of pathos, but he felt the result hindering and vexatious.
She now retorted that if he did not choose to take her at her word be
need not, but that whatever he did she should have nothing to reproach
herself with; and, at least, he could not say that she had trapped him
"What do you mean by trapping?" he demanded.
"I don't know what you call it," she answered; "but when you get me to
commit myself to a thing by leaving out the most essential point, I call
"I wonder you stop at trapping, if you think I got you to favor
Fulkerson's scheme and then sprung New York on you. I don't suppose you
do, though. But I guess we won't talk about it any more."
He went out for a long walk, and she went to her room. They lunched
silently together in the presence of their children, who knew that they
had been quarrelling, but were easily indifferent to the fact, as
children get to be in such cases; nature defends their youth, and the
unhappiness which they behold does not infect them. In the evening,
after the boy and girl had gone to bed, the father and mother resumed
their talk. He would have liked to take it up at the point from which it
wandered into hostilities, for he felt it lamentable that a matter which
so seriously concerned them should be confused in the fumes of senseless
anger; and he was willing to make a tacit acknowledgment of his own error
by recurring to the question, but she would not be content with this,
and he had to concede explicitly to her weakness that she really meant it
when she had asked him to accept Fulkerson's offer. He said he knew
that; and he began soberly to talk over their prospects in the event of
their going to New York.
"Oh, I see you are going!" she twitted.
"I'm going to stay," he answered, "and let them turn me out of my agency
here," and in this bitterness their talk ended.
His wife made no attempt to renew their talk before March went to his
business in the morning, and they parted in dry offence. Their
experience was that these things always came right of themselves at last,
and they usually let them. He knew that she had really tried to consent
to a thing that was repugnant to her, and in his heart he gave her more
credit for the effort than he had allowed her openly. She knew that she
had made it with the reservation he accused her of, and that he had a
right to feel sore at what she could not help. But he left her to brood
over his ingratitude, and she suffered him to go heavy and unfriended to
meet the chances of the day. He said to himself that if she had assented
cordially to the conditions of Fulkerson's offer, he would have had the
courage to take all the other risks himself, and would have had the
satisfaction of resigning his place. As it was, he must wait till he was
removed; and he figured with bitter pleasure the pain she would feel when
he came home some day and told her he had been supplanted, after it was
too late to close with Fulkerson.
He found a letter on his desk from the secretary, "Dictated," in
typewriting, which briefly informed him that Mr. Hubbell, the Inspector
of Agencies, would be in Boston on Wednesday, and would call at his
office during the forenoon. The letter was not different in tone from
many that he had formerly received; but the visit announced was out of
the usual order, and March believed he read his fate in it. During the
eighteen years of his connection with it--first as a subordinate in the
Boston office, and finally as its general agent there--he had seen a good
many changes in the Reciprocity; presidents, vice-presidents, actuaries,
and general agents had come and gone, but there had always seemed to be a
recognition of his efficiency, or at least sufficiency, and there had
never been any manner of trouble, no question of accounts, no apparent
dissatisfaction with his management, until latterly, when there had begun
to come from headquarters some suggestions of enterprise in certain ways,
which gave him his first suspicions of his clerk Watkins's willingness to
succeed him; they embodied some of Watkins's ideas. The things proposed
seemed to March undignified, and even vulgar; he had never thought
himself wanting in energy, though probably he had left the business to
take its own course in the old lines more than he realized. Things had
always gone so smoothly that he had sometimes fancied a peculiar regard
for him in the management, which he had the weakness to attribute to an
appreciation of what he occasionally did in literature, though in saner
moments he felt how impossible this was. Beyond a reference from Mr.
Hubbell to some piece of March's which had happened to meet his eye, no
one in the management ever gave a sign of consciousness that their
service was adorned by an obscure literary man; and Mr. Hubbell himself
had the effect of regarding the excursions of March's pen as a sort of
joke, and of winking at them; as he might have winked if once in a way he
had found him a little the gayer for dining.
March wore through the day gloomily, but he had it on his conscience not
to show any resentment toward Watkins, whom he suspected of wishing to
supplant him, and even of working to do so. Through this self-denial he
reached a better mind concerning his wife. He determined not to make her
suffer needlessly, if the worst came to the worst; she would suffer
enough, at the best, and till the worst came he would spare her, and not
say anything about the letter he had got.
But when they met, her first glance divined that something had happened,
and her first question frustrated his generous intention. He had to tell
her about the letter. She would not allow that it had any significance,
but she wished him to make an end of his anxieties and forestall whatever
it might portend by resigning his place at once. She said she was quite
ready to go to New York; she had been thinking it all over, and now she
really wanted to go. He answered, soberly, that he had thought it over,
too; and he did not wish to leave Boston, where he had lived so long, or
try a new way of life if he could help it. He insisted that he was quite
selfish in this; in their concessions their quarrel vanished; they agreed
that whatever happened would be for the best; and the next day be went to
his office fortified for any event.
His destiny, if tragical, presented itself with an aspect which he might
have found comic if it had been another's destiny. Mr. Hubbell brought
March's removal, softened in the guise of a promotion. The management at
New York, it appeared, had acted upon a suggestion of Mr. Hubbell's, and
now authorized him to offer March the editorship of the monthly paper
published in the interest of the company; his office would include the
authorship of circulars and leaflets in behalf of life-insurance, and
would give play to the literary talent which Mr. Hubbell had brought to
the attention of the management; his salary would be nearly as much as at
present, but the work would not take his whole time, and in a place like
New York he could get a great deal of outside writing, which they would
not object to his doing.
Mr. Hubbell seemed so sure of his acceptance of a place in every way
congenial to a man of literary tastes that March was afterward sorry he
dismissed the proposition with obvious irony, and had needlessly hurt
Hubbell's feelings; but Mrs. March had no such regrets. She was only
afraid that he had not made his rejection contemptuous enough.
"And now," she said, "telegraph Mr. Fulkerson, and we will go at once."
"I suppose I could still get Watkins's former place," March suggested.
"Never!" she retorted. "Telegraph instantly!"
They were only afraid now that Fulkerson might have changed his mind, and
they had a wretched day in which they heard nothing from him. It ended
with his answering March's telegram in person. They were so glad of his
coming, and so touched by his satisfaction with his bargain, that they
laid all the facts of the case before him. He entered fully into March's
sense of the joke latent in Mr. Hubbell's proposition, and he tried to
make Mrs. March believe that he shared her resentment of the indignity
offered her husband.
March made a show of willingness to release him in view of the changed
situation, saying that he held him to nothing. Fulkerson laughed, and
asked him how soon he thought he could come on to New York. He refused
to reopen the question of March's fitness with him; he said they, had
gone into that thoroughly, but he recurred to it with Mrs. March, and
confirmed her belief in his good sense on all points. She had been from
the first moment defiantly confident of her husband's ability, but till
she had talked the matter over with Fulkerson she was secretly not sure
of it; or, at least, she was not sure that March was not right in
distrusting himself. When she clearly understood, now, what Fulkerson
intended, she had no longer a doubt. He explained how the enterprise
differed from others, and how he needed for its direction a man who
combined general business experience and business ideas with a love for
the thing and a natural aptness for it. He did not want a young man, and
yet he wanted youth--its freshness, its zest--such as March would feel in
a thing he could put his whole heart into. He would not run in ruts,
like an old fellow who had got hackneyed; he would not have any hobbies;
he would not have any friends or any enemies. Besides, he would have to
meet people, and March was a man that people took to; she knew that
herself; he had a kind of charm. The editorial management was going to
be kept in the background, as far as the public was concerned; the public
was to suppose that the thing ran itself. Fulkerson did not care for a
great literary reputation in his editor--he implied that March had a very
pretty little one. At the same time the relations between the
contributors and the management were to be much more, intimate than
usual. Fulkerson felt his personal disqualification for working the
thing socially, and he counted upon Mr. March for that; that was to say,
he counted upon Mrs. March.
She protested he must not count upon her; but it by no means disabled
Fulkerson's judgment in her view that March really seemed more than
anything else a fancy of his. He had been a fancy of hers; and the sort
of affectionate respect with which Fulkerson spoke of him laid forever
some doubt she had of the fineness of Fulkerson's manners and reconciled
her to the graphic slanginess of his speech.
The affair was now irretrievable, but she gave her approval to it as
superbly as if it were submitted in its inception. Only, Mr. Fulkerson
must not suppose she should ever like New York. She would not deceive
him on that point. She never should like it. She did not conceal,
either, that she did not like taking the children out of the Friday
afternoon class; and she did not believe that Tom would ever be
reconciled to going to Columbia. She took courage from Fulkerson's
suggestion that it was possible for Tom to come to Harvard even from New
York; and she heaped him with questions concerning the domiciliation of
the family in that city. He tried to know something about the matter,
and he succeeded in seeming interested in points necessarily indifferent
In the uprooting and transplanting of their home that followed, Mrs.
March often trembled before distant problems and possible contingencies,
but she was never troubled by present difficulties. She kept up with
tireless energy; and in the moments of dejection and misgiving which
harassed her husband she remained dauntless, and put heart into him when
he had lost it altogether.
