A Chance Acquaintance – William Dean Howells
In “A Chance Acquaintance” the familiar characters of ” Their Wedding Journey” reappear, but the principal roles are given to Miss Kitty Ellison and her Bostonian adorer, Mr. Arbuton. Readers who can appreciate the sentiment, the style, and the nice discrimination of character, with its quiet humor and good-natured hits at Mr. Arbuton, who was not exactly Mr. Ellison’s ideal of a Bostonman, and still further from that of some of our Southern brethren, will find it very interesting and suggestive. The beautiful style and graphic description give an interest and charm to this book, which holds the attention without the aid of startling incidents or sensational extravagance.
A Chance Acquaintance.
Excerpt from the text:
On the forward promenade of the Saguenay boat which had been advertised to leave Quebec at seven o’clock on Tuesday morning, Miss Kitty Ellison sat tranquilly expectant of the joys which its departure should bring, and tolerantly patient of its delay; for if all the Saguenay had not been in promise, she would have thought it the greatest happiness just to have that prospect of the St. Lawrence and Quebec. The sun shone with a warm yellow light on the Upper Town, with its girdle of gray wall, and on the red flag that drowsed above the citadel, and was a friendly lustre on the tinned roofs of the Lower Town; while away off to the south and east and west wandered the purple hills and the farmlit plains in such dewy shadow and effulgence as would have been enough to make the heaviest heart glad. Near at hand the river was busy with every kind of craft, and in the distance was mysterious with silvery vapors; little breaths of haze, like an ethereal colorless flame, exhaled from its surface, and it all glowed with a lovely inner radiance. In the middle distance a black ship was heaving anchor and setting sail, and the voice of the seamen came soft and sad and yet wildly hopeful to the dreamy ear of the young girl, whose soul at once went round the world before the ship, and then made haste back again to the promenade of the Saguenay boat. She sat leaning forward a little with her hands fallen into her lap, letting her unmastered thoughts play as they would in memories and hopes around the consciousness that she was the happiest girl in the world, and blest beyond desire or desert. To have left home as she had done, equipped for a single day at Niagara, and then to have come adventurously on, by grace of her cousin’s wardrobe, as it were, to Montreal and Quebec; to be now going up the Saguenay, and finally to be destined to return home by way of Boston and New York;—this was more than any one human being had a right to; and, as she had written home to the girls, she felt that her privileges ought to be divided up among all the people of Eriecreek. She was very grateful to Colonel Ellison and Fanny for affording her these advantages; but they being now out of sight in pursuit of state-rooms, she was not thinking of them in relation to her pleasure in the morning scene, but was rather regretting the absence of a lady with whom they had travelled from Niagara, and to whom she imagined she would that moment like to say something in praise of the prospect. This lady was a Mrs. Basil March of Boston; and though it was her wedding journey and her husband’s presence ought to have absorbed her, she and Miss Kitty had sworn a sisterhood, and were pledged to see each other before long at Mrs. March’s home in Boston. In her absence, now, Kitty thought what a very charming person she was, and wondered if all Boston people were really like her, so easy and friendly and hearty. In her letter she had told the girls to tell her Uncle Jack that he had not rated Boston people a bit too high, if she were to judge from Mr. and Mrs. March, and that she was sure they would help her as far as they could to carry out his instructions when she got to Boston.