She arranged to leave the children in the house with the servants, while
she went on with March to look up a dwelling of some sort in New York.
It made him sick to think of it; and, when it came to the point, he would
rather have given up the whole enterprise. She had to nerve him to it,
to represent more than once that now they had no choice but to make this
experiment. Every detail of parting was anguish to him. He got
consolation out of the notion of letting the house furnished for the
winter; that implied their return to it, but it cost him pangs of the
keenest misery to advertise it; and, when a tenant was actually found, it
was all he could do to give him the lease. He tried his wife's love and
patience as a man must to whom the future is easy in the mass but
terrible as it translates itself piecemeal into the present. He
experienced remorse in the presence of inanimate things he was going to
leave as if they had sensibly reproached him, and an anticipative
homesickness that seemed to stop his heart. Again and again his wife had
to make him reflect that his depression was not prophetic. She convinced
him of what he already knew, and persuaded him against his knowledge that
he could be keeping an eye out for something to take hold of in Boston if
they could not stand New York. She ended by telling him that it was too
bad to make her comfort him in a trial that was really so much more a
trial to her. She had to support him in a last access of despair on
their way to the Albany depot the morning they started to New York; but
when the final details had been dealt with, the tickets bought, the
trunks checked, and the handbags hung up in their car, and the future had
massed itself again at a safe distance and was seven hours and two
hundred miles away, his spirits began to rise and hers to sink. He would
have been willing to celebrate the taste, the domestic refinement, of the
ladies' waiting-room in the depot, where they had spent a quarter of an
hour before the train started. He said he did not believe there was
another station in the world where mahogany rocking-chairs were provided;
that the dull-red warmth of the walls was as cozy as an evening lamp, and
that he always hoped to see a fire kindled on that vast hearth and under
that aesthetic mantel, but he supposed now he never should. He said it
was all very different from that tunnel, the old Albany depot, where they
had waited the morning they went to New York when they were starting on
their wedding journey.
"The morning, Basil!" cried his wife. "We went at night; and we were
going to take the boat, but it stormed so!" She gave him a glance of
such reproach that he could not answer anything, and now she asked him
whether he supposed their cook and second girl would be contented with
one of those dark holes where they put girls to sleep in New York flats,
and what she should do if Margaret, especially, left her. He ventured to
suggest that Margaret would probably like the city; but, if she left,
there were plenty of other girls to be had in New York. She replied that
there were none she could trust, and that she knew Margaret would not
stay. He asked her why she took her, then--why she did not give her up
at once; and she answered that it would be inhuman to give her up just in
the edge of the winter. She had promised to keep her; and Margaret was
pleased with the notion of going to New York, where she had a cousin.
"Then perhaps she'll be pleased with the notion of staying," he said.
"Oh, much you know about it!" she retorted; and, in view of the
hypothetical difficulty and his want of sympathy, she fell into a gloom,
from which she roused herself at last by declaring that, if there was
nothing else in the flat they took, there should be a light kitchen and a
bright, sunny bedroom for Margaret. He expressed the belief that they
could easily find such a flat as that, and she denounced his fatal
optimism, which buoyed him up in the absence of an undertaking and let
him drop into the depths of despair in its presence.
He owned this defect of temperament, but he said that it compensated the
opposite in her character. "I suppose that's one of the chief uses of
marriage; people supplement one another, and form a pretty fair sort of
human being together. The only drawback to the theory is that unmarried
people seem each as complete and whole as a married pair."
She refused to be amused; she turned her face to the window and put her
handkerchief up under her veil.
It was not till the dining-car was attached to their train that they were
both able to escape for an hour into the care-free mood of their earlier
travels, when they were so easily taken out of themselves. The time had
been when they could have found enough in the conjectural fortunes and
characters of their fellow-passengers to occupy them. This phase of
their youth had lasted long, and the world was still full of novelty and
interest for them; but it required all the charm of the dining-car now to
lay the anxieties that beset them. It was so potent for the moment,
however, that they could take an objective view at their sitting cozily
down there together, as if they had only themselves in the world. They
wondered what the children were doing, the children who possessed them so
intensely when present, and now, by a fantastic operation of absence,
seemed almost non-existents. They tried to be homesick for them, but
failed; they recognized with comfortable self-abhorrence that this was
terrible, but owned a fascination in being alone; at the same time, they
could not imagine how people felt who never had any children. They
contrasted the luxury of dining that way, with every advantage except a
band of music, and the old way of rushing out to snatch a fearful joy at
the lunch-counters of the Worcesier and Springfield and New Haven
stations. They had not gone often to New York since their wedding
journey, but they had gone often enough to have noted the change from the
lunch-counter to the lunch-basket brought in the train, from which you
could subsist with more ease and dignity, but seemed destined to a
superabundance of pickles, whatever you ordered.
They thought well of themselves now that they could be both critical and
tolerant of flavors not very sharply distinguished from one another in
their dinner, and they lingered over their coffee and watched the autumn
landscape through the windows.
"Not quite so loud a pattern of calico this year," he said, with
patronizing forbearance toward the painted woodlands whirling by.
"Do you see how the foreground next the train rushes from us and the
background keeps ahead of us, while the middle distance seems stationary?
I don't think I ever noticed that effect before. There ought to be
something literary in it: retreating past and advancing future and
deceitfully permanent present--something like that?"
His wife brushed some crumbs from her lap before rising. "Yes. You
mustn't waste any of these ideas now."
"Oh no; it would be money out of Fulkerson's pocket."
They went to a quiet hotel far down-town, and took a small apartment
which they thought they could easily afford for the day or two they need
spend in looking up a furnished flat. They were used to staying at this
hotel when they came on for a little outing in New York, after some rigid
winter in Boston, at the time of the spring exhibitions. They were
remembered there from year to year; the colored call-boys, who never
seemed to get any older, smiled upon them, and the clerk called March by
name even before he registered. He asked if Mrs. March were with him,
and said then he supposed they would want their usual quarters; and in a
moment they were domesticated in a far interior that seemed to have been
waiting for them in a clean, quiet, patient disoccupation ever since they
left it two years before. The little parlor, with its gilt paper and
ebonized furniture, was the lightest of the rooms, but it was not very
light at noonday without the gas, which the bell-boy now flared up for
them. The uproar of the city came to it in a soothing murmur, and they
took possession of its peace and comfort with open celebration. After
all, they agreed, there was no place in the world so delightful as a
hotel apartment like that; the boasted charms of home were nothing to it;
and then the magic of its being always there, ready for any one, every
one, just as if it were for some one alone: it was like the experience of
an Arabian Nights hero come true for all the race.
"Oh, why can't we always stay here, just we two!" Mrs. March sighed to
her husband, as he came out of his room rubbing his face red with the
towel, while she studied a new arrangement of her bonnet and handbag on
"And ignore the past? I'm willing. I've no doubt that the children
could get on perfectly well without us, and could find some lot in the
scheme of Providence that would really be just as well for them."
"Yes; or could contrive somehow never to have existed. I should insist
upon that. If they are, don't you see that we couldn't wish them not to
"Oh yes; I see your point; it's simply incontrovertible."
She laughed and said: "Well, at any rate, if we can't find a flat to suit
us we can all crowd into these three rooms somehow, for the winter, and
then browse about for meals. By the week we could get them much cheaper;
and we could save on the eating, as they do in Europe. Or on something
"Something else, probably," said March. "But we won't take this
apartment till the ideal furnished flat winks out altogether. We shall
not have any trouble. We can easily find some one who is going South for
the winter and will be glad to give up their flat 'to the right party' at
a nominal rent. That's my notion. That's what the Evanses did one
winter when they came on here in February. All but the nominality of the
"Yes, and we could pay a very good rent and still save something on
letting our house. You can settle yourselves in a hundred different ways
in New York, that is one merit of the place. But if everything else
fails, we can come back to this. I want you to take the refusal of it,
Basil. And we'll commence looking this very evening as soon as we've had
dinner. I cut a lot of things out of the Herald as we came on.
She took a long strip of paper out of her hand-bag with minute
advertisements pinned transversely upon it, and forming the effect of
some glittering nondescript vertebrate.
"Looks something like the sea-serpent," said March, drying his hands on
the towel, while he glanced up and down the list. "But we sha'n't have
any trouble. I've no doubt there are half a dozen things there that will
do. You haven't gone up-town? Because we must be near the 'Every Other
"No; but I wish Mr. Fulkerson hadn't called it that! It always makes one
think of 'jam yesterday and jam tomorrow, but never jam to-day,' in
'Through the Looking-Glass.' They're all in this region."
They were still at their table, beside a low window, where some sort of
never-blooming shrub symmetrically balanced itself in a large pot, with a
leaf to the right and a leaf to the left and a spear up the middle, when
Fulkerson came stepping square-footedly over the thick dining-room
carpet. He wagged in the air a gay hand of salutation at sight of them,
and of repression when they offered to rise to meet him; then, with an
apparent simultaneity of action he gave a hand to each, pulled up a chair
from the next table, put his hat and stick on the floor beside it, and
"Well, you've burned your ships behind you, sure enough," he said,
beaming his satisfaction upon them from eyes and teeth.
"The ships are burned," said March, "though I'm not sure we alone did
it. But here we are, looking for shelter, and a little anxious about the
disposition of the natives."
"Oh, they're an awful peaceable lot," said Fulkerson. "I've been round
among the caciques a little, and I think I've got two or three places
that will just suit you, Mrs. March. How did you leave the children?"
"Oh, how kind of you! Very well, and very proud to be left in charge of
the smoking wrecks."
Fulkerson naturally paid no attention to what she said, being but
secondarily interested in the children at the best. "Here are some
things right in this neighborhood, within gunshot of the office, and if
you want you can go and look at them to-night; the agents gave me houses
where the people would be in."
"We will go and look at them instantly," said Mrs. March. "Or, as soon
as you've had coffee with us."
"Never do," Fulkerson replied. He gathered up his hat and stick. "Just
rushed in to say Hello, and got to run right away again. I tell you,
March, things are humming. I'm after those fellows with a sharp stick
all the while to keep them from loafing on my house, and at the same time
I'm just bubbling over with ideas about 'The Lone Hand--wish we could
call it that!--that I want to talk up with you."
"Well, come to breakfast," said Mrs. March, cordially.
"No; the ideas will keep till you've secured your lodge in this vast
"You're as nice as you can be, Mr. Fulkerson," she said, "to keep us in
mind when you have so much to occupy you."
"I wouldn't have anything to occupy me if I hadn't kept you in mind, Mrs.
March," said Fulkerson, going off upon as good a speech as he could
apparently hope to make.
"Why, Basil," said Mrs. March, when he was gone, "he's charming!
But now we mustn't lose an instant. Let's see where the places are."
She ran over the half-dozen agents' permits. "Capital-first-rate-the
very thing-every one. Well, I consider ourselves settled! We can go
back to the children to-morrow if we like, though I rather think I should
like to stay over another day and get a little rested for the final
pulling up that's got to come. But this simplifies everything
enormously, and Mr. Fulkerson is as thoughtful and as sweet as he can be.
I know you will get on well with him. He has such a good heart. And his
attitude toward you, Basil, is beautiful always--so respectful; or not
that so much as appreciative. Yes, appreciative--that's the word; I must
always keep that in mind."
"It's quite important to do so," said March.
"Yes," she assented, seriously, "and we must not forget just what kind of
flat we are going to look for. The 'sine qua nons' are an elevator and
steam heat, not above the third floor, to begin with. Then we must each
have a room, and you must have your study and I must have my parlor; and
the two girls must each have a room. With the kitchen and dining room,
how many does that make?"
"I thought eight. Well, no matter. You can work in the parlor, and run
into your bedroom when anybody comes; and I can sit in mine, and the
girls must put up with one, if it's large and sunny, though I've always
given them two at home. And the kitchen must be sunny, so they can sit
in it. And the rooms must all have outside light. Aud the rent must not
be over eight hundred for the winter. We only get a thousand for our
whole house, and we must save something out of that, so as to cover the
expenses of moving. Now, do you think you can remember all that?"
"Not the half of it," said March. "But you can; or if you forget a third
of it, I can come in with my partial half and more than make it up."
She had brought her bonnet and sacque down-stairs with her, and was
transferring them from the hatrack to her person while she talked. The
friendly door-boy let them into the street, and the clear October evening
air brightened her so that as she tucked her hand under her husband's arm
and began to pull him along she said, "If we find something right away--
and we're just as likely to get the right flat soon as late; it's all a
lottery--well go to the theatre somewhere."
She had a moment's panic about having left the agents' permits on the
table, and after remembering that she had put them into her little
shopping-bag, where she kept her money (each note crushed into a round
wad), and had heft it on the hat-rack, where it would certainly be
stolen, she found it on her wrist. She did not think that very funny;
but after a first impulse to inculpate her husband, she let him laugh,
while they stopped under a lamp and she held the permits half a yard away
to read the numbers on them.
"Where are your glasses, Isabel?"
"On the mantel in our room, of course."
"Then you ought to have brought a pair of tongs."
"I wouldn't get off second-hand jokes, Basil," she said; and "Why, here!"
she cried, whirling round to the door before which they had halted, "this
is the very number. Well, I do believe it's a sign!"
One of those colored men who soften the trade of janitor in many of the
smaller apartment-houses in New York by the sweetness of their race let
the Marches in, or, rather, welcomed them to the possession of the
premises by the bow with which he acknowledged their permit. It was a
large, old mansion cut up into five or six dwellings, but it had kept
some traits of its former dignity, which pleased people of their
sympathetic tastes. The dark-mahogany trim, of sufficiently ugly design,
gave a rich gloom to the hallway, which was wide and paved with marble;
the carpeted stairs curved aloft through a generous space.
"There is no elevator?" Mrs. March asked of the janitor.
He answered, "No, ma'am; only two flights up," so winningly that she
"Oh!" in courteous apology, and whispered to her husband, as she followed
lightly up, "We'll take it, Basil, if it's like the rest."
"If it's like him, you mean."
"I don't wonder they wanted to own them," she hurriedly philosophized.
"If I had such a creature, nothing but death should part us, and I should
no more think of giving him his freedom!"
"No; we couldn't afford it," returned her husband.
The apartment which the janitor unlocked for them, and lit up from those
chandeliers and brackets of gilt brass in the form of vine bunches,
leaves, and tendrils in which the early gas-fitter realized most of his
conceptions of beauty, had rather more of the ugliness than the dignity
of the hall. But the rooms were large, and they grouped themselves in a
reminiscence of the time when they were part of a dwelling that had its
charm, its pathos, its impressiveness. Where they were cut up into
smaller spaces, it had been done with the frankness with which a proud
old family of fallen fortunes practises its economies. The rough pine-
floors showed a black border of tack-heads where carpets had been lifted
and put down for generations; the white paint was yellow with age; the
apartment had light at the front and at the back, and two or three rooms
had glimpses of the day through small windows let into their corners;
another one seemed lifting an appealing eye to heaven through a glass
circle in its ceiling; the rest must darkle in perpetual twilight. Yet
something pleased in it all, and Mrs. March had gone far to adapt the
different rooms to the members of her family, when she suddenly thought
(and for her to think was to say), "Why, but there's no steam heat!"
"No, ma'am," the janitor admitted; "but dere's grates in most o' de
rooms, and dere's furnace heat in de halls."
"That's true," she admitted, and, having placed her family in the
apartments, it was hard to get them out again. "Could we manage?" she
referred to her husband.
"Why, I shouldn't care for the steam heat if--What is the rent?" he
broke off to ask the janitor.
"Nine hundred, sir."
March concluded to his wife, "If it were furnished."
"Why, of course! What could I have been thinking of? We're looking for
a furnished flat," she explained to the janitor, "and this was so
pleasant and homelike that I never thought whether it was furnished or
She smiled upon the janitor, and he entered into the joke and chuckled so
amiably at her flattering oversight on the way down-stairs that she said,
as she pinched her husband's arm, "Now, if you don't give him a quarter
I'll never speak to you again, Basil!"
"I would have given half a dollar willingly to get you beyond his
glamour," said March, when they were safely on the pavement outside."
If it hadn't been for my strength of character, you'd have taken an
unfurnished flat without heat and with no elevator, at nine hundred a
year, when you had just sworn me to steam heat, an elevator, furniture,
and eight hundred."
"Yes! How could I have lost my head so completely?" she said, with a
lenient amusement in her aberration which she was not always able to feel
in her husband's.
"The next time a colored janitor opens the door to us, I'll tell him the
apartment doesn't suit at the threshold. It's the only way to manage
"It's true. I am in love with the whole race. I never saw one of them
that didn't have perfectly angelic manners. I think we shall all be
black in heaven--that is, black-souled."
"That isn't the usual theory," said March.
"Well, perhaps not," she assented. "Where are we going now? Oh yes, to
She pulled him gayly along again, and after they had walked a block down
and half a block over they stood before the apartment-house of that name,
which was cut on the gas-lamps on either side of the heavily spiked,
aesthetic-hinged black door. The titter of an electric-bell brought a
large, fat Buttons, with a stage effect of being dressed to look small,
who said he would call the janitor, and they waited in the dimly
splendid, copper-colored interior, admiring the whorls and waves into
which the wallpaint was combed, till the janitor came in his gold-banded
cap, like a Continental porker. When they said they would like to see
Mrs. Grosvenor Green's apartment, he owned his inability to cope with the
affair, and said he must send for the superintendent; he was either in
the Herodotus or the Thucydides, and would be there in a minute. The
Buttons brought him--a Yankee of browbeating presence in plain clothes--
almost before they had time to exchange a frightened whisper in
recognition of the fact that there could be no doubt of the steam heat
and elevator in this case. Half stifled in the one, they mounted in the
other eight stories, while they tried to keep their self-respect under
the gaze of the superintendent, which they felt was classing and
assessing them with unfriendly accuracy. They could not, and they
faltered abashed at the threshold of Mrs. Grosvenor Green's apartment,
while the superintendent lit the gas in the gangway that he called a
private hall, and in the drawing-room and the succession of chambers
stretching rearward to the kitchen. Everything had, been done by the
architect to save space, and everything, to waste it by Mrs. Grosvenor
Green. She had conformed to a law for the necessity of turning round in
each room, and had folding-beds in the chambers, but there her
subordination had ended, and wherever you might have turned round she had
put a gimcrack so that you would knock it over if you did turn. The
place was rather pretty and even imposing at first glance, and it took
several joint ballots for March and his wife to make sure that with the
kitchen there were only six rooms. At every door hung a portiere from
large rings on a brass rod; every shelf and dressing-case and mantel was
littered with gimcracks, and the corners of the tiny rooms were curtained
off, and behind these portieres swarmed more gimcracks. The front of the
upright piano had what March called a short-skirted portiere on it, and
the top was covered with vases, with dragon candlesticks and with Jap
fans, which also expanded themselves bat wise on the walls between the
etchings and the water colors. The floors were covered with filling, and
then rugs and then skins; the easy-chairs all had tidies, Armenian and
Turkish and Persian; the lounges and sofas had embroidered cushions
hidden under tidies.