These instructions were such as might seem preposterous if no more particular statement in regard to her Uncle Jack were made, but will be imaginable enough, I hope, when he is a little described. The Ellisons were a West Virginia family who had wandered up into a corner of Northwestern New York, because Dr. Ellison (unceremoniously known to Kitty as Uncle Jack) was too much an abolitionist to live in a slaveholding State with safety to himself or comfort to his neighbors. Here his family of three boys and two girls had grown up, and hither in time had come Kitty, the only child of his youngest brother, who had gone first to Illinois and thence, from the pretty constant adversity of a country editor, to Kansas, where he joined the Free State party and fell in one of the border feuds. Her mother had died soon after, find Dr. Ellison’s heart bowed itself tenderly over the orphan. She was something not only dear, but sacred to him as the child of a martyr to the highest cause on earth; and the love of the whole family encompassed her. One of the boys had brought her from Kansas when she was yet very little, and she had grown up among them as their youngest sister; but the doctor, from a tender scruple against seeming to usurp the place of his brother in her childish thought, would not let her call him father, and in obedience to the rule which she soon began to give their love, they all turned and called him Uncle Jack with her. Yet the Ellisons, though they loved their little cousin, did not spoil her,—neither the doctor, nor his great grown-up sons whom she knew as the boys, nor his daughters whom she called the girls, though they were wellnigh women when she came to them. She was her uncle’s pet and most intimate friend, riding with him on his professional visits till she became as familiar a feature of his equipage as the doctor’s horse itself; and he educated her in those extreme ideas, tempered by humor, which formed the character of himself and his family. They loved Kitty, and played with her, and laughed at her when she needed ridiculing; they made a jest of their father on the one subject on which he never jested, and even the antislavery cause had its droll points turned to the light. They had seen danger and trouble enough at different times in its service, but no enemy ever got more amusement out of it. Their house was a principal entrepôt of the underground railroad, and they were always helping anxious travellers over the line; but the boys seldom came back from an excursion to Canada without adventures to keep the family laughing for a week; and they made it a serious business to study the comic points of their beneficiaries, who severally lived in the family records by some grotesque mental or physical trait. They had an irreverent name among themselves for each of the humorless abolition lecturers who unfailingly abode with them on their rounds; and these brethren and sisters, as they called them, paid with whatever was laughable in them for the substantial favors they received.
Miss Kitty, having the same natural bent, began even as a child to share in these harmless reprisals, and to look at life with the same wholesomely fantastic vision. But she remembered one abolition visitor of whom none of them made fun, but treated with a serious distinction and regard,—an old man with a high, narrow forehead, and thereon a thick upright growth of gray hair; who looked at her from under bushy brows with eyes as of blue flame, and took her on his knee one night and sang to her “Blow ye the trumpet, blow!” He and her uncle had been talking of some indefinite, far-off place that they called Boston, in terms that commended it to her childish apprehension as very little less holy than Jerusalem, and as the home of all the good and great people outside of Palestine.
In fact, Boston had always been Dr. Ellison’s foible. In the beginning of the great antislavery agitation, he had exchanged letters (corresponded, he used to say) with John Quincy Adams on the subject of Lovejoy’s murder; and he had met several Boston men at the Free Soil Convention in Buffalo in 1848. “A little formal perhaps, a little reserved,” he would say, “but excellent men; polished, and certainly of sterling principle”: which would make his boys and girls laugh, as they grew older, and sometimes provoke them to highly colored dramatizations of the formality of these Bostonians in meeting their father. The years passed and the boys went West, and when the war came, they took service in Iowa and Wisconsin regiments. By and by the President’s Proclamation of freedom to the slaves reached Eriecreek while Dick and Bob happened both to be home on leave. After they had allowed their sire his rapture, “Well, this is a great blow for father,” said Bob; “what are you going to do now, father? Fugitive slavery and all its charms blotted out forever, at one fell swoop. Pretty rough on you, isn’t it? No more men and brothers, no more soulless oligarchy. Dull lookout, father.”
“O no,” insinuated one of the girls, “there’s Boston.”
“Why, yes,” cried Dick, “to be sure there is. The President hasn’t abolished Boston. Live for Boston.”
And the doctor did live for an ideal Boston, thereafter, so far at least as concerned a never-relinquished, never-fulfilled purpose of some day making a journey to Boston. But in the mean time there were other things; and at present, since the Proclamation had given him a country worth living in, he was ready to honor her by studying her antiquities. In his youth, before his mind had been turned so strenuously to the consideration of slavery, he had a pretty taste for the mystery of the Mound Builders, and each of his boys now returned to camp with instructions to note any phenomena that would throw light upon this interesting subject. They would have abundant leisure for research, since the Proclamation, Dr. Ellison insisted, practically ended the war.