The radiator was concealed by a Jap screen, and over the top of this some
Arab scarfs were flung. There was a superabundance of clocks. China
pugs guarded the hearth; a brass sunflower smiled from the top of either
andiron, and a brass peacock spread its tail before them inside a high
filigree fender; on one side was a coalhod in 'repousse' brass, and on
the other a wrought iron wood-basket. Some red Japanese bird-kites were
stuck about in the necks of spelter vases, a crimson Jap umbrella hung
opened beneath the chandelier, and each globe had a shade of yellow silk.
March, when he had recovered his self-command a little in the presence of
the agglomeration, comforted himself by calling the bric-a-brac
Jamescracks, as if this was their full name.
The disrespect he was able to show the whole apartment by means of this
joke strengthened him to say boldly to the superintendent that it was
altogether too small; then he asked carelessly what the rent was.
"Two hundred and fifty."
The Marches gave a start, and looked at each other.
"Don't you think we could make it do?" she asked him, and he could see
that she had mentally saved five hundred dollars as the difference
between the rent of their house and that of this flat. "It has some very
pretty features, and we could manage to squeeze in, couldn't we?"
"You won't find another furnished flat like it for no two-fifty a month
in the whole city," the superintendent put in.
They exchanged glances again, and March said, carelessly, "It's too
"There's a vacant flat in the Herodotus for eighteen hundred a year, and
one in the Thucydides for fifteen," the superintendent suggested,
clicking his keys together as they sank down in the elevator; "seven
rooms and bath."
"Thank you," said March; "we're looking for a furnished flat."
They felt that the superintendent parted from them with repressed
"Oh, Basil, do you think we really made him think it was the smallness
and not the dearness?"
" No, but we saved our self-respect in the attempt; and that's a great
"Of course, I wouldn't have taken it, anyway, with only six rooms, and so
high up. But what prices! Now, we must be very circumspect about the
It was a janitress, large, fat, with her arms wound up in her apron, who
received them there. Mrs. March gave her a succinct but perfect
statement of their needs. She failed to grasp the nature of them, or
feigned to do so. She shook her head, and said that her son would show
them the flat. There was a radiator visible in the narrow hall, and
Isabel tacitly compromised on steam heat without an elevator, as the flat
was only one flight up. When the son appeared from below with a small
kerosene hand-lamp, it appeared that the flat was unfurnished, but there
was no stopping him till he had shown it in all its impossibility. When
they got safely away from it and into the street March said: "Well, have
you had enough for to-night, Isabel? Shall we go to the theatre now?"
"Not on any account. I want to see the whole list of flats that Mr.
Fulkerson thought would be the very thing for us." She laughed, but with
a certain bitterness.
"You'll be calling him my Mr. Fulkerson next, Isabel."
The fourth address was a furnished flat without a kitchen, in a house
with a general restaurant. The fifth was a furnished house. At the
sixth a pathetic widow and her pretty daughter wanted to take a family to
board, and would give them a private table at a rate which the Marches
would have thought low in Boston.
Mrs. March came away tingling with compassion for their evident anxiety,
and this pity naturally soured into a sense of injury. "Well, I must say
I have completely lost confidence in Mr. Fulkerson's judgment. Anything
more utterly different from what I told him we wanted I couldn't imagine.
If he doesn't manage any better about his business than he has done about
this, it will be a perfect failure."
"Well, well, let's hope he'll be more circumspect about that," her
husband returned, with ironical propitiation. "But I don't think it's
Fulkerson's fault altogether. Perhaps it's the house-agents'. They're a
very illusory generation. There seems to be something in the human
habitation that corrupts the natures of those who deal in it, to buy or
sell it, to hire or let it. You go to an agent and tell him what kind of
a house you want. He has no such house, and he sends you to look at
something altogether different, upon the well-ascertained principle that
if you can't get what you want you will take what you can get. You don't
suppose the 'party' that took our house in Boston was looking for any
such house? He was looking for a totally different kind of house in
another part of the town."
"I don't believe that!" his wife broke in.
"Well, no matter. But see what a scandalous rent you asked for it."
"We didn't get much more than half; and, besides, the agent told me to
ask fourteen hundred."
"Oh, I'm not blaming you, Isabel. I'm only analyzing the house-agent and
"Well, I don't believe he told them just what we wanted; and, at any
rate, I'm done with agents. Tomorrow I'm going entirely by
Mrs. March took the vertebrate with her to the Vienna Coffee-House, where
they went to breakfast next morning. She made March buy her the Herald
and the World, and she added to its spiny convolutions from them. She
read the new advertisements aloud with ardor and with faith to believe
that the apartments described in them were every one truthfully
represented, and that any one of them was richly responsive to their
needs. "Elegant, light, large, single and outside flats" were offered
with "all improvements--bath, ice-box, etc."--for twenty-five to thirty
dollars a month. The cheapness was amazing. The Wagram, the Esmeralda,
the Jacinth, advertised them for forty dollars and sixty dollars, "with
steam heat and elevator," rent free till November. Others, attractive
from their air of conscientious scruple, announced "first-class flats;
good order; reasonable rents." The Helena asked the reader if she had
seen the "cabinet finish, hard-wood floors, and frescoed ceilings" of its
fifty-dollar flats; the Asteroid affirmed that such apartments, with "six
light rooms and bath, porcelain wash-tubs, electric bells, and hall-boy,"
as it offered for seventy-five dollars were unapproached by competition.
There was a sameness in the jargon which tended to confusion. Mrs. March
got several flats on her list which promised neither steam heat nor
elevators; she forgot herself so far as to include two or three as remote
from the down-town region of her choice as Harlem. But after she had
rejected these the nondescript vertebrate was still voluminous enough to
sustain her buoyant hopes.
The waiter, who remembered them from year to year, had put them at a
window giving a pretty good section of Broadway, and before they set out
on their search they had a moment of reminiscence. They recalled the
Broadway of five, of ten, of twenty years ago, swelling and roaring with
a tide of gayly painted omnibuses and of picturesque traffic that the
horsecars have now banished from it. The grind of their wheels and the
clash of their harsh bells imperfectly fill the silence that the
omnibuses have left, and the eye misses the tumultuous perspective of
They went out and stood for a moment before Grace Church, and looked down
the stately thoroughfare, and found it no longer impressive, no longer
characteristic. It is still Broadway in name, but now it is like any
other street. You do not now take your life in your hand when you
attempt to cross it; the Broadway policeman who supported the elbow of
timorous beauty in the hollow of his cotton-gloved palm and guided its
little fearful boots over the crossing, while he arrested the billowy
omnibuses on either side with an imperious glance, is gone, and all that
certain processional, barbaric gayety of the place is gone.
"Palmyra, Baalbec, Timour of the Desert," said March, voicing their
common feeling of the change.
They turned and went into the beautiful church, and found themselves in
time for the matin service. Rapt far from New York, if not from earth,
in the dim richness of the painted light, the hallowed music took them
with solemn ecstasy; the aerial, aspiring Gothic forms seemed to lift
them heavenward. They came out, reluctant, into the dazzle and bustle of
the street, with a feeling that they were too good for it, which they
confessed to each other with whimsical consciousness.
"But no matter how consecrated we feel now," he said, "we mustn't forget
that we went into the church for precisely the same reason that we went
to the Vienna Cafe for breakfast--to gratify an aesthetic sense, to renew
the faded pleasure of travel for a moment, to get back into the Europe of
our youth. It was a purely Pagan impulse, Isabel, and we'd better own
"I don't know," she returned. "I think we reduce ourselves to the bare
bones too much. I wish we didn't always recognize the facts as we do.
Sometimes I should like to blink them. I should like to think I was
devouter than I am, and younger and prettier."
"Better not; you couldn't keep it up. Honesty is the best policy even in
"No; I don't like it, Basil. I should rather wait till the last day for
some of my motives to come to the top. I know they're always mixed, but
do let me give them the benefit of a doubt sometimes."
"Well, well, have it your own way, my dear. But I prefer not to lay up
so many disagreeable surprises for myself at that time."
She would not consent. "I know I am a good deal younger than I was.
I feel quite in the mood of that morning when we walked down Broadway on
our wedding journey. Don't you?"
"Oh yes. But I know I'm not younger; I'm only prettier."
She laughed for pleasure in his joke, and also for unconscious joy in the
gay New York weather, in which there was no 'arriere pensee' of the east
wind. They had crossed Broadway, and were walking over to Washington
Square, in the region of which they now hoped to place themselves. The
'primo tenore' statue of Garibaldi had already taken possession of the
place in the name of Latin progress, and they met Italian faces, French
faces, Spanish faces, as they strolled over the asphalt walks, under the
thinning shadows of the autumn-stricken sycamores. They met the familiar
picturesque raggedness of Southern Europe with the old kindly illusion
that somehow it existed for their appreciation, and that it found
adequate compensation for poverty in this. March thought he sufficiently
expressed his tacit sympathy in sitting down on one of the iron benches
with his wife and letting a little Neapolitan put a superfluous shine on
his boots, while their desultory comment wandered with equal esteem to
the old-fashioned American respectability which keeps the north side of
the square in vast mansions of red brick, and the international
shabbiness which has invaded the southern border, and broken it up into
lodging-houses, shops, beer-gardens, and studios.
They noticed the sign of an apartment to let on the north side, and as
soon as the little bootblack could be bought off they went over to look
at it. The janitor met them at the door and examined them. Then he
said, as if still in doubt, "It has ten rooms, and the rent is twenty-
eight hundred dollars."
"It wouldn't do, then," March replied, and left him to divide the
responsibility between the paucity of the rooms and the enormity of the
rent as he best might. But their self-love had received a wound, and
they questioned each other what it was in their appearance made him doubt
their ability to pay so much.
"Of course, we don't look like New-Yorkers," sighed Mrs. March, "and
we've walked through the Square. That might be as if we had walked along
the Park Street mall in the Common before we came out on Beacon. Do you
suppose he could have seen you getting your boots blacked in that way?"
"It's useless to ask," said March. "But I never can recover from this
"Oh, pshaw! You know you hate such things as badly as I do. It was very
impertinent of him."
"Let us go back and 'ecraser l'infame' by paying him a year's rent in
advance and taking immediate possession. Nothing else can soothe my
wounded feelings. You were not having your boots blacked: why shouldn't
he have supposed you were a New-Yorker, and I a country cousin?"
"They always know. Don't you remember Mrs. Williams's going to a Fifth
Avenue milliner in a Worth dress, and the woman's asking her instantly
what hotel she should send her hat to?"
"Yes; these things drive one to despair. I don't wonder the bodies of so
many genteel strangers are found in the waters around New York. Shall we
try the south side, my dear? or had we better go back to our rooms and
Mrs. March had out the vertebrate, and was consulting one of its
glittering ribs and glancing up from it at a house before which they
stood. "Yes, it's the number; but do they call this being ready October
first?" The little area in front of the basement was heaped with a
mixture of mortar, bricks, laths, and shavings from the interior; the
brownstone steps to the front door were similarly bestrewn; the doorway
showed the half-open, rough pine carpenter's sketch of an unfinished
house; the sashless windows of every story showed the activity of workmen
within; the clatter of hammers and the hiss of saws came out to them from
"They may call it October first," said March, "because it's too late to
contradict them. But they'd better not call it December first in my
presence; I'll let them say January first, at a pinch."
"We will go in and look at it, anyway," said his wife; and he admired
how, when she was once within, she began provisionally to settle the
family in each of the several floors with the female instinct for
domiciliation which never failed her. She had the help of the landlord,
who was present to urge forward the workmen apparently; he lent a hopeful
fancy to the solution of all her questions. To get her from under his
influence March had to represent that the place was damp from undried
plastering, and that if she stayed she would probably be down with that
New York pneumonia which visiting Bostonians are always dying of. Once
safely on the pavement outside, she realized that the apartment was not
only unfinished, but unfurnished, and had neither steam heat nor
elevator. "But I thought we had better look at everything," she
"Yes, but not take everything. If I hadn't pulled you away from there by
main force you'd have not only died of New York pneumonia on the spot,
but you'd have had us all settled there before we knew what we were
"Well, that's what I can't help, Basil. It's the only way I can realize
whether it will do for us. I have to dramatize the whole thing."
She got a deal of pleasure as well as excitement out of this, and he had
to own that the process of setting up housekeeping in so many different
places was not only entertaining, but tended, through association with
their first beginnings in housekeeping, to restore the image of their
early married days and to make them young again.
It went on all day, and continued far into the night, until it was too
late to go to the theatre, too late to do anything but tumble into bed
and simultaneously fall asleep. They groaned over their reiterated
disappointments, but they could not deny that the interest was unfailing,
and that they got a great deal of fun out of it all. Nothing could abate
Mrs. March's faith in her advertisements. One of them sent her to a flat
of ten rooms which promised to be the solution of all their difficulties;
it proved to be over a livery-stable, a liquor store, and a milliner's
shop, none of the first fashion. Another led them far into old Greenwich
Village to an apartment-house, which she refused to enter behind a small
girl with a loaf of bread under one arm and a quart can of milk under the
In their search they were obliged, as March complained, to the
acquisition of useless information in a degree unequalled in their
experience. They came to excel in the sad knowledge of the line at which
respectability distinguishes itself from shabbiness. Flattering
advertisements took them to numbers of huge apartment-houses chiefly
distinguishable from tenement-houses by the absence of fire-escapes on
their facades, till Mrs. March refused to stop at any door where there
were more than six bell-ratchets and speaking-tubes on either hand.
Before the middle of the afternoon she decided against ratchets
altogether, and confined herself to knobs, neatly set in the door-trim.
Her husband was still sunk in the superstition that you can live anywhere
you like in New York, and he would have paused at some places where her
quicker eye caught the fatal sign of "Modes" in the ground-floor windows.
She found that there was an east and west line beyond which they could
not go if they wished to keep their self-respect, and that within the
region to which they had restricted themselves there was a choice of
streets. At first all the New York streets looked to them ill-paved,
dirty, and repulsive; the general infamy imparted itself in their casual
impression to streets in no wise guilty. But they began to notice that
some streets were quiet and clean, and, though never so quiet and clean
as Boston streets, that they wore an air of encouraging reform, and
suggested a future of greater and greater domesticity. Whole blocks of
these downtown cross-streets seemed to have been redeemed from decay, and
even in the midst of squalor a dwelling here and there had been seized,
painted a dull red as to its brick-work, and a glossy black as to its
wood-work, and with a bright brass bell-pull and door-knob and a large
brass plate for its key-hole escutcheon, had been endowed with an effect
of purity and pride which removed its shabby neighborhood far from it.
Some of these houses were quite small, and imaginably within their means;
but, as March said, some body seemed always to be living there himself,
and the fact that none of them was to rent kept Mrs. March true to her
ideal of a fiat. Nothing prevented its realization so much as its
difference from the New York ideal of a flat, which was inflexibly seven
rooms and a bath. One or two rooms might be at the front, the rest
crooked and cornered backward through in creasing and then decreasing
darkness till they reached a light bedroom or kitchen at the rear.
It might be the one or the other, but it was always the seventh room with
the bath; or if, as sometimes happened, it was the eighth, it was so
after having counted the bath as one; in this case the janitor said you
always counted the bath as one. If the flats were advertised as having
"all light rooms," he explained that any room with a window giving into
the open air of a court or shaft was counted a light room.
The Marches tried to make out why it was that these flats were go much
more repulsive than the apartments which everyone lived in abroad; but
they could only do so upon the supposition that in their European days
they were too young, too happy, too full of the future, to notice whether
rooms were inside or outside, light or dark, big or little, high or low.
"Now we're imprisoned in the present," he said, "and we have to make the
worst of it."
In their despair he had an inspiration, which she declared worthy of him:
it was to take two small flats, of four or five rooms and a bath, and
live in both. They tried this in a great many places, but they never
could get two flats of the kind on the same floor where there was steam
heat and an elevator. At one place they almost did it. They had
resigned themselves to the humility of the neighborhood, to the
prevalence of modistes and livery-stablemen (they seem to consort much in
New York), to the garbage in the gutters and the litter of paper in the
streets, to the faltering slats in the surrounding window-shutters and
the crumbled brownstone steps and sills, when it turned out that one of
the apartments had been taken between two visits they made. Then the
only combination left open to them was of a ground-floor flat to the
right and a third-floor flat to the left.
Still they kept this inspiration in reserve for use at the first
opportunity. In the mean time there were several flats which they
thought they could almost make do: notably one where they could get an
extra servant's room in the basement four flights down, and another where
they could get it in the roof five flights up. At the first the janitor
was respectful and enthusiastic; at the second he had an effect of
ironical pessimism. When they trembled on the verge of taking his
apartment, he pointed out a spot in the kalsomining of the parlor
ceiling, and gratuitously said, Now such a thing as that he should not
agree to put in shape unless they took the apartment for a term of years.
The apartment was unfurnished, and they recurred to the fact that they
wanted a furnished apartment, and made their escape. This saved them in
several other extremities; but short of extremity they could not keep
their different requirements in mind, and were always about to decide
without regard to some one of them.