The Mound Builders were only a starting-point for the doctor. He advanced from them to historical times in due course, and it happened that when Colonel Ellison and his wife stopped off at Eriecreek on their way East, in 1870, they found him deep in the history of the Old French War. As yet the colonel had not intended to take the Canadian route eastward, and he escaped without the charges which he must otherwise have received to look up the points of interest at Montreal and Quebec connected with that ancient struggle. He and his wife carried Kitty with them to see Niagara (which she had never seen because it was so near); but no sooner had Dr. Ellison got the despatch announcing that they would take Kitty on with them down the St. Lawrence to Quebec, and bring her home by way of Boston, than he sat down and wrote her a letter of the most comprehensive character. As far as concerned Canada his mind was purely historical; but when it came to Boston it was strangely re-abolitionized, and amidst an ardor for the antiquities of the place, his old love for its humanitarian pre-eminence blazed up. He would have her visit Faneuil Hall because of its Revolutionary memories, but not less because Wendell Phillips had there made his first antislavery speech. She was to see the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and if possible certain points of ancient colonial interest which he named; but at any rate she was somehow to catch sight of the author of the “Biglow Papers,” of Senator Sumner, of Mr. Whittier, of Dr. Howe, of Colonel Higginson, and of Mr. Garrison. These people were all Bostonians to the idealizing remoteness of Dr. Ellison, and he could not well conceive of them asunder. He perhaps imagined that Kitty was more likely to see them together than separately; and perhaps indeed they were less actual persons, to his admiration, than so many figures of a grand historical composition. Finally, “I want you to remember, my dear child,” he wrote, “that in Boston you are not only in the birthplace of American liberty, but the yet holier scene of its resurrection. There everything that is noble and grand and liberal and enlightened in the national life has originated, and I cannot doubt that you will find the character of its people marked by every attribute of a magnanimous democracy. If I could envy you anything, my dear girl, I should envy you this privilege of seeing a city where man is valued simply and solely for what he is in himself, and where color, wealth, family, occupation, and other vulgar and meretricious distinctions are wholly lost sight of in the consideration of individual excellence.”
Kitty got her uncle’s letter the night before starting up the Saguenay, and quite too late for compliance with his directions concerning Quebec; but she resolved that as to Boston his wishes should be fulfilled to the utmost limit of possibility. She knew that nice Mr. March must be acquainted with some of those very people. Kitty had her uncle’s letter in her pocket, and she was just going to take it out and read it again, when something else attracted her notice.
The boat had been advertised to leave at seven o’clock, and it was now half past. A party of English people were pacing somewhat impatiently up and down before Kitty, for it had been made known among the passengers (by that subtle process through which matters of public interest transpire in such places) that breakfast would not be served till the boat started, and these English people had the appetites which go before the admirable digestions of their nation. But they had also the good temper which does not so certainly accompany the insular good appetite. The man in his dashing Glengarry cap and his somewhat shabby gray suit took on one arm the plain, jolly woman who seemed to be his wife, and on the other, the amiable, handsome young girl who looked enough like him to be his sister, and strode rapidly back and forth, saying that they must get up an appetite for breakfast. This made the women laugh, and so he said it again, which made them laugh so much that the elder lost her balance, and in regaining it twisted off her high shoe-heel, which she briskly tossed into the river. But she sat down after that, and the three were presently intent upon the Liverpool steamer which was just arrived and was now gliding up to her dock, with her population of passengers thronging her quarter-deck.
“She’s from England!” said the husband, expressively.
“Only fancy!” answered the wife. “Give me the glass, Jenny.” Then, after a long survey of the steamer, she added, “Fancy her being from England!” They all looked and said nothing for two or three minutes, when the wife’s mind turned to the delay of their own boat and of breakfast. “This thing,” she said, with that air of uttering a novelty which the English cast about their commonplaces,—”this this thing doesn’t start at seven, you know.”