They went to several places twice without intending: once to that old-
fashioned house with the pleasant colored janitor, and wandered all over
the apartment again with a haunting sense of familiarity, and then
recognized the janitor and laughed; and to that house with the pathetic
widow and the pretty daughter who wished to take them to board. They
stayed to excuse their blunder, and easily came by the fact that the
mother had taken the house that the girl might have a home while she was
in New York studying art, and they hoped to pay their way by taking
boarders. Her daughter was at her class now, the mother concluded; and
they encouraged her to believe that it could only be a few days till the
rest of her scheme was realized.
"I dare say we could be perfectly comfortable there," March suggested
when they had got away. "Now if we were truly humane we would modify our
desires to meet their needs and end this sickening search, wouldn't we?"
"Yes, but we're not truly humane," his wife answered, "or at least not in
that sense. You know you hate boarding; and if we went there I should
have them on my sympathies the whole time."
"I see. And then you would take it out of me."
"Then I should take it out of you. And if you are going to be so weak,
Basil, and let every little thing work upon you in that way, you'd better
not come to New York. You'll see enough misery here."
"Well, don't take that superior tone with me, as if I were a child that
had its mind set on an undesirable toy, Isabel."
"Ah, don't you suppose it's because you are such a child in some respects
that I like you, dear?" she demanded, without relenting.
"But I don't find so much misery in New York. I don't suppose there's
any more suffering here to the population than there is in the country.
And they're so gay about it all. I think the outward aspect of the place
and the hilarity of the sky and air must get into the people's blood.
The weather is simply unapproachable; and I don't care if it is the
ugliest place in the world, as you say. I suppose it is. It shrieks and
yells with ugliness here and there but it never loses its spirits. That
widow is from the country. When she's been a year in New York she'll be
as gay--as gay as an L road." He celebrated a satisfaction they both had
in the L roads. "They kill the streets and avenues, but at least they
partially hide them, and that is some comfort; and they do triumph over
their prostrate forms with a savage exultation that is intoxicating.
Those bends in the L that you get in the corner of Washington Square, or
just below the Cooper Institute--they're the gayest things in the world.
Perfectly atrocious, of course, but incomparably picturesque! And the
whole city is so," said March, "or else the L would never have got built
here. New York may be splendidly gay or squalidly gay; but, prince or
pauper, it's gay always."
"Yes, gay is the word," she admitted, with a sigh. "But frantic.
I can't get used to it. They forget death, Basil; they forget death in
"Well, I don't know that I've ever found much advantage in remembering
"Don't say such a thing, dearest."
He could see that she had got to the end of her nervous strength for the
present, and he proposed that they should take the Elevated road as far
as it would carry them into the country, and shake off their nightmare of
flat-hunting for an hour or two; but her conscience would not let her.
She convicted him of levity equal to that of the New-Yorkers in proposing
such a thing; and they dragged through the day. She was too tired to
care for dinner, and in the night she had a dream from which she woke
herself with a cry that roused him, too. It was something about the
children at first, whom they had talked of wistfully before falling
asleep, and then it was of a hideous thing with two square eyes and a
series of sections growing darker and then lighter, till the tail of the
monstrous articulate was quite luminous again. She shuddered at the
vague description she was able to give; but he asked, "Did it offer to
"No. That was the most frightful thing about it; it had no mouth."
March laughed. "Why, my dear, it was nothing but a harmless New York
flat--seven rooms and a bath."
"I really believe it was," she consented, recognizing an architectural
resemblance, and she fell asleep again, and woke renewed for the work
Their house-hunting no longer had novelty, but it still had interest; and
they varied their day by taking a coupe, by renouncing advertisements,
and by reverting to agents. Some of these induced them to consider the
idea of furnished houses; and Mrs. March learned tolerance for Fulkerson
by accepting permits to visit flats and houses which had none of the
qualifications she desired in either, and were as far beyond her means as
they were out of the region to which she had geographically restricted
herself. They looked at three-thousand and four-thousand dollar
apartments, and rejected them for one reason or another which had nothing
to do with the rent; the higher the rent was, the more critical they were
of the slippery inlaid floors and the arrangement of the richly decorated
rooms. They never knew whether they had deceived the janitor or not; as
they came in a coupe, they hoped they had.
They drove accidentally through one street that seemed gayer in the
perspective than an L road. The fire-escapes, with their light iron
balconies and ladders of iron, decorated the lofty house fronts; the
roadway and sidewalks and door-steps swarmed with children; women's heads
seemed to show at every window. In the basements, over which flights of
high stone steps led to the tenements, were green-grocers' shops
abounding in cabbages, and provision stores running chiefly to bacon and
sausages, and cobblers' and tinners' shops, and the like, in proportion
to the small needs of a poor neighborhood. Ash barrels lined the
sidewalks, and garbage heaps filled the gutters; teams of all trades
stood idly about; a peddler of cheap fruit urged his cart through the
street, and mixed his cry with the joyous screams and shouts of the
children and the scolding and gossiping voices of the women; the burly
blue bulk of a policeman defined itself at the corner; a drunkard
zigzagged down the sidewalk toward him. It was not the abode of the
extremest poverty, but of a poverty as hopeless as any in the world,
transmitting itself from generation to generation, and establishing
conditions of permanency to which human life adjusts itself as it does to
those of some incurable disease, like leprosy.
The time had been when the Marches would have taken a purely aesthetic
view of the facts as they glimpsed them in this street of tenement-
houses; when they would have contented themselves with saying that it was
as picturesque as a street in Naples or Florence, and with wondering why
nobody came to paint it; they would have thought they were sufficiently
serious about it in blaming the artists for their failure to appreciate
it, and going abroad for the picturesque when they had it here under
their noses. It was to the nose that the street made one of its
strongest appeals, and Mrs. March pulled up her window of the coupe.
"Why does he take us through such a disgusting street?" she demanded,
with an exasperation of which her husband divined the origin.
"This driver may be a philanthropist in disguise," he answered, with
dreamy irony, "and may want us to think about the people who are not
merely carried through this street in a coupe, but have to spend their
whole lives in it, winter and summer, with no hopes of driving out of it,
except in a hearse. I must say they don't seem to mind it. I haven't
seen a jollier crowd anywhere in New York. They seem to have forgotten
death a little more completely than any of their fellow-citizens, Isabel.
And I wonder what they think of us, making this gorgeous progress through
their midst. I suppose they think we're rich, and hate us--if they hate
rich people; they don't look as if they hated anybody. Should we be as
patient as they are with their discomfort? I don't believe there's steam
heat or an elevator in the whole block. Seven rooms and a bath would be
more than the largest and genteelest family would know what to do with.
They wouldn't know what to do with the bath, anyway."
His monologue seemed to interest his wife apart from the satirical point
it had for themselves. "You ought to get Mr. Fulkerson to let you work
some of these New York sights up for Every Other Week, Basil; you could
do them very nicely."
"Yes; I've thought of that. But don't let's leave the personal ground.
Doesn't it make you feel rather small and otherwise unworthy when you see
the kind of street these fellow-beings of yours live in, and then think
how particular you are about locality and the number of bellpulls?
I don't see even ratchets and speaking-tubes at these doors." He craned
his neck out of the window for a better look, and the children of
discomfort cheered him, out of sheer good feeling and high spirits.
"I didn't know I was so popular. Perhaps it's a recognition of my humane
"Oh, it's very easy to have humane sentiments, and to satirize ourselves
for wanting eight rooms and a bath in a good neighborhood, when we see
how these wretched creatures live," said his wife. "But if we shared all
we have with them, and then settled down among them, what good would it
"Not the least in the world. It might help us for the moment, but it
wouldn't keep the wolf from their doors for a week; and then they would
go on just as before, only they wouldn't be on such good terms with the
wolf. The only way for them is to keep up an unbroken intimacy with the
wolf; then they can manage him somehow. I don't know how, and I'm afraid
I don't want to. Wouldn't you like to have this fellow drive us round
among the halls of pride somewhere for a little while? Fifth Avenue or
"No; we've no time to waste. I've got a place near Third Avenue, on a
nice cross street, and I want him to take us there." It proved that she
had several addresses near together, and it seemed best to dismiss their
coupe and do the rest of their afternoon's work on foot. It came to
nothing; she was not humbled in the least by what she had seen in the
tenement-house street; she yielded no point in her ideal of a flat, and
the flats persistently refused to lend themselves to it. She lost all
patience with them.
"Oh, I don't say the flats are in the right of it," said her husband,
when she denounced their stupid inadequacy to the purposes of a Christian
home. "But I'm not so sure that we are, either. I've been thinking
about that home business ever since my sensibilities were dragged--in a
coupe--through that tenement-house street. Of course, no child born and
brought up in such a place as that could have any conception of home.
But that's because those poor people can't give character to their
habitations. They have to take what they can get. But people like us--
that is, of our means--do give character to the average flat. It's made
to meet their tastes, or their supposed tastes; and so it's made for
social show, not for family life at all. Think of a baby in a flat!
It's a contradiction in terms; the flat is the negation of motherhood.
The flat means society life; that is, the pretence of social life. It's
made to give artificial people a society basis on a little money--too
much money, of course, for what they get. So the cost of the building is
put into marble halls and idiotic decoration of all kinds. I don't.
object to the conveniences, but none of these flats has a living-room.
They have drawing-rooms to foster social pretence, and they have dining-
rooms and bedrooms; but they have no room where the family can all come
together and feel the sweetness of being a family. The bedrooms are
black-holes mostly, with a sinful waste of space in each. If it were not
for the marble halls, and the decorations, and the foolishly expensive
finish, the houses could be built round a court, and the flats could be
shaped something like a Pompeiian house, with small sleeping-closets--
only lit from the outside--and the rest of the floor thrown into two or
three large cheerful halls, where all the family life could go on, and
society could be transacted unpretentiously. Why, those tenements are
better and humaner than those flats! There the whole family lives in the
kitchen, and has its consciousness of being; but the flat abolishes the
family consciousness. It's confinement without coziness; it's cluttered
without being snug. You couldn't keep a self-respecting cat in a flat;
you couldn't go down cellar to get cider. No! the Anglo-Saxon home, as
we know it in the Anglo-Saxon house, is simply impossible in the Franco-
American flat, not because it's humble, but because it's false."
"Well, then," said Mrs. March, "let's look at houses."
He had been denouncing the flat in the abstract, and he had not expected
this concrete result. But he said, "We will look at houses, then."
Nothing mystifies a man more than a woman's aberrations from some point
at which he, supposes her fixed as a star. In these unfurnished houses,
without steam or elevator, March followed his wife about with patient
wonder. She rather liked the worst of them best: but she made him go
down into the cellars and look at the furnaces; she exacted from him a
rigid inquest of the plumbing. She followed him into one of the cellars
by the fitful glare of successively lighted matches, and they enjoyed a
moment in which the anomaly of their presence there on that errand, so
remote from all the facts of their long-established life in Boston,
realized itself for them.
"Think how easily we might have been murdered and nobody been any the
wiser!" she said when they were comfortably outdoors again.
"Yes, or made way with ourselves in an access of emotional insanity,
supposed to have been induced by unavailing flat-hunting," he suggested.
She fell in with the notion. "I'm beginning to feel crazy. But I don't
want you to lose your head, Basil. And I don't want you to
sentimentalize any of the things you see in New York. I think you were
disposed to do it in that street we drove through. I don't believe
there's any real suffering--not real suffering--among those people; that
is, it would be suffering from our point of view, but they've been used
to it all their lives, and they don't feel their' discomfort so much."
"Of course, I understand that, and I don't propose to sentimentalize
them. I think when people get used to a bad state of things they had
better stick to it; in fact, they don't usually like a better state so
well, and I shall keep that firmly in mind."
She laughed with him, and they walked along the L bestridden avenue,
exhilarated by their escape from murder and suicide in that cellar,
toward the nearest cross town track, which they meant to take home to
their hotel. "Now to-night we will go to the theatre," she said, "and
get this whole house business out of our minds, and be perfectly fresh
for a new start in the morning." Suddenly she clutched his arm. "Why,
did you see that man?" and she signed with her head toward a decently
dressed person who walked beside them, next the gutter, stooping over as
if to examine it, and half halting at times.
"Why, I saw him pick up a dirty bit of cracker from the pavement and cram
it into his mouth and eat it down as if he were famished. And look! he's
actually hunting for more in those garbage heaps!"
This was what the decent-looking man with the hard hands and broken nails
of a workman was doing-like a hungry dog. They kept up with him, in the
fascination of the sight, to the next corner, where he turned down the
side street still searching the gutter.
They walked on a few paces. Then March said, "I must go after him," and
left his wife standing.
"Are you in want--hungry?" he asked the man.
The man said he could not speak English, Monsieur.
March asked his question in French.
The man shrugged a pitiful, desperate shrug, "Mais, Monsieur--"
March put a coin in his hand, and then suddenly the man's face twisted
up; he caught the hand of this alms-giver in both of his and clung to it.
"Monsieur! Monsieur!" he gasped, and the tears rained down his face.
His benefactor pulled himself away, shocked and ashamed, as one is by
such a chance, and got back to his wife, and the man lapsed back into the
mystery of misery out of which he had emerged.
March felt it laid upon him to console his wife for what had happened.
"Of course, we might live here for years and not see another case like
that; and, of course, there are twenty places where he could have gone
for help if he had known where to find them."
"Ah, but it's the possibility of his needing the help so badly as that,"
she answered. "That's what I can't bear, and I shall not come to a place
where such things are possible, and we may as well stop our house-hunting
here at once."
"Yes? And what part of Christendom will you live in? Such things are
possible everywhere in our conditions."
"Then we must change the conditions--"
"Oh no; we must go to the theatre and forget them. We can stop at
Brentano's for our tickets as we pass through Union Square."
"I am not going to the theatre, Basil. I am going home to Boston to-
night. You can stay and find a flat."
He convinced her of the absurdity of her position, and even of its
selfishness; but she said that her mind was quite made up irrespective of
what had happened, that she had been away from the children long enough;
that she ought to be at home to finish up the work of leaving it. The
word brought a sigh. "Ah, I don't know why we should see nothing but sad
and ugly things now. When we were young--"
"Younger," he put in. "We're still young."
"That's what we pretend, but we know better. But I was thinking how
pretty and pleasant things used to be turning up all the time on our
travels in the old days. Why, when we were in New York here on our
wedding journey the place didn't seem half so dirty as it does now, and
none of these dismal things happened."
"It was a good deal dirtier," he answered; "and I fancy worse in every
way-hungrier, raggeder, more wretchedly housed. But that wasn't the
period of life for us to notice it. Don't you remember, when we started
to Niagara the last time, how everybody seemed middle-aged and
commonplace; and when we got there there were no evident brides; nothing
but elderly married people?"
"At least they weren't starving," she rebelled.
"No, you don't starve in parlor-cars and first-class hotels; but if you
step out of them you run your chance of seeing those who do, if you're
getting on pretty well in the forties. If it's the unhappy who see
unhappiness, think what misery must be revealed to people who pass their
lives in the really squalid tenement-house streets--I don't mean
picturesque avenues like that we passed through."
"But we are not unhappy," she protested, bringing the talk back to the
personal base again, as women must to get any good out of talk. "We're
really no unhappier than we were when we were young."
"We're more serious."
"Well, I hate it; and I wish you wouldn't be so serious, if that's what
it brings us to."
"I will be trivial from this on," said March. "Shall we go to the Hole
in the Ground to-night?"
"I am going to Boston."
"It's much the same thing. How do you like that for triviality? It's a
little blasphemous, I'll allow."
"It's very silly," she said.
At the hotel they found a letter from the agent who had sent them the
permit to see Mrs. Grosvenor Green's apartment. He wrote that she had
heard they were pleased with her apartment, and that she thought she
could make the terms to suit. She had taken her passage for Europe, and
was very anxious to let the flat before she sailed. She would call that
evening at seven.
"Mrs. Grosvenor Green!" said Mrs. March. "Which of the ten thousand
flats is it, Basil?"
"The gimcrackery," he answered. "In the Xenophon, you know."
"Well, she may save herself the trouble. I shall not see her. Or yes--
I must. I couldn't go away without seeing what sort of creature could
have planned that fly-away flat. She must be a perfect--"
"Parachute," March suggested.
"No! anybody so light as that couldn't come down."
"Well, toy balloon."
"Toy balloon will do for the present," Mrs. March admitted. "But I feel
that naught but herself can be her parallel for volatility."
When Mrs. Grosvenor-Green's card came up they both descended to the hotel
parlor, which March said looked like the saloon of a Moorish day-boat;
not that he knew of any such craft, but the decorations were so Saracenic
and the architecture so Hudson Riverish. They found there on the grand
central divan a large lady whose vast smoothness, placidity, and
plumpness set at defiance all their preconceptions of Mrs. Grosvenor
Green, so that Mrs. March distinctly paused with her card in her hand
before venturing even tentatively to address her. Then she was
astonished at the low, calm voice in which Mrs. Green acknowledged
herself, and slowly proceeded to apologize for calling. It was not quite
true that she had taken her passage for Europe, but she hoped soon to do
so, and she confessed that in the mean time she was anxious to let her
flat. She was a little worn out with the care of housekeeping--
Mrs. March breathed, "Oh yes!" in the sigh with which ladies recognize
one another's martyrdom--and Mrs. Green had business abroad, and she was
going to pursue her art studies in Paris; she drew in Mr. Ilcomb's class
now, but the instruction was so much better in Paris; and as the
superintendent seemed to think the price was the only objection, she had
ventured to call.
"Then we didn't deceive him in the least," thought Mrs. March, while she
answered, sweetly: "No; we were only afraid that it would be too small
for our family. We require a good many rooms." She could not forego the
opportunity of saying, "My husband is coming to New York to take charge
of a literary periodical, and he will have to have a room to write in,"
which made Mrs. Green bow to March, and made March look sheepish. "But
we did think the apartment very charming", (It was architecturally
charming, she protested to her conscience)," and we should have been so
glad if we could have got into it." She followed this with some account
of their house-hunting, amid soft murmurs of sympathy from Mrs. Green,
who said that she had been through all that, and that if she could have
shown her apartment to them she felt sure that she could have explained
it so that they would have seen its capabilities better, Mrs. March
assented to this, and Mrs. Green added that if they found nothing exactly
suitable she would be glad to have them look at it again; and then Mrs.
March said that she was going back to Boston herself, but she was leaving
Mr. March to continue the search; and she had no doubt he would be only
too glad to see the apartment by daylight. "But if you take it, Basil,"
she warned him, when they were alone, "I shall simply renounce you. I
wouldn't live in that junk-shop if you gave it to me. But who would have
thought she was that kind of looking person? Though of course I might
have known if I had stopped to think once. It's because the place
doesn't express her at all that it's so unlike her. It couldn't be like
anybody, or anything that flies in the air, or creeps upon the earth, or
swims in the waters under the earth. I wonder where in the world she's
from; she's no New-Yorker; even we can see that; and she's not quite a
country person, either; she seems like a person from some large town,
where she's been an aesthetic authority. And she can't find good enough
art instruction in New York, and has to go to Paris for it! Well, it's
pathetic, after all, Basil. I can't help feeling sorry for a person who
mistakes herself to that extent."
"I can't help feeling sorry for the husband of a person who mistakes
herself to that extent. What is Mr. Grosvenor Green going to do in Paris
while she's working her way into the Salon?"
"Well, you keep away from her apartment, Basil; that's all I've got to
say to you. And yet I do like some things about her."
"I like everything about her but her apartment," said March.
"I like her going to be out of the country," said his wife. "We
shouldn't be overlooked. And the place was prettily shaped, you can't
deny it. And there was an elevator and steam heat. And the location is
very convenient. And there was a hall-boy to bring up cards. The halls
and stairs were kept very clean and nice. But it wouldn't do. I could
put you a folding bed in the room where you wrote, and we could even have
one in the parlor"
"Behind a portiere? I couldn't stand any more portieres!"
"And we could squeeze the two girls into one room, or perhaps only bring
Margaret, and put out the whole of the wash. Basil!" she almost
shrieked, "it isn't to be thought of!"
He retorted, "I'm not thinking of it, my dear."
Fulkerson came in just before they started for Mrs. March's train, to
find out what had become of them, he said, and to see whether they had
got anything to live in yet.
"Not a thing," she said. "And I'm just going back to Boston, and leaving
Mr. March here to do anything he pleases about it. He has 'carte
"But freedom brings responsibility, you know, Fulkerson, and it's the
same as if I'd no choice. I'm staying behind because I'm left, not
because I expect to do anything."
"Is that so?" asked Fulkerson. "Well, we must see what can be done. I
supposed you would be all settled by this time, or I should have humped
myself to find you something. None of those places I gave you amounts to
"As much as forty thousand others we've looked at," said Mrs. March.
"Yes, one of them does amount to something. It comes so near being what
we want that I've given Mr. March particular instructions not to go near
She told him about Mrs. Grosvenor Green and her flats, and at the end he
"Well, well, we must look out for that. I'll keep an eye on him, Mrs.
March, and see that he doesn't do anything rash, and I won't leave him
till he's found just the right thing. It exists, of course; it must in a
city of eighteen hundred thousand people, and the only question is where
to find it. You leave him to me, Mrs. March; I'll watch out for him."
Fulkerson showed some signs of going to the station when he found they
were not driving, but she bade him a peremptory good-bye at the hotel
"He's very nice, Basil, and his way with you is perfectly charming.
It's very sweet to see how really fond of you he is. But I didn't want
him stringing along with us up to Forty-second Street and spoiling our
last moments together."
At Third Avenue they took the Elevated for which she confessed an
infatuation. She declared it the most ideal way of getting about in the
world, and was not ashamed when he reminded her of how she used to say
that nothing under the sun could induce her to travel on it. She now
said that the night transit was even more interesting than the day, and
that the fleeing intimacy you formed with people in second and third
floor interiors, while all the usual street life went on underneath, had
a domestic intensity mixed with a perfect repose that was the last effect
of good society with all its security and exclusiveness. He said it was
better than the theatre, of which it reminded him, to see those people
through their windows: a family party of work-folk at a late tea, some of
the men in their shirt-sleeves; a woman sewing by a lamp; a mother laying
her child in its cradle; a man with his head fallen on his hands upon a
table; a girl and her lover leaning over the window-sill together. What
suggestion! what drama? what infinite interest! At the Forty-second
Street station they stopped a minute on the bridge that crosses the track
to the branch road for the Central Depot, and looked up and down the long
stretch of the Elevated to north and south. The track that found and
lost itself a thousand times in the flare and tremor of the innumerable
lights; the moony sheen of the electrics mixing with the reddish points
and blots of gas far and near; the architectural shapes of houses and
churches and towers, rescued by the obscurity from all that was ignoble
in them, and the coming and going of the trains marking the stations with
vivider or fainter plumes of flame-shot steam-formed an incomparable
perspective. They often talked afterward of the superb spectacle, which
in a city full of painters nightly works its unrecorded miracles; and
they were just to the Arachne roof spun in iron over the cross street on
which they ran to the depot; but for the present they were mostly
inarticulate before it. They had another moment of rich silence when
they paused in the gallery that leads from the Elevated station to the
waiting-rooms in the Central Depot and looked down upon the great night
trains lying on the tracks dim under the rain of gas-lights that starred
without dispersing the vast darkness of the place. What forces, what
fates, slept in these bulks which would soon be hurling themselves north
and south and west through the night! Now they waited there like fabled
monsters of Arab story ready for the magician's touch, tractable,
reckless, will-less--organized lifelessness full of a strange semblance
The Marches admired the impressive sight with a thrill of patriotic pride
in the fact that the whole world perhaps could not afford just the like.
Then they hurried down to the ticket-offices, and he got her a lower
berth in the Boston sleeper, and went with her to the car. They made the
most of the fact that her berth was in the very middle of the car; and
she promised to write as soon as she reached home. She promised also
that, having seen the limitations of New York in respect to flats, she
would not be hard on him if he took something not quite ideal. Only he
must remember that it was not to be above Twentieth Street nor below
Washington Square; it must not be higher than the third floor; it must
have an elevator, steam heat, hail-boys, and a pleasant janitor. These
were essentials; if he could not get them, then they must do without.
But he must get them.
Mrs. March was one of those wives who exact a more rigid adherence to
their ideals from their husbands than from themselves. Early in their
married life she had taken charge of him in all matters which she
considered practical. She did not include the business of bread-winning
in these; that was an affair that might safely be left to his absent-
minded, dreamy inefficiency, and she did not interfere with him there.
But in such things as rehanging the pictures, deciding on a summer
boarding-place, taking a seaside cottage, repapering rooms, choosing
seats at the theatre, seeing what the children ate when she was not at
table, shutting the cat out at night, keeping run of calls and
invitations, and seeing if the furnace was dampered, he had failed her so
often that she felt she could not leave him the slightest discretion in
regard to a flat. Her total distrust of his judgment in the matters
cited and others like them consisted with the greatest admiration of his
mind and respect for his character. She often said that if he would only
bring these to bear in such exigencies he would be simply perfect; but
she had long given up his ever doing so. She subjected him, therefore,
to an iron code, but after proclaiming it she was apt to abandon him to
the native lawlessness of his temperament. She expected him in this
event to do as he pleased, and she resigned herself to it with
considerable comfort in holding him accountable. He learned to expect
this, and after suffering keenly from her disappointment with whatever he
did he waited patiently till she forgot her grievance and began to
extract what consolation lurks in the irreparable. She would almost
admit at moments that what he had done was a very good thing, but she
reserved the right to return in full force to her original condemnation
of it; and she accumulated each act of independent volition in witness
and warning against him. Their mass oppressed but never deterred him.
He expected to do the wrong thing when left to his own devices, and he
did it without any apparent recollection of his former misdeeds and their
consequences. There was a good deal of comedy in it all, and some
He now experienced a certain expansion, such as husbands of his kind will
imagine, on going back to his hotel alone. It was, perhaps, a revulsion
from the pain of parting; and he toyed with the idea of Mrs. Grosvenor
Green's apartment, which, in its preposterous unsuitability, had a
strange attraction. He felt that he could take it with less risk than
anything else they had seen, but he said he would look at all the other
places in town first. He really spent the greater part of the next day
in hunting up the owner of an apartment that had neither steam heat nor
an elevator, but was otherwise perfect, and trying to get him to take
less than the agent asked. By a curious psychical operation he was able,
in the transaction, to work himself into quite a passionate desire for
the apartment, while he held the Grosvenor Green apartment in the
background of his mind as something that he could return to as altogether
more suitable. He conducted some simultaneous negotiation for a
furnished house, which enhanced still more the desirability of the
Grosvenor Green apartment. Toward evening he went off at a tangent far
up-town, so as to be able to tell his wife how utterly preposterous the
best there would be as compared even with this ridiculous Grosvenor Green
gimcrackery. It is hard to report the processes of his sophistication;
perhaps this, again, may best be left to the marital imagination.
He rang at the last of these up-town apartments as it was falling dusk,
and it was long before the janitor appeared. Then the man was very
surly, and said if he looked at the flat now he would say it was too
dark, like all the rest. His reluctance irritated March in proportion to
his insincerity in proposing to look at it at all. He knew he did not
mean to take it under any circumstances; that he was going to use his
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